50 Greatest Guitar Albums
Guitar World ranks the 50 greatest guitar albums in rock and roll history.
50) The Doors, 1967 (The Doors)
The Doors’ stunning debut album established Jim Morrison as the shaman poet of the psychedelic explosion. The Lizard King’s darkly incandescent imagery captivated listeners like a pied piper’s spell, but the Doors’ hypnotic music is what held them rapt. Serpentine riffs from Robbie Krieger’s guitar danced in the magic gateway where Delta blues and ancient Indian ragas converge. Organist Ray Manzarek wove swirling baroque arabesques, his steady left hand holding down the bass line. Drummer John Densmore handled the beat with the supple freedom of a jazzman, leading band and singer on epic improvisational journeys. Many kiddies came to the album through the edited-down AM radio hit version of “Light My Fire.” There, they found themselves in a strange new world of Oedipal drama and mystical sensuality.
WHAT THEY SAID Ray Manzarek: “The first Doors album was recorded on four-track, and it captured the way we played live. Onstage, we’d hit something every once in a while that was absolute transcendental magic. Each of us was sending out these tentacles of energy concentration to each other. Then the audience would get caught up in that wave of energy we were creating.”
49) Ashes of the Wake, 2004 (Lamb of God)
Major labels have been known to destroy a band’s soul, but entering the big leagues actually helped Lamb of God deliver their first truly lethal blow. Their previous two albums were musically engaging and technically sophisticated but lacked artistic direction and, just as crucial, financing. Then came big-budget producer Machine, who worked with guitarists Willie Adler and Mark Morton to excise the extraneous elements without detracting from their jawdropping musicianship. Sometimes the axmen riff in tandem, other times they play against one another, but either way, they always demolish. Ashes may be leaner than its predecessors, but its more focused and precise, annihilating like a precision sharpshooter instead of a messy serial killer.
WHAT THEY SAID Mark Morton: “We’ll always be a thrash metal band, but I’m interested in exploring what we can get away with within the boundaries of the genre.”
48) Boston, 1976 (Boston)
When Boston's self-titled first album was released in the fall of 1976, few industry insiders thought that a guitar-heavy rock record could make much of a dent in the charts, much less become the best-selling debut of all time. “Everybody thought that it was impossible, because disco ruled the airwaves at the time,” recalls Boston leader Tom Scholz. “But we stumbled onto a sound that worked, and soon everybody was imitating it.”
It may have been unlikely that an album dominated by brawny riffs, harmonized guitar leads and multilayered vocal workouts would capture the imagination of America’s bell-bottomed youth. What was positively bizarre was the source of this blockbuster. Scholz was hardly your typical rock-star-in-waiting; then 29, he was a gangly project manager for Polaroid, with a Master’s degree from M.I.T. in engineering, who spent his off hours writing and recording in his basement. “I was basically a dork that hit the books and liked to build things and did all of the things that you weren’t supposed to do to be popular,” he says. “But somehow I ended up onstage, playing guitar in front of everybody else.”
It’s likely this very dorkiness—along with the fact that Boston vocalist Brad Delp had a throat of gold and a staggering range—that engendered Boston’s success. For who but a died-in-the-wool braniac could compose, arrange, record and perform most of the guitar, keyboard and bass parts on an album—in his basement no less—and produce such powerful results? Even 30 years after its original release, Boston is still widely regarded as one of the best-sounding rock albums of all time, and when tracks like “More Than a Feeling” and “Rock & Roll Band” come on the radio, few can resist indulging in fits of fleet-fingered air guitar and a spirited falsetto sing-along. And now, according to Scholz, the album, along with it’s most-solid follow up, Don’t Look Back, sound even better, as they were painstakingly remastered by the guitarist himself for a new set of deluxe reissues.
47) A Night at the Opera, 1975 (Queen)
It was the first of two Queen albums to be named after a Marx Brothers film comedy. A Night at the Opera was Queen’s fourth album and the disc that established them as a completely unique entity in rock music, quite distinct from the Seventies glam/proto metal pack with which they’d formerly been grouped. Freddie Mercury’s ambitious, bombastic, campy and grandiloquent compositional proclivities were just the thing to encourage young Brian May’s adventurous ideas about multitracked guitar orchestration. Eccentric British producer Roy Thomas Baker was more than happy to oblige the boys, piling on the overdubs until the analog 16-track tape shed almost all its oxide and literally went transparent.
