We here at Goliath have noticed that people spend an awful lot of time talking about guitarists, especially those of the rock and roll variety (we know…we’ve spent a ton of time talking about them as well). With so much of the discussion centered around the greatest axmen in music, we were left to wonder…what is an axe man without an axe? That got us thinking, and with that in mind we decided to take a closer look at 11 of the most iconic guitars in rock and roll and the guitarists who played them. Of course this isn’t an exhaustive list, as there’s plenty of wicked talented musicians who gravitate towards a specific instrument, but we think this is a fair sample to get you started.
11. “Bullseye” Gibson Les Paul (Zakk Wylde)
The story of Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Zakk Wylde and his beloved “Bullseye” Gibson Les Paul is a charming one; after losing his beloved guitar (it fell off the back of a truck while being moved between gigs), Wylde searched for it for years before ultimately being reunited with it some years later. Nicknamed “The Grail,” the cream colored Les Paul features a spiral design originally meant to invoke Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo; however, Wylde loved the imperfections of the original design so much he’s never altered it, and has, in fact, had several custom guitars designed with the same paint scheme. While Wylde remains one of the more underappreciated musicians of his era (he’s one hell of a guitarist who has done some terrific work in the hard rock/metal genre that generally goes unspoken of), his iconic guitar design ensures that he’ll be remembered for quite some time (this custom design is a staple in guitar shops throughout North America; we’re willing to bet he sells a ton of Epiphones/Gibsons).
10. Five Neck Hamer (Rick Nielson)
To this day, Cheap Trick remain one of the most underrated bands of all time. Seriously, we’re thinking about writing an article all about them just so more folks will go back and realize these Chicago rockers have way more to offer than hits like “Surrender” and “I Want You to Want Me” (although those are stellar songs, to be sure). One secret to Cheap Trick’s success is the astounding good guitar play of lead guitarist Rick Nielson, one of the true masters of the rock riff who is perhaps best known for the ridiculous (and ridiculously awesome) five neck guitar he has used at various stages of his career. Designed by Hamer, a company who owe Nielson a debt of gratitude for all the free publicity he’s given them over the years, this five neck guitar is as cumbersome as it is versatile, and its presence on-stage has become almost as iconic as Nielson’s rocking riffs themselves. Seriously, somebody put on some Cheap Trick. We need to hear “California Man,” stat!
9. Fender Mustang (Kurt Cobain)
For the all the fuss that’s made about both Nirvana and their lead singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain, it’s pretty well acknowledged that the grunge legend wasn’t the strongest guitar player in music history. Cobain, who collected old, “junky” guitars as he called them, was a fan of employing non-traditional instruments that most guitar players would sneer at. The most iconic of these guitars, Cobain’s ’65 Fender Mustang, was his favorite because, as he described “they’re cheap and inefficient, and they sound like crap and are very small.” Ahhh, that sounds like Cobain, doesn’t it? A left-handed player, Cobain spent a ton of time searching for a guitar he could use and abuse frequently, and the Mustang (formerly a pawn shop favorite, but since Cobain’s utilization of one now a rarity) fits the bill spectacularly.
8. Old Black (Neil Young)
Acquired by famous rocker Neil Young in a trade with a former Buffalo Springfield collaborator (in which Young coughed up a Chet Atkins custom Gretsch hollow body, a magnificent guitar in its own right), Old Black is a 1953 Goldtop Les Paul that’s since been painted jet black (hence the name, ya dig?). Young has recorded most every guitar part in his career with this one guitar, perhaps contributing to the unmistakable and difficult to reproduce guitar tones he manages to craft into his music. Old Black, which has added a Bigsby tailpiece not normally seen on the Les Paul body to add versatility and tremolo, has seen significant wear and tear over the years as Young’s primary weapon with which to assault our ears, but we like to think those marks and scars just add a little character. What’s life without nicks and bruises, right?
7. Hofner 500/1 Bass (Paul McCartney)
Nicknamed the “Beatle Bass” due to its overwhelming popularity with a certain British knight whose contributions to music exceed those of any other living soul, this particular model made by Hofner features a violin-esque shape and a hollow body, extremely unusual for a bass guitar. Used by Paul McCartney through the majority of his musical career, both with The Beatles and otherwise, the Hofner Bass is about as classy as they come (it’s truly a gorgeous instrument). While McCartney has been known to dabble in the Rickenbacker basses from time to time, the legendary musician always seems to find his way back to the Hofner, and has even used it on his most recent tour with regularity. It seems likely that Hofner will continue to be associated with the former Beatle for the duration of his career, much to the delight of the company.
