Are you searching for your first set of strings? Or maybe you’re curious to know what instruments celebrity stars began with? The guitars used by famous musicians can vary tremendously…
From iconic flashy brands to quirky bespoke creations and basic starter models, we have the lowdown on the instruments played by some of the most famous guitarists of all time.
Get to know your Martins from your Gibsons and find out which singer-songwriter has his very own range, in our definitive guide to the guitars played by the best-known musicians.
Guitars used by famous musicians
The stars understand the value of a great instrument. But when you make it to the top of the industry and have the cash to spare, what’s your guitar of choice? Whether acoustic, classical or electric, there’s the perfect model out there for everyone. And most major musicians will have a whole collection. Although one usually stands out as their favourite stalwart piece.
Most iconic guitar models
The big factors considered by music icons when choosing a guitar are the functionality, sound and look of the instrument. The latter is probably the least impactful, as it can be hacked and customised to suit. Often the brand that is chosen just comes down to a personal preference.
What are the most famous guitars?
How do you know which guitar is right for you? Should it be electric or acoustic? What size and what budget? Here are some iconic guitars as listed by Rolling Stone.com.
- Eric Clapton’s customised Fifties Fender Stratocaster was assembled from parts of three Strats bought in Nashville in the 1970s.
- The Canadian musician Neil Young, had a 1950s vintage Gibson Les Paul Goldtop.
- Bruce Springsteen’s Fender Esquire was sometimes identified as a Telecaster – yet another creation from the mid-century era renowned for great design.
- US band frontwoman Joan Jett has a beaten up Gibson Melody Maker with a single Red Rhodes Velvet Hammer humbucker. It’s covered in stickers and survived decades of music-making.
- Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page played a double-neck Gibson with 12 strings on top and six on the bottom.
- The Beatles’ legendary guitarist and sometime solo artist George Harrison, played a Gretsch. However, his most iconic guitar was probably a 1963 Rickenbacker 12 string.
- Jimi Hendrix is often named the finest guitarist who ever lived. But his Stratocaster had a short life when he famously set it on fire at the Monterey Pop Festival.
What guitars do rock stars use?
It’s been said that the electric guitar has been the soul of rock and roll. Over the years certain guitars have become legendary and almost have a mythical quality. Here is a list of some of the best rock guitars:
- The Fender Stratocaster. Among its most famous players are Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Hendrix, and Eddie Van Halen.
- The Fender Telecaster. Rock stars who used this guitar include Chrissie Hynde (who has recently had a cool new Telecaster named after her) Noel Gallagher, Muddy Waters, Bruce Springsteen and Joe Strummer.
- The Fender Jaguar. This was popular with Kurt Cobain, Elvis Costello and Johnny Marr.
- The Gibson Flying V. The solid body shaped like a V made this popular with Eddie Van Halen, Lenny Kravitz and Jimmy Hendrix.
- The Gibson SG. Angus Young of AC/DC was one of the most notable players of the SG, as well as The Who’s Pete Townsend and Thom Yorke.
- The Ibanez RG550. Popular with many hard rockers and metallers since the late 1980s, this is a modern classic.
- The Gibson Les Paul. This was a favourite with Jimmy Page, Slash, Frank Zappa, Eric Clapton and Billy Gibbons.
Which players use Martin guitars?
Martin guitars and strings have been among the top choices for musicians due to their quality, craftsmanship and tone. Top musicians worldwide from all genres, classical and country to blues, folk and acoustic rock have played from their range.
- Elvis Presley had the acoustic Martin D model which he played in the early days of his career.
- Beatle Paul McCartney used a D-28.
- Eric Clapton has used a number of Martin guitars.
- John Mayer – who has owned hundreds of guitars including his main acoustic through the years – has a Martin own signature model.
Although these are top artists with big budgets, the guitars are also suitable for those beginning their careers. And the smaller models can be well suited to students, as well as those instrumentalists or singers who frequently have to travel about to gigs and lessons.
Guitars given nicknames by famous musicians
Once in possession of the perfect strings, many of the stars have chosen to given their instrument a pet name. Here are some famous examples.
- George Harrison was given a unique red Gibson Les Paul guitar which he named Lucy. It is one of the most famous electric guitars in the world.
- Eric Clapton’s nickname for his Fender Stratocaster is Blackie. He played Blackie on stage and in the studio from 74-85, recording some of his biggest hits such as Layla, Wonderful Tonight and I Shot the Sheriff.
- A Telecaster used by both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page in both The Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin was named The Dragon for its green, yellow and red paint. It was used to record the famous Stairway to Heaven.
- Nile Rodgers’ white Fender Stratocaster was called The Hitmaker.
- Bob Marley had a favourite guitar during the 1970s which he affectionately christened Old Faithful.
- Brian May’s Red Special has been with him through thirty years of live concerts and studio work with Queen.
- Billy Gibbons of American rock band ZZ Top calls his guitar Pearly Gates.
- Prince had a custom-built guitar which had an asymmetric cloud-shaped body, which was given the name The Cloud.
Have you given your guitar a special name?
Famous acoustic guitar players
An acoustic guitar can be funky, soulful and raw, whether you’re strumming, picking or tapping. Many well-known musicians have chosen acoustic guitars. In a Music Radar poll, readers voted for their favourites guitar players – among them the dynamic acoustic player Stephen Stills who transitioned from rock to folk. Another favourite was Bob Dylan, who made it look so easy with elaborate fingerpicking, perfect sense of rhythm and amazing runs.
