30 killer pop guitar solos

8th Jun 2011 | 10:00

30 killer pop guitar solos
30 killer pop guitar solos
MJ and EVH? Beat It, of course...

While MusicRadar isn't averse to belting out a Phil Collins tune or prancing around to a Girls Aloud number at a family wedding, we acknowledge that these days the majority of 'pop' is - quite rightly - judged on its production, not guitar showmanship.

So, with the exception of one or two recent numbers from the Jonas Brothers and, erm… Shania Twain, most solos in this rundown by Total Guitar have come from the golden '80s and '90s; laid down by a slew of innovative players and session aces such as Steve Lukather, Dave Barry and Paul Jackson Jr.

Throughout the top 30, we've highlighted each guitarist's specific techniques on each solo so that you can see exactly what makes them killer. In no particular order, then, we'll kick things off with pop royalty: Prince's Sexy MF…

30 killer pop guitar solos
Sexy MF - Prince (1992)
Guitarist: Levi Seacer Jr; technique focus: staccato phrasing

He may be a kick-ass guitarist himself, but Prince knows when it’s time to hand soloing duties over to the right person. Levi Seacer Jr’s tasteful, staccato (short, detached notes), jazz-influenced licks are integrated beautifully into the funk feel of this track from The Love Symbol Album.

30 killer pop guitar solos
Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now - Starship (1986)
Guitarist: Craig Chaquico; technique focus: sustained notes

Opening with a tasty doublestop, Craig’s solo is well crafted with a warm distorted tone and some bluesy touches, making it a perfect alternative to the vocal line. The final high D, aided by smooth whammy bar vibrato, continues to sing as the chorus vocals kick back in.

30 killer pop guitar solos
Lovebug - Jonas Brothers (2008)
Guitarist: John Taylor; technique focus: twin lead soloing

The hardest part of any twin-axe harmony solo is the bends. They have to be of the same speed and hit the target note at exactly the same time. Jonas Brothers backing band member John Taylor isn’t scared, though; there’s a succession of quick bends in this catchy solo.

30 killer pop guitar solos
Maniac - Michael Sembello (1983)
Guitarist: Michael Sembello; technique focus: speedy two-hand tapping

Coming from the 1983 movie sensation Flashdance, this song by ex-Stevie Wonder guitarist Sembello features him playing a singlecoil-driven solo complete with blazing two-hand tapping. Played on the third string, the tapping ascends the fretboard from the 15th fret as his fretting hand remains rooted around the 9th fret position. Manic!

30 killer pop guitar solos
La Bamba - Los Lobos (1987)
Guitarist: Cesar Rosas

With his black sunglasses and slick hair, Cesar Rosas - singer, songwriter and guitarist of the American Chicano rockers Los Lobos - is as recognisable as they come, and a force to be reckoned with. Classic Mexican folk song La Bamaba is arguably best known by Ritchie Valen’s 1958 version, but it was Los Lobos’ 1987 stomper that reached number one on both sides of the Atlantic. Cesar’s solo? Hot, hot hot!

30 killer pop guitar solos
You Might Need Somebody - Randy Crawford (1981)
Guitarist: Steve Lukather; technique focus: semi-tone bends

Recorded at the height of his session career, Steve Lukather’s solo is brilliant because, while based around the song’s melody, he adds fabulous touch and tone, gorgeous vibrato and note-perfect string bending. In Randy Crawford’s own words, Steve "steals the track from under me". Great outro fills, too.

30 killer pop guitar solos
Faith - George Michael (1987)
Guitarist: Hugh Burns; technique focus: oblique bends, hammer-ons, weaving twin guitars

Scottish session guitarist Hugh Burns had already proved his versatility with his nylon strung licks on George Michael’s Careless Whisper in 1984, when he channelled ‘50s rockabilly on Faith four years later. His authentic picking transformed a great song into a modern rock ’n’ roll classic. Incidentally, Burns also played the amazing solo on Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street, since covered by Foo Fighters.

30 killer pop guitar solos
The Heat Is On - Glenn Frey (1985)
Guitarist: Glenn Frey; technique focus: quarter-tone 'curl' bends

Eagles’ Glenn Frey may be known as a great singer, but he’s one mean axeman too! Typical of pop rock songs, this solo has various nods to the blues including some killer quarter-tone curl bends. As heard several times in this track, these bluesy bends curl away from the fretted note and teasingly stretch out to the next fret’s note without quite getting there.

30 killer pop guitar solos
When You Tell Me That You Love Me - Diana Ross (1991)
Guitarist: Paul Jackson Jr; technique focus: screaming high notes

Child actor-turned-guitarist Paul Jackson Jr was an A-list rhythm session master in the ‘80s and ‘90s (now a smooth jazzer), but on this song he ‘out-Lukes’ Steve Lukather with a screamingly high rock solo full of bends and vibrato-fuelled notes. It’s a highly polished performance with the last Eb note getting pet dogs the world over nodding in approval.

