We musicians love analyzing our heroes’ gear. We pore over tomes and fan-generated websites dedicated to chronicling the instruments, amps, and effects used by rock’s most celebrated artists—and not just what they used, but the when, where, how, why, and with whom of it, too. In the case of out-and-out icons, a single writer will author multiple full-color volumes inventorying everything from the gear itself on down to minutiae such as cosmetic changes and original purchase receipts. And if the hero’s big enough, the gear knowledge even spills over to the general public: For instance, plenty of everyday folks could tell you Hendrix played a Stratocaster, or that Page blasted through Marshall stacks during Zep’s heyday.
But rather than revisit what’s already been done in that regard, we thought it would be both interesting and enlightening to take a look at the gear of influential rockers from a slightly different vantage point. Instead of talking about stuff like when and why Lennon installed a Bigsby on his ’58 Rickenbacker 325 Capri, or whether Keith Richards’ famous ’53 Tele was used on such-and-such track, we decided it would be telling to take a look at broader patterns in the gear trends within eras and movements. For the sake of simplicity, the most logical route seemed to be breaking it down by decade. And for digestibility and space, we also limited each decade to two guitars, two amps, and, where applicable, a smattering of effects we feel epitomize the era.
Now, before you balk, let’s just get it out of the way that it’s more than painfully obvious to any rational gear nut that, as rock ’n’ roll evolved beyond it’s already-complex 1950s roots, it only got more complicated—and huge. There’s simply no way a couple of 6-strings and amps, or any reasonable sampling of outboard gear, could capture the breadth of aural exploration in any given year, let alone a decade. Yet, as with aerial views of important landmarks or archeological sites, we contend that the exercise is worthwhile for reasons beyond enjoyment, nostalgia, and friendly bickering. While the beginnings and endings (and later resurgences) of movements rarely coincide with the base-10 reset mark in our calendar system, as a society we’ve come to view decades in a set of generalizations that can be just as handy here as they can for discussions about everything from politics to fashion.
As we found when we dug in to compile this list, we’re sure you’ll notice omissions or oversights that perhaps seem egregious, maybe even sacrilegious. As with everything, we welcome your thoughts on the matter (as if we have a choice!). But we also encourage you to keep in mind that what we offer up here is our best shot at a concise record of gear that represents the prime movers and shakers in rock music during the indicated time periods. Given how genres are forever splintering into infinitesimally smaller niches, certainly many players will differ in their view of how far a path can diverge from those blazed by Chuck Berry, Elvis, the Beatles, or Hendrix and still qualify as a sprouting bud on a twig of the rock ’n’ roll family tree. Hopefully the conversations inspired here will open doors and broaden some horizons for you as much as they already have for us.
Click next to start your journey or pick your favorite decade below: