The 47 greatest live guitar moments: the most iconic, infamous and explosive onstage antics in six-string history

21. Iron Maiden take metal to new heights (Long Beach Arena, 1985)

For a lot of metal fans, Iron Maiden’s Live After Death – predominantly recorded at Long Beach Arena in 1985 – was (and most likely always will be) their most quintessential live release. And rightly so, given the setlist and sheer conviction of the NWOBHM heroes at this stage in their career. 

It’s also when the group’s live shows started to become the stuff of legend, the ancient Egyptian themes of newest album Powerslave giving them ample opportunity to explore more theatricalities and pyrotechnics. As evidenced by these storming renditions of The Trooper, Aces High and Hallowed Be Thy Name, the two-pronged guitar assault of Adrian Smith and Dave Murray was as good as it gets.

22. Queen at London’s Wembley Stadium (Live Aid, 1985)

Even Bob Geldof admitted that, despite stiff competition from Led Zeppelin, Elton John and David Bowie, Queen were the undisputed highlight of the charity concerts he organized in 1985. And with a tight 20-minute setlist comprising Bohemian Rhapsody’s first half, Radio Ga Ga, Hammer to Fall, Crazy Little Thing Called Love, parts of We Will Rock You and finally We Are the Champions, it’s easy to understand why. 

It was the moment they reminded us just how wonderfully Freddie Mercury’s soaring vocals and Brian May’s snarling mids led those sky-rocketing anthems.

23. Giving it their all for Les Paul (Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1988)

On August 18, 1988, a now-hard-to-fathom horde of famous guitarists got together to celebrate the life and music of guitar great Les Paul, who was 73 at the time.

The show, which was released on a now-sought-after VHS (with an incredibly long title), brought Les onto the same stage with Eddie Van Halen, David Gilmour, Brian Setzer (who bellowed, “Hey, Eddie Van Halen, get your butt up here, man!”), B.B. King, Stanley Jordan, Steve Miller and yes, even Waylon Jennings! 

This show has been celebrated on in the past, but it has become even more poignant now that some of its biggest stars – Les, Eddie and B.B. – have passed on. It’s a bit like that video of George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr performing While My Guitar Gently Weeps in 1987; it was cool then, but it’s priceless now.

24. SRV triumphs over a broken string (Austin City Limits, 1989)

We don't need proof that Stevie Ray Vaughan was an unstoppable force on his guitar, but plenty of it exists nonetheless.

One of the more unforgettable examples of his genius came while performing Look at Little Sister for a television special in 1989, when his B string breaks halfway into his solo – though few would have been able to tell, given how he carries on through to the end.

Only then does he call for help, and, following a quick nod to tech Rene Martinez, the pair switch instruments as SRV continues with vocals, almost as if it were all planned. He was, in every way imaginable, the real deal.

25. Jason Becker whips out a yo-yo in Japan (Japan, 1989)

The Japanese crowds attending what would end up being one of Cacophony’s final tours couldn’t believe their eyes. In front of them, a 19-year-old Jason Becker unleashes myriad legato runs while raising his right hand to his ear, demanding for the room to scream louder. 

And then – out of nowhere – he starts throwing a yo-yo while his other hand climbs up and down the fretboard of his pearl purple Kiesel superstrat, every note ringing out as loud and proud as the last. 

The grainy clips are still widely shared to this day, fondly remembered as being one of the most audacious and brazen guitar stunts of all time. Soon both Cacophony axemen would get their big breaks – Marty Friedman with Megadeth in 1990 and Becker in David Lee Roth’s solo band a year later.

26. The world’s Guitar Legends unite (Seville, Spain, 1991)

It you're going to name your event anything even half as bold as Guitar Legends, you better have the lineup to back it up. Fortunately for this one-off Spanish event, the guitar gods arrived en masse, from blues greats like B.B. King and Robert Cray to high-gain rockers such as Brian May, Steve Vai and Nuno Bettencourt, with the jazz world covered very nicely by the likes of George Benson, John McLaughlin, Les Paul and Paco de Lucía. 

And it didn’t end there, either – joining them were other six-string heroes like Albert Collins, Joe Walsh and Keith Richards, and bass masters including Roger Waters, Jack Bruce and Stanley Clarke. Wish you there? Yeah, so do we…

27. Paul Gilbert doffs his cap to Jimi (Frankfurt Jazz Festival, 1991)

Of all the Racer X/Mr. Big guitarist’s live offerings, this short set from a European solo tour in the early Nineties might sound like an oddity. It is, however, where his Tribute to Jimi Hendrix set was recorded – stretching Red House, Hey Joe, Highway Chile, Midnight and Purple Haze into a 45-minute set of shredding glory. 

Which is why, of course, it’s such a goldmine for stealing some of Gilbert’s signature licks, from Mixolydian ideas that bounce between major and minor pentatonic box shapes to those head-turning string skips and wide-interval arpeggios.

28. Guns N' Roses bring out Brian May (Wembley Stadium, 1992)

They were essentially the biggest band in the world by this point, and though it was toward the end of their golden age, drummer and rhythm guitarist Steven Adler and Izzy Stradlin having already been replaced by Matt Sorum and Gilby Clarke respectively, the Sunset Strip renegades were still very much on fire. 

After tearing through newer tracks like Bad Obsession and Double Talkin’ Jive, as well as the bigger hits from Appetite for Destruction, and an extended Slash solo built around The Godfather’s love theme, they then brought out Brian May for two Queen covers.

Following Tie Your Mother Down and We Will Rock You with closers Don’t Cry and Paradise City, it would become one of the group’s most landmark concerts away from home soil.

29. Nirvana go acoustic (Sony Music Studios, 1993)

There are numerous factors as to why Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York set would become one of their most renowned. As the band’s first release in the aftermath of Kurt Cobain’s death, the live recordings were a stark reminder of what the world had just lost – a brilliantly talented songwriter whose thought-provoking lyrics, chordal simplicity and chromatic single-note motifs made a difference to many lives. 

It was often his imperfections that made him such a truly left-field visionary; case in point, the opening part of his outro solo for David Bowie cover The Man Who Sold The World, which may very well have been a mistake. It appears as if Cobain slides a semitone below then up a semitone above the note he was most likely aiming for, before joining cellist Lori Goldston in pitch. 

If it was a mistake, the way he owns it and recovers is what makes the interpretation perhaps even better than exact correctness, giving the line a somewhat menacing, atonal flavor.

30. Nine Inch Nails get messy (Woodstock, 1994)

Torrential rain turned this mid-Nineties edition of Woodstock into a giant mudbath, which is why, minutes before they were due to hit the stage, Trent Reznor and his cohorts caked themselves in the stuff.

Not only was their music intrinsically darker and more malevolent than anything else on offer that year, they also looked like they’d risen out of  a nearby graveyard and played like they were hellbent on destruction. 

And though it was, and still very much is, Reznor’s band and music, long-serving guitarist Robin Finck – who would also later join Guns N’ Roses – served up a truly captivating wall of noise alongside their warring synths and mechanical drums. Industrial rock never looked or sounded more dangerous than this.

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Guitar World Staff

Since 1980, Guitar World has been the ultimate resource for guitarists. Whether you want to learn the techniques employed by your guitar heroes, read about their latest projects or simply need to know which guitar is the right one to buy, Guitar World is the place to look.