10 Essential Songs About Guitars

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songs about guitars Talking Heads

Last week, we put together a list of our Top 100 Guitarists, which led to some pretty heated discussions about whether or not we snubbed Duane Allman. We didn’t, by the way, but part of the fun of coming together to do that sort of thing is the unpredictability of it. Kevin Shields in the top 10? Well, maybe that’s not surprising in context but it definitely goes against rock ‘n’ roll conventional wisdom. This week, however, we’re flipping things just a little bit by putting the focus on these musicians’ tools of the trade: The guitar. There are, indeed, many songs about guitars throughout the rock ‘n’ roll canon. Some of them are rags-to-riches stories, some of them heroes’ origins, and some of them are more abstract or spiritual in nature. But guitars can be muses in and of themselves. So now that we’ve done the guitarists, we turn to their weapons of choice: Enjoy our list of 10 essential songs about guitars.

Photo by Craig Howell/Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Johnny Cash songs about guitarsJohnny Cash – “Tennessee Flat Top Box”
(1961; Columbia)

For reasons that aren’t really that complicated, when you really get right down to it, songs about guitars seem to imbue them with a kind of supernatural power, like a baseball bat made from a lightning-struck tree or a sword pulled from an enchanted stone. Johnny Cash’s “Tennessee Flat Top Box” doesn’t quite imbue the title instrument with mystical powers, but it’s the one source of expression and skill for a kid with a special knack for six-string strumming that caused a fervor among the fairer sex: “All the girls from there to Austin were slippin ‘way from home and putting jewelry in hock to make the trip.” The “little dark haired boy” ends up disappearing from the small southern town where he shows off his skills. But it’s not so tragic: That little dark haired boy appears on the TV hit parade, playing that very Tennessee flat top box that made the girls swoon. Can’t imagine where Cash came up with a story like that. – JT

songs about guitars The BeatlesThe Beatles – “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”
from The Beatles (White Album) (1968; Apple)

When is a song about a guitar not a song about a guitar? The answer is in George Harrison’s standout from The Beatles’ White Album, wherein the literal lead guitar in the song is handled by Eric Clapton but the lyrical concern extends well beyond musical instruments. As Harrison grew more deeply interested in Eastern philosophy and spirituality, he too began to address broader social concerns, and while those in the song are fairly general—people’s lack of compassion for one another, for starters—there’s an emotional impact driven home in part by Clapton’s powerful leads. Clapton isn’t the only one playing guitar however, and considering Harrison had become more invested in growing as a Sitar player, this represents his return to the creative path he started on. So it is a song about a guitar, after all. – JT

songs about guitars Talking HeadsTalking Heads – “Electric Guitar”
from Fear of Music (1979; Sire)

So much of rock’s history with mythologizing the guitar follows a sort of write-what-you-know philosophy. David Byrne diverted pretty wildly from that template with “Electric Guitar,” a highlight from 1979’s Fear of Music. The disorienting, eerie new wave throb of the song backs a narrative about a guitar that is first run over by a car and then brought into a courtroom for some kind of abstract verdict: “Never listen to electric guitar.” To get at a deeper meaning with this song takes some cubist logic, though the instrument in question is there in the arrangement, offering a weird, squeaky little riff between the ominous observations. – JT

songs about guitars The Birthday PartyThe Birthday Party – “Six Strings That Drew Blood”
from Mutiny/The Bad Seed (1983; 4AD)

Nick Cave’s dabbled in western narrative form, having written novels like The Proposition, later adapted into a film by director and Cave collaborator John Hillcoat. Toward the end of his days with The Birthday Party, Cave applied a sort of badass Clint Eastwood quality to his own guitarist, Rowland S. Howard. Cave paints a picture of a trouble-seeking outlaw figure: “Guitar thug blew into town… bitin’ his tongue and beatin’ the ground.” The guitar on his back is his weapon, and you’d best step aside should a stray riff come flying your way—of which there are some pretty awesome ones to be heard here. Cave later reprised the song with The Bad Seeds, albeit a bit slower and less manic, though there’s not a bad version of “Six Strings That Drew Blood.” – JT

John Hiatt Perfectly Good GuitarJohn Hiatt – “Perfectly Good Guitar”
from Perfectly Good Guitar (1993; A&M)

Rootsy rock and an army of singer-songwriters helped music-friendly NPR affiliates and AAA radio quietly form part of the foundation of what we now call “indie” at the start of the 1990s. Niche and otherwise unheralded artists suddenly found renaissance and relevance, among them this Indiana musician covered by many players but ultimately known by far fewer fans. Arguably his most successful album is powered by this title cut with a fuzzed-out guitar lead of which Neil Young would be proud, and smartly crafted lyrics lamenting rock stars’ ego and anger pushing them to smash their axes into stages. Hiatt considers such acts as regretful as mistreating the women in their lives. – AB

