The Man Playing The Top 100 Guitar Solos of All Time
I’ve been playing guitar for a pretty long time. I’ve seen a whole lot of absolutely incredible musicians and performances over the years. After a while, you start to see the same things over and over again. But occasionally, you stumble across something that makes you stop and say “that is really damn cool.”
Such was the case when I found a Reddit thread talking about a man who is doing something pretty aspirational: learning all 100 of Guitar World Magazine’s top 100 guitar solos.
Not only does he learn them, but he plays them note for note to a T! And he’s absolutely tearing through them – he’s somewhere around the midway mark at this point.
I was so interested in his mission, I had to know more about him and why he embarked on this journey. I caught up with Kelly Dean Allen and I couldn’t have been more delighted to hear his story. Below is the full transcript of my chat with him…
When did you start playing guitar and what first got you into it?
I started off as a drummer at age 13. Lived with my grandparents. When I was 14 I moved from Nova Scotia to Ontario Canada to live with my aunt. A few months later I contacted my grandfather and asked him to ship my drums up. He had sold them. I was like “You sold my drums!!?”, “Why?”. “I didn’t think you wanted them anymore” he said. I was devastated. Was just starting to get good at them. “well, send me something” I said. He sent me a guitar and a small amp from Sears. I knew a few simple chords, but that was about it. Guitar arrived and I dug in. Trying my best to play whatever was popular in rock at the time. Toto, Foreigner, Cheap Trick, Boston etc… plus the usual beginner fare, Smoke on the Water, Sabbath’s Paranoid, Whole Lotta Love etc…
And then I heard it… Van Halen’s first album. “Now that’s how I want to play” I thought. That album changed everything. I started taking guitar much more seriously. Learning every riff I could play from that album and practicing a lot more. Starting to get addicted. Within a few years I was starting to get pretty good and by the time I was 16 I was starting to do a bit of soloing. Then I got heavily into Rush and Alex Lifeson took over the mantle as my favorite guitar player. I still couldn’t really tackle Eddie’s soloing, but Alex Lifeson I could get my head (and fingers) around. Would jam with highschool friends as equally addicted to Rush as I was. Then when I was 17 (almost 18) I joined my first gigging club band (underage) called Sly Fox. I was pretty much strictly playing rhythm guitar. The lead guitarist was amazingly talented. One of the most well known guitarists in my city. I wanted to be him. I wanted to be “that guy”. I wanted to play as well as him. Hell, I wanted to play better than him. Time to lock myself away for a few years.
So that’s what I did. I quit school, gigged on the weekends and stopped everything else in my life. No friends, no social life, no nothing. Only guitar. 10 to 14 hours a day for the next 2 to 3 years. When I emerged from my self imposed cocoon, I was the new hotshot guitar player in my city (Sydney Nova Scotia at the time) that was creating buzz. People were now coming out to watch ME play, not the other guy. I had surpassed him, as was my goal. From then on it was another 8 or 9 years of different bands, clubs, gigging, touring around Canada etc… Success came close on one occasion when I played with one of the top club bands in Toronto at the time, Walterego, but that kind of flamed out sadly for different reasons and I moved back to Nova Scotia and spend the next couple of years playing in local cover bands until it just all became tedious and boring to me. THIS was not making it. I wanted to make it. I saw no road going forward with my guitar playing at this point, so I quit. Completely. Sold it all and stopped. I was bitter and angry at the guitar, myself and for some life choices I had made at the time. I had made a promise to myself as a teenager to never play guitar as a hobby. I either make it or I stop. Well, I hadn’t made it and it wasn’t looking promising going forward. I was 28 yrs old playing local clubs in a small city in Nova Scotia. I’m done. I quit. Didn’t touch another guitar for 25 years (2 years ago).
What motivated you to start learning all the top 100 solos?
My teenage (13) daughter got the whole ball rolling again. Typical teenager with typical teenage taste in music. One Direction, Taylor Swift, whatever’s popular on the radio at the time. Then one night at dinner she said “Dad, I’ve been listening to Van Halen a lot lately”. I did a triple take. “You’ve been listening to what!?” I was shocked. “How in the hell did you get into Van Halen?” I said. Turns out that she had heard Drop Dead Legs on a TV show that she was watching and liked it. Found out who it was and started listening to them. But only classic Van Halen, not the Sammy stuff, haha. I agreed with her on this point. Then she became obsessed with Van Halen. Learning all the lyrics, reading everything she could get her hands on about them, listening to them non stop. All Van Halen, all the time. Was fantastic. I loved it. She thought Eddie was cute. I said, “You DO realize that he’s about 60 years old now right?” We had a good laugh about that. Her teenage crush was an Eddie Van Halen from nearly 40 years ago.
