Since you have found your way to this website, you must be a fan of guitar music, and it’s safe to assume that you like to play the instrument yourself. You might be a casual player who enjoys jam sessions with friends or just strumming for relaxation and a creative outlet. Or, maybe you are a serious musician, determined to achieve your dream of guitar greatness. Either way, you can glean a ton of valuable information by reading about some of the truly great instruments in the history of guitar music.
“Why should I bother to learn about famous guitars?” you ask. Here are some of the advantages you can gain by developing your understanding of well-known guitars.
- You’ll learn about some of the most talented guitar makers in the world and develop an appreciation for their skill.
- You’ll discover which amplifiers, strings, pick-ups and other components led to the creation of the sounds you love.
- You’ll marvel at the way artists from all genres of music adapted the guitar to suit their own personal style.
- You’ll learn to identify some of the most notable guitars in music history by their appearance and sound.
- You’ll see what made some of your most beloved artists choose the particular guitar that became their favorite and understand why the instrument worked so well for them.
- You’ll be inspired by the stories of talented musicians of the past and the creative ways they used different designs and materials to produce their unique, signature sound.
- You’ll be able to discuss guitars, accessories and music with anyone at any time.
What follows is a brief synopsis of information about some of the most famous guitars in history—and the present day for that matter. If the tidbits you learn here pique your interest, be sure to check out the many more detailed articles elsewhere on our comprehensive guitar site.
Leo Fender was one of the pioneers of the electric guitar industry and began making groundbreaking instruments and amplifiers in the 1940s. He understood that musicians who played in the jazz clubs and honky tonks, that were popular after the end of World War II, needed guitars that could be amplified to be heard above the din of such establishments. He also saw the need to build sturdy instruments that wouldn’t be destroyed by the hard life of a road guitarist.
In 1954, his company turned out the first Stratocaster, and it has been a favorite of many ever since. Leo Fender was also responsible for innovations in the way guitars were manufactured, advances in the production of amplifiers and the creation of many unique guitar models.
Buddy Holly probably did more to enhance the early popularity of Stratocasters than any other musician. When the bespectacled guitarist played a Strat on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1957, three years after Fender began making the model, sales went through the roof. When his group’s first album was released that same year featuring a picture of Buddy and his guitar on the cover, the fame of the brand spread even further.
Stevie Ray Vaughn was one of the most famous guitarists who favored a Fender Stratocaster. He had one, in particular, that he called Number One, or his First Wife. He used it on all of his studio recordings and in many of his live shows. In fact, Number One received such hard use that the Fender craftsmen had to rebuild it several times to keep in playable condition. Vaughn used numerous other Stratocasters, as well and gave each one a name—which only proves his fondness for the instruments.
Yngwie Malmsteen discovered Stratocasters when he was just a youngster working in a Swedish music store. He practiced extensively, but was not happy with its sound until he carved out the spaces between the frets on his Strat. By doing so, he created the unique scalloped fretboard that became his signature. Malmsteen’s most famous Stratocaster is a yellow guitar he christened Duck. Yngwie has used Duck both in and out of the studio for years and it was featured in a poster photo shoot for Guitar World Magazine. In recent years, Fender has teamed with Malmsteen to produce several signature Strats that help other musicians replicate his distinctive sound.
Jimi Hendrix was another Stratocaster fan who used the model almost exclusively during his (all too brief) career. Because he was left-handed, however, Hendrix adapted his instrument to meet his needs. He turned his Strat upside down, and restrung it to put the bass and treble strings in their usual positions. This configuration allowed him to reach the control knobs easily, and he often changed the sound of his guitar while in the middle of a song.
Beatle George Harrison played guitars made by a number of different companies over the course of his career, but his best-known axe was a Stratocaster he personalized during the “Summer of Love” in 1967. He used neon paints and nail polish to cover its body with swirls and flowers and painted the name Rocky on its headstock. The Strat was featured in the TV special Magical Mystery Tour. Later, Harrison converted Rocky for use as a slide guitar when recording “Free as a Bird.”
During the early 1970’s most rock artists were playing Gibson guitars, but Eric Clapton decided he like the sound made by Fender Stratocasters. In 1973, he purchased seven vintage Strats made in the 1950s and set about adapting them to his tastes. He gave three of the guitars to friends of his and pieced together parts from the other four to create his favorite guitar of all time, Blackie. He loved Blackie’s sound so much that he used it almost exclusively for 12 years. Although Clapton referred to the guitar as a “mongrel” he was proud to feature it on three album covers and he played it at a number of live events.
Bonnie Raitt used Stratocasters to produce much of her music, whether she was playing the blues, jazz, R & B or folk tunes. When Fender approached her about building a Raitt signature Strat, Bonnie agreed with one condition. Since she had spent much of her life as an activist in support of causes such as women’s rights, environmental protection and charities that supported the less fortunate, she specified that part of the profits from the Stratocaster that bore her name be designated to a worthy organization. Fender agreed, and a portion of the proceeds from every Raitt Strat goes toward providing guitars for underprivileged children, particularly girls.
