Live guitar’s greatest moments from Les Paul to Guns N’ Roses
A huge amount of rock’n’roll is built on great live guitar work. All the players featured here – and many more besides – have laid down enough killer solos, licks and riffs to fill more magazines than we’ll ever have the time or manpower to make.
Then there are those instances, captured on record or on camera, that truly stand out; those iconic moments in rock’s history when the guitar (and, crucially, the person playing it) transcends boundaries, forges new paths for subsequent generations or just really freaks out everyone fortunate enough to be watching.
Whether through one-off collaborations, reunions, genuinely magical playing (Eric Clapton’s finest Crossroads solo, Prince’s George Harrison homage), envelope-pushing instrumentation (Jimmy Page’s bow, Rick Nielsen’s five-necked axe) or shocking stage antics (Jimi Hendrix’s flaming guitar at Monterey, Blackmore losing his shit at Cal Jam), the guitar has been central to some incredible live moments.
Here, we think, are some of the best…
Mary duels with Paul, on Les Pauls
The Colgate Comedy Hour, 1954
In the 1950s, 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 recording artists of the early 50s, with 16 Top-10 hits. In 1951 alone, they sold six million records. Small wonder that in 1952 Gibson sought out Les to put his name on their new solid-body electric guitar.
While Ford was the featured singer on the couple’s songs, she was also a fine guitarist, as heard in a famous – and 100 percent live – YouTube clip from a performance on US TV show The Colgate Comedy Hour originally aired in March ‘54. In the clip, Les and Mary perform a mock guitar battle during a performance of There’s No Place Like Home.
Chuck Berry’s ‘duck walk’ is born
The Alan Freed Show, Paramount Theater, New York City, 1956
Charles Edward Anderson Berry became a star in the 50s, but it was this show – in particular the debut of this now-infamous stage move – that would ingrain him into the fabric of live rock’n’roll. Guitarist T-Bone Walker was ‘duck walking’ back in the 30s, but it was Berry who made it popular. It was later famously copied by AC/DC’s Angus Young.
There’s some debate as to when Berry did that show (he told the Washington Post it was 1956, though other sources suggest it was 1955). Similarly, his reasons for doing it in the first place have been subject to speculation (some say it was based on a move he did as a child, others argue it was an attempt to hide the wrinkles in his suit). Either way, it became a signature part of his stage show, making him ultimately more memorable – and more imitated – than his peers.
The Beatles light a (figurative) fire
The Ed Sullivan Show, February 9, 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’s Joe Perry tells us. Yes, it’s no secret The Beatles helped popularise guitars more than any band before them. Instrument orders skyrocketed as a direct consequence of their debut live appearance on American TV’s 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.”
Sister Rosetta Tharpe shreds with fury
TV Gospel Time, mid-60s
Footage of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s earth-shaking guitar playing continues to go viral, and rightly so. Very few video recordings of Tharpe (who’s often called ‘the Godmother of Rock’n’Roll’) exist, which only adds to her legend.
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 phenomenal, even by today’s standards.
Bob Dylan plugs in
Newport Folk Festival, 1965
For many of the committed folk purists attending the 1965 Rhode Island festival, Bob Dylan committed the ultimate sin. They were expecting an acoustic performance; instead their poster boy turned up with an unannounced band and plugged in and played his first ever electric set. It was an act of rebelliousness that forged a path for so many artists who followed.
At the time, however, it was a lot for the audience to take in; radio broadcaster John Gilliland described how the acoustic prophet “electrified one half of his audience and electrocuted the other”. The following year in Manchester, Dylan was famously heckled “Judas!” for the same reasons.
Jimi Hendrix lets us stand next to his fire – literally
Monterey Pop festival, California, 1967
Very few images, if any, epitomise the dawn of a new age for rock’n’roll as much as Ed Caraeff’s shot of Jimi Hendrix sacrificing his Strat to the flames during Wild Thing at the end of his landmark set. It’s symbolic for so many reasons, although arguably it’s the sheer look of unabashed amazement and joy on his face, almost in a state of surrender to the flames rising from the melting pickups.
It was actually Hendrix’s second attempt at a guitar-meets-lighter-fuel flare-up, having surprised audiences in London a few months earlier while playing Fire, and perhaps surprising himself too – he later visited hospital in need of treatment for minor burns.
Jimmy Page wields a violin bow for the first time
Bouton Rouge, France, 1968
The sight of Jimmy Page, bow in hand, lurching around the stage, is one of rock’s most iconic, and is written into Led Zeppelin lore thanks to its central role in Dazed And Confused. Page’s guitar-bowing premiere was actually when he was in The Yardbirds, when that song was more a prototype beast, not yet the grandstanding epic it would become on Led Zeppelin, and there’s a rawness and an eerie, Eastern mystique to its first appearance, in 1967.
Technically Page wasn’t the first rock star to make use of this technique (that, as far as we know, was British guitarist Eddie Phillips, who used a bow on his guitar from 1963 as a member of The Mark Four and The Creation), but the way Jimmy used it, in both sound and appearance, is by far the most memorable.
Clapton’s Crossroads solo like you’ve never seen it
Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco, 1968
Cream bassist/vocalist Jack Bruce has said that Cream played better versions of Crossroads than the one at Winterland in March ’68 that first appeared on their album Wheels Of Fire. If they did, then it’s a crying shame they weren’t recorded, as they must have been stupendous. Because that performance of the Robert Johnson tune is still one of the most spine-tingling four minutes and 13 seconds of live rock music ever (thankfully) committed to tape.
In a thunderous reading of a song that Cream often just skipped through, Clapton plays out-of-this-world double solos that are precise, controlled, electrifying, jaw-dropping, the second one hitting just when you’re marvelling, still bedazzled, at the first one. Truly magnificent.
The Allman Brothers Band make southern rock history
Fillmore East, New York City, 1971
Few live albums feel as career-encapsulating as the Allman Brothers Band’s At Fillmore East, a double album recorded over two consecutive nights in March 1971, to the point where it’s these renditions of the songs on it that have since become the renditions.
The interplay between the band members over these drawn-out, elongated jams is what set them the Allmans apart. At the very forefront of their brilliance was 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’s bluesy contributions.
Ziggy Stardust fellates Mick Ronson’s axe
Oxford Town Hall, 1972
In January 1972 David Bowie unveiled Ziggy Stardust in all his androgynous glory. Around the same time, Bowie came out as gay (he’d later come out as bisexual), paving the way for a persona that changed the image of ambiguous sexuality in the mainstream. Draping his arm around guitarist Mick Ronson’s shoulders may seem like regular rock-star behaviour now, but at the time – only five years after the legalisation of homosexuality in the UK – it was as revolutionary as it was outrageous.
It all came to a head, so to speak, at Oxford Town Hall in June that year, when Bowie/Ziggy took the whole guitar-as-a-penis-extension idea to a new, rather more literal place. Known as the ‘guitar fellatio’ moment, Bowie’s expression of appreciation for Ronson’s… erm, instrument, was repeated at subsequent shows, carving its way into rock history.
Rory Gallagher risks life and limb
Ulster Hall, Belfast, 1972
It is rumoured that when Jimi 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 exactly what was said, but the Irish 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 there in over six months. Understandably so, given that it was at the very height of the Troubles, at a time when car bombs were going off every night.
If anyone was going to find a way through the chaos, it always going to be Gallagher, whose father was 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.