The guitar is the very backbone of rock – not to mention blues and country music – and the world is a better place to live in thanks to all the six-string geniuses that have come along. The best guitarists of all time include not only the hardest rockers to have picked up the instrument, but the groundbreakers who cleared the way for them. Here’s who we think deserves to sit among the greatest guitarists in history.
Have we missed one of yours? Let us know in the comments section below.
75: Gabor Szabo
It’s surprising that more great rock guitarists (aside from Carlos Santana who famously covered “Gypsy Queen”) haven’t namechecked Gabor Szabo more often, since he was arguably the most rock-friendly of all the mid-60s jazz greats. He was playing fusion and worldbeat before either had a name, and he got into Indian music, on 1966’s landmark Jazz Raga, before George Harrison did. He also took “The Beat Goes On” to places Sonny Bono never imagined.
Check out: “Gypsy Queen”
74: Joe Satriani
Flashy guitar solos by anybody but Eddie Van Halen were falling out of fashion in the late 80s until Joe Satriani made them fun again. “Surfing With the Alien,” the title track of his hit ‘87 album, was four solid minutes of impossible licks, but the track still had the gonzoid appeal of a vintage surf instrumental. Satriani would turn down numerous lucrative band offers to pursue his solo mix of fusion, metal, and prog.
Check out: “Surfing with the Alien”
73: Nils Lofgren (Crazy Horse, E Street Band)
When you’re a current, full-time member of both Crazy Horse and the E Street Band, your status as a great songwriter’s guitarist is unshakeable. But Nils Lofgren’s no slouch of a songwriter himself, and his solo projects give him more room to stretch out than Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young do. One of his most classic solos occurs in his ode to another guitarist: Check any of the many recorded versions of “Keith Don’t Go.”
Check out: “Keith Don’t Go”
72: Steve Vai
A great guitarist of amazing technical ability, Steve Vai has kept one foot in hard rock, and the other in serious composition. He initially held the coveted “stunt guitar” slot in Frank Zappa’s band, where his offstage exploits earned him the track “Stevie’s Spanking.” During a brief stay with Whitesnake and a longer one with David Lee Roth, he played shredding solos with the best – but check the solo track “Weeping China Doll” to hear him in a more artful context.
Check out: “Weeping China Doll”
71: Don Felder (The Eagles)
Though he ultimately fell out with the band, Don Felder’s importance to the Eagles can’t be overlooked. When he joined for the third album On the Border, they suddenly transformed from tasteful country-rockers to a guitar army. Even after Joe Walsh’s arrival, it was still Felder who provided landmark moments like the long intro to “Hotel California.” The stinging solo on “One of These Nights” may well have been his peak.
Check out: “One of These Nights”
70: Kristin Hersh (Throwing Muses)
As the leader of the perpetually underrated Throwing Muses, Kristin Hersh is also one of the indie rock movement’s most inventive lead players. On the band’s early albums she devised angular and logic-defying lead parts. But they rock even harder nowadays, and the 2020 album Sun Racket is a regular barrage of killer riffs, including the vibrato frenzy on “Dark Blue.” Earlier solo tracks, like the Michael Stipe duet “Your Ghost,” show her elegance on acoustic lead.
Check out: “Dark Blue”
69: Joe Walsh (The Eagles, The James Gang)
He currently provides the big-guitar moments in the Eagles but Joe Walsh really wrote the book in the James Gang, one of America’s first great power trios. Not only did he provide them with killer riffs, but he stretched out to parts unknown in his solos. Check out the Gang’s epic “The Bomber” which starts out between-the-eyes heavy but visits echoed space in the solo; make sure you hear the unedited version (before Maurice Ravel’s estate got in touch) where he throws in a wah-wah “Bolero.”
Check out: “Bolero”
68: Derek Trucks (The Allman Brothers Band, Tedeschi Trucks)
Born into the extended Allman Brothers family (he’s Butch Trucks’ nephew) and named after Eric Clapton’s alter-ego, Derek Trucks was truly born to play his music. He wound up replacing Duane Allman twice, both in the Allman Brothers Band and as Eric Clapton’s guitar foil on a Layla-themed tour (where “Bell Bottom Blues” never sounded better). But Trucks is very much his own man, leading a uniquely soulful jamming band with his music and life partner Susan Tedeschi, a fine guitarist herself.
