Throughout the decades, the sound of guitar music has evolved. Each decade a number of guitarists have had a huge amount of influence on the direction of music. Here are some of the guitars that shaped the best selling albums by decade:
The most popular guitars at the beginning of the 50s were heavy, hollow-bodied, and resembled a cello. The tone was clean with a distinctive bright echo. The slapback echo rhythm was prevalent in this era. The sound would bounce and slap off the recording studio walls. This unique characteristic we now recognize as the rockabilly sound.
Bill Haley & The Comets, “Rock Around The Clock”, 1955
The highest selling single of the 50s was ‘Rock Around The Clock’ (40 million copies sold worldwide). Bill Haley’s guitars around 1955 were the Gibson L7-C and the Gibson Super 400. Danny Cedrone, Haley’s guitarist, used a Gibson ES-300 on the record.
Elvis Presley “Jailhouse Rock,” 1957
Scotty Moore was Elvis Presley’s main man between 1954-1968. Some say he was the one who invented the power chord. A Rock and Roll Hall Of Famer. Keith Richards once said: “When I heard Heartbreak Hotel, I knew what I wanted to do in life. All I wanted to do in the world was to be able to play and sound like the way Scotty Moore did. Everyone wanted to be Elvis, I wanted to be Scotty”
Moore used his Gibson Super 400 CES around the 1957 period to record ‘Jailhouse Rock’ (4 million records in the US & UK)
The 1960s were by far the most creative and influential.
Surf music was born in the early 60s with Dick Dale, The Del-Tones, and of course The Beach Boys leading the way. Californian made Fender guitars took over the surf scene. The clear slap back echo from the 50s wasn’t as dominant now, it was all about the spring reverb. Around the early 1960 Fender Jazzmaster, Jaguar, and Stratocaster was the guitar of choice. Oh, and The Beatles arrived!.
The Beatles “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, 1967
In 1964 the music scene was completely dominated by The Beatles. In 1967 the highest selling album was ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ (30 million copies sold worldwide).
George, John, and Paul, all used an Epiphone Casino for most of the album. The Epiphone Casino has a completely hollow body and would tend to feedback very easily. Feedback was an experimental sound around this time, it was soon to become an ingredient of the late 60s.
It’s also worth mentioning, those vintage acoustic tones on the album were made by Gibson J160 Guitars. I can hear them now on the intro to ‘A Day in the Life’. George and John used the Gibson J160s throughout The Beatles.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience “Are You Experienced”, 1967
It’s difficult to write any guitar article without mentioning this man. In 1967, Jimi Hendrix released ‘Are You Experienced?’. I think it’s safe to say he changed the direction of the electric guitar forever. Jimi exploded onto the scene with his right-handed guitar strung upside down. He created a dive-bombing wave of feedback, screaming over the heads of his audience like a fighter jet. Jimi was an exciting guitarist to watch live, but in the studio, he crafted a beautiful rhythmic style. This kind of guitar playing had never been witnessed before.
Jimi brought a whole new methodology to the art of playing the electric guitar. Hendrix would stretch his thumb over the top of the neck barring the bass notes, this would free up his fingers to do much more with a basic bar chord. He used experimental chord shapes, his use of the whammy bar was mind blowing, he later added the wah wah.
The Olympic White 1968 Fender Stratocaster was Jimi’s most famous guitar. Known as ‘The Woodstock Strat’. Hendrix and Eric Clapton certainly helped to make the Fender Stratocaster the most famous guitar ever.
Led Zeppelin, “Led Zeppelin II”, (1969)
Although ‘Led Zeppelin II’ isn’t the band’s highest selling album of all time, (12 million US), most fans will tell you, it’s the most influential. At the time was one of the best selling albums in the U.S
When you picture Jimmy Page, the guitar you probably see is his 1959 Sunburst Les Paul Standard. This was the guitar he bought from Joe Walsh and can be heard on most of Led Zep II.
Jimmy’s unmistakable overdriven sound made people sit up and listen. Big fat riffs and power chords played through small to medium amps. In the studio, Page would push these smaller amps hard, they would break up at high volumes, this gave Jimmy the legendary Led Zeppelin sound.
Did you know Jimmy Page played a telecaster in the early days?. Most of ‘Led Zeppelin I’ was recorded with a Blonde 1959 Telecaster named ‘The Dragon’. The Tele was also responsible for the greatest solo in the history of rock music, ‘Stairway To Heaven’.
