As anyone who’s ever played music knows, each and every instrument has its own personality. Any given guitar, for example, is typically as loaded with quirks, tics, special abilities, hot points, and slowly revealed secrets as any actually human member of the band.
That’s why so many players develop bona fide relationships with their favorite instruments, to the point that they give them names.
In the case of rock’s highest pantheon of iconic talents, guitar gods regard their go-to axes not so much as extensions of themselves as they do full-fledged partners in each musical adventure.
Many fans can recognize a shred star’s signature guitar on site. Here are the names of ten of the most famous wailing devices in all of rock.
Guitar: “The Grail”
Zakk Wilde’s hypnotic 1981 Gibson Les Paul Custom is usually, and understandably, referred to as “Bullseye,” but, in fact, its proper moniker is “The Grail.”
“I wrote “Miracle Man” on that, my first Ozzy song” Zakk says. “It’s just an amazing guitar. I got her when I first got the gig with Ozzy. Scott Quinn, a buddy of mine who ran Garden State Music at the time, was a huge John McLaughlin fan and he said, ‘Zakk, I’ll trade you this guitar if you could talk to Gibson and get me a black double-neck.’ I got him the black double-neck and I got The Grail.”
As for the famous bullseye pattern, Zakk reveals: “I don’t job yet when we were recording. When we were getting ready to do some photo shoots, I was like, ‘Dude, I can’t have a clean Les Paul. It’s Randy’s [Rhoads] signature thing.’ I asked for the Hitchcock vertigo design. but it came back with the bullseye on it. I had to do the photo shoot the next day so I was like, ‘F—k it!’”
Guitar: “Ol’ 5-Neck”
The barnstorming, power-pop-meets-monster-rock wizardry of Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen always surged too huge to be contained by any single standard-issue instrument.
Hence: the birth of “Ol’ 5 Neck,” Tricky Rick’s hilariously over-the-top mutant Hamer that, once he starts wailing on it, is impossible to not take seriously.
Rick debuted his first orange Hamer five-necker in 1981. A couple of years later, he designed a checkerboard model with banjo-style tuning pegs that’s become his “Ol’ F Neck” of choice.
B. B. King
B.B. King owned more than “Lucille” in his brilliantly pioneering lifetime, but the best known (and best loved) version was a custom black Gibson ES-355 complete with its famous name emblazoned on the headstock.
Lucille’s origin story is one of music’s mightiest legends. Back in 1949, B.B. was playing in a rough-and-tumble barroom where a couple of patrons got into a fistfight over a particular lady. Their donnybrook knocked over a kerosene heater, sending the whole place up in flames.
B.B. initially fled the stage, then realized he’d left his favorite guitar behind. Naturally, he rushed into the blaze to save it. Afterward, he named the guitar after the woman who got those guys so heated up in the first place: Lucille.
Stevie Ray Vaughan
Guitar: “Number One” aka “First Wife”
In his too short time amongst us, Stevie Ray Vaughn unleashed blues-rock that was beautiful, inspiring, and spiritual while also palpably flowing from somewhere deep that was bruised, battered, battle-worn, and had been through the mill, only to continually flare up in triumph.
Stevie Ray’s beloved 1973 sunburst Stratocaster “Number One” aka “First Wife,” then, looked exactly like his one-of-a-kind music sounded.
Guitar: “The Duck”
Yngwie Malmsteen picked up his ’71 Stratocaster “The Duck” at a music shop in his native Sweden back in 1978 when the mammoth metal maestro was still a mere prodigy of 15.
The mighty metal maestro has brandished The Duck in numerous photos throughout his career, even wielding it on album covers. Initially, the famously cream-colored Duck gleamed Olympic White, but the veteran beast has undergone numerous adjustments through the years, including, obviously, a paint job.
Among The Duck’s other refurbishments are new frets that became necessary after an idiot at a show launched a bottle and scored a direct hit. The guitar has undergone at least six major neck changes, as well, due to Yngwie enthusiastically tossing The Duck skyward and perhaps forgetting that it can’t actually fly on its own.
