The guitar is so suitable for rock for the simple reason that guitar itself sounds great, but it can also be much more than that. In the right hands, it can be a string instrument, an organ, or even a zoo full of animals. Here are the 10 best examples of guitars that were not afraid to share their identity crisis with the rest of us.
10. Eric Johnson, “Venus Isle”
Johnson’s tone, tastefulness and pentatonic mastery are legendary, and one of his more unusual phrasing tricks is to imitate a sitar, as heard on “Venus Isle,” the title track of his 1995 album. He achieves this aural deception by picking the string right down on the fretboard itself, right above whichever fret he happens to be holding down at the time. The effect is emphasized by applying a quick bend and release to the note immediately after plucking the string.
9. Steve Vai, “Pig”
Vai has practically made a career out of making a guitar do the unexpected. He’s mimicked the human voice on “The Audience is Listening,” babbling aliens on “Next Stop Earth,” a slide whistle on “Erotic Nightmares” and even both a freight train and a horse on “Bad Horsie.” But one of Vai’s most interesting and overlooked imitations is of a pig on the track of the same name from 1993’s Sex & Religion album. Vai achieves this unorthodox sound by using his fretting hand to depress the whammy bar, then raise it after picking an open D string. Do this a few times in rapid succession and yibbida yibbida, that’s all folks!
8. Jimmie Vaughan, “Hillbillies From Outer Space”
On this track from Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Family Style album, Jimmie pulls off a convincing Hammond organ imitation with a combination of three factors: tone, touch and… tremulousness. In other words, he turns down the tone control on his guitar, plucks double-stops with his fingers, and uses a vibrato effect to mimic not only the sound of an actual organ, but also the way a keyboard player would play the riffs.
7. Van Halen, “Baluchitherium”
Eddie Van Halen has never recorded a solo instrumental album and it doesn’t look like he plans to do so any time soon, so “Baluchitherium” from 1995’s Balance might just be the closest thing we’ll get to such a release. A huge, stomping track named after a lumbering prehistoric creature (also known as Paraceratherium or Indricotherium, for the paleontology buffs), “Baluchitherium” boasts a veritable menagerie of animal sounds during its end section, most of which appear to have been achieved by combining volume knob swells with natural harmonics and the whammy bar – although Van Halen noted to Guitar World at the time of Balance’s release that this section of the song does include one real animal – his dog, Sherman.
6. Joe Satriani, “Ice 9”
Satriani is a master of combining bluesy phrasing and melodicism with otherworldly techniques and tricks. One of his most out-there techniques is something he calls the “Lizard Down the Throat.” This technique, as heard on “Ice 9” from Surfing with the Alien (from 2:04 to 2:07 on the CD), requires you to slide your fretting hand along the neck from the headstock end towards the bridge end while pressing the whammy bar down at the same rate. When done right, the pitch should sound roughly uniform but broken up by a gargling sound created by the finger passing over each fret.
5. Jeff Beck, “Nadia”
Beck has long been a fan of female Bulgarian choral music, and “Nadia” is a fine example of his adaptation of the distinctive vocal phrasing of that unique style, recontextualised in guitar form. Beck achieves this feat with a combination of slide and whammy bar, but the real key to nailing this sound is to pay just as much attention to the rhythm of the phrasing as you do to the pitches.
4. Mattias IA Eklundh, “Print This!”
Eklundh is a technical monster with an offbeat sense of humor and a knack for writing songs that are as catchy as they are impossible for mere mortals to play. One of his most out-there tracks is “Print This!,” on which he imitates the sound of an old-school 1980s/’90s dot matrix printer, and somehow manages to do so in a musical manner.
3. Ozzy Osbourne, “No More Tears”
Zakk Wylde throws a wide range of techniques into “No More Tears,” including slide, a dropped tuning and fast arpeggios, but the song is also notable as one of the more famous examples of a guitarist who not only wails, but whales, too. During the orchestral-sounding interlude before the guitar solo, Zakk turns his volume control down, hits a note, turns the volume up and bends the string for a series of mournful, moaning notes which reinforce the lonesomeness of the track’s theme. They also set the listener up for a killer build-up before the solo’s rapid-fire blues licks.
2. Steve Miller, “The Joker”
An extremely able blues-rock guitarist, Miller is perhaps best known for “The Joker” (although his new album, Bingo! is notable for some very fiery playing courtesy of Mr. Miller too). On that track, he performs perhaps one of the most easily copied and yet coolest guitar tricks ever: the wolf whistle. It’s been used many times since, and had probably been used many times before, but Miller’s use of the effect in the song pushes an already great track over the edge.
1. Led Zeppelin, “Dazed and Confused”
Jimmy Page has always been a master of presenting the guitar on a silver platter in all its raging glory, from Led Zeppelin right up to Coverdale-Page and his 1998 album with Robert Plant, Walking Into Clarksdale. But Page was also adept at making the guitar sound like something else entirely, as he did on “Dazed and Confused,” where he used a violin bow (with the effect emphasized with some generous reverb) to make the guitar sound like an eerie, two-tone violin. Page’s violin bow solo was also a live showstopper, as you can see in the concert movie The Song Remains the Same.