Back in May, TG conducted a series of polls on Guitar World. A staggering number votes were cast – just over 150,000, in fact – and now the results can be revealed. Here, we present The Greatest Guitar Albums Of All Time.
Now, because we wanted to represent every era, from early classics to contemporary guitar heroes, we divided up our polls decade by decade from the 1960s all the way through to the 2010s and 2020s.
We will profile the top 10 albums, and offer an in-depth look at your favorite from each decade, speaking to the guitarist who made the record, or a player notably influenced by it.
Here, we are going to kick things off with the '60s. It was the decade in which Beatlemania inspired millions of kids to pick up guitars. And with the dawn of the rock era and the elevation of the album as an art form, a golden generation of guitar heroes emerged – Clapton, Beck, Page, Santana and Hendrix...
10. The Beatles – Revolver (1966)
With the burden of Beatlemania weighing heavily on their shoulders, the Fab Four channelled their energies into expanding the possibilities of studio recording on Revolver.
As well as incorporating elaborate orchestrations, tape loops, sound effects and exotic instruments, the band updated their guitars from the early Rickenbacker-dominated sound.
Harrison, Lennon and McCartney introduced the Gibson SG, Epiphone Casino, and Gretsch Chet Atkins 6120 into their arsenal, beefing up their tone in line with the more rock-orientated sounds brought to the fore by the likes of Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck in 1966.
The experimentation yielded stunning results, like the raucous psychedelia of She Said She Said and the harmonized twin lead guitar lines of And Your Bird Can Sing, courtesy of Harrison and McCartney.
George Harrison was starting to experiment with Indian music, and his sitar playing on Love You To brought something new to rock music, but it’s McCartney’s electrifying solo on Taxman that provides the album’s greatest guitar moment.
The result was one of the highlights of The Beatles’ career. After Revolver, guitar music would never be the same again.
9. Cream – Wheels Of Fire (1968)
Cream’s third LP was released at the apex of their short career, showcasing everything that made them special. It became the world’s first platinum-selling double vinyl album, consisting of two sides of new studio recordings and two sides of live recordings.
The opening track and hit single White Room is the quintessential Cream power rock sound, with Eric Clapton’s wah solo a highlight of the album. Born Under A Bad Sign and Sitting On Top Of The World present British Blues at its finest, and the live rendition of Robert Johnson’s Crossroads features arguably Clapton’s greatest guitar solo.
8. Jeff Beck – Truth (1968)
Beck’s first solo album is a cornerstone of the heavy rock sound of the late 60s, pre-empting Led Zeppelin’s debut by a few months. Indeed, the cover of Muddy Waters’ You Shook Me bears remarkable similarities to Zeppelin’s version of the same song.
Two of Zeppelin’s lineup even appeared on Truth, with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones joining Beck, The Who’s Keith Moon on drums and Nicky Hopkins on piano for the fearsome Page-penned instrumental Beck’s Bolero.
The album opens with a slowed-down, rockier version of his former band’s Shapes Of Things, featuring some virtuosic lead guitar work to kick things off.
Elsewhere, Morning Dew and I Ain’t Superstitious showcase his dexterity with a wah-wah pedal, Blues Deluxe and Rock My Plimsoul has him mastering the blues rock sound of the future, and an acoustic rendition of the classical Greensleeves demonstrates his astonishing breadth of styles.
7. Santana – Santana (1969)
Mexican-born Carlos Santana enchanted the rock world in the late-60s with his unique fusion of latin rhythms, blues sensibilities, psychedelic sonics and all-out rock guitar.
On this debut album the music is largely jam-orientated, perfectly capturing the improvisatory nature of Santana’s talent, as he weaves his sweetly singing lines around frantic percussion and funky organ to stunning effect.
His guitar tone is unique, combining sharp dynamics with a powerful sustain. Listen to the aptly-named Treat or the lengthy finale Soul Sacrifice for perfect examples of his power as a soloist.
6. The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Axis: Bold As Love (1967)
Hendrix mixes blues, rock and jazz with a broad sonic palate of psychedelia to stunning effect on his second album with the Experience.
His songwriting had developed in the few months since the band’s debut, and he pushes his guitar into new territories with unique combinations of fuzz, Uni-Vibe, wah-wah, backwards guitar and flamboyant use of his Strat’s whammy bar.
The chugging rhythms of Spanish Castle Magic, the spaced out psychedelia of If 6 Was 9, and the funky rhythms of Bold As Love and Castles Made Of Sand and the sublime Little Wing showcase Hendrix at his peak.
