He could play guitar just like ringin’ a bell
“This old guitar ain’t mine to keep,
Just taking care of it now,
It’s been around for years and years,
Just waiting in its old case,
It’s been up and down the country roads,
It’s brought a tear and a smile,
It’s seen its share of dreams and hopes
And never went out of style,
The more I play it, the better it sounds,
It cries when I leave it alone,
Silently it waits for me,
Or someone else I suppose…”
Neil Young wrote these heartfelt lyrics in 2005 for his excellent “Prairie Wind” LP after a brush with death from a brain aneurysm and complications from neurological surgery. The experience humbled him and had a profound effect on the songs he wrote next, particularly this one about how he cherishes his guitar but acknowledges he is only its caretaker for a while.
A number of famous guitarists have had such a symbiotic relationship with their chosen instruments that they have given them nicknames. B. B. King famously named his Gibson guitar “Lucille” after rescuing it from a fire in a club that had been started by two men fighting over a woman named Lucille. Eddie Van Halen came up with the guitar he called “Frankenstrat” by combining a Gibson sound with a Fender appearance and painting it red with black and white stripes. Willie Nelson’s acoustic guitar “Trigger” has been played for so long it has holes where the pick guard is supposed to be.
From rock music’s beginnings, the guitar has been the primary instrument, and the guitarist has been the focal point, so it’s not surprising that songwriters would eventually be composing songs about playing the guitar. I’ve gathered a dozen representative tunes that sing the praises of the guitar/guitarist bond, and you can hear them on the Spotify playlist at the end. (I would’ve most certainly included Young’s “This Old Guitar” among them, but he refuses to allow his music to be played via Spotify.)
As a guitar player myself, I’ve memorized most of these tracks, but a few I have only recently come to know. I can say this without reservation: If you’ve ever thought about learning to play guitar, I wholeheartedly recommend it!
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” The Beatles, 1968
Any list of guitar-related songs has to start with this magnificent piece, perhaps the finest track on the band’s legendary “White Album.” When Harrison demo’ed it for the others, they showed an appalling lack of interest in it, so he took the unprecedented step of inviting his friend Eric Clapton to join the session at which it would be recorded, which put the others on their best behavior and resulted in an inspired studio effort from everyone present. Two other renditions of the song are worth mentioning here and are included on the Spotify playlist. On Carlos Santana’s 2010 LP “Guitar Heaven,” he collaborated with singer India Arie and cellist Yo-Yo Ma on a superb treatment. Even more impressive was when Tom Petty teamed up with Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood and Dhani Harrison at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in a tribute to Harrison in 2004, where Prince dropped jaws around the world with a guitar-shredding performance at the end.
“Guitar Man,” Elvis Presley, 1967
This infectious tune was written and originally released in 1967 by Jerry Reed, a then-new country artist who later had a few successful crossover hits (“Amos Moses,” “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot”). His version stalled at #53 on country charts, but when Elvis Presley took a stab at it (with Reed brought in to handle guitar duties), his rendition made it to #43 on the US pop charts. Three years after Presley’s death, the song was remixed and re-released in 1980, reaching #16 on pop charts and #1 on country charts. Its lyrics tell the story of an aspiring guitar player who tries in Memphis and other cities to find gigs, but without much luck until he reaches Mobile, Alabama and becomes the frontman for a popular local band.
“Me and My Guitar,” James Taylor, 1974
Since his debut, Taylor positioned himself as a singer-songwriter and acoustic guitar picker, with many of his early classics offering lyrics that reference his love for singing and playing. This was perhaps never more evident than in “Me and My Guitar,” a whimsical track from his overlooked 1974 LP, “Walking Man.” The song describes the intertwined relationship between the man and his instrument: “Me and my guitar. always in the same mood, /I am mostly flesh and bones and he is mostly wood… Any fool can easily see that we go back a long time, /Feel something like fine to me, there’s no such thing as the wrong time, /He hops up on my knee, singing, ‘Get down, Pops, it’s song time’…”
“Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar,” Frank Zappa, 1981
As the iconoclastic leader of The Mothers of Invention and on his own, Zappa was about as prolific as anyone during his 30-year career (1966-1993), writing bizarrely original music and lyrics that brutally satirized American culture. Often overlooked through it all was Zappa’s proficiency on electric guitar, on which he performed with improvisational virtuosity. In particular, there’s “Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar,” a three-LP set from 1981 that compiled many solos and guitar instrumentals taken mostly from live performances. The title track is indicative of what you’ll find throughout the box set. Said critic Sean Westergaard in 2010, “Zappa was one of the finest and most under-appreciated guitarists around, and this is album that should be heard by anyone who’s into serious guitar playing.”
“The Guitar Man,” Bread, 1972
David Gates, chief songwriter for the 1970s group Bread, came up with this wistful, dreamy song about the lonely nature of the guy who is compelled to get up on stage and perform on guitar every night. Most of Gates’s hit songs are wispy ballads (“If,” “Diary,” “Everything I Own”), but “The Guitar Man” is dominated by a wah-wah guitar part (played by keyboardist Larry Knechtel) and uses the sound effects of an adoring crowd. The lyrics paint a riveting picture: “Who’s gonna steal the show, you know, baby, it’s the guitar man, /He can make you love, he can make you cry, /He will bring you down and he’ll get you high, /Something keeps him going miles and miles a day to find another place to play…” It reached #11 on US pop charts in 1972 (#6 in Canada and #16 in UK).
