Playing the guitar: Ten albums every guitarist should own

Will Hodgkinson, author of Guitar Man, picks 10 albums with the power to help you forget about broken strings and bleeding fingers

10 Marquee Moon by Television (1977)

Punk may well have been invented with the sole purpose of eliminating the guitar solo. By the mid-70s bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer were travelling around the world in personalised tour buses with the sole purpose of boring stadium audiences stupid with incredibly difficult musical meanderings, while in the real world, Britain underwent the three-day week and New York went bankrupt. No wonder the Ramones and the Sex Pistols wiped them all out with the audacity of barely being able to play.

But wait ... what's this? The debut album by punk pioneers Television contains one of the most expressive, emotional solos in the history of music. Frequently poverty-stricken, strung-out and the first band to play legendary New York pit CBGBs, Television had impeccable punk credentials. Yet this album has nothing to do with the primitive mentality the movement championed. Set against an unswerving beat that nails you to the wall, the title track features the electric guitars of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd entangled in a spiky dance, playing off one another and providing a mesmerising, stringent soundtrack to elliptical lyrics that are either totally meaningless or contain the secrets of the universe. Best of all, at the heart of the song is a great riff that you can learn without giving up your job, relationship, sanity or life itself.

9 Hatful Of Hollow by the Smiths (1984)

By the 80s, the decision of Decca Records' Dick Rowe to reject the Beatles because guitar bands were going out of fashion was finally making sense. Electronics and makeup had replaced guitars and denim as the fetishes of pop culture and it seemed the guitar was a spent force. Then 19-year-old Johnny Marr emerged from suburban Manchester to make guitar sounds that nobody had ever heard, anywhere.

Marr learned to play by aping James Williamson of the Stooges, but in doing so came up with something radically different. He created many of the Smiths' songs by playing an open riff on a minor chord after hearing Williamson do it on the Stooges' Gimme Danger; an important lesson for all aspiring guitarists scared of copying the greats for fear of being unoriginal.

Marr carved a signature sound with the Smiths, building a "guitarchestra" in the studio through multi-layering and making his Rickenbacker reminiscent of both African hi-life music and the folk-rock jingle-jangle of the Byrds. But rather than dine out on former glories, Marr has pushed his guitar into new directions in the decades since, exploring everything from cosmic folk to stadium rock. "I'd have to live several lifetimes to do all I'd like to on a guitar," he says; proof that even the greatest can always learn something new.

8 Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968 (1972)

You're a 16-year-old with a severe case of loseritis. You've got spots, the squares don't understand and the girl you love keeps getting you confused with the other assistant library monitor. What do you do? Pick up a guitar and lay down your angst in a song, as scores of young Americans did after watching the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 and spotting a way out of their pain. Inevitably, most of these adolescents weren't very good at playing their instruments, thereby giving birth to the novice guitarist's world of hope that is garage rock.

Within a few weeks of picking up a guitar for the first time you'll be able to string together the four chords needed for You're Gonna Miss Me by The Thirteenth Floor Elevators, while Can't Seem To Make You Mine by the Seeds only needs three. The satisfaction involved in knocking out a recognisable tune, after those first few days of painful fingertips and even more painful screeches from your guitar, will be enough of a reward to keep you going.

This classic compilation, put together by Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group, unleashed an avalanche of forgotten garage singles that continue to be unearthed to this day.

7 Maggot Brain by Funkadelic (1971)

Countless joints have been rolled on the sleeve of this funky rock classic, and a lot of stoned freaks have consequently spaced out to Eddie Hazel's 17-minute psychedelic trip of a solo. "Mother Earth is dying," announces Funkadelic's leader, George Clinton, portentously, adding with typical Detroit street humour, "Because y'all have knocked her up." This leads into one of the most powerfully melancholic electric guitar pieces of all time, which never sounds self-indulgent but remains deeply musical. Clinton told Eddie Hazel to play guitar like his mother had just died, and then recorded the whole thing in one take. The rest of the band joined in, but Clinton faded them out when he realised Hazel was coming up with something special. It's not hugely complicated - just a pentatonic scale in E minor - but with judicious use of a fuzz box and a wah-wah pedal, Hazel created an expansive and entirely original piece of music.

6 Led Zeppelin IV by Led Zeppelin (1971)

By some strange twist of fate the band that was to provide the soundtrack to growing up in Middle America in the 70s and 80s was British, with a guitarist that had an unhealthy fascination for occultist Alistair Crowley and a singer who, when he wasn't being a golden god, liked nothing better than a spot of fell walking through the Welsh countryside in sensible all-weather gear.

Led Zep IV has gone down in guitar history for Stairway to Heaven, the song that drove a thousand guitar shop owners insane as one would-be Jimmy Page after another spent interminable afternoons displaying their mastery of the opening bars to anyone forced to listen, but the album as a whole is a lesson in the possibilities of the guitar. Opener Rock'n'Roll is a straight-up blues rocker in the tradition of Chuck Berry, while The Battle of Evermore, which features folk-rock queen Sandy Denny on vocals, has bassist John Paul Jones on mandolin and Page on acoustic guitar. Then there's the delicate Going to California, inspired by Page and Robert Plant's infatuation with Joni Mitchell and one of those gift songs to guitarists; it sounds tricky to play, but it isn't really.

