5 essential guitar albums you need to listen to

The five albums below are must listens for any guitar player. There are so many I could add to this list, and if you've been keeping an eye on the site and social media, you'll know that I recommend at least one Guitar Album of the Week every week, and then explain why in the weekly Six String Sunday newsletter. That album always lives in the sidebar of the site, so it’s a good idea to visit a couple times a month to see what’s new.

Lists are a funny thing. There's always going to be something you left out, someone's favorite album or player. But one thing lists are good for is a starting point. For some of you, you may have heard of these players or albums. I wish I could be in the shoes for those who haven’t heard these albums already, because they were magical when I first listened to them.

For those of you who have listened to these albums, it’s always fun to revisit them if you haven’t listened to them in a while and see what new thing you pick up on. For instance, when I listen to something like Jason Becker’s Perpetual Burn, Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop, Zappa’s Joe’s Garage, or a myriad of other albums, I’m always presented with something new each time. All those are classic albums in their own right, so you can think of them as a bonus!

After reading this list, let me know what your essential guitar albums are by reaching out on Twitter or Facebook. Let’s get right into it!

Surfing With the Alien - Joe Satriani - You know you’re doing something right when two of your many students are Kirk Hammett and Steve Vai. Both who’ve gone on to be legends in their own right. Joe Satriani is synonymous with guitar. Even if you’re not a fan of instrumental guitar albums, you might know who Satch is.

If you’re looking to play like Satch, check out this great vid on his habits. Satriani is known for his love of the Lydian mode, using his signature Ibanez guitars, doing fun whammy bar tricks, being a monster player, and of course his bald head and glasses. He kind of looks like an alien from outer space.

Speaking of which, on Surfing With the Alien, notably Satch’s most popular album, he kicks things off with the title track which has Joe’s signature tone. Similar to players like SRV or Eric Johnson, you immediately know it’s Satriani. Later on in the album you have the iconic Always With Me, Always With You. A beautiful arpeggiated slow jam with tons of feel.

There’s all sorts of guitar goodness throughout the album. Listen to the tapping lines on Midnight and it’ll inspire you to play similar riffs. I’m sure tracks like this inspired today’s guitarists who tap (Animals As Leaders, Malmsteen, etc.).

Years ago, in my first proper studio job in NYC I worked with the drummer on many of Joe’s greatest albums (Jonathan Mover). He was a very interesting guy and gave me tons of information about the studio, not to mention he was a killer drummer. Joe recently got that original band back together. If you’re looking to see an amazing lineup, go check them out on tour.

Texas Flood - Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble - I remember the first time I saw Stevie Ray Vaughan play guitar on DVD. I was both equal parts inspired and wanting to hang up the guitar forever. Stevie was such a beastly player on the guitar, and after watching him play at Austin City Limits it really seemed like he was pulling inspiration out from the sky and channeling it into his fingers. His riffs were just so incredible and it seemed like he’d never run out.

To be able to hang out with the Kings of blues, including B.B., Albert, Buddy Guy and others, is a testament to how great he was. Eric Clapton had to pull his car over the first time he heard SRV to figure out who he was. On Texas Flood, you have staples of SRV’s catalog.

If you’re looking to get into the blues and trying to start with a few classic songs, you can’t go wrong with tunes like Pride and Joy, Rude Mood and Love Struck Baby. Beautiful Texas blues. In combination from massive amounts of tone dripping from Stevie’s fingers, he also used a number of Strats into great amps, and heavy gauge strings.

One of my favorite songs on the album isn’t loud at all, but transcendent like Little Wing from Hendrix. The song is called Lenny, and I’ll be damned if that isn’t one of the greatest guitar tones I’ve ever heard.

To know that this was Stevie’s debut album is incredible. There’s just so much great playing on the album, and he only got better from there. If you’re looking to get into the blues, listen to this album and then retrace Stevie’s heroes.

Passion and Warfare - Steve Vai - Steve Vai has it all. He has technique and chops for days, and his attention to detail is unparalleled. He also has great songwriting ability. Unlike many other “shredders” of his time, Vai’s songs were and still are always very musical. He also has a element of humor in his music, which he undoubtedly got from his time in Frank Zappa’s band.

