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Top 10 Hardest Rock Songs to Play On The Guitar

VO: Matt Campbell
Script written by Aaron Cameron Anyone can play guitar, but few can master it. Welcome to and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the top 10 hardest rock songs to play on the guitar. For this list we will be looking at the songs that guitarists find difficult to play - whether the songs require increased focus, dexterity, technique or just have a difficult or unusual groove to maintain, flow to endure or complex structure to cope with.

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Top 10 Hardest Rock Songs to Play on the Guitar

Anyone can play guitar, but few can master it. Welcome to and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the top 10 hardest rock songs to play on the guitar.

For this list we will be looking at the songs that guitarists find difficult to play - whether the songs require increased focus, dexterity, technique or just have a difficult or unusual groove to maintain, flow to endure or complex structure to cope with. To be considered for this list songs must have particular challenges for even the most virtuosic of guitarists throughout, not just the solo - no matter how emotive or majestic it may be.

#10: "This Charming Man" (1983)

The Smiths
Sure, there may be flashier, tappier songs around but pick up your Telecaster - or Rickenbacker if someone's shooting a video around you - and see if you can nail this. Chances are... you cannot. While the song does feature multiple guitars it's the main, electric, jangle pop riffs that carry it - live or in studio. Written by guitarist Johnny Marr in the key of A major, “This Charming Man” uses a raised F# tuning and sees Marr channelling African Highlife music. As such, the song makes constant use of arpeggios and a lop-sided clave rhythm with only occasional chord stabs. It may offer a slick counter-melody to Morrissey's vocal, but it also has a serious risk of crippling your fretting hand. Somewhere, there is a left hand that never gives out.

#9: "Little Wing" (1967)
The Jimi Hendrix Experience

Although known for raging stacks, wah wahs and Fuzz Faces, James Marshall Hendrix had his subtle moments as well. Jimi sets aside his usual furious playing for “Little Wing” and instead shifts into Curtis Mayfield-mode, offering gentle slides, jazz-like chord melodies, and discrete whammy use. Don't let its slow tempo fool you, however, as “Little Wing” will occasionally switch from 4/4 time to 2/4, feature loads of unusual sus2 chords, continual hammer-ons and pull-offs even while gripping chords, and will require you to bring in your fretting hand's thumb to balance out the workload. You can borrow your church's Leslie speaker to help get the tone right, but as for getting the notes right only practice and patience can help you there.

#8: "Snow ((Hey Oh))" (2006)
Red Hot Chili Peppers

Picture it, you've locked your pointer finger down as a makeshift capo, got your fingers to pull off and hammer on just right, you've got a grip on the alternate picking pattern and you've even managed to maneuver the groove but then... the riff moves. Sure, your fretting hand basically does the same motions all the way through “Snow” but then, that's the problem. It's like skipping rope on a trampoline while riding a horse... underwater. But alas! You see a glimpse of freedom with the bridge on the horizon only to discover the chords are weird bar chords based around a D chord and half muted harmonizing chords based round John Fusciante's unique relationship with the world around him. At least the solo offers some relief... In short, it's about as difficult as your standard Flea bassline.

#7: "Master of Puppets" (1986)

“Puppets” may feature two guitarists but either path you choose will lead to hardship. Following rhythm man James Hetfield may seem like the easy route, but when you're done obeying your downstrokes, there's synchronized arpeggios, and even a solo waiting for you. If you've taken the path of Kirk Hammett you get the workload of James plus solos rife with alternate picking, tremolo picking, pinch harmonics and a splash of blues alongside arpeggios, and other general riffage. Throw in a 200 bpm-plus tempo and multiple time signatures and you've got your hands full.

#6: "Scene Seven: I. The Dance of Eternity" (1999)
Dream Theater

With over 100 time changes and a complex, highly orchestrated composition “The Dance of Eternity” is difficult to play on any instrument - although the vocals are surprisingly easy! Played on a 7 string by John Petrucci, the instrumental piece uses an entire smorgasbord of advanced techniques - alternate picking, sweep picking - in addition to arpeggios and intricate melodic passages that are often sync'd and linked with the bass and keys all while locked into wacky time signatures. There's no room here for anything resembling traditional classic rock guitar playing. So delicate and precise is “The Dance of Eternity” that a single bum note could derail the whole thing.