5 Elephant by the White Stripes (2004)

In 2003, after five years of ploughing away at raw garage-blues, Detroit's ex husband-and-wife/pretend brother-and-sister/guitar-drums duo the White Stripes suddenly found themselves immensely fashionable. Rather than hire a top producer and an incredibly expensive studio, Jack and Meg White opted to record their fourth album, Elephant, over two weeks at the tiny, eight-track analogue studio Toe-Rag in Hackney, east London, where owner/producer Liam Watson wears a brown overcoat during recordings and the catering budget stretches to a Best-In teabag if you're lucky. But Watson is a master at getting the most out of every part, making this the perfect album for guitar neophytes to discover the possibilities of the instrument. What sounds like a bassline on opener Seven Nation Army is in fact a semi-acoustic guitar played through a whammy pedal, and White manages to make his guitar sound variously angry, fun, miserable and gentle through judicious use of simple bar chords. Nothing he does is massively difficult to play and Elephant is crammed full of memorable riffs, so buy a White Stripes music book and work it out for yourself.

4 After Hours: Live at Hull University 1967 by Davy Graham (released in 1997)

Who was it who brought the guitar out of the shadows of the orchestra and the rhythm section and made it a star in its own right? That honour goes to gypsy-jazz genius Django Reinhardt, but the maverick Davy Graham, born of Scottish-Guyanan parentage, raised in London and occupying a dimension several levels distant from the one you or I are on, changed everything too. And in 1960 he wrote Anji, an instrumental that, with its contrapuntal bassline combined with an unforgettable A-minor riff, became the tune any would-be fingerpicker has had to master ever since.

Graham reinvented American blues and English folk through intricate playing and an inquiring mind that will take on anything from Middle Eastern modal harmonies to Balkan jazz, but he has always been an unpredictable talent. This recording, made in a bedroom before a handful of drunken students at one in the morning, captures a rare moment when his playing is absolutely magical. The background chatter adds to the bottling of a moment in time, and to hear She Moved Thru' the Bizarre/Blue Raga, in which Graham combines an Irish folk tune with Indian classical music and turns it into something exotic and transcendent, is to be astounded by the possibilities of what an acoustic guitar can do.

3 Green Onions by Booker T and the MGs (1962)

The ultra-sharp chops of guitarist Steve Cropper showed a generation how much you can achieve with good timing, good taste and an electric guitar played clean through a sturdy amplifier. Listen to his riffs at the end of the mod classic Green Onions - not a note out of place, and so cool! Who couldn't get excited by this exercise in holding back, this play-for-the-song minimalism? Then there's his intricate playing on jazz theme Comin' Home Baby ... I could go on ... and probably would given the chance ... but there are scores of other recordings featuring Cropper to consider. As the in-house guitarist for the Memphis soul label Stax you can hear him on Otis Redding's The Dock of the Bay, Eddie Floyd's Knock On Wood, and Wilson Pickett's In the Midnight Hour. He defined the sound of the R&B guitar and was a major influence on the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The ultimate session player, Cropper is still going strong and, because he plays with such clarity, it's not hard to work out what he's doing. Unlike the man at number two ...

2 Jack Orion by Bert Jansch (1966)

Bert Jansch is a quiet Scotsman who did for the acoustic guitar what Jimi Hendrix did for the electric. Matched only by Davy Graham, Jansch's style - percussive, complex and rooted in the blues - is compelling and impossible to imitate, although plenty have tried. This is his third album, recorded live in his kitchen and mostly consisting of traditional folk tunes transplanted to the guitar with extremely complex arrangements. Set yourself a challenge and learn to play Black Water Side - and pray that you still have your sanity by the time you've mastered it.

A generation of future guitar gods studied Jack Orion carefully - including, one guesses, Jimmy Page, whose Black Mountain Side sounds remarkably similar to Black Water Side. Every guitarist should spend time with this masterpiece.

1 Smash Hits by the Jimi Hendrix Experience (1968)

Coming out at time when he was yet to have that many smash hits, this makes for a perfect picture of the greatest guitarist of all time. For a deadly rock riff that everyone should be required to master before being allowed to buy an expensive electric guitar, try Purple Haze, with its evil Devil's Interval of a diminished fifth. For the most exquisite folk-rock, featuring a glorious miniature solo, turn to The Wind Cries Mary. Hendrix was up on funk before it really existed, too - Fire and Foxy Lady are aural examples of why playing guitar can help get you laid.

Never before or since has blues, folk, rock, R&B and a wild unnameable energy verging on madness been so perfectly welded. If this album doesn't make you want to pick up the guitar and knock the hell out of it, perhaps you're better suited to the harpsichord.


Will Hodgkinson

The GuardianTramp

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