She knew that I used to play guitar, but that’s about it. She had never heard me play as I didn’t play anymore at this point. With her newfound Eddie Van Halen obsession, I asked her if she wanted to learn how to play guitar. She was overjoyed with the idea. Cool, I’ll buy you a guitar and amp and we’ll get started. I dug out the one remaining guitar that I had left from under the bed, cleaned it up, re-strung it and we got started. 2 lessons per week. After a few weeks she was completely hooked. Practicing all the time and progressing very rapidly. I couldn’t have been happier. Had a nice little bonding thing going on with my daughter and in the process I was playing again myself, and enjoying it again! It had been a long time since I enjoyed playing guitar.
I thought that I would surprise her. I knew how to play EVH’s Eruption in my playing days but I was way way out of practice and top form from 25 yrs ago. I set to it, Re-learn Eruption, perform it, put it on Youtube and dedicate it to her. Took about 2 months to get everything back up to speed, but I re-learned Eruption and put it on Youtube. She was shocked. She had no idea that I could play like that. I had no idea that I could still play like that until I tried. Well, now that I’m playing again, What now?” I thought. I was re-addicted thanks to her. “What else is hard to play?” “What else have I always wanted to learn, but didn’t?” I settled on Cliffs of Dover by Eric Johnson. That’ll be a good challenge and keep me busy for a while, so I dug into that. A month later I had that down and threw that up on Youtube. “Now what?” Steve Vai. I’ll learn some Steve Vai. I always loved Steve’s style of play, especially Tender Surrender, and thought it would be near impossible to play but I was feeling confident. “I’m gonna learn that if it kills me”, so I did. Recorded it and threw THAT on Youtube. I was rolling, haha, and absolutely overjoyed with playing again, and this time just for the fun, the passion and challenge of it.
Well, what now? Where do I go from here? I could just keep learning difficult pieces like this, but I wanted something different. A different challenge. That’s when I came up with this idea. Something challenging, something that would keep me busy for a while, and something that would push my limitations and make me a better all around guitar player. I’ll find a list of all of the greatest guitar solos of all time and learn every one of them. Different players, different styles, lots of new techniques to learn, lots of theory to learn etc,,, it was perfect. I won’t just learn them, I’ll study them. Get inside the player’s head. Not just learn them, but learn from them. I didn’t want to just make up my own list, because I’d leave too much out and it would be pretty hard rock/metal-centric considering my taste in music and my own personal guitar style (hard rock shredding). I wanted to try new things. Found the perfect list from a few years ago in Guitar World magazine of a top 100 list. I read through it. “Well, that looks daunting to say the least” I thought, but lets give it a shot. Off I went and got started.
What’s your favorite solo so far?
Probably Blue Sky by the Allman Brothers band. Duane Allman and Dicky Betts were amazing players. I was never a huge Allman Brothers fan until I started this project and had never heard Blue Sky before. Love that song now and especially the solo, which is practically the whole song. It’s about 3 1/2 minutes long. Was a real chore to memorize the whole thing.
Second runner up would have to be the intro solo to Sweet Jane from Lou Reed’s Rock and Roll Animal. Just some brilliant playing by Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner on that one. Actually got a nice comment from Steve Hunter himself on my cover of that one, so that was pretty sweet.
Which has been the hardest to learn and why?
It would have to be the faster, more technically difficult ones. My feel has improved immensely over the past 14 to 15 months since I started this project, so I don’t tend to have to much difficulty with those types of solos. Gilmour, Eric Clapton, Santana, etc… Most of the techniques these guys use, I know already and my note bending is pretty on point right now, so while they’re a joy to learn and play, they don’t give me too much difficulty.
The fast technical ones are tough. I had a hell of a time with Under a glass Moon by John Petrucci. That one was hard and the third one I had to do on this list. I add one of my own honorable mentions for every ten solos that I do. Solos that I feel should be on the list but aren’t. I recently did Sails of Charon by Uli John Roth. Really tough as well. Neo classical shred type of stuff. Sweeping arpeggios, blisteringly fast scale runs, string skipping etc. Difficult stuff.
I’m currently working on Black Star by yngwie Malmsteen. I’d say that this one is the toughest so far. A full four minute long neo classical shred solo. Really hard to play. A technical beast of a solo. So far on this list nothing has taken me longer than a week to learn, play and record. I’ve been working on Black Star for a month now. I’ve got it, but it was a lot of work.
You have to realize that I’m 55 years old and quit playing for 25 years. These solos by John Petrucci, Uli John Roth and Yngwie Malmsteen were performed by them when they were in their mid/early twenties. They were young, fast, and full of fire.
