(Or Purr, Or Scream, Or Howl Into the Night)
I am not a technical music purist, so maybe I’m not using the term exactly correctly –– but a guitar’s sound, to me, is a combination of its tone and the way it’s being played, or, in other words, how it sonically bridges an emotional connection with the listener. It’s important to define it for the sake of this list because I’m ranking my favorite electric guitar parts that showcase a combination of skill, use of special effects, experimentation and a good ear.
Originally, this was going to be specifically about guitar tones and what I like about them, but it gradually morphed into something not only about how guitars can be manipulated but also about how the electric guitar elevates a song. I want to shed light on some songs I think deserve more attention, so avoidance of classic guitarists like Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn feels necessary. Nonetheless, a few certifiable classics did make it on the list. This is just what I’m into! Maybe I forgot a great song and that pisses you off, or you know one on this list and thought, that’s not so special! Sorry not sorry.
1. Pixies – Hey (1989)
Kicking off our list is a slow-burner with a very versatile guitar part: sometimes bouncing along with the bass, other times striking into focus. It simmers with tension throughout the song. There are moments in which the electric guitar is in the spotlight, but I don’t think it ever explodes like in other songs on this list. That’s what I love about it: it tightly carries us through to the finale, reverbing out into distorted nothing.
2. The Raincoats – Lola (1979)
I love how the guitars in this song straddle the line between being pretty and rough. It’s a stripped back DIY-type punk song, as are the rest of the songs on The Raincoats’ debut record. However, the clean sound of the guitars give it an air of fun, along with the vocal harmonies and pounding drums. The Kinks’ original features some heavier electric guitars that work for that version, but here the guitars bring a levity and energy that gives this one an edge for me.
3. Sugar Billy – Super Duper Love Parts 1 & 2 (1975)
Sugar Billy’s biggest single prominently features an echoed, funky guitar part. Along with the organ and ever-present tambourine, it’s what makes the song feel so organically upbeat. The echo effect only lasts a second or two, but it provides a psychedelic fuzz that doesn’t mess with the guitarists’ embellishments. An amazing feel-good song with a lovely guitar part as the bow on top.
4. Allman Brothers Band – Blue Sky (1972)
This is one of my favorite songs of all time, and features some of my favorite guitar soloing. The guitars have a clean sound, but there’s just enough fuzz on it to make them feel deeply warm. Mystic and mellow, both Duane Allman and Dickey Betts solo on this track, though you wouldn’t know given how well their two solos mesh together. They take their sweet time to get to the song’s conclusion. I never quite want them to get there.
5. Joan Armatrading – Never Is Too Late (1977)
Joan Armatrading, as a guitarist and songwriter, deserves more credit than she gets, to put it plainly. This is due to the dimension of her artistry. The electric guitar on “Never Is Too Late” takes a few minutes to take center stage, but it has a sound that has both an earthy twang and a little shimmering effect on it that makes me fall in love with it. It’s angular and tense, then loosens into moments of full-on country slide guitar. Even as the song builds and builds, the guitar remains constant and never overdoes itself, to Armatrading’s credit.
6. LCD Soundsystem – All I Want (2010)
This was one of the first songs I remember listening to where I thought, “Whoa, this guitar sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard before!” It sounds like an animal’s roar that has been contained, put through multiple effects, then looped. In an interview with the A.V. Club, Murphy credits the guitar sound on “All I Want” as taken directly from the style of King Crimson’s Robert Fripp (some have noted that the guitar chords, and other elements of the song, seem like a tribute to David Bowie’s “Heroes“). Nonetheless, it’s the guitars on “All I Want” that made me fall in love first so it’s “All I Want” that goes on this list. Even when the synth swirls into an out-of-tune mess, that howling guitar grounds us.
7. The Roches – Hammond Song (1979)
This song is the epitome of “the quiet before the storm” for me. It’s so stark and light. The stunning vocal harmonies take center stage during the song’s most thrilling moments, but it’s the aforementioned Robert Fripp’s guitar solo, taut yet hazy, that puts it on this list. Fripp is an accomplished artist, so there were a lot of choices to go off of here, but I especially love the subtlety of this solo and this song in general.
8. Funkadelic – Maggot Brain (1971)
The story, by now, is funk folklore: Funkadelic bandleader/producer George Clinton, tripping on LSD, tells guitarist Eddie Hazel to play like his mother has died and to explore those worlds of emotion. Hazel delivers a 10-minute epic, though his solo is no less impactful due to Clinton’s tripped-out studio trickery. Much has been said about this song, so I’ll keep it short, but my two cents in the “Maggot Brain” conversation is that at times the guitar sounds like it’s being played in reverse — not that I think it was literally reversed, but that the wah and delay make it sound as if Hazel’s guitar is trying to reach backwards in time then collapses in itself every few minutes. It’s nothing short of masterful.
