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

Giving it their all for Les Paul

Brooklyn Academy Of Music, 1988 

On August 18, 1988, a now-hard-to-fathom collection of famous guitarists got together to celebrate the life and music of guitar great Les Paul, who was 73 at the time. The show, which was released on VHS (with an ridiculously long title), brought Paul on to the same stage with Eddie Van Halen, David Gilmour, Brian Setzer (who bellowed: “Hey, Eddie Van Halen, get your butt up here, man!”), BB King, Stanley Jordan, Steve Miller and even Waylon Jennings. 

This show has become even more poignant now that some of its biggest stars – Paul, Eddie and BB – have passed on. It’s a bit like that video of George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr performing While My Guitar Gently Weeps in 1987; it was cool then, but it’s priceless now.

Tom Morello slays Bullet In The Head at the BBC

The Late Show, BBC studios, London, 1993 

Just occasionally, the BBC pulls a blinder. By 1993, most of America’s alt.rock’s big beasts had visited BBC2’s high-minded arts show The Late Show, including Pearl Jam, Sonic Youth and Jane’s Addiction. But almost three decades later it’s Rage Against The Machine’s live take on Bullet In The Head that remains white-hot in the memory. 

It was a performance so blistering and bristling that it threatened to splinter the nation’s TV screens, with frontman Zack De La Rocha’s f-bombs and his ‘Fuct’ T-shirt enough to give squeamish producers the cold sweats. But it was guitarist Tom Morello who scrawled six-string revolution in flaming foot-high letters, kicking off with a fair impression of a Black & Decker drill, kneeling before a Marshall stack to conjure screeds of frayed morse code from his Arm The Homeless guitar, and attacking the song’s anarchic final straight like a man with seconds to live. 

The Beeb had never seen anything like it.

Nirvana go acoustic

Sony Music Studios, New York City, 1993 

There are numerous factors as to why Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged In New York set would become one of their most renowned. As the band’s first release in the aftermath of Kurt Cobain’s death, those live recordings were a stark reminder of what the world had just lost – a brilliantly talented songwriter whose thought-provoking lyrics, chordal simplicity and chromatic single-note motifs made a difference to many lives. 

It was often his imperfections that made him such a truly left-field visionary. A case in point is the opening part of his outro solo on the cover of David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World, which may very well have been a mistake. If it was a mistake, then the way he owns it and recovers is what makes the interpretation perhaps even better than exact correctness, giving the line a somewhat menacing, atonal flavour.

Prince dazzles on an all-star cover of a Beatles song

New York City, 2004 An all-star tribute to George Harrison – featuring an impressive collection of some of his friends (Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood) – was planned for the 2004 Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall Of Fame Show at the Waldorf Astoria. 

As Prince was in attendance for his own induction, he was also invited to play with them. On Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Jeff Lynne’s guitarist Marc Mann took the first solo. But as the coda commenced, Prince cooly strolled on to the stage, and delivered a searing, Hendrix-channeling extended closing solo that incorporated joy, passion, dazzling showmanship and sheer brilliance. 

As George’s son Dhani Harrison (playing acoustic rhythm) looked on beaming, Prince emoted, extemporised, lolled backwards on to outstretched hands, and finally threw his HS Anderson Mad Cat guitar over his head (where it disappeared, like a magic trick) before casually bouncing off into the wings. Disappearing guitar or not, no single performance captured Prince’s unique magic better than this one.

Led Zeppelin remind us of their genius

O2 Arena, London, 2007 

Will the Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert end up being the last time we see the surviving members of Led Zeppelin on stage together? Quite possibly. 

“I knew it was going to sell out quickly, but the tidal wave of euphoria that preceded the gig, the anticipation, went beyond what I could possibly have imagined,” Jimmy Page said after the event. “We’d had a few shambolic appearances in the past, like Live Aid, so if we were ever going to come back together we were going to do it properly and stand up and be counted.” 

Which is precisely what they did, thundering their way through Zeppelin classics such as Ramble On, Trampled Under Foot, No Quarter and Kashmir (and let’s not forget For Your Life!) with John Bonham’s son Jason behind the kit.

Slipknot go Psychosocial

Download festival, Castle Donington, 2009 

It takes a special kind of heaviosity to quake the innards of Download’s volume-hardened crowd. But in 2009, an hour into their Saturday headline set, Slipknot deployed the song that made everyone else on the bill sound like they were strumming ukuleles. 

