How to Play Classic Rock Guitar

Developing out of styles like rock and roll, blues rock, and hard rock, classic rock remains one of the most enduring and popular genres for guitar players around the world. Many of the most famous guitarists in history, like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and George Harrison are all classic rockers.

Learning to play classic rock encompasses both famous songs and important techniques for rhythm and soloing. This guide contains everything you need to know to get started playing classic rock!

The sound of the Gibson Les Paul characterizes much of classic rock.

Characteristics of Classic Rock Guitar

At its heart, the term “classic rock” refers to a pantheon of established rock players, songs, and techniques. The label encompasses more blues-focused styles along with some elements of pop, country, and hard rock — meaning many players with different playing styles may fall under the same “classic rock” umbrella.

Though many classic rock guitarists employ different sounds, a few particular characteristics are shared by the vast majority of classic rock players.

Classic rock songs generally employ a traditional verse-chorus-verse structure, sometimes with one bridge towards the end of the song. Despite the genre’s blues heritage, the vast majority of classic rock songs don’t follow a traditional 12-bar blues structure.

Guitar solos are standard for classic rockers. Solos generally occur in the middle to end of a song, and may range from 30 seconds to over a minute in length; classic rock generally eschews the longer, involved improvisations in blues, psychedelic, and progressive rock. Some classic rock bands, like The Grateful Dead and Phish, specialize in an improvisation-centered subgenre called “jam rock.”

Most classic rock players employ a distinctive overdriven lead guitar sound, with a slightly cleaner tone for the rhythm guitar. Unlike heavy metal and alternative rock, which generally use pedals (especially multiple stacked units) for their distortion, it’s more common in classic rock to obtain overdrive by simply cranking a tube amp. The overall drive levels are also lower than more aggressive styles — the moderate overdrive sound has even become known as the “classic rock crunch.”

Classic rock is also credited with creating a strict division between lead and rhythm guitar players. Though some famous classic rockers — Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton spring to mind — rose to fame playing in power trios as the only guitarist, the vast majority of classic rock bands employ both a rhythm and lead guitarist.

The rhythm guitarist in any classic rock band must hold down a straightforward groove without too many embellishments. Lead guitarists, meanwhile, provide solo licks in between the vocal melody and take any solos on a track. Though lead guitarists tend to be more popular , both jobs are crucial for any classic rock band, and are both essential for any aspiring player to learn.

Statues of the Beatles in their hometown of Liverpool, England. Lead guitarist George Harrison is among the most famous classic rock guitar players of all time.

Famous Classic Rock Guitar Players

Arguably one of the first (and most famous) classic rock guitar players, Eric Clapton’s career began as a member of The Yardbirds, a British blues rock outfit that acted as a sort of talent incubator for other future stars — besides Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page were also guitarists for the group. After a tenure with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and three years helming the psychedelic blues power trio Cream, Clapton struck out on a solo career that has produced hits like “I Shot The Sheriff,” “Cocaine,” and “Wonderful Tonight.”

Clapton’s country blues playing and supreme feel have made him a legend in the classic rock guitar world. His pentatonic soloing techniques, including silky bends and expressive slides, are some of the most emulated trademarks around.

A contemporary of The Rolling Stones at the end of the 1960s, The Beatles’ George Harrison was one of the most melodic guitarists in classic rock. His clean, simple playing style always centered around the melody without introducing any unnecessary frills — many guitarists remarked that Harrison “never hit a wrong note.” He was also a virtuosic songwriter, penning hits like “Something,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” (featuring an incredible guitar solo by Eric Clapton) and “Here Comes The Sun.”

If there’s one player more hallowed than Clapton, though, it’s most likely Jimi Hendrix. In contrast with Clapton’s five-decade career, Hendrix only recorded for four years before his untimely death in 1970. However, Hendrix’s innovative use of effects like distortion and wah and frenetic playing style placed him at the forefront of the psychedelic rock scene in the late 1960s. He’s remembered even today for his mastery of the major pentatonic scale and distinctive double-stop blues licks.

