21 greatest guitar songs and songs about guitarists

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21 greatest guitar songs and songs about guitarists

Electric guitar
Words by Christie Eliezer

From the very first guitar, players have expressed how the stick played such a huge role in their lives.

Guitar songs help us all remember how the guitar helped us overcome a lonely childhood, fulfil our dreams or expressed our own reflections on their lives.

Guitar songs

These 21 guitar songs could well make you pick up a guitar if you haven’t already, feed your Gear Acquisition Syndrome or just dirty up your licks!

Neil Young: “From Hank to Hendrix”

Recorded for Harvest Moon (1992), “Hank” is Hank B. Marvin of British instrumental band The Shadows.

He was Young’s idol in his early days in folk clubs of Canada. “He was the hero of all the guitar players around Winnipeg at the time.”

Jimi he described as “the greatest electric-guitar player who ever lived.”

The axe shredders are mentioned as reference points of a long term relationship that is coming to an end.

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Wyclef Jean: “Hendrix”

Wyclef recalls that growing up in the rough suburb of Newark in New Jersey, his friends joined gangs or turned to crime. He chose music.

The lyric goes: “When my cousin got his first Tec (Tec-9 gun)/ I was playing Jimi Hendrix in the basement.”

Red Hot Chili Peppers: “Eddie”

Work on RHCP’s “Eddie” started the day after news flashed around that Eddie Van Halen had passed on October 6, 2020 from a stroke aged 65.

“Sometimes we don’t realize how deeply affected and connected we are to artists until the day they die,” singer Anthony Kiedis stated. 

“Eddie Van Halen was a one of a kind. The day after his death Flea came into rehearsal with an emotional bass line. 

“John, Chad, and I started playing along and pretty soon with all our hearts, a song in his honour effortlessly unfolded.

“It felt good to be sad and care so much about a person who had given so much to our lives.”

The song recalls his early journey. “In the end, our song asks that you not remember Eddie for dying but for living his wildest dream.”

The 5 minute 42 seconds song appeared on Return of the Dream Canteen (2022) and made its live debut on October 9, 2022, at the Austin City Limits festival, with a fierce solo from John Frusciante.

Talking Heads – “Electric Guitar”

Totally cubist offering from Fear of Music (1979) about an electric guitar that is run over by a car on a highway (“This is a crime against the state/ This is the meaning of life”) and taken to court where a judge and jury agree, “Never listen to electric guitar.”

Wynonna Judd – “Girls With Guitars”

Although written by Mary Chapin Carpenter, it summed up Wynonna Judd as a 15-year old.

She wasn’t interested in boys or sports or school. “All I wanted to do was play music. 

“I remember carrying my guitar everywhere I went. It got to be kind of a joke with everybody. It was like, ‘Well, here comes Wynonna and her guitar.'”

The song references riffs from Deep Purple’s “Smoke On The Water” and Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love,” and is intended to be a girl-power anthem.

“To give them the same kind of idea that you can be different when you’re a teenager and not be popular and grow up like me and then get paid for being weird.”

The Whitlams – “Chunky Chunky Air Guitar”

A tongue-in-cheek ditty about the exhilaration of playing air guitar, told through the eyes of a girl “who came from the Cocos Islands with a limp and a snow-shaker huh” and a tambourine player locked “in confinement wired like a banshee with a blade” and came to him in a dream “disguised as a bus crash”.

“Through the mud, the blood and the tears they kissed

And then they slipped away, they were singin’

Chunky chunky air guitar now!”

Sandi Thom – “Dancin’ With The Ghost Of Stevie Ray”

Scottish singer songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Alexandria “Sandi” Thom (of “I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker” fame) was playing the famous El Mocambo club in Toronto on her birthday in 2006.

The barman told her the great US blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan had played there many times. 

After he died in August 1990 in a helicopter crash, his ghost returned and played after the club was closed for the night and the lights switched off.

Thom says that she was the last to leave the club. As she turned the lights off, she heard someone (either the ghost or a radio) playing his music.

Jimmie Vaughan – “Six Strings Down”

Jimmie Vaughan of the Fabulous Thunderbirds pays a wonderwall tribute on his solo album Strange Pleasure (1994) to his brother Stevie Ray.

It also laments Jimi Hendrix, Albert Collins, Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins, “Heaven done called another blues stringer back home”.

Richard Thompson – “Guitar Heroes”

Vastly underrated guitarist Richard Thompson apologises to parents, teachers and girlfriend for the time he spent in his younger days practising incessantly to become as good as his idols.

On this, the closing track on Still (2015), he utilises riffs by Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, Chuck Berry, James Burton and Hank B. Marvin.

Skyhooks – “1976 Guitar”

Recorded in the mid-90s for their first album in 14 years, dubbed The Lost Album (1999), this one recalls their phenomenal success in the ‘70s, starting with buying the first guitar in 1968.

“I played that thing all night and day, each fret from neck to nut

There weren’t no riff, I did not know no lick, I could not cut.”

Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard — “Django And Jimmie”

This tribute to jazz-gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt and country picker Jimmie Rodgers was written by Jimmy Melton with songwriter Jeff Prince.

He sent it to them separately. Both flipped over it, as both guitarists had been influential on their careers.

They decided to record it together, as part of the collaboration album they’d been talking about.

The Mothers of Invention –  “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama”

It was written by Frank Zappa for his ‘60s confrontational band Mothers Of Invention and appeared on their Weasels Ripped My Flesh album (1970).

