Despite being a huge and nearly exclusive fan of guitar-based music, I've always hated guitar solos. They strike me as cliched theatricality at best and pointless filler at worst. There is nothing that interests me less than how many notes some Steve Vai worshiping d-bag can play in 30 seconds. A guitar solo is what you shoehorn into a song when you can't write a decent bridge.
When one of my friends challenged me recently to resist writing off all guitar soloing, I spent a long car ride with my mp3 player trying to find out if I like some without realizing it. Apparently I do. If a guitar part actually sounds like it's a part of the song rather than some noodling crap layered on top of it because the band couldn't think of anything else to do or because (as in a lot of kinds of metal) every goddamn song needs three solos in it just because, a guitar solo can be not-the-most irritating part of an otherwise good song. In no particular order (and obviously limited by my less than all-encompassing taste in music, tending toward the noisy and loud) here are four pretty excellent guitar performances. Feel free to add yours in the comments and let's just go ahead and not waste time trying to prove who has the better taste in music. OK? OK.
1. Bob Stinson, "Customer" (off The Replacements, Sorry Ma Forgot To Take Out the Trash). The magic happens from 0:45 to about 1:10. The liner notes say "Bob's lead is hotter than a urinary tract infection" and who are we to argue. He was the Drunken Master of the music world in the 80s. It's slop, but the best kind of slop.
Stinson drank himself to death, which is a pretty predictable ending when you get kicked out of The Replacements for drinking too much. Think about that for a second.
2. Tom Morello, "Know Your Enemy" (off RATM self-titled debut). Solo from 3:15 to about 3:45. This old RATM stuff sounds really dated and more than a little juvenile (although if teenagers are going to listen to juvenile music, they might as well get something other than right-wing talking points out of it). There are about 50 Tom Morello solos you could put in a pile and throw darts at. The guy just makes more sounds out of a guitar and cheap stompboxes than anyone, period. This was one of the first ones he got a lot of attention for, and it has all of the things we came to associate with his sound over the next 20 years.
3. Tim Sköld, "Putting Holes in Happiness" (off Marilyn Manson, Eat Me Drink Me). Solo from 2:30 to about 3:30. OK you're just going to have to trust me on this one. It's a really good solo. The off-key parts jump out of the speakers.
Not a great album, but I think a lot of "music people" would be shocked to give it a listen and hear how good of a guitarist Sköld is. I don't even play guitar and it was a real "Damn this guy can play" moment. Not a lot of people can be interesting soloing for a full minute in a musical environment as restrictive as this kind of sluggish blob of goth.
4. Kurt Cobain, "Sappy" (not "Verse Chorus Verse", which it's usually and inaccurately called – the "hidden track" on that 99 cent bin legend, the No Alternative compilation). Solo from 1:40 to 2:10. Here is a guy who had more technical skill than anyone gave him credit for, yet he rarely showed it off.
This is a perfect example of a solo that actually fits perfectly into the song. It makes the song better. Nobody cares that the average Guitar Center employee or bar band member could play this with ease. Side note: it's funny how a throwaway Nirvana song sounds about a thousand times better than the best the bands on the radio today can pull off. Turns out that it's more interesting to listen to people playing instruments than sounds manipulated to death by a producer armed with every post-effect known to man.