Top 10 best guitar songs ever written

23.02.2022 Ben Maloney Guitar

A great guitar song captures something unique. It’s a thing of beauty. It breaks new ground. It demonstrates technical prowess and shows listeners what this powerful and versatile instrument can do. 

There are ten songs here that touch greatness in different ways. They’re written and played by a range of players working in a variety of genres, many of whom rank as some of the best guitarists of all time

To witness the magic of their music, follow the links to nkoda provided. On the app you’ll find some of their guitar sheet music and plenty more. Have a look, try them out, and touch greatness yourself. 

So tune up, plug in, and prepare for some outstanding guitar music. (Acoustic players should avoid plugging in.)
 

Top 10 best guitar songs
 

  1. ‘Whole Lotta Love’ by Led Zeppelin
  2. Asturias by Isaac Albéniz
  3. ‘Fast Car’ by Tracy Chapman
  4. ‘Layla’ by Derek and the Dominos
  5. Five Preludes by Heitor Villa-Lobos
  6. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana
  7. Argyle Sketches by Libby Larsen
  8. ‘Johnny B. Goode’ by Chuck Berry
  9. Lute Suite in E minor by Johann Sebastian Bach
  10. ‘Smoke on the Water’ by Deep Purple

1. ‘Whole Lotta Love’ by Led Zeppelin

For many, when they think ‘Led Zeppelin’ and ‘great guitar song’, the first thing that comes to mind is ‘Stairway to Heaven’. It’s an epic, no doubt. But ‘Whole Lotta Love’, when it appeared in 1969, brought something unbelievably fresh. This kind of music simply hadn’t been played before, and few tracks make that kind of impact.

The track’s iconic riff - choppy, gritty, heavy - marked the beginning of a new age in rock music, signalling the future of the genre. This was hard rock, and Jimmy Page’s distorted chugging even anticipated playing techniques typical of much later heavy metal. It was a pioneering guitar sound in the truest sense. 

As well as writing and playing this immortal riff, Page also performed one of the great guitar solos in rock history on ‘Whole Lotta Love’. Worked into perfectly crafted phrases, his screeching tones similarly threw down the gauntlet for all rock guitarists to come. Hardly any of them will say that they weren’t influenced by Page’s playing.

2. Asturias by Isaac Albéniz

Isaac Albéniz might be renowned for his guitar works, but he neither played the guitar nor wrote any music for it. A virtuoso pianist, he mostly composed for the instrument he knew best. But his compositions, many of which are based on Spanish folk idioms, have a knack for sounding good on guitar.

Like so many of his works, Asturias was transcribed for the guitar after Albéniz’s death. It exists in several versions, but Andrés Segovia’s is probably the most renowned. The great virtuoso helped to popularise the piece, and ultimately make it one of the most recognisable guitar works in the entire classical repertoire. 

Focusing on the distinctive Phrygian mode, and including fierce chords influenced by Flamenco music, the piece evokes the traditional music of Spain particularly strongly. Despite sharing its name with a region in the north of the country, the piece engages more with the musical culture of southerly Andalusia. 

3. ‘Fast Car’ by Tracy Chapman

The singer-songwriter stands with their guitar, telling a story through words and music, baring their heart and soul. It’s a classic image, a powerful kind of performance, and Tracy Chapman epitomises it better than most. ‘Fast Car’ is her masterpiece, the song through which she has connected with untold numbers of listeners. 

The track is the lead single from Chapman’s self-titled debut album of 1988. It was an instant classic, scoring highly on charts around the world and garnering critical acclaim. Its subject matter has always resonated, depicting a life of poverty and hardship in which memories of better times provide some solace.

So much of the song’s power resides in Chapman’s guitar-playing. It’s one of the great acoustic guitar numbers, exploiting the instrument’s ability to sound simple harmonies soulfully. The phrases of the verse move between a D major 7th chord and an F-sharp minor, creating an emotive backdrop for the moving lyrics that Chapman sings. 

4. ‘Layla’ by Derek and the Dominos

Derek and the Dominos weren’t around for long. They formed in 1970 and split up the following year. But in that time they were able to put together an album that’s regarded by many as one of the very greatest: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. 

As the title suggests, ‘Layla’ is the album’s flagship track. Written by band members Eric Clapton and Jim Gordon, its perhaps unlikely inspiration was an Arabic love story dating back to the 7th century. The song features one of the finest riffs ever played on a six-string, which alone earns ‘Layla’ a place on this list.

Still, there’s a world of guitar-playing on the recording. Clapton, one of the great players of all time, plays alongside co-guitarist Duane Allman, also one of the best. Together with their wailing guitars, not to mention the rest of the band, they create a rock sound like no other. It continues to amaze listeners even fifty years down the line.

5. Five Preludes by Heitor Villa-Lobos

Composer Heitor Villa-Lobos was an accomplished classical guitarist. He was also from Brazil, a country where the classical guitar is the national instrument. Logical, then, that his guitar music occupies a very special place in his body of work. 

Among all this notable music, the Five Preludes stand out. Together they make up one of the most important works in the entire classical guitar repertoire. Written in 1940 when the composer’s musical identity was really coming together, the collection features some of the most challenging and beautiful music ever created for the instrument. 