Check out: “Bell Bottom Blues”
67: Angus Young (AC/DC)
The very existence of AC/DC is a celebration of all things that rock, and that kick-it-out spirit comes through in a timeless solo like “Let There Be Rock,” which throws in all the best cheap thrills: Fast runs, power chords, and finally those orgasmic screaming strums.
Check out: “Let There Be Rock
66: Kirk Hammett (Metallica)
Arguably the premier lead guitarist in 80s metal, Kirk Hammett united the ferocity of thrash with heavy technical dazzle, but could be highly expressive as well – witness the way his solo screams for life on “One.” Less unhinged, but equally impressive, is the brief and beautifully constructed solo on “Sad But True.”
Check out: “Sad But True”
65: Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath)
Black Sabbath’s axeman is the opposite of a shredder: Bone-crunching riffs are his specialty, and while any heavy-metal kid could play the riffs of “Paranoid” or “Sweet Leaf,” it took a certain brilliance to dream them up. Even when he solos at length (on the first album’s “Warning” medley), it’s mainly a bunch of tasty riffs strung together.
Check out: “Paranoid”
64: Warren Haynes (Gov’t Mule)
It says a lot that Warren Haynes could step into institutions as venerable as the Allman Brothers Band and a couple of Grateful Dead spinoffs, and still be his own man. Haynes is the king of the jam-band world because he’s absorbed the full tradition and personalized it. His regular band Gov’t Mule can be spacey or bone-crunching depending on the tune. Check any version of “Soulshine,” the signature tune that he’s played with just about all of his bands, for his rootsy but expressive best.
Check out: “Soulshine”
63: Steve Hackett (Genesis)
Arguably the most consistently creative guitarist in progressive rock, the great Steve Hackett took his 1977 departure from Genesis as the cue to explore further, branching out to Brazilian music (on 1982’s Till We Have Faces), nylon-stringed classical guitar on a handful of instrumental albums, and even a rather wild blues album (1994’s Blues With a Feeling). But his specialty is still the grand, cinematic sound heard on such peaks as the title track to 1978’s Please Don’t Touch.
Check out: “Please Don’t Touch”
62: The Edge (U2)
Thanks to his canny use of delay and effects, The Edge had a signature sound from the very first U2 singles. The riffs on “I Will Follow” and “Gloria” are indelible as it gets, and his adventurous spirit has never flagged since developing his inventive style during the band’s 80s heyday.
Check out: “Gloria”
61: Ritchie Blackmore (Deep Purple, Rainbow)
If there’s such a thing as punk metal, Deep Purple’s great guitarist probably invented it. What Ritchie Blackmore brought to the mix is pure aggression, first during his time with the Purps, then with Rainbow. Go back to Made In Japan , listen to the solos on “Space Truckin’” and “Lazy,” and tell us he didn’t wish he could murder everyone in the audience.
Check out: “Space Truckin’”
60: Leo Nocentelli (The Meters)
The Meters’ great guitarist Leo Nocentelli defined the New Orleans approach to funk: Keep it spare, with rhythm parts so slinky you can almost feel them. On a funk classic like “Cissy Strut,” he teases with that indelible riff, making an impression without stepping forward for a full solo. He solos more freely on later Meters tracks, but it’s still all about economy: On the extended “It Ain’t No Use” he takes to the wah-wah and makes every funky phrase count.
Check out: “Cissy Strut”
59: Adrian Belew (King Crimson)
A real study in contrasts, Adrian Belew keeps one foot in the avant-garde and another in Beatles-inspired pop, crossing those tendencies when you least expect it. As one of the most versatile and greatest guitarists, he’s both a prolific soloist and touring axe man for Zappa, Bowie and Talking Heads, to name a few. He’s also laid down some legendary session work on the likes of Paul Simon’s Graceland and Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral, and, lest we forget, he does great animal noises.
Check out: “Mr. Self Destruct”
58: John Fogerty (Creedence Clearwater Revival)
As the leader of Creedence Clearwater Revival, John Fogerty regularly packed guitar thrills into unfashionably short songs: The solo on “Proud Mary” was simple but perfect, and we’d be hard-pressed to name a more attention-grabbing guitar intro than the one on Creedence’s “Commotion.” When Fogerty allowed himself an extended solo, the results could be thrilling: The long, intense break on “Ramble Tamble” sounds like the Cramps before their time.
Check out: “Ramble Tamble”
57: Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth, solo)
With Sonic Youth, Thurston Moore changed the sound of the rock guitar, using an array of tones and tunings that were all his own. He also injected some free-jazz awareness into an energizing punk-inspired setting with his famous Jazzmaster guitar. Both with Sonic Youth and as a solo artist, he remains an alt.rock guitar hero.
Check out: “100%”
56: Hank Marvin (The Shadows)
The man who brought rock guitar to the UK, with Cliff Richard and, instrumentally, with the Shadows. You can thank Hank Marvin for any of your favorite English guitar heroes, since his sound is what they all grew up on.
Check out: “Apache”
55: Alex Lifeson (Rush)
Rush may be the only power trio where the lead guitarist could get overshadowed by the other two guys, especially when they reduced the guitar’s role in the 80s. But Alex Lifeson proved a perfectly heroic player whenever they turned him loose, unleashing more fireworks on “La Villa Strangiato” than most do in whole careers. When Rush changed directions, he provided subtler peaks like the textural solo in “Subdivisions.”
Check out: “Subdivisions.”
54: Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits, solo)
The world didn’t want to know about guitar heroics in the new-wave era, until the first two Dire Straits albums came along. On those records in particular, Mark Knopfler’s soloing is clean, economical, and effortlessly tasty. His solo work largely downplays lead guitar, but it’s still there between the lines.
Check out: “Sultans Of Swing”
53: David Gilmour (Pink Floyd)
As the lead man in Pink Floyd, David Gilmour added cheap thrills to a band that usually disdained them. During live performances of The Wall, all of Roger Waters’ psychodramas led to the earthshaking solo on “Comfortably Numb.” Gilmour had a lighter touch as well; “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” may be the only prog epic to begin with five straight minutes of lyrical guitar shimmers.
Check out: “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”
52: James Burton (The Wrecking Crew)
The only guitarist to play with both Elvises (Presley and Costello), James Burton originated the swampy style that John Fogerty, of Creedence Clearwater Revival, plus many others picked up on. The Rock And Roll Hall Of Famer laid down his first iconic solo on Ricky Nelson’s “Hello Mary Lou, Goodbye Heart” and became the most in-demand player for virtually every top Californian record label from the 60s onwards, playing with The Beach Boys and The Everly Brothers, and joining the legendary Wrecking Crew.
Check out: “Hello Mary Lou, Goodbye Heart”
51: Bob Mould (Hüsker Dü)
The most inventive guitarist to come from the post-punk era, Mould brought psychedelia to the mosh pit when Hüsker Dü did their own version of The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High.” The careening energy he packs into every solo is still a sonic blast 40 years down the line.
Check out: “Broken Home, Broken Heart”
50: Rick Nielsen (Cheap Trick)
Rick Nielsen is probably the most underrated lead guitarist in the hard-rock world, since he uses guitar heroics on his famous five-neck guitar strictly to enhance the songs. And great songs – he also writes them – are what Cheap Trick is all about.
Check out: “The Ballad Of TV Violence”
49: Roger McGuinn and Clarence White (The Byrds)
You wouldn’t necessarily know it from their studio albums, but The Byrds’ Mark II line-up had one of the best guitar tag-teams in history: the founder who turned electric 12-string into an iconic sound, plus a world-champion flat picker who was just venturing into rock. Listen to any later live version of “Eight Miles High” and hear the sparks fly.
Check out: “Eight Miles High”
48: Kurt Cobain (Nirvana)
Kurt Cobain never embraced the role of guitar hero, which smacked of everything he disdained about big-time rock’n’roll. Which may be why he put one of his most hero-like, arena-ready solos into “Serve the Servants,” a song that disparaged the big time. Or why he played an Eastern-tinged solo that George Harrison or Beck would’ve loved, and then titled the song “Sappy.”
Check out: “Serve the Servants”
47: Django Reinhardt
The great Belgian-French guitarist popularized gypsy jazz and recorded some of the most joyful solos on record. The 1961 compilation album Djangology is one of Django Reinhardt’s many collaborations with violinist Stéphane Grapelli, and is the very essence of swing. The Roma musician was one of the most influential jazz figures, and best guitarists, to emerge from Europe, and pioneered what would eventually be called “gypsy jazz”.
Check out: “Minor Swing”
Prince was such a prolific performer and songwriter that his gifts as one of the best guitarists of all time ran the risk of getting overlooked. But there’s a reason why “Purple Rain” and his appearance alongside Tom Petty on an all-star version of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” at the 2004 Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction ceremony, became his two most-shared performances: both feature epic guitar solos.
