33 Famous Guitarists: Their First Guitar & How They Learned to Play

33 Famous Guitarists: Their First Guitar & How They Learned to Play
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Updated June 2021

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When you’re first starting out as a musician, the most important thing is to not get discouraged with your progress. Every musician started right where you are now, and they achieved mastery of their instrument through years of practice. And you know what? You can do the exact same thing!

Don’t believe me? Well, why don’t you read up on how some of the most famous musicians in the world got their start? What you find may surprise you!

Also, we’re going to add in the first song each musician on this learned when we can manage to find it. It’s not brought up all that often, but the choices that these musicians and/or their teachers made can be really interesting. However, if you can track down (and cite!) any of the first songs learned by the musicians on this list let us know and we’ll add them in!

Brian May

Brian May

A heartwarming story, Brian May actually built his first electric guitar (which he would go on to use with Queen) with his dad. It was intentionally designed to allow feedback after May was inspired by the playing of Jeff Beck. He also received a Spanish style acoustic guitar as a birthday present, though he quickly wanted to move on to an instrument more suited towards the type of music he wanted to play.

  • First Guitar: Spanish-style guitar of unknown origin.
  • First Band: 1984
  • How He Learned: Self taught, though he did take formal music lessons in his youth.
  • First Song: Unknown
Kurt Cobain

Kurt Cobain

Kurt Cobain received his first guitar as a 14th birthday present from an uncle. In his words: “As soon as I got my guitar, I just became so obsessed with it.” Unfortunately, even Cobain himself couldn’t recall the exact model of the guitar he started on.

  • First Guitar: Unknown electric, though likely a Harmony or Sears budget model.
  • First Band: Fecal Matter
  • How He Learned: Approximately one month’s worth of guitar lessons.
  • First Song: Back In Black by AC/DC
Ed Sheeran

Ed Sheeran

Though he hasn’t spoken much on his first guitar, Ed Sheeran has largely been playing Martin acoustics since his mid-teens. Sheeran has stated that he started recording music in 2005, and even moved to London in 2008 to pursue his career.

  • First Guitar: Unknown model that was a gift from his uncle.
  • First Band: Unknown, though he’s had a long friendship with a fellow U.K. musician “Passenger”.
  • How He Learned: Unknown, but he reportedly started singing in his local church choir at the age of four.
  • First Song: Layla by Eric Clapton
John Mayer

John Mayer

Like any other Blues guitar player, John Mayer was heavily inspired by Stevie Ray Vaughan. In fact, his first electric guitar was actually a used 1996 SRV Stratocaster that he purchased using the money he earned from working in a local gas station.

  • First Guitar: While his first guitar is unknown, he had both a 12-string Takamine as well as an SRV Signature Stratocaster.
  • First Band: Villanova Junction.
  • How He Learned: Largely self-taught, though he later enrolled at the Berklee College of Music and received a partial scholarship.
  • First Song: Unknown
Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix

Arguably the most influential guitar player of all time, Jimi Hendrix has left a legacy that will last as long as rock and roll itself. Starting the guitar at the age of 15, this musician quickly earned a name for himself playing gigs on the chitlin’ circuit until his own career took off in the mid-60s.

  • First Guitar: His father purchased him a $5 acoustic in addition to a Supro Ozark 1560S a year later.
  • First Band: The subject is debated, but it was either the Velvetones or the Rocking Kings.
  • How He Learned: Jimi learned by ear in addition to seeking advice from local musicians.
  • First Song: The theme from “Peter Gunn”
Jack White

Jack White

Born to a family of ten children, Jack White (birth name John Anthony Gillis) played the instruments abandoned by his older siblings. In interviews he recounted how he not only played drums, but keyboards/piano in addition to the electric guitar.

  • First Guitar: Unknown
  • First Band: The Upholsters
  • How He Learned: Unknown, though it’s incredibly likely he was self taught.
  • First Song: Unknown
Alex Turner

Alex Turner

The U.K.’s answer to the Black Keys, the Arctic Monkeys have experienced what can only be described as meteoritic. The band’s front-man, Alex Turner grew up next to the band’s lead guitar player Jamie Cook. The duo actually dropped out of school at 16 to pursue their musical aspirations, and formed the Arctic Monkeys in 2002.