I’m old, creeky and full of ice cream, haha. I’m at an age where I should be getting slower, certainly not faster, but here we are. If I’m going to finish this list, I have to learn and play them. So I’m getting faster. My technique for doing this (getting faster) is muscle memory. I drill the lick into my muscle memory through repetition. Until I no longer have to think about it anymore. Playing that fast, if I have to think about what I’m doing, I’m dead. I can’t play it. But once it’s drilled into muscle memory in my brain and fingers it just happens, and I can go faster. It’s pretty cool.
Has learning these solos benefitted your playing holistically? Have you learned more from these solos than just how to play them?
Oh my god, yes! Most definitely. I’m a way better player in almost every way right now than I was 15 months ago. I don’t just learn them, I study them. What makes the solo tick, the theory behind it, the scale patterns used within it. All that stuff. I’m very much a “lick” type of soloist with my own playing. Licks interconnected with scale runs and legato. I’ve added so many new licks to my memory bank with this project. And like I said, my feel has greatly improved as I’ve gone along. I personally feel that I’m playing the best guitar of my life right now at 55 years old and I owe it all to this project.
In your opinion, what are the elements that comprise a really great guitar solo?
This ones easy. Melody. If it’s memorable, if you can sing or hum along to it, if it sticks in your head, it’s a great solo. The greats, David Gilmour, Jeff Beck, Duane Allman, Eric Clapton, Santana, Eddie Van Halen, Alex Lifeson, all had that innate ability to compose or improvise solos that had wonderful melodies.
Now don’t get me wrong, shred solos are fantastic as well. I consider myself a shredder first and foremost. I love, love, love playing fast, but there’s the rub. It’s hard to compose solos that are blisteringly fast and technical and still have some melodic form. That’s tough to do. Only a few have the ability to pull that off. I’d put Steve Vai in this category. Just a brilliant player. Technical yet quite melodic.
That said, If I could have one guitarist’s talent transposed into my body and brain and fingers it would have to be Gary Moore. He was incredible. He could do slow melodic, he could shred, he was a hell of a blues player, etc… He could do it all, and do it all damn well. I think Gary Moore was probably one of the greatest most versatile guitar players who’s ever lived.
After all of these solos, what advice would you give other guitarists who want to write solos that leave an impression on an audience/listeners?
Play with melody first and foremost. Put everything else second to melody. Players like Malmsteen for instance, (technical fast shredders) I find exhausting to listen to (even though I LOVE playing it!). It all just starts sounding the same after a while. From a technical standpoint, he’s untouchable, but from a melodic and memorable standpoint, his stuff becomes almost unlistenable after a while. He recently released what he calls a “Blues” album, and I gave it a listen to see what he could do with the blues. Awful. He can’t slow down, haha. Neo classical shred over the blues. Painful to listen to. Doesn’t work IMO. Melody. Make your guitar sing. As the saying goes, ” you can make that thing scream, but can you make it cry?”
Who’s the last guitarist you heard that really blew you away?
This is a tough one. My whole life recently (as far as music goes) has been this list. I wasn’t familiar with a lot of the music or players on this list. They just weren’t on my radar over the years or I wasn’t particular a big fan of whatever band they were in. A player that I discovered doing this list who has become one of my favorites, is Dicky Betts from the Allman Brothers band. Man that guy could play, and like I mentioned earlier, he had an amazing sense for melody and style in his playing. Duane Allman got all the adulation and fame from the Allman Brothers band, but I think he was just as good if not better. Duane himself was quoted as saying “I’m the famous one, but Dicky’s the good one”. I tend to agree with that sentiment.
Current guitar players? I’ve just discovered John Mayer. I never really liked his music and never really took all the talk about his incredible playing very seriously. I’ve always had this kind of mindset that people tend to over-exaggerate and/or elevate the talent of artists who are more famously known for something else (in Mayer’s case singer/songwriter) when they can competently play an instrument as well. I’ve recently discovered that I was wrong. Mayer is certainly much more than competent. He’s an absolutely brilliant Blues player. I’m a big fan now and not ashamed to say that I was wrong about him.
Most of the great solos are from the classic rock era. Do you think there will be or can be a resurgence of guitar solos in modern music?
I would love to think so. Guitar solos kind of go hand in hand with rock/hard rock and metal music. Music like that is cyclical. It was once underground, then it became mainstream, then it went back into the underground again where it is today. It’ll be back, and with it will come the guitar solo once more.
To see more of Kelly’s videos, check his YouTube channel and subscribe to see all of his solos as he posts them!
Huge thanks to Kelly for taking the time to talk with me and best of luck on your endeavor. Thanks for inspiring the rest of us!