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The Most Important Guitar Albums

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The Most Important Guitar Albums

14 November 2013

Pete Pardo

So, let me state the reason for this long, rambling listing of 'guitar' albums that not only are near and dear to my heart (well, most of 'em anyway) but in my view pretty damn important to the worlds of heavy metal, hard rock, progressive rock, jazz-fusion, blues rock, etc, etc...It's in direct response to the plethora of 'lists' that all the known rock & guitar magazines have put out in recent years, whether they are talking about the 'best guitarists of all time' or the 'best guitar albums of all time'. You see, in most cases I question just who is actually putting these lists together, because anyone I talk to who has even a middling interest in guitar oriented music (or with a pulse for that matter) laughs at these attempts at meaningful lists. So, I figured I should do one of my own, and the original intent was to do a Top 50, which escalated into a bit more than that. Notice I have not numbered these, and they are in no particular order, but here is a boatload of albums that really contain some otherworldly, important, groundbreaking, and quite frankly, cool guitar work. Enjoy!

Steve Vai: Passion and Warfare-slowly making a name for himself in Frank Zappa's band as well as Alcatrazz & Whitesnake, it was on this second solo release that Vai truly rocketed to guitar legend status. The tag of 'the guitarist who can do anything' really kicked into full force with this album.

Yngwie Malmsteen's Rising Force: Rising Force-though he first really gained a lot of attention on that debut Alcatrazz album, it's here on the Swede's first solo record that the buzz truly erupted. Blazing, neo-classical metal instrumentals are the main focus here, and started a whole trend of shredders that we saw pop up throughout the rest of the '80s. At the time, Yngwie was considered the fastest player on the planet, and his legend took off from here.

Van Halen: Van Halen-perhaps the most groundbreaking guitar-centric album of all time, the first VH album signaled the arrival of a guitar god in Eddie Van Halen, a player who revolutionized the instrument. They might have better albums than this one, but it's here where it all began.

Jimi Hendrix: Electric Ladyland- Are You Experienced? might get all the hoopla, but it's here on his last official studio album before he dies that Hendrix put it all together perfectly, fusing blues, funk, jazz, and heavy rock. No telling what he might have done had he lived. Perhaps the most important guitar player ever.

Cream: Wheels of Fire-yeah, Disraeli Gears is often considered the 'go to' Cream album, but Eric Clapton's guitar prowess is at its peak here on this mix of stellar studio & live cuts. One of the first 'guitar gods' ever, it's in this band that his status reached monolithic proportions. The blueprint for heavy blues rock guitar is right here folks.

Mountain: Climbing-any album that includes the riff monster 'Mississippi Queen' needs to be on this list. Leslie West had a tone to die for, and man could that big dude come up with killer riffs and tasty, melodic solos. Michael Schenker's biggest influence.

Deep Purple: In Rock-Ritchie Blackmore has a wealth of 'home run' albums under his belt, and while most folks consider Machine Head the perfect Deep Purple album, it's on this one that the legend that is the Man in Black really came to fruition. Also one of the first heavy metal albums, In Rock contains a wealth of scorching riffs and lead guitar work, so heavy and savage for the time.

Led Zeppelin: IV- while Zep I & II got it all started with some deep heavy rocking blues, Jimmy Page really came into his own here on the legendary fourth release. Heavy rock, folk, blues, it's all here, and masterfully played by Page.

Black Sabbath: Paranoid- it's long been argued as to who created heavy metal, but there's no denying that the Sabs probably are the true masters of the genre. This sophomore release burst forth bruisers like "Iron Man", "War Pigs", "Electric Funeral", "Fairies Wear Boots", Hand of Doom", and the iconic title track, all filled with Tony Iommi's brontosaurus riffs and blazing, blues based solos. The birth of doom metal.

Dream Theater: Scenes From a Memory- the band has a host of important albums that seemingly helped progressive metal become a way of life for many fans & bands alike, but this album perhaps is their most perfect. John Petrucci is easily one of the top guitar players of his generation, and he really confirmed his status on this important concept album.