5. Cream – Disraeli Gears (1967)
Disraeli Gears, Cream’s second album, was the highpoint of their career. Incorporating the prevailing psychedelic sound of 1967, and taking the baton from The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Are You Experienced and the Beatles’ Sgt Peppers..., they forged a template for the hard rock of the future.
Strange Brew, Tales Of Brave Ulysses and SWLABR fused blues with acid rock, while Sunshine Of Your Love foreshadowed the riff-based hard rock soon to be adopted by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple.
The album is also a perfect showcase for Eric Clapton’s so-called ‘woman tone’, a warm, mellow sound he achieved using his 1964 ‘Fool’ Gibson SG and his late-50s black Gibson Les Paul Custom, through mid-60s Fender Twin Reverb and Marshall amps.
4. Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin (1969)
Forged by Jimmy Page from the ashes of The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin recorded their first album shortly after the group was formed.
The songs were honed during a short tour in Scandinavia prior to the recording sessions, and it’s an explosive debut, packed with stomping riffs, thundering rock grooves, violin-bowed psychedelia and the pioneering sound of British hard rock guitar.
For most of the album, Page used the 1959 Fender Telecaster that Jeff Beck gave to him in 1966, known as the Dragon Tele due to the design Page painted on it. Other than that, he tried out a Gibson Flying V on You Shook Me, a Fender 800 pedal steel on Your Time Is Gonna Come, and borrowed a Gibson J-200 for the album’s acoustic guitar parts.
3. The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Electric Ladyland (1968)
This sprawling double vinyl album, Hendrix’s third and final studio LP, marked the point at which he took full control of his own production. It’s a compelling mixture of chaos and precision, with his insistence on recording multiple takes resulting in some of his most accomplished cuts.
The music spans the whole spectrum of guitar music, from the funky blues jamming of Voodoo Chile, the jazz shuffle of Rainy Day, Dream Away, through the driving rock of Crosstown Traffic to the wah-wah-infused psychedelic pop of Burning Of The Midnight Lamp. At this point, Hendrix was speaking a new language on guitar, one that would influence generations to come.
2. Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin II (1969)
Zeppelin were in the middle of a brutal touring schedule when their record company pressed them to record the follow up to their debut. April to August 1969 was one of the busiest periods of their career, and sessions for Led Zeppelin II took place in thirteen different studios, fitting in around hotel rooms, gigs, rehearsals and the debauchery that accompanied their hectic touring schedule.
According to producer Eddie Kramer, Jimmy Page even recorded some of his guitar solos in hallways. This no doubt accounts for Led Zeppelin II’s charged mixture of flamboyant virtuosity and raw sexual power, ushering in the hard rock boom of the 1970s.
Page showcases all aspects of his virtuosity, from the legendary rock riffage of Whole Lotta Love, Heartbreaker and Living Loving Maid (She’s Just A Woman), through the sensitive bottleneck blues soloing of What Is And What Should Never Be to the folk-rock jangle of Thank You and Ramble On.
Page’s instruments of choice were his Dragon Telecaster, a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Sunburst he bought from Joe Walsh (later of the Eagles) and a 1967 Vox Phantom XII 12-string, with a mixture of Tone Bender fuzz pedal, Vox Grey Wah and VOX CO2 Deluxe Echo effects. For the acoustic work, he used his E-ROS Model 606 Dakota.
1. The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Are You Experienced? (1967)
The debut album by The Jimi Hendrix Experience is many things. As modern blues star Samantha Fish says: “Are You Experienced is historically important, innovative, and such a creative album. He took us to places that I don’t think music had been [before].”
But if anything, she slightly understates it. Beginning with this album, Hendrix reinvented guitar. It’s easy to miss the extent of his genius because many of his innovations are now taken-for-granted guitar techniques, but guitar playing pre-Hendrix was a markedly less interesting world. And no one could sound like him.
We don’t just mean this in the boring sense that every player is unique. Literally no one could sound like Jimi, because Hendrix’s playing required impractical volume levels. In 1967, that type of amp distortion and feedback couldn’t happen any other way.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience were kicked out of recording sessions because of noise complaints, or else producers didn’t know how to record such intense sound pressure levels.
An engineer for John Mayall’s Blues Breakers had described Eric Clapton as “unrecordable," and that was only a 30-watt combo.
Hendrix used a 100 watt stack. It was only when they moved to Olympic Studios that they found Eddie Kramer, a collaborator with the talent to capture Jimi’s full sonic fury.
