10 famous rock guitar solos and what you can learn from them

Guitarist playing onstage
(Image credit: Getty Images /Thomas Northcut)

Guitar solos – we love them. A great guitar solo can elevate a great song to the higher level. And many of us can learn a lot  the skills and styles of the idols that managed that rare combination.

In this lesson we’re going to be talking a look at 10 great electric guitar solos from artists including Queen and John Mayer, then discussing what we can learn from each of them. We’re not going to break down the solos note by note, but what we are going to do is consider the concepts behind the solos and how we can use those ideas in our own guitar playing to become better players.

Let’s dive right on in!

1. Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody

This solo features a bunch of cool tricks that we can learn from. Firstly, Brian May plays very melodically throughout, there are always strong melody lines that you can hook onto.

The way this solo is executed is also interesting. Brian plays with a slightly sloppy manner with lots of string rakes. This approach gives the melody a very vocal feel, it makes the notes feel slightly looser while still being on time.

There are also various fast picked runs which Brian plays in his usual 'orchestral'-style approach. 

The solo sits in the C natural minor scale throughout and makes use of exploring the higher registers of the fretboard. When learning this solo be sure to apply lots of Brian’s trademark fast vibrato and don’t be afraid to dig into the notes.

2. Guns N Roses – Welcome to the Jungle

This solo from the opening track to Appetite For Destruction is not really a 'typical' guitar solo. This appears during a short break in the front half of the track and actually focuses more on some rhythmic elements to start off.

The first few bars of this are a series of double stops and dyads played with some muted notes. 

This is interesting because it shows us how we can make use of rhythm inside a guitar solo. Guitar solos don’t always need to feature single note scale runs.

This solo does then break out into some regular Slash-style licks, including some slinky string bends and some laid back phrasing.

The original track was recorded in Eb, but for the purpose of this video, the version you hear me play has been re-pitched to standard tuning.

3. Cream – Sunshine of Your Love

This Eric Clapton solo from '60s supergroup Cream is jam-packed full of great licks to learn from. The solo is very blues-based and has a very loose feel throughout. Clapton was a disciple of the blues and many of the tricks he employs in this solo come from that school.

It has a lot of great things you can learn but two elements are particularly worth honing in on.

Firstly, his use of fast slurs. This is not a fast solo in the conventional sense, but there are a few passages where Clapton introduces some speedy lines where the notes slur together. The slurs make it verge on sloppy, but in this context it works great.

His use of overbends is also interesting. There are a few instances where you’ll see tone and a half, or even two tone bends used throughout the solo.

It sits mostly in the key of D minor, leaning heavily into the pentatonic shapes, but there are a few outside notes thrown in here and there for good measure.

4. Red Hot Chili Peppers – Californication

This solo from Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante is a masterclass in just how a few simple notes can make a great solo.

This solo doesn’t contain all the usual flashy scale runs that you expect from a guitar solo. It’s a very understated solo that follows a simple melody line throughout, never losing sight of the song that underpins it.

This solo is also played completely clean. This means, the focus is really on playing the notes correctly and pitching the string bends right. Even though there aren’t a lot of notes, playing something even slightly wrong with this tone would be very revealing.

This is a great example on how to build a great guitar solo without overplaying.

5. The Eagles – Hotel California

When it comes to iconic guitar solos, Hotel California is very high on most peoples lists. This is a monster of a solo which can teach us so many things.

This is actually a twin guitar solo where two players trade off, but for the purpose of this, we’ll view it as a single solo.

This solo, played by Don Felder and Joe Walsh, has some great phrasing which switches between rock and country style playing. While this solo is not the most difficult to learn, it has some challenging phrases and technical sections inside it. 

Firstly we have a lot of country style staccato playing, keeping notes and string bends short and snappy. This is a great way to add some urgency to your licks.

Secondly we have lots of string bending. For this, your bends need to be very accurate. The Eagles were always very precise and meticulous in their approach to soloing and it was rarely sloppy. There are some challenging bending licks in this song. Check out the lick that starts at 10:14 on the video below with a bend on the High E and release the note on the B string mid bend!

If the first few minutes of licks wasn’t enough, there is also a twin guitar harmony section to finish!