Guitars produced in the 70s were extremely well built, durable, and made to last. You can still shop around today for gear from this decade. There are some fantastic tube amps and compressors made in the 70s.
Distortion and overdrive were now in full effect. The volume button on amplifiers went all the way up to 11. Heavy Rock was born. Queen, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Black Sabbath, and AC/DC were amongst those who changed rock music forever. Now, these guys lived the guitar life.
Here are some of the best selling albums in the 1970s:
The Eagles, “The Eagles ‘Greatest Hits 1971-75”
With a whopping 41 million+ worldwide album sales, ‘The Eagles Greatest Hits 1971-75’ went 38x Platinum in 2018. One of the best selling albums of all time.
I’ve picked out some guitars from their huge hit ‘Hotel California’.
In the studio, Don Felder played the intro to ‘Hotel California’ on a Takamine F400S 12-string acoustic. For live shows, he had a bit of a problem. He couldn’t decide how he would play the intro with one guitar, then swap over to another guitar for the solo. So, he decided on using a guitar that has ended up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Gibson EDS-1275 double-neck provided Felder with the means to do both. The album will go down in history as one of the top selling albums of all time.
Joe Walsh was the more creative of the Eagles guitarists, gritty and bluesy. Don Felder was the more technically skilled, together you can see why The Eagles were so big.
Joe Walsh’s favorite guitars were his 1958 Les Paul Gold Top and a 1956 Fender Stratocaster.
Simon & Garfunkel, Bridge Over Troubled Water, 1970
Paul Simon shows what a great guitarist he is on their 1970 ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ album (25 million Worldwide).
The acoustic tone on this album is literally perfect. A beautiful warm, chunky, relaxing acoustic sound from a classic American Brand.
The Guild F-30-NT Special was Paul Simon’s trusty guitar that had seen him through the 60s. Somewhere in 1970, he started using a series of Black Yamaha LS400 guitars. These were custom made for him by Japanese master luthier Terumi Nakamoto.
Here’s some footage of Paul Simon playing ‘Homeward Bound’ in 1975. No amps or effects, Just listen to that Guild tone!
Pink Floyd, “Dark Side of The Moon”, 1973
Dave Gilmour’s ‘Black Strat’ was the most expensive guitar in history. Only to be surpassed by Kurt Cobain’s MTV acoustic. In 2019, Gilmour sold the guitar for a little under 4 million and donated the proceeds to charity.
The Legendary ‘Black Strat’ was responsible for Dark Side of The Moon in 1973 (35 million copies sold worldwide). A truly unique album with huge string bending solos and an iconic Stratocaster tone. Gilmour used Fuzz Face tones on his screaming lead parts and a Univox Vibe pedal for chords. That shimmering pulsing vibe effect is mesmerizing on the intro to ‘Breathe’.
The Black Strat was his go-to guitar for almost all his career, with the amount of success he’s had with it, you can see why.
The ‘Black Strat’
Music in the 80s experimented with lots of effects, Good and bad. Yet this decade was an absolute goldmine for quality songwriting. The 70s brought about distortion and crunch tones in rock guitar music. The 80s relied on heavily produced reverb, chorus, compression, and synthesizers. This didn’t get in the way of some of the best guitar bands and greatest albums ever produced. Here’s just a few from one of my favorite eras:
Michael Jackson, “Thriller”, 1982 (65 million copies sold worldwide)
You might not put ‘Thriller’ in the guitar album category, but Michael Jackson used many superb guitarists throughout his time. Among those were: Steve Stevens, Jennifer Batten, Slash, Carlos Santana, Steve Lukather, and the virtually unknown guitarist: David Williams. David Williams is the man behind the funky rhythms from the ‘Off The Wall’ Album.
Thriller was home to some pretty unique and brilliant songwriting. Jacksons musicians have always been top draw. The guitar i’m going to refer to is the one that created the ‘Beat It’ solo. That’s down to Eddie Van Halen and ‘Frankenstrat’. Frankenstrat was the name of Van Halen’s guitar he used to play that legendary solo.
The idea behind Eddie Van Halen’s ‘Frankenstrat’ was taken from the fictional doctor who combined body parts to create the monster ‘Frankenstein’.