30 killer pop guitar solos
Physical - Olivia Newton John (1981)
Guitarist: Steve Lukather; technique focus: wide vibrato

A pop rock song’s solo needs plenty of energy so, aside from blazing note runs, the best way to get this is with the whammy bar or finger-orientated note vibrato. This is not the place for soft bluesy vibrato, though: assertive, tone-wide (two frets worth) vibrato is needed here to make sustained notes sing. Listen to Lukather on this song for a vibrato masterclass. Word is, it was a complete one take, too.

30 killer pop guitar solos
Leave A Light On - Belinda Carlisle (1989)
Guitarist: George Harrison; technique focus: melodic slide guitar

Belinda Carlisle was such a big deal in the ‘80s that she could even get an ex-Beatle to play guitar on her records. George Harrison’s achingly beautiful slide solo was played in standard tuning on Rocky, the psychedelically painted ’61 Fender Stratocaster he used on Beatles classics like Nowhere Man.

30 killer pop guitar solos
Easy Lover - Phil Collins (1984)
Guitarist: Daryl Stuermer

Daryl Stuermer joined Genesis as "permanent-temporary-part-time member" in 1977 as a replacement for Steve Hackett, before following Phil Collins to become "permanent-touring-recording member" of his solo group. 1984's Easy Lover exemplifies the era of golden pop/rock, and Stuermer’s squealing solo is the icing on the cake. Listen out for the cool chromatic passing notes…

30 killer pop guitar solos
Man! I Feel Like A Woman! - Shania Twain (1999)
Guitarist: Dann Huff; technique focus: blues scale and dominant 7 licks

Dann Huff’s philosophy of producing a solo that’s structured but played like it’s been improvised is perfectly illustrated on this Shania Twain smash hit. A veteran country session player, Huff gets less than 20 seconds to do his thing so he nails some wild bends, stinging licks and a pinched harmonic. Man!

30 killer pop guitar solos
Addicted To Love - Robert Palmer (1986)
Guitarist: Eddie Martinez; technique focus: smooth string bends and squealing pinched harmonics

Session guitarist Eddie Martinez nailed the Addicted To Love solo in one take using a Hamer Prototype guitar loaded with a triple-coil pickup, plus a Pro Co Rat distortion pedal and a late ‘70s non master volume Marshall head with a 4x12 cab. While his solo takes pride of place in the audio, a leggy model replaced him in Palmer’s infamous video.

30 killer pop guitar solos
This Ole House - Shakin' Stevens (1981)
Guitarist: Mickey Gee; technique focus: rockabilly picking, staccato chords, banjo rolls

Mickey Gee, who sadly passed away last year, was such a killer guitarist that he once made Nashville legend Chet Atkins’ jaw drop. His red-hot Telecaster picking on This Ole House apparently inspired Stray Cat Brian Setzer to cover the song. Mickey’s solo is a rockabilly guitar masterclass.

30 killer pop guitar solos
Black Cat - Janet Jackson (1990)
Guitarist: Dave Barry; technique focus: slow bends

Like En Vogue and Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson is a pop diva partial to a spot of heavy riffing. Session ace Dave Barry’s extended solo - which is split into three distinct sections - is an A to Z of modern rock technique, but notably features long, slow bends that work well with Black Cat’s cool groove.

30 killer pop guitar solos
Fame - Irene Cara (1980)
Guitarist: Elliott Randall; technique focus: fast vibrato

"When I recorded the solo they hadn’t finished editing the film," Elliott told TG. "So they didn’t know how long it would need to be and I had to create a ‘finish’ after every eight bars to create natural edit points. It was done in one pass too, so that made it even more of a challenge."

30 killer pop guitar solos
La Isla Bonita - Madonna (1987)
Guitarist: Bruce Gaitsch

Perhaps surprisingly for a session musician, Bruce Gaitsch co-wrote La Isla Bonita with Patrick Leonard and Madonna (although it was originally written for Michael Jackson - Madge re-purposed it for herself). Cuban drums, maracas, harmonicas, and Bruce Gaitsch’s Spanish guitar. Exotic!

30 killer pop guitar solos
How Am I Supposed To Live Without You - Michael Bolton (1989)
Guitarist: Michael Landau; technique focus: playing through the changes

If you can hold off the vomit for the first two inutes and 44 seconds of Bolton’s sickly ower ballad, you’ll witness a thing of beauty as Michael Landau plays effortlessly through a series of quick, complex chords changes that guide the song into a new key. And then it’s back to Mr Constipated…

30 killer pop guitar solos
Goodbye To Love - Carpenters (1972)
Guitarist: Tony Peluso; technique focus: chromatic passing notes

Want to know how to create some contrast in a silky sweet Carpenters’ track? Break out the fuzz pedal and throw a super cool guitar solo in, that’s how. Axeman Tony Peluso uses chromatic passing notes to copy Karen Carpenter’s vocal melody before developing his solo with some tasty pentatonic licks.

