7 Guitars Made Iconic by Black Guitarists
By Ian Freeman
April 18, 2022
There are items so associated with their owner that they gain fame or infamy in their own right. Like Arthur’s Excalibur, Thor’s Mjolnir, and Lion-O’s Sword of Thundera, guitars have earned legendary status with people crafting tales of their exploits or origin stories. You would be hard-pressed to find a fan of Eddie Van Halen who doesn’t know the Frankenstrat or Prince’s Cloud. For International Guitar Month, we take a look at some iconic axes and the black guitarists who made them famous, or is it vice versa?
B.B. King ES 355 Lucille
Few artists are more closely associated with their instrument than B.B. King and Lucille. The ES 355 that never leaves his side borrowed the name of a woman who was the source of an argument between two gentlemen that resulted in a fire at an Arkansas Dance Club in 1949. Upon seeing the venue aflame, B.B. King went in to rescue his $30 Gibson guitar. Later upon finding out the details of the incident, Lucille was dubbed as a reminder of what men can be driven to, the fight and him going inside to save a guitar and a warning never to repeat it. And each guitar he has used since has carried the name and the warning. Lost to the annals of history is that the original Lucille was a Gibson archtop L-30. There were many successors named Lucille, notably from Gibson’s ES series, of which King played the 330, the 335, and eventually the 355 semi-hollow with which he is most associated. Gibson customized Lucille’s 355 iteration for B.B. by removing the F-holes to reduce feedback. You can check out Gibson and Epiphone to get your hands on your own.
Nile Rodgers ’60 Fender Stratocaster Hitmaker
Producer and guitarist Nile Rodgers is one of the most accomplished musicians in music, having worked on a number of hits and inspiring a legion of funk guitarists. In a career that has spanned over 50 years, his white 1960 Stratocaster, dubbed The Hitmaker, might be one of the most-heard instruments in the history of modern music. The guitar, which he obtained in a trade, is a 1960 Stratocaster with a 1959 neck, unusually lightweight and has a lacquered white finish which he sprayed on himself. Nile has said that it sounds unlike any other Stratocaster. This unique tone might explain why Hitmaker has been used almost exclusively over his career, including on songs like Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family,” Chic’s “Good Times.” Check out one at Fender.com.
Prince Cloud Guitar
While he was with us, Prince Rogers Nelson’s impact on the guitar world is unfathomable. An accomplished musician on several instruments, it was on the guitar where he was most known and garnered the most acclaim. And while he has played many guitars from both companies and customs, the Cloud guitar seen in the movie Purple Rain might be his most iconic and magical. While the origins of the Cloud guitar are retconned more than a Marvel character, the most widely adopted is Dan Rusan’s, the former luthier at Minneapolis’ Knut Koupée, who worked on the guitar. As the story goes, while shooting Purple Rain, Prince stopped in the store and spoke to the owner, and commissioned a custom guitar. The original concept was based on a bass that Prince saw in New York, and it had to be white, with gold hardware, EMG pickups, and other specifications. And it is this one that he played during the movie and other tour appearances. Over the years, there were different iterations, including a blue and yellow one, albeit not by the original builder. Even one in the Smithsonian that Prince donated has its own cloud of mystery as no one is sure if it’s the original luthier’s or a later build.
