The electric guitar is said to have been invented in 1931. It didn’t exactly skyrocket to the mainstream. Truth be told, it probably took about 20 years for it to catch on.
But ever since, we’ve heard all kinds of guitarists innovate and bring their unique approach to the instrument.
Although no one is rewriting the textbook at this point, we continue to see new talent put their own spin on it, making it one of the most exciting things in music right behind EDM (honestly, we wish guitar was #1!).
In this guide, we’ll look at 33 of the best electric guitar songs of all times. You’ll also find links to tabs!
“Layla” by Derek And The Dominos
Song year: 1970
The layered electric guitars in “Layla” are simply legendary, and the clearly communicate the emotions Eric Clapton must have been feeling when he fell in love with Beatle George Harrison’s wife, Pattie Boyd.
What makes the song unforgettable is the extended piano outro layered with the slide guitar work of Clapton and Duane Allman (of The Allman Brothers Band). It’s funny, because everything that was “wrong” with it (mainly the extended instrumental outro) is exactly what gave the song staying power.
At some point, most electric guitarists will learn “Layla.”
“Eruption” by Van Halen
Song year: 1978
At the time, Van Halen’s “Eruption” blew electric guitar playing right out of the water and rewrote all the rules.
It might not be innovative or revolutionary by today’s standards, but it would have been quite the thing to have heard it when it first came out.
It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say virtually every rock guitarist since has been influenced by Eddie Van Halen.
“All Along The Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix Experience
Song year: 1968
Jimi Hendrix turned this Bob Dylan classic into something completely different. And even Dylan said the song basically belonged to Hendrix after he came out with this version.
Hendrix’ version is moody, serious, and epic. It features some incredible guitar playing throughout, and each guitar solo is distinctive (sounding as if it’s been played by a different player with a different tone). If you’ve ever attempted this, then you know just how hard it is to sound like someone else.
You could name any number of Hendrix classics for this list, including “Purple Haze”, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”, or even one of his more delicate ballads like “Little Wing.”
There’s no wrong choice here. What matters is the insanely influential Hendrix appears on the list.
“Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry
Song year: 1958
Churck Berry’s electric guitar style was catastrophically important to rock and roll and basically every permutation to come. Without him, who knows what modern rock and roll would be?
His playing influenced The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, and countless others.
Anyone who’s an aspiring rock guitarist should learn Chuck’s every lick, because he almost singlehandedly wrote all the rules.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana
Song year: 1991
It’s not that “Smells Like Teen Spirt” features mind-blowing guitar playing. Grunge music, in fact, basically went against just about everything that hair metal was – big, visual, and theatrical. Grunge was minimal by comparison. Musically, it was more simplistic, and lyrically, abstract.
But if you’re an 80s or 90s kid, there’s a good chance you based your musical work off Nirvana’s. That speaks to its sheer influence, and “Weird Al” Yankovic’s parody solidifies it.
Guitarist, singer, and songwriter Kurt Cobain never liked that the song got popular, and even thought of it as a lark himself. But it encapsulates everything that grunge and alt-rock was, and that alone is an impossible feat.
“Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd
Song year: 1973
When it comes to guitar bands, it’s impossible to ignore Lynyrd Skynyrd whose catalog includes the likes of “Sweet Home Alabama”, “What’s Your Name?”, “Tuesday’s Gone” and others.
In “Free Bird”, we find a fan favorite. And it’s far from being their most upbeat track. You could say it’s a ballad even.
But the epic picks up about halfway through, and then comes the guitar solo – probably the part that made the song iconic.
“Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin
Song year: 1969
An outgrowth of The Yardbirds (another important band with regards to the electric guitar – if no other reason because at different times Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck were all a part of it), Zeppelin sought to reinvent the blues an make it their own.
They would go onto do more than that, and the countless riffs guitarist Jimmy Page came up with live on through the playing of many young guitarists.
At this juncture, it’s probably worth mentioning a song other than “Stairway To Heaven” (which features both acoustic and electric guitars), and feature one of Zeepelin’s more electric heavy tracks, “Whole Lotta Love.”
“You Really Got Me” by The Kinks
Song year: 1964
If you want to talk guitar bands, then you can’t ignore The Kinks. And even if you don’t know who they are, there’s a good chance you’ve heard “You Really Got Me” – one of those covers that every rock group and cover band ought to know. Even Van Halen did a killer cover of it!
They’ve got a lot of other great material in their catalog, be it “Waterloo Sunset”, “Lola”, “Till the End of the Day”, or otherwise, that’s worth delving into. Especially if you haven’t had a “Kinks kick” yet.
“Wild Thing” by The Troggs
Song year: 1966
Influential and important for many of the same reasons “You Really Got Me” is, “Wild Thing” is one of those songs that has stood the test of time.
It’s hard to forget Jimi Hendrix’ live rendition of it, and of course, it experienced a major pop culture resurgence thanks to the 1989 Charlie Sheen comedy, Major League.
The Troggs may have had a lot of simplistic three-chord wonders, but in this case, they clearly found a winner.
