32 of the greatest live moments in the entire history of the guitar

BB King reduces prison inmates to tears

Sing Sing Prison, New York, 1973

Johnny Cash’s Folsom set might be better-known, but the sight of BB King bringing hardened convicts to tears in this notoriously harsh, maximum-security institution in New York is nothing short of magic. 

The Thanksgiving day show, including behind-the-scenes footage, with performances by Joan Baez and others, was captured in full by filmmaker David Hoffman, and it was Guess Who (originally a crooning, piano-led ballad by Jesse Belvin) that saw BB and ‘Lucille’ grab the hearts of those watching. Alternating between big, bear-like soul vocals and sweet, from-the-gut blues solos, he gave one of his defining performances behind Sing Sing’s bars.

Ritchie Blackmore losing his shit at California Jam

Ontario Motor Speedway, California, 1974

Backstage at this huge outdoor festival the MkIII Deep Purple played in ‘74, tensions had been running high. Ritchie Blackmore in particular was more than a bit pissed off, and when he hits the stage it shows. Gear is dismantled. Guitars – so many guitars – are destroyed, lobbed into the crowd, rammed into the lens of a pesky cameraman that kept getting in Blackmore’s way. 

Amps explode, sending smoke and flames across the stage – only just missing Glenn Hughes’s skin-tight flares. It’s like a scene from Dante’s Inferno, with guitars and several burning amp heads. Through it all, Blackmore fixes those around him with steady, serial-killer eyes, like it’s no big deal. Frankly, everything else that’s happened on any rock stage ever looks tame compared to this.

Thin Lizzy’s Still In Love With You at its finest

Hammersmith Odeon, London, 1976

Still In Love With You, a truly heartbreaking song, was proof (if anyone needed it) that Thin Lizzy really weren’t just about good-time shitkickers like The Boys Are Back In Town and Jailbreak. 

Frontman Phil Lynott is on devastating form on this performance, the song’s defining live rendition (it would go on to appear on Lizzy’s seminal live album Live And Dangerous), but it’s Brian Robertson and Scott Gorham’s solos that really elevate it above all others, with Gorham soaring in with Santana-esque tones to compliment his bluesy partner in crime, both guitarists leaving their hearts on the strings. Robertson, who left the band at the end of the tour that this features on, reportedly considers Still In Love With You his signature Lizzy song.

Van Halen show us what they’re made of

Pasadena Convention Center, 1977

If any concert marked the arrival of Van Halen, it was this (since widely bootlegged) performance in their home city just weeks after recording their game-changing debut album. 

Guitarist Eddie Van Halen, then only 22, was already very much the full package, from those perfectly overdriven tones to his whammy-bar stunts and, arguably the most groundbreaking of all, the two-handed licks covering great distance at high speed with natural finesse. Armed with a killer set of their earliest songs, the band were taking no prisoners, which is what makes the recordings such a wildly enticing listen all these years later – dazzling charisma and talent captured in its full, unadulterated glory. 

Guitar music would never be the same again. “Friends, it’s true, Van Halen is here,” singer David Lee Roth said with a grin as Eddie tuned his higher strings. “Do you know when we started out here, there weren’t too many people, but now it appears things have changed!”

Pete Townshend’s epic knee-slide at Shepperton

Shepperton Film Studios, Surrey, 1978

Filmed before an invited audience specifically for The Who’s movie The Kids Are Alright, the band’s visceral assault on Won’t Get Fooled Again, the climactic closing track on their 1971 album Who’s Next, marked not only Pete Townshend’s defining live guitar moment, but also drummer Keith Moon’s final performance. 

As Roger Daltrey punctuated primal über-mod roars with bouts of alpha-male microphone twirling, and John Entwistle morosely applied himself to delivering a dazzling display of bass guitar dexterity, Pete Townshend capered, spun, windmilled, leaped and generally beat the living shit out of his instrument. 

Possibly the most physical player around, Townshend’s passion teetered on the brink of madness as lasers lacerated a pulsing synth breakdown that only offered apprehensive calm before the inevitable storm. As Daltrey screamed his iconoclastic ‘Yeah!’, Townshend simultaneously power-chorded and took flight, finally landing a cross-stage knee-slide that really has to be seen to be believed. Awesome.