The Fender Stratocaster body and maple neck were factory rejects. Van Halen painted the body black, and when it was dry, added strips of gaffer tape and painted it white, then he’d repeat the process with red paint.
The main modifications were the pickups. They were wired to fit a Gibson humbucking bridge, a floyd rose tremolo was added, then he cut a vinyl record and shaped it into his pickguard. A strip of double sided masking tape was stuck near the pickguard so Van Halen could attach his picks to the guitar. He later attached truck reflectors to the rear of the body, he would flip the guitar over and reflect the stage lights onto the crowd. What a guitar!
Dire Straits, “Brothers In Arms”, 1985
Mark Knopfler is undoubtedly one of the finest guitar players around. His attention to detail and memorable melodies place him right at the top of the guitar heroes list.
The ‘Brothers In Arms’ Album (30 Million copies worldwide). At a time when guitar solos were flashy and over the top, Knopfler’s precise clean fingerpicking approach was refreshing.
Kopfler is well known for playing both a Gibson Les Paul 1983 Reissue, a number of Red Stratocasters, and Schecters.
One of his most iconic guitars was the 1936 National Style-0 Steel Guitar. The guitar is found on the cover of ‘Brothers In Arms’. The distinct tone you hear on ‘Romeo and Juliet’ 1980 and ‘The Mans Too Strong’ 1985 is Knopfler playing the steel guitar.
U2 The Joshua Tree, 1987
The Edge is a guitarist who’s taken 80s technology by the scruff of the neck and created his own unique style. With the use of delay and reverb, he could produce a superb layer of sound. This whilst only playing a few rhythmic notes and phrases. He has stated this approach was out of necessity, due to the band only being a 3 piece.
The Edge played many guitars throughout the years with U2. This was the guitar he used for The Joshua Tree Album was the 1980s Washburn EA20 Woodstock Acoustic. With its rich, warm tones he saturated the album with this guitar.
The classic delay guitar effect on; ‘Where The Streets Have no name’ and ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’, is from the 1973 Black Stratocaster. Yet The Edge later said The Washburn Acoustic is one of his favorite guitars.
It’s safe to say The Edge’s guitar style is unmistakable. The clean, delayed, cutting edge tone is the trademark U2 sound.
The 90s was the rebirth of creativity and Inspiration. New musical genres were created; Hip Hop, Grunge, Alternative Rock, Britpop, Country Pop, Eurodance, Nu Metal, R&B, SkaPunk, Rap Rock, the list goes on. Musicians were mixing styles of all sorts. A new, younger generation was powering through with some incredible bands. The reverb guitar sound was replaced with heavy, angry grunge guitar.
Nirvana, “Nevermind”, 1991
One of the pioneers of 90s music was Kurt Cobain. “Nevermind” sold 30 million copies worldwide and seem to dial in with the younger generation. The birth of grunge may have been credited to Neil Young, but Nirvana distributed it globally.
Nirvana seemed to be the band everyone was waiting for. Melodic intros, huge distorted chords, screaming vocals, this resonated with the youth of the time.
‘Nevermind’ is still one of the key elements in guitar music history.
When you picture Kurt playing guitar, maybe you see him with his 1965 Fender Jaguar? but according to some sources, Kurt recorded ‘Nevermind’ with his Black “Vandalism” Strat. He’s seen playing it on the ‘Nevermind’ tour 1991.
Kurts Modified 1965 Fender Jaguar was purchased around late 1991. Kurt used this jaguar at the start of the ‘In Utero’ tour 1994. Kurts ‘other’ famous guitar was the MTV Unplugged 1959 Martin D-18E Acoustic. This Sold in 2020 for $6 million. In 2011 Fender brought out the ‘Kurt Cobain’ Jaguar model, based on his 1965 guitar with the added modifications.
Metallica, “Metallica” (The Black Album), 1991
With 28 million albums sold globally, Metallica spearheaded their own sub-genre within hard rock, heavy metal.
‘Kill Em All’ was Metallica’s first explosive album in 1983. This was brutal, aggressive, and gritty, some similarities between punk and metal. By the time The Black Album was released in 91, the band had changed significantly. There wasn’t a muddy, hard thrash band anymore, that was replaced with polished hard rock.
1991 was the turning point for the band. They reached a new audience with hits like ‘Enter Sandman’ and ‘Nothing Else Matters.