  • First Guitar: An unknown model purchased for him in 2001 by his parents. David Turner, his father, taught music at local schools.
  • First Band: Arctic Monkeys
  • How He Learned: In interviews, Alex Turner has said him and Jamie Cook learned chords from an Oasis chord book. "All I could play was A minor and E minor," claims Turner. It’s also rumored his friend Josh Homme (of Queens of the Stone Age) has been making an effort to teach Cook and Turner more advanced lead work.
  • First Song: Reportedly Turner and Cook learned to play the James Bond theme song, and since they learned chords out of an Oasis chord book, it can be assumed they played a handful of Oasis tunes.
Slash

Slash

One of the few men alive who can still rock a top hat, Slash has inspired millions of guitar players around the world. He was also the lead guitar player for Guns N’ Roses, a band that achieved worldwide success in the late 80s and early 90s.

  • First Guitar: Spanish style with one string, and it reportedly took him awhile to figure out how to string it.
  • First Band: Tidus Sloan
  • How He Learned: He was located at a local music school for a short time, though he soon abandoned that in favor of teaching himself.
  • First Song: Tangerine by Led Zeppelin
Billie Joe Armstrong

Billie Joe Armstrong

Punk turned rock and roll superhero, Billie Joe Armstrong is the front-man of the incredibly influential band Green Day. He started playing guitar at age 11 and purchased his first guitar from his teacher. The band’s albums have covered everything from folk and punk to a full on rock opera, and the group continues to perform sold out shows all over the country.

  • First Guitar: Fernandes Stratocaster
  • First Band: Sweet Children
  • How He Learned: Guitar lesssons.
  • First Song: Look For Love
Eddie Van Halen

Eddie Van Halen

Born Edward Lodewijk van Halen, this Dutch-born musician is easily one of the most unique guitar players to come out of the 80s. Interestingly, Eddie actually started out as a classic piano player. And like Brian May, Eddies first guitar was actually a hand-made instrument that he used as an alternative to purchasing a higher end (and more expensive) model.

  • First Guitar: Hand-Made Frakenstrat.
  • First Band: Genesis (The name was quickly changed to Mammoth).
  • How He Learned: Eddie learned by ear, though he had a background in classical music.
  • First Song: Walk Don’t Run by the Ventures
Buckethead

Buckethead

Known for his distinctive attire and blazingly fast lead guitar work, Buckethead shreds the guitar in a way no other man (or bucket) can. Though he’s known more for his work in progressive metal, his studio work includes everything ranging from bluegrass to ambient and avant-garde music.

  • First Guitar: Unknown
  • First Band: Class-X
  • How He Learned: Buckethead took lessons from a wide variety of instructors at his local music store, including Paul Gilbert.
  • First Song: Unknown
James Bay

James Bay

An English singer-songwriter, Bay was inspired to play guitar after hearing Eric Clapton’s Layla. Bay is also one of the few musicians who was neither self nor privately taught, instead learning how to play the guitar from YouTube videos.

  • First Guitar: Spanish style classical, though he quickly traded up to an Epiphone Les Paul Special II
  • First Band: Performs solo or with backing musicians.
  • How He Learned: YouTube videos.
  • First Song: Stand By Me by Ben E King
St. Vincent

St. Vincent

St. Vincent started playing guitar at the age of twelve, having picked up her first guitar at a local shop. The instrument was sold to her by a man named Tony Hyatt, who she referred to as “a great guitar hero kind of guy”. When she was learning to play the guitar, she started out by learning Jethro Tull songs.

  • First Guitar: Three-Quarter-Sized classical guitar.
  • First Band: Polyphonic Spree
  • How She Learned: Guitar Lessons
  • First Song: Aqualung by Jethro Tull
Joe Satriani

Joe Satriani

Having toured with both Mick Jagger and Deep Purple, in addition to having taught Steve Vai and Kirk Hammett, Joe Satriani is arguably the musician who caused the recent generation of “shredder” guitarists. Joe Satriani also studied under jazz guitarist Billy Bauer as well as the reclusive Lennie Tristano.

  • First Guitar: White Hagstrom III
  • First Band: The Squares
  • How He Learned: Self taught, but eventually went on to take lessons from several musical luminaries.
  • First Song: Unknown, though he learned tracks from the Rolling Stones to Johnny Winter off of his family’s record collection by ear prior to pursuing formal music education.
Zakk Wylde

Zakk Wylde

The former lead guitar player for Ozzy Osbourne, Zakk Wylde’s career is like something out of a dream. He played local gigs with his first two bands Stone Henge and Zyris, eventually sending in an audition tape to Ozzy Osbourne in 1987. He landed the gig, and was quickly whisked off into a life of fame just two years after graduating high-school.