Yes: The Yes Album-the arrival of Steve Howe to the band also signaled that virtuoso lead guitar work was alive & well in the world of progressive rock. A well rounded player, Howe delivered stunning electric and well as acoustic work throughout this classic album.

Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers-when the Stones brought Mick Taylor on board, they instantly became a better band instrumentally. It also was a time that Jagger & Richards' songwriting took off, so it was a marriage made in heaven for a few years. Many of the Stones' most beloved songs are here, and much of the album rocks hard, with Taylor's stinging lead guitar work leading the way.

Joe Satriani: Surfing With the Alien-the 'shred' album to lead all shred albums? Perhaps. This one made Satriani a household name, and an album that had chops to die for but also great memorable songwriting. To this day still one of the best selling instrumental guitar albums of all time.

Frank Zappa: One Size Fits All-sure, you can go to any of Zappa's many albums to find some great guitar playing, but it's here that the musical genius delivered some truly stunning solos housed within killer songs. It's rock, it's jazz, it's pop, it's funk, it's avant-garde, it's get the picture. "Inca Roads", "Andy", "Po-jama People", and "Florentine Pogen"...need I say more.

Metallica: Ride the Lightning-the thrash upstarts exploded onto the scene in a big way on this, their second release. Huge, speed of life riffs from James Hetfield, well crafted melodies, and Kirk Hammett's blazing leads made up the formula on this killer album that was followed with more greatness on Master of Puppets and And Justice For All.

Megadeth: Rust in Piece-the band had a few strong albums before this one, but it was here that Megadeth crafting a ridiculous chops heavy slab of brutal thrash that to this day is still considered one of the great thrash albums of all time. Dave Mustaine & Marty Friedman cemented their legacy as one of the great guitar teams on this legendary album.

Slayer-Reign in Blood-at the time the heaviest & most brutal album to break into the mainstream, Reign in Blood is perhaps the perfect Slayer record and most savage. Many metal fans had never heard riffs this fast, solos this frantic, as Kerry King & Jeff Hanneman laid waste to the heavy metal playbook and kick started a whole extreme metal movement.

Pantera: Vulgar Display of Power-heavy metal in the '90s took a huge beating, but Pantera sure did their best to keep the genre alive. One of the first extreme bands to dent the Billboard Top 10, Pantera had one of the '90s most prolific guitar heroes in Dimebag Darrell. This album contains a host of lethal riffs and shredding solos from this talented player who left us way too soon.

ZZ Top: Tres Hombres- I mean, you can't have a list like this and not include Billy Gibbons. This is ZZ Top's raunchiest platter of smokin' blues rock, and Mr. Gibbons and his fat Les Paul tone just sizzles on songs like "Waitin' For the Bus", "Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers", "La Grange", and "Jesus Just Left Chicago".

The Who: Who's Next-one of the best rhythm guitar players in rock and also one of the most inventive writers, Pete Townsend was at his peak here, and created a magical album of memorable hard rock anthems. One of the best albums of the '70s, and an underrated 'riff' one at that.

UFO: Strangers in the Night- Michael Schenker shot to fame as the young stud lead guitarist in UFO, and though he contributed some fine guitar work on the handful of studio albums he did with the band, it was his swan-song (the first time around anyway) with the band on this scorching live album that really wowed fans the most. His awe-inspiring licks on the Flying V run rampant throughout this one, easily one of the best live albums of all time.

Thin Lizzy: Jailbreak-the duo of Scott Gorham & Brian Robertson arguably wrote the book on the whole twin lead guitar thing, and though it's debatable about what Thin Lizzy album with these two is the best, it all came together perfectly on this, the bands best selling album. Take it up another notch and check them out on the Live and Dangerous album too while you are at it.