WHAT THEY SAID Brian May: “Freddie would come into the studio with sheets and sheets of paper with notes scribbled all over them in his own particular fashion—not conventional music notation, but As and Bs and Cs and sharps and flats in little blocks, like busses zooming all over his bits of paper. He had it all in his head. We just helped him bring it to life.”
46) Metallica, 1991 (Metallica)
Metallica, a.k.a. the Black Album, is either the band’s musical high point or the beginning of its downfall. For the album, Metallica enlisted Mötley Crüe producer Bob Rock, who added a previously nonexistent warmth and depth to their sound. Metallica slowed down the tempos, streamlined the arrangements and set their sights on mainstream glory. The results were in every way better than anyone could have predicted: “Enter Sandman,” “Sad But True” and “Wherever I May Roam” are three of the most direct and compelling tunes in Metallica’s catalog, and the album’s incredible success made them the biggest band in the world.
WHAT THEY SAID Kirk Hammett: “We wanted to create a different record and offer something new to our audience. I hate it when bands stop taking chances. A lot of bands put out the same record three or four times, and we didn’t want to fall into that rut.”
45) Badmotorfinger, 1991 (Soundgarden)
The two biggest grunge albums of 1991, Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten, appropriated tried-and-true rock styles and passed them off them as something radically new. Badmotorfinger was their polar opposite, an album of songs that, on the surface, seemed a piece with archetypal hard rock, but were full of odd time signatures, atonal guitar noise, unusual chord choices and various other quirks. Chris Cornell’s extraordinary pipes (and often bare chest) soaked up most of the accolades, but the band’s rhythm section was beyond reproach, and guitarist Kim Thayil was always one of hard rock’s most idiosyncratic and inventive players.
WHAT THEY SAID Kim Thayil: “Your lack of technique can be part of your style. The thing about style is that it’s more entertaining, more important and hopefully more intellectual than technique.”
44) Hate Crew Deathroll, 2003 (Children of Bodom)
Employing the same murderous, single-minded intensity as the “Reaper” figure on their CD artwork, Finnish metal madmen Children of Bodom slashed their way to stateside recognition with their fourth album, Hate Crew Deathroll. Alexi Laiho’s blindingly fast lead runs established him as a guitar hero for the new millennium, but the abundance of catchy hooks, cartoonish lyrics and almost comically cheesy keyboards on tracks like “Sixpounder,” “Bodom Beach Terror” and “Triple Corpse Hammerblow” flashed a blood-encrusted middle finger to anyone who dared to pigeonhole Bodom as one-dimensional speedsters.
WHAT THEY SAID Alexi Laiho: “To me, our music is just metal; it’s not black metal, it’s not death metal, it’s not thrash. But I don’t really care what people call it, as long as they don’t call it power metal.”
43) Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd, 1973 (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
The Allman Brothers may have been the first southern rock band, but Lynyrd Skynyrd and their three-guitar army (Allen Collins, Ed King and Gary Rossington) set the standard for the good (the Outlaws), bad (Black Oak Arkansas) and ugly (Molly Hatchet) to follow. “Free Bird” rocks like a redneck “Stairway to Heaven,” but with no bustling hedgerows or May queens to confuse your average Earl Hickey or Larry the Cable Guy—just a simple ode to sweet freedom, concluding with five uninterrupted minutes of hot dueling-guitar boogie. “Gimme Three Steps,” “Simple Man” and “I Ain’t the One” served up the tastiest licks to emerge from the South since Colonel Sanders perfected his original recipe.
WHAT THEY SAID Gary Rossington: “ ‘Free Bird’ is just a love song. I thank God that people dig it and that it got so big, but it just took a minute to write. I guess it had some kind of magic about it.”