  • First Guitar: Unknown, but he did have a 1980s SG Firebrand Deluxe he used throughout his teens.
  • First Band: Stone Henge
  • How He Learned: According to various sources Wylde spent 12 hours a day practicing throughout the majority of high-school. He also spent a short amount of time taking classical guitar lessons.
  • First Song: Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple
Joe Bonamassa

Joe Bonamassa

Joe Bonamassa is undoubtedly a living guitar god. When he was twelve he opened up for B.B. King as well as gigging around western New York and Pennsylvania. His career didn’t peak there either, between 2002 and 2007 Joe had three different albums that hit #1 on the Billboard Blues charts.

  • First Guitar: Yamaha Classical
  • First Band: Smokin’ Joe Bonamassa
  • How He Learned: He reportedly started at age four, and though he recounts taking a few lessons in his youth he was largely self-taught.
  • First Song: Further on Up the Road by Bobby “Blue” Bland
Carlos Santana

Carlos Santana

Raised in Tijuana and the son of a mariachi musician, Carlos Santana is easily one of the most flexible guitar players to ever reach widespread acclaim. His music shows not only his South American heritage, but also blends the old-school blues of B.B. King with Jazz and world music.

  • First Guitar: Gibson Fully-Hollow Archtop, purchased for him by his father in Tijuana.
  • First Band: Santana Blues Band
  • How He Learned: His father was actually his first teacher, though he reportedly honed his craft playing on the streets and in the strip clubs of Tijuana.
  • First Song: Unknown
Joe Perry

Joe Perry

One of the founding members of Aerosmith, Joe Perry is one of the highest regarded guitarists in all of rock and roll. Though he didn’t come from a musical family (and in fact his first career aspiration was to be a marine biologist), Joe Perry persevered and practiced until he could rock out with the best of them.

  • First Guitar: Unknown acoustic model purchased for Perry by his parents between 1961 and 1962.
  • First Band: The Jam Band
  • How He Learned: He learned by ear off of records.
  • First Song: Unknown
Mike Campbell

Mike Campbell

Best known for his work with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Mike Cambell is easily one of the defining voices of Americana guitar. Campbell met Petty through a mutual friend, and the two went on the form the band Mudcrutch. After a disillusioning experience with an L.A. record label, Campbell then went on the to join Petty as the lead guitar player in Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

John Petrucci

John Petrucci

A founding member of the progressive metal band Dream Theater, John Petrucci is arguably one of the most creative guitarists in recent memory. Petrucci has garnered widespread acclaim during his work with Dream Theater, including being named as one of the “Top 10 Greatest Guitar Shredders of All Time” by GuitarOne magazine.

  • First Guitar: Cheap acoustic of unknown origin.
  • First Band: Majesty, name later changed to Dream Theater.
  • How He Learned: Self-taught for several years though he pursued a more advanced musical education at Berklee College of Music.
  • First Song: Unknown
Johnny Marr

Johnny Marr

Known for his distinctive “jangly” guitar tone, Johnny Marr could easily be considered the face of New Wave guitar playing. Like a lot of guitar players, Marr started gigging fairly young. He actually played his first gig at 13 with his band Paris Valentinos.

  • First Guitar: Cheap guitar (likely a small scale acoustic intended for children) purchased in Manchester in 1967.
  • First Band: Paris Valentinos
  • How He Learned: He was largely self-taught, though his mother did assist with his music education in his youth.
  • First Song: Unknown
J Mascis

J Mascis

Known for his work with Dinosaur Jr., J Mascis is often described as one of the main figureheads of grunge. J Mascis has always leaned towards heavier genres of music, and even started gigging with the short-lived hardcore band Deep Wound when he was just 17.

  • First Guitar: Fender Jazzmaster
  • First Band: Deep Wound
  • How He Learned: Unknown
  • First Song: Unknown
The Edge

The Edge

Born in Essex, England to a welsh family, The Edge is best known as the lead guitar player of U2. Always making the effort to innovate, The Edge has experimented with a wide variety of different genres including American roots-music, industrial rock, and alternative rock.

