20 Of The Most Iconic Guitars Of All Time
It’s not just musicians that shaped rock and roll history — so did their guitars. These iconic axes are almost as important as an extra band member and lent their unique sound and look to some of rock’s most talented icons.
Kurt Cobain’s Fender Jaguar
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Nirvana completely changed modern rock music, so it’s not surprising that Kurt Cobain’s guitar is also an icon. In fact, one of his guitars was a hot-ticket item in Frances Bean Cobain’s divorce. The late star’s 1959 Martin D-18E, which he played in Nirvana’s iconic 1993 MTV Unplugged performance, was awarded to Frances’ ex-husband (a controversial move if you ask a music enthusiast.)
Though Cobain’s unplugged acoustic was undeniably worth a pretty penny, the artist was best known for his Fender Jag-Stang. This guitar, which Cobain designed himself by cutting together Polaroid photos, was a combination of the brand’s renowned Mustang and Jaguar. After Cobain’s passing, the baby blue model was given to R.E.M.’s Peter Buck. He played it in the video for the band’s single “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?”
Rick Nielsen’s Five-Neck Hamer
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Leave it to Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen to master the most ridiculous of all custom guitars. The Five-Neck Hamer is the rat king of the guitar world (if you’re unfamiliar with rat kings – don’t look it up). Nielsen is a true showman who had enough cash to blow on three custom five necks — the equivalent of 15 guitars – thanks to Cheap Trick’s success. The original, which had a smooth orange finish, was built in 1981 and currently lives on the wall of Nielsen’s restaurant, but it’s hard to ignore the checkboard model as the epitome of ’80s absurdity.
“The original concept was to have a six-neck that spun like a roulette wheel, so that I could play one neck and then rotate to the next, but then I decided to go with something more conservative—five necks in a row,” said Nielsen.
Randy Rhoads’ Polka Dot V
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We’re not saying the Polka Dot V is the most iconic guitar of all time, but it may just be the most iconic guitar of all time. Rhoads was known for playing flying Vs. He had both the Jackson Rhoads “Concorde” and the Karl Sandoval “Polka Dot V,” and it’s impossible to say which is the most famous.
As far as iconic guitars go, Rhoads ended up recording Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” with the Polka Dot V. Because of its contribution to heavy metal history, this one might take the cake (or the bat head, depending on which you think would make a better snack.)
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Prince was always known for his unique style. The master of funk and soul created a custom guitar, dubbed the “Cloud,” to suit his unique style — it was marked by an extended curved edge. The original model of the guitar was crafted by Andy Beech, a local Minneapolis luthier, and later reproduced by the iconic guitar brand Schechter. Prince played the ax throughout the ’80s and ’90s, including in his famed Purple Rain movie.
In 2017, one of Prince’s custom “Cloud” guitars sold for a whopping $700,000. It’s the highest price that has ever been paid for one of the singer’s guitars and the auction house originally thought it’d go for around $70,000. Apparently, it was a little more iconic than they originally thought.
Prince’s Love Symbol Guitar
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In the mid-’90s, Prince changed his stage name to an unpronounceable symbol. This power move came after he found a contractual loophole that would get him out of his deal with Warner Bros. Amidst the rebranding, Prince adopted a brand new guitar.
Much like the Cloud, Prince’s Symbol guitar was crafted by Andy Beech. Beech designed 31 guitars for the pop icon, but the Love Symbol guitar was estimated to bring in nearly $1 million at auction. Throughout the ’90s, the artist had various models of the Love Symbol guitar including a shimmery gold version and one in his signature purple.
Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstrat
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Eddie Van Halen strived for the sound of a Gibson with the sleek body of a Fender Strat, but such a thing didn’t exist on the market. Instead, he built his Frankenstrat himself. Van Halen purchased the Strat body for $50 – a major discount because it had a knot in the wood. He then modified the pickup routing to fit a Gibson PAF humbucking bridge pickup.
For those of us who aren’t guitar enthusiasts and don’t know much about the nuances in sound, the signature paint job is the Frankenstrat’s standout feature. It’s got a Jackson Pollack-inspired spattering of red, white and black.