42) Follow the Leader, 1998 (Korn)
With every late-Nineties aggro band openly biting the Bakersfield Five’s extreme detuned, hip-hop/metal hybrid style, Korn had every reason to be as cocky as the title of their third album suggests. The band were so confident of their trailblazer status that they went disco on the album’s first single, “Got the Life,” enlisted Fred Durst for the battle rap “All in the Family,” and had lead singer Jonathan Davis scatsing the breakdown on “Freak on a Leash.” But the true stars are Munky and Head, whose seven-string guitars grunt and slither through the mix, spitting out shards of corrosive, twisted metal at every turn.
WHAT THEY SAID James “Munky” Shaffer: “We found a happy medium between selling a lot of records and making the music we love. Don’t expect our music to get any softer. If anything, it’s going to get sicker.”
41) Highway 61 Revisited, 1965 (Bob Dylan)
On a rainy day in 1965, Michael Bloomfield walked into Columbia Records’ studio on Seventh Avenue in New York City, trailing Bob Dylan and carrying his soaked, caseless Telecaster. He wiped the guitar off, sat down, plugged in and made history.
Bloomfield’s playing on Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited is revolutionary. His ringing licks on “Like a Rolling Stone” are among the most distinctive guitar signatures in the history of rock songwriting. Jimi Hendrix copied them outright when he performed the tune. Then there’s Bloomfield’s darting melodies and moaning bent-stringed solos on “Tombstone Blues,” his sensitive accompaniment to Dylan’s harmonica and piano on “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” and his bell-like slide tones and shivering vibrato on the title track. Throughout the sessions, Dylan’s spontaneous method of recording put Bloomfield’s improvisational skills and sonic vocabulary to the test, and the guitarist aced every turn. When the album was completed, Bloomfield had arrived at the nexus of blues and rock, paving the way for the genre blending of Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Cream and Led Zeppelin.
Dylan had found Bloomfield in Chicago, where the then-22-year-old had abandoned his silver-spoon upbringing for the gritty stages of the South Side. There he apprenticed beside Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Big Joe Williams, along with his peers Paul Butterfield, Charlie Musselwhite, Nick Gravenites and Elvin Bishop, all of whom, like Bloomfield, played a role in making blues accessible for a hip young white audience.
By the time Bloomfield recorded with Dylan and joined the troubadour’s first electric band, he had assimilated what he could from the Chicago masters and built up his fingerpicking skills by absorbing, through records, the techniques of country legend Merle Travis and the ragtime style of Blind Blake. (For an overview of Bloomfield’s command of blues styles, check out his semi-instructional album If You Love These Blues, Play ’Em As You Please.)
Highway 61 Revisited introduced Bloomfield to the mainstream, but his next major recording, 1966’s East-West with the Butterfield Blues Band, had an even more potent effect on the world of guitar. His playing on the album is as knotty, dramatic and unpredictable as his troubled psyche. The tune “East-West,” a 13-minute exploratory fusion of blues and Indian modality that features Bloomfield’s and Bishop’s guitars, flipped the switch for long-form rock improvisation. His shimmering slide licks and shrieking, treble-toned lead on “Walking Shoes,” akin to Hubert Sumlin’s playing on Howlin’ Wolf classics like “Killing Floor,” are ghostly, needling, vicious and patently unforgettable. On the band’s showcase, “Work Song,” Bloomfield’s melodies climb through scales in a manner closer to free-jazz saxophonist John Coltrane than to B.B. King, balancing chromatic ascents and descents with radically slurred bends and off-the-beat accents. And Bloomfield’s linear single-note playing on “I Got a Mind to Give Up Living,” which acknowledges his debt to King with wrist-shaking vibrato, captures the soulful essence of simmering slow blues.
Sadly, the rest of Bloomfield’s career was entwined with a spiral of mental illness, insomnia and drug abuse. He recorded at least one other exceptional album, the 1968 jam-based Super Session with Al Kooper, who played organ on Highway 61 Revisited, but by then Bloomfield’s behavior had become erratic. He departed in the middle of the sessions, leaving Kooper to call in Stephen Stills to finish the recording.
For the next 13 years, Bloomfield ricocheted between occasional live performances, uneven recordings for a series of mostly independent labels and outright disappearances from the music scene. On February 15, 1981, he was found dead of an overdose in his car, parked on a side street in San Francisco. He was 37.