Guitar solos can really go either way. If placed or executed poorly, they can kill the emotion and momentum of a song. This is especially true of long, boring solos, devoid of any kind of intention, forethought or passion. On the other hand, a well-done guitar solo can make for the perfect emotional release necessary to take a given track to places it didn’t seem possible before the given player kicked on the overdrive pedal.
Most lists you come across that collect incendiary, compelling guitar solos are populated by rock bands that dominated the charts in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. Your Led Zeppelins, Jimi Hendrix’s, Van Halens, Eric Claptons, Joe Walshs, and so-on. Those are all fine of course, but there’s been a bevy of incredible mid-song acrobatics that we’ve had the pleasure to enjoy across the last two decades. With that in mind, here’s a collection of ten more recent, guitar-riffic tracks begging to be air-guitared along to in your car while stuck in traffic on the way to work.
Gary Clark Jr. — “Grinder”
I’m personally of the opinion that Gary Clark Jr. is the pre-eminent guitar hero of the 21st century. There’s a virtuosity and intensity to his playing that’s only hinted at by the studio recordings. You really have to catch him in a live setting to get a real sense of how effortlessly he can turn your brains to scrambled eggs with a frenetic series of hammer-ons, and pull-offs. I could have put 20 different songs of his on this list, but the sheer, wah-painted passion of his mid-track solo on “Grinder” needs to be heard to be believed.
Ryan Adams — “Do You Still Love Me”
Ryan Adams has been throwing solos onto songs for well over two decades by this point, but one of his best came on the track “Do You Still Love Me” from his most recent offering, 2017’s Prisoner. What really pushes this particular solo over the edge is the drama Adams infuses into the passages, kicking off with a cascading series of double-stop parts, before giving way to total silence, then exploding back into your ears with an intense fury.
The Black Keys — “Weight Of Love”
It’s a bold move to start out side-one, track-one of your record with a nearly two-minute long, psychedelic guitar freakout, but then again, Dan Auerbach is a bold guy. Turn Blue is one of The Black Keys more guitar-heavy records — check out “In Our Prime” from this album for more six-string transcendency — with “Weight Of Love” setting the tone early on. It’s trippy in a way that makes you wonder if Auerbach had been smoking hash and nodding along to a live rendition of the Grateful Dead’s “Morning Dew” just before laying it down.
Kanye West — “Devil In A New Dress”
When you think “rap song,” chances are the words “guitar solo” don’t immediately spring to mine. Such is the genius of Kanye West. One of the heaviest tracks from his monolithic fifth album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is “Devil In A New Dress.” In it, Rick Ross delivers one of the best verses of his career, but still manages to get usurped by an incredibly emotional, lengthy, fuzzed-out guitar spot mid-way through by West’s frequent producer/collaborator Mike Dean. While many will say guitar solos don’t belong in rap songs — and they have gone sideways in the past — “Devil In A New Dress” is a beautiful, dark, twisted exception to the rule.
St. Vincent — “Rattlesnake”
Annie Clark is one of the more adept and technically proficient players in the world today. As a three-year student of the Berklee College Of Music, she’s cultivated some serious chops, and even has her own signature series guitar. Though you can find some truly exhilarating instrumental interludes on pretty much all of her records, “Rattlesnake” from her 2013 self-titled album is particularly eyebrow-raising for all its wonderfully glitchy, digitally-processed swirl of fuzzy and radiant notes.
Car Seat Headrest — “Vincent”
Will Toledo’s rise over the past few years to indie rock deification has been thrilling to watch. While most note his clever and insightful lyrics about life and love as one of the primary motivators for the intense fandom that surrounds his band, the brash and beautiful music that surrounds it is just as compelling. “Vincent,” the second song from Car Seat Headrest’s 2016 album, Teens Of Denial, contains a few incredible solos, but it’s the first, the one that opens the track — a single-phrase, repeated over and over again with an array of chords crashing over the top — that really elevates the song to a whole new dimension.
The White Stripes — “Ball And Biscuit”
Just like Gary Clark Jr., there’s a case to be made for 20, 30, hell maybe even 50 Jack White songs on this list. “Seven Nation Army” is an obvious choice, but you already know about that one, and besides, “Ball And Biscuit,” — though by no means the better song — contains way better guitar-play. A straight-ahead blues burner, White goes the f*ck off multiple times over the song’s seven-minutes, pushing the limits of what his Digitech Whammy pedal, and cheap, plastic Airline guitar are sonically capable of. Every time you try and catch your breath, he comes after you again like a swarm of hungry, pissed off piranhas.
Kurt Vile — “Pretty Pimpin'”
Kurt Vile is an excellent “feel” kind of player. “For me, when I’m playing any instrument, it’s fun to not be bothered about theory or traditional technique,” he told Premier Guitar Magazine several years ago. “You can pick up anything—a banjo, a guitar, a piano—and just find the notes. That’s the beauty of it.” One of his better note-finding expeditions can be found on this standout single from his 2015 album B’lieve I’m Goin Down. Coming at the track’s mid-point, Vile doesn’t try and bowl you over with his chops. Instead, he lays back and gives the song some incredible, tremolo-painted accents that perfectly sets the table for his mournful outro.
Alabama Shakes — “Gimme All Your Love”
“Gimme All Your Love” is an emotionally devastating song where singer Brittany Howard pleads, with all the voice and power she can muster wants to provide love and comfort for another human being. “Why don’t you sit with me, for just a little while /
Tell me, what’s wrong?” That depth of emotion in her voice requires an incredible solo to even come close to matching it, but she delivers with gusto, slinging licks with her trusted Gibson SG that cut through the mix and hit your dead in the heart.
Neil Young — “Ramada Inn”
Okay, to be completely honest, this song is more guitar solo than it is “song.” Stretching out to nearly 17-minutes, Neil Young’s work with his band Crazy Horse is absolutely inspiring. It’s a twisted car wreck of broken dreams, and jagged, melancholy licks. Whereas so many from his class of ’70s rock icons continue to rest on their — impressive — laurels, Young is still pushing the boundaries well into his sixth decade of making music.