10 greatest guitar records - essential guitar listening

10 Essential Guitar Albums

In Guitar Blog, Interviews and Insights, Music, Reviews by Craig SmithLeave a Comment

I love lists! There are so many ‘greatest guitarist’ and ‘greatest guitar album’ lists out there, why should you care about mine? The biggest fault I see is in the lack of diversity found in most. When making a greatest guitar music album list, I think it’s essential to cross into different genres of music and cover as many techniques as possible. ….and why does the music all have to be from the 20th century and after?

I also thought it would be cool and different to include some actual guitar music examples that go with each album on the list. Hey, I’ve never seen that done before.

This guitar album list isn’t in any particular order. You may also be wondering why some of your favorites didn’t make the list. I took the liberty of eliminating some landmark recordings that may either be outdated or done better by a modern guitarist. Don’t get mad… allow me to explain…

For example, I didn’t include Jimi Hendrix or Andres Segovia as I felt Stevie Ray Vaughn and John Williams have represented those respective styles better and with a better representation of a specific guitar style and of course modern sound quality. Should you avoid the latter two? Of course not.. but I had to draw the line somewhere. At nearly 2300 words.. I think 10 was the magic number. 

Regardless, I hope you like this list and it’s accompanying musical examples. Enjoy!

Live – Friday Night in San Francisco
Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, Paco De Lucia

friday night in san franciscoI said earlier that these were in no particular order.. but.. to be honest, this is my #1 favorite Guitar Album of all time by far, hands down, no contest.

Theres so much happening on this record. First off, it’s live and in 1980, live actually meant something before computers and the fancy editing that sucks the life out of so many live records today.

Secondly, it’s ALL guitar. Just 3 guys playing guitar, that’s it.

Each one of these guys could warrant an album on this list of their own. The 3 of them playing together, it’s a no-brainer. All the tracks were recorded live at The Warfield Theatre on December 5th, 1980, in San Francisco, CA. ”Guardian Angel” was recorded in White Plains, New York sometime later.

Theres a ton of guitar techniques flying around on this one. No drums, vocals, bass or any other instrumentation, just 3 outstanding guitarists going for it on every track.

Paco De Lucia, arguably the most influential and greatest Flamenco Guitarist of all time, stays true to his Spanish roots employing Flamenco and Picado finger-picking techniques. He has said in interviews that he had a hard time keeping up with the other two guitarists, who were much more familiar with improvisation and Jazz harmony. You’d never know it by listening to him on this one!

John McLaughlin uses a pick, but on a nylon string guitar. A Jazz giant and Miles Davis alum, McLaughlin’s lines sear and soar especially on the McLaughlin/Di Meola duet “Short Tales From The Black Forest” and his original composition, “Guardian Angel”.

al dimeola john mclaughlin paco delucia

Al Di Meola shines throughout, especially on his own contributions, Mediterranean Sundance and Fantasia Suite, the latter of which features all 3 guitarists. Di Meola’s picking technique on his steel-string Ovation guitar could warrant a lesson on it’s own.

Nearly 40 years later the improvisational interplay and beautiful, complex arrangements make this a must-have for any guitarist.

Here is the intro to Mediterranean Sundance, the first track on Friday Night In San Francisco. It’s a great syncopated Flamenco style lick you can play with a pick or fingers. Easy to learn, difficult to master.

Mediterranean sundance tab 1
Mediterranean sundance tab 2

Van Halen – Van Halen

van halenThis is the album that made me want to pick up a guitar. That alone doesn’t mean it deserves a spot on this list. The fact that it also inspired millions of other kids to do the same does!

I wasn’t surprised when I sent out an email to my readers last week that this got so many votes.

From the opening car-horn and bass blast of “Runnin’ with the devil” to the bombastic metal closer, “On Fire”, and everything in-between it might be the perfect Rock Guitar record.

“Eruption” literally redefined rock guitar playing overnight. In under 2 minutes, Eddie Van Halen’s instrumental masterpiece re-wrote the book on guitar technique. 41 years later, guitarists are still trying to nail down his modded Marshall “brown” sound.

Van Halen paved the way for an entire 80’s Metal and Rock Movement that also spawned a new generation of better, stronger, faster guitarists that continues to this day.