With a total of 121 million album sales, you can only admire what these guys have done for guitar music.
James Hetfields original guitar for ‘Kill em All’ was a cheap Gibson Flying V Copy ($200). Maybe his most iconic guitars were the ESP MX220 Flying V guitars. It looks like he used the white 1987 ESP MX220 (the one with stickers on) for his studio work on The Black Album. Although Hetfield recorded with the white guitar, he was known to use a lot of black versions of the guitar from 1989 to the mid 90s.
To achieve the beasty tone of Metallica, you’re gonna need a ESP or a Flying V, simple as that.
Since the creation of ‘Napster‘, and other illegal download sites, record sales took a dip and changed the music business forever.
In the 2000s the influential guitarists were; John Mayer, Matthew Bellamy (Muse), John Frusciante (80s & 90s too!) RHCP, Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead), Daron Malakian (System of a Down), Joshua Homme (Queens of the Stone Age), and Jack White (White Stripes).
It was a difficult decade to be recognized as a guitar hero, the Nu-Metal genre probably had the most success in terms of sales.
Linkin Park, “Hybrid Theory” 2000
When Linkin Park debuted with ‘Hybrid Theory’, nobody could see what was coming. A huge 27 million copies sold worldwide. They brought their own mix of rock, hip hop, and electronica to the world’s stage.
Brad Delson is the main man behind the six strings. He’s been reported to have played over 90 guitars within his time with Linkin Park. Among his favorites were a variety of Ibanez guitars. ‘Hybrid Theory’ was down to Brad’s Royal Blue Paul Reed Smith (PRS) CE-24. The thick, low end, heavily distorted guitar tone was perfect in the early days, giving the raw power that the band needed.
Green Day, ‘American Idiot’ 2004
To date, Green Day has sold over 85 million records worldwide. Green Day’s biggest album was in 1994 with ‘Dookie’.
In 2000, Green Day record sales had been on the decline since ‘Dookie’. ‘American Idiot’ brought rock guitar back into the forefront of music. In a decade where guitar music was dying, Billie Joe Armstrong and Green Day got back to what they were best at. Catchy, foot-tapping 1970s style Punk Rock.
Billie Joe’s Gibson Les Paul Junior 1956 Sunburst was his favorite guitar around this time. As fans will know he named it ‘Floyd’. In the early days, Billie-Joe was a Strat man with ‘Blue’. These days he seems to favor the Gibson Les Paul Junior collection.
Here are: 20 Interesting Facts You Might Not Have Known about Green Day
Rock music or guitar-based bands were in decline after the 2000s. Hard rock and heavy metal had moved away from the mainstream. The 2010s saw band music becoming softer in the form of indie rock.
The 2010s still had its fair share of Alternative Rock bands. Bands such as Coldplay, Foo Fighters, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Muse, Fall Out Boy, Nickelback and The Arctic Monkeys.
Ed Sheeran, X, 2014
Ed Sheeran cannot be ignored as a major player in today’s market. He seems to appeal to pretty much every demographic. He mixes genres that you wouldn’t think would work. Sheeran mixes catchy pop with folk music and modern hip hop. People can relate to Sheeran’s song topics. With massive album sales, he’s really got the golden touch.
During his ‘X’ album (8million copies sold worldwide), Sheeran used a mixture of the ¾ size ‘Little Martin X Series’ acoustic guitars. He was also given a Lowden acoustic guitar from Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol. He supposedly played and wrote a few of the X album on the Lowden WL-35 acoustic.
Ed Sheeran has his own selection of trademark Martin acoustics. You know you’re a big deal when you own a signature range.
I hope you’ve enjoyed ‘The guitars that shaped the best selling albums of all time”.
As you can see by my list, we’re a bit short on huge selling guitar bands today. What does the future hold for the six-string?
I’m hoping a band comes along and gets today’s youngsters learning to play guitar again.
Having outstanding musical technology under our fingertips is beneficial in some ways. But is it affecting the art of learning an instrument properly? The benefits of learning a guitar can give you a lifetime of enjoyment. But is technology taking over.?
Is the guitar slowly fading into the background? Is it cool anymore?
I’ve had to miss out sooo many guitarists and major influences over the years. I’m sure you’re about to tell me? Please feel free to add your favorite’s in the comments and explain why.