Bo Diddley’s Twang Machine
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Guitars are usually marked by their curves (which undeniably mimic the beauty of the female form), but not Bo Diddley’s. Bo is largely credited with taking the blues of yesteryear and transforming it into modern day rock and roll. His syncopated use of rhythm was dubbed the Bo Diddley Beat. Needless to say, his collection of guitars was also legendary.
Diddley was passionate about custom-made guitars and his cigar-box shaped “Twang Machine” was perhaps the most famous. The guitar was crafted by Diddley himself after he suffered from a stage accident that left him with an injured groin.
Jimi Hendrix’s Monterey Fender Strat
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To this day, the Fender Stratocaster remains one of the brand’s most popular models. A huge chunk of its icon status can be attributed to Jimi Hendrix, who famously shredded on the guitar at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 – but that’s not all he did. His performance was fire, literally.
The famed guitarist was closing out his set with “Wild Thing” when he knelt next to his Strat and lit it on fire. There’s nothing quite like DIY pyrotechnics to get the crowd pumped. The moment (and the guitar) went down in rock and roll history.
Brian May’s Red Special
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Obviously, the guitar that helped pen Queen’s epic hit “Bohemian Rhapsody” deserves a spot in rock and roll infamy. Queen guitarist Brian May’s Red Special is a homemade guitar that managed to leave its hometown and become world-renowned – a feat for something that isn’t a Gibson or Fender.
May built the guitar from scratch with his dad. He used an old oak table and part of a weathered fireplace mantle to create the body and neck. The guitar has been kicking around for more than 54 years. It was restored in 1998 and again in 2005 and is still May’s main ax to this day.
Gene Simmons’ Axe Bass
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Kiss was known for their wild stage costumes and general debauchery – but what’s a costume without a sick guitar? Gene Simmons’ Axe Bass was a strong stage perspective, and something he stuck with throughout his career. The Axe was a rather brilliant tongue-in-cheek interpretation of a slang term for a guitar (even though you know Simmons’ tongue hardly ever stays in his mouth).
Simmons’ original Axe Bass was crafted by luthier Steve Carr and licensed to Cara Guitars. This means you’re able to buy the famous Axe on the company’s website. All you need is about $5,000. Iconic guitars aren’t cheap!
Jimmy Page’s Double Neck Gibson
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There are few guitar licks as iconic as the one in Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” Even today, you can pretty much hear the riff echoing throughout every guitar shop in America (much to the disdain of overworked Guitar Center employees.) With every iconic song comes an iconic guitar, and Jimmy Page’s double-neck Gibson EDS-1275 does not disappoint.
The double neck guitar allowed Page to simultaneously use a 12-string and 6-string guitar (one neck was on the top and the other was on the bottom.) It allowed this real-life guitar hero to effortlessly switch back and forth, which helped form the song’s epic sound.
George Harrison’s Rickenbacker
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George Harrison may be well known for playing a Gretsch, but the former Beatles’ 1963 Rickenbacker 12-string is his most famous guitar. Back in the ’60s, Rickenbacker already had more than 30 years of history. They gifted Harrison the 12-string for the group’s very first U.S. tour – but its icon status was all happenstance.
In many ways, Harrison’s Rickenbacker is a symbol of the British invasion, which changed modern rock music, but he didn’t pick the guitar himself. Harrison was sick in bed at the Plaza hotel when his bandmates were shown various Rickenbacker models. Lennon passed on the 12-string and gave it to Harrison instead, who completely fell in love.
Paul McCartney’s Hofner Bass
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If there’s one image of the Beatles that will forever be cemented in rock and roll history, it’s Paul McCartney holding his iconic violin-shaped Hofner bass over his head like a sword during their Shea Stadium performance. It was later dubbed “the Beatle Bass,” but McCartney didn’t always play this iconic instrument.
In the early ’60s, McCartney played a Rosetti 7 bass upside down in order to convert it into a left-handed instrument. It looked undeniably awkward. He encountered the violin-shaped bass while the band were apprentices in Hamburg, Germany and fell in love with the symmetrical look. McCartney claimed the symmetrical body made playing left-handed look “less daft.” He wasn’t wrong.
