10 Best Guitar Songs From The 80s Every Guitarist Must Know

There’s many, many reasons to remember the 1980s, some good (end of the Cold War), some bad (the hairstyles), some unforgettably epic (Back To The Future). But it’s the music we know you’re interested in, and this decade provided some essential moments in guitar history! Let’s examine 10 that all guitarists should know about, going year-by-year…

Back in Black (AC/DC, Back In Black, 1980)

Kicking the decade off at full volume was the title track from ACDC's first album since the tragic death of lead singer Bon Scott. And although their new frontman Brian Johnson puts in a superb vocal performance on this legendary rock masterpiece, it's Angus Youngs guitar work that truly lodges in the mind. From the moment the track begins with that subtle fret-noise counting you in to the simple yet explosive riff, you just know this is guitar history being made!

Start Me Up (The Rolling Stones, Tattoo You, 1981)

    "1981??? REALLY!?!" Yes, everyone thinks all the legendary Stones tracks were '60s and '70s recordings - and for the most part they're right. But 'Start Me Up' was indeed a product of the 1980s, and features what some would call the last of the 'trademark' Keith Richards guitar riffs with that beautiful open-G-tuned motif (which he did with only 5 strings on his Telecaster). Since the band primarily wrote music through jamming together, with a final recording take resulting from a successful run-through out of sheer luck, this tune only took six hours to lay down! 

    Beat It (Michael Jackson, Thriller, 1982)

    Name the ultimate '80s pop artist and you automatically think 'Michael Jackson'. Name the ultimate '80s rock guitarist and it's undoubtedly 'Eddie Van Halen'. Mix these two talents together, add a touch of Quincey Jones production genius, and you get one of the greatest '80s tracks ever - with 27 million copies sold since its 1982 release. Van Halen himself thought he was being pranked when the invitation call came through from Jones. But since his guitar solo caused the control room speaker to catch fire during the recording, one of the engineers said "this must be really good!"

    Every Breath You Take (The Police, Synchronicity, 1983)

    Pop was really the defining music genre of the 1980s, and ‘Every Breath You Take’ remains one of the prime examples, taking two Grammy's and the Ivor Novello award in 1983, and probably paying most of Sting's bills ever since (it allegedly provides at least a quarter of his lifetime publishing income!) Much of this success can be attributed to the gloriously clean, continuous guitar ostinato of Andy Summers, played straight through in one take on the recording, which was apparently inspired by the violin duets of Hungarian composer Béla Bartók.

    How Soon Is Now? (The Smiths, Hatful of Hollow, 1984)

    The Smiths are considered possibly the most important part of the British Indie scene of the 1980s, with their post-punk alternative rock generating legions of dedicated fans to this day, despite their 1987 break-up. 'How Soon Is Now' represented a substantial break from their usual style, with a slower psychedelic feel rooted around that iconic, heavily tremoloified F# guitar chord provided by Johnny Marr. This sound, along with the haunting delayed slide guitar riff, kinda defines the alternative '80s guitar sound - imaginative, moody, and making seriously original use of the new digital effects available at the time.

    She Sells Sanctuary (The Cult, Love, 1985)

    How best to celebrate the wide range of guitar effects pedals that became available in the 1980s? Why, have all of them turned on at the same time! This is how Billy Duffy accidentally managed to create that superb riff, which develops throughout this fast-paced post-punk classic. You'll need at least 2 delay pedals, a chorus and a flanger to replicate it...

    Graceland (Paul Simon, Graceland, 1986)

    World music influences were being increasingly embraced throughout the '80s, with many artists seeking new sounds and inspiration. Paul Simon's 'Graceland' album is perhaps the best example from the decade - an epic collaboration between African and American artists (recorded variously in New York, LA, Louisiana, London and Johannesburg) that won the 1987 Grammy for album of the year. The title track features some gloriously intertwining guitar work from Ray Phiri and Paul Simon, pedal steel by Demola Adepoju, and a wonderfully complex fretless bass part courtesy of Bakithi Kumalo. A true and timeless classic.

    Sweet Child O’ Mine (Guns ’N Roses, Appetite For Destruction, 1987)

    Never before has a riff been hammered through by more young learner guitarists, desperate to sound like their idol. The irony of this probably isn't lost on Slash, who originally used it as "simply a string skipping exercise". But then he jokingly played it during a jam session with the rest of Guns 'N Roses, who managed to turn it into a chord sequence within the hour, a song by the next day, and subsequently one of "the greatest songs of all time" according to more opinion polls than we've got space to mention in this article. Slash still hates it, but his opinion probably doesn't count...

    One (Metallica, …And Justice For All, 1988)

    The Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance was first awarded in 1989. And this was the song that won it. A technically and musically convoluted masterpiece, the track manages to change through three different time signatures during its nearly seven-and-a-half-minute duration, with standout rhythm and solo work from both Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield. There's a good reason why Metallica have been the benchmark by which ALL thrash metal has been judged since the early '80s.

    Free Fallin' (Tom Petty, Full Moon River, 1989)

    We'll end our list with one the cornerstones of American heartland rock. 'Free Fallin' is the opener of Petty's debut solo album, a wonderfully simple blend of no-nonsense singing and 12-string work by Petty, mixed with the acoustic/electric guitar of Mike Campbell and the bass of Jeff Lynne, both of whom co-produced this track. Coldplay and Fleetwood Mac have both covered the song as a tribute to Petty following his death in 2017.


    I love rock and roll, Rock you like a hurricane, Living on a prayer…. The list goes on.

    The 80s was the most memorable time for Rock and Roll. We got a ton of hits, the rock and roll culture was booming and there was a new band coming up every day. It was the songs during the 80’s that made me pick up the guitar.

    This was our inspiration for our latest art piece – 80’s rock and roll. We wanted to bring the rock and roll decade to 2019 to be remembered forever. To make it tangible on a beautiful piece of canvas. If we've got you all nostalgic now, then check out the top blues albums of all time.

    This piece is a reminder of why we picked up the guitar and why keep at it. A reminder of the golden era of music!

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