Heres the first half of Eruption for a taste of Eddie’s fiery, pentatonic genius.

Eruption tab 1

eddie van halen eruption tab

Eruption tab 2

Megadeth – Rust In Peace

megadeth rust in peaceCheck out any list of Greatest Metal Albums of all-time and you’re bound to find Rust In Peace in there somewhere. In 1989 after losing 2 different lead guitarists over 3 albums, Dave Mustaine made his best career and creative choice ever when he hired Marty Friedman.

Marty emerged from the Post Van Halen and Neo-Classical “Shred” movement of the early 1980’s to record some of the most beautiful solos ever on Rust in Peace.

Every solo is a song within a song and expertly crafted from beginning to end. With the feel and phrasing of the worlds best blues players combined with stellar technique and an exotic scale and theory sense, Marty’s playing transcends the genre and set the tone for melodic metal guitarists that followed in the 1990’s and beyond.

There are so many cool solos on this record. why not share them all? Get on my email list to get the entire Rust in Peace album in Guitar Pro format. This version includes all of the guitars and bass parts along with a drum track.

Want a high quality .PDF of this lesson including audio and Guitar Pro Files?
Jump on the email list to access this free lesson, all of the music here and access to the Free Guitar Printables Area.

Manuel Barrueco – 300 Years of Guitar Masterpieces

Manuel Barrueco 300 years of guitar masterpiecesWhenever I’ve tried to make any type of best guitar albums list, I have to include this one. It just covers so much material! Originally released as a 3 CD set, on 300 years of Guitar Masterpieces, Manuel Barrueco shows why he is one of the greatest Classical Guitarists of all time.

From Scarlatti to Bach to 19th century Spanish composers like Tarrega, Barrueco delivers on every piece. It also includes all 12 Villa-Lobos etudes which are a staple in the Classical Guitar repertoire.

This is a great introduction to classical guitar music for those who may not have gotten into it yet. If you already love this music like I do, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more complete and high quality guitar collection.

There are so many great pieces to check out on this one. I chose a lesser known “Rossiniana No.1, Opus 119 by Mauro Guiliani. A beautiful and challenging piece. (Full Score in free members area)

Guiliani Rossiniana No 1 Op 119


Jason Becker – Perpetual Burn

jason becker perpetual burnA while back I wrote an entire article about why I love Jason Becker and why this album is so great. I recently purchased the 30th anniversary remastered edition on vinyl and let me tell you… it still holds up and better than ever!

After Jason’s ALS diagnosis in 1991, we have such precious few recordings of this amazing guitarist. Perpetual Burn lives on as his most important and cohesive work. From Thrash Metal to Baroque counterpoint to almost Frank Zappa-esque compositions, Becker dropped something really special here.

Marty Friedman, Becker’s Cacophony bandmate, future Megadeth guitarist and best friend, guest solos on a few songs as well. The real standout piece is “Air”. After 30 years, Air stands as arguably the best example of Neo-classical guitar music ever recorded. This is real classical composition here. The Counterpoint, moving bass and complex harmony remain the gold standard for 80’s shred and Neo-classical guitar music.

Perhaps the most mind-blowing fact is that he did the whole record in under 14 days and was 17 years old at the time!

Here’s an excerpt from Air. Join the email list to get the full score in Guitar Pro format.
jason becker Air Tab

guitar practice routine

Stevie Ray Vaughn – Texas Flood

stevie ray vaughn texas floodAnother favorite pick among my email list readers! What Eddie Van Halen did for Rock guitar Stevie Ray Vaughn did for the Blues. Influenced greatly by Jimi Hendrix and Freddie King, Stevie picks up where the previous Blues giants left off with a higher level of technique and a command of the instrument never before seen in the Blues genre.

A perfect record beginning to end, Texas Flood offers a bit of traditional Blues and Rock along with the guitarist’s soulful, smoky voice and out of this world guitar playing.

Released in 1983 in the midst of the New Wave and burgeoning MTV movement, it’s fair to say nobody saw this one coming. Texas Flood is an album that ages well and still sounds fresh in 2019. With the overload of of youtube child-prodigy and self-proclaimed blues masters like Joe Bonomassa and John Mayer… it’s nice to get a reality check and listen to the real deal. This is, the real deal.

