A great live moment can mean so many different things. It can be an experience that forever binds the minds of those on stage with the audience in front of them – the perfect setlist matched by the right atmosphere and sonic treatment. A formula that, as easy as it sounds on paper, is like catching lightning in a bottle.
But an historic event is often so much more than a strong performance; it can be anything from an unexpected guest appearance or collaboration, something with some unexpected socio-political ramifications – or one of those times when things don't quite go as planned, which, as every guitarist knows, is always an ever-hovering possibility.
If anything, it's how musicians have reacted in the face of adversity that has left the longest-lasting impressions – rare opportunities to prove their talents are more than just a simple rehearsal to perfection.
There are a number of onstage victories for any of the artists featured in this list, though – in our humble opinion – these are 47 of the most definitive events in guitar history, presented in chronological order.
1. Mary duels with Les Paul – on Les Pauls (The Colgate Comedy Hour, 1954)
In the Fifties, when the name Les Paul was spoken, it was often in tandem with that of Mary Ford, his wife and musical partner. The duo were among the biggest record-ing artists of the early Fifties, cutting 16 top-10 hits, including How High the Moon and Vaya Con Dios.
In ’51 alone, they sold six million records. Small wonder that Gibson sought out Les in 1952 to put his name on their new solidbody electric. While Ford was the featured singer on the couple’s songs, she was a fine guitarist as well, as heard in a famous – and 100 percent live – YouTube clip.
It comes from a performance on NBC’s The Colgate Comedy Hour and originally aired in March 1954. In the clip, Les and Mary, each armed with a Les Paul, perform a mock guitar battle during a performance of There’s No Place Like Home. And there’s no place on network TV for stuff like this in 2021!
2. The Beatles light a (figurative) ﬁre (The Ed Sullivan Show, February 1964)
“Seeing the Beatles on Sullivan was a defining moment in my and millions of other guys’ lives, all of us naively thinking, ‘I wanna do that!’” Aerosmith legend Joe Perry tells us. Yes, it’s no secret the Beatles helped popularize guitars more than any band before them.
Instrument orders sky-rocketed as a direct consequence of their debut live appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964, which broke records for its viewing audience – going out to 73 million people, almost half a TV-watching nation.
“I read somewhere that after The Beatles appeared on [the Sullivan shows] Gretsch sold 20,000 guitars a week, or something like that,” said George Harrison, who played a walnut Gretsch Country Gentleman that day. “I mean, we would have had shares in… Gretsch and everything, but we didn’t know.”
3. Sister Rosetta Tharpe shreds with fury (TV Gospel Time, Mid-'60s)
Footage of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s earth-shaking guitar work continues to go viral – and rightly so. Very few video recordings exist of Tharpe (who’s often called “the Godmother of Rock ’n’ Roll”), which only adds to her legend, though the sheer charisma shining through her playing is strikingly evident.
In one of her most famous clips, she’s performing Up Above My Head on TV Gospel Time, proudly wielding her ’62 Gibson Les Paul Custom with the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church Choir behind her. The sheer ferocity in her playing is, even by today’s standards, phenomenal, which explains why Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry were among her most famous admirers.
Getting a bit closer to home, this performance has special significance in Guitar World history; when we initially shared a story about this performance, it became one of the most-viewed stories in GW history, racking up nearly 200,000 likes on Facebook, which isn’t, you know, all that common...
4. Bob Dylan’s Strat smokes Newport (Newport Folk Festival, 1965)
For many of the committed folk purists attending this 1965 Rhode Island gathering, Bob Dylan committed the ultimate sin. They were expecting an acoustic performance; instead they watched their poster boy turn up with an unannounced band and plug in to play his first-ever electric set.
It was an act of rebelliousness that forged a path for the artists who followed, giving them the freedom to be creative under their own terms. At the time, however, it was quite a lot for the crowd to take in, with radio broadcaster John Gilliland describing how the acoustic prophet “electrified one half of his audience and electrocuted the other.”
The following year in Manchester, England, he was famously heckled “Judas!” for the same reasons, forsaking the stripped-down honesty he’d been instrumental in founding to pursue more thunderous avenues of noise.
5. Jimi Hendrix lets us stand next to his (literal) ﬁre (Monterey Pop, 1967)
Very few images – if any at all – have epitomized the dawn of a new age for guitar as well as Ed Caraeff’s shot of Jimi Hendrix summoning the fire gods out of his Strat during Wild Thing at the end of this landmark set.