Stevie Ray Vaughn: Texas Flood-the first real new blues based guitar player to break into the mainstream in the early '80s, SRV brought a boatload of talent and conviction to the table, and appealed to not only the blues crowd, but also the rock & jazz world as well. This debut has some of the most mind-blowing blues-rock guitar playing you will ever hear.

Frank Marino: Live- if you only think of Marino as a Hendrix clone, you really are missing the boat. Yes, he can play in that style, but the guy also wrote some killer hard rock/blues/funk material, and when it came to lead work, well, he is one of the best in the business. This is a mandatory live album, filled with some of the most fiery, scorching, and fast lead guitar work you will ever hear.

Ted Nugent: Double Live Gonzo- many of Nugent's solo albums are a bit erratic, but the guitarist put it all together here on this legendary live album. A player of formidable talent, Nugent includes many of his best early tunes here, and throws in a boatload of crunching riffs and searing solos.

Robin Trower: Bridge of Sighs- for me, the ultimate Trower album is his Live record, but this is where the framework for everything he did really started. Distorted, Univibe soaked lead guitar work, psychedelic blues rock songs, great vocals from James Dewar, just a tour-de-force for guitar lovers.

Allman Brothers Band: Live at Fillmore-any serious rock guitar player has probably listened to and studied this album to death. Duane Allman & Dickie Betts...not much more needs to be said. Call it Southern Rock, call it blues-rock, call it jazz, but as an important piece of guitar history, call it legendary.

Iron Maiden: The Number of the Beast- NWOBHM leaders Iron Maiden got a new singer in Bruce Dickinson, and let the twin guitar team of Adrian Smith & Dave Murray run rampant on this best selling heavy metal album. The title track, "Hallowed Be Thy Name", "22 Acacia Avenue", and "Run to the Hills" are all important pieces of metal history, and there's some sensational guitar work here that influenced a legion of players.

Judas Priest: Unleashed in the East-speaking of influential, there's not many dual guitar teams who have inspired young players more than Glenn Tipton & KK Downing. Though there are plenty of near perfect Judas Priest studio albums, it's on this killer live album that some of their best tunes are made even better. Sizzling lead work, and riffs a plenty on this set.

Rush: Moving Pictures- Alex Lifeson has a full discography of highlights with Rush, but this album perfectly meshed their heavy rock & prog leanings into a style that really clicked with the mainstream. "YYZ", "Tom Sawyer", "Limelight", and "Red Barchetta" contain plenty of Lifeson's layered chord work and tasty solos. A landmark album.

Rainbow: Rising-yes, here is Mr. Blackmore again, this time with his band Rainbow, and one of the most important albums in the history of heavy & progressive metal. With Ronnie James Dio & Cozy Powell also on board, it's hard to imagine that greatness would not result out of this collective. Blackmore's lead guitar work and riffs are completely epic here...don't believe me, just listen to "Stargazer" for proof.

King Crimson: Red-Robert Fripp's proto-metal/prog riffs and searing lead guitar work battle it up with John Wetton's booming bass and Bill Bruford's acrobatic drums on this memorable KC release.

KISS: Alive-as simple as many of them might be, you can't deny how memorable most of those old KISS riffs are, and who better than Ace Frehley & Paul Stanley to deliver them. One of the best hard rock live albums of all time, this one serves up one catchy, heavy riff after another over 4 sides of vinyl.

Lynyrd Skynyrd: One More From the Road-these Southern rednecks pulled out the 3-guitar army on this rousing set, which contains most of their best tunes and plenty of six-string pyrotechnics.

Mastodon: Leviathan-mixing crushing hardcore with complex prog and a flair for the psychedelic, Leviathan signaled the arrival of a real beast to the metal scene. They took this style even further on successive releases, but man did this album kick the genre in the ass when it first came out. Absolutely killer guitar work!

Opeth: Blackwater Park-progressive death metal doesn't get any better than this album or band. Opeth combined their love for '70s progressive rock with crushing Scandinavian death metal for a sound that was unique and refreshing. Weaving, complex guitar lines, thunderous riffs, intricate rhythms, growling death metal vocals and gorgeous melodic crooning all meshed for a sound that took the metal & prog scene by storm.