Check out: “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”
45: Ry Cooder
Ry Cooder is truly one of a kind, a great guitarist with an extensive grasp of musical history and a mile-wide eccentric streak (after all, he played with Captain Beefheart before going solo). He jammed with the Stones more than once (that’s his spooky slide on “Sister Morphine”) and rocked on John Hiatt’s beloved Bring the Family album. But Cooder’s greatest moment may be his early-70s take on the James Carr soul standard “Dark End of the Street,” as an emotive instrumental.
Check out: “Dark End of the Street”
44: Robert Fripp (King Crimson)
Prog legend Robert Fripp puts all the exploratory spirit of the greatest prog rock into every solo. Leaving King Crimson aside, we’d single out the violent outburst in Brian Eno’s “Baby’s On Fire” and the beautiful capper to Peter Gabriel’s “White Shadow.” With Crimson, he’s the only member to have played in all their line-ups, from their inception in the late 60s to the present day.
Check out: “Baby’s On Fire”
43: Frank Zappa
Anyone who had the privilege of seeing Frank Zappa live had to marvel at the solos he’d unleash in the middle of all the musical insanity. The surprise was how lyrical he could get; check Joe’s Garage for the beautiful “Watermelon In Easter Hay.” For a deeper dive, check out his Shut Up ’n Play Yer Guitar collection, loaded with enough guitar instrumentals and improvisations to take up three albums.
Check out: “Watermelon In Easter Hay”
42: Pat Metheny
Predominately a jazz guitarist, though perhaps the most flexible guitarist in any genre, Pat Metheny has managed to play acoustic pieces that border on New Age, along with album-length bursts of avant-noise, though he’s probably in top form when he’s strayed between those poles. An early adopter of synths in jazz, he’s also the only person to win a Grammy in ten different categories.
Check out: “Last Train Home”
41: Peter Green (Fleetwood Mac)
Throw in all the big names you want, but Peter Green just may be the most expressive of all the great British blues-rock guitarists. He’s renowned not as much for speed and flash (though he had those), but for the wealth of emotion he put into his solos; he could sound dirty and raunchy or downright haunted. A good example of both is the two-part “Oh Well” that features classic riffage in the first half and spooky atmospherics in the second.
Check out: “Oh Well”
40: Albert Collins
The “master of the Telecaster” was renowned for his stinging, “icy” tone. As one of the most influential and best guitarists on record, Albert Collins recorded well into the 90s, but his 60s sides offer some of the tastiest blues instrumentals on record.
Check out: “Frosty”
39: Big Jim Sullivan
No, it wasn’t Jimmy Page who did most of the guitar sessions in London during the 60s. It was Big Jim Sullivan, who wound up playing on an amazing array of 700 hit records, many of them timeless, before beginning a long stint in Tom Jones’ Vegas-era band. One of Sullivan’s trademark sounds was the acoustic 12-string, heard to great effect in Chris Farlowe’s “Out of Time” and the Seekers’ “I’ll Never Find Another You.” He also made a cult-classic album in 1968 as Lord Sitar, one of the first full albums to use the Indian instrument in a rock context.
Check out: “Blues For Norma”
38: Richard Thompson (Fairport Convention)
Earning our vote for one of the greatest guitarists still living, what Richard Thompson does by now transcends categories of folk or rock. There isn’t a guitarist working today with a more individual style, who can pack more emotional expression into a solo, or who can let it rip as thrillingly as he does on every live version of “Tear Stained Letter.”
Check out: “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”
37: Les Paul
Les Paul deserves immortality for his innovations in recording and multitracking, but his guitar-playing was no slouch either, particularly on the duo singles where he flew in and around the voice of his partner Mary Ford.
Check out: “How High The Moon”
36: Elizabeth Cotton
The trailblazing folk and blues musician originated her distinctive style by accident. Elizabeth Cotton was left-handed but initially learned to play by turning her right-handed brother’s banjo upside-down. When she switched to guitar, she still had the instincts of a banjo player, and since the instrument was still upside-down, she fingerpicked the bass strings while using her thumb for the melodies. This style of “Cotton picking” is especially tough to master, which may be why no two versions of her signature tune, “Freight Train,” sound quite the same.
