If we’re not living it right now—and there’s a solid argument that we might be—then when?

Was there a moment or season in history when creative activity on the guitar reached an undeniable flowering, a discernible zenith? At what point in the history of popular music was there was a confluence of nimble veterans and brash hotshots, when electric players wailed and the jazz guys blazed new trails and brains were being routinely fried by six-string shredding in various forms and guises?

One obvious contender: 1969. That 12-month span saw galvanic debuts from Santana, Led Zeppelin, King Crimson and The Allman Brothers Band. It was the year Creedence Clearwater Revival put out three blazing albums and pretty much owned the charts, and the year when freeform FM radio, with its drifty 20-minute exploratory journeys, went from curiosity to commonplace.

The rock era’s most significant guitar innovator—Jimi Hendrix—was in the prime of his most experimental phase in 1969. By then, his work had inspired pretty much everyone playing the instrument, and everyone playing any instrument. Hendrix transformed the way the guitar sounded and greatly expanded its textures, its effects and the approaches to soloing on it. He created new frontiers for the instrument, and a new attitude about music in general. Inside his work is the sound of established performance practices being shattered and rewritten moment to deliriously inspired moment; Peak Guitar is not even a topic without Hendrix.

Hendrix was a catalyst and spirit guide, an inescapable influence and part-time oracle. Even performances by the rock-guitar establishment of the day, monstrously talented soloists like Clapton and Alvin Lee of Ten Years After, register as timid next to Hendrix’s fire-breathing, all-consuming insurrections. Clapton says as much in his autobiography, recalling the night in 1966, when Hendrix sat in with Cream during his first visit to the UK.

The tune: Howlin’ Wolf’s "Killing Floor." "I remember thinking that here was a force to be reckoned with," Clapton wrote. "It scared me, because he was clearly going to be a huge star, and just as we are finding our own speed, here was the real thing."

Clapton did find his own speed, of course, several times and in strikingly different realms. In 1969, he contributed massively to the lexicon of the electric guitar with his meditative, mesmeric improvisations in the supergroup Blind Faith.

Before Hendrix, it was possible to gain fame as a guitarist by echoing and gently rearranging the conventions of electric blues; after Hendrix, the blues exploded into a platform for psychedelic reveries, dental-drill abrasions, storm surging walls of feedback. Pretty much anything.

By 1969, the music world had begun to process Hendrix’s galvanic influence. Hendrix’s arrival just four years before unleashed a kind of inspiration contagion in music, one that impacted the speed-demon chops players and the brainy conceptualists. His ideas liberated musicians from a hidebound sense of convention, and became part of the DNA of guitarists working in all corners of music, from folk to jazz to art-rock. It’s not that those artists played like Hendrix, it’s that they seized his irreverent spirit and brought it into their own endeavors, walking through doors he kicked down and then kicking down doors of their own.

What’s arguably most impressive about this is the range of styles Hendrix impacted. Miles Davis translated the Hendrix impulse into the ruminative electric landscapes of In a Silent Way (and Bitches Brew, also recorded that year). Suddenly, after years of quaintness, there was new creativity in folk (Leo Kottke, Fairport Convention) and in the first glimmers of the language that became punk (The Stooges, MC5), and a more visceral approach to progressive rock from King Crimson and Pink Floyd, whose guitarists were temperamentally aligned with the Hendrix revolution even while pursuing dramatically different artistic objectives.

When an artform (or, for that matter, a sector of industry) is thriving, it’s often being shaped by many practitioners at the same time. This leads to healthy discourse, an ideological push-pull in various directions–to the point where the initial agents of change become one influence in a pool of disrupters. In the realm of guitar in the late ‘60s, innovations whipsawed through the community at particle-accelerator speed, spawning vibrant "what-if" conversations–and, as audible on the corresponding playlist, a kind of ingenuity "arms race." The Hendrix revolution led to the Santana revolution; renewed interest in Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf sprouted Led Zeppelin. And so on. All in a staggeringly short amount of time.

Consider just what was happening around the blues. By 1969, the "British blues revival" sparked by The Rolling Stones and others had been going strong for a while. The rekindled interest in Chicago-style electric blues put some of the absolute titans of the form—Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy—on the road at more visible levels, playing alongside blues-rock upstarts for young audiences in rock venues.

That exposure created an unusual "circuit" between those legends and the fast-rising blues-worshipping guitarists of the UK: John Mayall, Jeff Beck, Peter Frampton of Humble Pie, etc. The elders got to stretch out while their worshipful imitators, headliners on many of those bills, stood offstage to pick up a direct transmission of blues history from the legends.

As those musicians evolved in both England and America, they became less interested in emulating the tradition and more concerned with stretching and repurposing it. They made choices about how worshipful to be about blues tropes, and those choices contributed to a bunch of highly distinctive blues-informed sonic signatures. Creedence Clearwater Revival explored a swampy, shadowy offshoot of the blues. The Allman Brothers chased a greasy, hard-driving boogie energized by the impossibly beautiful tangle of six-string and slide guitar. Starting from Chicago blues, Led Zeppelin transformed the blues into a conduit for bliss whimpers and other expressions of carnal desire.

