The Greatest Prog Guitarists: An Essential Top 25 Countdown

Whether they’re the mastermind of the band or keep the cosmic flights well-grounded, we pay tribute to the best prog guitarists of all time.

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Best prog guitarists
Steve Hackett and Mike Rutherford (Photo: Ellen Poppinga - K & K/Redferns)

Think of progressive rock and what immediately comes to mind is caped keyboard players navigating a sea of wires connected to their Moog. Yet many of the pivotal players in prog rock have been guitarists, and there are easily as many earth-shaking guitar solos in prog as there are in hard rock or metal. Sometimes those prog guitarists are the leader and mastermind of their band, sometimes they’re the player who keeps those cosmic flights well-grounded. This list pays tribute to some of prog’s landmark ax-slingers.

25: Steve Rothery (Marillion)

In both the Fish and Steve Hogarth incarnations, Marillion was always an unconventional prog band. They avoided instrumental prowess for its own sake, preferring slow and stately pieces built largely around the vocal. Steve Rothery can be a model of restraint, playing mood-enhancing textural parts, but he can also deliver a solo as dramatic as the one on “Easter,” Hogarth’s lament for Northern Ireland.

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24: Franco Mussida (PFM)

Italy’s premier prog band, PFM absorbed some influence from their peers. Listening to Franco Mussida’s leads you can detect traces of Steve Howe, Robert Fripp, and Al DiMeola – all with a strong European classical influence. The latter came out when Mussida played acoustic, which he did often: PFM’s “Jet Lag” may be the only prog classic to open with three minutes of pure acoustic guitar. But he could also do a ripping electric solo; witness the live showpiece “Alta Loma Five Till Nine,” with a solo that keeps ramping up the power.

23: John Petrucci (Dream Theater)

As one of the definitive prog guitarists in metal, Dream Theater’s axman can shred with the flashiest of them, but he also keeps the dynamics of a piece in mind. “Behind the Veil” from 2013’s self-titled album is one of his great moments. The solo unfolds with a lyrically restrained theme, then the shredding comes exactly when the rising tension calls for it.

22: John Goodsall (Brand X)

Brand X was one of England’s greatest fusion bands, but your prog credentials are intact when you’ve got Phil Collins on drums and longtime Brian Eno collaborator Percy Jones on bass. Not to mention John Goodsall, a lead guitarist who’s a showoff in the best sense. He’s also played enough sessions to feel comfortable jumping genres (that’s him incognito on Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell”). Listen to “Nuclear Burn” for a taste of everything: atmospheric 12-string and some tricky variations on the song’s already complex riff.

21: Andy Latimer (Camel)

An emotive player with a fluid touch, Andy Latimer was the perfect fit for a band that specialized in otherworldly soundscapes. Thanks to him, Camel always had a recognizable sound even though he was the sole consistent member. His solo on the Snow Goose highlight “Rhayader Goes to Town” is funky and evocative at once, with some well-placed string-bends to further the drama of the piece.

20: Justin Hayward (The Moody Blues)

Though he was known as The Moody Blues’ great balladeer, there are times when Justin Hayward preferred to be just a player in a rock’n’roll band. Having a rock-solid guitarist did the band a lot of good, and since the Moodies were never into long solos, Hayward was adept at concise melodic statements in his solos. “The Story in Your Eyes” has a memorably gritty one, and it’s still one of their prettiest tunes.

19: Pye Hastings (Caravan)

Caravan’s longtime leader is a modest guitarist, to the point of eventually bringing other players to do the heavy work. But the band made its best-loved albums as a one-guitar quartet, and Caravan’s beloved early epics benefit from Pye Hastings’ ability to swing and his knack for a heavy riff – “Nine Feet Underground” shows glory in both cases.

18: Richard Williams (Kansas)

Kansas’ lead guitarist is an unassuming personality, and since Kansas is one of the more commercial prog bands, Richard Williams often gets overlooked. But there are two reasons why he belongs here: First, the double riff-slinging in “Carry On Wayward Son” can make a fist-waver out of anyone. Second, for its heyday, Kansas had two lead guitarists – Williams and Kerry Livgren – but during the later line-up, Williams spent 20 years holding down both parts.

17: Audrey Swinburne (Mother Superior)

Mother Superior was virtually the only all-female band in the history of UK prog, and one of the first female bands to get signed (though not till 1975, narrowly missing prog’s heyday). Guitarist and main writer Audrey Swinburne was previously in a glam band, the Cosmetix, and knew her way around a complex idea. Mother Superior’s one disc is highlighted by a Stephen Stills cover, in this case, “Love the One You’re With,” on which Swinburne’s solo is just as impressive as anything Stills played on the original.