Emerging initially as another psychedelic outfit but going on to become some of the most famed musicians in classic rock, British band Pink Floyd were one of the biggest bands of the 1970s. Their success was fueled by lead guitarist David Gilmour, known particularly for his innovative use of pentatonic and blues scales over non-blues chord progressions. Gilmour is also highly regarded for his sweeping, soaring bends and smooth playing feel. His solos on tracks like “Time” and “Comfortably Numb” are among the most famous in classic rock.

Though they began as a blues band in the early 1960s, The Rolling Stones have an almost unparalleled resume in the classic rock world. Rhythm guitarist Keith Richards is as famous for his rock-solid timekeeping and funky syncopated playing as he is for his legendary lifestyle off the stage. The Stones have also employed some exceptional lead guitarists over the years, with Mick Taylor’s five-year tenure in the band being a particular highlight.

Taking the torch from blues and classic rock artists and injecting the genre with a hard rock swagger, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page was one of the most influential and revered classic rock guitarists of the 1970s. Page’s shredding skills pushed the genre in new directions, while he maintained the traditional pentatonic vocabulary of earlier blues styles. His high-octane solos on tunes like “Heartbreaker” and “Stairway To Heaven” are enshrined in classic rock lore.

The Eagles became the biggest rock band in the world for the second half of the ‘70s with their trademark blend of country rhythm, pop vocal harmonies, and rock guitars. Don Felder and Joe Walsh, the band’s twin lead guitarists, may best be remembered for their three-minute shared solo on “Hotel California” — but their work on tracks like “Life In The Fast Lane” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling” was just as inspirational for generations of new players. Their country flavor would remain a significant influence on the classic rock scene for years.

Larry Carlton’s work with Steely Dan in the late 1970s added a jazzy, melodic edge to classic rock. He’s best known for his solos on tracks like “Kid Charlemagne” and “Don’t Take Me Alive” as well as his liberal use of jazz chord voicings and fusion of modal and bluesy pentatonic soloing techniques.

Bringing the genre back to its bluesier roots, Mark Knopfler became one of the preeminent guitar players of the 1970s and ‘80s while fronting Dire Straits. His distinctive smooth tone, achieved by fingerpicking all his songs, and rich, melodic vibrato created a signature style unlike any other in rock.

Classic rock is closely related to earlier rock styles, and draws many of its chords from blues and country.

Chords and Melody

Classic rock draws heavily from its blues and country heritage for chord structures and melodies. Twelve-bar blues patterns aren’t particularly common, but the I-IV-V chords that dominate the blues are found in a plethora of different classic rock songs.

Before moving to playing different chord progressions, it’s a good idea to work on playing the 12-bar blues structure. Because the I, IV, and V chords are all so prominent it’s important that you can change between them comfortably and recognize melodies over the basic chords.

The most typical classic rock chord progression in major keys involves the I, IV, V, and iv chords. So many songs use just these four chords (particularly in the key of C major) that they’ve become something of a parody — check out Australian comedy rock band the Axis of Awesome’s medley of over 50 different songs using the exact same progression.

Though the chords can sound hackneyed if used poorly, there’s a reason one progression has become so incredibly popular: it sounds good. If you’re beginning to play classic rock guitar or want to write classic rock songs, these are the first four chord shapes you should learn. Practice the progression in different keys and different orders, moving each chord to a different place in the sequence. Below are a few common voicings for a I-IV-vi-V progression in C major for you to work on.

These voicings provide easy ways to play a I-IV-vi-V progression in the key of C major.

Taking the I-IV-iv-V progression and moving it to a minor key, we create the i-VI-III-VII progression. Like the I-IV-V-vi sequence, the four chords in a i-VI-III-VII can be moved in any order through the progression, and form the basis to some other famous pop and classic rock songs throughout different eras. This is another good progression to learn backwards and forwards in all the different possible sequences.

Melodies in classic rock are generally grounded in the pentatonic scale. It’s also common to have pentatonic guitar lines interspersed with the main vocal melody — in some songs, like Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight,” the instrumental hook is catchier than the melody itself.

The heavy pentatonic focus makes it easy for guitarists to pick up new classic rock songs. As you play through new songs, trace the vocal melody on the fretboard to help determine the key and chords of the tune. Knowing the vocal melody on the guitar can also come in handy if you decide to rephrase it or restate it during a solo.