30 killer pop guitar solos
Loverboy - Billy Ocean (1985)
Guitarist: Geoff Whitehorn; technique focus: tapped bends

English guitarist Geoff Whitehorn is taste personified, but he can pull out the stops when the moment demands it. Using a typically processed ‘80s sound, Whitehorn employs the ‘bend, tap, pull-off’ technique during Loverboy, so prevalent at the time, to inject a heady rush to this chart-busting single.

30 killer pop guitar solos
Beat It - Michael Jackson (1983)
Guitarist: Eddie Van Halen

Surely one of the most recognisable solos of all time, let alone in pop, Beat It’s overdriven riffage comes courtesy of Eddie Van Halen. Remarkably, he didn’t even get paid for the privilege: “I did it as a favour,” he said later. “I was a complete fool, according to the rest of the band… [but] I knew what I was doing.”

30 killer pop guitar solos
Queen Of The Night - Whitney Houston (1993)
Guitarist: Paul Jackson Jr; technique focus: soloing through the pentatonic patterns

Based around various patterns of the minor pentatonic scale, this solo is certainly big on energy. Paul Jackson Jr features in TG’s list once more, this time kicking off with a repeating pull-off lick before ascending the neck via a run of diatonic 6ths. The solo builds to a climax with a 16th note triplet run into a high string bend.

30 killer pop guitar solos
Warning Sign - Nick Heyward (1984)
Guitarist: Alan Murphy; technique focus: whammy bar scoops and doops

In the ‘80s, the late session guitarist Alan Murphy was everywhere: Kate Bush, Go West, Level 42 and Mike And The Mechanics - all huge names on the pop scene. On this Nick Heyward classic, Alan’s whammy bar scoops and doops (using the bar to bend into and out of the notes) are everywhere, producing phrases with a definitive ‘rubber band’ type sound. It’s like Allan Holdsworth had gone pop!

30 killer pop guitar solos
Somewhere In My Heart - Aztec Camera (1988)
Guitarist: Gary Sanford; technique focus: legato

The Bangles played some killer surf music in their early days, and Vicki Peterson’s solo on Everything I Wanted echoes that sound. Worked around the song’s melody, it builds to a climax just like any great solo should and was most likely played on Vicki’s favourite Gibson Les Paul Custom.

30 killer pop guitar solos
Somewhere Out There - James Ingram and Linda Ronstadt
Guitarist: Steve Lukather; technique focus: speedy legato

Two celebrated vocalists singing a song for a cheesy Disney flick: it hardly suggests blazing guitar, does it? But check out the ascending sextuplet run that opens this solo and there’s no doubt that rock session legend Steve Lukather is on the job. The rest of the solo is a rocky mimic of the vocal line with bends and vibrato galore, but it’s his three-note-per-string low to high legato burn that grabs our attention.

30 killer pop guitar solos
Running With The Night - Lionel Richie (1983)
Guitarist: Steve Lukather; technique focus: monster string bending

Hired for what he would bring to the track and not simply reading the dots, Steve Lukather - yup, here he is again! - went for this one big-time. Fabulous string bends (a huge four-fretter at 2:31), vibrato arm dips and speedy legato runs display a titanic piece of improvisation.

30 killer pop guitar solos
Everything I Wanted - The Bangles (1990)
Guitarist: Vicki Peterson; technique focus: melodic licks and slides

The Bangles played some killer surf music in their early days, and Vicki Peterson’s solo on Everything I Wanted echoes that sound. Worked around the song’s melody, it builds to a climax just like any great solo should and was most likely played on Vicki’s favourite Gibson Les Paul Custom.

30 killer pop guitar solos
Private Dancer - Tina Turner (1984)
Guitarist: Jeff Beck; technique focus: chord swells, sparse staccato notes, Jeff Beck's signature fingerpicking

Private Dancer was touched by the hands of two legendary guitarists: Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits wrote the song but left solo duties to Jeff Beck. Although he’s best known as a Fender endorsee these days, Beck apparently whipped off the bluesy solo on a pink Jackson Soloist.

30 killer pop guitar solos
The One And Only - Chesney Hawkes (1991)
Guitarist: Nik Kershaw

One hit wonder Chesney’s Hawkes’s ‘one hit’ was written, produced and soloed all over by synthpopper Nik Kershaw. The One And Only soundtracked the film Buddy’s Song in 1990, starring Chesney as Buddy, and Roger Daltrey as Buddy’s dad. Today, the song - and Chesney - remain staples of student unions throughout the UK. And for that, Mr Kershaw, we salute you, and your pinched harmonics…


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