  • First Guitar: “Learner’s” classical guitar.
  • First Band: U2
  • How He Learned: The Edge received both guitar and piano lessons at St. Andrew’s National School.
  • First Song: Unknown
Dimebag Darrell

Dimebag Darrell

Like a lot of guitar players, Dimebag picked up the instrument at a fairly young age. Though he first wanted a BMX bike, his parents purchased a Hondo Les Paul copy for him when he was twelve. The young Darrel then went on to win a series of local guitar competitions, and was eventually awarded a Dean ML. In fact, he was actually banned from competing in local contests because of how advanced his skills were.

  • First Guitar: Hondo Les Paul Copy
  • First Band: Pantera
  • How He Learned: Unknown, though considering his father was a fairly well known country musician (Jerry Abott) he likely had some influence on his son’s musical education.
  • First Song: Unknown
BB King

BB King

Born the son of sharecroppers, B.B. King was a titan of American-blues music. Though he came from incredibly humble origins, his records would go on to inspire almost every blues musician that followed him. And though the man may not be with us anymore, the legacy of extreme kindness and generosity in addition to excellent body of work he’s left behind will ensure that he’s never forgotten.

  • First Guitar: Unknown model that he other purchased on his own for $15.00 or was purchased for him by blues legend Bukka White.
  • First Band: Famous St. John’s
  • How He Learned: He was self-taught.
  • First Song: Unknown
Steve Vai

Steve Vai

Born in Carle Place, New York, Steve Vai has proven himself to be an extraordinary guitarist. At 19, he mailed Frank Zappa a complete transcription of Zappa’s “The Black Page” along with a tape of his playing. He was then hired by Zappa to transcribe a number of his songs, a job which later lead to Vai being invited to become a full member of the band.

  • First Guitar: Unknown instrument purchased from childhood friend Richard Jankowski for $5 dollars.
  • First Band: The Ohio Express
  • How He Learned: He was self-taught for his first year as a guitar player and then he went on to take lessons from Joe Satriani.
  • First Song: Unknown
Jimmy Page

Jimmy Page

The Godfather of modern rock, Jimmy Page has inspired guitarists ranging from Johnny Ramone to Brian May. Funnily enough, Page actually didn’t start out playing blues like a lot of his contemporaries. Instead, Page was most inspired by Elvis Presly and spent a good portion of his youth playing in skiffle bands.

  • First Guitar: Futurama Grazioso
  • First Band: The Crusaders
  • How He Learned: Page took a few lessons in Kingston, but he was largely self taught.
  • First Song: Unknown
Stevie Ray Vaughan

Stevie Ray Vaughan

In guitar playing circles there’s no musician more respected than Stevie Ray Vaughan. A veteran player by the time he reached his late teens, Vaughan quickly went on to become a blues-rock phenomenon.

  • First Guitar: Plastic Sears guitar.
  • First Band: Chantones
  • How He Learned: He took a music theory course in high-school but flunked out, so aside from whatever small amount of information he managed to gain from that he was self-taught.
  • First Song: Likely a song by the Nightcaps, either “Wine, Wine, Wine” or “Thunderbird”
James Hetfield

James Hetfield

The front-man of a band that’s won more than nine Grammy Awards, James Hetfield is arguably the godfather of thrash music. Hetfield cites his main childhood influence as Aerosmith, which is a bit strange when you consider the direction his music ended up taking.

  • First Guitar: Unknown model bought from a member of his school’s jazz band for $200.
  • First Band: Obsession
  • How He Learned: Self-taught, though he did take piano lessons at the age of nine.
  • First Song: Unknown
Synyster Gates

Synyster Gates

Best known for his work with the American metal band Avenged Sevenfold, Synyster Gates (birth name Brian Elwin Haner Jr.) is carrying the torch for speed metal fans the world over. Gates has received widespread acclaim for his blistering guitar work, including being voted third in Rock One Magazine’s “Best Musician in the Industry” poll.

  • First Guitar: Unknown
  • First Band: Avenged Sevenfold
  • How He Learned: Though he was largely self-taught, Gates attributes a great deal of his musical expertise to the advice and instruction given to him by his father. He also pursued higher musical education at the Musicians Institute.
  • First Song: I Think We’re Alone Now by Tiffany
Keith Urban

Keith Urban

One of the many faces of “new” country, this Australian born singer-songwriter has been making waves ever since the start of his career in 1990. Signed to EMI Australia in 1991, Urban has experienced an impressive amount of success in everything from performing to ghostwriting tracks for his fellow Nashville musicians.