From the classical world, Andres Segovia made the top 20 poll – a genuine classical legend with stunning tone and delivery. Singer/songwriter James Taylor had a sensitive and emotional touch to his songs and playing. Top place in the poll went to Tommy Emmanuel. Described as having fingers blessed with the tone of gods, it’s said he could make wire stretched across a plank of wood sound good.
Top guitarists have often owned or played hundreds of guitars but usually started out with a fairly simple instrument, often second hand or a humble barely playable guitar.
- Ed Sheeran has long been a fan of the Lowden. So much so, there’s now an entire range named after him – Sheeran Guitars. Irish made, these are great for aspiring music makers who need something affordable, but high quality.
- Ed’s not the only artists to have had an entire range named after him. Alternative songstress and guitarist St Vincent also has a collection (albeit smaller). The St Vincent Collection is eclectic and funky, like the star herself
- Slash, lead guitarist of hard rock band Guns N’ Roses received a one-string Spanish style acoustic from his grandmother for his 15th birthday.
- Award-winning Joe Satriani decided to be a guitarist after hearing Hendrix had died. He saw a white Hagstrom in the local music shop and thought it looked like the one Hendrix played, and with help from his sister he bought it, knowing little about guitars.
- Todd Rundgren, a pioneer in the fields of electronic music and progressive rock, was seven when he signed up for lessons at the local music store and with it came a steel-string acoustic.
- Aerosmith’s Joe Perry used to play around on his uncle’s homemade guitar but he got his own Silvertone which he said was difficult to play because of the heavy strings, however, he fell in love with the guitar and knew it was his calling.
From these humble beginnings, many fledgeling musicians have learned and practised and progressed to become top guitarists. Every guitar has a story and every player remembers his first guitar.
- Blues-rock guitarist Joe Bonamassa had a little electric guitar when he was four. It was called Chiquita. When he was six he got a Gibson SG.
- Carlos Santana (the American-Mexican guitarist who rose to fame in the 1960s and early 1970s with his band Santana) was a violinist first. However, his father bought him a six-string Gibson in 1960 in Tijuana.
- Duane Eddy had a string of hits in the 1950s and 1960s. Eddy was nine when his aunt sent him a little guitar which he learned to play, then his parents gave him and old Kay. Then when he was 15, he bought his very first Les Paul Goldtop.
- Bon Jovi lead guitarist Richie Sambora’s dad bought him a 10 dollar Teisco which never stayed in tune, yet still set him off on a stratospheric musical path.
- Johnny Marr, who achieved fame with The Smiths, had a little wooden toy version when he was four years old.
- Rick Parfitt of Status Quo, had a Framus Sunburst which was a Christmas present.
- Manic Street Preachers’ James Dean Bradfield bought a black Kay-40 with his paper round money when he was 15.
- Dan Hawkins, best known as the guitarist of UK band The Darkness, used his dad’s acoustic from the age of eight. His first electric was a budget white Strat which he named Mumm-Ra.
- Rock chick Suzie Quatro was gifted her guitar by her father, He gave her a Fender Precision bass guitar after she taught herself to play.
- Nile Rodgers, the co-founder of the band Chic, had a Fender Mustang as he wanted to imitate jazz players, but then moved on to a Gibson.
What makes a great guitar?
Evaluating the quality of any guitar entails looking at individual components that make up the instrument, the body, neck, tuners, frets, pickups, electronics and hardware. Is it necessary to buy an expensive instrument? A guitar is an investment in your musical future but expensive doesn’t always mean best. Brian May has used a homemade guitar that he and his father made in the late ’60s.
Are cheap guitars worth buying?
It’s worth doing research as there is plenty of choice for budget-conscious beginners, just as many famous guitarists started out without spending a fortune on a high-end instrument. Stories abound about Prince buying his Madcat for 30 dollars. It had a leopard print pickguard and jack plate that Prince accessorised with a matching strap. His custom-built Cloud guitar made famous in the movie Purple Rain shows he’d come a long way from that earlier low budget purchase.
While your guitar will take you a long way, it can’t stand in the place of practice and hard work. Be sure to develop your skill and technique above all. Then investing in a cool or flash guitar will only help to make you stand out even more as a musician. Especially if you chose one that suits your genre and image. But remember, a good guitar alone won’t be enough to give you credence in this competitive world. Make sure there’s as much substance as style, in your act.
- Was Jimi Hendrix left-handed?
Jimi strummed with his left hand, yet ate and wrote with his right. He developed the ability to play with either hand, however, as his father insisted he played with his right. His right-handed Fender Stratocaster had to be turned over and restrung to suit his left hand. But he could also play with the strings upside down.
- Are left-handed guitars different?
Apart from the strings being flipped the opposite way, left-handed Carlos Santana guitars are exactly the same. They are a mirror image of right-handed guitars. Around 10% of people are left-handed. But did you know that two of the world’s top guitarists were left-handed? Read about more left-handed guitarists here.
- Who is the best guitarist ever?
Jimi Hendrix is widely thought of, and frequently voted, the best guitarist ever. Along with him, comes Eric Clapton and Brian May of Queen. Jimmy Page, Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt and Eddie Van Halen also come high up on the list.
Which is your favourite of these guitars used by famous musicians? Have you been inspired to buy one yourself? Let us know in the comments.