Check out: “Freight Train”
35: Robert Johnson
Though he never played electric guitar, Robert Johnson’s Delta blues embodies everything that a generation of blues-rock players was out to capture – from the swing in “Sweet Home Chicago” to the sheer aggression of his slide playing on “Crossroads Blues.” He may have struck a deal with the Devil, but we reaped the benefits.
Check out: “Cross Road Blues”
34: Carlos Santana
Carlos Santana is one of the most influential and greatest guitarists of the last 50 years, high points including his groundbreaking Woodstock set, his inimitable 70s streak and his “Smooth” revival. Santana has played every possible combination of rock, jazz, and Latin, and you can always tell it’s him from the first note. He never runs out of passion or ideas, having released his 25th! studio album, Africa Speaks, in June 2019.
Check out: “Oye Coma Va”
33: Buddy Guy
If BB King embodied the elegance of blues guitar, then Buddy Guy’s got the nastiness down. A blazing soloist even into his 80s, he’s pulled countless rock-trained ears over to the blues camp and inspired everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Eric Clapton. Few can bend a note quite like Guy, and he’s almost single-handedly keeping the blues alive.
Check out: “Stone Crazy”
32: Pete Townshend (The Who)
Pete Townshend sometimes insists that he’s a mere rhythm guitarist – but given the number of deathless solos in The Who catalog, you could’ve fooled us. Sure, his furious acoustic strumming is key to the Who’s sound, but so are the near-violent solos he unleashes at the peak moments, whether it’s the confessional “However Much I Booze” or the feedback extravaganza on the Live at Leeds “Young Man’s Blues.”
Check out: “However Much I Booze”
31: Neil Young
Everybody has a trademark style; Neil Young has two, and there’s no other rock guitarist who can vacillate convincingly between gentle and crude. There’s a reason a certain full-throttle Marshall sound is invariably called “that Neil and Crazy Horse sound”.
Check out: “Like A Hurricane”
30: Rory Gallagher
Of all the great blues-rock guitarists, Rory Gallagher had to be the most fiery soloist; give him a slide and he’d melt your mind with fluent riffs and dazzling speed. No wonder Gallagher was one of the few old-guard rockers that the punks still liked. And he was Jimi Hendrix’s favorite guitarist, too.
Check out: “Philby”
29: Eddie Hazel (Parliament-Funkadelic)
As the charter guitarist of George Clinton’s P-Funk crew, Eddie Hazel played some of the most out-there solos ever ventured in a rock or funk context (check any live version of ‘Maggot Brain’ for evidence). But you could still get down to them.
Check out: “Maggot Brain”
28: Scotty Moore
It was Elvis’ original guitarist Scotty Moore who first introduced rockabilly to punk attitude: Few guitar solos ever said “Get outta here!” more clearly than his last one in “Hound Dog.” But his greatest solo, and one of the era’s best, has to be the one in the King’s version of “Shake, Rattle & Roll,” a solo so hot that Moore plays it again later in the song.
Check out: “Shake, Rattle & Roll”
27: Dick Dale
The story of Dick Dale’s surf rock success is an unlikely one in which a hungry young kid flashes back to the Lebanese music he grew up with, applies much volume and a ton of reverb, thinks about the thrill of catching a wave and invents southern California’s defining instrumental sound. Not bad for a transplant from Quincy, Massachusetts, who grew up to be one of the greatest guitarists in rock history.
26: George Benson
George Benson helped invent smooth jazz with “Breezin,’” but that was only after he’d been recording as a tougher and more inventive jazz guitarist for 15 years. Which is why Benson’s work remained tasty even at its smoothest, since he never lost his jazz roots. Check the Stevie Wonder-penned “We All Remember Wes,” from the height of his pop years. And he’s still trying new things, doing his first rock’n’roll album (Walking to New Orleans) 50 years into his career.
Check out: “We All Remember Wes”
25: Glen Campbell
Glen Campbell had hundreds of Wrecking Crew sessions under his belt before launching his solo career, and always played the guitar on his own records. Those bass string solos on “Galveston” and “Wichita Lineman” are models of economy, but if you really want to be impressed, check out his live version of “MacArthur Park,” proving his spot on a list of the greatest guitarists is more than well-earned.
Check out: “MacArthur Park”
24: Junior Marvin
The great Jamaican-born guitarist joined Bob Marley & the Wailers for the classic Exodus album and furthered the band’s power by playing rock-influenced lead guitar in a reggae context. The ripping solo in “Concrete Jungle” (from the live album Babylon By Bus) is a prime example. Crate-diggers should also check out the two albums of Hendrix-inspired power-trio rock that he recorded pre-Wailers, under his original name Junior Hanson.