It has been resuscitated through the years, including by his son Dweezil Zappa, Jimmy Webb, The Persuasions, Muffin Men, Die Beistelltische, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and Eric Johnson on the 1996 G3 tour, and again by Satriani, Vai and Steve Lukather on the 2012 G3 tour.

Amy Ray – “Duane Allman”

Amy Ray, one half of the Indigo Girls, and southern boogie band The Allman Brothers Band both hailed from the southern American state of Georgia.

Not surprisingly, Ray was utterly obsessed with their music. But it was much later that she learned that Duane Allman had actually died when his motorbike crashed into a truck when she was seven years old.

The song’s sense of the pain of finding out equates with alcohol and drug withdrawal which a friend of hers was going through when she wrote the song.

Psychic TV – “Godstar”

The late Genesis P-Orridge spent most of his years in British ‘90s psychedelic band Psychic TV (and later Throbbing Gristle) tilting at society’s taboos and hypocrisy, the mass media and writing about mass murder, mutilation, the occult and fascism.

It was inevitable that he’d write this song about Brian Jones, the guitarist and original leader of The Rolling Stones, about his wild lifestyle and music brilliance.

“Brian was served up as the scapegoat for representing the whole ‘60s lifestyle. I know exactly how he felt because I feel that way.”

The Beatles – “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”

George Harrison owned hundreds of guitars but none of them were about this song.

Instead it was a spiritual lament that the universal love he sang about in his earlier songs had not come to pass: “The love there that’s sleeping”.

It also reflected that in 1968 when The Beatles returned from India from studying transcendental meditation under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to work on The White Album, their camaraderie was in short supply.

Which is why he invited his best friend Eric Clapton to cut the electrifying solo on this track to cut down on the tensions.

Harrison explained, “The Eastern concept is that whatever happens is all meant to be … every little item that’s going down has a purpose. 

“‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ was a simple study based on that theory … I picked up a book at random (The I Ching, or The Book of Changes, opened it, saw the world “gently weeps”, then laid the book down again and started the song.”

John Denver – “This Old Guitar”

The US singer songwriter wrote “This Old Guitar” about his 1910 Gibson “F-hole” acoustic jazz.

It was a gift from his grandmother when he was 12. A “military brat”, his father’s job in the Air Force kept the family moving all the time.

The shy little boy found it difficult to be accepted at school, and spent his time alone playing the guitar and listening to the radio.

Denver died on October 12, 1997 in a plane crash. His body and the guitar were cremated together, and the ashes spread over the Rocky Mountains.

Nils Lofgren – “Keith Don’t Go (Ode to the Glimmer Twin)”

In 1975 the Rolling Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards’ drug addictions were so bad that people assumed it would only be a matter of time before he died.

Nils Lofgren, guitarist with Grin, Neil Young’s Crazy Horse and Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band, wrote an impassioned song begging him to clean up.

“Keith don’t go, Keith don’t go

We miss our father Jimi, it’s hard to breathe with that loss

But I still got you brother, don’t nail yourself to a cross

I watch you lead the pack, you put the drive into my soul.”

Johnny Cash – “Tennessee Flat Top Box”

The 1961 song’s name refers to a steel-stringed acoustic popular with country and western players.

It is about a young US boy from Texas obsessed with using his obvious talents to be a star.

Women would pawn their jewellery and sneak out of their homes to come and see him. 

“All the girls from nine to ninety, were snapping fingers, tapping toes, and begging him: ‘Don’t stop.'”

But one day he disappears. He’s achieved his dream, and he returns eventually this time as a TV star.

Amy Winehouse – “Cherry”

As a kid, Amy Winehouse would sneak into her brother’s bedroom when he was out to play his axe.

When she bought her own, with money made from acting, she lied to her folks to say it was a present.

Not surprisingly then that she adored her main axe, a Fiesta Red Strat, and one of these guitar songs, tells a boyfriend “Cherry” meant more to her than him.

“And when I’m lonely, Cherry’s there

And she plays along while I sing out my blues

I could be crying, and you don’t care

You won’t call me back, you’re stubborn as a mule.

Maybe we could talk ’bout things

If you was made of wood and strings

You might think I’ve gone too far

I’m talking ’bout my new guitar.”

Rush – “2112”

Written in 1977 and set in the future of 2112, the seven-part 20 minute concept song was about The Protagonist, the main character, who lives in the “Solar Federation” where music is banned by the autocratic “Priests of the Temples of Syrinx”.

One day The Protagonist finds a 100-year old guitar in a cave by a waterfall, starts to strum it.and falls in love with the sound.

He performs it before the Priests, believing they will “praise my name” for letting “[the people] make their own music.” He is, instead, banished from the Solar Federation.

Bruce Springsteen –  “House Of A Thousand Guitars”

The Boss began working on this ten years before its appearance on his sixth album. 

It is about how people of all kinds with different problems can meet together in the House Of A Thousand Guitars – where “I try to speak in the voice of my better angels” – and be healed by music.

He told Joe Breen of The Irish Times in the October 17, 2020 issue,  [“House of a Thousand Guitars”] attempts to define the world that I attempted to create with my audience and my listeners from the beginning. 

“It’s a world of value, of code, of honour, fun and joy. And that’s a world I create when I walk onstage at night and my audience walks through the door. 

“We live in that world for two or three hours, and then we leave and take that world with us and hope that it sustains us for as long as it can. 

“The House of a Thousand Guitars is the house we built, and within this house these things matter.”

Watch the making of “Django and Jimmie” with Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard here.