Although the five pieces that make up the collection explore a range of different ideas, they’re all marked harmonically and rhythmically by music of Villa-Lobos’ native Brazil. It’s these characteristics - and the way they’re fused with European classical styles - that give this music it’s signature sound. There’s no guitar music quite like it. 

6. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana

Kurt Cobain, the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist in Nirvana, is widely regarded as a great guitar player. But he wasn’t one for virtuosity. Cobain’s greatness lies rather in his discovery of a powerful, immersive guitar sound that would come to define the grunge movement of the 1990s, and impact many later artists. 

‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ demonstrates Cobain’s innovations better than any Nirvana track. The overwhelming sound is there, and the riff is as catchy as they come. The huge shifts between loud and soft so definitive of Nirvana’s sound world are there too, giving contrast to the song and breadth to Cobain’s guitar work.

Adding to the force of the guitar sound is Cobain’s use of the double-tracking technique - he recorded the same part twice and played the takes over the top of one another. He would also combine notes on the guitar with speech through the microphone, which gave the sound ambiguity. His exploitation of the instrument was one-of-a-kind.

7. Argyle Sketches by Libby Larsen

American composer Libby Larsen has been one of the most distinctive voices in classical music for decades. Now she’s one of America’s most-performed living composers. In Argyle Sketches, she brought her characteristically experimental approach to the world of guitar music. 

The 1973 work is made up of four movements, each putting a new twist on old forms. There’s an etude, a berceuse, a fugato and an ayre. Each is a classical genre that sees its conventions reworked by Larsen, but not to the extent that their old attributes are unrecognisable. She strikes that balance perfectly.

The result is a composition that establishes strong ties with the classical-music tradition. But at the same time the latter is dragged into the contemporary era, with all its extended techniques, bold tone colour, unpredictable rhythms and changes in time signature. This is a work of supreme beauty and nuance, and it's one of the great modern works for the guitar. 

8. ‘Johnny B. Goode’ by Chuck Berry

Recorded in 1958, Chuck Berry’s masterpiece ‘Johnny B. Goode’ stands as one of the great achievements of the rock-and-roll era. In truth it’s one of the finest achievements of any era. Every great guitar song that was written and played after Berry’s anthem hit the airwaves owes a debt to his pioneering musicianship.

That’s because the song was arguably the first great guitar song in popular-music history. For the very first time the guitar was hauled into the spotlight. The player’s virtuosity was showcased, and the song itself is even about playing guitar. As Berry sings, Johnny B. Goode could play it ‘just like a-ringin’ a bell’.

But originality isn’t the only thing that’s special about it. Berry’s playing on the recording is also of the highest order. His opening solo and the riffs he interjects with throughout the track pose a challenge for any guitarist. He’s also a master of rhythm guitar, effortlessly playing through the 12-bar blues accompaniment when he’s not on lead duty. 

9. Lute Suite in E minor by Johann Sebastian Bach

You’re definitely thinking, ‘lute suite?’ And rightly so. Like the Albéniz above, this piece was originally written for a different instrument. But at least here the instrument in question is related to the modern guitar. In any case, this piece is most commonly played today on the classical guitar.

The great J. S. Bach wrote four lute suites, but the Suite in E minor is the most popular of them. It’s the suite that has brought the magic of the composer’s music most powerfully to the fretboard. From the runs of the prelude to the lilt of the gigue, the legendary suite is a masterclass in Baroque precision. It’s what maths sounds like. 

In spite of the restraint of the stately dance forms that make up most of the movements, it is a hard piece to take on. Rife with Bach’s intense contrapuntal textures, players have to be able to manage multiple musical gestures at once. It demands the utmost independence from every finger on both hands. 

10. ‘Smoke on the Water’ by Deep Purple

It’s the riff. It’s the riff that encapsulates what rock guitar is all about. It’s the first riff that so many guitarists learn to play when they’re starting out. If you’re a player yourself, you’re no doubt familiar with the classic open-third-fifth fingering. 

Deep Purple are one of the great, early hard-rock bands, and ‘Smoke on the Water’ is their standout tune. They wrote it after a fire broke out in the Swiss city of Montreux where they were soon to record the album the song appears on - Machine Head. The smoke that drifted across Lake Geneva gave the song its unforgettable title and chorus refrain.

It’s a simple riff, no-nonsense rock song. But often that’s when the genre’s at its best. No pretense or complexity, just straight up rocking out. Guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, who wrote the lick, was a phenomenal player and capable of the most jaw-dropping performances, but he shows real coolness here, and we're all glad he did.

Your next steps for guitar music


The great guitar music doesn’t stop here. Check out Eddie Van Halen’s ‘Eruption’. Get to know ‘Sultans of Swing’ by Dire Straits. Definitely visit Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. Carry the flame, keep discovering. There’s enough out there to keep you hooked indefinitely.

There are more guitar-song countdowns here for you - easy guitar songs and hardest guitar songs. If you’re a guitarist yourself, getting to know a diversity of repertoire will help you become an even better player. It expands your experience, exposes you to new styles, and can help you to find your unique voice.

If all this text is waffle that you’re happy to trim, then go straight to the sheet music source - nkoda. There are tonnes of guitar playlists on there: Guitar EssentialsGuitar Highlights and Pop and Rock Guitar. Find the piece of music that’s going to be the next chapter in your story as a guitarist.

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