The Ten Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time
From casual players to Grammy-winning superstars, virtually all guitarists can cite a single recording as the defining touchstone in their early musical lives. A song featuring a great guitar part can inspire a non-player to pick up the guitar or serve as an incentive for people who already play to really get serious about it.
Limiting any list of great works to only ten is necessarily subjective, but no one can deny that the songs listed here (in chronological order by release date) have had a profound impact on a huge number of guitarists.
“Minor Swing” by Django Reinhardt
“Minor Swing” sees acoustic virtuoso Django Reinhardt touch on all the gypsy-jazz hallmarks, as he helped define them: blistering single-note runs up and down the fretboard, thrumming tremolo-picked notes, sparse but emotional bent notes, and octave melodies.
On other songs, Django played faster and with more technical showiness, but “Minor Swing” is a perfect gathering of melodic invention, great phrasing, and a tour of the techniques that Django made standard acoustic-jazz fare.
“Walk, Don’t Run” by the Ventures
This jaunty minor-key instrumental had actually been previously recorded by two notable guitarists: country fingerpicker Chet Atkins and jazzman Johnny Smith (who was the composer). But the Seattle-based Ventures made “Walk, Don’t Run” a chart-topper in 1960 and a guitar classic.
The twangy lead guitar epitomized the “surf sound,” at least with respect to guitar tone and performance. The simple melody, combined with the twang and bar-induced shimmer, created an infectious sound that would drive instrumental music throughout the early and mid-1960s and conjures iconic images of surfers hanging ten in the pipeline.
“Crossroads” by Cream
Eric Clapton was the undisputed leading voice of the 1960s blues-rock movement. He took the electric blues of Muddy Waters and B.B. King and super-charged it with rock ‘n’ roll overdrive.
“Crossroads,” recorded live in 1968, is the power trio Cream’s cover version of an acoustic song by Delta blues legend Robert Johnson, and it’s Clapton’s amazing solos (two of them here) that inspired Eddie Van Halen and countless other guitarists who came up during the seminal era of 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s rock. This is electric blues played with unsurpassed passion and abandon yet delivered with technique and taste by the master.
“Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin
This is the granddaddy of all hard rock songs, bringing together mysticism, the English folk tradition, blues, and hard rock into a cohesive rock anthem. Each section of “Stairway to Heaven” is a memorable mini-masterpiece of guitar riffery, due to the creative talents of guitarist Jimmy Page, who was an accomplished studio guitarist and rock ‘n’ roll riff-crafter by the time he co-founded Led Zeppelin.
“Gavotte I and II” by Christopher Parkening
After Andres Segovia, there was Julian Bream and John Williams, and after them, there was Christopher Parkening, the top talent of that third generation of classical guitarists. Parkening played so cleanly, it was almost like a machine, but not in a robotic or unfeeling way. He was legendary for his unwavering consistency and, as such, was the perfect interpreter of Bach. His 1971 EMI/Angel recording, Parkening Plays Bach, shows his gorgeous tone and impeccable technique in abundance.
A gavotte is a type of folk dance dating back to the Renaissance, but for most musicians, the term usually means the music composed for the dance. In these two gavottes, you hear Parkening’s prodigious talents for making difficult material sound effortless and for producing tone that’s grand, delicate, and beautiful.
“Hotel California” by the Eagles
The Eagles had been an easy-going Southern California country-rock band with a batch of chart-topping hits showcasing tasty guitar work. Then former James Gang alum Joe Walsh was brought in to toughen up the band’s sound. The first release with Walsh on board was the hit album Hotel California, and its eponymous single was the band’s crowning achievement, as far as six-stringers are concerned.
It’s hard to imagine two better guitarists of the era than the lyrical Don Felder and the inspired Joe Walsh. That they play back-to-back solos and then join forces in lockstep harmony is a testament to the art of collaboration.
“Eruption” by Van Halen
Eddie Van Halen burst onto the scene with his band (featuring older brother Alex on drums) and debut album in 1978. He brought to this hard rock/heavy metal combo a solid foundation in rhythm playing, inspired blues-rock soloing, and a repertoire of special techniques that he used to augment his already commanding and evolved playing.
Eddie was so bubbling over with chops that the band needed to insert an instrumental on recorded works as well as in concert appearances to let him strut his stuff for insatiable guitar fans. The result was “Eruption” — a free-time, solo exercise in virtuosity, and a tour de force of unaccompanied guitar that showcases Eddie’s most incendiary and technical skills.
“Texas Flood” by Stevie Ray Vaughan
Vaughan’s blues are at once stylistically authentic and explosively virtuosic. He respected his elders by paying tribute to them in his playing, and then he proceeded to take blues to the next level, inspiring every blues guitarist who heard him and influencing all guitarists who came after him.
Ironically, it’s in a slow blues progression that a guitarist can stretch out — playing blindingly fast and with abandon. And that’s exactly what Stevie Ray Vaughan does in the title song from his 1983 debut solo album, Texas Flood. Here, Vaughan pulls out all the chops stops, exhibiting the technique and range of an Eddie Van Halen or a Jimi Hendrix but staying squarely within the pocket of roots-based electric blues.
“Surfing with the Alien” by Joe Satriani
Joe “Satch” Satriani brought a palette of special skills to his supercharged playing style, much as Eddie Van Halen did. But where Van Halen is a visceral, rough-cut diamond, Satriani is the methodical, overachieving mad scientist. Schooled in music theory and thoroughly disciplined in technique, Satriani is a soloist of amazing scope. He produced album after album of instrumentals in the new wave of metal-based virtuosity that ruled the day in the 1980s and ’90s.
In “Surfing with the Alien,” the title song from his second album (1987), Satch rolls out the big guns for this fluid, surf-on-steroids groove, including exotic scales, harmonics, tapped trills, slurred figures, bends, whammy bar moves, and flowing flatpicked single notes, all morphing into and out of one another.
“One” by Metallica
Metallica defined classic modern metal of the 1980s and ’90s. The band’s two guitarists — rhythm guitarist James Hetfield and lead guitarist Kirk Hammett — laid down massive edifices of distorted guitar, establishing the sound and performance benchmarks for two guitars in a heavy metal band context. What’s amazing about Hammett is how fast and relentlessly he can play and how he synchs up in perfect lockstep with Hetfield’s muscular chord riff-playing and Lars Ulrich’s maniacal drumming.
“One,” from the album …And Justice for All (1988), was released as a single and placed in the Top 40. The song has an epic, cinematic feel, recounting the story of the novel and movie Johnny Got His Gun. Subdued, clean-sounding guitars underscore excerpts of the film’s narration, while the song builds intensity throughout.
By reaching the Top 40, “One” was able to bring heavy metal guitars into the mainstream. The dramatic arc of the guitars, from clean melodies to unison rhythmic aggression to frenzied leads to twin harmonies, showed how uniquely qualified Metallica’s guitarists were in using modern heavy metal guitar techniques to create the emotional essence of a hit song.