The Stories Behind 10 Unexpectedly Great Guitar Solos

by Greg Prato

You expect a blazing solo in an AC/DC or Van Halen song, but not so much in tracks by Run-DMC, David Bowie and Michael Jackson.

"Eruption." "Stairway to Heaven." "Purple Haze." "Hotel California." "Crazy Train." Certain songs immediately come to mind when pondering the greatest guitar solos of all time.

But... what about the greatest unexpected guitar solos of all time?

In other words, a standout solo that seemingly came out of nowhere in a song by an artist who is usually not known for offering up tunes that showcase ripping leads.

So now, without further ado, here are the stories behind 10 unexpectedly great guitar solos.
"King Of Rock" by Run-DMC

Run-DMC was one of the first rap acts to also embrace rock music, most famously on their 1986 Aerosmith collaboration, "Walk This Way," featuring Steven Tyler and Joe Perry. But their appreciation of rock stretched back further. On their sophomore album, King Of Rock, the title track features tough guitar riffing and wailing solos courtesy of session player Eddie Martinez, who has also worked with Robert Palmer, David Lee Roth, and Mick Jagger.

He's not listed as a songwriter for the track, but Martinez played a major role in how the song turned out. In an interview with Ultimate-Guitar from 2021, he explained: "When you listen to that track, it's really just a DMX drum machine, a bass guitar and a ton of my guitars, that's essentially the track. There's also a little synth line running through it. That was really it, I just started layering guitars. That bass line was there so I built on that and then all the other harmony things were my idea."

"King Of Rock" Songfacts

"No Sleep Till Brooklyn" by Beastie Boys

Although the Beastie Boys were not a metal band, they definitely did borrow headbanging elements for their 1987 hit "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" – particularly in its guitar riff (which sounds like a not–so–distant cousin of AC/DC's "TNT"), and most definitely in the solo. And who was the gent shredding on the six–string? None other than Slayer's Kerry King, who also made a cameo in the song's video.

The Beasties and Slayer were labelmates on Def Jam at the time, and the collaboration was arranged by their label boss and producer, Rick Rubin. According to Rubin, King and the Beasties weren't so chummy. "I don't think he [King] liked the song," Rubin told Rolling Stone. "I think he just thought it was bizarre. He's a real, serious metalhead. He really loves metal, and I don't think he listens to much music outside of metal. At least then he didn't. I don't think it spoke to his aesthetic. And honestly, in retrospect, I don't think he really spoke to the Beasties' aesthetic. They didn't really like him either [laughs]. It was kind of mutual."

"No Sleep Till Brooklyn" Songfacts

"Easy" by Commodores

There's no denying that the Commodores were experts at whipping up awesome dancefloor grooves like "Brick House" and "Too Hot Ta Trot." But they also had a sensitive side, as heard on the hit ballad "Easy," which features a now-classic solo by their guitarist, Thomas McClary. Speaking to Songfacts in 2017, he discussed the inspiration behind the solo.

"When you have lyrics in a song that say, 'Why in the world would anybody put chains on me? I've paid my dues to make it,' you have to match the intensity of those lyrics to a sound and a feel that musically portrays the same intensity and the same context of what you're saying," he said. "A lot of ballads, the song would just end, but we wanted the guitar solo to take it to another level of intensity. So that was basically the inspiration behind it."

Interesting fact: when Faith No More covered the tune years later and scored a global hit with it (peaking at #3 in the UK in 1993), guitarist Jim Martin opted to replicate McClary's solo note-for-note.

"Easy" Songfacts

"Let's Go Crazy" by Prince

Although best known for funky dance rhythms, pop masterpieces, and flamboyant fashion, Prince was also a master of his Telecaster. Case in point, such tunes as "Purple Rain," "When Doves Cry," and especially when "Let's Go Crazy" comes to an abrupt halt towards the end and the Purple One unleashes an exceptional Jimi-esque solo.

Once upon a time, Prince uncovered his secret to becoming an expressive guitar soloist. "See, a lot of cats don't work on their rhythm enough, and if you don't have rhythm, you might as well take up needlepoint or something," he told Guitar Player. "I can't stress it enough. The next thing is pitch. That's universal - you're either in tune or you ain't [laughs]. When you get these things down, then you can learn how to solo."

"Let's Go Crazy" Songfacts

"My Sharona" by The Knack

With a bouncy, infectious rhythm, "My Sharona" was a sensation in 1979, spending more weeks at #1 (six) than any other song that year. The song reels us in with the groove and the story of a guy hopelessly enamored with Sharona (a real person), but at the 2:40 mark, a whole new section is introduced, leading to an outstanding solo by The Knack guitarist Berton Averre, who wrote the song with lead singer Doug Fieger.

The Knack had most of the album worked out when they went in the studio to record it, but Averre improvised the "My Sharona" solo. According to Averre, the entire album cost $17,500 to make.

