Bruce Springsteen’s 20 greatest guitar moments, ranked

The Boss might believe that music is a team sport, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t taken his chance to tear it up on guitar over his long career – here are his best six-string moments.

Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen. Image: Images Press / Getty Images

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Loyalty and chemistry are major currents in Bruce Springsteen’s music, and they’re reflected by the instrument that’s been by his side since the early 70s. In his own words the guitar, which he bought at luthier Phil Petillo’s shop in Belmar, New Jersey for $185, is “a 1950s mutt with a Telecaster body and an Esquire neck.” It’s an underdog, the sort of character that Springsteen might build a legend around. “With its wood body worn in like the piece of the cross that it was, it became the guitar that I’d play for the next 40 years,” he wrote in his autobiography.

Fitted with hot single-coil pickups and Petillo’s triangular frets, the Esquire is also famously light thanks to a large hole under the scratchplate. According to Petillo, the space dates to the Payola era: it housed extra pickups and jacks to multitrack guitar lines, driving up session pay on the sly. “I come from a boardwalk town where almost everything is tinged with a bit of fraud,” runs the opening line of Springsteen’s memoir. “So am I.” Well, so is his guitar.

Springsteen’s music and live shows lay bare several things about his work as a guitarist and bandleader: he’s unselfish and unshowy, favouring dynamic performances and the sanctity of the song over fireworks. The floor is often ceded to Roy Bittan’s piano or Clarence Clemons’ sax when the big moments strike and his guitar lieutenants – Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren – bring bags of personality to the party. But when the Boss decides to flex, he can flex. His style is punishing and physical, almost hopelessly dramatic. But it’s also poised, precise and in service of the whole. In Bruce Springsteen’s world music is a team sport, as these multifaceted guitar moments attest.

20. Blinded By The Light (Greetings from Asbury Park N.J., 1973)

It’s a familiar line: I don’t hear a single. Bruce Springsteen certainly knows its ring – Blinded by the Light was his response to hearing it from Columbia boss Clive Davis. His response, the eventual lead track from Greetings from Asbury Park NJ, is straight cornball Jersey Shore, but it’s studded with the easygoing charisma of the young Springsteen, whose trebly chords rattle and shake over percussion that won’t sit still. Its opening noodling could have been lifted straight from a low stage at a dive bar, but the verse pulls everything into focus. This is a mess, but it’s a glorious mess of potential.

Did you know?

Manfred Mann’s Earth Band took Blinded By The Light to No.1 in 1977, one place better than Springsteen has managed himself.

19. Ghosts (Letter to You, 2020)

Unashamedly nostalgic and with the passing of time weighing on its shoulders, Letter to You kicked against any sense of inevitability through songs like this one. “I hear the sound of your guitar,” Springsteen sings in its opening line, answering his own reminiscing with a barrelling rush of chords, with Nils and Steve offering different voicings, capo placements and tunings to Bruce in order to create a barrel-chested charge. Ghosts is a celebration of old Fender Twins, of the power of the E Street Band at full throttle, and of the musicians whose fingerprints on their sound refuse to fade. It is in touch with the young Bruce, who saw six strings as a way out of the four walls of his existence.

Did you know?

The Les Paul in the song’s lyrics belonged to George Theiss, Springsteen’s former Castiles bandmate who passed in 2018, leaving the Boss as the only surviving member.

18. The Ties That Bind (The River, 1980)

The Ties That Bind opens side one of The River and perhaps best captures its retro-futuristic charms. Dragging the rock ’n’ roll of Springsteen’s youth into the fraught space between the 1970s and 80s, it mainlines jangle-pop leads that would have turned Teenage Fanclub’s heads at any point in the past three decades, feeding off the rough and tumble fun prioritised in the studio by Van Zandt. The angel and devil on Springsteen’s shoulders telling him to keep things live and loose, he shares plenty of the credit for the euphoric moments when The River really clicks.

Did you know?

Springsteen and the E Street Band so successfully tapped into garage band bluster that The River was almost unmixable. “When are you going to record the vocals?” was Jimmy Iovine’s barb when he heard it for the first time.

17. Youngstown (The Ghost of Tom Joad, 1995 / Live in New York City, 2001)

The Ghost of Tom Joad is one of Springsteen’s most searing pieces of commentary but, emerging as it did from his 90s hinterland, it’s often been overlooked in favour of earlier, more youthful treatises on the withering of the American dream. Live, though, its songs are afforded equal footing. With Tom Morello standing in for Van Zandt on the Wrecking Ball tour the title track was jacked up to a roaring polemic (influenced no doubt by Rage Against the Machine’s earlier reinvention) but another of the LP’s songs came to life in the hands of Lofgren a decade or so earlier. Captured at Madison Square Garden across the final two nights of the E Street Band’s reunion tour in 2000, here the erstwhile Crazy Horse guitarist works his way into a perfectly paced epic of a solo during Youngstown, building over time with his Strat to deliver a sense of scope and drama that the original doesn’t necessarily aspire to. Combining his quickfire thumb picking with passages of finger-tapping and outrageous dexterity, he steals the show without ever losing sight of the song.

