Slash Turns 50: Rock With His 10 Greatest Guitar Moments

Celebrating a half-century of genius, style, raw power, and, of course, top hats.

Saul Hudson joined our planet by way of Hampsted, England on July 23, 1965, the son of African-American costume designer Ola Hudson and British visual artist Anthony Hudson.

As rock-and-roll was erupting in London like nowhere else circa ’65, Baby Saul’s mom and pop rode that wave to brilliance: Ola created signature outrageous outfits for David Bowie, while Anthony painted and designed iconic album covers for Neil Young, Ringo Starr, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, and others.

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Of course, Ola and Anthony’s single greatest contribution to rock would be fully realized when young Saul picked up a guitar, talked with his pal Steven Adler about forming a band, and, in a loving nod to his mom’s rich fashion history, donned a top hat and pulled the brim down way low. Sometime during all that, as well, people starting referring to Saul by the nickname he got from Seymour Cassel, a family friend and great character actor: Slash.

From there, a legend of both guitar mastery and rock-and-roll style emerged. Today we celebrate 50 years of Slash rocking among us mere mortals. Happy birthday to the former Saul Hudson. Here’s to another 50 and, in the meantime, let’s honor Slash with this look back at his 10 greatest guitar moments.

“Don’t Cry” – Guns N’ Roses (1991)

The first single from GNR’s two-album Use Your Illusion juggernaut, “Don’t Cry” initially caught many fans off guard. First, it’s spooky ballad rather than the largely expected hard-and-heavy rocker. Secondly, Axl Rose shares lead vocals with Shannon Hoon, his pal from Indiana and frontman of alt-rockers Blind Melon. That unique flair, of course, launched “Don’t Cry” as an instant classic, powered by Slash’s spare, haunting opening notes on through his snowballing lead and into an absolutely monumental solo.

Dime Store Rock – Slash’s Snakepit (1995)

The first song from the first Slash album after Guns N’ Roses, “Dime Store Rock” launches up from a tribal drumbeat into a furious rock frenzy—until it stops. About three minutes into the song’s five-minute run, everything stops, and the band pulls the brakes (and what a band this incarnation of Snakepit was, with Gilby Clarke on rhythm guitar, Matt Sorum on drums, Mike Inez of Alice in Chains on bass, and vocals by ex-Jellyfish frontman Eric Dover). That’s when Slash slow-pumps pure lava over a long, steady-trod meltdown that made it clear: Slash’s Snakepit was for real.

“Nightrain” – Guns N’ Roses (1987)

Tracked third on GNR’s hard rock before-and-after-line masterwork Appetite for Destruction, “Nightrain” follows the opening detonation of “Welcome to the Jungle” and the forward-charging stomp of “It’s So Easy” by charging, like the locomotive of the title, into a dark, uncharted stretch of rock-and-roll landscape. The song swings, too, ’70s dirty blues glam, and thereby serves as a perfect showcase for GNR’s twin-axe attack.

Slash fuels the engine of “Nightrain” with scorching metal, while rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin rises from the heat to unleash his signature flair. The two giants share both the lead and the solo sections, making “Nightrain” proof positive of Slash’s power as a collaborator who can tap the talent of others to compound his own godlike might.

“Watch This” – Slash feat. Duff McKagan and Dave Grohl (2010)

Slash’s self-titled 2010 solo LP is a cavalcade of enormous songs featuring suitably enormous talents such as guest vocalists Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy, Iggy Pop, Chris Cornell, Ian Astbury, and Fergie. However, on the cheekily titled instrumental “Watch This” frontman duties essentially go to Slash’s 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard.

Backed by guest players Duff McKagan on bass and Dave Grohl on drums, “Watch This” is a declaration that, deep into the 21st century, Slash continues to top his own game, evolving with the times while never abandoning the feel and tone of his endlessly blooming roots.

“Civil War” – Guns N’ Roses (1990)

Created for the 1990 charity album Nobody’s Child: Romanian Album Appeal, “Civil War” served as a musical way station between 1988’s G N’ R Lies and Use Your Illusion I and II, which seemed to be endlessly in production (a wait that would seem a blink in light of Chinese Democracy).

“Civil War” took on fresh urgency in early 1991 as U.N. coalition forces ramped up for the first Gulf War in Iraq. Reality came to meet Axl Rose’s unblinking lyrics (“I don’t need your civil war/It feeds the rich while it buries the poor) and Slash’s monstrous guitar lead, which piles on layer after layer of tension and suspense until it sounds like a battlefield itself in full explosion.

