Let’s face it, guys: There is no cooler instrument in the heavy metal pantheon than the electric guitar. While drums and bass provide the necessary backbone to most good songs, it’s the legendary six-string that delivers the almighty riff itself. There is only one thing better than a big riff, and that’s an even bigger solo!
Here are the ten best guitar solos in heavy metal history:
Ozzy Osbourne – “Mr. Crowley” (Randy Rhoads)
It’s impossible to quantify just how important the presence of Randy Rhoads was to Ozzy Osbourne’s career trajectory. For all of Tony Iommi’s earth-shattering blues licks in Black Sabbath, the young Blizzard Of Ozz-era guitarist changed the game for the Prince Of Darkness with a flare for classical experimentation and computerized complexity. A dark masterpiece that straddles the line between anthemic and gothic, Rhoads’ impeccable solos in “Mr. Crowley” are as beautiful and emotive as they are precise.
Slayer – “Seasons In The Abyss” (Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman)
No band in the world inspires rabid fanaticism among their fanbase quite like Slayer. As justifiably worshiped as they are for their savage riffs and brutal percussion, most devotees are wary to put Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman’s solos under a microscope. The unholy magic of Slayer comes more from aesthetic, ambiance, and technical competence than virtuosic complexity; with King’s moments in the spotlight appearing rabid and somewhat random while Hanneman’s shredding is often confined to the chromatic scale. Guess what? NONE OF THAT FUCKING MATTERS! Dueling solos don’t get darker and more powerful than “Seasons In The Abyss”, where the two legendary axemen trade soaring licks and hammering blows with pitch-black grace.
Iron Maiden – “Powerslave” (Dave Murray and Adrian Smith)
A band who deal almost exclusively in galloping heavy metal anthems, Iron Maiden were at the top of their game in 1984 when they released their stunning fifth studio album, Powerslave. The title track of the record is a propulsive headbanging hymn with three tasteful yet kinetic solos that showcase the incredible abilities of axemen Dave Murray and Adrian Smith. Starting with a deceptively calming lull, dueling bridges provide a path for each respective guitarist to build in intricacy and intensity while never straying from the melodic core. A striking work of beauty and the apex of Iron Maiden’s six-stringed prowess.
Megadeth – “Tornado Of Souls” (Marty Friedman)
Without a doubt, Marty Friedman is one of the greatest metal guitarists to ever strap on a six-string. Megadeth might have already been a well-established thrash juggernaut, but the inclusion of Friedman in their ranks in 1990 introduced an intricate elegance to the band’s trademark sonic onslaught. This is readily apparent from his solo on the Rust In Peace epic “Tornado Of Souls,” which builds with studied patience from an understated and tasteful fist-pumper to a blistering force of nature.
Judas Priest – “Painkiller” (Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing)
Following the lackluster reception to Turbo and Ram It Down from critics and fans alike, it seemed like British metal legends were finally running low on creative gas. Oh, how it is darkest before dawn! Invigorated by the inclusion of double bass beast Scott Travis on drums, Judas Priest shattered all expectations with their 1990 speed metal masterpiece, Painkiller. While the band had always been known for their duel guitar lines and interweaving solos, Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing took it to another level of passionate ferocity on the album’s opening title track. It is a dizzying, relentless assault on the senses that cuts like a thousand blades.
Metallica – “One” (Kirk Hammett)
The late 1980s were a weird time for Metallica. Following the death of bassist Cliff Burton, the band regrouped with Flotsam and Jetsam’s Jason Newsted in 1988 for their manically complex commercial breakthrough album, …And Justice For All. Although the near total absence of a certain low-frequencing-producing stringed instrument in the mix will forever be a point of contention among fans, the album undeniably features some of the best guitar work of Metallica’s career. Coming out of the vicious start-stop bridge in “One,” Kirk Hammett launches into a mind-melting solo that is delivered with such intensity, passion, and precision as to remind you just exactly what made them the biggest heavy metal band of all time.
Ozzy Osbourne – “No More Tears” (Zakk Wylde)
There is no debating that Ozzy Osbourne’s place at the top of the heavy metal hierarchy is well deserved. As captivating as his spectral tenor and historic antics are, the greatest weapon in the Prince Of Darkness’ arsenal has always been the guitarists he associates with. From the genre-defining Tony Iommi and the classical virtuosity of Randy Rhoads to the swag and showmanship of Jake E. Lee, the Ozzman has always had just about the finest six-stringer in the business at his right hand. When young New Jersey native Zakk Wylde stepped into the fold in 1988, Ozzy seemingly lucked into a guitarist and songwriting partner who embodied the best qualities of his storied former bandmates while bringing his own unique flare to the table. Taken from the 1991 album of the same name, “No More Tears” is arguably the most adventurous track in Ozzy’s arsenal since “Diary Of A Madman.” A multi-layered and disorienting heavy metal odyssey, the song is catapulted to another dimension by Wylde’s jaw-droppingly passionate solo.
Pantera – “Floods” (Dimebag Darrell Abbott)
While their first three major label releases are considered essential groove metal classics to even novice headbangers, most die-hard Pantera fans will rank The Great Southern Trendkill as the band’s misunderstood, visceral masterpiece. Relentlessly brutal and hauntingly beautiful to equal degrees, album centerpiece “Floods” is a plea to God to wipe out all of mankind that features arguably the ultimate Dimebag Darrell solo. Built around doubled guitar lines a-la Randy Rhoads, Abbott told Guitar World at the time: “It seemed appropriate to start off in a slow, melodic fashion and then build and build and build to the climax with the big harmonic squeals at the end. For that last big note I think there’s four guitars going on. There’s a squeal at the second fret of the G string, a squeal at the fifth fret of the G and then I used a DigiTech Whammy pedal on two-string squeals at the harmonics at the fourth and 12th frets of the G and B strings, I believe. That was one of those deals where I didn’t plan it out. I just sat there and fucked with it until it sounded right.”
Ozzy Osbourne – “Crazy Train” (Randy Rhoads)
Look, I tried to limit this list to just one Ozzy song. When that didn’t work out, I managed to justify doing two Ozzy songs from two different eras with solos from two different guitar players. Unfortunately for those readers looking for a little variety, it would be incredibly disingenuous to not include both “Mr. Crowley” and “Crazy Train” in a ranking exercise of this nature. In the case of the latter track, Randy Rhoads’ explosive lead is a masterclass in organized chaos that stands to put any classical master to shame. This is the apex of speed, dexterity, technical prowess and melodic intuition. There has never been another solo like it and there never will be.
Van Halen – “Eruption” (Eddie Van Halen)