Check out: “Concrete Jungle”
23: Keith Richards (The Rolling Stones)
Sure, there are flashier soloists (a couple of whom have themselves been in The Rolling Stones), but nothing says rock’n’roll like Keith Richards kicking off a rhythm riff. And nobody looks more rock’n’roll doing it. Writing some of the most memorable riffs in rock history more than earns him a place on this list of the best guitarists of all time.
Check out: “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”
22: Stevie Ray Vaughan
Stevie Ray Vaughn wedded the flash of arena rock to the essential soul of Texas blues at a time when both needed a fresh kick (the various live versions of “Texas Flood” are a crash course in blues eloquence). The world was robbed of one of the greatest guitarists of all time when he died at 35, in 1990.
Check out: “Texas Flood”
21: Albert Lee
As one of the greatest English guitarists, Albert Lee applied 70s rock distortion to his fluid fingerpicking, doing some groundbreaking work in his original band, Heads Hands And Feet. Later he put the distortion aside and became a first-class country-rock picker, anchoring the Everly Brothers’ reunion-era band.
Check out: “Country Boy”
20: Robert White (The Funk Brothers)
Part of the legendary Motown Records house band, The Funk Brothers, White, and his fellow session players are on more hit records than The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and The Rolling Stones combined. He’s also featured in the most heart-wrenching scene in the documentary Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, where he talks about sitting in a restaurant unrecognised while his indelible intro to The Temptations’ “My Girl” plays. They didn’t mention an even greater moment of his – that one-chord wonder that opens The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hanging On.”
Check out: “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”
19: Link Wray
Famously the first rock’n’roller to get banned for an instrumental, when 50s-era parents feared that the switchblade guitar sounds on “Rumble” were enough to induce gang violence. The great part was, they were right. In some ways, Wray invented the power chord, creating the basis of modern rock guitar playing by all the best guitarists from then on out.
Check out: “Rumble”
18: Chet Atkins
Early in his career, country music’s greatest guitarist – “Mr. Guitar”, as he would come to be known – could perform red-hot licks with the best of them. But once Chet Atkins had been there and done that, he devised the more elegant, gentlemanly style that not only defined his sound, but defined the “Nashville Sound” from the mid-60s onwards.
Check out: “Windy And Warm”
17: Eddie Van Halen (Van Halen)
This guitar hero turned hard rock into high art, thanks to his innovative finger-tapping style and his famous Frankenstrat. Eddie Van Halen completely changed the sound and style of guitar rock in the 80s and gave us some of the most masterful riffs in rock history, from “Eruption” to “Unchained.”
Check out: “Eruption”
16: Martin Carthy
England’s premier folk traditionalist, Martin Carthy is famously the man whose version of “Scarborough Fair” was nicked by Paul Simon. Far beyond that, Carthy has an individual guitar style built around folk-dance rhythms, and he played some killer electric during his tenure in Steeleye Span.
Check out: “Byker Hill”
15: Steve Howe (Yes)
Steve Howe’s dexterity and imagination embody everything that’s great about prog rock, from the wah-wah outbursts on “Yours is No Disgrace’ to the country picking on “Clap” and the Spaciness of “Wurm.” And that’s just one side of his first Yes album.
Check out: “Yours Is No Disgrace”
14: Charlie Christian
As the man who brought the electric guitar forward as a solo instrument, jazz guitarist Charlie Christian arguably made most of this list of the best guitarists possible. For a key moment, check his 1939 recording of “Stardust” with Benny Goodman, where his solo gets freer and more forward-looking as it builds.
Check out: “Stardust”
13: Slash (Guns N’ Roses)
Among the flash and bombast of 80s hard rock, Slash sounded like a return to form, bringing back the spirit of old rock’n’roll to the Top 40 with a blues sensibility While best known for the kind of epic, stage-stealing solos like the one he unleashed on ‘November Rain’, the Guns N’ Roses guitarist helped to turn GNR from a Sunset Strip fixture to a stadium-rock act. He’s also responsible for some of the most iconic guitar riffs in rock, from “Sweet Child O’ Mine” to “Paradise City.”
