50 Greatest Guitar Albums
9) Physical Graffiti, 1975 (Led Zeppelin)
Daring, Sprawling, and enthusiastically eccentric, Physical Graffiti is one of the most beloved of all Led Zeppelin albums and also the most misunderstood. To many, its synthesis of funk and Eastern music into the Hammer of the Gods Zeppelin thunder is a joy to behold, the sound of a band realizing there are no limits to its powers. To others, the album is dense and frustrating, stuffed with filler. By any measure, it’s an artistic gamble, full of detours and moments of supreme triumph and quirky experimentation. And like all successful double albums, it captures the unique personality of each band member. That nary of trace of caution can be found on the record is a testament to the band’s unwavering belief in its craft.
Although the bulk of Physical Graffiti resulted from recording sessions at Headley Grange in 1974, some of the tracks had been waiting for a home for years. The instrumental “Bron-Yr-Aur” was recorded at Island Studios in London and was originally tagged for Led Zeppelin III. “Night Flight” and “Boogie with Stu” (as in Ian Stewart, who played on “Rock and Roll”) were cut during the Led Zeppelin IV sessions. “The Rover” and “Black Country Woman” were recorded at Stargroves, Mick Jagger’s house in Newbury, Berkshire, and were originally pegged for Houses of the Holy. Despite such gaps in time, the tracks, once assembled in a playing order, seemed to meld together as if by some grand, magical design.
“Trampled Underfoot,” “Houses of the Holy,” “Custard Pie” and “The Rover” rock the sure-shot like nobody’s business. The 11-minute “In My Time of Dying” is some of the heaviest Delta-style blues Zeppelin ever laid down. But Physical Graffiti’s signature track is the wondrous “Kashmir.” With Page’s tense, unyielding DADGAD chord pattern, John Paul Jones’ “Arabian string symphony,” John Bonham’s steady 4/4 beat against the 3/4 riff, and Plant’s surrealistic lyrics (written while driving through the Sahara Desert in Morocco, far from Kashmir, which is located between Central and South Asia), the song is a spellbinding monolith that sends tendrils of anxiety in all directions. In many ways, it distills the essence of Led Zeppelin: dramatic, epic, bewitching and fiery till the end.
WHAT THEY SAID Jimmy Page: “It just made sense for Physical Graffiti to be a double. There may have been double and even triple albums by other bands at the time, but I didn’t really care, because ours was going to be better than any of them.”
8) Nevermind, 1991 (Nirvana)
The grunge revolution started with Nirvana’s 1991 breakthrough album. Nevermind united the sludgy distortion of metal with punk rock’s “who gives a fuck?” attitude. The anguished voice and guitar of frontman Kurt Cobain encapsulated the hopeless frustrations of the Ritalin generation. The arrangements were violent mood swings—somnambulistic verses buoyed by clean, watery guitar tones that then exploded into screaming, distorted choruses. Cobain’s suicide a few years later lent dramatic emphasis to Nevermind’s troubled cry for help. From the Warped Tour to Ozzfest, rock music is still working out the implications.
WHAT THEY SAID Dave Grohl: “I was in awe of what was happening with Nevermind. I was in awe of those songs. And intimidated. I didn’t feel like my own songs were anywhere near the ones that we were doing. When you’re in a band with somebody like Kurt, who’s an amazing songwriter, you do anything you can to keep from polluting the songwriting process. I thought, I don’t want to be the person responsible for ruining these songs. There’s a famous old joke: ‘What was the last thing the drummer said before they kicked him out of the band? “Hey guys, I got a new song I just wrote.” ’ ”
7) Van Halen, 1978 (Van Halen)
There is no exact accounting of the number of guitarists who crapped their pants upon hearing “Eruption,” the second track on Van Halen’s self-titled debut. but the safe money is on “a lot.” Yet, while Edward Van Halen brought boys back to the electric guitar in droves, what’s often overlooked is what Van Halen brought to the party: girls. Perhaps it was Eddie’s Cheshire-cat grin or frontman David Lee Roth’s over-the-top bravado. More than likely, it was the songs. “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love,” “Jamie’s Cryin’ ” and the band’s riotous remake of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” rocked like a nonstop wet T-shirt contest, allowing the little girls to finally understand what the guys knew all along—that metal was fun.
