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‘When they cleared the wreckage, it was all that survived’: 10 of history’s most irreplaceable guitars | Music

‘When they cleared the wreckage, it was all that survived’: 10 of history’s most irreplaceable guitars | Music
‘When they cleared the wreckage, it was all that survived’: 10 of history’s most irreplaceable guitars | Music

Prince: Symbol

Prince was both a dream and a nightmare for a luthier – astonishingly talented, he would also fling guitars around for some poor stage hand to catch (as at his peerlessly casual yet brilliant 2004 performance honouring George Harrison). The “Cloud” model used in Purple Rain, and built by Dave Rusan, is every bit as insouciantly sexy as the man who played it, with a gorgeous spiral detail around the jack and an actual horn jutting out of the body, ending in its own spiral. But nothing is more iconic than the guitar made by Andy Beech in the shape of his squiggly sigil. Playing Purple Rain on it, in the rain, turned the 2007 Super Bowl into a kind of mythic Arthurian setting with the guitar as Prince’s sword, or as some saw it, phallus.

Neil Young: customised 1953 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop, AKA Old Black

Young traded guitars with Buffalo Springfield bassist Jim Messina in 1968, and never looked back. You can see why punks liked Young, and he them: there’s an unfussy simplicity and purity to the way Young has clung on to one instrument, the black lacquer gradually being stripped away as if by endless Cortez the Killer soloing. Old Black has admittedly been heavily modified, including with a Bigsby vibrato tailpiece that helps Young get that sense of notes bending and groaning.

Neil Young holding Old Black. Photograph: Aaron Rapoport/Corbis/Getty Images

Billy Gibbons: 1959 Gibson Les Paul, AKA Pearly Gates

Another of rock’s great lasting love affairs is between the ZZ Top man and a guitar he picked up back in 1968. He’d lent his car to an actor driving from Houston to try and make it big in Hollywood, and she got the part she auditioned for: “We figured the car must have divine connections, so we named it Pearly Gates,” he said. She sold it, and the cash – now Disney-ishly sprinkled with good fortune – reached Gibbons, who used it to buy a 1959 Les Paul off a cattle rancher. “Also in the case was a love note, which we also still have, from a girlfriend of the original owner,” Gibbons remembered. “She said, ‘I like what you do. Meet me later. You might like what I can do.’” It’s been behind some of the raunchiest power chords in rock ever since.

Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin performing in 1975. Photograph: Laurance Ratner/WireImage

Jimmy Page: double-necked Gibson EDS-1275

Led Zeppelin’s guitarist also played a 1959 Les Paul, sold to him by the Eagles’ Joe Walsh after Page was looking for something with “more balls”. But even more testicular was his Gibson EDS-1275, with 12 strings on the top neck, six strings below, all of them ready for the ultimate in swaggering rock-god ridiculousness. It allowed him to play Stairway to Heaven, recorded on a Fender Telecaster and a Fender electric 12-string, plus an acoustic, to be performed live without switching guitars.

BB King: Gibson L-30, AKA Lucille

The blues star would become synonymous with Gibson ES-355, a ridiculously voluptuous guitar that carried his giant, piercing tone to row ZZ. But it was an acoustic Gibson L-30 that features in an origin story to forge his legend in flame. King was playing in a dance hall in the too-perfectly named town of Twist, in Arkansas, and a fire began after two men, fighting over a woman called Lucille, knocked over a barrel of burning fuel that was heating the building. King rushed out – then rushed back into the fire to save his guitar. All his subsequent guitars would be called Lucille, and Gibson brought out a commemorative ES-355 with the name in 1980.

Joni Mitchell in 1969. Photograph: ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content/Getty Images

Joni Mitchell: 1956 Martin D-28

Heard on classics such as Blue and For the Roses, this was Mitchell’s first acoustic guitar, and her most loved. She acquired it from a US marine stationed in Fort Bragg, who had taken it with him to Vietnam, where it was caught up in an explosion. “When they cleared the wreckage, all that survived was this guitar,” Mitchell later recalled. “I don’t know whether the explosion did something to the modules in the wood, but that guitar was a troyper, man.” Having survived that, it suffered at the hands of an airline luggage handler. Mitchell said of her next guitar: “I carry it on board with me, because I won’t take a chance on it. I won’t let it go into the hold and get mushed like my beloved.”

Bo Diddley: Gretsch G6138

Frustrated by guitars getting in the way of being able to bound around the stage, Diddley started designing his own, like the magnificent Jupiter Thunderbird: a trapezoid guitar to stop any wayward knees getting caught on it, it looks like a 1950s spaceship, or like it’s dropped one shoulder and is slouching around with rock-star cool. Another Diddley innovation is the sensually fur-covered number on the cover of Bo Diddley Is a Lover, and even more iconic is his red rectangular guitar – harking back to models he made out of cigar boxes and Victrola turntable parts. Custom built by Gretsch in 1958, you can buy an updated G6138 for $2,700.

Elizabeth Cotten: Martin Auditorium Orchestra #000-18

Unassuming to look at, this acoustic guitar is now held in the National Museum of American History, after it was used by Cotten to influence the course of folk and blues. Left-handed and too poor to replace the strings on her brother’s banjo, she learned to play it upside down, and transposed that style to the guitar. With basslines played with fingers and melodies with thumbs, from this inverted style poured what writer Daphne A Brooks has called “the music of a Black girl’s lifeworld”.

Willie Nelson with ‘Trigger’. Photograph: Pamela Springsteen

Willie Nelson: Martin N-20, AKA Trigger

When a drunk man stepped on Nelson’s guitar in 1969, he did him a favour – the replacement became one of the most distinctive, well-loved guitars in music history. Named Trigger after the horse ridden by screen cowboy Roy Rogers – “This is my horse,” Nelson said – it’s like a book that’s become wonderfully dog-eared over years of rereading. There’s a gaping hole worn through the wood above the bridge, joining the traditional soundhole, while the now-undulating frets bear the imprint of thousands of pressed fingers.

Kirk Hammett: Gibson 1979 Flying V

The Flying V was created by Gibson in 1958 and had an almost cute, Atomic Age, Googie-type aesthetic. Fast forward to the late 70s and Metallica’s Kirk Hammett gives it a different feel entirely, like a weapon being hurled through storm clouds by some vengeful Norse god. With its aerodynamic shape leaving the fretboard gloriously exposed to fiendish riffage, it’s no wonder it became a mainstay for thrash metallers of all stripes.

Whether it’s Hendrix’s burned Stratocaster or Eddie Van Halen’s “Frankenstrat”, what have we missed? Tell us your favourites in the comments

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