16: Jan Akkerman (Focus)

Jan Akkerman had one foot in the jazz world and the other in classical and Renaissance music; he’s also likely the only prog guitarist who made a solo album devoted to the lute (1974’s Tabernakel). In a jazz context, his extended solo on “Anonymous III” is one thrilling flight, but we can’t overlook his way with a classic metal riff on “Hocus Pocus.”

15: Adrian Belew (King Crimson, solo)

Adrian Belew is a prog guitarist who appreciates out-there soundscapes as much as he loves a great pop song. Few others have covered as wide a range of expression, from his experimental solo albums to the smart pop of The Bears. But Belew is at his best writing memorable tunes with bursts of guitar brilliance; “Big Electric Cat” was the first of many showpieces.

14: Peter Banks: (Yes, Flash)

Yes’ founding guitarist Peter Banks tends to get the least notice of the band’s three axemen, but he helped invent the rock-orchestral sound that Howe and Trevor Rabin built on, and cut some tasty solos in the band’s days. He really blossomed in his next band Flash – one of prog’s first power trios – especially on tracks like the 10-minute “Lifetime,” which lives up to the group’s name.

13: Steve Hillage (Gong, solo, System 7)

Steve Hillage was always a hard one to pin down: He was a proud member of one of the spaciest prog rock outfits out here, and later crossed over into electronica, yet he could do heroic guitar moves with the best. After leaving Gong for a solo career (and getting cosmic with Todd Rundgren and Utopia on the L album), he was one of the first proggers to work with American funk players. The Gong showpiece “The Isle of Everywhere” shows off Hillage’s crystalline tone and dazzling dexterity.

12: Todd Rundgren (Utopia, solo)

Todd Rundgren does a lot of things well, but his formidable lead-guitar skills have always been his ace in the hole. The original Utopia showed he could hold his own in a band with three keyboardists, and on his solo albums from that era, he challenged himself by playing alongside jazz heavyweights. On Initiation’s title track, he has to follow a David Sanborn sax workout, but his guitar solo is pure transcendence.

11: Robin Trower (Procol Harum)

Thanks to his four-decade solo career, there’s little doubt that Robin Trower’s heart is in the blues. But during his stint with Procol Harum, he was effectively playing the blues in a prog context. For Trower, it was all about being expressive, and his work amounted to a one-man crusade against overplaying. His masterstroke has to be the one-note lead on “Shine on Brightly,” perfectly underscoring the song’s theme of creative madness.

10: Trevor Rabin (Yes)

Long before he joined Yes, Trevor Rabin was known as a musician of prodigious chops; he’d already done solo albums playing all the instruments. While he did bring more of an arena-shredder sensibility than any other Yes guitarist, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t serve the song. One of 90125’s highlights, “Changes,” has a taste of everything he does well: Orchestral leads, Police-like rhythm parts, and those flashy cadenzas in the intro.

9: Gary Green (Gentle Giant)

Gentle Giant was throwing around so many musical ideas that it all might have fallen apart if they didn’t have a rock-solid prog guitarist in the mix. On the later albums, when Giant shifted to a more direct and aggressive sound, Gary Green was audibly having the time of his life. But he was also great in Giant’s more complex pieces, most notably “On Reflection,” where he takes control of a mostly a cappella song and calls for a guitar/keys showdown with Kerry Minnear.

8: Frank Zappa

As an overall musician, Frank Zappa transcends easy categories. But as a lead guitarist, his work fits more comfortably into the prog realm. Whenever he soloed in concert, the band would slide into a realm somewhere between rock, jazz, and classical. The instrumental Hot Rats was enormously influential on prog, and some of his solos – especially Joe’s Garage cut “Watermelon in Easter Hay,” – showed the beauty and delicacy he was capable of.

7: Mike Oldfield

Mike Oldfield is above all a composer, and he uses the big guitar moments to advance the drama of a piece. Witness the climactic “storm” section of Hergest Ridge, which has a reported 90 guitar parts built into it. But he can be equally effective with a solo guitar. See the cascading solo that covers most of Incantations’ third side; or the uncharacteristically aggressive solo that brings part one of Ommadawn to a thrilling peak.

6: Steve Hackett (Genesis)

Steve Hackett has a fair claim to have invented tapping; his solo on “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight” may be the first famous use of the technique. He also has a rare affinity for the nylon-stringed classical guitar, to which he’s devoted full albums. But his real strength, with Genesis and to this day, is cinematic grandeur; the climactic solo on “Firth of Fifth” is Hackett at his most majestic.

5: Martin Barre (Jethro Tull)

Jethro Tull’s lead guitarist was a blues player at heart, and the key to Tull’s sound was Martin Barre adding grit to each of the band’s proggy and folky excursions. Sometimes he’d take a hot solo within a more complex piece (see “Thick As a Brick,” about 10 minutes in), other Tull classics were built around his riffage. Legend has it that the jaw-dropping solo on “Aqualung” was played in one take to impress an onlooking Jimmy Page.