Classic Rock Chords & Melodies

  • Chord progressions reminiscent of blues and country
  • Practice I-IV-V-vi and i-III-VI-VII progressions in all sequences
  • Work barre chords into your playing
  • Transcribe pentatonic vocal melodies onto the fretboard to determine song key and chords

Classic rock makes use of 4/4 time with syncopated, complex rhythm.

Rhythm

Classic rock is overwhelmingly played in a straight 4/4 time. Many rhythm guitarists will simply emphasize the changes without much embellishment, while others take a more active role in shaping the groove of a particular song.

Out of all rhythm players, Keith Richards is particularly renowned for his syncopation and time feel. The Rolling Stones’ records feature an exceptional number of syncopated introductions — songs where the guitar plays a riff unaccompanied (generally a riff that doesn’t begin on the first beat of a measure) and the rhythm section enters after a bar or two.

One of Richards’ most famous syncopated starts may be on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” off the Stones’ 1970 album Sticky Fingers. Listen to the guitar’s solo introduction and notice how the riff, which starts on the “and” of the first beat in the measure, can throw many listeners off of the song’s true timing.

Richards’ rhythm patterns are more complex than most in the classic rock world — but his rock-solid grasp of time and ability to lock in perfectly with a drummer and bassist are qualities any potential classic rock guitarist should aspire to.

If you’re not at Richards’ level yet, practice your strumming and timekeeping without the benefit of a rhythm section to accompany you. Once you feel confident in your skills, play along to a backing track or recording of the song you’re playing.

To pick up new ideas for strumming patterns, simply listen to your favorite artists and pick up ideas from their songs. You’ll find that many classic rock songs use the same core strumming techniques found in blues, country, and folk; as you improve you’ll learn to spice up these patterns with embellishments to create a more distinctive rhythm guitar part.

Classic Rock Rhythm Tips

  • Generally played in straight 4/4 time
  • Start by laying down a basic groove on the four beats
  • Listen to famous rhythm guitarists like Keith Richards
  • Syncopate your rhythm part for a more stylish, groovy feel

Classic rock guitar solos revolve around pentatonic and blues scales.

Solos

Classic rock solos build on the pentatonic and blues scale vocabulary found in electric blues and early rock and roll while incorporating some more advanced, high-speed modal techniques. The wide variety of different guitar styles contained in classic rock  makes this a great genre for beginners to learn — there’s plenty of simpler material that newer players can easily pick up, but also more complex solos to satisfy advanced guitarists.

Solos in classic rock also occupy a different space than their cousins in blues and metal — most rock solos are wedged into larger songs and tend to last for a minute or less. Though some players stretch out their improvisation when playing live, it’s more important for classic rock guitarists to know how to deliver a concise, fundamentally solid solo in one minute than a mind-blowing five minute improvisational journey.

With that goal in mind, the minor pentatonic and blues scales are the first scales for any classic rock guitarist to learn. These two patterns contain a plethora of licks with more than enough variety to create lots of unique solos. Players as disparate as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Mark Knopfler have all built their careers playing nearly exclusively within these scale forms.

Check out the example above of a vintage classic rock pentatonic lick. Taken from Eric Clapton’s 1970 hit “Let it Rain,” it incorporates both interplay between different notes of the blues scale and broad, repeated bends high on the neck.This is a good lick to study closely; you’ll find that you’ll be able to identify very similar riffs in other songs by ear.

Though this song doesn’t follow a 12-bar blues pattern, it revolves around the interplay between the I and IV chords — two of the most common chords found in rock music. This straightforward structure allows Clapton to use the pentatonic scale over the whole form in the instrumental.

Jimmy Page’s solo in Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” offers an example of a more complex interpretation of blues vocabulary. While it features wide bends and the traditional emphasis on high notes, Page’s breakneck runs through the minor pentatonic while low on the neck create a more offbeat triplet-influenced feel. As you listen, note how many chromatic notes he plays around the pentatonic scale — these unusual notes can engage the listener more than notes within the standard pentatonic box and fuel Page’s fast runs up and down.

Other guitarists also used the minor pentatonic, but to create a completely different emotion. Mark Knopfler’s solos stand out in this category for their smooth vibe and melancholy feel. By avoiding many of the hackneyed bending cliches and landing his licks on less commonly used notes he avoids evoking the styles of other blues-rock players entirely.