Heres an excerpt from “Lenny” from Texas Flood.

Lenny Stevie Ray Vaughn Tab

Pat Martino – Consciousness Live

pat martino jazz guitarSomewhere I hope someone is reading this and thinking.. “ok how about some Jazz guitar records?”

When it comes to the Jazz genre, it’s really hard to pick a best guitar album. I chose Pat Martino because I feel he most closely embodies what is great about both Jazz and the guitar as an improvisational instrument in a Jazz context.

Coming out of Philadelphia in the 1960’s post-bebop scene, Martino employs a standard pick style technique that modern guitarists can relate to. His improvisational lines closely resemble the great horn players that came before him such as John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly, yet with a distinctly guitar approach.

With this album you get the best of his studio recordings as well as a blistering live performance from 1973. I originally had a version called “Head and Heart: Consciousness Live” but you can find both versions on iTunes or your favorite streaming service.

I’ve always loved the way Pat Martino plays arpeggios. Heres an example of a Pat Martino style lick over a Cm7 chord. This is probably one of my favorite licks and one I use all of the time in my acoustic duo and trio gigs.

Pat Martino style jazz guitar lick

John Williams – From The Jungles of Paraguay

john williams guitarist music of barrios

Paraguayan born Augustin Barrios may have been the 20th century’s greatest pure guitar music composer, but you’ve probably never heard of him until now.

John Williams 1995 recording of most of Barrios’ great works stands as one of the most brilliantly produced and performed classical guitar collections ever. If you buy only one classical guitar record in your lifetime, make it this one. It’s that good.

The sound quality on this recording is a marvel. Just the perfect hint of natural reverb and flawless execution make this a must have for any guitarist. If you search this one in iTunes it has also been re-branded as “The Great Paraguayan”. Check it out!

I’ve included my favorite piece, all 3 movements of “La Catedral” in high quality PDF Format. Below is an excerpt from the 3rd movement, Allegro Solemne.

This arpeggio sequence in B minor is an outstanding right-hand exercise but presents challenges for both hands.

la catedral allegro solemne

Tilman Hoppstock – J.S. Bach Works For Guitar

tilman hoppstock bach works

J.S. Bach (1685-1750) is my absolute favorite composer. I’m kind of surprised that no one has ever tried to record all of his great Lute works before Tillman Hoppstock’s amazing 2014 recording.

This double album has it all. All of the Lute suites, the famous Chaconne from Violin Partita #2 and some other great and lesser known Bach works performed on solo guitar, 2 guitars and ensemble formats.

Also a world renowned classical Cellist, Hoppstock’s guitar playing and tone throughout this recording are hard to beat. In the past few years this has been my go-to for Bach guitar recordings.

I’ve included a 67 Page PDF book of The Chaconne in D minor from Bach’s violin partita #2 in D minor, my all-time favorite piece of music! You can download it in the members area.

Jump on the email list to access to the complete scores of all of the music here including the Free Guitar Printables Area.

Django Reinhardt – Anthology

django reinhardt

Pre-dating modern Jazz and Bebop, Belgian born, Gypsy Jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt was a true innovator and pioneer of modern guitar picking technique

One night in 1928, Reinhardt was going to bed in the gypsy caravan wagon that he and his wife shared. Django reportedly knocked over a candle, which ignited some flammable celluloid resulting in his 3rd and 4th left hand fingers being essentially burned together.

You’d never know it by listening to him. He essentially had to re-learn the guitar using only his first 2 fingers for solos and the remaining 2 damaged fingers for some chord forms.

He spent most of the early 1940’s running from Nazi’s in occupied France but some how managed to make some of the greatest guitar recordings ever in his short life.

You can’t go wrong with any of the existing Django recordings out there. Any anthology or compilation available.. just get it. You’ll be glad you did.

django reinhardt gypsy jazz guitar

Here is a look at how Django approached his improv ideas over some m7 and dom7 chords.

django Reinhardt licks


Closing Argument

Well there it is.. my list of the 10 Greatest Guitar Albums ever! I’m sure to get a lot of feedback from this one. Whether you agree or disagree, drop your comment below. I’d love to argue with you a little and better yet… check out some of your favorites that I may have overlooked.

Until next time..


10 Essential Guitar Albums

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