11 iconic guitars and the legendary guitarists who played them

Iconic guitars played by Randy Rhoads, Eddie Van Halen, Jimmy Page and Rick Nielsen
(Image credit: John Atashian /Ross Marino/Michael Putland/Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

The greatest guitarists have instruments as unique as they are. Sometimes a happy accident will turn a standard guitar into something unique, as happened to Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green. Sometimes a genius like Prince will commission a guitar that only they could play. Mad scientists Eddie Van Halen and Brian May built their own guitars, while iconoclasts like Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page made such innovative music that the models they chose are forever associated with them. However it happens, these are the guitars that became legends in their own right.

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Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstrat

Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstein guitar was born out of his frustration with the limitations of regular instruments. He wanted the tone of a Les Paul, as used by Jimmy Page, but the playability of a Fender Stratocaster. Most importantly, he wanted the tremolo system that would allow him to take Hendrix’s divebombing to the next level. The striped finish was really an afterthought, just something he could do quickly. When the original black-and-white design, seen on the sleeve of Van Halen’s debut album, was copied by legions of LA shredders, Eddie added a layer of red paint to separate himself from his imitators.

Peter Green’s Greeny

It’s rumoured that in 2014 Metallica’s Kirk Hammett paid $2m for Greeny, the 1959 Les Paul that originally belonged to Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green. The neck pickup had broken in the 60s, and it was repaired incorrectly, inadvertently creating the trademark out-of-phase tone that Green exploited on tracks like Black Magic Woman. Between Hammett and Green, it was owned by former Thin Lizzy axeman Gary Moore. While many of the surviving ’59 Les Pauls now languish in bank vaults, Hammett has made Greeny his main touring axe, making this one of the most visually and sonically recognisable Les Pauls on the planet.

Brian May’s Red Special

The Queen guitarist began building a guitar with his dad when he was 15, making the neck from an old fireplace and the body from an oak table. Almost every part of the guitar was bespoke and made from reclaimed parts. Their self-designed tremolo unit used motorbike valve springs, and the arm itself was a saddle bag support from a bike. The fretboard marker dots were old pearl buttons. Originally Brian even made his own pickups, but he soon replaced them with some from the British manufacturer Burns. Given that nothing on the guitar was off-the-shelf, it’s unsurprising the resulting instrument sounded unique.

James Hetfield’s ‘Eet Fuk’ ESP

The sticker on Metallica frontman James Hetfield’s most famous stage guitar originally said “EET FUK SLEEP” in reference to his three favourite activities, but it was cut down to fit on the body. It’s mostly a faithful copy of the Gibson Explorers Hetfield had used previously, but the neck inlays feature raised middle fingers instead of the traditional dots. ESP built the Eet Fuk for James in 1987, just in time for Metallica’s rise to MTV dominance with the video for /One/. It was Hetfield’s number one for the Black Album, and he can be seen in the /Nothing Else Matters/ video using it for the solo.

BB King’s Lucille

There have actually been many Lucilles over the years – BB King gave the same name to every guitar he owned. After a gig in 1949 was evacuated for a fire, King ran back into the building to rescue his Gibson. On hearing the fire had been started by two men arguing over a woman named Lucille, King named his guitar after her. As he rose to fame, King generally played black Gibson ES-355s, and when Gibson debuted the Lucille model in 1980, it was based on that design. That’s the guitar most of us think of as the Lucille, which King used until his death in 2015.

Randy Rhoads’ polka dot Flying V

A one-off by LA luthier Karl Sandoval, Randy Rhoads’ polka dot V reflected the changing times. Where metal had been an all-black affair for much of the 70s, the early 80s saw Van Halen and Rhoads shifting it in a more flamboyant direction. Rhoads, like EVH, wanted to combine the best of Gibson and Fender, and future Dokken guitarist George Lynch tipped him off to Sandoval’s Flying Vs. The polka dots solidified the Rhoads brand. The posthumously-released /Randy Rhoads Tribute/ album cover shows Rhoads playing this guitar while Ozzy hoists him into the air, encapsulating their close bond and unparalleled showmanship.

Jimmy Page’s double-necked Gibson

Page didn’t actually get his double-necked guitar until after Led Zeppelin IV was recorded, but thanks to its live appearances and prominence in the concert film The Song Remains the Same, the iconic instrument is indelibly associated with Stairway to Heaven. The recording featured 12-string and six-string guitars, and Page needed one axe that could reproduce all those sounds. The EDS-1275 was the solution. Actually introduced in 1963, the guitar is now so inseparable from Jimmy Page that it might as well be a signature model. He also used it for live renditions of Gallow’s Pole and The Rain Song.

Rick Nielsen’s five-necked Hamer

After Jimmy Page made the EDS-1275 famous, Rush began appearing with both bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson wielding twin-necked axes. Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen, blessed with a keen eye for the absurd, commissioned Hamer to build a five-necked behemoth. While it parodied stadium rock excesses, the Hamer was not purely a gimmick, and Nielsen still plays it regularly live. After he snapped the top neck off the first version, Hamer built a replacement with Nielsen’s signature checkboard finish. Rick’s tech never tunes the fretless bottom neck, which is unreachable while standing, but the remaining four necks are all regularly used in anger.

ZZ Top’s spinning guitars

In 1983, luthier Dean Zalinsky received a call from ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons at 3am: “I’m sending you some sheepskins I purchased in Scotland, I want you to put them on some guitars.” Zalinsky took this request in stride, building all-white axes for Gibbons and bassist Dusty Hill with the album title /Eliminator/ painted down the necks. He dutifully encased the bodies in sheepskin, gluing offcuts to the tuning pegs for good measure. The spinning effect seen in the /Legs/ video was ZZ Top’s own idea, enabled by mounting the guitars on rotating belt buckles. Do not attempt without a wireless system.

Jimi Hendrix’s burnt Strat

Jimi’s 1967 Monterey Pop festival performance was not so much a gig as a reinvention of the guitar. His Fender Stratocaster, whose floral design he hand-painted the night before using nail varnish, sounded monstrous. Lesser guitarists had struggled with the Strat, which sounded weedy in the wrong hands and could be susceptible to electrical interference (which Hendrix simply made part of the performance). Surely there was something unique about this ferocious-sounding Stratocaster. Hendrix, however, showed no such reverence for the instrument, destroying it with fire after its only concert appearance. The music was inside him, and he could get that sound of anything.

Prince’s ‘Cloud’ guitar

In 1983, Prince contacted Minneapolis guitar shop Knut Koupée with an unusual request. He wanted a guitar based on the cloud-shaped Sardonyx bass that André Cymone had played in Prince’s Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad/ video. Instore luthier Dave Rusan built three Clouds for Purple Rain. An independent Minneapolis brand, O’Hagan, had recently gone bust, and Rusan made the Clouds by sawing the edges off unsold O’Hagan guitars and gluing on the cloud parts. Prince used the original Cloud as his main guitar until smashing it onstage at the end of the 1986 /Parade/ tour.