Listen to Knopfler’s solo on the Dire Straits track “Six Blade Knife” for a great example of his subdued, laid-back playing style. The song is built around a simple Am-C-D progression; the ascending pattern allows Knopfler to use the A minor pentatonic scale throughout his solo. Pay special attention to his timing — Knopfler is known for starting and ending his licks on more uncommon spaces within each measure. His supreme time feel and melodic instincts allow him to create more unique licks by playing in less conventional spaces.

Some other scales commonly used by classic rock guitarists include the major pentatonic scale and Dorian and Mixolydian modes.

Jimi Hendrix is widely accepted as the master of the major pentatonic scale — he incorporated the sound on many of his songs, most famously “Little Wing.”

Hendrix’s introduction to the track, laden as it is with double-stops, is definitely a challenging piece to play even for advanced guitarists. As you listen, simply note the overall brighter, “grounded” feel to his improvisation. Classic rock guitarists often deploy the major pentatonic scale for this more upbeat, slinky feel in relation to its minor pentatonic cousin.

Modal soloing may sound like a technique exclusive to jazz, but certain modes do pop up often in many classic rock songs. The two most common, Mixolydian and Dorian, are closely related to the major and natural minor scales respectively.

The Mixolydian mode is the fifth mode of the major scale; it’s essentially the major scale itself with a flatted seventh note. This note creates a slightly bluesier feeling for solos than the regular major scale, and has made Mixolydian one of the most popular modes for classic rock compositions. Hits like The Allman Brothers Band’s “Ramblin’ Man,” Them’s “Gloria,” and Guns ‘N Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine” are all written in the Mixolydian mode.

Dorian, meanwhile, is the second mode of the major scale. It’s a diatonic scale, following the pattern of white keys from D to D on the piano. Dorian is very similar to the natural minor scale, except with the substitution of a major sixth note; when played in solos or chord progressions it creates a feeling similar to the natural minor scale but with a more hopeful, brighter aspect thanks to the raised sixth. A great example: Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall” is written in the Dorian mode.

Classic Rock Soloing Tips

  • Learn the minor pentatonic/blues scale cold
  • Incorporate major pentatonic licks for a brighter sound
  • Mixolydian mode is most common for major keys
  • Dorian mode works great in minor keys

A row of Fender Stratocasters. 

Classic Rock Guitar Models

Throughout the history of rock, two guitars have won more praise and accumulated more famous players than any others: the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul.

The Stratocaster, released in 1954, was among the first generation of solid-body electric guitars to come to market. While it initially found favor with early rock and rollers like Buddy Holly, its versatile complement of three single-coil pickups proved just as popular with the growing classic rock generation.

Legends like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Mark Knopfler, David Gilmour, and Jeff Beck have all fashioned their legacies while playing Stratocasters. The Strat excels at focused and snappy clean tones and responds to overdrive with a rich, harmonic-laden breakup sound. When set to split two of its pickups, it also delivers a unique “quacking” tone that sounds great over bluesy, bend-heavy progressions.

The Les Paul, meanwhile, found favor with guitarists playing harder rock and using heavier distortion. Its pair of humbucking pickups can handle higher overdrive and delivers a thicker, bassier clean tone. The wide neck (occasionally compared to a baseball bat on some models!) also provides more leverage for wide bends and vibrato.

Jimmy Page, Mick Taylor, and Slash are some of the most famous Les Paul Players. Other artists, like Knopfler and George Harrison, would also bring out a Les Paul on certain songs that required a crunchy, saturated sound — Knopfler recorded “Money For Nothing” on a Les Paul, while George Harrison laid down his fantastic solos on “The End” with his beloved “Lucy” Les Paul.

But though the Stratocaster and LP may be the most popular classic rock guitars, other models have also contributed to the genre’s rich history. The Gibson ES-335, a semi-hollow model equipped with humbuckers, is great for guitarists looking for a warmer, fuller acoustic tone from their electric. Larry Carlton is the most dedicated 335 acolyte, though Eric Clapton also used a cherry red model with Cream. It’s that open, full-bodied tone heard on “Crossroads,” often considered the greatest guitar solo of all time.