6. Led Zeppelin – Stairway to Heaven

This solo often ranks high on Greatest Guitar Solos lists, and sure, it’s an iconic track, but what can we learn from this track?

Sure, it’s banned in pretty much every guitar store in the world, but it’s jam packed full of useful tricks and tips that we can use in our own playing.

The track is centred around the key of A minor, with Jimmy Page using his preferred scale of choice, the A natural minor scale. The reason this scale choice is interesting is because it’s a minor pentatonic with an addition 2 and b6 interval, two intervals that Page leans into a lot in this song.

The open lick itself ends on the b6 which is not the note we’d typically finish a pentatonic looking run on.

The solo is great for showcasing how repetition can be used to great effect and it also shows you how to get the most out of exploring the entire fretboard inside a single guitar solo. It also allows you to throw all your tricks on the table. It’s packed with great phrasing, fast rock licks, overbends and legato sections. 

7. Metallica – Nothing Else Matters

Metallica guitar solos are often faced paced, high-octane solos, but in this tender Black Album metal ballad, frontman and rhythm guitarist James Hetfield takes over lead duties for a solo that is jam packed with melody.

This solo sits in the key of E minor and uses the natural minor scale. 

It’s a fantastic showcase for writing a guitar solo with a strong melody line. It’s the sort of solo that once you’ve learnt it, you can sing it in your head every time. It’s got plenty of emotive string bends and soaring melodies.

Inside the solo you’ll see plenty of familiar looking licks and scale shapes, but the focus here is on the phrasing and how the notes are played.

8. John Mayer - Gravity

This solo is becoming a great reference point for modern guitar players and when you listen to it, you might instantly think it sounds pretty straightforward. It’s got a strong melody that you can sing, and there aren’t any fast licks needed here.

The two biggest takeaways from this are playing with the correct emotion, and thinking outside the scale shapes.

Learn more

John Mayer

(Image credit: Gary Gershoff/Getty Images)

5 guitar tricks you can learn from John Mayer

John Mayer actually lays out a lot of the G major licks in this solo along a single string, which allows access to all the same notes, but with a wider movement needed. Now this may seem more difficult on paper, but it allows for a very different style of articulating and moving in and out of notes. You’ll notice a lot of small, almost accidental slides inside this.

Learning to solo along a single string really makes  you focus on the melody that you’re playing.

There is also plenty of room in this to ensure that you’re playing each note with the intended emotion. Focus on your pick attack and your vibrato, nothing should sound forced.

9. The Beatles – Let It Be

The Beatles knew a thing or two about catchy melodies, and the solo from Let It Be is no exception. The entire solo remains faithful to serving the song and keeping a strong melody throughout.

It’s very easy for guitar players to get side tracked when building solos and this track shows you that you can play a lot of notes but still serve the song in the right way.

Technique-wise, most of this solo is based around some simple pentatonic shapes and patterns that you have no doubt used a hundred times already. 

There is one small section with some string skipping and a country style bend which is also fun skill to bring to your own solos. But, for the most part, this solo teaches us to use our ears and listen to what the song wants us to play.

10. AC/DC – Highway to Hell

This solo is pretty straight ahead. It’s jam packed with Angus Young’s favoured rock 'n' roll guitar licks from his idol Chuck Berry. Think lots of double stops and lots of string bends.

This solo starts in A minor, but actually switches to major halfway through. 

The main thing to take away from a solo like this is that sometimes, simple is best. This solo is very primitive and the whole aim behind it is to play some simple, but cool sounding licks, aggressively. It doesn’t feature anything flash and it doesn’t feature anything the song doesn’t need.

Technique wise, you’ll want to focus on the double stop and string bend combos that crop up throughout as well as the country style bends that happen when the song switches to major.

When playing in this style, the vibe of how you play is more important than the precision in which you play it.

The 10 essential guitar riffs for beginners to learn

Leigh Fuge

Leigh Fuge is a guitar player and content creator with a love for all things '80s. When he’s not creating gear demos for his Youtube channel he’s teaching students via his online guitar course Right Notes Music Tuition. Off camera he spends most of his time travelling around the UK performing at functions and corporate events.  www.instagram.com/leighfugeguitar