What a cocktail of change the world experienced during the 1970s! We saw the political fall of Nixon and the rise of Thatcher (along with the more physical rise of everyone who decided that platform shoes looked good). We had an oil crisis, built the World Trade Centre, met Charlies Angels and fell in love with the original Sony Walkman (anyone remember those?!?) And the guitar music world continued to build on the ground-shifting developments of the 1960s - here's 10 tunes that all guitarists should know about, going year-by-year…
Layla (Derek and the Dominos, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, 1970)
Ranked at #27 on Rolling Stone magazines 2004 list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time", Layla features undoubtedly one the most iconic guitar riffs ever. Although you might be surprised to hear that it was Duane Allman rather than Eric Clapton who was responsible for that part! Listen closely to the first section of this song - you can hear a total of seven tracks of intertwining guitar genius from these two masters of blues rock guitar. What a way to kick off the decade!
Stairway to Heaven (Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin IV, 1971)
Some pieces of music are nearly impossible to categorise, and Stairway To Heaven might just be the best example. The folky feel of that finger-picked acoustic guitar introduction with 4-part recorder accompaniment then morphs into a slow prog rock electric section, followed by one of Jimmy Page's greatest ever solos (ranked #1 of all time by Guitar World magazine) that then leads into a hard rock finale, culminating in Robert Plant's pure vocal epilogue. Think of it as almost a mini rock symphony - 8 minutes of 'sonic orgasm' (Jimmy Page's words, not ours) that many regard as the greatest song of all time.
Smoke on the Water (Deep Purple, Machine Head, 1972)
There are popular guitar riffs and then there's Ritchie Blackmore's intro to Smoke On The Water. We're willing to bet that this was the very first thing EVER played on a guitar by more than 50% of the people reading this article. And since the song’s lyrics recount the true story of the complete destruction of the Montreux Casino, which burned to the ground during a Frank Zappa gig, and in which Deep Purple were subsequently scheduled to record their album, we're lucky that this track got laid down at all. The town of Montreux has since honoured the song with a sculpture on the lake shore, right next to the statue of Freddie Mercury.
Money (Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon, 1973)
Progressive rock and concept albums were two ideas that flourished throughout the '70s, with Pink Floyd acting as the probably the most visible exponents of both. Dark Side of the Moon was their eighth studio album, exploring themes of time, death, conflict, mental illness and greed, with this final concept resulting in Money - a very idiosyncratic piece even for the time! Particularly notable features include the 7/8-time signature, tape loops of money-related objects (cash registers, counting machines, jingling coins and more) and a magnificent extended double-tracked guitar solo section featuring Dave Gilmour’s blues playing at its finest.
Sweet Home Alabama (Lynyrd Skynyrd, Second Helping, 1974)
One of the greatest pieces of Southern rock ever recorded, and a magnificent way to remember lead singer Ronnie Van Zant who perished in the bands plane crash of 1977. Whilst none of the three writers of Sweet Home Alabama were actually from Alabama, they can justifiably lay claim to having basically written the state's unofficial anthem, and possibly it's most popular phrase (the words "Sweet Home Alabama" have appeared on official state licence plates since 2009!) Gary Rossington allegedly came up with that iconic picked guitar riff whilst waiting for the rest of the band to turn up for a rehearsal, proving that tardiness can sometimes pay dividends.
Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen, A Night at the Opera, 1975)
There isn't space in this blog, or probably even in a book, to fully explain Bohemian Rhapsody. Even Queen themselves have never explained the lyrics of this nearly 6-minute musical masterpiece that practically defies categorisation, with a cappella, ballad, rock and operatic sections describing the narrator’s descent into hell. But it is worth mentioning that various record executives told the band there was no hope of the song ever being played on radio. Which, considering that it's topped the charts in various worldwide markets a number of times over the years (even making the UK xmas #1 spot twice) and "practically invented the music video" according to Rolling Stone magazine, proves that record executives don't know everything. And since this song probably features the most iconic playing Brian May ever did on his home-made 'Red Special' guitar, whether during the solo, the hard-rock interlude, or even the double-tracked melody leading the outro, this tune is an absolute must for guitarists everywhere.
(Don't Fear) The Reaper (Blue Öyster Cult, Agents of Fortune, 1976)
Whatever you may read into the lyrics, which actually deal with eternal love and the inevitability of death rather than suicide (as many people seem to think), there are really only two things that listeners take away from Don't Fear the Reaper. First and foremost, it's the cowbell. No song has EVER done more for this often-overlooked percussion instrument - Saturday Night Live parodied the recording process in their infamous 2000 sketch 'More Cowbell' (featuring Will Ferrell as overweight cowbell player Gene Frenkle), and the Tonight Show parodied the parody in 2014 with the help of Ferrell AND the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But once you get past the cowbell, Buck Dharma's iconic guitar riff and solo are the standout elements.
Hotel California (The Eagles, Hotel California, 1977)
With acoustic and electric 6-string and 12-string instruments used throughout, and a solo voted the best of all time by readers of Guitarist magazine in 1998, there really is something for all guitar players in Hotel California. The band have described the song as their "interpretation of the high life in LA", with Don Henley subsequently stating that it's about "a journey from innocence to experience". And you certainly can't question the popularity of what became the Eagles biggest ever success - it made #1 the the US and Canada, charted in the top 10 through nine other countries, and has been certified platinum in four different territories. Guitarists should also check out the fantastic flamenco cover version by the Gypsy Kings, which features in that epic bowling alley scene from The Big Lebowski!
Eruption (Van Halen, Van Halen, 1978)
Hard rock and metal guitar solos in the '70s and '80s could be categorised into two distinct eras - 'pre-Eruption' and 'post-Eruption'. That is genuinely how important this instrumental track became. Two-handed hammer-ons and pull-offs (aka 'tapping') weren't really a widespread technique until Eddie van Halen unleashed this sub-2-minute recording on his self-titled debut album, played on his iconic home-made 'Frankenstrat' guitar through a Marshall 1959 Super Lead amp, with MXR Phase 90, Echoplex and Univox EC-80 effects units in the mix. The almost classical feel to the structure and harmony within the soloing isn't a complete accident - Van Halen (who, we should remember, actually started his musical journey as a classical pianist) is quoting elements of Kreutzer's "Etude No. 2" following the intro.
Highway To Hell (AC/DC, Highway To Hell, 1979)
The title track to AC/DC's sixth studio album, and widely considered one of the best rock anthems of all time, Highway To Hell is a masterclass in no-nonsense musical simplicity. Whether it's the memorably spartan riff that drives the intro and verses, or Angus Young's iconic blues-based solo, the back-to-basics minimalist approach to music (demonstrated throughout the album) has been an inspiration to countless guitarists and bands ever since. A beautiful swan song for lead singer Bon Scott, who tragically died less than a year later.
And that's it - our take on one of the most memorable decades for guitar music. And we didn't mention disco once!
If any of these songs make you want to pick up the guitar, grab a copy of our book "Guitar For Beginners: How To Play Your First Song In 7 Days" and start your musical journey in less than a week!
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So until next time...Peace out!