“Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin? “Glamour Girl” by T-Bone Walker? "Cliffs of Dover" by Eric Johnson?
The list of songs with killer guitar tones is endless, and singling out any single song as the best is, of course, subjective.
The most memorable guitar tones don't scream out for attention; instead, they pull at the melody and cut across the bed created by the rhythm section without being too showy, abrasive or predictable.
In a sense, great tone conveys something about the songs without using words.
John Lennon’s rhythm guitar intro to “I Feel Fine” is a great example, as are Carlos Santana’s solo on “Black Magic Woman” and Mick Ronson’s work on David Bowie's “Ziggy Stardust”—although none of them made the cut here. Instead, we tried to choose songs from across genres that speak to something indescribable and primal and that can get a conversation started.
Why 14 songs? We were gonna stick with 10, but since this is our first official "Essential Listening" story of 2014, we chose 14 in honor of another year of this ongoing series! Note that these songs are presented in no particular order. We repeat: They are presented in no particular order.
On that note, enjoy!
“Back In Black,” AC/DC (Angus Young)
Much like punk rock, the sound of AC/DCs “Back In Black” (the album and the song) launched a million garage bands.
It’s the sound of an SG through a Marshall stack, unadorned by effects. What could be simpler? Yet Angus Young’s signature riff—and particularly his serrated solo—is impossible to replicate.
Chances are you know the song by heart. So maybe just scroll to 1:52 (and again at 3:36) and watch Young attack his Gibson with gusto while maintaining impeccable vibrato and tone. Classic.
“Sunshine of Your Love,” Cream (Eric Clapton)
Clapton’s tone on his solo in Cream’s 1967 breakout hit “Sunshine of Your Love” was so unique, so unlike anything else on the charts at the time, it demanded a name. He called it his “woman tone." Clapton used it throughout his tenure in Cream, and fans always love and give each other a wink when he’s pulled it out since.
Any player will tell you the woman tone is as simple as putting an SG in the neck pickup, turning the volume all the way up and the tone all the way down. But it’s not. The woman tone is as much in Clapton’s hands and attack as anything else, and this track is the perfect example of how hard it is to replicate.
Here's a clip of Clapton demonstrating his woman tone for a BBC film crew (on his psychedelic “Fool” SG):
“In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” The Allman Brothers Band (Duane Allman/Dickey Betts)
The twin guitar attack of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts is legendary, not just because Allman died before his time or because their performance together on the Allmans’ 1971 album Live at the Fillmore East sounded like two parts of a whole, but because the tone and attack of the pair is unparalleled.
There are plenty of examples from Allman and Betts’ short time together that are a masterclass in dueling guitar work—"Whipping Post," also from Live at the Fillmore East springs to mind—but nowhere do they lock horns and push each other to greater heights than here.
“The Fly,” U2 (The Edge)
Like Clapton’s woman tone, getting the Edge’s sound is hardly as simple as using a Les Paul through a Vox AC30 with Alnico Blue speakers and a couple of effects.
As with all the best U2 songs, the Edge’s guitar work in “The Fly” leaves lots of space. It also seems simple, but his choices (and tone) are unique and play to the strengths of the song. That way, when he takes off, the sound truly reaches the stratosphere. Throw in a little wah on the solo and the magic really happens.
“Free As a Bird,” The Beatles (George Harrison)
Considering his notoriety, George Harrison is still probably one of the most underrated guitar players in recorded history.
But as Bob Geldof said upon Harrison's passing in 2001, he’s also probably the only lead guitarist that if you asked 10 strangers on the street to hum one of his solos they could do it without hesitation.
There’s a long list of great tones from Harrison, both in the Beatles and as a solo artist.
The stunning, heart-wrenching lead on “Something," the fuzzed-up riff on “What Is Life?” from All Things Must Pass or the strident slide on the 1973 hit "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” from Living in the Material World are all George, and each one employs a tone that perfectly pushes and pulls at the song and the listener.
Say what you will about the “reunion” recordings the Beatles released in the mid-Nineties, but Harrison’s stunning slide solo completes John Lennon’s demo in ways no one else could have ever conceived. And that tone! “That was all George,” engineer Geoff Emerick told me in 2006 of the sessions. “He plugged in and there it was. All I had to do was put up a microphone.”
“Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (Mike Campbell)
Tom Petty often refers to guitarist Mike Campbell as his secret weapon.
Not only has Campbell co-written some of the band’s most enduring songs, like his hero (George Harrison), he’s consistently delivered guitar parts that are instantly recognizable and tuneful over more than 30 years as the Heartbreakers’ co-captain.
While his Telecaster guitar lines on “Refugee” are biting and warm, sitting perfectly in a perfect recording, his riffs and soloing on 1993's “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” convey the confidence of a player who knows exactly where he wants to take the song and the listener.
“Soul Man,” Sam & Dave (Steve Cropper)
“Play it, Steve!”
That’s what you hear just before the solo on 1967s Stax Records mega-hit by Sam & Dave. And play it guitarist Steve Cropper does.
Perhaps one of the greatest ironies of the late-Sixties R&B/soul boom is that the band that delivered the grooves on the most enduring of those records included some of the most lily white guys you might stumble on. But boy did Cropper and his bandmates in Booker T. & the MGs (not to mention the Mar-Keys Horns) have soul!
Cropper delivered the goods on countless hits from the era. He co-wrote and played on Eddie Floyd’s “Knock On Wood," Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of The Bay,” Wilson Pickett’s “In The Midnight Hour" and countless others. His tone and licks always hold his signature, but nowhere is his tone and style better encapsulated, and featured, than on “Soul Man."
"Champagne Supernova," Oasis (Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher)
In his days with the Jam, Paul Weller took a bit of Pete Townshend and a pinch of Dr. Feelgood’s Wilko Johnson and stirred them up into a potent mix, delivering serrated, staccato riffs with, as the band’s legend goes, fire and skill.
Just listen to the band’s cover of the Who’s “Disguises” and you’ll get the idea.
After the Jam’s 1982 split, a new crop of guitarists who’d been raised on Weller’s licks as much as anyone else stormed the charts. The Stone Roses' John Squire and the Smiths' Johnny Marr paved the way for Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, Graham Coxon of Blur and Noel Gallagher of Oasis.
By 1995, Weller was in the midst of a career resurgence and Britpop was ascendant. And no one was riding higher than Oasis.
On “Champagne Supernova," the final track from the band’s international smash (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, the master joined the student and magic transpired. Weller took the lead, with Gallagher in a supporting role, and delivered a glorious, tone-drenched solo that took a really good song into the stratosphere.
The secret? Weller played a white Gibson SG through a Vox AC30, so nothing special there. But the warmth and vibrato he coaxes from his strings evoke the past and the future all at once.
Britpop never reached higher.
“Voodoo Chile,” The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Jimi Hendrix)
If you were to put an example of Jimi Hendrix’s writing, recording and playing into a time capsule you’d probably have to choose Electric Ladyland’s “Voodoo Chile.”
Hendrix’s longest studio recording tells the history of the blues and points to where Hendrix was heading. Billed as the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Hendrix is in fact supported by Traffic’s Steve Winwood on organ, Jefferson Airplane’s Jack Casady on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums. It’s a loose and sprawling jam, and its live nature showcases Hendrix’s virtuosity in a way that probably no other studio recording of his can match.
But mostly it showcases just how unbelievably perfect Hendrix’s tone was. Guitar lovers can argue about Clapton or Beck or Vaughan or whomever. But here, in 18 cathartic minutes, Hendrix lays claim to the past, the present and the future of the electric guitar. If no one ever tops “Voodoo Chile”—and no one probably ever will—we will still have this wonderful, intimate recording forever.
“Enter Sandman,” Metallica (Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield)
Whether it be Nirvana, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots, Rage Against the Machine or Metallica, the 1990s were full of monster riffs and monster tone.
But the undisputed kings of the most over-the-top of those gargantuan sounds were surely Metallica. And the band’s “Enter Sandman,” which propelled the band’s 1991 self-titled album to 30 million-plus sales, is a case in point.
Metallica had been known before 1991 for their complex songs, but “Enter Sandman” is relatively straightforward. Building toward Kirk Hammett’s wah wah-laden solo, the real tone is in Hammett and James Hetfield’s larger-then-life and irresistible dueling rhythm guitars.