“I can’t make a Strat sound like Jimi Hendrix,” Samantha Fish admits. “When I think of Stratocasters in general I think of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and that’s the kind of twang that I get out of it when I when I pick it up. Jimi’s tone was so aggressive. It screams in a way that I can’t make a Stratocaster scream, and I think a lot of guitar players might agree with me.”
There were precursors to Hendrix. Buddy Guy had been performing live with distortion and feedback for years, but his label boss Leonard Chess refused to record that way. Hendrix, a veteran of ‘chitlin circuit’ blues clubs, would have seen the likes of Guy at their unfiltered best.
In his session days, Jimi worked as a sideman to Curtis Mayfield, who particularly influenced Jimi with his clean playing and his signature take on chord-melody playing. But none of this detracts from Jimi’s status as a visionary.
Growing up in Kansas City, Samantha Fish was a fan of Hendrix’s songs before she even knew who he was.
“Like most kids in the 90s, I heard Jimi Hendrix on the radio,’ she recalls. “We didn’t really have a big record collection, but I had heard all the hits. As I got older I realized ‘holy hell, all these songs are from the same album!’ I can’t imagine being 25 and putting out something so prolific. I just think about myself at 25 and the tone he has, the presence he has, the command he has over the guitar – the songs are just so well thought out.”
Samantha’s career began at blues jams, and when she performed Red House, a cornerstone track from Are You Experienced, audiences groaned because there song had been covered so often. “I would hope that he’d be tickled by that,” she laughs. Like Hendrix, Fish is rooted in the blues but crosses genres.
“I just write songs and the blues the blues part of it comes through my playing and singing,” she says. “It comes from my foundation and how I learned how to play guitar. If I write a progression that’s kind of poppy I’m going to try and bring this other element to make it something else. I can only imagine Jimi was just writing good songs and putting them out there.”
As to whether Are You Experienced is a blues album, she states: “It’s blues and beyond. Jimi was paving his own way and creating his own sound. I don’t think genre can really can really confine him or describe him.
“He has some blues licks, some blues phrasing and feeling the way he sings, but he was writing the book on rock’n’roll. There have been so many prolific guitar players in the blues historically and I think I think he fits into that too just by way of being so damn beastly on the guitar.”
Are You Experienced was notable for the number of new sounds Hendrix pulled from his guitar. The title track has a noise that sounds like record scratching, a full decade before hip-hop DJs were around, and Third Stone From The Sun has a solo that barely sounds like conventional music, with Hendrix manipulating and controlling feedback using his Strat’s tremolo. This is an inspiration for Fish’s approach:
“He was so innovative with the guitar. Even today people aren’t doing the things that he was doing, even via recording and how he was utilizing the instrument as a pure effect. Like on the title track, it sounds like a remix. Just using the guitar not in the traditional sense. He’s putting a texture and a tone on there that gives the song a certain vibe that you can’t get from a solo or riff or guitar chords. He using it in different ways and making it talk.
“I think every guitar player spends a fair amount of time trying to figure out how the hell he did that. That’s something that I really like to do, and Jimi is the godfather of doing stuff like that.”
Another example was Hendrix’s pioneering backwards guitar. As Samantha says: “He wasn’t the first to record backwards guitar solos, but he did it in a pretty iconic way.”
George Harrison had beaten Hendrix by a year with I’m Only Sleeping, but it had been a painful process. In his memoir, Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick says of the nine-hour session “We all wished we had never come up with the concept of backwards sounds.”
Hendrix, by contrast, had spent time listening to his guitar recorded backwards to learn how it would sound, and put the Are You Experienced solo together with apparent ease.
Samantha Fish grew up with the US release of Are You Experienced, which added three classic singles - Purple Haze, The Wind Cries Mary and Hey Joe – omitted from the UK release. She admired Hendrix’s way of weaving lead lines around chords.
“I think The Wind Cries Mary is one of the most beautiful songs ever written,” she says. “It’s just so delicate and well put together. He’s not just throwing licks out there, he’s playing really melodically and delicately through different chord structures and building memorable melodies. That’s definitely something I strive to do with my solos.”
As a singer-guitarist, Fish recognizes that much of Jimi Hendrix’s genius was in the interplay between his voice and guitar.
“The way that he arpeggiates chords, like in The Wind Cries Mary. He’s sliding up to different chords and his voice is this kind of counterpart to these really intricate guitar patterns. On some of his rougher songs there’s so much call and response between his singing and his playing, it’s like two voices talking to each other.
“BB King is the king of that, but Jimi did it in such a bombastic way that I think goes over a lot of people’s heads. The amount of work he’s doing and the amount of energy he’s putting out by singing and playing – it's mind-boggling.”