We already knew Psychosocial as a nasty little highlight from the previous year’s All Hope Is Gone album, but that was nothing compared to the assault and battery of experiencing it from the front row for the first time. 

“It’s time to go Psycho-fucking-social!” announces frontman Corey Taylor, before portcullis-faced Mick Thomson unleashes the anvil-heavy riff whose fathoms-deep, drop-A tuning threatened to shoot a fault line across the churning turf of Donington Park. 

No doubt there have been esoteric cult-metallers who have dropped lower still for the benefit of a basement club crowd, but never before have so many souls been left so shaken on this epic scale.

Joe Bonamassa duets with Eric Clapton

Royal Albert Hall, London, 2009 

Joe Bonamassa had bet his house on his Albert Hall booking (“Behind the scenes, we could have gone out of business”) he admitted in the Guitar Man documentary. But while that night’s assured performance marked his flip from plucky upstart to top-table bluesman, Bonamassa’s coming of age was given the rubber stamp by the blues-boom hero whose licks had been the voice of god in his teenage years. 

Even out of context, this Bonamassa/Eric Clapton spin through Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland’s classic Further On Up The Road was punchy and powerful. More significant, though, was the younger man’s mile-wide grin at the end, the handshake and the sense of a torch being passed. 

“I knew it was either gonna be the beginning of the end or the beginning of the beginning,” Bonamassa said. “I owe Eric a debt that I can never repay.”

The ‘Big Four’ reunite for an Am I Evil? jam

Sonisphere, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2010 

It was a thrasher’s wet dream. It was unfeasible enough that the four architects of 80s metal had buried not inconsiderable hatchets in order to share the same bill. But the real ‘do not adjust your set’ moment – captured for posterity on the Live From Sofia, Bulgaria release – was Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and (some of) Slayer locking horns in a climactic jam. Politically, of course, the song choice was loaded with friction – even a mollified Dave Mustaine wouldn’t touch Enter Sandman with a bargepole. 

But common ground was found with Am I Evil?, the 1980 Diamond Head classic that should have made songwriter Brian Tatler a household name. As the Sonisphere stage filled with hair and hornéd guitars, the six-string contingent forming an unholy chorus line, only the absence of Slayer’s Kerry King, Jeff Hanneman and Tom Araya took the shine off this moment of metal synergy. “The other guys,” shrugged Dave Lombardo (who did show up), “they don’t do that kind of thing.”

David Gilmour climbs up Roger Waters’s Wall

02 Arena, London, 2011 

If you’ve ever wondered what thousands of people losing their shit at the same time sounds like, you've come to the right place. Even with all the acrimony that existed before (and indeed after), David Gilmour’s surprise appearance, on a spine-tingling Comfortably Numb, made it seem that all was right in the Pink Floyd universe for a few magical minutes. 

For a moment, even Roger Waters became a Gilmour fan again, a look of genuine delight on his face as his old bandmate delivered a perfect slice of the style that made him one of the most emulated guitarists in rock. Maybe the six years since their last gig together (Live 8) had proved healing. Maybe it helped that they were separated by a 35-foot wall. Either way, with Gilmour’s starry, searing guitar lines leading the way, it was a moment of bright light in an otherwise darkened relationship.

Angus Young meets GN’R

Coachella festival, Indio, California 2016

2016 was a big year in terms of ‘guitar events’. You had Guns N’ Roses’ Not in This Lifetime… tour featuring Axl Rose, Slash and Duff McKagan, and AC/DC’s Axl-fronted tour (Rose was filling in for Brian Johnson, who was sidelined by issues with his hearing). 

The event that tied them both together, however, took place that April, when AC/DC’s Angus Young joined GN’R on stage at the Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival. The eternal schoolboy put his all into Whole Lotta Rosie and Riff Raff, and Axl (who was still singing from his Dave Grohl-owned ‘recovery throne’) nailed the Bon Scott-era vocals. Not a bad year, eh?

This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 293.

Damian Fanelli

Damian is editor-in-chief of Guitar World magazine. From 1998 to 2014, he was one third of Mister Neutron, an instrumental rock act that toured the universe and elsewhere and released three albums via Austin-based Deep Eddy Records. These days he performs with several New York City-area bands and can often be spotted with one of his many, many, many B-bender-equipped guitars. In past lives he was GW’s managing editor and online managing editor – and he still can’t believe he got to write the liner notes for the latest SRV box set.