Did you know?

Lofgren was a classical accordion player from ages six to 15.

16. Kitty’s Back (The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, 1973)

Back when he first got his hands on his Esquire, Springsteen was searching for something that would put a little open water between the music he was making then and the more hard-rocking days of Steel Mill. “I was playing something that was tilting more to soul music, and so I wanted a guitar that could handle the funk and that feeling,” he told the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Kitty’s Back requires both – this cut really swings. It almost begins in medias res, with Springsteen’s woozy intro suggesting that we’ve walked in on a party that’s been going for a while. The track is pocked with the kid Dylan affectations that the Boss would soon shed, but its vibrant horns and sweet organ set up a solo that mimics its surroundings before spiralling off into call-and-response. It’s woolly, all over the place, really, but a whole lot of fun.

Did you know?

The first half of the album’s title was pulled from an old Audie Murphy western. The E Street shuffle is getting by, day to day.

15. Radio Nowhere (Magic, 2007)

“The punk and new wave explosions were happening here and in England, but that was a different kind of music – anarchic, relentlessly abrasive,” Martin Scorsese wrote in the foreword to Racing in the Street. “Springsteen was something else – deeply romantic, even extravagantly so.” He’s spot on, but that didn’t stop the Boss’s music becoming an important undercurrent in a lot of punk music. By the time Springsteen put out Magic in 2007 his stature among punks was at a new high – a wave that would crest with the success of the Gaslight Anthem – and Radio Nowhere is a neat accompaniment to that phenomenon. The quietly overdriven quality of its riff –essentially a circular series of arpeggiated chords – is a rolling constant and when Clemons’ sax hits there are piercing held notes offering a riotous, blown out counterpoint.

Did you know?

The song’s refrain, “Is there anybody alive out there?”, is a direct lift from a years-old piece of Springsteen stagecraft, retrofitted to serve the searching nature of the song.

14. Thunder Road (Born to Run, 1975)

From its simple yet entirely unforgettable second verse lead in – nothing more than a slide from F to G on the D string, popping in a closing F on the fifth fret of the G string – Thunder Road is a Rube Goldberg machine of a song, with each section serving a wider purpose. Springsteen choogles away, almost buried in the mix, in order to make his Esquire’s more pointed interjections land. It’s never showy—even following the iconic “Well I got this guitar and I learned to make it talk” his lick is conversational and almost bashful, as the man standing on Mary’s porch is. That’s attention to detail.

Did you know?

Mary’s dress sways, not waves. A debate that has raged for decades (fuelled in part by the wrong word being used in Springsteen’s Songs book) was recently settled. “Any typos in official Bruce material will be corrected,” manager Jon Landau recently told the New Yorker. “And, by the way, ‘dresses’ do not know how to ‘wave’.”

13. No Surrender (Born in the USA, 1984)

You can thank Little Steven for this one. A song dedicated to the unifying power of rock ‘n’ roll, it famously almost fell into one of those gaps that claimed so many songs in Springsteen’s late 70s/early 80s writing blitzes. Slinging a searing back and forth octave riff over chugging power chords, it’s a barrelling thrill-seeker of a song and, for a time, a fitting headstone on the Boss and Van Zandt’s creative relationship. For the sentimental among you, the version of No Surrender from 2009’s London Calling: Live in Hyde Park might be the definitive take. Featuring the Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon, it focuses on the aspirational nature of the track and the tears in his eyes as he yells “Maybe we’ll cut someplace of our own with these drums and these guitars” will get you every time.

Did you know?

Drawing out this song’s punk spirit to its natural conclusion, Hot Water Music once covered No Surrender, giving it a No Idea-esque makeover and lashings of woah-ohs. It makes so much sense.

12. Tougher Than The Rest (Tunnel of Love, 1987)

Tougher Than The Rest is emblematic of the intoxicating uncertainty of love and lust. Its promises are huge – “The road is dark and it’s a thin, thin line, but I want you to know I’ll walk it for you any time.” – but they’re there to be broken. As a whole, Tunnel of Love isn’t the sort of record that wraps things in a neat bow. Instead, it takes the fragile hope and crushing failures of Springsteen’s early work and transposes them into the context of a relationship with devastating effect. Over the punch of a drum machine snare and pillowy synths, Springsteen’s phase-shifter-drenched Tougher Than The Rest solo ties all these emotions together – it is cautious and halting, but also rousing and faultlessly melodic. It takes the familiar bends and pauses of his style and sets them adrift in an unfamiliar sea. It seems to ask us whether or not we are willing to walk that thin, thin line ourselves.

