“My guitar is not a thing. It is an extension of myself. It is who I am.” — Joan Jett
Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the mythology of rock and roll, the tales that have been passed down through generations in distortion-laden joy. Equally, the guitars used to create some of those legends are no different. Some of rock’s finest musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton have all gone on to shape music in a way others haven’t and the guitars they used to carve out those iconic paths are worthy of their own chapters in the annals of history.
It’s fair to say that without the electric guitar, the music world could have been a little bit boring during the 20th century. After the jazz movement began to die out it became clear that the electric guitar had taken the place of the horn section as the most dynamic instrument in music. Now there was a spotlight for some of the instrument’s finest players to move into.
With the growth of rock and roll, the electric guitar began hitting mainstream distribution and countless styles and variations have been created since Charlie Christian, the first guitar hero, picked up the axe. Ever since then, rock has been dominated by its guitarists.
The utilitarian in us may feel a bit stupefied as to why certain guitars sound certain ways but the different nuances and expressions each artist can get from their chosen guitar is proof of that notion. We thought we’d take some time to revisit some of these classic guitars in the hands of some of rock and roll’s greatest musicians.
We’re looking back at the most iconic guitar in rock and roll, whether it’s Eric Clapton’s second-in-command ‘Blackie’ or indeed the Fender Stratocaster that met its fiery end at the hands of Jimi Hendrix, we’re showcasing our favourites.
Rock and Roll’s 10 most iconic guitars of all time
Eric Clapton’s ‘Blackie’
One of the most expensive guitars on the list, Eric Clapton’s ‘Blackie’ fetched nearly $1 million in 2004 when it went up for auction in support of Clapton’s rehab centre Crossroads.
The guitar is a customised 1950s Fender Stratocaster and is actually assembled from parts of three different Starts that Clapton picked up from a Nashville shop during the seventies. He picked up three more during his time there and gave them to other rock and roll legends of the era George Harrison, Pete Townshend and Steve Winwood.
Clapton wrote some of his most famous songs on the guitar including ‘Cocaine’ and his cover of ‘I Shot The Sheriff’. It certainly goes down as one of the genre’s most famous.
Jerry Garcia’s ‘Tiger’
The late bandleader of The Grateful Dead always switched between two guitars when performing on stage with the Dead. One of those guitars, ‘Tiger’ is being given icon status for its slightly tragic history. Built by Doug Irwin the guitar weighs 13lbs and is a “hippie sandwich”.
It’s several layers of wood sandwiched together and laminated and has been played by Garcia since 1979 before he began favouring another Irwin guitar, ‘Rosebud’.
However ‘Rosebud’ was out of action in July 1995 which meant Garcia would play ‘Tiger’ on his final performance with The Grateful Dead.
You can watch that final heartbreaking performance below.
Prince’s magical ‘Cloud’
Prince is one of the greatest guitarists of all time and anybody who tells you otherwise is either putting blinkers on or is just being plain silly. The singer may have dominated the pop charts but that never undermined Prince’s ability to wield an axe like a Viking.
Prince would’ve been a very different kind of Viking though, and his choice of axe proves it. The singer opted for his own unique cut for his debut feature film Purple Rain. The ‘Cloud’ was designed by a local Minneapolis luthier and was later reproduced by Schecter guitars.
Watch Prince share the ‘Cloud’ with us all in the video for ‘Purple Rain’ below.
Jimmy Page’s double-neck Gibson EDS-1275
Where would rock and roll be without Jimmy Page? The guitarist, who had his hand in some of the sixties greatest songs working as a session musician, also went on to be a part of not only The Yardbirds but form the imperious rock Gods, Led Zeppelin, with his unique guitar playing.
Equally, where would Jimmy Page be without his double-neck Gibson? The unforgettable guitar that turned ‘Stairway To Heaven’ into an anthemic masterpiece has spawned countless imitators. But none match up to Page’s commanding instrument.
It goes down as one of the most iconic instruments in history.
Paul McCartney’s Hofner ‘Violin’ bass
McCartney’s landmark guitar, bought when Paul was only 18, had humble origins: “Eventually, I found a little shop in the centre of town, and I saw this violin-shaped bass guitar in the window,” he told Tony Bacon for a Bass Player cover story back in the summer of 1995.
The original guitar McCartney bought was Höfner 500/1 violin bass, a right-handed model that he turned upside down, for the equivalent of around £40. While the guitar was stolen during the late 1960s he did have a spare which was given to him by Höfner in 1963, was seen and heard starting as early as that year’s ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’.