“Bargain,” The Who (Pete Townshend)
“When I hit on doubling an acoustic guitar with an electric guitar a whole new palate of sounds was suddenly at my disposal,” the Who’s Pete Townshend once told me of the signature sound that adorns the band’s landmark album Who’s Next.
While some may argue that Townshend’s “tone moment” was his solo on “Heaven and Hell” during the band’s circa-1970 live shows (Check out the expanded Live at Leeds reissue, Live at Hull or Live at the Isle of Wight), and in a career filled with signature sounds, the twin guitar, rhythm/lead attack — combining a Gretsch 6120 Joe Walsh had given him with a Gibson J-200 — that he employed on Who’s Next is probably Townshend’s most enduring signature sound.
In fact, every track on Who’s Next is great and has bucketloads of tone.
“Baba O’Reilly," “Goin’ Mobile," “Won’t Get Fooled Again," “Behind Blue Eyes” … . Considering it came from the ashes of the aborted “Lifehouse” project, it’s a remarkable accomplishment. But probably nowhere does Townshend’s inimitable strumming and combination of lead and rhythm playing shine more than on “Bargain.” Using a Fender amp and a volume pedal with that Gretsch/Gibson combo creates a warm bed that — against the volcanic Keith Moon/John Entwistle rhythm section — is unbeatable.
“Midnight Rambler,” The Rolling Stones (Mick Taylor)
Arguing the Brian Jones-era Rolling Stones are the ultimate lineup is always a losing cause. Without alienating millions of early Stones fans, suffice to say the band didn’t truly take off as a first rate musical unit until guitarist Mick Taylor joined the band.
While Keith Richards always laid down distinctive and rich acoustic (and even electric) parts that propelled the band, it wasn’t till he teamed up with Taylor for what he always calls their “ancient art of weaving” that things got really interesting.
By the time the band hit the road in 1972, they were in full flight, and “Midnight Rambler” on the live release Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out! is the ultimate example. While Mick Jagger wails on harmonica, and Keef lays down a comfy bed, Taylor wails on top. Up, down and sideways, it’s a masterclass in where a great rock band can take the blues.
“Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” Pink Floyd (David Gilmour)
“Comfortably Numb,” “Wish You Were Here,” even “On An Island,” the list of songs that are lifted from great to astonishing by David Gilmour’s signature tone is a long one. Both instantly recognizable and impossible to imitate, Gilmour in many ways is the sound of post-Syd Barrett Pink Floyd.
Nowhere is that more evident then on this ode to Barrett and the madness he succumbed to, from the band’s 1975 album Wish You Were Here. Long and adventurous, but never boring, this track epitomizes everything that was great about the band, who were stretching their “progressive” muscles in the mid-Seventies. Meanwhile, Gilmour charms an irresistible tone out of his Fender Stratocaster.
Rumor is that Gilmour records his parts at staggering volume. While most players can’t coax more than a croak out of their rig at that level, Gilmour clearly has a remarkable touch beyond mere mortals.
Normally broken into parts, the link below includes parts 1 to 9—the whole shebang—for your listening pleasure.
“You Can’t Judge a Book By the Cover,” The Strypes (Josh McClorey)
Perhaps it’s sacrilege to have a list like this and not include Jeff Beck or Jimmy Page (or Wilko Johnson for that matter), but there are great sounds being made today too.
Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out” and Modest Mouse’s “Float On” are prime examples of recent adventures into new tonal soundscapes, but the Strypes are truer to the R&B origins of Beck and Page—and they're on fire right now.
Josh McClorey attacks his Gretsch (and Tele) with real verve, and nowhere is that more evident than “You Can’t Judge a Book By the Cover." While there’s no solo, the ghosts of Beck and Page hang heavily over his playing, in the best possible way.
Give ‘em a try!
Jeff Slate is a NYC-based solo singer-songwriter and music journalist. He founded and fronted the band the Badge for 15 years beginning in 1997 and has worked with Pete Townshend, Earl Slick, Carlos Alomar, Steve Holley, Laurence Juber and countless others. He has interviewed and written about everyone from the Beatles and Kiss to Monty Python and rock musicals on Broadway. He is an avid collector of rock and roll books and bootlegs and has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Dylan and the Beatles. For more information, visit jeffslate.net.