Eric Clapton

Tone is a matter of personal taste. Some players plug in and play and that’s that. Others spend their entire careers sculpting and tending their sound as if it were a delicate ecosystem – a balance of instrument woods, string gauges, pickups, hardware, picking technique, guitar construction, cables, effects, speakers, amplifier cabinets, tubes, and the list goes on. And for some, it seems to come naturally, emanating from their fingers and flowing straight into the sonic cosmos.

It’s generally members of the latter two camps that leave an impression on the world at large. And many of them have left that impression with a Gibson guitar in their hands.

Although these titans of tone always sound distinctive and compelling, there are truly transcendent moments even within their recorded histories. And at those moments in the studio, what they played defined not only their own sound but what tone is and means to the rest of us.

To provide some perspective, here’s a countdown of the 10 greatest Gibson guitar tones of all time:

10. Eric Clapton, “White Room”

A perfect storm of singing feedback, bent strings, wah-wah, Marshall amps and a Gibson ES-335 make this Cream epic one of the transcendent guitar performances of the classic rock era. Clapton, of course, had already defined the British blues guitar sound with a Sunburst Les Paul and a Marshall combo on the Blues Breakers album and in London clubs, but “White Room” is still recognizable more than 40 years after it was cut, right from the first note – as is his Cream-era playing on his famed psychedelic painted SG called “the Fool.”


9. Albert King, “I’ll Play the Blues for You”

There’s a reason this tune serves as a theme song for so many blues DJs beyond the literal value of its title, which is also the number’s chorus hook. Albert King’s probing, stretching solo on his trademark Gibson Flying V defined the concept of worrying a note. With true economy he makes a profound statement about the emotional quality of the music – about the spare soulful nature of blues and its ability to touch the human heart directly with the voice-like phrasing of its finest six-string players.

8. Jeff Beck, “’Cause We Ended As Lovers”

This moving tribute to the late Roy Buchanan from Beck’s majestic Blow by Blow is a revelation in blues. It’s also a truly sharp tribute to Buchanan thanks to Beck’s brilliant distillation of “Buch”’s style. Volume swells, delicate singing bends, high-flying melodies and elegant bending govern this instrumental essay in sadness and passion. And throughout, Beck makes his 1954 Oxblood-hued Les Paul Standard, which began life as a Gold Top, speak in prayerful tongues with rare precision and delicacy.


7. Jimmy Page, “Dazed and Confused”

Blues gets no heavier than Page’s monster riffage on this Led Zeppelin masterpiece – the descending banshee moan that the song hinges on. Although this tune’s studio version was cut for the band’s debut album before Page acquired his Number One and Number Two Les Paul Standards, it laid the groundwork for the heavy, heavy tone that would become the signature of his subsequent recordings. Watching him stroke his Les Paul with a cello bow for the definitive live version of the song in the film The Song Remains the Same, it’s obvious that Page’s artistry and his tonal voice are singular.  


6. B.B. King, “The Thrill is Gone”

King perfected his instantly recognizable tone in the late 1950s, but with 1972’s “The Thrill is Gone” he created an ideal compendium of his style in its breaks and solos. His sound is warm, buttery and ringing. And as the song unfolds, it’s all there: beckoning trills, fingers sliding on strings, stabbing single-note punctuations and that astonishing vibrato. These moves simply say, “This is B.B. King.” Of course, King established his guitar legacy on ES models, before his own Gibson B.B. King Lucille became one of the Gibson Custom Shop’s most popular guitars.


5. Carlos Santana, “Black Magic Woman”

The power-soaked voice of Santana’s guitar – in this specific case, a Gibson SG Special – was firmly established when this song swept nascent FM radio. Although it’s a Peter Green tune, “Black Magic Woman” became a vehicle for Santana’s vision of a guitar style that blended volume, rolled back highs, singing phrases and a flavor of his Mexican-American heritage with jazz improvisation – all the qualities that make him unmistakably Santana.


4. Pete Townshend, “Baba O’Riley”

Townshend was never a slouch when it came to sound, but for Who’s Next he dialed in some of the most stunning tones of his career. In particular, Townshend’s monolithic chords on “Baba O’Riley” defined the power chord and set a new mark for rock ’n’ roll chutzpah with his chiseled-in-granite sound. When rock fans think of The Who, this is the sound they hear.


3. Peter Green, “The Supernatural”

This instrumental track from the Bluesbreakers’ album A Hard Road was Green’s challenge to Clapton’s blues-rock primacy, and it’s a convincing pitch. Soaked in reverb and drunk with volume-driven sustain and just a pinch of distortion, Green’s tone on this cut is practically inconceivable. It floats angelically as he picks out a melody on his Gibson Les Paul Sunburst – a one-of-a-kind guitar that would become dubbed “the Holy Grail” – that seems to stop time, evoking the spirit world of its title. And this was before Green reached the peak of his career fronting Fleetwood Mac. If you’re not hip to Green’s legacy, drop everything and listen to this cut and Mac’s Then Play On now!


2. Robert Fripp, “21st Century Schizoid Man”

Anyone familiar with the King Crimson guitarist’s work knows he’s a true original and “21st Century Schizoid Man” from 1969’s In the Court of the Crimson King was his initial calling card. On this tune, which ranges from stately to snarling, Fripp drove his Les Paul Custom through a Marshall in a way that blends a horn-like sound with pure aggressive howl. Jazz, classical music and skittering rock improv meet in the solos on this song, Fripp’s departure point to a career that’s gone on to ambient music, microtonality and just about any other turf a guitar can handle.


1. The Edge, “New Year’s Day”

The U2 guitarist claimed his own ground as a textural giant with this song from the band’s third album. His deft, delay-soaked layering, slide attack and nattering rhythm licks here are a primer to his style, and his Gibson Explorer lends it all a throaty voice that’s unmistakable.