It’s symbolic for so many reasons, though arguably it’s the sheer look of unabashed amazement and joy on his face, a king being crowned almost in a state of surrender to the flames rising from his pickups. It was, in fact, Hendrix’s second go at the lighter fuel stunt, having surprised audiences in London a few months earlier during Fire (the song), and perhaps surprising himself ever so slightly too, later visiting hospital in need of treatment for minor burns.
“The dude is probably the most colorful guitarist I’ve ever seen and heard,” says Black Pumas guitarist Eric Burton. “[Wild Thing] is such a staple of American rock ’n’ roll, and it was cool for him to completely own the song [at Monterey].”
6. Pete Townshend: Axe murderer! (The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, 1967)
Regardless of how you feel about people destroying guitars on stage (or elsewhere), there’s no denying the iconic status of that old chestnut – “The Who’s Pete Townshend just smashed his guitar on stage!”
Sure, smashing one’s guitar or bass has become “a thing” since 1967 (just ask Phoebe Bridgers, who punished her Danelectro Dano ’56 on SNL back in February), but when Townshend starting doing it, it was new, exciting, dangerous and – most importantly for a band trying to stand out from the very impressive crowd – attention-grabbing.
We’ve chosen this particular smashup because it’s immortalized in The Kids Are Alright and happened pretty early in the game. Sure, Pete had turned destruction into an artform by Woodstock two years later, but we’ve got that venue covered, as you’ll see.
7. Albert King’s blues powers the Fillmore (Fillmore Auditorium, 1968)
No, it's not B.B. King’s Live at the Regal (widely hailed as one of the greatest live blues albums of all time), but Albert King’s 1968 offering, Blues Power/Live Wire, arguably has a bit more oomph – not to mention those 10 minutes and 16 seconds called Blues Power, the opening track.
During that track, we hear King – a to-the-bone bluesman – mesmerize a mostly rock-loving San Fran audience while laying down about 33.33 percent of the road map that a very young Stevie Ray Vaughan would soon follow. There are moments during Blues Power and Blues at Sunrise when you might mistakenly think you’re listening to SRV’s Ain’t Gone ‘n’ Give Up on Love.
8. Jimi Hendrix channels his instrument of war at Woodstock (Woodstock, 1969)
The crowds had drastically thinned by the time Hendrix took Woodstock’s stage on a Monday morning (August 18, 1969), but that didn’t stop him from launching into The Star-Spangled Banner and turning his guitar into a weapon of mass destruction.
He managed to soundtrack the nightmare of Vietnam in ways no-one else could ever have conceived, embodying the frustrations of counterculture and disenfranchised youth, even reflecting on his own brief stint in the military.
Using a maxed-out Fuzz Face, a modded Vox wah and his guitar’s tremolo arm, he was able to transport the crowd into the throes of battle, with bombs raining from the sky and explosions erupting into deafening feedback. Appearing on The Dick Cavett Show a few months after the performance, Hendrix was confronted with the opinion that covering the national anthem in such an unorthodox manner could lead to a backlash.
“It’s not unorthodox – I thought it was beautiful,” he said, reasoning that, “I’m an American, so I played it – they made me sing it in school… it was a flashback.”
9. The Allmans make Southern rock history (Fillmore East, 1971)
Few live albums feel as career-encapsulating as the Allman Brothers Band’s Fillmore East show, recorded over two consecutive nights in March 1971, to the point where it’s these renditions that have since become the renditions.
The interplay between the band members over these drawn-out, elongated jams is what set them apart, typifying the kind of natural telepathy every band dreams about.
At the very forefront of their brilliance sat Duane Allman, a figure still regarded as one of the greatest slide players of all time, trading against the dynamics of founding guitarist and occasional singer Dickey Betts’ bluesy contributions.
10. Rory Gallagher risks life and limb (Ulster Hall, 1972)
It is rumored that when Hendrix was once asked how it felt to be the world’s greatest guitarist, he replied, “I don’t know, go ask Rory Gallagher!” We’ll never know for certain what was said exactly, but the singer-guitarist would have certainly been worthy of such high praise.
When he performed at Belfast’s Ulster Hall on New Year’s Day 1972, there hadn’t been a rock concert in over six months – and understandably so. It was at the very height of the Troubles, at a time when more than 10 car bombs were going off a night, though if anyone was going to find a way through the chaos, it always going to be Gallagher, whose father hailed from Derry, the second-largest city in Northern Ireland, and whose mother came from Cork, the second-largest south of the border.
What he delivered that night was some much-needed escapism from the continual unrest and lingering threat of death, using blues to heal and unite on an island where religion and politics had so tragically conquered and divided.