Did you know?

Much like Nebraska, Springsteen recorded Tunnel of Love largely solo, only this time his Tascam was replaced by a 24-track home studio assembled with the help of engineer Toby Scott. Of the interlopers, Lofgren plays a delightfully restrained solo on the title track.

11. Born in the USA (Springsteen on Broadway, 2018)

This approach to Born in the USA has been around in one form or another since the beginning, but as part of his Broadway show Springsteen’s bitter, furious tirade against the treatment of Vietnam vets became a particularly vicious acoustic piece. Tuning into that anger, and removing the bells and whistles that have allowed tone-deaf politicians to latch onto its hollered chorus for decades, Springsteen attacks his Takamine EF381-SC 12-string with a searing slide intro (he has been observed to play the song with the G strings removed) before allowing his words to sink in almost unadorned.

Did you know?

The title Born in the USA was lifted wholesale from the cover of a script by Paul Schrader, which was sitting next to Springsteen as he tooled around on his J-200. The film was eventually released as Light of Day, starring Michael J. Fox.

10. State Trooper (Nebraska, 1982)

There’s a moment around a minute into State Trooper when Springsteen’s guitar grows louder, as though the song’s narrator is taking a step towards us. Locked in this grim genre exercise – all slapback and Crampsy rockabilly, hold the shlock – we are presented with a rolling internal dialogue cloaked in fear and the visceral sense of proximity created by an acoustic guitar, a Teac Tascam 144 Portastudio and a boombox mix through an Echoplex. Nebraska is about isolation and bleak thoughts that never stray out of the grey even once and, influenced by the relentless drive of electro-punk pioneers Suicide, State Trooper is terrifying.

Did you know?

Nebraska was so “funkily recorded” (Springsteen’s words) that it was destined for a cassette-only release, until Chuck Plotkin found a mastering lathe that allowed its transfer to vinyl without distorting.

9. Candy’s Room (Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978)

There is something off about Candy’s Room, a disquieting undercurrent of… delusion, maybe? The kicker is that the song trades its disorienting build for a real barn-burner of a chorus and an assured solo that ranks among Springsteen’s finest. He climbs into this one with the sort of abandon that’s not found elsewhere on Darkness on the Edge of Town, and his playing is explosive and demanding, smashing together hammer ons and screeching bends in familiar territory high up the neck. The cumulative effect after the opening world-building is the feeling that we got some answers, but maybe not the ones we needed.

Did you know?

Many have theorised that Candy is a prostitute. “Does it really matter? I’ll never tell,” Springsteen responded to Rolling Stone.

8. Adam Raised a Cain (Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978)

There is a brooding quality to Darkness on the Edge of Town that occasionally boils over into fury, hurt and recrimination. The guitars on Adam Raised a Cain masterfully suggest the possibility of violence from minute one, with Springsteen’s tremolo-picked intro, an A thrashing around on the 14th fret of his G string, providing a scratchy, insistent distraction from Bittan’s piano groove. Its ensuing bends are almost half-finished, they’re fidgety and not all the way happy in their skin, and the solo is coiled and rageful—that it falls right back into the rabble-rousing verse ensures that there’s no unearned release from the tension.

Did you know?

Springsteen intended Adam Raised a Cain, which partly stems from his own complex relationship with his old man, to carve through the rest of Darkness on the Edge of Town’s sound. “Imagine a movie showing two lovers having a picnic, when the scene suddenly cuts to a dead body. This song is that body,” he said.

7. Cover Me (Born in the USA, 1984)

Born in the USA is a curious beast from a guitar perspective. As one of the defining albums of the 1980s it is mired in the production of the age, all booming snares and synths that take up a whole lot of room. Nestled beneath the bluster, though, are some of the Boss’s finest songs, including this gem of a hip-shaker. Opening with a lick that’s one step removed from the Beverly Hills Cop II soundtrack, Springsteen bounces off Bittan’s piano beautifully, stalking the beat before swinging into a solo that prizes the muscularity and rhythmic ingenuity of his playing. The version on Live/1975–85 goes hard off its extended intro.

Did you know?

Cover Me was originally intended for disco icon Donna Summer, who ended up with the Grammy nominated Protection instead.

6. Jungleland (Born to Run, 1975 / Live in Passaic, 1978)

Has a band ever enjoyed a hot streak quite like the one the E Street Band rode in 1978? Long the preserve of bootleg enthusiasts, the tapes from the opening show of a run at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey were finally officially released in 2019. The version of Jungleland contained within is an epiphanous masterwork that brims with grit, energy and theatre. Naturally, it coalesces around Clarence’s finest sax solo, but not before Van Zandt, dressed like he’s on his way to the revolution, kicks things up a notch with a ripping break, cleaving the notes free from his Strat as Bruce pinwheels around the stage, letting his friend redefine a solo he nailed in the studio. Truly one of the great live performances.