4: David Gilmour (Pink Floyd)

David Gilmour came into Pink Floyd when they were still very much a psychedelic band, and slid easily into that mindset. “The Narrow Way,” his featured piece on Ummagumma, explored the cosmic possibilities of slide, steel, and looped echoes. But he was above all an emotive player, whose work got more soulful as the years went on. It peaked with his long opening statement on “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” one of prog’s most luminous moments.

3: Alex Lifeson (Rush)

Rush may be the only power trio where the lead guitarist sometimes got overshadowed by the rhythm section. Yet Alex Lifeson would have been the standout star in virtually any other band, and what he gave Rush was immeasurable: he could do heavy arena-ready leads, subtler textural parts, or wildly exploratory solos. His career showpiece, “La Villa Strangiato,” has plenty of all three.

2: Steve Howe: (Yes)

As a guitarist, Steve Howe embodies everything that’s great about prog rock. Endless melodic imagination, eclectic musical taste, and a flair for diverse tones and imagery. He could do furious electric solos with the best, but could also be as lyrical as “Mood for a Day” or as sprightly as “Clap.”

1: Robert Fripp (King Crimson)

Go ahead and call Robert Fripp the Miles Davis of prog rock. He’s a brilliant player who used his ever-changing band as his instrument. Every version of King Crimson offered a soundscape never heard before, and Fripp developed his guitar accordingly. The violent outbursts, the shimmering Frippertronics, and the gamelan structures of the Discipline era all became trademarks. As for his technical prowess, suffice to say that prog guitarists will be struggling with “Fracture” for decades to come.

Listen to the best of the pioneers of prog in our exclusive playlist.

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35 Comments

35 Comments

  1. Susan White

    February 24, 2021 at 4:17 pm

    Glad to see you guys publish this list! Happy to see Rich Williams on the list! I do disagree with your #1 pick. It obviously should be Steve Howe! Steve is so much more than just a Prog guitarist. His versatility is beyond reproach!

    • Krimson

      February 24, 2021 at 7:48 pm

      To be fair, Fripp would likely reject being called a “prog” guitarist… So yes, Steve Howe for the win! I love them both, but for different reasons…

  2. John Davidson

    February 24, 2021 at 4:40 pm

    Interesting list, Nice to see Latimer, Rothery, Hastings, and definitely Zappa!! It’s hard for me to see a great guitar list without Allan Holdsworth or Jeff Beck 🙂

    • Mincent Price

      February 24, 2021 at 7:55 pm

      Come on guys – how do you have a complete list without Steve Vai who played for Zappa as a kid who smoked him in technique and execution as a teen Frank’s improvisational performance style was tempered by Vai’s deliberately executed expression of Zappa’s music.
      And Jeff Beck who put the spotlight on instrumental progressive rock guitarists, and showed the world the lead guitar featured like leading vocals.

  3. Hendrik Joseph Haan

    February 24, 2021 at 5:27 pm

    No mention of Jeff Beck? Most guitarists stop what they are doing to listen to Jeff. One thing he doesn’t have in common with these (in your list), is he doesn’t do mindless repetition of the same ol’, same ol’.

    • karel hill

      February 25, 2021 at 1:33 pm

      WITH COMPLETE AGREEMENT

  4. Rod Moor-Bardell

    February 24, 2021 at 5:36 pm

    Missing three little words ruin all of these “greatest XXX Of all time” lists. Those words are “In my opinion”. It is really crass journalism to present a list of greats as being definitive, it is just an opinion, music is subjective. My list would include many of the guitarists that are here, but not in the same order, it would also include many that do not appear here – but that is my opinion!

  5. Jeff Mangelsdorf

    February 24, 2021 at 7:57 pm

    Roye Albrighton of Nektar must be in top 25.

  6. Cactus Vic

    February 24, 2021 at 9:10 pm

    What,
    No Allan Holdswoth

  7. Bertrand Brauschweig

    February 24, 2021 at 10:13 pm

    What about Guthrie Gowan, Roine Stolt, Dweezil Zappa (and, of course, Vai, Holdsworth already mentioned).

  8. Tim

    February 24, 2021 at 10:15 pm

    Interesting list, but even Fripp would say Steve Hackett is a Guitar God.

  9. Mark

    February 24, 2021 at 11:16 pm

    Though the music he made isn’t considered “prog”, Eddie Van Halen was PROGressive in all he did with the guitar- creating new soundscape foundations on which to lay a fun hard rock band’s architecture. And for me personally, Alex Lifeson is #1- he’s the culmination of so many of the top ten!

  10. Dave

    February 24, 2021 at 11:50 pm

    Rothery number 25? You’re stoned

  11. Charles Virgil

    February 25, 2021 at 12:48 am

    Anthony Phillips (Genesis, solo) and Graeme Taylor (Gryphon, The Albion Band) should be on this list.