“Smoke On The Water” by Deep Purple
Song year: 1973
Say “035” to any guitarist, and they’re either going to roll their eyes and move onto something else or play the most atrocious rendition of “Smoke On The Water” you’ve ever heard. It’s become a bit of a meme!
The song has got a “No Stairway!” level of notoriety because the riff is so easy, every beginner guitarist ends up learning it at some point.
You can’t fault guitarist Richie Blackmore, though. He’s got a knack for great riffs, and his lead playing is awesome too.
And, Deep Purple has done some amazing work through the decades besides “Smoke.”
“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones
Song year: 1965
If you want to talk simplistic, don’t just look at “You Really Got Me” or “Wild Thing.” This Stones’ classic has a three-note chorus riff, never mind being a three-chord wonder. It’s so simple, in fact, it almost sounds wrong when you play it without accompaniment.
But we can’t deny the importance of the Stones or this song, which is why it’s on the list.
“Walk This Way” by Aerosmith
Song year: 1975
How can you even talk about “rock” without bringing up Aerosmith? The vocals of Steven Tyler and guitar of Joe Perry alone are legendary.
Here we find Aerosmith in top form. The opening riff is reason enough to include the song on this list.
It even became a hip-hop crossover hit with Run-DMC, and that makes it all the more influential in the grand scheme of things.
“Day Tripper” by The Beatles
Song year: 1966
To say that The Beatles have a lot of great songs is kind of like saying Domino’s makes pizza. And both acoustic and electric guitar played a major role in crafting those songs.
“Day Tripper” is kind of like riff rock in its early form, and it’s just as recognizable as, if not more than, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
Every guitarist should at least learn the opening riff if not the whole thing.
“Iron Man” by Black Sabbath
Song year: 1970
In any discussion regarding great electric guitar riffs, there’s no way the name Tony Iommi isn’t going to come up.
He crafted riffs for the likes of “War Pigs”, “N.I.B.”, “The Wizard” and many others.
Yet again, in “Iron Man” we find a riff virtually no self-respecting guitarist wouldn’t be able to identify.
“(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult
Song year: 1976
Here’s a classic rock tune that’s easily recognizable and was made further famous with the More Cowbell Saturday Night Live skit.
It features a simple guitar riff, but it’s one of those that easily get stuck in your head and virtually every guitarist learns.
“Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne
Song year: 1980
In Randy Rhoads, Ozzy found his Robin. And, on “Crazy Train”, we get to see ever bit of the amazing axe-man that Rhoads was.
Sure, the opening riff is in danger of being co-opted by memes (the same way “Smoke on the Water” has been), but the fills and lead work throughout are clearly inspired and not easily duplicated.
“Pride And Joy” by Stevie Ray Vaughan
Song year: 1983
Stevie Ray Vaughan certainly deserves a nod, and “Pride And Joy” is a great entry-point into his catalog.
Vaughan is a like a bluesy Hendrix with more command of his instrument. To that end, his playing always seems effortless, and his tone always perfect.
Vaughan worked with the likes of David Bowie, and influenced countless guitarists, including Eric Johnson.
“Beat It” by Michael Jackson
Song year: 1982
Steve Lukather (Toto) on rhythm. Eddie Van Halen on lead. Now there’s a situation that basically could never happen.
Yet, it did. Because on “Beat It”, Lukather provided the bed, and Van Halen later came into improvise his unforgettable solo. With Michael Jackson’s vocals in tow, how could you lose?
No one lost. This song won the Grammy for Song of the Year.
“Sunshine Of Your Love” by Cream
Song year: 1967
It’s not fair that Eric Clapton makes this list more than once. But we are talking about “god” himself, and his impact can certainly be felt through the decades.
In the 60s, we had “Sunshine Of Your Love”, another classic rock song with an undeniable riff. Again, most beginner guitar students will probably end up learning this at some point. It’s just that kind of riff.
No one hit wonder, Cream’s entire catalog is laden with some classic guitar work.
“My Generation” by The Who
Song year: 1965
The Who is one of those bands that’s perhaps more famous for their onstage antics than their playing. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have some great songs.
Apparently, Jimi Hendrix even copied guitarist Pete Townshend’s amp setup, though they are two different guitarists.
If you can play power chords, open chords, and barre chords, you probably won’t have any trouble picking up “My Generation.” But in honor of the windmilling Townshend, we had to include this song on the list.
“Purple Rain” by Prince
Song year: 1984
Prince was one of the most talented musicians ever to be born.
While some of his early work may not have been lathered in guitar, “Purple Rain” certainly gave us a taste of just how capable the man truly was – on the axe, or otherwise.
This track is brilliantly written, from the chord progression, to the dynamics, to the intense guitar solos at its climax.
“Back In Black” by AC/DC
Song year: 1980
Again, as with most bands on this list, AC/DC had its share of moments – plenty leading up to this recognizable classic.
But “Back in Black” certainly represented one of their best, most memorable moments.
The guitar work is classic AC/DC, and the song features plenty of riffs to get hooked by.