6. Red Special (Brian May)
Brian May’s Red Special, also referred to by the musician as the Fireplace, has a really cool story attached to it. May, who possesses detailed technical knowhow and a degree in astrophysics, designed the Red Special with his father while he was in his teens, and since that time has rebuilt it in many different forms and iterations, always retaining the same core elements. Fashioned from a fireplace mantle (hence the nickname) and hard carved with unique wiring and electronics, the Red Special has been May’s guitar of choice throughout his entire musical career with Queen, although he occasionally uses replicas rather than the original if the situation calls for it. The sound behind some of the most iconic riffs in rock history, the Red Special has been the inspiration for thousands of homemade guitars designed by the (often unqualified) hands of amateurs looking to fashion a unique sound like May has.
5. “Noise” Telecaster (Joe Strummer)
The legend behind this guitar goes as such: legendary punk front man Joe Strummer, the classic “starving artist,” agrees to marry a South African woman in order to help her stay in the country. In return, he receives a small cash payment, which he uses to purchase a 1975 Fender Telecaster to replace his Gretsch White Falcon. Strummer, who would go on to become the lead singer/guitarist of the Clash, would eventually stencil the word “NOISE” in the top left corner of the guitar while placing a sticker that said “IGNORE ALIEN ORDERS” near the bottom, marking the guitar as an unavoidable piece of rock and roll history. Strummer, who changed his name from John Mellor to Joe Strummer because “he could either play six strings or none at all,” would use the Telecaster for the duration of his musical career and until his death in 2002.
4. Airline (Jack White)
Jack White has been known to use plenty of guitars during his musical career, but his red and white Airline is by far the most famous. Used primarily during his career with The White Stripes, where the guitar’s red and white paint scheme matched the band’s aesthetic, the Airline was a 1964 model built primarily from fiber glass, a huge stretch from the expensive wooden guitars favored by most (read, everyone but Jack White) guitarists. White, whose affinity for vintage instruments is well known, used the Airline to craft his signature brand of electric blues rock and to vault The White Stripes into the annals of music history (they’re one of the greatest bands of the 21st century). The Airline model used by White, commonly known as the “J.B. Hutto” model after the famous bluesman, has experienced a resurgence in popularity since White began performing with it in the late 1990s, with models often selling for well over a thousand dollars. Not too shabby for a former department store seller.
3. Monterey Fender Stratocaster (Jimi Hendrix)
Jimi Hendrix, guitar’s greatest player, used a Fender Stratocaster for the majority of his career; while he occasionally played other guitars, it’s difficult to imagine the legendary performer with anything but a Stratocaster in his hand. Hendrix, who was famous for using right-handed guitars despite playing left-handed, would string these guitars backwards, so as to invert the tones coming out of the pickups when the strings were hit. This inversion contributed heavily to the wildly unique sound Hendrix was able to craft. While Hendrix played on many Stratocasters, including ones painted black, white and in a tri-tone sunburst, it is his custom painted Stratocaster (pictured below) that is perhaps the most famous one played by the musician. Most often associated with his legendary performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, this Stratocaster features a flowery paint job that’s succinctly in tune with the hippie generation of which Hendrix is a part.
2. Frankenstrat (Eddie Van Halen)
Noted equipment aficionado Eddie Van Halen crafted this unique guitar early in his career, his own attempt to marry the sound of a Gibson Les Paul with the physical shape of a Fender Stratocaster. A rousing success, the “Frankenstrat” (as it eventually became known) would go on to define Eddie’s sound and on stage presence for the majority of Van Halen’s time in the limelight. Built with an ash Stratocaster body but fitted with Gibson pickups and wiring, the “Frankenstrat” became instantly recognizable due to its wild paint job and impossible to copy sound, which would eventually meld with Van Halen’s unmistakable tapping technique to produce one of the most identifiable guitar tones in recent memory.
1. Lucille (B.B. King)
No guitar in rock and roll history is more famous than B.B. King’s darling Lucille, a guitar he loved so much he was willing to risk life and limb to rescue. As the story goes, King played a show in Twist, Arkansas, in 1949 where the building was lit on fire after a fight started between two men. King, realizing he’d left his cherished guitar inside the building to burn, ran inside to save it, risking his life. Afterwards, King named the guitar Lucille after learning that the two men who started were fighting over a woman, named…you guessed it. The Gibson ES-355 model is the one King would play for the entirety of his stage career, and Gibson even began to build and sell custom models complete with the legendary bluesman’s signature crafted into the neck. The guitar King played until the day he died, Lucille is the most famous guitar in history and one of the most iconic instruments we can think of.