101 Greatest Moments in Guitar History 1979 - 1983

March 14, 2005

The Police - Regatta de BlancU2 - BoySonic YouthFrank ZappaDavid BowieRandy Rhoads Auditions for Ozzy, 1979

“I just started making a few harmonics, and Ozzy said, ‘You’ve got the job.’” That’s how Randy Rhoads recalled his 1979 audition with former Black Sabbath singer Ozzy Osbourne. The fateful meeting would lead to a hugely influential, but all-too-brief career for Rhoads, who set a new standard for rock-guitar chops, theory, and layering. Rhoads sent legions of kids to the woodshed with metronomes to practice classical melodies and modal shredding.

Enter the Tube Screamer, 1979

The Ibanez TS-808 Tube Screamer crossed the sonic barrier that separated amps and distortion pedals—a quality that totally set it apart from the competition in the late 1970s. Coming at a time when transistor distortion was about as hip as a party at your mom’s house, the TS-808, with its warm grind and ability to preserve much of the sound of the guitar and the player made it alright again to be seen in public with a pedal. The TS-808 was more of an overdrive than a high-gain distortion device, something that Stevie Ray Vaughan appreciated enough to make the TS-808 a key element in his grinding Strat tone.

Andy Summers Brings Texture to the Masses, 1979

It wasn’t until the Police released their second album, Reggatta de Blanc, that the age of the textural guitarist dawned with Andy Summer’s combination of impressionistic chord voicings, spacey chorus and delay, and, most importantly, a sublime usage of space. The track “Walking on the Moon” made everyone realize there was more to the guitar than simple designations of rhythm and lead playing.

Tascam Unveils the Portastudio, 1979

Although things really started to explode when Alesis debuted its ADAT digital multitrack, the home-recording boom started with Tascam’s cassette workstation, the Teac 144 Portastudio. Originally priced at $1,100, the Portastudio offered a 4-track recorder and a mixer in a package that could easily be moved from bedroom to rehearsal space to gig, and it put a simple multitrack solution in the hands of the masses for the first time. A little more than 20 years later, the power is with the people, as big commercial studios have pretty much gone the way of the Triceratops.

Paul Reed Smith Builds the Golden Eagle, 1980

Paul Reed Smith had already built some fine guitars for some great players when he took some curly maple off a dresser and used it for the top of a guitar he eventually sold to Howard Leese. Although the headstock shape would change on future models, the flame top and the bird inlays became synonymous with PRS guitars—as did Smith’s obsession with quality construction. The unparalleled excellence of PRS models seemed to prompt a few other guitar companies to reassess their quality control, and, whether the nod truly goes to Smith or not, many guitars did start to look, feel, and play better after PRS showed guitarists how critical they should be about their instruments.

Boy Released, 1980

If anyone didn’t know the ’70s were over, the first guitar chord that The Edge hit on U2’s debut drove the point home. Suddenly, there was a new approach to playing guitar that featured ringing Vox AC30 tones, timed delays, and simple single-note hooks that you couldn’t get out of your head. Boy also revitalized the notions of passion and commitment, amplified the voice of youth, and popularized ambient recording techniques.

Sonic Youth Forms, 1981

Sonic Youth didn’t invent noise anymore than Ben Franklin invented electricity. But in Franklin-esque fashion, Lee Ranaldo, Kim Gordon, and Thurston Moore did harness powerful walls of guitar-driven noise and teach the world “how not to play the guitar.” Outrageous tunings, wailing feedback, and assaulting white noise made for mesmerizing compositions that have influenced damn near every indie band for more than 20 years.

Shut Up ’N Play Yer Guitar Released, 1981

Frank Zappa had a passion for the guitar, and nothing showed that passion more than the release of a three-album set that contained nothing but guitar solos. And, just in case you wanted to study the polyrhythmic depravity and sheer beauty of Zappa’s playing in more detail, The Frank Zappa Guitar Book, a collection of solo transcriptions by Steve Vai, was released in tandem with Shut Up. Culled mostly from his 1979-80 tours, many of Shut Up’s solos are taken from different versions of the same song (“Inca Roads,” for example). It’s almost as if Zappa is schooling the listener, showing them how different each of his improvisations could be night after night.

MTV Debuts, 1981

The dawn of the first all-music TV channel on August 1, 1981 spelled good news for the guitar, beaming the 6-string work of Billy Gibbons, Mark Knopfler, Van Halen, Steve Vai, and the whole ’80s shred movement into millions of households. A decade later, the channel’s Unplugged series kick-started the acoustic-music craze of the ’90s.

Floyd Rose Introduces Locking Tremolo, 1982

Jimi Hendrix, Ritchie Blackmore, and Uli Jon Roth had already done masterful work with stock Fender whammy bars, but, in 1977, when Floyd Rose tried to solve the tuning problems associated with extreme trem work by clamping the strings down at the bridge and the nut, the most revolutionary piece of hardware in many years was born. Rose swung a deal with Kramer guitars—and their star player Eddie Van Halen—at the 1982 Summer NAMM Show, and the locking whammy was ready for prime time. “It was one of those moments,” says Rose, “where the invention, the endorser, and the popular music style all came together at once, and I was along for the ride.”

Tom Scholz Invents the Rockman, 1982

The Walkman-sized Rockman X100 allowed anyone to slap on some headphones and rock out with the same ragingly distorted, chorused, and compressed tones heard on Boston albums—in stereo no less. Invented by Boston guitarist Tom Scholz (an M.I.T. graduate who had also worked for Polaroid), the X100—which could also be used as a preamp—made everyone suddenly go bananas over the power of multi-effects, spend way too much money building gargantuan racks full of processors, and probably never quite attain the magic that the X100 delivered so effortlessly.

SRV Gives the Blues to David Bowie, 1983

“Today, it’s totally accepted to have a blues element on any kind of record,” said Nile Rodgers, producer of David Bowie’s 1983 smash, Let’s Dance. “But in 1983, no one was claiming to be a blues fan!” That’s how bold it was for Bowie to bring in an unknown guitarist from Texas named Stevie Ray Vaughan to play on his record. The results kicked Bowie, Rodgers, the blues, and the public squarely in the ass.

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