“Eight Miles High” by The Byrds
Song year: 1966
What stands out in “Eight Miles High” is Roger McGuinn’s seemingly random (but brilliant) 12-string electric, and of course the band’s vocal harmonies.
The Byrds made a name for themselves as the best Bob Dylan cover band to ever exist. Once they started getting into their own thing (and by that we mean country rock and jazzy psych rock), the original lineup only lasted about two years.
Still, we find them highly unique and influential. Have a listen to “Mr. Tambourine Man”, “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better”, and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” as well.
“Freeway Jam” by Jeff Beck
Song year: 1975
Of the Yardbird alumni guitarists, Jeff Beck may be the least recognized. But he is equally gifted, and one of the few guitarists truly deserving of the descriptor “unique.” To this day, we don’t know anyone who has even come close to emulating him.
His approach – unconventional. His tone – classic. Beck’s “Freeway Jam” may not be everyone’s favorite flavor, but it stands as an important spread, if no other reason, because of his ability to play melodically, and turn the sound of his guitar into a human voice (not literally).
“Message In A Bottle” by The Police
Song year: 1979
Andy Summers may be one of the most underrated guitarists alive. His work in The Police alone goes to show the wide palette guitarist can draw from.
His big-stretch suspended arpeggiated chords are often emulated but never duplicated (except by Sting himself), and his unconventional approach to rhythm guitar makes him fascinating to watch.
“Message In The Bottle” certainly shows off some of what he’s capable of.
“Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd
Song year: 1979
The “pink pig” is beloved, and guitarist David Gilmour celebrated. Choosing a single moment from their catalog is a bit of a challenge. But “Comfortably Numb” is well-recognized and favored among many fans.
This near seven-minute epic has got some great guitar solos on it, and no doubt it’s one of the reasons it has stood the test of time.
“Montana” by Frank Zappa
Song year: 1973
Frank Zappa may have been quirky and strange, on the fringes of “popular” music.
What people often forget, though, is he may have been one of the most brilliant men of his time. He wasn’t just talented. He was intelligent. And he was never short for words when it came to critics and naysayers.
The other thing that’s often forgotten is that guitar virtuoso Steve Vai auditioned to be part of Zappa’s band, and from what we hear, it was no ordinary audition. We might not even have Vai without Zappa, and when we consider that it’s hard to argue his place on this list.
“Montana” perfectly encapsulates the Zappa ethos.
“Welcome To The Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses
Song year: 1987
When writers put together lists like this one, generally, they’ll bring up “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” Guitarist Slash didn’t even like the riff. At the very least, he never intended to turn it into a song, because it was based on a finger exercise.
“Welcome To The Jungle” better captures the ethos of Guns N’ Roses, one of the seminal “hair metal” bands of the 80s.
“Hotel California” by Eagles
Song year: 1977
Now, it’s easy to think of the Eagles “Hotel California” as an acoustic guitar song (and the acoustic guitar does provide the bedding), you’d be silly to overlook the harmonized twin electric guitar solo in this classic tune.
If this one doesn’t do it for you, there’s always “Life In The Fast Lane”, but the long-lasting appeal of “Hotel California” is hard to ignore.
“We Are The Champions” by Queen
Song year: 1977
Everyone says Brian May is great. So, why is Queen rarely represented on lists like this one? It doesn’t make sense!
Now, so far as choosing specific songs is concerned, we understand why some reviewers find themselves in a pickle. It isn’t easy to single out any moment, and Queen songs aren’t strictly “guitar” songs.
But the big power chords and smooth lead guitar work in “We Are The Champions” is certainly satisfying.
“Let It Go” by Def Leppard
Song year: 1981
Another band that’s often forgotten in this conversation is Def Leppard. And while they may not be the most technical band in electric guitar, they certainly have unique arrangements, countless unforgettable hits, and longevity on their side.
“Let It Go” certainly shows the band at their creative best, with plenty of great riffs, as well as some twists and turns.
But again, this is a band with a deep catalog of hits, so if this one doesn’t fire you up, there are others that will.
“Any Way You Want It” by Journey
Song year: 1980
Neal Schon might be one of the most underrated guitarists in existence, and we have no idea why that might be.
He’s played on countless Journey hits, his fretwork is fluid and fast, and he’s contributed to some of the best arena rock ever made.
Have a listen to “Any Way You Want It” to get reminded why this band deserves a place on this list.
“Over My Head” by King’s X
Song year: 1989
Speaking of underrated guitarists, King’s X Ty Tabor might just take the cake.
Here we have a modern-day Hendrix who wasn’t afraid to inject some of himself into the music, play with a uniquely identifiable tone, go in weird directions musically, and even drop tune.
There are rumors that King’s X is responsible for kickstarting the grunge rock movement, and while we can’t confirm or deny that, we’re big fans of Tabor and King’s X and just couldn’t resist.
Best Electric Guitar Songs, Final Thoughts
There’s no way we could have possibly covered everything here.
There are so many great guitarists, great songs, and great artists out there, and when it comes right down to it, it’s hard to pick favorites.
But we hope you saw at least a few picks you love. Enjoy the list!