Passion and Warfare is one of Vai’s greatest albums, if not one of the greatest guitar albums of all time. The album starts off with Liberty, which could be called the guitar’s national anthem. It moves into the fun Erotic Nightmares which show off Vai’s awesome legato, harmonization, sitar work, volume swells and just overall great playing.

The Animal is a groove monster, Answers is a feel good track that reminds me of Satch’s Summer Song, and features one of Vai’s signature descending riffs. Ballerina 12/24 has some seriously pitch shifted guitar lines crossed with a country feel, The Audience is Listening has Vai emulating a person’s voice on guitar, and Sisters is a beautiful penultimate track.

Then you have the classic For the Love of God. This is one of Vai’s most popular songs. Search YouTube and you’re likely to find dozens of versions of Vai playing this song. It’s almost as if Vai is exhausted after pouring out his soul into playing this song. The riffs he plays are so emotive and the music just shows why Vai is leaps and bounds above other players.

I could go on for weeks writing about Vai, but I’d be mad at myself if I didn’t mention my favorite single note of Vai’s. Yes, one note! I’ve listened to all of Vai’s albums multiple times, but I find the note at 2:50 of the song The Riddle, one of the funniest notes I’ve ever heard. The song is funky and amazing to boot, and features all sorts of different guitar sounds and techniques. Go check out this masterpiece of an album and let me know what you think.

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Images and Words - Dream Theater - John Petrucci is one of prog metal’s most well known guitar players, and for good reason. As part of the enormously popular Dream Theater, he’s made album upon album of more notes than many people play in their lifetime. Petrucci is similar to Vai in that he can play really great heavy rhythm guitar, but when it comes to his lead playing, each solo is like a mini song in itself. All his solos are very musical.

Dream Theater’s Images and Words 8 songs and 57 minutes of incredible playing. The album starts off with the a beautiful chorus and delay soaked clean guitar, and soon after gets into some crushing riffery. One of the great things about this song and many of Dream Theater’s songs is that oftentimes you’ll have to listen twice to hear if it’s Petrucci playing or Kevin Moore (DT’s keyboard player at the time).

There are soaring lead lines on both guitar and keys, with James Labrie belting out vocals, John Myung playing bass in a spider like fashion all over the fretboard, and Mike Portnoy making other drummers cry at how great he is. Another Day is an example of DT’s ballads, of which they’ve had many over the years. Soulful playing which breaks up their albums in between heavier tracks.

Listen to other setlist staples like Under a Glass Moon and Metropolis, and then the album closer Learning to Live. Many of these tracks are 7-9 minutes or more. Dream Theater progressed with adding longer tracks to their album and released many awesome concept albums (sometimes double discs). I’ve seen Dream Theater a few times live, and I often wonder how Petrucci remembers that many notes per night. If you’re looking to get into prog music, this is a great album to start.

Van Halen - Van Halen - If we’re talking about essential guitar albums, we’ve got to include Van Halen’s self titled debut album. Where would SO many guitar players be if Eddie hadn’t experimented decades ago? In addition to creating a nation of guitarists who learned to tap, Eddie made being a guitar hero cool.

On Van Halen you have Eruption. We could just stop right there, as Eddie made this solo track one of the most popular tracks of all time. But no, outside this minute and a half of guitar awesomeness, you also have about 33 other minutes of great guitar playing, and fun songs.

The thumping bass and behind the nut intro of Runnin’ with the Devil, the instantly recognizable You Really Got Me, the grooving Jamie’s Cryin’, and so much more. Did I mention Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love is also on this album? One of the most played guitar store riffs, and probably also sold a ton of modulation stompboxes too.

One of my favorite tracks on this album is Ice Cream Man, which starts off as a simple, very David Lee Roth-goofy blues and rips right into a cool shuffle with some of the best lead riffs ever. You can’t go wrong when listening to Van Halen (Roth/Hagar battles aside).

What’s your favorite?

I hope you enjoyed reading about some of the most classic guitar albums of all time. These are gems that can be listened to from top to bottom. What’s your favorite? What else would you have put on the list. Let me know. Also, keep an ear out on Anchor, where I’ll talk even more about some of these albums.