John is a fervent writer, gamer, and guitar lover. He is a former automatic-transmission repairer, welder, and hobbyist game developer.
The 10 Most Famous and Iconic Guitars (and Who Played Them)
The multitude of guitars and guitar styles on offer can be a little confusing to all but the most hardened of guitar aficionados. I am not one such aficionado, but I do know of many classic and iconic guitars and guitar designs that any budding guitar enthusiast should be aware of. In no particular order, here’s ten of them.
1. Gibson Explorer
Though the Gibson Explorer is undoubtedly one of the more iconic-looking guitars in this list, it was initially unsuccessful when it first appeared on the market in 1958. So much so, in fact, that it was discontinued soon after. It was only 1976 when other guitar companies had found success selling guitars of similar style to the Explorer that Gibson decided to take another stab at it.
Along with the Flying V, Gibson hoped that the Explorer would bring a more futuristic feel to their lineup.
The Explorer has found a home among hard rock and heavy metal guitarists, with its distinctive shape. Most notably, however, it has been seen in the hands of the likes of Eric Clapton and George Harrison.
2. Fender Jazzmaster
Intended as a more expensive counterpart to the Stratocaster, the Fender Jazzmaster was initially marketed towards jazz musicians in the late 50s, but found its market in the early 60s in the form of surf rock. It was discontinued in 1980 but has returned many times since 1984.
The shape of the Jazzmaster was designed with comfort for seated playing in mind (as most jazz guitarists would sit during a performance). The pickups used were unique at the time, being larger than the usual Fender single-coil pickups, and provided a warmer tone than those found in the Strat or Tele.
Possibly the most notable musician to make use of the Fender Jazzmaster is Elvis Costello.
3. Gibson ES-335
The Gibson ES series of guitars is by far the biggest player when it comes to hollow-bodied electric guitars, and the ES-335 is perhaps the most famous of that series. First released in 1958, the 335 was the first slimline archtop semi-acoustic guitar in the world to be sold commercially. It is notable for being neither a true hollowbody nor a proper solid body due to a solid block that runs through the middle of the guitar.
The 335 has found a home in many genres, likely helped by its distinctive appearance which many guitarists like. It is particularly popular in jazz music due to the bell-like tone it produces, but is also heard in many blues and rock songs.
Many successful and famous musicians have played the ES-335, including Cheryl Crow, the Edge, Pete Townsend, and Peter Frampton.
4. Fender Telecaster
The “Tele” as it is often called, is famed for its clean lines and simple look. First appearing on the market in 1950, the Telecaster was the first commercially successful electric guitar and continues to be successful to this day.
The bright “twang” that is synonymous with the Telecaster sound makes it a particular favourite among country musicians, though it has also found use in other genres, particularly pop, blues, and jazz.
Notable Tele players include Bob Dylan, Joe Strummer, Keith Richards, and many more.
5. Gibson Flying V
Along with the Explorer, the Gibson Flying V was first sold in 1958, and was part of a lineup of “futuristic” guitars. Unfortunately, much like the Explorer, the Flying V was not received well initially and found itself discontinued in 1959 before finally being reissued in 1963.
Like its sibling, Flying Vs became very popular in hard rock and heavy metal due to their powerful sound and aggressive appearance. It also spawned variants, such as the Flying V2, and the Reverse Flying V.
Jimi Hendrix was known to use a Flying V, as was Lenny Kravitz and, of course, Albert King.
6. C.F. Martin & Company Dreadnought
The Dreadnought style of guitar is unique in this list, being the only acoustic guitar. It is also unique in that, while it was originally developed by C.F. Martin & Company, it has almost become its own beast in guitar nomenclature. Unlike the other guitars in the list which are intrinsically linked to the company that created them.
Dreadnought was named after early 20th century gunships due to the larger body and, consequently, louder tone over the more common acoustic guitars of the time. Since then it has become the standard for acoustic guitar design, and as such, there is little point in listing notable players of dreadnought guitars as pretty much any guitarists who’s ever played acoustic will likely have played one of these.
7. Gibson SG
The Gibson SG originally came to market as the Les Paul after the initial design of the Les Paul suffered from falling sales. That guitar was redesigned, however, and the SG continued on under its own name. The imaginatively named guitar (SG stands for solid guitar) sold from 1961 (the first two of which under the Les Paul name) until the present and remains a popular guitar.
The ease of play and simplicity of design of the SG makes it one of the more emulated guitars on the market (though not nearly as much as the Strat or Les Paul), and it has been used in many genres.
Many of the guitarists mentioned in this article have played an SG, as well as Angus Young and Frank Zappa.
8. Gibson Firebird
In competition with Fender and their 1950s Stratocaster/Telecaster double whammy, the Firebird was released as part of Gibson’s effort to compete with Fender in the solid-body guitar space.
The Firebird was actually designed by a car designer by the name of Ray Dietrich, and so the flowing lines of the body bear more than a passing resemblance to the tail fins of 1950s automobiles. This was also the first Gibson guitar to use neck-through construction, where the centre of the body and neck are made from one piece of material, and the “wings” of the body are glued to the sides afterwards.
In addition to his many other guitars (as this list shows), Eric Clapton has played a Firebird, as has Dave Grohl, Brian Jones, and many more.
9. Fender Stratocaster
Quite possibly one of the most copied guitar models of all, the Fender Stratocaster’s iconic look and simple design have allowed it become so ingrained in popular culture that, should you ask any non-guitar player to describe a guitar, they’ll likely describe this one.
First produced in 1954, the strat has found its way into many genres, from country to jazz to heavy metal and everything in between. It was the first guitar to utilise three pickups, as well as incorporate a spring tension tremolo system.
The list of notable musicians who have been known to rock the Strat is longer than would be practical to include in a single article. Needless to say that any list of musicians that includes the likes of David Bowie, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, and Jimi Hendrix, is a good list to be on.
10. Gibson Les Paul
Along with the Stratocaster, the Gibson Les Paul is easily one of the most popular guitar designs in the world. Despite this, it was initially considered a failure, and after years of waning sales, it was redesigned into what we now think of as an SG. It eventually came back in 1963, however, and like the Strat, is one of the most emulated guitars on the market.
Popular in just about all genres of music, the Les Paul is a gracefully curved and compact instrument with a lot of versatility. Though there are many design choices on show with the Les Paul, the most typical construction involves a solid body with a top or cap.
Players of the Les Paul are numerous, but some of the more notable guitarists include Paul McCartney, Slash, Jimmy Page, and Peter Frampton.
© 2016 John Bullock