Neil Young’s Old Black
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Throughout his career, Neil Young has been nominated for a whopping 26 Grammy awards. His singles like “Harvest Moon,” a 1994 banger, are still played on the radio today. Young’s guitar is almost as iconic as his music because he’s stuck with it throughout his entire decades-long career. Old Black, as it’s been affectionately dubbed, has been with the singer-songwriter for nearly 50 years since he won it in a trade with Jim Messina from Buffalo Springfield.
Young has played Old Black on almost every album since Everybody Knows This Is No Where was recorded in 1969. Through repairs and modifications, this 1953 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop was built to last.
St. Vincent’s Sterling Music Man
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As one of the few female guitarists to gain worldwide-fame, St. Vincent’s Ernie Ball Music Man will go down in history. The unique guitar uses a couple of different woods for its signature look and sound – African mahogany, maple, and rosewood or ebony (for the fretboard.) It’s complete with three Dimarzio mini-humbuckers (which help craft St. Vincent’s fuzzy brand of indie rock) and custom inlays.
Ernie Ball currently touts the singer’s signature model as the “Shape of the Revolution.” Perhaps this revolution involves a world where instrument companies champion female talent, even if Jack White used the instrument during a recent performance on SNL.
B.B. King’s Lucille
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B.B. King’s iconic Gibson wasn’t always a valuable guitar. In fact, it was worth just $30 when he got it. In 1949, King was hanging around a dancehall when a fire was started by two men who were fighting over a woman. The famed blues musician pulled the cheap guitar from the burning wreckage and named it after the woman who sparked the argument. Her name was Lucille.
King names each of his guitars – a variety of Gibsons and Telecasters – but in the ’80s, this became his signature model. Gibson became manufacturing the “Lucille” as a combination between their hollow and solid body ES-355.
Tony Iommi’s Old Boy
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Iommi’s Old Boy was crafted in 1975 by luthier John Diggins. He used the ax to slay Black Sabbath’s “Heaven and Hell,” as well as a number of their most famous LPs. This guitar may be his most famous, but it’s not his most used.
The Old Boy – a Jaydee Custom SG – isn’t even Tony Iommi’s main guitar. He opts to use a Gibson SG “Monkey” for his main rig, but the crosses on the fretboard and the faded black and red paint make this an iconic relic of hard rock history. When you think of Iommi, you think of him slaying the cross-clad frets.
Angus Young’s Jaydee SG
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There’s a reason SGs are one of the most iconic guitars of all time. Yeah, they’re versatile, but man do they rip. As the weapon of choice for a bevy of rockers – from Tony Iommi to AC/DC’s Angus Young – this is undeniably Gibson’s most popular model.
Like Iommi, Angus Young preferred his custom Jaydee Custom SG to his Gibson SG Standard. Can you really blame him? The lightning bolts on the fretboard will go down in history as one of the greatest lessons in rock and roll branding. Today, when you think of Young, you think of two things: a schoolboy uniform and a lightning-bolt fretboard SG.
Jerry Garcia’s Tiger
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Jerry Garcia’s “Tiger” wasn’t just his guitar of choice – it was the ax he played on his very last concert. The guitar, which Garcia played for more than 10 years, was built by Sonoma-based luthier Doug Irwin, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Garcia’s guitar was heavy. The body, which was comprised of several layers of laminated wood, weighed over 13 pounds.
This guitar almost missed out on its iconic status. If it wasn’t for the fact that Garcia’s second rig, an Irwin-crafted ax called Rosebud, was in major need for repairs during the summer of 1995, Garcia wouldn’t have played the Tiger for his last gig.
Keith Richards’ Micawber
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The Rolling Stones undeniably shaped modern rock and roll with hits like “Brown Sugar” and “Honkey Tonk Women.” Without riff-master Keith Richards’ famed guitar, almost none of it would be possible.
Richards’ Micawber was actually a birthday gift from Eric Clapton. The guitarist received the ax on his 27th birthday before beginning work on Exile on Main Street. The 1950s-era Telecaster had the sixth string removed and was tuned to open G which helped craft the Stones’ signature sound. To make things even more unique, Richards flipped the humbucker pickup backward, which gave it some extra bite.