The Gibson SG, another solid-body model, also excels at even heavier distortion than the Les Paul. Beyond classic rock artists like George Harrison, Carlos Santana, Jimmy Page (albeit in double-necked form) and Eric Clapton, the SG has also found favor with hard rock players like AC/DC’s Angus Young and metal guitarists like Black Sabbath’s Tommy Iommi.

Common Classic Rock Guitars

  • Fender Stratocaster
  • Gibson Les Paul
  • Gibson ES-335
  • Gibson SG

Marshall amplifiers are the most popular amps for classic rock guitarists.

Tones and Effects

While some classic rock guitarists are fond of certain effects pedals, many players create their tones with just a guitar and an amp. With such a heavy reliance on their amp for overdrive and crunch, classic rock players prefer responsive tube amps with smooth, measured breakup and a rich saturated sound when driven.

A few different amplifier manufacturers offer these characteristics, but perhaps none are as renowned as Marshall. The British company’s models have powered some of the most iconic players around. The 1959 Super Lead Plexi may be Marshall’s most famous amplifier.

Played by Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and legions of others, the ‘59 Super Lead revolutionized overdrive in hard rock and offered plenty of volume for even the largest arenas — the ‘59 Super Lead, in tandem with Marshall 4×12 cabinets, practically created the classic image of the “Marshall stack” of amplifiers.

Marshall’s JCM800 head gained similar popularity to the ‘59 Super Lead in the 1980s for its cutting, potent distorted sound. 

And while it channels many of the same tones as its predecessor, it also features a master volume knob — critical for players who can’t afford to turn their amp all the way up to 11 for the trademark crunch.

Fender amplifiers are also popular with classic rock guitarists, especially those with a heavier emphasis on blues. The warmer, smoother American voicing offers superior cleans to Marshall and other British-voiced amps. The scooped mid sound signature of Fender amps also makes them a better fit for guitarists looking to emphasize bass frequencies without a thick, sludgy midrange crowding their mix. Eric Clapton often uses Fender’s Blues Deluxe 40W combo for its clean and edge-of-breakup tones when touring.

Finally, some classic rock guitarists prefer the chiming, brilliant top-end of brighter British amps like the Vox AC30.

After being used extensively by British invasion acts like The Beatles, Vox amps fell out of favor for many rockers during the 1970s. Queen’s Brian May reignited interest in the amps; while in Queen he used Vox AC30s nearly exclusively for their shimmering clean tones and famously creamy, rich saturated overdrive.

Though some players avoid pedals for their classic rock rig, a few stompboxes can be a great addition to any setup. A wah pedal is absolutely essential to emulate any Hendrix-style psychedelic tones. The cocked-wah “filter” effect adds a new dimension to your playing when always left on, while manipulating the pedal during a solo or rhythm part can drastically alter your base tone. The Dunlop Cry Baby Wah is one of the original and most popular wah models around.

In a similar vein, other classic rock guitarists like to use a Leslie speaker emulator to enhance their tone. The original rotating speaker cabinet, designed originally for Hammond organ but appropriated for guitar, fed a player’s dry signal through a speaker that literally rotated in circles to alter the sound. Found on many records from the late 1960s, particularly The Beatles’ “Let It Be” and “Something,” the soft spinning effect gives your playing an underwater, bubbly feel.

Popular Amps and Effects

  • Marshall amplifiers (1959 Super Lead)
  • Fender amplifiers, especially tweed models
  • Dunlop Cry Baby wah pedal
  • Leslie speaker emulator pedal

Eric Clapton famously played a Gibson ES-335 like this one on Cream’s “Crossroads.”

Summary

Classic rock may be one of the most nebulous genres in music. But despite the confusion in some circles over which performers qualify as classic rockers, there’s no debate that classic rock is one of the most popular genres of music in the guitar world.

Classic rock is a fantastic genre for beginners to play; its ide breadth of artists and substyles means there are always songs for players to learn, no matter their current skill level.

As you play classic rock, focus on the rhythm and feel at first, then extend to soloing and more advanced accompaniment parts. Make sure to stay grounded in blues, country, and early rock and roll; listening to those genres along with your favorite classic rockers will bring a new edge and more unique style to your classic rock playing.

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