While Leo Fender was working on improving the sound and playability of his instruments during the 1940’s, Orville Gibson was experimenting with steel strings and a variety of shapes to improve the tone and volume of the guitars he was making. Even now, experts disagree on which of the two pioneering companies built the first solid-body electric guitar, and some even say that the honor should go to someone else, entirely. We do know, however, that the first Gibson Les Paul model was released in 1954, the same year that the first Fender Stratocaster rolled off the assembly line.
Musicians have favored both models ever since, with some artists swearing loyalty to their Strats and others refusing to play anything but a Gibson. Still other performers use guitars made by both companies, and other manufacturers as well, preferring to select the appropriate instrument for each song and venue they play. The number of renowned Gibsons is large, however, and their stories make interesting reading.
Blues man Albert King adopted a Gibson Flying V as his favorite guitar in the early 1960s. He was particularly fond of a 1958 Korina V that he called Lucy. A lefty with huge hands and fingers, King flipped his V over, but didn’t bother to restring it in the conventional manner. Instead, he used the positioning to his advantage and developed a “bending” technique that allowed him to strum down on the strings instead of pulling up like most guitarists. The V gave him the chance to develop great control and vibrato that led to the popularity of his style.
Australian guitarist Angus Young of AC/DC fame began his career with a Gibson SG and used it so extensively that it finally warped from overuse. Gibson worked with the Aussie to develop a signature SG that had many of the same qualities of Angus’ original, including a mahogany body and slim neck.
BB King had many different guitars that he named Lucille, but his favorite and most long-lived was a Gibson ES-355. When that special instrument rolled off the assembly line in 1980, BB played it almost exclusively. He loved the way he could make the instrument weep and its rich tone became synonymous with King’s soulful style.
ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons used a variety of Gibson guitars during his career, beginning from the time he received his first axe at the age of 13 (a Gibson Melody Maker). When he heard Eric Clapton playing a ’59 Les Paul at a concert in 1969, he knew he had found his dream guitar. Gibbons began the search to find one of his own. After trying out many pawnshop models, an acquaintance finally told him about a family that had found an old Les Paul under a bed and wanted to sell it. Billy fell in love with the guitar right away and named it Pearly Gates because it had a “god-like” tone.
Slash, of Guns N Roses, is another fan of the ’59 Les Paul. He used one to record his group’s first album, then ordered two custom-made models to take with him on the tour that followed its release. They featured jumbo frets and necks that fit his hands comfortably.
Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin fame was also noted for his skills with a Les Paul. But when he wrote his iconic song “Stairway to Heaven,” with its incredible wide-ranging solo that could sometimes last as long as ten minutes, he needed an extra-special Gibson to do it justice. He played a double-neck Gibson EDS-1275 that had both six and twelve string necks. It allowed him to play the soft legato of “Stairway” as well as the driving rock sections without changing instruments.
Rocker Joan Jett loved her Gibson Les Paul when she began her career with the Runaways, but she began looking for something lighter to use when traveling on extensive concert tours. She bought a white California-style Melody Maker from Eric Carmen of the Raspberries and used it to record all of her biggest hits.
Randy Scruggs learned to play the guitar from his father Earl and other country greats like Mother Maybelle Carter. They encouraged his fondness for Gibsons, especially the Advanced Jumbo model. Scruggs favored the Jumbo for years and eventually worked with the company to produce a signature instrument that closely replicates his studio favorite.
Zakk Wylde, lead guitarist for Ozzy Osbourne’s group, used a number of different Gibson models to perform his complex and energetic solos. One of his most famous axes featured a paint job that resembled a bull’s eye and the Gibson Company worked with Wylde to produce a Les Paul signature model copying it.
One of a Kind Guitars
Some guitarists were never satisfied by any of the conventional models produced by either Gibson or Fender and looked to other companies to produce their favored instruments. Still other players went to great lengths to build their own hybrid axes that fit their particular specifications exactly.
Eddie Van Halen created one of the most famous of the hybrids in the early 1970s when he was a struggling musician on a tight budget. Called Frankenstein, the guitar combined an ash Stratocaster body with a generic maple neck and Gibson pickups. Eddie wired and painted it himself and used it extensively throughout his career.
Bo Diddley, one of the “grandfathers” of rock and roll, used a number of unique guitars. Many of them were made by Gretsch to his specifications and were shaped like ovals, boxes or rockets. Still others were covered with leather or fur. His creativity inspired countless guitarists who followed him to music greatness.
Two of the most brilliant guitarists of the modern era favored axes made by Epiphone: Roy Orbison and John Lennon. Orbison’s favorite, used when composing his enormous library of songs including “Pretty Woman,” was a 1962 Epiphone Bard 12-string acoustic. After his death, his widow worked with Epiphone to produce an Orbison signature model that features the musical notation for the first measure of his greatest hit on the guitar’s neck.
John Lennon, responsible for writing many of the Beatles classic hits, loved an Epiphone Casino. While most guitarists of his era used a solid body axe to reduce feedback, Lennon recognized that there were times when an electronic reverberation could enhance the sound of a song. He used his hollow body Casino with great effectiveness for much of his career.
As you can see, famous guitars are as fascinating and varied as the musicians who play them. If you use this section of the website to broaden your knowledge of legendary guitars, you’ll be on your way to acquiring expert status in the subject matter. And you just may be inspired to become a better player in your own right.