The Top 10 Electric Guitars that defined Rock ‘n’ Roll

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The Top 10 Electric Guitars that defined Rock ‘n’ Roll

Fender Stratocaster electric guitar
Words by Donna Maurer

There’s hardly a sound that’s a bigger signature sound of rock ‘n' roll than that of an electric guitar.

The genre’s greatest bands can be recognised by their unique sound and solos of their electric guitars. Think Judas Priest, AC/DC, Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, and Led Zeppelin, and you’ll hear their guitar partitions play in your head.

Electric Guitars

That’s the beauty of iconic guitar players and the guitars they wielded as the ultimate instruments of creativity and innovation. Many musicians out there made their indelible mark on the rock ‘n’ roll tapestry, and these are 10 guitars that made it possible.

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1. Fender Stratocaster

The Fender Stratocaster, affectionately known as the “Strat,” has become an iconic emblem of rock ‘n’ roll and a testament to the innovative spirit of its creator, Leo Fender. Introduced in 1954, the Stratocaster was designed with the input of professional musicians and quickly distinguished itself as a revolutionary instrument, both in terms of its sound and its striking aesthetic.

One of the Stratocaster’s most defining features is its contoured body shape, designed for ergonomic comfort and ease of play, allowing musicians to perform for hours without the discomfort associated with many of the other guitars available at the time. This thoughtful design, combined with its balanced weight distribution, made the Strat not just an instrument but an extension of the musician’s body.

The Stratocaster’s versatile sound is another hallmark that has cemented its place in music history. Equipped with three single-coil pickups and a unique five-way selector switch (introduced in the 1970s), the Strat offers a wide range of tones, making it suitable for genres ranging from rock and blues to jazz and country. This versatility is amplified by the guitar’s signature “bell-like” tone, characterised by its bright, crisp sound that can be both smooth and piercing when needed.

The Strat’s double-cutaway design not only contributes to its sleek, attractive appearance but also provides players with easy access to the upper frets, facilitating the high-pitched solos that have become a staple in rock music. Moreover, its synchronised tremolo system allows for smooth whammy bar effects, adding to the expressive capabilities of the guitar.

Throughout its history, the Fender Stratocaster has been embraced by legendary musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and David Gilmour, whose groundbreaking techniques and memorable performances have showcased the Strat’s extraordinary potential. Hendrix’s manipulation of the Stratocaster at Woodstock in 1969, playing a right-handed guitar flipped upside down and restrung for left-hand playing, remains one of the most iconic moments in rock history.

The Stratocaster’s enduring popularity is a testament to its quality, versatility, and the continual innovation that Fender has applied to its design over the years. Whether it’s the classic models from the ’50s and ’60s or the modern iterations that incorporate contemporary guitar technology, the Strat continues to be a favorite among musicians of all levels, from bedroom players to international touring artists.

In the world of electric guitars, the Fender Stratocaster is not just an instrument but a cultural symbol that embodies the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll. Its continued relevance and desirability, decades after its introduction, speak volumes about its impact on music and its status as one of the most influential guitars ever created.

2. Ibanez JEM

The Ibanez JEM, masterfully conceived by the guitar virtuoso Steve Vai, stands as a monumental icon in the pantheon of electric guitars that have significantly shaped the landscape of rock ‘n’ roll. Since its debut in the late 1980s, the JEM has not only been a testament to the innovative partnership between an artist and a manufacturer but has also set a new benchmark for what players expect from their instruments in terms of both aesthetics and functionality.

“The JEM’s distinctive features, such as the eye-catching ‘Tree of Life’ inlay that adorns its fretboard and the famous ‘monkey grip’ handle carved into the body, immediately set it apart from its contemporaries,” says a professional guitar teacher from Music To Your Home. However, it is not merely its visual appeal that has captured the hearts of players around the globe. The JEM’s design intricacies, including its versatile floating tremolo system and DiMarzio pickups, offer an unparalleled range of tones and dynamics, catering to the expansive creative needs of rock guitarists.

The guitar’s slim neck profile and contoured body make for comfortable, effortless playability, even during the most demanding technical passages. This level of playability, combined with the instrument’s robust and versatile sound, enables musicians to explore new territories of musical expression, pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved on the electric guitar.

The Ibanez JEM, through its embodiment of innovation and its contributions to the evolution of guitar playing, has earned its place among the instruments that defined rock ‘n’ roll. It has inspired and empowered a generation of guitarists to pursue technical excellence and creative expression, influencing the sound and direction of rock music in the process.