Free: Tons of Sobs-Paul Kossoff's stinging vibrato and sizzling blues rock licks are all over this debut from Free. I mean, how many guitar players can get as much screaming emotion out of their instruments as Koss does here? Answer-not many. Another legendary player who left us way too soon.

Jeff Beck:Truth - truly a revolutionary player (arguably as much as Hendrix), Jeff Beck showed the world that he meant business on this first album after leaving the Yardbirds. With a young Rod Stewart and future Rolling Stones Ronnie Wood in tow, Truth rampaged with fuzz-toned heavy blues rock, Beck slashing and slaying with one hot lick after another.

Queen: Queen-not always seen as an important 'guitar' album, it most certainly was. Brian May's guitar tone and use of delay effects were truly something different from all the more blues based players on the scene at the time. And how about those riffs? So many heavy riffs here dripping with that awesome tone-toss in some great songs and Freddie Murcury and you have one of the best debut's of the decade.

Chicago Transit Authority: CTA-another album that tends to be forgotten in the annals of guitardom, but let's face it folks, the late Terry Kath was a monster player, and he's all over this very adventurous debut from Chicago. His sizzling Tele/Strat licks & solos permeate this entire rock/jazz/blues/pop affair, and his wah-wah solo on '25 or 6 to 4' is legendary.

Montrose: Montrose-the pairing of Ronnie Montrose's huge guitar riffs and a young Sammy Hagar on vocals resulted in magic. So many guitar players list this album as a major influence, and why not; Ronnie's tone is meaty, his riffs mean, and the lead work is crisp and melodic. A blueprint for much of the heavy rock to come later in the decade and in the '80s, especially tunes like "Rock Candy", "Rock the Nation", and "Bad Motor Scooter".

Dio: Holy Diver-Ronnie James Dio leaves Black Sabbath and fires right back with this angry, kick ass slab of molten metal. Young stud Vivian Campbell injected himself right into the thick of '80s guitar heroes with his performance here.

Jason Becker/Marty Friedman: Cacophony-these two took instrumental shred guitar to new levels on this insane workout. Not content to let Malmsteen, MacAlpine, and Moore take all the neo-classical metal accolades, this album is heavy, fast, fast, and did I say fast? Arpeggios galore!

Gary Moore: Corridors of Power-still remember the first time I heard "End of the World" and "Always Gonna Love You" on the radio before this album was released. Holy Hell, Who is that?? Moore injected superior technique into hard rock at a time when the world was still being amazed by the coming of Eddie Van Halen, and this album is a wealth of guitar majesty.

Scorpions: Tokyo Tapes-Uli Jon Roth ladies and gentleman. This guy was ahead of his time, littering those early Scorpions albums with blazing classical runs and Hendrix inspired virtuosity. Just an exciting live album from start to finish, and sadly, his swan song with the band.

Extreme: Pornograffiti-in a decade that was short on new guitar heroes, Nuno Bettencourt exploded onto the scene in the early '90s with this guitar heavy platter of funk-metal. For a few years, he was destined to be the new 'guy' on the guitar scene, but after a few albums the band kind of faded away and we didn't hear much from him after that. Still, a landmark guitar album from a decade that had very few of them.

Ozzy Osbourne: Diary of a Madman-it's a real shame Randy Rhoads was tragically killed at such a young age, because the skills he showed on the 2 albums he did with Ozzy, and this one especially, hinted that he could have been one of the best ever. A killer riffmeister, and a sizzling soloist, Randy was just starting to develop his classical inspired metal genius when his life was snuffed out in a plane crash.

Budgie: In For the Kill-this is a band that sadly doesn't get mentioned enough when discussions come up about important heavy rock/metal bands of the '70s. Tony Bourge came up with some of the best riffs of that era, at times rivaling Iommi, Page, and Blackmore, yet he never gets any credit for it. This album is a riff lovers wet dream, and if all this is new to you, stop wasting time and get a hold of this album pronto!