"My Sharona" Songfacts

"Tattooed Love Boys" by Pretenders

The late, great James Honeyman-Scott certainly had his moments to shine on Pretenders tunes - "Kid" immediately comes to mind. But not often did he get the opportunity to truly let it rip. "Tattooed Love Boys" is one of those rare instances. Listen for that spectacular solo section in the middle, which sees Honeyman-Scott offer multiple short-but-sweet phrases as part of a sorta call-and-response section.

It was Honeyman-Scott who provided the solo, but Pretenders drummer Martin Chambers once explained that it was Chrissie Hynde's rhythm guitar that proved crucial to the solo section.

"Chrissie was always consistent, which was very helpful in working out the stops in 'Tattooed Love Boys,'" he said. "But because she was consistent, Pete [Farndon, bass] and I had interpreted it and made it go with a nice pulse and Jimmy latched onto that."

"Tattooed Love Boys" Songfacts

"Jessie's Girl" by Rick Springfield

If you were to believe what you see in the music video for "Jessie's Girl," it was Rick Springfield who supplied this incredibly tasteful yet fiery guitar solo, as he convincingly replicates it on his white Stratocaster (the one he uses to break the mirror). However it was actually Neil Giraldo (yes Pat Benatar's Neil Giraldo) who not only supplied the solo but played all of the guitars - and even bass - on it!

Turns out that Working Class Dog producer Keith Olsen was quite familiar with Giraldo's six–string skills. He produced the Benatar classic Crimes Of Passion a year before, an album with outstanding solos from Giraldo on "Promises In The Dark," "Heartbreaker," and "Hell Is For Children."

"Jessie's Girl" Songfacts

"Baker Street" by Gerry Rafferty

This soft-rock classic is best remembered for its majestic sax line, as well as Rafferty's memorable lines:

You're tryin', you're tryin' now
You're cryin', you're cryin' now

But what about the soaring guitar solo – that somehow finds a way to elevate the song even higher into the stratosphere?

The man responsible for the solo is a Scottish chap by the name of Hugh Burns, who has played on recordings for quite a few other artists, including Paul McCartney, Jack Bruce, and Pet Shop Boys. He also played on another tune that relied heavily on saxophone, Wham's "Careless Whisper."

"Baker Street" Songfacts

"Let's Dance" by David Bowie

By the early '80s, blues guitar was nearing extinction in popular music thanks to the growing popularity of synths and squeaky-clean production. But near the end of David Bowie's massive 1983 hit "Let's Dance," we're treated to an amazing Albert King-esque guitar solo. And if you were to believe what you saw in the video, it was Bowie who played it (while wearing gloves!).

But this was a mere cover-up. The guitarist who actually provided the solo was none other than the legendary Stevie Ray Vaughan, whom Bowie discovered at the 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival. Stevie was set to also supply guitar on Bowie's Serious Moonlight tour but declined the offer to focus on his own career. Soon after, Vaughan ignited a blues-rock renaissance.

"Let's Dance" Songfacts

"Beat It" by Michael Jackson

Although he went by the name "The King of Pop," Michael Jackson was also an admirer of rock (heck, he was the one who told his pals in Queen they should release "Another One Bites The Dust" as a single!). So, when it came time to record his landmark Thriller album, he enlisted the aid of the members of Toto. And for his smash "Beat It," it is Toto guitarist Steve Lukather who is playing the now instantly recognizable riff, and none other than Eddie Van Halen providing the famous solo.

He did the solo as a favor for Thriller producer Quincy Jones and his work on the track helped it cross over to rock fans. Van Halen released their album 1984 a few months later. It went all the way to #2 held off the top spot by... Thriller.

Jackson went back to the well, recruiting more guitar heroes on some of his later tracks. That's Steve Stevens (Billy Idol's guitarist) on "Dirty Diana," Slash on "Black Or White," and Carlos Santana on "Whatever Happens." On three of his world tours, he brought along another ace guitarist, Jennifer Batten.

Honorable Mentions:

Lenny Kravitz – "Are You Gonna Go My Way" (solo by Craig Ross)
Carly Simon – "You're So Vain" (Jimmy Ryan)
Chicago – "25 Or 6 To 4" (Terry Kath)
Los Lobos – "La Bamba" (Cesar Rosas)
Faith No More – "Epic" (Jim Martin)
Kenny Loggins – "Danger Zone" (Dan Huff)
Don Johnson – "Heartbeat" (Dweezil Zappa)

February 24, 2022

Learn more about the history of guitar solos in rock (as well as a more thorough analysis of Michael Jackson's ties to rock guitar) by checking out my book Shredders!: The Oral History Of Speed Guitar (And More).

Further reading:
Interview with Steve Vai
Interview with Joe Satriani
Ten Primal Rock Classics

More Song Writing

Comments: 1

  • Ricardo from MéxicoIt was actually Pete Townsend who sugested EVH for the solo. MJ did not know his music and took the advice
see more comments

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