9. Big Brother and the Holding Company, Janis Joplin – Ball and Chain (1969)
In their rendition of Big Mama Thornton’s blues original, Big Brother and the Holding Company add an absolutely crushing and dissonant electric guitar, one that is so loud and chaotic that it leaves me speechless every time I hear it. Joplin’s voice commands just as much presence as the guitar does. At times, they ebb and flow together. At times, they violently push and pull. It’s a perfect compliment for a jaw-dropping nine and a half minutes.
10. Devadip Carlos Santana, Alice Coltrane – Bliss: The Eternal Now (1974)
Two music legends collaborated for a whole album, so why is it so barely talked about? Well, for one, it’s incredibly niche: a free jazz record dedicated to Eastern Indian spirituality during a little-talked-about period of Carlos Santana’s career during which, after the peak of his success, he added a Sanskrit name to his own and became a disciple of guru Sri Chinmoy. This album found Coltrane in her element while allowing Santana a chance to try something completely new. His playing is quiet and pensive, the guitar strings trembling with slow intensity over sweeping instrumentation. Santana doesn’t even make himself heard for long stretches of the song (and for much of the album), but when he does, he adds perfect, minimal, feedback-drenched touches.
11. Los Shapis – El Aguajal (1984)
The guitar on “El Aguajal” makes for an interesting reflection of the one on “Super Duper Love Parts 1 & 2”: both thin and wisping, with slight delay on them to make for an entrancing sound. However, “El Aguajal” moves in melancholy where “Super Duper Love Parts 1 & 2” is all joy. The guitar on “El Aguajal” sometimes sounds like a signal for help, blipping out into reverb like the vocals, which also have a moment of delay on them that disorients.
12. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – How Do I Let a Good Man Down? (2005)
I realized I hadn’t included a song with some good old “waka-wa-waka-wa-waka-wa” kind of guitar playing, and it’s an essential sound, so here’s a great one from the inimitable Sharon Jones. The guitar notes perfectly keep rhythm with the drums, cooling into a wistful riff that is used in effective bursts. I love Jones’ voice and the way she commands the song, even while the guitar drives so much of it. It patterns her voice and the rest of the song amazingly.
13. Talking Heads – Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) (1980)
This is another one of those songs that not only features some of my favorite guitar playing but is one of my favorite songs in general. It’s so strange! I could write a whole essay about this song, this album and Brian Eno’s Afrobeat-inspired production, but we’re focusing on guitars, so I will direct you to one of the most disarming moments of recorded guitar I’ve ever heard: the solo starts at around 2:42 and ends at 3:17. It sounds like someone spilt soda on a computer, then the computer gained sentience, then tried to figure out what this hellish existence was before imploding. I have played it for music fans and musicians alike, some who argued that a guitar couldn’t possibly make those sounds. Others were just stunned. There’s some synth trickery there for sure, but guitarist Adrian Belew can be thanked for the solo (here’s a video of Belew doing some more impressive things with the guitar as proof of his talent).
14. J Dilla – Workinonit (2006)
Are most of the elements, including the guitars, of this song from 10cc’s “The Worst Band In The World”? Yeah, but “Workinonit” rocks. Weaving these elements into a psychedelic tapestry, Dilla makes the guitars accentuate far more than the original, waiting to let the cool licks come until the very end. Before that, the guitars are loud and distorted, adding that bit of strangeness that makes so many Dilla compositions so great.
15. Pusha T, Kendrick Lamar – Nosetalgia (2013)
Both featuring a sample of Bobby Bland’s “(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want To Be Right,” Travis Scott’s “Mamacita” could have gotten this spot, but the pitched-up guitar on “Nosetalgia” gives it an added intensity. It’s repeated every bar of the song but is no less striking each time it’s played. That slight pitch up does a lot — it adds a sense of tension to each of the high-energy verses. The guitar in the Bobby Bland original is prominent at the beginning but soon gives in to the heart aching strings that carry the song. Here, it remains taut and in your face.
16. GZA – 4th Chamber (1995)
The guitar sample in “4th Chamber” is not incredibly prominent, but that’s what I’ve loved about making this list — it’s reconnected me not only with great guitar sounds but with great uses of guitars. In this case, the guitar is thrown into the background from time to time, but, because of its grueling, distorted sound, it sounds fresh every time you hear it. RZA’s beat is already eclectic, and that ugly-sounding guitar, like the one in “Nosetalgia,” brings the darkness out of the verses without suffocating them. On that note, I would like to mention that RZA, for all the rightful love he gets as a producer, is an underrated MC, and his verse on “4th Chamber” is one of my favorite of his guest spots.