And, crucially, it wasn’t a one-way street. The blues veterans undertook their own experiments, sometimes prodded by executives at Chess and other labels, to see what they could do in a rock context. Among the more noteworthy experiments was Muddy Waters’ Electric Mud, which teamed the veteran bluesman with Chicago rockers Rotary Connection for a series of surreal psychedelic forays released in 1968. It wasn’t a highlight reel moment for Muddy, but it sparked conversations about authenticity and experimentation that continue today.

A few acts followed the Hendrix example into entirely different realms. By 1969, Fleetwood Mac had released two fairly straightforward, unexceptional blues-rock albums that didn’t exactly put the band on a fast track to artistic success. With the stunning Then Play On, the band shifted its emphasis, seeking lovely, deftly interconnected twin lead guitar textures from Peter Green and Danny Kirwan. These sometimes start as bite-sized blues-riff declarations, but grow into curiously freeform expressions that have a ritualistic quality.

And then there’s Santana, arguably the most significant of the blues-informed and adjacent talents to erupt in 1969. The Mexican-American guitarist and bandleader from the Bay Area formed the original lineup in 1966, developing a sound built on rhythms from Latin America—cha-cha, Afro-Cuban son montuno and beats used by dance bands of the 1950s. These were brought to high amplitude by an exceedingly communicative percussion section, and provided a platform for Santana’s uncommonly lyrical guitar solos. Where other guitarists came blazing with fireworks from the first note, Santana developed his ideas patiently, over time, crafting a marathon journey out of intricate single-note lines and beautifully speared sustained notes. Santana and his band created an entirely new context for guitar-based rock.

Others were doing that in 1969, too — notably the Grateful Dead. By early that year, during a famous run of shows at the Fillmore West (documented on the band’s first live album Live/Dead), the band’s improvisatory ethos was well established. Using mountain songs and cosmic allegorical originals and the blues as touchstones, the Dead conjured winding-road excursions that became less about showcasing the prowess of guitarist Jerry Garcia and more about a shared evolving conversation. At times, the versions of "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" and "Dark Star" from the Fillmore run approach the cross-talking intensity of free jazz.

Much Peak Guitar activity does have to do with demonstrations of pure technical prowess (another Hendrix legacy), but not all of it. 1969 was the year of the first recorded collaboration between Neil Young and his longtime band Crazy HorseEverybody Knows This Is Nowhere. With this work (particularly "Cinnamon Girl" and "Down by the River"), the defiantly unconventional Young created his own primitivistic guitar language of feedback squalls and fitful, claw-fisted jabs against the tempo. Lots of rock guitarists aimed for a poised, clean sound during this era; Young went searching for the sonic equivalent of grit and corrosion.

The Peak Guitar roll call includes others who were not trying to shred, at least not in conventional ways. In 1969 Frank Zappa put out the largely instrumental Hot Rats, which is notable for its dense, exceedingly tricky compositions ("Peaches En Regalia") and its equally dense, blindingly inventive guitar solos. That same year, Zappa’s label, Straight Records, gave the world Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, a collection of meta ear-stretching concoctions that is now regarded as a conceptual rock classic.

There was progressive rock before 1969, but many historians cite the arrival of King Crimson as a tipping point. The band’s debut is regarded as the moment when the form’s arty pretension was eclipsed by a ripping, super-intense rhythm assault. 1969 was also the year Pink Floyd became a more riveting band: Though whole stretches of the ambitious Ummagumma are indulgent, the live performances, and particularly, "Astronomy Domine," establish the template for its later successes, with episodes of idyllic calm followed by agitated peaks. Plus, since the topic is Peak Guitar, David Gilmour.

Technique is the coin of the realm in jazz, and 1969 marks the early peak of one of the form’s undisputed speed demons: British guitarist John McLaughlin. During this year, McLaughlin was part of three galvanic, markedly different records: His own solo debut Extrapolation, Emergency! by The Tony Williams Lifetime, and Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way. All are classics and all showcase different aspects of McLaughlin’s art. His debut is notable for its carefully woven and genius-level lines, while Emergency! contains fiery, telepathic exchanges between McLaughlin and organist Larry Young. But for his first foray into electronic soundscapes, Davis got McLaughlin to abandon the stun-gun approach in favor of atmospheric arpeggios and gorgeous pastel-shaded chords.

Just imagine what it was like to be studying guitar in 1969. Maybe you concentrated on jazz, but you couldn’t escape Hendrix, or Clapton, or Santana. You had to contend with the freakish John McLaughlin, then evolving at warp speed. At the same moment, of course, some of the most accomplished six-string soloists of all time were walking the earth: traditionalists like Joe Pass and Jim Hall; fleet-fingered newcomers like Pat Martino; soul-jazz stalwarts like Grant Green and Kenny Burrell. And you could also hear some of the most accomplished rhythm guitar timekeepers – Ike Turner, Steve Cropper of the Stax Records house band, Jimmy Nolen with James Brown, João Gilberto.

It was a moment when the inspiration circuit was running extremely hot and when disruption meant not simply rearranging the furniture but building whole new houses. One way to tell just how significant 1969 was as a source of inspiration: Take a peek into what was right around the corner. ZZ Top. Black Sabbath. Derek and the Dominos. Free. Chicago II. James Gang. Deep Purple. Funkadelic (featuring the perpetually under-appreciated Eddie Hazel). Grand Funk Railroad. Stevie Ray Vaughan. George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. And on and on.