Did you know?

Springsteen in Passaic has long been known as the Boss’s live Pièce De Résistance due to its incendiary nature and the quality of the bootlegs, which were pulled from local radio broadcasts.

5. Streets of Fire (Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978)

Streets of Fire is a song that rewards the listener’s patience. It initially appears that its drawled intro might pool in Springsteen’s navel permanently, but when the chorus hits all bets are off. It feeds directly off the mixture of grunt (Max Weinberg’s metronomic snare) and finesse (Bittan’s piano flourish offsetting the hook) that characterise this era of the E Street Band and the headline act is a Springsteen solo that is as bullish as it is patient. Bookended by a series of held notes and serrated bends way, way up on the neck, the section takes an unexpected turn into a short, sharp burst of melody at its core, linking beautifully with a verse that sucks all the intensity from the room before, in a seamless bait and switch, lighting the fuse for one final run at the chorus.

Did you know?

In portraits taken by Eric Meola at Springsteen’s Holmdel, New Jersey home in 1977, where he wrote Darkness on the Edge of Town, he’s clutching a Stratocaster to his chest. Sacrilege.

4. Roulette (Tracks, 1998 / The Ties That Bind, 2015)

The thing about The River is that there’s too much of it. It’s a killer single album dolled up in clothes one size too big. Another thing about it is that some of the songs left on the cutting room floor should have shouldered their way to the front of the line. Roulette is perhaps chief among that bunch, even if it would have been an outlier on the record. Perhaps the closest Springsteen came to releasing a punk song, its opening riff is all spaghetti western cool, with relentless drive provided by the palm-muted chords of the verses. Bridge and chorus are a war pitting melody against countermelody in a furious charge towards the edge. The solo, framed without much in the way of a rhythm bed, prioritises single ringing notes, foregrounding the pace kept up by Weinberg and bassist Garry Tallent. If you’re throwing away songs this good, then you’re either doing something very right or very wrong.

Did you know?

Roulette was the first song the band tracked for early runs at The River and was inspired by the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident in 1979.

3. Prove It All Night (Darkness on the Edge of Town / Live at Winterland ‘78)

Springsteen is generally a people-pleaser, so the live and studio versions of his songs often stand pretty close together. But every now and again they take on a life of their own once the stage lights hit. Prove it All Night was always a prime candidate for reinterpretation, containing in its title Springsteen’s core belief as a performer. The Darkness on the Edge of Town single was reshaped into a 13-minute behemoth on the road, with this example at the Winterland Ballroom of particular note. Springsteen draws the intro out, wilfully soloing and dragging monstrous sounds from his Esquire as the E Street Band hold it down, but when the song’s almost dainty piano riff arrives he doesn’t stop, coating it with ferociously loud, ultra-distorted chords. Thrilling.

Did you know?

Springsteen’s in-studio sound for Darkness on the Edge of Town was simple yet effective: his Esquire, a Tweed Fender Bassman, an MXR Distortion+ and an Echoplex.

2. Thundercrack (Tracks, 1998 / Live at the Ahmanson Theater, 1973)

Back at the start, Springsteen only really wanted to be the most hot shit guitar player and bandleader on the Jersey Shore. That ideal has never left him, but it’s rarely been rendered as plainly as it is on Thundercrack, a frequently set-closing behemoth that Springsteen scholar Caryn Rose once described as “the grandaddy of Springsteen’s epic journeys [that] would only be replaced when he wrote Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”. To experience it in all its shit-eating glory is to see it live and this version at the Ahmanson Theater is an explosion of loose-limbed chemistry, with Springsteen’s ragged Telecaster solo playing into parlour tricks and an incendiary breakdown set up by Clarence and drummer Vini Lopez. This is straight, uncut Bruce – the goofball who isn’t going to waste his shot.

Did you know?

The song was written for Springsteen’s then-girlfriend, Diane Lozito.

1. Born to Run (Born to Run, 1975)

The promise behind all of Springsteen’s music is that we can find joy, and hope, and escape, on our own terms. The riff to Born to Run – a handful of twanging notes inspired by Duane Eddy, barely removed from the squall of the song’s opening E major chord – encapsulates all of that in one triumphant, rafter-shaking sweep. As simple as it appears, though, this song is in fact a miracle of over-engineering, with Springsteen layering guitar track upon guitar track in pursuit of a blueprint that would make his own dreams of rock superstardom a reality. The exuberant, rapid picking of its middle eight, the proverbial foot being slammed down, feels like those decades-old wishes coming true in real time.

Did you know?

Born to Run is the only recorded example of Ernest ‘Boom’ Carter playing drums for the E Street Band.

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