17. Bad Brains – Hired Gun (1986)
The guitars on “Hired Gun” are brittle and mean but also, extremely pretty. Bad Brains can shred through a song — they do towards the end of this very one — but their mix of reggae, hardcore and metal breeding some moments of real vulnerability, like the chords that float throughout “Hired Gun.” At some points, as H.R.’s vocals echo over them, they sound like something off of a shoegaze record, then sharpen into something grimier and heavier. It’s an incredible dynamic.
18. Fugazi – Repeater (1990)
I don’t think I’ve included a song where the guitars add pure chaotic noise — here’s one! With that being said, the guitar during the chorus sounds melodic, giving a short moment of relief before smashing right into the listener’s ears again. I love how the guitars, the drums and the vocals of a great Fugazi song try to break through sound as if it were a glass window and grab you. Not for the whole song, but at just the right moments. It’s what maintains their energy, the electric guitar disappearing for whole sections of the song then screaming back with wild power along with singer Ian McKaye.
19. Os Mutantes – A Minha Menina (1968)
This electric guitar is so nasty. It doesn’t do a lot throughout the song (just the same few notes repeated over and over again until a solo towards the end) but it’s doing so much for the song. It amplifies a wild edge already present in the loud drums, choppy acoustic guitars and light-hearted vocal harmonies. There were a lot of songs from the Brazilian Tropicália movement that I was considering including in this spot, but the guitar on “A Minha Menina” is so instantly recognizable and adrenaline-pumping every time I hear it. Listen to their version of Caetano Veloso’s “Baby” for another example of their gnarly yet beautiful electric guitar sound.
20. Betty Davis – They Say I’m Different (1974)
Across her career, Betty Davis has experimented with rock and R&B instrumentation to make her hard-edged yet smooth funk sound. I love how muscular the guitars and the bass are on this song are: they strut with a slow force, then the guitar bursts into country-inspired twanginess before coming back to that rigid riff, working wonders for the song. The vocals explode with the “talk about it / talk about it” call with a roughness that the guitars come to answer, laying the perfect foundation for Davis’s vocal pyrotechnics.
21. The Isley Brothers – Footsteps In The Dark, Pts. 1 & 2 (1977)
In the case of ” “Nosetalgia,” the most striking guitar part of an original song was sampled, thus earning a spot on this list. Here, we have the opposite: while put to great use on Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day,” nothing beats the original. That song emphasizes the slick beauty of the Isleys’s famous guitar lick, but the effects-heavy chords that play during the verses are so important as well. So smooth and moving.
22. Cocteau Twins – Cherry-Coloured Funk (1990)
I mean, you could swim in these guitars! They’re so… swimmy! I don’t know what else to say other than I love this song, mostly because it carries me away somewhere distant and lovely every time I hear it. By the time it ends, I’m confused as to why it went so quick, but no, it was actually a full three minutes, I was just successfully put under its spell. What more to ask for?
23. Outkast – She Lives In My Lap (2003)
Crunchy and howling, the guitar on “She Lives In My Lap” adds to the off-kilter feeling of the song, further suggesting to the listener the problems of the narrator’s relationship. You don’t usually hear a guitar so subtly dissonant in a song like this, but that goes to show how inventive Andre 3000 can be with details like that. The guitars on Outkast’s “Funky Ride” were also up for consideration, another Outkast cut where the boundaries of rock, hip-hop and R&B were pushed, but just in terms of most interesting guitar sounds, and the one on “She Lives In My Lap” sounds so hard and effective.
24. The Flaming Lips, Tame Impala – Children of the Moon (2012)
This guitar is disgusting. And it’s over such a pretty, light instrumental, making for an amazing contrast, one that The Flaming Lips utilize a lot. It’s just monstrous! Another one of the first times I really tuned into a guitar’s tone and was blown away by it. The acoustic guitar really carries the song, but the electric’s explosiveness was one I couldn’t leave off of this list. I mean, you could grill steaks on it. It’s like a space rocket taking off.
25. The Jesus and Mary Chain – Just Like Honey (1985)
To end our list, we have “Just Like Honey” by The Jesus and Mary Chain, another song that uses dissonance and distortion to an exceedingly beautiful effect. There are two fuzzed-out guitars at play here, dancing around each other so prettily. Then, they both fade out for a moment during the chorus before gently coming back and adding those layers of noise to close us out.
Header image by Yusra Shah