Guitar Trends in Number One Songs, 1955 to 1974

The Rolling Stones with Guitars

What role has the guitar played in America’s number one hit songs? Has its presence grown or diminished? Has it been a driving force in propelling songs to the top of the charts — or more of a bystander? Over the last two years, I have analyzed each Billboard number one song of the rock n’ roll era, starting in 1955 with “Rock Around the Clock.” I assigned each song a “guitar score” of zero to ten in each of four guitar-centric categories: riffage, rhythm playing, fills, and solos. A song with no guitars whatsoever scores a zero, while the perfect guitar song (which does not yet exist, though a couple have come close) would max out with a score of 40. Having already analyzed the number one songs from 1955 to 1969, I recently completed the latest five-year period: 1970 to 1974. With 20 years worth of guitar scores from 388 songs sitting on a spreadsheet and begging to be analyzed, I thought it was time to search to examine some trends. Here are some findings.


Finding 1: Guitar Presence Comes on Strong in the 1970s
The 1950s were trending for guitar use then a four-year drought ensued. But 1964 saw that turn back around with the first number one hits of The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Animals, and Roy Orbison. The songs of ‘64 nearly doubled 1963’s “guitar score” average. In subsequent years, many more guitar-rich songs would continue to top the charts. By the early 1970s, guitar and rock n’ roll have become more synonymous with the lowest-scored year (1972) still higher than nearly every year of the preceding decade.
Guitar Trends 1955 to 1974
Finding 2: Rhythm Playing Has Trended Upwards
We can thank the slow, steady increase in rhythm guitar quality to inventive late-‘60s players who moved beyond the standard “chunking” rhythm lines of the early-‘60s; musicians such as Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones (“Satisfaction,” “Honky Tonk Women”), Roger McGuinn of The Byrds (“Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!”), Robby Krieger of The Doors (“Hello I Love You”), and Steve Cropper with Otis Redding (“Dock of the Bay”). As the ‘70s began, rhythm players also took advantage of multi-track recorders and effects pedals — the wah-wah being chief among them — to add new textures to the music. Of the 83 songs from 1955 to 1974 with above-average rhythm playing (a score of 6 or greater), 37 of them (45%) fall in the years ’70 to ’74.Chart B Guitar Trends (granular)
Finding 3: Riff Instrumentation Changes
Since 1957, riffs have probably seen the least fluctuation while fills didn’t so much rise or fall for the early ’70s so much as they witnessed an increased in the use of acoustic guitars. Though not a new concept — check out Marty Robbins “El Paso” from over ten years before — acoustic fills became more common in number one songs of the early ‘70s thanks to James Taylor (“You’ve Got a Friend”), Cher (“Gypsies Tramps & Thieves”), Jim Croce (“Bad Bad Leroy Brown”), John Denver (“Sunshine on my Shoulders”), Gordon Lightfoot (“Sundown”) and others.
Chart C Guitar Trends (granular)
Overall, we’d say that the overall quality of guitar work in number one songs increased from 1955 to 1974. Was guitar ever the main ingredient propelling a song to number one status? There’s a small bit of correlation, but good luck proving that definitively. Next time, instead of trends, we’ll look at some of the singular guitar standouts from this very same time period.

Michael Rays

Photo Credit: Image of The Rolling Stones by Hulton Archive/Stringer courtesy of Getty Images.

PS. We first ran this post way back in 2017, but it’s timeless and worth another look.

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3 comments on “Guitar Trends in Number One Songs, 1955 to 1974

  1. If you expander your criteria a little (top 10) beyond number 1, Eric Johnson probably had two songs that would score your “40” in the early 1990’s (Cliffs of Dover and Trademark)

  2. Capt. Steveo

    Has anyone else noticed that The Rolling Stones picture at the top is backwards? The guitars and bass all look like left handed models in the photo. Cutaways and controls on opposite side of what the should be….

  3. John Hayman

    So glad you researched this. I became obsessed with pop music and the radio when I was about 11 (1950 or 51). I listened to WMEX in Boston faithfully. My friend who introduced me to the radio had a brother who was a few years older, and we played his records. That’s when I discovered Link Wray, Duane Eddy, and Buddy Holly. I couldn’t believe how much guitar there was on those records compared to what I was listening to. You had to listen to a lot of songs before you got to the Ventures or early Beach Boys and experienced electric guitar music. I also became obsessed with the electric guitar (acoustic came later with the folk boom). I remember staring at the (red) cover of Duane’s Have Twangy Guitar, Will Travel and being transfixed by Duane leaning back and playing his big Gretsch. When was 14, I asked for a guitar for my fifteenth birthday. Before my birthday came, pictures of the then unknown (in the USA) Beatles began appearing on the covers of US magazines such as Look and Saturday Evening Post and besides those unusual haircuts they had GUITARS! A friend bought the I Want To Hold Your Hand single and, we played at my house. I wasn’t really impressed by the A side but when I heard the B side, I Saw Her Standing There, I was blown away! Electric guitars and electric energy! When they appeared on Ed Sullivan there was no going back. After that the number of records with guitars soared. It was an exciting time. All the new sounds – 12 strings, fuzz, backwards guitars, crunchy guitars. Still playing guitar today.

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