Almost all of the most famous guitarists in the history of rock music are associated with a certain brand or a specific model that they played while solidifying themselves as one of the greats. Slash of Guns N’ Roses fame had an affinity for Gibson Les Pauls that rivaled his love for large top hats, Jimi Hendrix is forever associated with his left-handed Fender Stratocasters, and John Lennon and George Harrison respectively brandished an Epiphone Casino and a Gretsch Duo-Jet while entrancing teenage girls and cult leaders alike.
However, there are others whose loyalty ran even deeper who possessed a high fidelity for not just a particular model but a specific, inimitable guitar that accompanied them on stage at almost every gig.
If these instruments could talk, they’d undoubtedly have some stories to tell, but sadly, we’ll never get to hear them because guitars aren’t sentient beings. However, the same cannot be said for the people familiar with some of the stories connected to them and there are a few particular axes with a fascinating history even some rock aficionados aren’t aware of.
Let’s try to change that.
Brian May’s Red Special
Queen is one of the most iconic rock bands of all time, and while Freddie Mercury is widely considered the most instrumental factor in their success, it’s impossible to ignore what guitarist (and doctor of astrophysics) Brian May contributed thanks to the help of his signature instrument: the Red Special.
Everyone has tried to hit the falsetto while singing along to “Bohemian Rhapsody” but May’s contributions to the tune—especially the instantly recognizable solos—possess a certain tone that’s almost as impossible to replicate.
Part of that tone comes courtesy of a heavily overdriven AC30 amplifier from British manufacturer Vox, which May harnessed to take advantage of what he once described as a “lovely, rich, kind of throaty sound.” He’s far from the only guitarist who’s a fan, as the AC30 is a longtime favorite of not just rock musicians but blues and country artists as well. However, even if you used one while nailing every single note of the iconic anthem, it’d still be missing that signature Red Special touch.
Queen didn’t really burst onto the scene until the middle of the 1970s but a 16-year-old May and his father began constructing his trusty sidekick in 1963 due to the prohibitively high price of the guitars produced by the most notable manufacturers in the industry.
Over the course of two years, the duo used whatever supplies they could find to construct the axe from scratch and the final product included matchsticks, buttons, motorcycle parts, and even part of a 19th-century fireplace mantle that was used for the neck (which inspired the “Fireplace” nickname occasionally used to refer to it).
The Red Special became May’s go-to guitar and continues to be 55 years after its completion. You can buy a replica if you’re so inclined but good luck replicating that one-of-a-kind sound.
Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstrat
Of all of the people who’s played guitar since someone had the brilliant idea to plug one into an amp and see what happens, no one—and I mean no one—has embarked on a lengthier crusade to replicate the exact sound they hear in their head than Eddie Van Halen.
There’s no telling how many guitars this mad scientist dissected while conducting his many experiments in pursuit of the perfect tone but none of the stitched-together monsters is more well-known than the aptly-dubbed “Frankenstrat,” the red, white, and black musical accomplice you instantly think of when you picture Van Halen.
The Frankenstrat started when Van Halen set out on a mission to combine the sound of a Gibson with the playability of a Fender, a combination that was basically nonexistent at the time. It features the body of a Stratocaster he picked up for a discount due to a knot in the wood and it would be subjected to a number of surgeries over the years as he attempted to realize his vision.
Some of those procedures involved reconfiguring the pickups, which led to the one in the bridge position being unconventionally installed at an angle while another on the neck was rendered non-functional as a result of his tinkering (thanks to his adjustments to the circuitry, the knob labeled “Tone” was actually used to adjust the volume). Other alterations included a custom pickguard made from a vinyl record and an incredibly high-tech piece of double-sided tape he used to store picks.
Despite the back-alley nature of some of these adjustments, they all came together to make the Frankenstrat an experiment as successful as his disastrous attempt to change the tone of his Ibanez Destroyer by cutting a large, shark tooth-shaped piece from the body was not (well, he technically did change it, just not in the way he intended)
While special reproductions are done from time to time (including 300 that retailed for $25,000 and sold out almost immediately), the original Frankenstrat—which was deemed notable enough to be displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2019—remains about as unique as they come.
Rory Gallagher’s ‘61 Fender Stratocaster
Rory Gallagher is a name that you might not be familiar with, and no, he is not a long-lost member of Oasis but rather a bluesy rock musician you should absolutely check out. If I can’t sway you, maybe a guy by the name of Jimi Hendrix can, as legend has it he once responded to a question about what it’s like to be the best guitar player in the world with, “I don’t know; go ask Rory Gallagher.”
Yes, he was seriously that good.
Gallagher played a bunch of different guitars over the course of his career, including a Fender Telecaster, a Gretsch Corvette, and a 1968 Coral 3S19 Electric Sitar. However, no guitar is more associated with the legendary Irishman than his beloved (and noticeably well worn) 1961 Fender Stratocaster.
