If you’ve ever wondered what makes a great solo, Total Guitar has broken it down nicely by analyzing what it thinks are the 50 greatest guitar solos of all time. Not surprisingly, the solos range from a time period from 1958 (“Johnny B Goode”) to 1997 (“Floods”), as nothing recently has cracked the list. You can read what the 50 greatest are here (take it with a grain of salt, but most of it you won’t find an argument with). By the way, if you’re wondering what the greatest solo is of all time according to the survey, it’s from Brian May during “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Some of the others included are “Back In Black,” “Sultans Of Swing,” “All Along The Watchtower,” “Hotel California,” “Free Bird,” “Stairway To Heaven,” and that’s just the beginning.
So what makes a great solo? Here we go:
Time Period – If you’re wondering why there are no entries from the last 25 years, the reason is that the guitar just hasn’t been that popular, let alone a ripping solo. As a result, the best ones came from a time period that encouraged their use, mostly between 1970 and 1980, although some later until 1990.
Tempo And Duration – The average tempo is 106, but there was a wide variety of durations. Usually shorter is better though.
Key Signature – Minor keys were favored for the most part. As you might expect, most were in guitar-friendly keys of Am, Bm, Em, and Dm. Not all used pentatonic scales either, with a full 30% using a 7 note Aeolian scale.
Pitch and Fretboard Position – Most of the solos covered about 2 ½ octaves with “Johnny B Goode” being the outlier in just one position.
High and Low Notes – This is where it gets really interesting. From the article:
- “In 60% of our solos, the highest note occurs later than the lowest note.
- In 70% of the solos, the highest note happens in the second half, with the average peak at about 61% of the way through.
- 70% of the solos have their lowest notes in the first half (averaging about 37% of the way through).
- Our champion Bohemian Rhapsody violates the first two of these three tendencies – so there are no hard, fast rules!”
Melody vs. Noodling – Most solos featured some sort of melody or repeated patterns for about half the solo, so there was a nice balance of melody and technical gymnastics.
Number of Notes – The article looked at a couple of categories here in Notes per Bar and Notiness, where they actually counted the number of notes. Here’s what they found that’s important, most get more notey during the last third of the solo.
Rhythmic Variation – Most solos have wide variations between the longest and shortest notes.
There’s a lot more info that you’ll find in the original article, including some excellent charts and graphs, that breaks this down to a degree that you probably never thought about. Bottom line – great guitar solos have a lot more in common than you think.