For a lot of young Guitar Hero-inspired guitarists, it’s their dream to stand on top of a piano, equipped with leather pants and a Gibson Les Paul. With the wind blowing through their hair and a Marshall stack cranked to 11, the conditions would be perfect for tear-jerking string bends and spot-on trills.
The musicians of this list had no such fantasy. Instead of taking the pre-paved road that is the modern guitar solo, they pushed the limits of good taste, tonality, and what is expected of the person playing the six-stringed instrument.
10 – Nine Inch Nails – Ruiner
Toward the middle of Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral, “Ruiner” comes to a complete halt so Trent Reznor could let loose on a sloppy, claustrophobic solo. Confined to the left speaker, the solo is a buzzing, chaotic take on a Pink Floyd classic:
“I think I accidentally called up the wrong patch (on a guitar effects pedal),” Reznor said about the solo in a Guitar World interview. “I’m not a soloist. I was just laughing when I was playing with this ridiculous sound, recording into the computer saying like, ‘This is so cheesy,’ you know? I later realized that I basically tried to play a ‘Comfortably Numb-type’ solo with this sound.”
Before it was released, Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief was anticipated to be the band’s return to guitar-rock. On songs like “Go to Sleep,” the band showed speculators that they were only half right. Instead of using a synthesizer or sampler, guitarist Jonny Greenwood made stuttering broken-machine whirrs bounce from his super-processed Fender Telecaster. Out of context, the part sounds normal coming from Greenwood, but when it plays over Thom Yorke’s resonating acoustic guitar, there couldn’t be a bigger contrast.
8 – Rage Against the Machine – Bulls on Parade
Tom Morello always wore more than one hat in Rage Against the Machine’s aggressive blending of rap and rock. With the band’s grooving rhythm section and quick-tongued vocalist, it was natural that the group would want to incorporate the sounds of turntable scratching. “Bulls on Parade” shows Morello’s best and most creative replication of the turntable scratching technique on guitar. Morello rubs his hand against his guitar strings while turning the guitar’s volume on and off with a toggle switch, and if you heard it all on CD without seeing the band live, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference.
When you’re writing a song that’s over 20 minutes long, you have plenty of breathing room to experiment with different sounds and textures. That’s exactly what Sufjan Stevens did with 2010’s “Impossible Soul” from The Age of Adz. A mere two minutes into the song, Stevens takes off on a guitar tangent that plays out like an amped-up fly bouncing from speaker to speaker. In a whammy-heavy guitar part, Stevens shows that disorganization and chaos can still be beautiful elements in a composition.
6 – Smashing Pumpkins – Zero
As one of the leaders of the alternative movement in the early ‘90s, The Smashing Pumpkins’ lead guitar work has never been conventional. But guitarist James Iha never sounded as weird as the jagged, piercing solo for Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’ “Zero.” Iha set the stage for his trainwreck of a solo with a harsh pick slide before playing intertwining, pitch-shifting lines that are hard to differentiate or even comprehend within a single listen.
For musicians nowadays, reversing a guitar part is as easy as clicking a few buttons in a recording program. But for the Beatles in 1966, it was groundbreaking stuff. “I’m Only Sleeping” depended on perfect timing and placement of analog tape played in reverse. The solo winds around and harmonizes with John Lennon’s vocals, which was the result of guitarist George Harrison and producer George Martin’s hours of patience and practice with the then-new technique. If you need further evidence, just take a listen to the whole track reversed.
There are multiple guitar solos in Peter Frampton’s “Do You Feel Like We Do,” but people usually only remember one of them. It’s maybe the most infamous solo on this list, but Frampton’s unashamed use of Bob Heil’s “talk box” brought the talking guitar into the ears of the masses with Frampton (and his Les Paul) demanding the audience “have a good time.”
3 – Robert Fripp (on Brian Eno’s) – Baby’s on Fire
Released in 1974, Brian Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets is still a refreshing, modern sounding album. But it wouldn’t sound as huge or groundbreaking without Robert Fripp’s forward-thinking guitar work. Fripp’s scattered, warping solo stretches across the bulk of the song “Baby’s on Fire,” making for an uncomfortable couple of minutes crammed with an over-the-top amount of feedback, treble and clusters of notes.
In the middle of one of the funkiest grooves that a rock band put out in the early ‘80s, guitarist Adrian Belew sets off a string of notes that sound more like a 56k modem than a guitar. The guitarist was already known for his guitar-strangling take on feedback and noise, but the solo in Born Under Punches’ organized weirdness proved to be a look into the future. And although the solo sounds out of this world, it’s still accessible and fun; its bleeps and glitches are still melodic in their own right, and they click perfectly with a popping bass part and Chris Frantz’s clacking drums.
1 – Rage Against the Machine – Know Your Enemy
“Subtlety isn’t so high on my list,” Tom Morello said in an interview about his guitar technique. In fact, Morello’s guitar sounds were so un-guitar-like at the time of Rage Against the Machine’s first release that the band had to specify in their liner notes that no synthesizers, keyboards or samples were used on the album. For “Know Your Enemy,” Morello bonds creativity with pure skill by using a Digitech Whammy pedal to shoot his guitar’s pitch up two octaves and dig the foundation for his signature sound. Morello’s experimentation and diverse tastes gave him the doubly cool role of hip-hop DJ and guitar god simultaneously.