WHAT THEY SAID Eddie Van Halen: “ ‘Eruption’ wasn’t even supposed to be on the album. I showed up at the recording studio early one day and started to warm up. I had a gig that weekend and I wanted to practice my solo guitar spot. Our producer, Ted Templeman, happened to walk by and he asked, ‘What’s that? Let’s put it on tape!’ ”
6) Paranoid, 1970 (Black Sabbath)
A primal howl of fear and loathing at a time when it was far more fashionable to sing gentle acoustic songs about “getting back to the garden,” Black Sabbath’s second album perfectly captured the rage, confusion and, yes, paranoia of the Vietnam era. Tony Iommi’s stump-fingered leads and down-tuned riffs provided the perfect platform for songs about war-mongering generals, boots-wearing skinheads and nuclear fallout, and set the standard against which all heavy music would forever be judged. And with the title track, a three-chord classic dashed off as last-minute album filler, Sabbath presaged the coming of punk rock.
WHAT THEY SAID Ozzy Osbourne: “Tony Iommi, in my opinion, is the most underrated guitar player on the face of the earth. And if you take into consideration that he plays with plastic tips on the end of his fret fingers—I mean, how the fuck can you feel where you are?”
5) Dark Side of the Moon, 1973 (Pink Floyd)
Pink Floyd’s 1973 masterpiece is an epic musical rumination on time, money, war and madness. It’s the album on which Pink Floyd found their identity a second time, having lost their leader and guitarist, Syd Barrett, to insanity in 1968. With Dark Side, bassist Roger Waters emerged as the band’s sole lyricist and chief conceptualist, while David Gilmour blossomed as a deeply expressive guitarist, one whose soaring style has become an indispensable part of rock. Dark Side classics like “Money,” “Us and Them” and “Breathe” have gone into perpetual heavy rotation all around the world.
WHAT THEY SAID Roger Waters: “I knew there had to be a song about money on the album. Having decided that, it was extremely easy to make up the seven-beat intro that went with it. I often think the best ideas are the most obvious ones.”
4) Master Of Puppets, 1986 (Metallica)
It could be said that Master of Puppets was the realization of all the promise Metallica, and thrash metal music in general, had previously hinted at, but who knew either was capable of so much? Metallica, for starters. Puppets features requisite barnstormers like “Battery” and “Damage, Inc.,” but elsewhere, particularly on the tremendous title track, the band plays metal as modern-day classical music, offering up harmonically and structurally complex arrangements that convey a stunning range of ideas and emotions. It’s a masterfully executed statement of purpose, and it is still thrash metal’s finest moment.
WHAT THEY SAID Kirk Hammett: “I really felt that Master of Puppets was the album that defined that lineup—James, Lars, Cliff and I. We had gotten to know each other’s musical capabilities and temperaments over the three-year period we’d been together, and every song we came up with was another great conception.”
3) Are You Experienced, 1967 (Jimi Hendrix)
The first Jimi Hendrix album was one of the most stunning debuts of 1967, a year packed with amazing new artists and album releases. The world had never seen anyone quite like James Marshall Hendrix. His flamboyant electric-gypsy image wowed the ladies, while his astounding guitar technique had greats like Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend scratching their heads in wonderment as they stood on the floors of Swinging London’s hippest nightspots and took in early gigs by the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
When he arrived in London in September 1966, Hendrix was an unknown young American guitarist, broke and scrambling for a break. He quickly assembled a killer band consisting of veteran British musicians Mitch Mitchell, on drums, and Noel Redding, on bass. The trio began laying down tracks for their first two singles, “Hey Joe” and “Purple Haze,” plus other tunes that would emerge on Are You Experienced. Working on a tight budget, they booked sessions at a variety of London studios during downtime, to get a cheap rate. But once Hendrix secured a U.S. record deal with Warner Bros., sessions moved to Olympic Studios, then the hot new facility in London and soon to host the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and the Who, among others.
