“The Star-Spangled Banner” is so ubiquitous in American public life that it’s difficult to hear the song as a song—a living, breathing entity that thrives when reinterpreted by skilled musicians. Such reinventions happen on a small scale on an everyday basis yet they’re often canceled out by rote, dutiful renditions that reveal how hard it can be to perform Francis Scott Key’s national anthem.
What follows are 30 versions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that excel either due to their execution or imagination. These are the twin tracts of how to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” in modern America, represented by Whitney Houston’s powerhouse vocals and Jimi Hendrix’s galvanizing guitar, respectively. Many musicians followed these respective paths but just as many strayed off course, interpreting the familiar melody with quirky, idiosyncratic flair that’s quintessentially—and thrillingly—American.