“Guitar Boogie,” Chuck Berry, 1958
Known quite accurately as “the father of rock and roll,” Berry took rhythm and blues music, and refined and developed them into the major elements that defined the new genre, exemplified in iconic tracks like “Maybellene,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Johnny B. Goode.” Each of these is anchored by original guitar riffs that are forever identified with Berry and have been copied endlessly ever since. Less well known, perhaps because of the absence of lyrics, is a deeper album track called “Guitar Boogie,” a blistering instrumental that features Berry’s guitar work as prominently as any piece he ever recorded. Even without lyrics, the track seems to show how much the man and the instrument work together to make magic.
“They Call Me Guitar Hurricane,” Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1980
Vaughan was the younger brother of guitarist Jimmie Vaughan, who had founded The Fabulous Thunderbirds in the early 1980s. Stevie Ray Vaughan came up through the same Austin, Texas blues scene, and ended up being even more highly regarded than his older brother. His career was cut short when he died in a helicopter crash in 1990 at age 35. Some of his earliest live recordings were unearthed and released posthumously on the 1992 album “In the Beginning.” One of the best tracks found there is this whirlwind guitar workout, in which his reputation as a guitar virtuoso precedes him: “Yeah, they call me hurricane, and I’ve come to play in your town, /Yeah, they call me hurricane, and I’ve come to play in your town, /If I can’t play this guitar, I’m sure gonna drive to your town…”
“This Old Guitar,” John Denver, 1974
During his impressive run from the late ’60s well into the 1990s, Denver wrote and recorded more than 200 songs, performing primarily with an acoustic guitar as he sang about his love of nature and his enthusiasm for music. On his #1 album “Back Home Again” in 1974, Denver condensed his raison d’être into the lyrics for “This Old Guitar,” in which he thanked his instrument for bringing him the good things in life, including his success he had as a performing artist and songwriter: “This old guitar taught me to sing a love song, /It showed me how to laugh and how to cry, /It introduced me to some friends of mine and brightened up some days, /It helped me make it through some lonely nights, /What a friend to have on a cold and lonely night…”
“Guitar Man,” J. J. Cale, 1996
Although he shunned the limelight, Cale is mentioned by numerous guitarists as a major influence on their style. He is one of the originators of the “Tulsa Sound,” a loose genre the draws on blues, rockabilly, country and jazz, and has written classics like “After Midnight,” “Call Me the Breeze” and “Cocaine.” In 1996, the title track of his “Guitar Man” LP touched on the mystery of his art: “Your fingers move so swiftly across those silver strings, /It looks so nice and easy, how you make it sing, /Guitar man, tell me what your secret is, /Tell me please, can you put my mind at ease, /Guitar man, in a guitar jam, playing low, playing slow, /Playing loud, working the crowd, /Playing high, you seem to fly… (Hey man, have you seen my Stratocaster? Hand me that Gibson over there, will you? /Let my try your Martin, man, do you mind? /Plug it in that Marshall, turn it up a little bit louder!…)”
“Me and My Guitar,” Batdorf and Rodney, 1971
Singer-songwriter John Batdorf was only 19 when he took a batch of delightful acoustic-based originals, teamed up with guitarist Mark Rodney and released what, to me, was one of the finest LPs of that era, 1971’s “Off the Shelf.” I’ve raved about this album many times on this blog, but I may not have focused before on this particular song, which has no relation to James Taylor’s tune of the same name (mentioned above). In Batdorf’s song, he talks about how much he relies on his guitar to bring him the success in the music business he’s striving for: “Oh, me and my guitar, keep our wheels a-turning, /Trying hard to find the perfect style…. /I play all day and sing the song that I wrote yesterday, /Hoping it will be the one that gets me on my way, /How long will it take? How soon will it break?…”
“This Guitar (Can’t Keep From Crying),” George Harrison, 1975
Harrison’s post-Beatles solo debut LP, “All Things Must Pass,” was such an unqualified success that everything released afterwards seemed to be a comedown. In particular, when he toured in 1974 in support of his ho-hum “Dark Horse” album, reviews were not kind, which soured Harrison on the music business for years to come. One of the first songs he wrote in the aftermath of that episode was this moving track from his 1975 LP, “Extra Texture.” Modeled somewhat after his stellar Beatles song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” this tune made it clear that his feelings were hurt by the criticism: “This here guitar can feel quite sad, /Can be high strung, sometimes get mad, /Can’t understand or deal with hate, /Responds much better to love, /I thought by now you knew the score, /But you missed the point, just like before, /And this guitar can’t keep from crying…”
“Just Playing My Axe,” Buddy Guy, 1968; “Born to Play Guitar,” Buddy Guy, 2015
At 86 and still going strong, Guy has been cranking out Chicago blues since the late 1950s, inspiring generations of guitarists ever since. On his second LP in 1968, he recorded a tune called “Just Playing My Axe” that succinctly summed up his mission and his passion in just three lines: “I just wanna play my axe, /Let me play my axe one time, /Let me play my axe again.” Then he shut up and did exactly that. Nearly 50 years later, his song “Born to Play Guitar” offered a more detailed perspective on his life’s work: “I got a reputation, everybody knows my name, /I was born to play my guitar, I got the blues running through my veins, /I got six strings loaded on my bad machine, /Show me the money and I’ll make this damn thing scream, /I’m gonna keep on playing, and on my dying day, a polka-dot guitar will be resting on my grave…”
“Play Guitar,” John Mellencamp, 1983; “Somebody Stole My Guitar,” Deep Purple, 1996; “Little Guitars,” Van Halen, 1982; “Scars on This Guitar,” Bon Jovi, 2018; “Guitar Boogie,” Tommy Emmanuel, 2010; “Close But No Guitar,” Toby Keith, 2018; “This Guitar,” Def Leppard with Alison Krauss, 2022; “Driving Guitars,” The Ventures, 1962.