10 hardest songs to play on guitar

22.12.2021 Ben Maloney Guitar

It’s a long way from the most basic motions to the most incredible piece of virtuosity. Surely few guitarists can say they’ve never wondered just how wide this gap is when it comes to their instrument. 

There are countless breathtaking pieces of guitar music and there’s no way to rank the hardest of them with any certainty. Still, this list pulls together ten hugely difficult works for the instrument that only the most accomplished masters can play. 

Don’t think of them as insurmountable challenges, because they aren’t. Instead, treat them as motivational targets to aspire to. If you keep striving toward them, if you keep working hard, you’ll be amazed at what you end up achieving. 

Here we go - ten pieces that represent the pinnacle of guitar-playing. You can find guitar sheet music for each of them on nkoda. 
 

Most difficult guitar songs of all time
 

  1. Recuerdos de la Alhambra by Francisco Tárrega
  2. ‘Bark at the Moon’ by Ozzy Osbourne
  3. Head in the Clouds by Maria Linnemann
  4. Danse rythmique by Ida Presti
  5. ‘Symphony of Destruction’ by Megadeth
  6. Folios by Tōru Takemitsu
  7. ‘Freebird’ by Lynyrd Skynyrd
  8. Gris y mar by María Luisa Anido
  9. ‘The Animal’ by Steve Vai
  10. Sonata Giocosa by Joaquín Rodrigo

1. Recuerdos de la Alhambra by Francisco Tárrega

In 1899, composer and virtuoso guitarist Francisco Tárrega visited the Alhambra, the great Moorish palace in southern Spain. Moved by its beauty, Tárrega was inspired to compose one of his most famous works: Recuerdos de la Alhambra.

Many consider Recuerdos to be the hardest piece ever written for the guitar. It contains an almost continuous tremolo, a technique that requires a guitarist to repeatedly and rapidly pluck the same note. The technique alone requires countless hours to perfect, but it’s even harder to do it when the tremolo note’s always moving, as in Tárrega’s piece.

As if that’s not enough, the player also has to thumb a drifting arpeggiated melody underneath the tremolo note. A successful performance of the work demands nothing less than complete technical proficiency. If you don’t read staff notation, here’s tablature for the work.

2. ‘Bark at the Moon’ by Ozzy Osbourne

Heavy metal legend Ozzy Osbourne had a knack for working with phenomenal guitarists. With his band Black Sabbath it was Tony Iommi. Later it was Randy Rhoads. For Bark at the Moon, he brought in Jake E. Lee.

The album’s first song, ‘Bark at the Moon’ was written by Osbourne, Lee and bassist Bob Daisley. All great metal songs contain powerful riffs and chugging chords, but there aren’t many that need to be picked with the kind of rhythmic precision shown by Lee on this track. The semiquaver runs in the chorus, for example, are tough to get right at tempo. 

Then there’s the solo. The notes cascade relentlessly and rapidly all over the fretboard, and there are some awkward rhythms to articulate. Lee’s also thrown in a few artificial harmonics to boot. Nailing those in the white heat of a solo takes serious chops. 

3. Head in the Clouds by Maria Linnemann

Head in the Clouds belongs to Maria Linnemann’s larger work, Suite for Lovers, one of a range of compositions by the guitarist on nkoda published by Ricordi Berlin. Seven pieces make up the suite, but this one’s arguably the most difficult. 

It’s a beautiful piece that strikes the perfect balance between lyricism, intrigue and technical prowess. Its texture is marked by constantly overlapping gestures that involve quick and complex chord changes. It’s vital to maintain a clear sense of pulse throughout, otherwise the phrases will just collapse into a wash of sound. 

Here you can listen to a flawless performance of the work by the composer herself. She works through her composition so smoothly that it appears simple. But appearances can be deceiving - the moment you have a go yourself, you’ll see that she and the work mean business. 

4. Danse rythmique by Ida Presti

Ida Presti played countless pieces of guitar music as one of the finest performers of her generation, but she would compose only a handful of her own. Despite being few in number, they’re big on quality - and difficulty. Danse rythmique is no exception.

As the title implies, there is a sense of established rhythm in the work - just about enough to make the ‘dance’ label suitable. But the notes themselves are as irregular as the gestures that they’re part of. The performer has to scamper around the neck of the guitar, and some of the fingerings are far from comfortable.

There are a few passages of pizzicato, which call for the player to mute the string slightly and produce a plucked tone - hard to do when playing complex passages at speed. On top of all that, it’s marked ‘allegro.’ So this is far from a stately waltz. Of course Presti herself would have found this work easy to play, but we’re not all concert guitarists.

5. ‘Symphony of Destruction’ by Megadeth

Megadeth are widely regarded as one of the iconic thrash-metal bands. Thanks in no small part to the incredible fretwork of their guitarist Marty Friedman, a key aspect of the genre they helped to pioneer is highly virtuosic guitar-playing - or ‘shredding’.  

They consolidated their reputation in the early 1990s with tracks like ‘Symphony of Destruction’, which features one of Friedman’s most jaw-dropping performances. The song largely makes the cut here due to its guitar solo, which features a seemingly unending - for the player at least - run of semiquavers.

In the midst of this run, right at the top of the neck, are a couple of stumbling blocks that make a perfect rendition difficult. First, lots of slurs are awkwardly and irregularly placed, so your picking hand can’t easily get into a groove. Secondly, there are some really nasty phrases combining triplet rhythms with super fast bends. 

6. Folios by Tōru Takemitsu

Icon of Japanese music Tōru Takemitsu is one of the most fascinating figures in the field. A composer of concert works and film music, and a writer on music theory and philosophy, his far-ranging interests inspired him to write highly thought-provoking music.

One of the great avant-garde guitar works, Takemitsu’s Folios pushes the guitarist to the very limits of their ability to interpret material and bring it to life. Every one of the three movements that make up the piece is an exercise in technical complexity. Time signature changes are hard enough to deal with, but this work doesn't even have bar lines.

Takemitsu is well known for experimenting with the textural dimensions of music in his composition and Folios sees him doing just that. Playing swiftly won’t cut it when playing a piece like this. Players need to manipulate the guitar’s tone colour in ways that are just beyond the scope of most pieces. Takemitsu asks you to do exactly this - go beyond. 

7. ‘Freebird’ by Lynyrd Skynyrd

Few songs can get those lighters in the air like Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Freebird’. Known for their unforgettable anthems, the southern-rock band put together a ballad for the ages when they recorded this nine-minute monster in 1973.

Initially, guitarist Gary Rossington takes the lead with his slide guitar. While the winding melodies he works through are superbly crafted, they’re a long way from virtuosic. But after four-and-a-half minutes, Lynyrd Skynyrd up the ante and rock their way to immortality. 

Here the band’s other guitarist Allen Collins takes the lead and starts one of the greatest and most phenomenally difficult guitar solos of all time. As if the pace and intensity of the material isn’t hard enough to handle, the sheer athleticism needed to play the endlessly recurring bends will just wear most players’ out.

8. Gris y mar by María Luisa Anido

María Luisa Anido was an Argentine classical guitarist and a prolific composer of works for her instrument. Her works display a distinctive style inspired by the rich musical traditions of her native country. Gris y mar features two preludes that reflect these national connections. 

As the subtitle ‘Preludios nostálgicos’ ('nostalgic preludes') tells us, these pieces are filled with the longing that Anido felt when she was away from her homeland. This brings about a degree of lyricism and structural simplicity in the work. But, any player rising to the challenge will need to show qualities that can only be expected of the most complete players.

Don’t underestimate the stamina needed to play steadily through unrelenting waves of arpeggiated phrases in both preludes. It’s especially tough to do that in the second, Mar, which moves at a real pace. Executing the huge number of changes quickly and smoothly is just as demanding. It’s one of those pieces whose elegance disguises its complexity.

9. ‘The Animal’ by Steve Vai

Steve Vai’s signature is his virtuosity. He’s very firmly a rock guitarist, but so many of his songs, which all really showcase his phenomenal ability, are put together almost like classical guitar compositions, carefully crafted, complex and full of technical challenges.

Suitably titled, ‘The Animal’ fits this bill completely. At the start of the track, drums, bass and guitar lay down a choppy groove, above which Vai plays some of his most searing material. It’s packed with unreal string bends, crazy artificial harmonics, and mystifying whammy-bar tones that are near-impossible to recreate.

Towards the end of the song, there's an eruption of notes that move so fast it’s hard to accept that they're playable. It sounds like he’s using double-tapping to pull it off, a notoriously challenging technique in itself. But no, Vai really is just playing that quickly. 

10. Sonata Giocosa by Joaquín Rodrigo

Unlike many of the prolific classical-guitar composers named here, Joaquín Rodrigo wasn’t a player. His instrument was piano. But that didn’t stop him writing some of the most famous - and difficult - pieces of music for the guitar. 

Falling into both categories (but definitely the second) is Sonata GiocosaComposed in a genre that’s supposed to showcase the performer’s skill, Rodrigo remains true to tradition. Movements one and three are the main culprits here, both of which require the guitarist to, well, play a lot of notes very quickly. 

Despite the speed, rhythms still have to be outlined with clarity and articulation that isn’t easy to achieve at such a high tempo - and with so much movement around the neck. A particular challenge of the third movement is its Flamenco-influenced tremolos that will need a lot of dedicated practice to get right.

Your next steps for guitar music


Can’t get enough of the good stuff? Check out this list of the best guitarists of all time, responsible for some of the finest performances in the history of guitar-playing. Or, if you’ve had your fill of insane guitar music, try some lighter reading with this list of easy guitar songs

In any case, there’s plenty of guitar sheet music on nkoda to get your teeth into. The more you discover, learn and play, the sooner you’ll be ready to take on some of the incredible music that we’ve worked through here.

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