Macca played the guitar from then all the way until the final ‘Let It Be’ rooftop concert in 1969. Some say Paul still has the setlist from the last Beatles gig, from 1966, taped to its side, which is some mythology we can all get behind.
See the bass in action as The Beatles perform ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ on that fateful rooftop.
B.B. King’s ‘Lucille’
Few guitars can cause a shiver of excitement and anxiety to run down the backs of musicians like the simple utterance of the name, ‘Lucille’. B.B. King’s most trusted partner has become the bastion of iconic guitars. Its story is just as iconic.
King once ran into a burning building to rescue the $30 guitar after a fire erupted during a dance hall evening in Arkansas. When King found out the fire started as a result of two men fighting over a woman named Lucille he was hooked and gravitated immediately to the name.
King has used the name for each of his guitars since, across a range of Gibsons and Telecasters. In 1980, Gibson began making their very own ‘Lucille’ variation on the ES-355. King proves that playing the guitar truly is a state of mind.
Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Monterey Stratocaster’
It’s hard to find a more iconic guitar performance than Jimi Hendrix while on the stage at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival—the performance which saw the impresario burn his guitar and summon the rock and roll Gods. Equally, the colourful Fender Stratocaster which was torched is one of the most iconic guitars of all time.
Replicas of Hendrix’s own flower-power design which adorned the guitar before it met its fiery end are still used to this day, with John Mayer reportedly owning one. It may have been a short life for the guitar but you know what they say, better to burn out than fade away.
See Hendrix’s iconic performance below and get a reminder of just how important he to rock ‘n’ roll he is.
Noel Gallagher/Johnny Marr’s headbanger
Despite Johnny Marr once confirming that the sunburst 1960s Gibson Les Paul he gave Noel Gallagher was formerly owned by The Who’s Pete Townshend, the Oasis guitarist wouldn’t exactly treat it with respect.
Noel Gallagher wrote the Oasis song ‘Live Forever’ on the guitar but its story wouldn’t end there. No, while Oasis were on tour something happened to the guitar and, in fairness, it is something you’d expect to happen on an Oasis tour. While they were performing someone had jumped up on stage and started a fight with Liam. Noel saw his brother under attack and acted like any big brother would and routinely hit the guy over the head with his guitar.
Gallagher was supposedly very worried about Marr’s reaction but, more importantly, that he didn’t have another quality guitar to use. So he cheekily (this is Oasis after all) asked Marr to send him another. This one was a black Les Paul and had been the guitar Marr had written all of the iconic Smiths’ album The Queen Is Dead on.
He sent the guitar to Noel with a note that simply read: “This one’s well heavy. And if you take a big swing with this one you’ll take the fucker out!” See the original headbanging guitar in the ‘live Forever’ video below.
George Harrison’s 12-string Rickenbacker
With so much competition in the 1960s, George Harrison’s idiosyncratic playing style was often overlooked as some of the finest in the business of rock and roll. Much of the early Beatles sound wouldn’t have been possible without Harrison and his gifted hands around a 12-string Rickenbacker.
Also known to play a Gretsch, Harrison’s choice of guitar is so indicative of his off-beat and whip-smart nature. The 12-string Rickenbacker is a joyous piece of equipment and was gifted to Harrison by the owner of the company who gave it to them on their first US tour.
Harrison fell in love with the guitar and it was used regularly during the Fab Four’s tenure. Just like below as the play the NME awards in 1964. There’s no doubt that Harrison’s unique style helped propel the band on to their Godlike status.
Kurt Cobain’s ‘Jag-Stang’
Kurt Cobain was always a lover of the Fender Jaguar, it became a mainstay in his guitar arsenal while Nirvana were rising up the ranks. As fame arrived so did Fender, asking the frontman his preference for a new guitar.
Like the creative he was, Kurt Cobain took a polaroid of a Fender Jaguar and a Fender Mustang and cut pieces out and stuck them together to create his own signature guitar, the ‘Jag-Stang’.
“Ever since I started playing, I’ve always liked certain things about certain guitars but could never find the perfect mix of everything I was looking for,” Cobain said. “The Jag-Stang is the closest thing I know. And I like the idea of having a quality instrument on the market with no preconceived notions attached. In a way, it’s perfect for me to attach my name to the Jag-Stang, in that I’m the anti-guitar hero — I can barely play the things myself.”
The guitar remained unique until Cobain’s death. After which, Fender began producing the guitar for the mass market. Courtney Love is said to have given Cobain’s iconic powder blue prototype to R.E.M.’s Peter Buck. See it played by Buck below in the ‘What’s The Frequency Kenneth?’ video.