#5: "Through the Fire and Flames" (2006)

There are rumours that “Through the Fire and Flames” was actually recorded at a slow tempo and sped up in post... but that sounds like the talk of someone who tried to play it themselves and failed. Ironically, the track’s weirder sounds may be the easiest to get a handle on. The Pac-Man noises? Scratch the tip of your whammy bar across your strings. Ghost noises? Slide it down them. Elephant noises? Hit some harmonics, swell your volume and then whammy. With the gimmicks sorted, all that's left are some intense legato and staccato licks, over-the-neck tapping, guitar harmonies, and a down 'n' dirty guitar duel. Meanwhile, simultaneous wah-wah and whammy pedal work means even your feet get called into action!

#4: "CAFO" (2009)
Animals as Leaders

Given Tosin Abasi's penchant for his 8 string Ibanez TAM10, raising the $1800 list price may be your first challenge. If you opt to settle for whatever seven string you have laying around, make sure to tune your low E down to D... and watch as the struggle begins. From there on, “CAFO” has nothing for you but a barrage of taps, alternate picking, taps, tapped chords, tapped double stops, taps, sweep picking, sweep... taps..., bass style slaps and... taps... with bars of 8/4 and 9/4 time for good measure. 

#3: "Sultans of Swing" (1978)
Dire Straits

There may not be any taps or video game noises, and it may be moderately tempo'd and in 4/4 time but that doesn't make “Sultans of Swing” an easy ride. Grab your Strat, switch on the middle and bridge pickups and be prepared to learn a lot of D-minor. The first major challenge will be figuring out Mark Knopfler's unique picking style, which uses the thumb, pointer, and middle fingers in place of a traditional pick. The second challenge is his fretting hand which will see him take partial bar chord grips and create a constant stream of riffs loaded with hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, and vibrato. While the fills throughout are challenging enough, Knopfler saves it up for the solos, especially the second solo and the infamous quick-fire triplet riffs that bring the song to a close.  

#2: "Cliffs of Dover" (1990)
Eric Johnson

It's not particularly fast, and it's not flashy for the sake of being flashy but “Cliffs of Dover” will take most of your focus and a lot of your stamina to make it to the end. Eric Johnson himself took nearly 8 years before committing it to tape, with a lot of that time dedicated to learning a classical fretting style for maximum clarity. Even then he wasn't happy with his performance, and a sharp ear will hear Johnson switch from a Gibson 335 to a Fender Stratocaster to redo parts he felt weren't up to par. But even if you don't hold your playing to Johnson's standards, you'll still have to work your way through a lot of string skipping and hybrid picking passages or your trip to Dover isn't going too far.
Before we unveil our top pick here are a few honourable mentions.
“Lenny” (1983)
Stevie Ray Vaughan
“Tornado of Souls” (1990)
“La Villa Strangiato” (1978)
“Tender Surrender” (1995)
Steve Vai
“Molto Arpeggiosa” (2000)
Yngwie Malmsteen

#1: "Eruption" (1978)
Van Halen

Taps had been around long before the release of Van Halen's debut album but it was “Eruption” that put them firmly in the mainstream. Played in A-flat on his homemade Frankenstrat, Eddie Van Halen claimed the piece was influenced by Led Zeppelin's “Heartbreaker”... which oddly enough, doesn't have taps. Parts of the composition, meanwhile, are based on “Let Me Swim” by Cactus and the guitarist quotes “Etude No. 2” by Rodolphe Kreutzer - but everything else is pure Eddie Van Halen. Aside from the game-changing two-hand taps, the solo is loaded with whammy dives, legato, and tremolo picking which combined make this a difficult piece to play at high speed. Even Van Halen himself claims to have botched the job on the recorded version, which leaves little hope for the rest of us.  

Do you agree with our list? What rock song do you find most challenging to play? For more humbucking, string skipping, alternate picking, pinch harmonizing Top 10s published daily, be sure to subscribe to

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