Guitar: “Red Special” aka “Fireplace,” “Old Lady”
Brian May’s guitar playing is so monumental and unique, and the instrument he designed and built—with his father Harold!—to be able to perfectly channel his genius into the music of Queen is so extraordinary that, in 2014, he wrote a book about it: Brian May’s Red Special: The Story of the Home-Made Guitar that Rocked Queen and the World.
Brian and Harold first constructed Red Special in 1963 out of wood taken from an old fireplace mantel (thus prompting its other nickname, “Fireplace”).
In keeping with Brian’s music, Red Special is intricately complex and idiosyncratic while also being a model of exquisitely direct and effective delivery. For example, Red Special appears to be solid bodied but is actually semi-acoustic, and it boasts on/off switches for each of its three pickups.
The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards inspired countless millions to choose Fender Telecasters as their first guitar. Fewer followed his mad genius decision to remove the sixth string and play in an open G tuning.
Absolutely no one, of course, has been able to look and/or sound as cool as Keef when he’s in a deep groove on his butterscotch-yellow 1953 Telecaster Blonde Telecaster known as “Micawber.”
Micawber is named for a character in David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. He’s a struggling debtor (employed by a corrupt boss named Uriah Heep!) who dresses sharp in a top hat and monocle, and ultimately turns his fate around to become a lordly magistrate of the ruling elite.
Could even Dickens himself authored a more perfect metaphor for Keith and his beloved guitar?
Guitar: “The Old Boy”
Tony Iommi first conjured the bottomless-pit darkness and towering power of Black Sabbath’s unmistakable sound by way of a gloriously unholy cabal with his Jaydee Custom SG, “Old Boy.”
Master axe craftsman John Diggins constructed Old Boy in a hurry on his kitchen table. The guitar’s maroon-ish paint job didn’t have time to set before Iommi picked up the instrument and invented heavy metal. That’s where the devilish color comes from.
Later on, Old Boy sat inside a parked car on a scorching hot day, and its finish bubbled up into the scarred, scary, hell-spawned look that has beguiled the entire universe of metal devotees ever since.
Taking a cue from no less a compelling influence than Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton quit playing Gibsons in 1970 and switched to Fender Stratocasters.
Slow Hand used his first Strat, deemed “Brownie” for its color, on two incredible efforts that first year alone, his self-titled solo LP and Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Other Love Songs.
The fact that “Blackie” superseded Brownie in both fame and becoming Clapton’s go-to favorite guitar speaks volumes about this extraordinary instrument.
Clapton purchased Blackie at Nashville’s Sho-Bud guitar store in 1970—but not all at once. While at the stop, Eric bought six 1950s-era Strats. He gave one each to his friends George Harrison, Pete Townshend, and Steve Winwood.
The remaining three, Clapton took to legendary local luthier Ted Newman, who pulled apart the best pieces of each individual guitar and intricately constructed them into one perfect being. After adding pitch-dark finish, Blackie emerged to rock the world.
Eddie Van Halen
It’s likely that no single guitar in all of rock is more famous than Eddie Van Halen’s “FrankenStrat.” It’s indisputable that no single guitar has, or could, ever possibly kicked more keister on every conceivable level.
Eddie himself took on the mad scientist role in the creation of his signature monster. His goal was to imbue a stylish Fender Stratocaster body with the sonic boom power of a Gibson.
Combining pieces of instruments from each of rock’s two ruling guitar manufacturers, Eddie invented FrankenStrat’s immediately eye-popping “criss-cross” look by painting it multiple times with tape laid on the body, which would then be removed to reveal the colors underneath.
EVH also added a Gibson decal to the Strat’s headstock to demonstrate how profoundly FrankenStrat embodied the very best and most ferociously rocking of both brands.
Once he played FrankenStrat, of course, it clearly belonged to just one brand: absolutely Eddie Van Halen.