The JEM’s enduring legacy is not just in the songs and genres it has helped shape but in the ongoing pursuit of perfection and the limitless possibilities it represents for musicians around the world. Its continued popularity underscores its significance not only as a tool for musical expression but as a beacon of artistic aspiration in the ever-evolving narrative of rock ‘n’ roll.

3. Gibson Les Paul

Gibson guitars need no introduction. They’re the royalty of the electric guitar realm and for a good reason. The Gibson Les Paul is a name that resonates deeply within the halls of music history, embodying a legacy of sound, style, and innovation that has profoundly influenced the landscape of rock music and beyond. Introduced in 1952 as the brainchild of guitarist Les Paul and Gibson’s president Ted McCarty, the Les Paul model was designed to meet the rising demand for a solid-body electric guitar, setting a new standard in the world of music with its rich, warm tones and unparalleled sustain.

Characterised by its solid mahogany body and carved maple top, the Les Paul delivers a powerful combination of depth and brilliance that has become synonymous with the Gibson brand. This unique tonewood pairing contributes to the guitar’s distinct sonic character, offering a full, resonant sound with plenty of sustain. The addition of the humbucking pickups, introduced in the mid-1950s, further enhanced the Les Paul’s sound, reducing hum and noise while providing a thicker, more powerful output compared to single-coil pickups.

The aesthetic appeal of the Gibson Les Paul is as timeless as its sound. The guitar’s beautifully crafted body, available in a variety of sunburst and solid colour finishes, together with its pearl inlay and bound neck and body, exude elegance and sophistication. The Les Paul’s substantial yet comfortable weight and classic single-cutaway design not only make it a visually striking instrument but also contribute to its distinctive sustain and playing feel.

Over the years, the Gibson Les Paul has been embraced by an array of legendary guitarists across multiple genres, from rock and blues to jazz and country. Icons such as Jimmy Page, Slash, and Gary Moore have wielded the Les Paul to create some of the most memorable riffs and solos in music history, cementing its status as a tool of musical expression capable of capturing the full spectrum of human emotion.

Despite its initially lukewarm reception and subsequent discontinuation in the late 1950s, pivoting to what we now know as the ‘SG’, the single-cutaway Les Paul made a triumphant return in the late 1960s, spurred by its popularity among rock musicians. Since then, it has remained a cornerstone of the Gibson lineup, with various models and iterations introduced to cater to a wide range of players and styles. Whether it’s the luxurious Custom, the versatile Standard, or the stripped-down Studio model, there is a Les Paul to suit every player’s needs.

The Gibson Les Paul is more than just an electric guitar; it is a symbol of innovation, quality, and the enduring power of music. Its rich history and the countless classic tracks it has helped create are a testament to its timeless appeal and the profound impact it has had on music and musicians around the world. As a cornerstone of guitar design and a beacon of artistic expression, the Gibson Les Paul continues to inspire and captivate players and audiences alike, holding its place as one of the most revered instruments in the history of modern music.

4. Fender Telecaster

Maybe you prefer a no-frill guitar with a powerful and memorable sound, and if that’s the case, then the Fender Telecaster could be the right choice for you. When it first came out, the Tele’s design was nothing short of revolutionary – its simple and functional solid body significantly reduced different feedback issues and made room for higher sound amplification.

The single-coil pickups give Telecaster recognisable bright, cutting tones, and its beauty lies in its simplicity and durability. Today, this guitar is a classic in the music industry and one that’s been very much appreciated by the greats like Keith Richards, Albert Collins, James Burton, and Bruce Springsteen.

5. Gibson SG

While the Gibson SG (Solid Guitar) was primarily introduced as an upgrade to Les Paul, it soon garnered its own fame and spotlight. It’s thinner and lighter than its Les Paul counterpart and has a unique double-cutaway body, which, in time, became a staple in both rock ‘n’ roll and metal. 

Seeing that the Gibson SG is significantly lighter than Les Paul, musicians favoured it for the comfort and the fact that, though it’s light, its sound didn’t lose any of its potency. It’s got a full-bodied, edgy, and rich sound, and its mahogany body boasts fantastic resonance and sustain. This rock ‘n’ roll staple guitar was the chosen instrument of Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath and Angus Young of AC/DC, who trusted it to deliver their unique playing style to millions of people.

6. Rickenbacker 360

If we’re talking about iconic electric guitars that left their mark in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, we have to mention the Rickenbacker 360. This “axe” claimed its place in history by becoming the signature sound of the British Invasion in the 1960s. Due to its striking design and the mix of maple and rosewood, this gorgeous instrument boasts a brighter, almost jangly sound that sets it apart from all the others on our list.

