Judging a collection of guitar-centric songs is quite the difficult task, partly because musical history holds so many ridiculously great tracks that would make even the most sceptical of music lovers crack a smile, but mostly because there are so many different types and styles out there. While some may argue that Eric Clapton’s intricate and delicate style of playing (encouraging the nickname “Slowhand) is superior to simply shredding night and day on a guitar. Conversely, there are some that would prefer the style of guitar that Joe Satriani or Steve Vai would play, with equal parts shred and melody with some extremely technical finger work. The problem is of course the subjective nature of music, which is why you’ll never see any lists ranking particular songs in order of merit come out as identical: everyone simply has a different opinion. A general consensus can however be reached on occasion, and while many may not agree with some or most choices in the list below, it is hoped that each person who reads it can find at least one song that they agree with, because in spite of opinion, some songs simply are better than others, and some even considered the best.
10. Simon and Garfunkel – Bleecker Street
You won’t find anything technical or even moderately challenging about the guitar in Bleecker Street, but the signature Simon and Garfunkel sound seems to concentrate itself most heavily and beautifully in this song. The major-minor changes in the chords underpin the heart-wrenching harmonies of both Simon and Garfunkel, but it is the picking style combined with the hammer-on notes and other such small touches that makes Bleecker Street so perfect as a song. Though The Boxer would have been the more obvious choice here, Bleecker Street simply emanates acoustic brilliance and gorgeous harmony throughout.
9. Bob Marley – Redemption Song
Of course, Redemption Song strikes again, and rightfully so. As one of the most unforgettable acoustic guitar riffs of all time, there’s no way that this couldn’t take its place here. It’s difficult to ignore the poignant and powerful lyrics that are teeming with political thought and critique, but doing so allows you to focus on a melody of such simplicity that you’ll hate yourself for not coming up with it first. Technically, it’s a walk in the park, but its musical brilliance is legendary.
8. The Eagles – Hotel California
While many will skip past this song because of its excessive length, there’s no denying that Hotel California has an eclectic mix of styles throughout and solos that you just don’t hear any more in modern-day records. From strumming to some very mild “shredding”, Hotel California has guitar-based brilliance running throughout.
7. The Beatles – Yesterday
The Beatles are likely used to being featured in many musical top 10s, but Yesterday takes the crown as one of their best songs. Though it is an example of pre-experimental Beatles, the simple melody was recorded with an Epiphone Texan acoustic guitar with steel strings, giving it a remarkable sound that could very well be the sound of McCartney plucking your heart strings.
6. Led Zeppelin – Whole Lotta Love
This is perhaps one of the most recognisable guitar riffs of all time and was used as the theme music for Top of the Pops. Of course, it stands on its own merits and though it isn’t the most technical riff of all time, it’s up there with the most driving and head-bobbing melodies you’ll ever hear coming from a guitar.
5. Guns n’ Roses – Sweet Child of Mine
Though the song has been played and top 10-ed to death over the years, there’s no denying that the opening riff is quite an epic composition to say the least. Though most of the band’s songs seem to go on forever, they are filled with occasional moments of brilliance and fairly frequent moments of greatness, but nothing beats this song’s riff for sheer power and recognisability.
4.Led Zeppelin – Stairway to Heaven
Never has a guitar riff been based on such feeling and emotion as Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. The multi-layered melody is one of the satisfying to learn for the first time, and the eclectic range of style in the song is too incredible to ignore.
3. Joe Satriani – Surfing with the Alien
Whether you like a bit of shredding or not, it’s Joe Satriani you’re probably going to turn to if you absolutely must have some shred in your song. Surfing with the Alien is a brilliant exposition in a variety of styles and techniques, but the tapping part that begins at around 1:07 into the song is quite sensational, as is the three or so minutes of guitar masterclass that follows.
2. Joe Satriani – Midnight
Satriani gets to feature twice because he’s just that creative. And talented. This time, a purely tapping-based affair where the entire melody is based on the technique. A mesmerising opening and an energetic progression, this one just about beats Tears in the Rain for sheer mystique and wondrousness.
1. Steve Vai – Eugene’s Trick Bag
This is simply one of those songs that must be heard and seen performed to actually be believed. As one of the most technical pieces of all time, this arpeggio-based example in how to play guitar at the very highest level features in the “Crossroads” movie, but Steve Vai does perform this live as well. Somehow.