Radiohead Pablo Honey over covered songsRadiohead – “Anyone Can Play Guitar”
from Pablo Honey (1993; Parlophone)

The second single behind the world-dominating “Creep,” “Anyone Can Play Guitar” finds Thom Yorke once again exploring isolation, but this time it’s not of his own making. “I wanna be in a band when I get to heaven/Anyone can play guitar/And they won’t be a nothing anymore.” Yorke imagines himself as rock’s great nihilist Jim Morrison, playing chords as London burns. Backed by more of Jonny Greenwood’s early guitar funny stuff (as evidenced by the video), this is Radiohead’s take on apocalyptic fantasy in the same vein as Morrissey’s “Everyday is Like Sunday.” Yorke’s not beckoning the bombs, but suggests he has a lot of rocking out to do once they land. – AB

Sleater-Kinney Dig Me OutSleater-Kinney – “Words and Guitar”
from Dig Me Out (1997; Kill Rock Stars)

Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out represented a moment in the band’s history where they had emerged as a complete talent, thanks to the addition of drummer Janet Weiss. So this is really about words, guitar and drums, but that’s admittedly not as catchy a title. It is, however, the duo that comprises the hook in the song, Weiss’ presence dropping out and back in between intervals of just Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein. Hence: Words and guitar. More literally, it’s a song about being stoked like fuck on rock ‘n’ roll and not being able to contain it. “Music is the air I breathe,” sings Brownstein. It’s an anthem, a theme song and mission statement, in just a little over two minutes. – JT

spring albums magnetic fieldsThe Magnetic Fields – “Acoustic Guitar”
from 69 Love Songs (1999; Merge)

Nestled in the last disc of the sprawl that is 69 Love Songs is Stephin Merritt’s sweet contemplation on how girls dig the guitar. Sung by Claudia Gonson, “Acoustic Guitar” is a typically twin-edged Mag Fields lyric with carefully selected details (“How lovely you are with your inlays of mother-of-pearl”) and a comically forlorn folk style. In fact the song recalls various generations of post-Baez acoustic folk, both in style and story: The singer’s sure that the guitar is what her ex-girlfriend really loved all along, so now it’s the instrument’s job to “bring me back my girl.” For every musician who got into confessional folk music to pick up chicks, and trust me there were many, this sentiment can’t be too unfamiliar. Bonus points for the best three-point name-drop in indie music history: “Acoustic guitar, if you think I play hard/Well you could’ve belonged to Steve Earle/Or Charo or G.W.A.R.” Charo. CHARO. – PP

Richard Thompson StillRichard Thompson – “Guitar Heroes”
from Still (2015; Concord)

A clever, novelty mini-epic about the sacrifices one must make for musical self-education, “Guitar Heroes” closed Richard Thompson’s album Still with heartfelt tribute to his musical idols. Thompson sings about inconveniencing his parents, teachers and girlfriend by his constant practice schedule as he tries to sound just like his personal favorites. The winsome conceit of “Guitar Heroes” is Thompson’s break from the song structure to play snippets of actual songs by Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, Chuck Berry, James Burton and the Shadows. It’s a sweet testimonial that’s only a little fictitious when he sings “Now I stand on stage and do my stuff/And maybe it’s good, but it’s never good enough.” Humility is admirable, but I suspect for far more aspiring guitarists than we think Thompson’s become one of those heroes. After seeing Thompson play “Shoot Out the Lights,” Bob Mould allegedly asked himself, “Am I not practicing enough?” – PP

Diarrhea Planet Turn to GoldDiarrhea Planet – “Bob Dylan’s Grandma”
from Turn to Gold (2016; Infinity Cat)

There are four guitar players in Diarrhea Planet, so it’s only natural that somewhere in their catalog would be a song about going from an awestruck kid hearing a cassette into being a guitar hero of his very own. This is that song, a superhero’s origin story fraught with endless sessions playing scales with a metronome on your first Stratocaster. It’s kind of heartwarming when you think about it, especially considering the starstruck kid in the song (or four of them, rather) are shredding the fuck out of this very track. Should the title of the song cause any confusion, “Bob Dylan’s grandmother” was an onstage joke that Jimi Hendrix made about bassist Noel Redding at the Monterey Pop Festival. Indirectly, then, you can thank Jimi Hendrix for making Diarrhea Planet want to pick up their guitars.  – JT

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