Jimmie Hendrix Woodstock Stratocaster
Jimmie Hendrix is your favorite guitar player’s favorite guitar player. And if he’s not, he’s top 5 dead or alive. He is an icon, a legend, and guitar royalty. With someone with so many iconic moments, how do you choose an iconic guitar for someone who was serially monogamous when it came to his guitars. Naming them didn’t mean anything. There was a Betty and a Linda. There was an Astoria, but that was more because it was infamously set afire at a gig at the Astoria in London that left him with burns. The Monterey Strat, arguably the most infamous one, was a handpainted strat that was ceremoniously lit ablaze and sacrificed on stage at the Monterey Festival. There’s a black strat that resembled Eric Clapton’s Blackie that is said to be the one he recorded “Hey Joe.” Or maybe the Flying V that’s attributed to “All Along the Watchtower.” But if there were one, it would have to be the Woodstock Strat, his Olympic white Stratocaster. While he has had many white strats throughout his career, this 68 Fender strat he purchased at Manny’s Music in New York was one he played up until his last live performance. It was the one he played when he headlined Woodstock including for his renowned National Anthem performance. The history of the Woodstock strat gets murky as one story says it was given to his drummer, eventually ending up in the hands of Microsoft’s Paul Allen and then in a museum. But it’s also said that there was another guitar found at Electric Lady Studios upon Hendrix’s death by his team. So there is a question about who has the real Woodstock guitar. Fender has an Olympic White Hendrix model available if you are interested.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe White 61’ Les Paul SG Custom
Any guitar player worth their chops knows the name Sister Rosetta Tharpe though the world might not. She played a few instruments throughout her career, but the most iconic would be her white Gibson 1961 Les Paul SG Custom. The guitar sported a double horned body, three pickups, gold hardware, and a white pickguard against a cream white finish which gave it an almost tuxedo look. Les Paul wasn’t a fan of the design, and eventually, the Les Paul SG would just be called the SG. But Sister Rosetta Tharpe liked it, and it was this guitar she was playing with Muddy Waters as they performed for train passengers on the platform of the Whalley Range’s Wilbraham Road railway station in South Manchester, England, on May 7, 1964. The Blues and Gospel Train was by many music critics called a “massively culturally significant gig.” Gibson recently released a remake of the iconic guitar celebrating its 61st anniversary available in both their Gibson and Epiphone lines.
Chuck Berry ES 350T Maybelline
One of the fathers of Rock & Roll, Chuck Berry was a guitarist, showman, and inspiration for many guitarists, be it Jazz, Soul, Blues, or Rock. There might be some debate about which of his guitars is the most iconic between the Gibson ES 350T and his ES 355. Despite the latter becoming his favorite, it would be hard to deny his 350T’s cultural impact. Nicknamed Maybelline, Berry’s Gibson 350T was his wingman in creating the sound that heralded his ascension to rock royalty. It would be the sound on the memorable guitar riff opening Jhonny B. Goode. It was the guitar used when the world heard Maybelline that changed Rock and Roll by melding Country, R&B, and Rock. It is this guitar he is playing during the American Bandstand performance that cemented his star status. Also, at this time, early in his career, the 350T was instrumental in developing his signature style. The 350T was a thin-line hollow-body making it much lighter and thinner than most other hollow-body guitars, which would have been too large for Berry to perform his showmanship. Gibson released a replica of it as part of their artist collection if you have some extra coin hanging around.
Slash Les Paul Replica
Guns and Roses’ guitarist Slash is an icon. And throughout a career that has lasted almost 50 years, he has been synonymous with Gibson Les Pauls, having played a number of them and owning over 400 guitars. He also has been a Gibson endorsed artist for decades and released a number of models with him. Ironically though, the guitar that was the guitarist’s introduction to the world wasn’t a Gibson. In fact, during the ’80s, many rock bands had been shunning the Gibson Les Paul in favor of Super Strats and the more shredder-friendly Ibanez, BC Rich, Jackson, and others. While recording Appetite for Destruction, GnR’s record-breaking debut album, Slash was dissatisfied with the sounds he was getting. The band’s manager went to Cali music store Music Works, looking for a quick solution. He picked up a Les Paul and returned it to Slash, who plugged it in and found his mojo again. He would go on to use it during the studio sessions as well as on many performances. The guitar was a replica of a Gibson 59 Les Paul, with a lemon burst top and Seymour Duncan alnico zebra pickups, made by famous luthier Kris Derrig. Although the guitar wasn’t an official Gibson, being in Slash’s hands, it caused a huge surge in demand for Les Pauls. A trend that is still going today and what some even say helped revitalize the Gibson brand. What can be more iconic than being so iconic that you boost the sales of the original despite being a replica? Or better yet, they have to make a version of your copy to satisfy fans. Check out the Gibson Appetite Burst if you want to tap into your inner Slash.
Let us know in the comments if there are some others we might have missed.
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