Released in May 1967, Are You Experienced was a stylistic tour de force. Hendrix artfully fused his blues and R&B roots with the amped-up excitement of the new psychedelic sounds then starting to emerge from both London and San Francisco. His boldly unique guitar tone came from a combination of elements. On Pete Townshend’s advice, he’d started using 100-watt Marshall and Hiwatt amp stacks, powerful gear that had only recently come on the market. These were combined with a right-handed Fender Stratocaster that the left-handed Hendrix played “upside down,” with the strings reversed so that the low and high strings were in a different relationship than usual to the Strat’s slanted bridge pickup. In the studio, Hendrix employed a variety of techniques, including “backward guitar,” a tape effect that had been pioneered by the Beatles but which Hendrix took to new heights on Are You Experienced’s title track. Psychedelic manifestos like “Are You Experienced?” “Purple Haze,” “Manic Depression” and “Third Stone from the Sun” captured the hallucinogenic mood of the hippie movement, just then peaking in 1967s Summer of Love. But the music remains just as vital and popular today.
FUN FACT Jimi’s amps were so loud that the bank above London’s De Lane Lea Studios complained that the high-volume vibrations were disrupting their computer system.
FUN FACT Hendrix manager Chas Chandler, formerly bassist with the successful beat group the Animals, had to pawn his bass to pay for early Jimi Hendrix Experience studio sessions.
WHAT THEY SAID Recording Engineer Eddie Kramer: “Once we got to Olympic, Jimi really got a chance to stretch out. The sounds become deeper. The drum sounds improved. Originally, we recorded four-track with mono drums on one track, the bass on another, the guitar on the third and Jimi’s voice on the fourth. But when we got to Olympic, I’d record stereo drums, bass and guitar on one four-track machine and then bounce that down to two tracks of a second four-track machine, which gave us two more tracks for overdubs.”
2) Appetite For Destruction, 1987 (Guns N' Roses)
Before he became a wacky-looking white guy with shaved eyebrows and cornrows, Axl Rose was the real deal: a Sunset Strip–stridin’, Jackswillin’, coke-tootin’ rock and roller. His band at the time (which, in addition to Axl, included guitarists Slash and Izzy Stradlin, bassist Duff McKagen and drummer Steven Adler) was the real deal, too, living the wasted rock star lifestyle with such earnest determination that you’d think they invented it. They also played lacerating music that was tough, ugly and sometimes misogynistic, and when they did, they were fucking giants.
Rock was in a sorry-ass state in the mid Eighties. Bon Jovi was riding his steel horse, Van Halen had turned into the mainstream Van Hagar, and that’s about all she wrote. As Slash recalls: “When we had to go up against whatever was going on at the time, there were no gritty rock bands, and we were sort of a break-through rock band, sort of a fluke in a way.” Appetite for Destruction was released on July 21, 1987, to raging apathy. Radio and MTV showed no love at all. A year after the album’s release, David Geffen, convinced of the album’s appeal, got on the horn and begged MTV to play “Welcome to the Jungle.” He didn’t have to beg twice. Once music fans got a look at Guns N’ Roses, they liked what they saw: five tough dudes who weren’t all gussied up like Cinderella or some other pussy band.
And the record? Forget about it. “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Paradise City,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “It’s So Easy”—this was raw, hard-driving, classic-sounding rock and roll. The riffs were heavy, the solos soaring, and that Axl had some voice on him. It was metallic enough for metalheads but melodic enough for the chicks. Glam Metal kids weren’t embarrassed to be seen with it, yet Bob Seger fans could drink beer to it. Suddenly, everybody loved Guns N’ Roses. Twenty-five million everybodys, in fact.
