Rock guitar history is pretty much synonymous with rock music itself. And rock and roll is a pretty amazing hybrid of country, R&B, gospel, and blues. Early rock players include such celebrated guitarists as Chuck Berry, Link Wray, and Scotty Moore, who themselves were influenced by greats as Muddy Watters and Chet Atkins.
If any decade saw a drastic change in the sounds of rock guitar, it's easily the 1960s. The decade began with the crisp sounds of clean electric guitars powered by Fender amps and ended with the overdriven sound of Marshall amps fed by fuzz pedals and Stratocasters.
The 60s itself was a time of great change in the Western world itself. The music reflected this coming of age. The clean, crisp sounds of performers like The Beach Boys and Dick Dale are eventually replaced by the overdriven sounds of Cream, The Kinks, and Jimi Hendrix. The "guitar hero" became an ever-present reality. Rock guitar history would never be the same.
With Jimi Hendrix proving the "opening act," the 1970s proved to be an even greater time of experimentation. The 60s saw the beginning of distorted guitar sounds as well as effects pedals, and these technologies were developed even further in the 70s and used by a variety of players.
This decade saw the rise of supergroups such as Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, and Van Halen. Players who had made their mark in the 60s such as Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck continued to innovate and produce great music, but it was young Eddie Van Halen whose guitar pyrotechnics would forever redefine the role of the guitar in rock music and who provided a segue into the guitar-driven music of the 1980s.
With Eddie Van Halen's guitar pyrotechnics coming at the end of the 1970s, the stage was set for a new generation of guitarists. While the 1980s saw the rise of synthesizer-oriented music, it was also the decade where guitar technique and sounds were both taken to new heights. The technique and tone that Van Halen gave the world in solos like "Eruption" inspired players to mimic their new hero. Two-handed tapping became standard fare for many guitarists, as did over-the-top distortion and vibrato bar antics.
Other rock guitar heroes emerged during this era as well, some who would forever redefine the instrument and rock guitar history itself. Joe Satriani and his one-time student Steve Vai came to prominence during the 80s as did neoclassical shredder Yngwie Malmsteen. While Eddie set the tone for rock guitar in the early 80s, Malmsteen took it even further inspiring even more guitarists (if not clones) with his speedy arpeggios and classically-inspired licks.
Guitar gear itself went to new levels in the 1980s. In order to keep up with the amount of gain and distortion that guitarists demanded, amp makers such as Mesa Boogie, Carvin, and Soldano met the need with high gain amplifiers. Taking cues from studio players such as Dann Huff and Steve Lukather, guitar effects designers fed the need for rack gear as opposed to individual effects pedals. It goes without saying that there was no shortage of guitars with pointed headstocks either. :)
Trends come and go, including musical trends. While shred guitar with two-handed tapping, sweep arpeggios, and harmonic-minor runs ruled the 80s, eventually there was destined to be a backlash. Enter Grunge and the Seattle scene. While guitar solos were still common in 90s Grunge and Alternative Rock, they were hardly the focus as they were in the 80s. The focus was less on mind-blowing technique and more on attitude. With the exception of Metallica and a few other bands, heavy metal had become passé.
The 2000s were a fairly eclectic period in rock guitar history. While riff-based music still ruled heavily over extended solos, players such as Steve Vai and Joe Satriani increased their fan base through the G3 tour and an appreciation of their musicianship. Eclectic players like Jack Black emerged during this time, demonstrating the value of minimalism over soaring technical solos. Groups like Green Day and Nickelback ruled the charts, again with an emphasis more on memorable riffs than technical perfection.
From Chuck Berry to Steve Vai, rock guitar has a pretty amazing history in a relatively brief time. If you'd like to add to the conversation, please feel free to add a comment below. I'd love to hear from you!