Motorhead: Ace of Spades-never having a guitarist who was technically a virtuoso (well, Brian Robertson briefly I guess kind of qualifies) but Motorhead have to be included in this list due to their overall importance to the metal scene. Fast Eddie Clarke unleashed a torrent of bluesy, speed metal riffing on all the albums he appeared on with the band, but this is one of the best, along with the mighty Overkill & Bomber. Influential in a big way!

Morbid Angel: Alters of Madness-proof that even death metal can have virtuoso musicianship, Trey Azagthoth became known as the 'Eddie Van Halen' of the genre. Though the band have a long list of beloved, brutal albums, this one pretty much sits at the top, and is a non-stop assault of blast beats, venomous growls, and Trey's acrobatic lead work and crushing riffs.

Death: Symbolic-basically, Death NEEDS to be on this list, and just about any of their albums can be included here, but I'm going to pick this one by a nose over Human, Sounds of Perseverance, and Individual Thought Patterns. Why? Well, there's just something about tunes like "Zero Tolerance", "Crystal Mountain", "Empty Words", and the title track that is so titanic, so majestic, so brutal, and so progressive, leagues above what most death metal acts of the era were going. Chuck Schuldiner & Bobby Koelble put together some amazingly heavy guitar riffs here and technical solos. Doesn't get much better.

Whitesnake: Whitesnake- with this album, Whitesnake proved that in a haze of bubblegum metal and hairspray that you could still deliver bluesy, heavy, and metallic sounds that contained virtuoso guitar work in the late '80s. John Sykes plays like a man possessed throughout this scorching affair, which for many longtime Whitesnake fans was too heavy and too far removed from their more blues based origins, but the new metal fans of the decade took to them with open arms.

The Mahavishnu Orchestra: The Inner Mounting Flame-their debut, and arguably their best (though Birds of Fire is probably equally as good), sees John McLaughlin firing off some seriously stunning lead guitar work, certainly the most rock based playing ever seen on a jazz album. At the time some of the fastest lead work ever heard.

Al DiMeola: Land of the Midnight Sun-toss up between this or his follow-up Elegant Gypsy, but either one needs to be here. Impeccable picking technique and his mastery of latin jazz & rock styles paved the way for DiMeola to become one of the most respected guitarists of the fusion scene. Blazing lead work on this album.

Return to Forever: Romantic Warrior-Mr. DiMeola is here again, this time with Chick Corea's Return to Forever, and an album that just dazzles with the supreme virtuoso abilities of the four members. Want to hear stunning jazz-fusion? Then get this album.

Allan Holdsworth: I.O.U. - when Eddie Van Halen sings your praise, you know you are doing something right. The guitarists favorite guitarist, Holdsworth for many, was just on a different planet, and this second studio album from 1982 is where he put it all together after some stunning work alongside Tony Williams, Soft Machine, Gong, Bruford, and UK. Dazzling virtuosity.

Dixie Dregs: What If- so hard to pick just one of their albums, but Steve Morse is just so commanding here, and his synergy with the rest of the band so precise, that it gets my pick. Not really prog, not really jazz, kind of rock, kind of bluegrass, perhaps all things and in between, but the results are stunning.

Steve Morse Band: The Introduction-before it became common to put out instrumental guitar albums, Morse was already doing it. This debut from 1984 is a scorching affair, and features jaw-dropping musicality. Seriously, if you haven't heard this, you need to.

Derek & the Dominoes: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs-well, any album that has both Eric Clapton & Duane Allman in their prime has to be here, right? You bet; plenty of sprawling blues rock jams containing fiery guitar solos from both men, who seemed to really love playing together on this landmark event. Too bad it was never to happen again.

Yeah, I know I'm missing a ton of great stuff, but I think you get the picture. If you care to chat a bit about cool guitar based music, drop me a line at or give us some feedback over on the SoT Facebook page .

Pete Pardo


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