Five years later, of course, the band imploded. Slash and Duff are now part of Velvet Revolver, Steven Adler is M.I.A., Axl is still promising Chinese Democracy, and Izzy recently joined Axl onstage at a New York City Guns N’ Roses show. But for many music fans, Appetite for Destruction remains a desert-island disc, a powerful one-off from a band that could have had the world.
WHAT THEY SAID Slash: “In the early Guns days the solos were a little bit more thought out, I have to admit. As time goes by, I realize that when solo sections get a little bit complex, it gets to sound a bit corny.”
FUN FACT When signing with Geffen Records, Axl Rose revealed to A&R exec Tom Zutaut that he promised a female A&R scout from Chrysalis Records that he would sign with her if she walked naked down Sunset Boulevard. A nervous Zutaut spent three days watching Sunset Boulevard from his office window.
FUN FACT For the Appetite sessions, Slash did not play a Gibson ’59 Les Paul Standard, as is commonly assumed. Instead, the guitarist relied on a Les Paul Standard copy built by a luthier in Redondo Beach.
1) Led Zeppelin IV, 1971 (Led Zeppelin)
Call it Led Zeppelin IV, Four Symbols, Runes, Sticks, Zoso, Four or even Untitlted. By any name, Zeppelin's fourth effort is widely considered rock's Holy Grail, fusing hard rock, Celtic folk, boogie-woogie rock and roll and blues into one staggering, beguiling, epochal, masterpiece. (For the record, Jimmy Page has been known to refer to it as simply Led Zeppelin IV.)
The album was released in the States on November 6, 1971 (November 19 in the U.K.), and for Led Zeppelin, the timing couldn’t have been better. The public’s tepid response to the folky, acoustic-drenched Led Zeppelin III was a letdown, considering the wild reception that greeted the band’s smash-hit predecessors. (And forget the music press, which famously hated the band.) Zeppelin needed to come back strong.
Led Zeppelin IV was rehearsed and partly recorded at Headley Grange, a two-story, mostly stone structure, built in 1795 and located in the village of Headley in eastern Hampshire, England. While the rest of the band initially balked at the less-than-luxurious conditions, Jimmy Page was smitten: “Right from the early days of working at Headley Grange, it was very, very spooky. It had been a workhouse. The whole place was very grey and damp. There was no heating...I thought it was fantastic!”
While the old country workhouse undoubtedly influenced laidback numbers like "The Battle of Evermore" and "Going to California," Jimmy Page found that the 18th-century structure's acoustics perfectly suited rockers like "Black Dog," "Rock and Roll" (featuring an uncredited Ian Stewart on piano) and "Four Sticks." When it came time to track "When the Levee Breaks," Page had John Bonham set up his drum kit in the stone stairway that connected the floors. The resulting sound is one no studio in the world has been able to replicate.
Of course, the album’s apogee is “Stairway to Heaven,” renowned as much for Robert Plant’s curlicue poetry as for Jimmy Page’s fluid compositional structure. Remarkably, what has become radio’s most-requested song came together late one night in the most relaxed of settings. As Robert Plant recalls, “It was done fairly quickly… Jimmy and I just sat down by the fire and came up with a song which was later developed by the rest of the band in the studio.”
Thirty-five years after its release, Led Zeppelin IV stands as a marvel of rock record making. The music comes at you from all directions: Jimmy Page’s limitless array of riffs, Robert Plant’s air-raid screams, John Bonham’s chest-pounding drumming and John Paul Jones’ Rock of Gibraltar bass playing. It is as powerful, magical and oddly elusive today as when it first appeared.
WHAT THEY SAID Jimmy Page: “We were recording something else—I can’t remember what it was...and John Bonham just started playing the opening bars of ‘Keep a Knockin’,’ by Little Richard. I heard that and just started playing what you know as the riff of ‘Rock and Roll.’ The other song was just totally forgotten about and we did ‘Rock and Roll’ in a matter of minutes.”
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