It’s a sublime pleasure and a jolting thrill for every lover of the guitar: you hear a song for the first time, and a strange, previously unheard tone cuts right through you like a hot E-string through butter. You’re both awed and mystified, and you can’t help but wonder, “What dark magic is the player commanding to make a guitar sound like that?”
Most who’ve picked up an electric guitar come to quickly realize that even with nothing but tone knobs and a low-rent stomp box of one kind or another, the instrument opens itself up to almost limitless possibilities of sound. But sometimes a player and his or her axe push things even further, creating distinctive, song-specific signature tones that drive the rest of us back to our pedal-boards in search of the secret recipe.
Some players have made a career of this kind of inventiveness – Fred Frith, Robert Fripp and Sonny Sharrock, for example – and plenty of wild sounds can be heard from innumerable avant-garde, art-rock bands (Pere Ubu) and on experimental projects (Metal Machine Music). But sometimes the mystery tones with the greatest impact are the ones hiding in plain sight, within some of the most familiar, popular tunes. Here then, is a list of some memorable “WTF” moments in rock ’n’ roll guitar sounds.
10. Norman Greenbaum, “Spirit in the Sky”
9. U2, “Gloria”
8. The Isley Brothers, “That Lady”
7. Big Country, “In a Big Country”
6. Rage Against the Machine, “Bullet in the Head”
5. The Smiths, “How Soon is Now?”
4. Van Halen, “Eruption”
Just when we rockers thought we’d heard it all, Eddie Van Halen came up with a whole new approach to guitar and essentially reinvented the instrument. With this one, short blast, Eddie’s hammer-ons, pull-offs, and two-handed tapping technique opened up a whole new world of sound, and set a new gold standard for what we expect from our guitar gods.
3. Joe Walsh, “Rocky Mountain Way”
2. The Beatles, “I’m Only Sleeping”
1. Jimi Hendrix, “Star Spangled Banner”