The guitar in question is believed to be the first Strat to ever make it’s way to the Emerald Isle but the man who would make it famous wasn’t even its original owner. That honor belongs to Jim Conlon, who had attempted to get his hands on the “Fiesta Red” color but could only secure the “Sunburst” design. His preferred hue eventually arrived in 1963 and he put the other one up for sale, which Gallagher quickly scooped up.
So what makes this particular guitar so interesting? Well, chances are that if you didn’t come across an article discussing its original sunburst pattern, you’d have absolutely no idea that was the case based on what it eventually transformed into. All of the guitars on this list feature their fair share of wear and tear but (with the possible exception of our next entry) none of them took the kind of beating this one did.
While there were some faint remnants of the burnt-tobacco finish when Gallagher’s life came to a premature end when he passed away from liver failure at the age of 47 in 1995, he literally poured himself into his instrument during the more than 30 years he played it. His brother claims he had a rare blood type (likely AB-) that resulted in his particularly acidic sweat wearing away the finish on the front, and while it’s unclear if there’s any veracity to the claim, the back also features blue stains that rubbed off from his jeans over the course of three decades.
Willie Nelson’s Trigger
Even if you’re not a country music fan—hell, even if you’re somehow not a fan of music at all—you know who Willie Nelson is. He released his first record in 1956 and was still going strong until live music stopped being a thing a few weeks after his most recent show back in February. He’s played a number of guitars during the 60-plus years he’s been performing but there’s not a single one he’s relied on more than a beat-up acoustic that goes by the name of “Trigger.”
One of the perks of being signed to a record label is getting access to a smorgasbord of equipment you can fool around with at no cost to you. After signing with RCA in 1964, Nelson was granted this luxury, and five years later, he was presented with a Baldwin 800C classical acoustic-electric guitar prior to a show in Houston.
However, most guitar experts would agree it’s hard to play one when a drunk guy steps on it and breaks it beyond repair, which is exactly what happened at another show in Texas shortly after Nelson acquired it. He opted to swap it out with a Martin N-20—which was fitted with the pickups from his recently deceased Baldwin—and just like that, Trigger (named after Roy Rogers’ trusty steed) was born.
Trigger is an absolute workhorse that has lived about twice as long as a typical horse but the years have taken a toll, as Nelson has managed to strum a damn hole in the front in addition to wearing down the steel frets. However, it takes a trip back to Texas every year to get a checkup from a specialist in Austin, so while they might be getting up there in age, they both seem to be doing just fine.
Tom Morello’s “Arm The Homeless” Guitar
Tom Morello has slung a few recognizable axes over his shoulder during his time shredding for both Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave but none of them come close to matching the level of fame his “Arm The Homeless” guitar has achieved.
He has often described himself as “the DJ” in Rage, which stems from some of the unorthodox playing techniques he’s developed—including the signature scratching sounds traditionally generated by vinyl on a turntable, an effect that’s featured prominently in the solo in “Bulls On Parade.”
Morello acquired the guitar back in 1986 from a manufacturer located in Hollywood, which once received a glowing review from him in an interview where he described it as “the shittiest guitar in the world.”
If Van Halen’s Strat is Frankenstein, then Arm the Homeless is basically the ship of Theseus. Does that analogy fall apart a bit when you consider the only thing Morello didn’t replace was the wood that comprised the body? Maybe. However, he went through multiple pickups, necks, and bridges while honing his trademark sound—one also defined by the switch he harnesses to abruptly cut off power, which is responsible for some of his most recognizable licks.
Oh, there’s also the iconic paint scheme featuring hippos on a sky blue background and words “Arm The Homeless” scrawled in red, which—believe it or not—is where its nickname comes from.
Every guitar we’ve talked about so far is synonymous with one artist but Greeny is a very notable exception that’s had three even more notable owners over the years.
Greeny is a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard, which is currently one of the most valuable guitars to be found on the vintage market, as they can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars compared to the less than $300 they went for when they debuted (which is still fairly hefty when taking inflation into consideration but a fraction of what you’ll have to shell out today).
Greeny’s story begins with its namesake Peter Green, who acquired the guitar secondhand in 1966. If you’re somewhat well-acquainted with rock music, you may know him as the man who replaced Eric Clapton in The Blues Breakers in addition to one of the original members of Fleetwood Mac.
Greeny first made a name for itself thanks to an unusual sound that was caused by a factory error that resulted in one of its pickups being inserted backward, which resulted in some particularly unique tonal characteristics. Green stepped away from music in the 1970s due to mental health issues but wanted his sidekick to go to a good home and ultimately gifted it to a then-unknown guitarist named Gary Moore.
Moore eventually made a name for himself through his solo work and as a member of both Skid Row and Thin Lizzy and Greeny was by his side at virtually every step of the way. After he passed away in 2011, it was sold to a private collector but it would find a new owner three years later in the form of Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, who purchased it for $2 million.
Must be nice.
However, Greeny isn’t sitting in a display case in a mansion somewhere, as it was featured all over the band’s 2016 album Hardwired… To Self Destruct and often accompanies him on the road, where it’s appropriately pulled out whenever the groups covers Thin Lizzy’s “Whiskey In The Jar.”