Another thing that adds to Rickenbacker’s appeal is its innovative electronics setup, with two single-coil pickups and a unique stereo output. If you’re wondering whether this guitar is worth your attention, we’ll leave you with the info that George Harrison of the Beatles favored the Rickenbacker 360 with 12 strings, which is what made the brand famous in the first place. Roger McGuinn of The Byrds quickly followed him, carving Rickenkacker’s name in the Guitar Hall of Fame.

7. Gibson Explorer

Another icon of rock ‘n’ roll rebellion and innovation from Gibson is Gibson Explorer. A few prototype electric guitars were introduced in 1957 as part of Gibson’s NAMM offering, including the Futura, which would become the Explorer. This offering also included the Flying V, and it is surprising that the Explorer was initially a commercial failure. Its radical shape, far removed from the traditional curves of the Les Paul or the Stratocaster, was too futuristic for then guitar enthusiasts. 

However, what was once seen as Gibson’s folly would go on to become one of rock’s most enduring symbols, nobody could have thought.

Gibson Explorer’s body is usually crafted from a solid piece of mahogany, forming a shape that is both angular and ergonomically balanced, offering players easy access to the higher frets. Its set-neck construction, paired with a 22-fret rosewood or ebony fingerboard, provides a warm, resonant tone that is as versatile as it is distinctive. 

The guitar typically comes equipped with a pair of humbucking pickups, delivering a powerful, aggressive sound that can cut through any mix. This sonic versatility makes it a favourite among players across various genres, from hard rock and metal to blues and beyond.

Between the 1970s and 1980s this guitar truly found its audience, thanks to the rise of hard rock and heavy metal. Guitarists like Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Allen Collins and Metallica’s James Hetfield jacked Explorers, showcasing its heavy, cutting tone and solidifying its status as a rock icon. 

Today, the Gibson Explorer remains a well sought-after model for its historical significance, unique design, and powerful sound. It continues to be a symbol of musical innovation, embodying the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll rebellion. Whether on stage or in the studio, the Explorer challenges conventions and invites players to venture into uncharted musical territories.

8. PRS Custom 24

Another legendary instrument that earned its place as one of the best rock’ n’ roll guitars of all time is definitely the PRS (Paul Reed Smith) Custom 24. Its fans consider it the ultimate combo of sound versatility, beauty, and unparalleled craftsmanship – big words, yes, but well-deserved ones. 

The superiority of the PRS lies in the fact that each guitar is produced with the highest-quality maple, and every little detail is considered during the production of their electric guitars. The second puzzle piece is its design features, significantly adding to its playability. We’re talking about the 24-fret design, which allows for more expressive playing, as well as the locking tuners and tremolo system, which the brand actually patented.

The result is a fantastic guitar that can hold anything from clean to overdriven sounds, from warm to aggressive leads. The PRS Custom 24 is famously played by great guitarists like Carlos Santana, John Mayer, and Mark Tremonti. 

9. Fender Jaguar

Another one of those electric guitars that had a rocky start but reached stardom a couple of decades after it was initially produced is the Fender Jaguar. It was introduced in the early 1960s and received mixed reviews because of its distinctive twangy sound. However, the alternative and indie rock movement of the ‘80s and ‘90s accepted Jaguar with aplomb thanks to its design and functionality.

The Fender Jaguar has a shorter scale length than the brand’s other guitar models, leaving more room for highly technical players to do their magic. What also sets it apart is the intricate electronic circuitry, with different switches for pickup selection and separate lead and rhythm circuits. This is exactly what every innovative musician dreams of—sonic versatility and superb playability combined. It’s no wonder Kurt Cobain, Johnny Marr, and John Frusciante have a special place in their hearts for the Fender Jaguar. 

10. Gibson Flying V

If there ever was a guitar that was way ahead of its time, it must be the Gibson Flying V. Its iconic angular V shape marked the brand’s forward-thinking, and that was proven by the fact that this model was first released in 1958, but it was only in the ‘60s and ‘70s that it got the attention it deserved. This guitar was completely different from any other guitar on the market, which in time turned from a weakness into its greatest strength.

Along with the design that broke the mold, the Flying V brings a strong, aggressive sound to the stage, which was later loved by rock and metal musicians alike. The V shape boosted the instrument’s sustain and resonance, making it a strong choice for any lead rock and metal guitarist. The best proof of quality is the fact that the Gibson Flying V was the favourite guitar of Michael Schenker, Jimi Hendrix, and Albert King, to name a few.

Picking the top electric guitars that defined rock ‘n’ roll is no easy feat, and these 10 are considered the best of the best. The list could certainly be much longer, but each of these electric guitars is a legend in its own right, and their quality, versatility, and beauty cannot be overstated.