In 1979, singer Ozzy Osbourne - who had just been thrown out of Black Sabbath because of his drug abuse and unreliability - was in Los Angeles, attempting to form a new band, when Randy Rhoads (6 December 1956 – 19 March 1982), who had been playing with Quiet Riot, casually walked into the studio to audition with his Gibson Les Paul, and began to play. Osbourne, who was off his face, later explained his feelings: "He played this fucking solo and I'm like, am I that fucking stoned, or am I hallucinating, or what the fuck is this?!"
Whatever it was, he was so knocked out by Rhoads’ playing that he gave him the job on the spot. "I just turned up and did some riffs, and he said, ‘You've got the gig,’” Rhoads explained later.
This inauspicious encounter shortly led to the release of Blizzard of Ozz (1980), which went multi-platinum, and Diary of a Madman (1981), which spawned hit singles Over the Mountain and Flying High Again. This success was in no small part due to Rhoads’ innovative and distinctive guitar technique that combined classical with heavy metal influences, which have had an enormous impact on guitarists ever since.
Tragically, Rhoads played his last gig on 18 March 1982 at Knoxville Civic Coliseum in Tennessee, as the following day he was persuaded by tour bus driver and private pilot Andrew Aycock to fly with him in a single-engine Beechcraft F35 plane on a ‘joy ride’. The joy was short lived, however as Aycock, who had been up all night snorting cocaine, decided to buzz the tour bus to frighten the band members, including Osbourne, inside. However, on one of his passes the plane wing clipped the top of the bus and the pilot lost control, hit a pine tree and then crashed into a garage. In the fireball that followed, Rhoads’ body was burnt to a cinder, along with the two others on board. He was just 25 years old.
Here are Guitars Exchanges’ selection of the legendary guitarist’s most stunning solos:
10 Revelation (Mother Earth) - Blizzard of Ozz (1980)
Rhoads' classical background found early expression on Revelation (Mother Earth), the eighth track from Blizzard of Ozz, which combines a Beethoven-inspired section with a crazed Spanish-like solo. Rhoads takes possession of the song and shreds like a maniac, but also creates atmosphere and high drama thanks to his phrasing. “Heaven is for heroes, And hell is full of fools, Stupidity, no will to live, They're breaking God's own rules, Please let my mother live,” sings Osbourne, who co-wrote the track with Rhoads and Bob Daisley.
9 Laughing Gas - The Randy Rhoads’ Years (1993)
Laughing Gas was a song performed by Quiet Riot at all their live performances while Rhoads played in the band. It was never recorded onto an album until a live bootleg performance was enhanced (with re-recorded vocals) and placed on The Randy Rhoads Years. Rhoads introduces ‘two-handed finger tapping runs, whammy bar swoops, rapid pick articulation […] arpeggios, call-and-response reverb/delay, and tapped harmonics,’ in a six minute solo that amply showcases his technical skills. This song was a crowd favourite but perhaps understandably when Rhoads left Quiet Riot, the band never performed it live again, and when he played it alongside Osbourne, the solo was cut to just a couple of minutes.
8 Dee - Blizzard di Ozz (1980)
Rhoads’ fingerpicking solo on Dee was nothing you might expect from a guitarist, and a band, so strongly associated with heavy metal. This classical instrumental is a gentle and touching tribute to his mother Dolores, on which Rhoads produces a lovely harmonic effect. This track deservedly has its place on this list because it shows both Rhoads’ versatility as a guitarist and his willingness to push the band beyond its traditional comfort zone.
7 Over the Mountain - Diary of a Madman (1981)
Rhoads’ second album with Osbourne kicked off with Over the Mountain, which blends heavy riffs, classical elements and a catchy pop melody. Rhoads’ solo is a reminder of how much creativity and energy he brought to the band. Songs about madness offered a perfect vehicle for the guitarist to build up the tension and then to let rip. The song, written by Osbourne, Rhoads, Daisley, and Lee Kerslake, reached number 38 on the US Billboard chart.
6 I Don't Know - Blizzard of Ozz (1980)
I Don't Know has both great lyrics and two Rhoads’ solos that make your hair stand up on end on the 1981 live version; the first is slow but sublime at 3’15” while on the second he lets rip at 4’ 10” on his 1974 Gibson Les Paul. Rhoads mixes it up with a jazzy middle eight, some heavy chords and deep bends to take us on a ride that helped the ‘Prince of Darkness’ make history; just take a look at Ozzy’s face as Rhoads is playing in the accompanying video.
5 Diary of a Madman - Diary of a Madman (1981)
The title song of Osbourne's second solo album provided Rhoads with the perfect opportunity to go off track, as there are few themes that offer as much breadth as madness. On most other songs Rhoads' short but dissonant solo might have been dismissed as indulgent and even irrelevant, but here it fits the subject matter like a hand in a glove. The Wagnerian tension in the song builds and builds as Osbourne sings "People look to me and say, Is the end near, when is the final day?, What's the future of mankind? How do I know, I got left behind,” which some argue reflects his lost and confused state after being ejected from Black Sabbath.
4 Tonight - Diary of a Madman (1981)
This outstanding ballad might not be everyone’s choice but critically it is underpinned by a powerful and considered structure that keeps it from drifting into sugar-sweet sentimentality. Rhoads’ solos on Tonight have been endlessly copied, but these were the originals…
3 Mr. Crowley - Blizzard of Ozz (1980)
Osbourne's tribute to English occultist Aleister Crowley also provided the ideal backdrop to showcase Rhoads' lightning guitar talent. The guitarist draws on his classical training and amazing finger-picking to produce two outstanding solos that are, however, always at the service of the song. On a ‘live version’ from 1981 Rhoads can be seen playing his legendary Karl Sandoval Custom Polka Dot Flying V. Co-written by Osbourne, Rhoads, and Daisley, both the studio and the live version show why this solo was ranked 28th on the list of best guitar solos ever by the readers of Guitar World magazine.
2 Flying High Again - Diary of a Madman (1981)
Released as a single, Flying High Again, which some argue is about Osbourne’s love of alcohol, reached number two on the Billboard Top Tracks chart in 1982. Rhoads used the lead singer’s ‘celebration of intoxication’ to soar with one of his heaviest and most complex guitar solos ever, as he not only shows off his incredible technical skill but also effortlessly maintains the rhythm.
1 Crazy Train - Blizzard of Ozz (1981)
Crazy Train, like Diary of a Madman, gave Rhoads another great opportunity to let rip. On this, the first single from the debut album, he mixes up guitar shredding with a de-tuned whammy bar to add weight to the song’s lyrics, while again, never losing track of the melody. Many consider this track to represent the height of Rhoads’ genius. It is particularly great to watch his signature solo played live on his signature guitar (see video selection). The lyrics reportedly relate to the Cold War and, in particular, the fear of nuclear annihilation that hung over the world like a cloud during this period. Ranked as the 9th-greatest guitar solo ever by readers of Guitar World magazine, the song reached No. 9 on the US Billboard chart; but here it is without doubt our number one.