  12. Duane Goosen

    February 25, 2021 at 2:50 am

    Quite a few players are listed who have done little or nothing to push boundaries or in fact do anything to progress the vocabulary of electric, (or acoustic) guitar playing. A list by a better informed writer would likely have included:
    Allan Holdsworth
    Ollie Halsall
    Michael Karoli (Can)
    Terje Rypdal
    John McLaughlin
    Peter Wolbrandt (Kraan)
    Michael Rother
    Jukka Tolonen
    Fred Frith

  13. Scott Davis

    February 25, 2021 at 2:58 am

    No list of this type can be considered serious without Holdsworth.

  14. J.L. Locke

    February 25, 2021 at 3:04 am

    I like that you mentioned Justin Hayward..sinfer, rhythm and lead..very under rated..

    some of the guys on list I have never heard of tho..

    I never could listen to frank zappa’s stuff..robin trower was interesting but he had a great vocalist (Dewars ?)..

  15. Pete

    February 25, 2021 at 9:08 am

    Seeing as this is a prog rock article, we can forgive a little pedantry … I believe Steve Hackett’s first exploration of tapping was on Return of the Giant Hogweed from the album Nursery Cryme (though he was using his pick to fret the right-hand notes) …

    • Joe Cogan

      February 25, 2021 at 8:06 pm

      Steve doesn’t use a pick.

      • Gary Gomes

        February 26, 2021 at 1:01 pm

        He used a pick in 1973-1974.

    • Gary Gome

      February 26, 2021 at 12:59 pm

      Agreed. Hackett was using tapping on Nursery Cryme. I remember a guitarist friend of mine seeing Genesis live in 1973 and remarking about Steve tapping the guitar to get his sounds; you can see it on videos of Howard recorded in Belgium in 1972.

  16. Björn Magnusson

    February 25, 2021 at 9:32 am

    Glad to find Martin Barre on number 5. He often seems to be a forgotten and underrated force in Jethro tull, behind Ian Anderson.

  17. Jean Pierre

    February 25, 2021 at 11:47 am

    ..the recording of this Procol Harum song is great but it’s not Robin Trower on Guitar…it’s Dave Ball….

  18. Bob

    February 25, 2021 at 1:06 pm

    No John Cann (Atomic Rooster), Richie Blackmore, John McLaughlin, Alvin Lee or any of the guys from Wishbone Ash?

    Marillion were too late to be prog.

  19. karel hill

    February 25, 2021 at 1:35 pm

    Roxy’s picker. #Cap’n Beefheart is with the GTO’s

  20. Craig

    February 25, 2021 at 5:11 pm

    Hard to agree, Allan Holdsworth should easily be #1. His work with UK alone separates him from all others. Many of the suggestions from others could be arguable as to the “prog” label (e.g. Jeff Beck & Steve Vai). Also, Rich Williams while notable, really played second to Kerry Livgren, who wrote most of Kansas’ music. Just my 2c.

    • Angel

      February 25, 2021 at 8:20 pm

      Apparement… Pas tout le monde sais qu’est-ce le Prog, soit le Progressive Rock. Content que dans la liste il y ai aussi Mussida des PFM le meilleur Italian Prog Groupe

    • DarcusMarcus

      April 6, 2021 at 4:13 pm

      Yeah. Agreed all round.

      And bassically – no Holdsworth & should be No 1 – no further comment.

  21. Joe Cogan

    February 25, 2021 at 8:04 pm

    The bit about Martin Barre’s solo on Aqualung being done in one take is half-right: Jimmy Page did walk into the studio while Martin was performing it, much to Martin’s surprise, but the main reason it was done in one take was because Ian Anderson had told Martin before recording it that if he didn’t get it the first time around, he was going to do a flute solo there instead.

  22. Soundchaser

    February 26, 2021 at 12:40 am

    So a woman in a an obscure band (Mother Superior) with 1 Album is rated the 16th Greatest Prog Guitarist. Right.

  23. Stephen Haigh

    February 26, 2021 at 1:32 am

    JOhn Petrucci at 23, what a joke, easily the best guitarist ever

  24. Inmyopinion

    February 26, 2021 at 4:37 pm

    Guthrie not on this list

  25. John McMiillen

    February 27, 2021 at 2:36 am

    I would have had Greg Lake in there somewhere

  26. mbaaryker

    March 23, 2021 at 7:37 pm

    Beck? Holdsworth? Surely they ought to be in the top 25.

  27. DarcusMarcus

    April 6, 2021 at 4:09 pm

    Steve Hackett may have a claim to have invented tapping, but he did it earlier than on 1973’s Selling England By The Pound.

    His tapping’s all over the starter riff of “Revenge of the Giant Hogweed” and there’s at least yowtyowb video which homes in on his technique.

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