Poison Ivy keeps her cool in a psychiatric hospital

Napa State Mental Hospital, California, 1978

While show-stealing spats of improvisational technoflash were never Cramps guitarist Poison Ivy’s stock in trade, she’s as reliably stoic as the day’s long. Her entire career was typified by unshakeable poise. Despite the auto-destructive Franken-Iggy antics of the wildly unpredictable Lux Interior perpetually playing out about her (in scraps of lingerie, teetering on stilettos, crawling up her legs with a microphone down his throat), the ice-cool, Elvis-sneering Ivy simply set to work teasing forth her Scotty Moore runs and Link Wray rumbles. 

Her trademark grace under pressure never faced a sterner test than at Napa State Mental Hospital where the unstoppable force (Lux) faced the immovable object (the hospital inmates) with neither stage nor security. Captured in shaky, psychobilly Cuckoo’s Nest, snuff-movie monochrome, poker-faced Ivy casually delivers Human Fly’s gloriously understated guitar solo as one patient in the audience screams maniacally into Lux’s abandoned microphone and another performs enthusiastic ‘press-ups’ at her feet. Über-cool incarnate.

Keith Richards fights off a stage invader

Hampton Coliseum, Virginia, 1981 

If anyone ever found themselves invading a stage occupied by the Rolling Stones, then hopefully they took great care to avoid Keith Richards at all costs. Because, as one over-enthusiastic fan found out when he invaded Keith’s space at a gig at the beginning of the 80s, he would probably take off his Telecaster, wave it around and beat you with it until you leave. 

Footage of him doing that was uploaded by the Stones themselves a few years ago – perhaps as a stark warning to anyone mad enough to be thinking about gatecrashing their set. "What if he had a gun in his hand or a knife?" asked Richards. "I mean, he might be a fan, he might be a nutter, and he’s on my turf. I’m gonna chop the mother down!”

Rick Nielsen’s five-neck guitar arrives

Chicagofest 1981 

It was the year Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen’s five-neck monster came into being, and the mad-for-it hometown crowd proved its joyous, cartoonish appeal – whooping in delight as it was whipped out for Just Got Back. Built by laminating the bodies of five Hamer Specials together, it’s one of the most bonkers, backbreaking and, ultimately, iconic guitars in rock. 

“The original concept was to have a six-neck that spun like a roulette wheel, so that I could play one neck and then rotate to the next,” Nielsen says, “but then I decided to go with something more conservative – five necks in a row!” Yeah, five necks in a row is really conservative.

Stevie Ray Vaughan gets booed by blues ‘purists’

Montreux Jazz Festival, Switzerland, 1982

To a present-day Stevie Ray Vaughan fan, the idea of the iconic blues maverick being booed by anyone is unthinkable. That he rose above it all so brilliantly speaks volumes about his innate virtuosity and no-bullshit character. During his performance of Texas Flood at the ’82 Montreux Jazz Festival, Vaughan reached into his bag of Albert King-meets-Jimi Hendrix licks – not to mention reaching behind his back, where his Strat rested for the final quarter of the epic performance. 

SRV floored almost everyone that night; a handful of very loud-and-clear blues purists can be heard (and clearly seen in YouTube clips) booing him, bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Chris Layton. Still, he must have known it went well when David Bowie appeared backstage, and an important alliance was born.

A young Dimebag Darrell rips it up

Projects In The Jungle tour, 1984

You don’t have to look hard to find video footage of groove metal superstar Dimebag Darrell doing what he did best. And while there’s an abundance of material from Pantera’s glory years, it’s a video from their second-album tour – shot in 1984 when the guitarist was just 18 – which surfaced some 13 years ago that best showcases just what a world-beating talent he was at such a young age. 

During an elongated guitar solo, he rips through Van Halen and Randy Rhoads licks at blistering speeds, almost without a care in the world. It offered proof that he was destined to become the guitar hero for a new age.

Queen stun the world

Live Aid, Wembley Stadium, 1985 

Even Bob Geldof admitted that, despite stiff competition from Led Zeppelin, Elton John and David Bowie, Queen were the undisputed highlight of the pair of charity concerts he organised in 1985. 

With a tight 20-minute set-list comprising Bohemian Rhapsody’s first half, Radio Ga Ga, Hammer To Fall, Crazy Little Thing Called Love, parts of We Will Rock You and finally We Are The Champions, it’s easy to understand why. It was the moment when they reminded us just how wonderfully Brian May’s snarling mids (paired with Freddie Mercury’s soaring vocals) led those skyrocketing anthems.

Andy Aledort

Guitar World Associate Editor Andy Aledort is recognized worldwide for his vast contributions to guitar instruction, via his many best-selling instructional DVDs, transcription books and online lessons.