“Ain’t It Fun” – Guns N’ Roses (1993)

The Spaghetti Incident?, Guns N’ Roses’ final studio collection to feature the bulk of the band’s best-loved lineup, is a series of mostly punk covers and spiked with a curiosity or two. Frankly, much of it misses the mark, particularly when compared to Metallica’s Garage Days Re-Revisited, from which the concept seem borrowed (to clarify: Metallica followed the game-changing Master of Puppets with a covers EP; GNR put out Spaghetti in the wake of Use Your Illusion’s massiveness).

One profound exception, however, is “Ain’t It Fun,” GNR’s take on a song by Cleveland punks the Dead Boys (which was done previously Rocket From the Tombs, the group from which Dead Boys emerged). The Spaghetti version showcases Hanoi Rocks frontman Michael Monroe on lead vocals, so perhaps it’s his presence that inspired Slash to up his game to the devastating heights he reaches here. Digging into the song’s haunting, rage-filled core, Slash hurls the music skyward and Monroe soars right along with it.

“Slither” – Velvet Revolver (2004)

The 2000s’ dominant hard rock supergroup, Velvet Revolver burst out of the gate with “Slither,” the first single from their debut album, Contraband. Slash leads his bandmates—Duff McKagan on bass, Matt Sorum on drums, and Wasted Youth’s Dave Kushner on rhythm guitar—into a brilliantly contemporary outburst, whipping up a whirlwind that frontman Scott Weiland latches on to and rides to glory.

“Welcome to the Jungle” – Guns N’ Roses (1987)

It begins with the very beginning: the serrated, staccato, echoing riff that opens “Welcome to the Jungle” (and, in turn, opens Appetite for Destruction) announced that a new guitarist had arrived and that, from these blasts onward, rock guitar in general was never going to be the same again.

Slash’s lead on “Welcome to the Jungle” is unprecedented in the frightening and inspiring pictures it paints, the cityscapes it instantly builds and tears down, and the sweltering heat and cold-eyed execution that runs through the entire song, culminating with the broken-open neon onslaught of the solo.

“Welcome to the Jungle” was Slash’s way of welcoming us to the very future of rock-and-roll.

“November Rain” – Guns N’ Roses (1991)

“November Rain” is the sprawling, cosmic-reaching, just-so-insane-it-works hard rock epic toward which every previous single-track hard rock epic had led and from which every subsequent single-track hard rock epic has emerged.

Axl Rose began composing the nearly nine-minute suite in 1983. Notoriously, Axl maintained during the recording of Use Your Illusion that he’d abandon the music business if his bandmates, producers, and other players on the track didn’t get the song to match exactly how he’d been hearing it for so long inside his head. After having apparently lived up to Axl’s demand, “November Rain” got released as a single and a hugely popular music video, eventually hitting #3 on the Billboard chart, making it the longest song to ever reach the Top 10.

Although “November Rain” features Guns N’ Roses at the height of their extraordinary powers, a full symphony orchestra, a choir, and Axl’s megalomaniacal passion driving his vocals to a singularly brilliant performance, the true star of the entire endeavor is Slash.

Charged with spearheading this army of mad musicians onward and upward into this crazily beautiful, savagely rocking firestorm, Slash delivers not just a flawless foundation from which everyone else can lunge forward, he unleashes not one, but two of the greatest guitar solos in music history: the first is pensive but hopeful, the closer is a blood-storm of agony and abandon.

In hindsight, “November Rain” sort of looks, sounds, and feels like the final triumphant moment of classic rock’s original era. As such, Slash provides the ideal closing notes to the very art form that made us all who we are.

“Sweet Child o’ Mine” – Guns N’ Roses (1987)

Nothing sounded like “Sweet Child O’ Mine” when it first hit and, really, nothing has sounded like it since. Whereas, for example, Tony Iommi’s opening “Black Sabbath” riff or Eddie Van Halen’s superhuman “Eruption” acrobatics ignited and continue to inspire literally millions of guitarists who first learn by imitating, it’s tough to immediately think of any recorded lead that dares to even try to copy what Slash lays out in “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”

Originally just referred to as “Circus Song” due to its calliope-like tones, Slash considered the basis of what would become “Sweet Child o’ Mine” to be more of an exercise in string skipping and finger stretching than any kind of proper composition.

That all changed the day he ran through “Circus Song” while goofing around at practice with drummer Steven Adler. Izzy Stradlin immediately heard the melody’s inherent genius, and began to back Slash with chords. Duff McKagan then joined on bass. Similarly inspired, Axl Rose rushed off to write lyrics and, as Slash notes in his self-titled 2008 memoir, “Within an hour, my guitar exercise had become something else.”

That “something else” became GNR’s only #1 song and one of rock’s supreme romantic anthems, a tough guy confession of love that’s made all the most powerful and imposing by its vulnerability. And all that is apparent before Axl sings a single word, in Slash’s opening notes that, truly, could only have come from the former Saul Hudson.