Check out: “November Rain”
12: Duane Allman (The Allman Brothers)
We got a tragically small amount of music from Skydog, but Duane Allman left a mark on slide-guitar artistry for decades to come – not least with his guest spot on Derek And The Dominos’ “Layla.” His secret weapon was the soulful touch that he’d honed through a few years of work as an Atlantic sessionman and later applied to his time with The Allman Brothers, with his brother Greg, before his tragic passing in 1971.
Check out: “Layla”
11: Brian May (Queen)
Proving that brainiacs really do belong in rock’n’roll, Brian May’s talent as an inventor/engineer gave Queen the wide array of guitar sounds that they needed to rule the arenas and properly frame Freddie Mercury as a lead singer. It also enabled them to proclaim “no synths” on their first six albums.
Check out: “Bohemian Rhapsody”
10: George Harrison
The Beatles’ masterful popcraft often overshadows their skills as musicians; case in point: George Harrison. Ever the quiet one, Harrison’s economic use of soloing – playing exactly what’s needed, when it’s needed – was an essential part of The Beatles’ sound. Even as the band was breaking apart on Abbey Road, Harrison was starting to shine as both a songwriter and guitarist, something we’d get to see more of on his solo work. His lead guitar lines came into focus on Abbey Road, allowing him to fully express himself through his instrument.
Check out: “Something”
9: Jeff Beck (The Yardbirds)
While Eric Clapton brought passion to The Yardbirds and Jimmy Page brought technical wizardry, Jeff Beck brought aggressive firepower. Guitar playing doesn’t get more brutal than “Rice Pudding,” the killer cut from his Beck-Ola album.
Check out: “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”
8: Steve Cropper (Booker T And The MGs)
Possibly the greatest rhythm guitarist who ever lived, Cropper drover countless Stax singles (virtually all of them between 1963-73) with his impeccably funky timing. Not to mention his flair for the stinging solo, or his co-writing Otis Redding’s signature tune ”(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay”.
Check out: “Melting Pot”
7: Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin)
The key to Jimmy Page’s genius is really his years as a session player, coming up with endless ways to enhance a song. That’s what made him so resourceful with Led Zeppelin – he knew all about the possibilities of layering and colouring. As one of the few surviving artists from that era, this guitar virtuoso is a living legend.
Check out: “Heartbreaker”
6: Sister Rosetta Tharpe
No, the Devil didn’t have all the good songs, or even all the greatest guitarists. As an early gospel artist, Sister Rosetta Tharpe really did invent a lot of the distorted tones that blues and rock players would later adopt. Before that, however, she also recorded some of the most fluid acoustic leads on record. On the 1945 hit “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” she blurs the lines between country, jazz and gospel, all in the service of some sanctified testimony.
Check out: “Strange Things Happening Every Day”
5: Eric Clapton (Cream, Blind Faith, Derek And The Dominos)
Clapton is God: that was the belief during his Cream and Derek And The Dominos days, when Eric Clapton was one of the most expressive players around. But even after getting tasteful in the 70s, he always managed some thrilling outbursts. And that trademark “woman tone” remains a thing of beauty.
Check out: “Crossroads”
4: BB King
You might say that BB King was half of the greatest vocal duo in blues history. The other half was his guitar, Lucille, whose elegant, pleading tone said everything that the words couldn’t completely express.
Check out: “Sweet Little Angel”
3: Wes Montgomery
During his too-short career, this jazz great was rightly renowned for his octave technique (playing phrases on two strings an octave apart, giving a clear sweet tone), and his aggressive thumb strokes (something Jeff Beck and others emulated). More important was Wes Montgomery’s melodic imagination and his impeccable sense of swing, heard especially well on his late 60s Verve releases.
Check out: “No Blues”
2: Chuck Berry
The blues had a baby, they called it rock’n’roll, and the guitar intro on Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” was the moment of conception. Berry was a master of the short and tasty solo (though you can check out 60s albums like Concerto In B Goode if you want to hear his solos at length), and there’s been no worthy rock guitarist who hasn’t absorbed a little Chuck.
Check out: “Johnny B Goode”
1: Jimi Hendrix
Let’s face it, rock will never come up with a more visionary guitarist. Not only did Jimi Hendrix expand the sonic possibilities of what a guitar could do, but he also found uncharted places that a guitar could take you to. Decades on, every newly unearthed version of “Red House” is still a revelation.
Check out: “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”
Looking for more? Discover the 50 legendary bass players you need to know.