  • First Guitar: Suzuki ¾ acoustic guitar.
  • First Band: Keith Urban has been performing under his own name since the start of his career in 1990, though he has had more than a few musicians back him up.
  • How He Learned: He took lessons in his youth.
  • First Song: When the Day is Done by Pete Seeger
Brad Paisley

Brad Paisley

Born October 28,1972, Paisley has spent the majority of his career carrying the torch of modern country music. His virtuosic approach to his instrument and his wry, often humorous lyrics have paved the way to him becoming a bonafide musical great.

  • First Guitar: Silvertone Danelectro
  • First Band: Brad Paisley and the C-Notes.
  • How He Learned: Paisley received lessons from Clarence “Hank” Goddard.
  • First Song: Unknown
Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash

Known as the “Man in Black”, Johnny Cash is one of the few artists who’ve experienced an almost universal appeal. During his career Cash has been everything from the pious everyman to the rugged outlaw, and though he may not be with us anymore his honesty and heartfelt music will continue to resonate with listeners for decades to come.

  • First Guitar: Unknown guitar purchased in Germany for $5.
  • First Band: Johnny Cash always performed under his own name, though for the majority of his early career he performed with the Tennessee Two.
  • How He Learned: Unknown, though due to his rural upbringing he likely learned by ear or from advice sought out from local musicians.
  • First Song: I Am Bound for the Promised Land
About the authors
Michael Pierce

Michael bought his first guitar, a Fender California Series Stratocaster in Candy Apple Red, in 1998. He likes rock of all types, from classic to punk to metal. Michael co-founded Equipboard to satisfy his curiosity around what gear his guitar heroes use. Read more

Giulio Chiarenza

Giulio co-founded Equipboard with his friend Michael. He plays the piano, guitar, drums, and had a brief stint signed to a label as an electronic music producer. Read more


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Comments 11

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hiddenname
5yover 5 years ago

I have never thought of Cash being a famous "guitarist", since he wasn't very good at all. Sure, he did play most of the guitar parts on his American albums, but I think Luther Perkins should be there instead of him. He was behind the band's freight train sound after all. Cash usually just played the chords he knows with a capo somewhere around the second fret. Look for a video of him playing Pretty Woman with Roy Orbison or just I Walk The Line.

3
catec
5yover 5 years ago

Any female guitarists to add?

4
gchiaren
5yover 5 years ago

@catec St. Vincent is currently the only female on the list. Suggestions for more?

1
jakobsteve
5yabout 5 years ago

Doyle Wolfgang Von Frankenstein First Guitar: Ibanez Iceman First Band: The Misfits (Glenn Danzig) How He Learned: Jerry Only and Glenn Danzig taught Doyle a regular power chord and he took it from there First Song: Smoke On The Water

1
ahmed_abdelazim
5yalmost 5 years ago

Hetfield's first guitar was a 1969 copied Gibson SG with tremolo

1
T
1yover 1 year ago

Steve Vai is a Berklee alum and was awarded an honorary Doctorate from the college.

1
mylittleeye
1yover 1 year ago

@oskari_p_alaraasakka - Johnny Cash may not have been an accomplished guitarist but he did become famous through playing the guitar. He made the simple "boom-chicka" style his signature sound. As such his classic songs make great 'crowd pleaser' additions for a beginners repertoire.

1
R
1yabout 1 year ago

Joni Mitchell (she invented a system of tunings, I believe), Nancy Wilson, Bonnie Raitt, Lita Ford, Sister Rosetta Tharp (the Godmother of Rock-n-Roll), P.J. Harvey...there, I fixed it. :p

1
jay_major
5d5 days ago

Maybe I don't understand this format, but there are a lot of errors. Eddie Van Halen's first guitar was not the frankenstrat, he played several before including a gold Les Paul. Brian May played several electrics before the Red Special. Add Nita Strauss, Orianthi maybe?

1
gchiaren
5d5 days ago

@jay_major What's your source for EVH's first guitar? If we can get some definitive proof I'm happy to make the edits! Same with Brian May. And yeah, we can add Nita Strauss. But proof is still needed :)

1
jay_major
5d5 days ago

@gchiaren Check projectevh.com, groundguitar.com, legendarytones.com, his first was actually a 1967 Teisco Del Ray guitar but the LP was his first stage guitar. I was mistaken on the Brian May guitar was thinking of his first electric.

1