Four of the best guitarists of all time are in this video from
1987's A Blues Session: B.B. King and Friends.
1987's A Blues Session: B.B. King and Friends.
Check out the list below to see where they and 96 other greats rank.
Lists of superlatives are fun, and what could be more fun than a ranking of the best guitarists of all time? Since 2003, Rolling Stone has had the closest thing to a definitive top 100 list, but like anyone who likes guitar and has opinions, I disagreed with many of their specific rankings. I’ve always wanted to make my own top 100 that focused more on sound and ability than influence and popularity, and I wanted to try to make it detailed and consistent enough to share with other fans looking to discover and debate the best guitarists of all time. So I made a list of around five hundred candidates, put on my headphones, and spent several hundred hours listening to amazing guitar.
Over the course of my listening, I kept coming back to expressiveness, uniqueness, and creativity. Someone who could convey intense feeling in a single note or phrase, someone who created a guitar sound that was distinctly their own, someone who could repeatedly surprise and excite with inventive phrasing or technique—these are the guitarists who stood the test of time for me.
By sharing this list, I hope to introduce you to new guitarists and inspire you to listen to familiar guitarists in a new way.
By sharing this list, I hope to introduce you to new guitarists and inspire you to listen to familiar guitarists in a new way.
Check out my “Great Guitarists” Spotify playlist to hear some of the key guitar songs that I listened to while ranking these awesome guitarists.
1. Jimi Hendrix
The invention of the electronic amplifier opened new worlds of sound for guitarists, but it took Jimi Hendrix to show us just how many worlds existed. Hendrix constantly pushed to explore new sounds and possibilities, while crafting a catalog of memorable songs and unforgettable performances, his brilliant use of feedback and effects always serving to accentuate rather than distract from his material. Even his most ferocious guitar attacks, such as “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” “Machine Gun,” and “The Star Spangled Banner,” brimmed with emotion and moments of beauty.
2. Stevie Ray Vaughan
No one made great guitar sound as effortless as Stevie Ray Vaughan. The rough-hewn blues on his debut album Texas Flood was already full of the subtlety and inventive phrasing that would continue throughout his career. With his revelatory covers of “Little Wing” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” he accomplished the nearly impossible feat of playing Hendrix better than Hendrix. His tone was at once full and muscular, smooth and clear, and his live shows produced some of the most riveting improvised solos ever recorded.
3. Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton may have the most impressive overall career of any guitarist for his incredible versatility and longevity. He has produced epic jams with Cream, beautiful odes with Derek and the Dominos, rock anthems, subtle singer-songwriter efforts, discerning covers of legends from Bob Marley to Robert Johnson, and collaborations with greats from B.B. King to Wynton Marsalis. As a young guitarist, his tone was high-pitched and striving, while he later changed to a deeper, well-rounded sound. He is a master of knowing when to hold a note and how to apply just the right amount of vibrato. For someone considered a guitar god, Clapton’s approach is defiantly laid-back, although he will occasionally turn up the intensity, as in Cream’s energetic version of “Crossroads” or his monumental solos in live versions of “Old Love.”
4. Jeff Beck
Drawing on jazz to create his own brand of mostly instrumental rock, Jeff Beck is an intensely creative guitarist who is mesmerizing to watch. He started by pushing the boundaries of the early British blues-rock band the Yardbirds, gradually drifting toward more jazz-influenced and experimental territory by the mid ’70s. His effects-laden style is full of thrilling vibratos and sumptuous bends, whether in rockers like “Big Block” or jazzy explorations like his version of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.”
5. Duane Allman
At Fillmore East is perhaps the most legendary in the pantheon of live rock albums, and Duane Allman is its hero. He demonstrates his deft slide guitar on “Statesboro Blues,” but it is on the long jams, especially “You Don’t Love Me” and “Whipping Post,” where he really shines, with searing outbursts balanced by jazz-inflected soliloquies and playful intertwining with second guitarist Dickey Betts. In addition to his Allman Brothers catalog, it is well worth checking out his masterful collaborations with Eric Clapton on “Layla” and Boz Scaggs on “Loan Me a Dime.”
6. Jimmy Page
Led Zeppelin carved out a unique sound that cemented them as one of the all-time great rock bands, with Jimmy Page’s ragged riffs and penetrating hooks merging seamlessly with Robert Plant’s shrill but soulful vocals. Page was famed for his towering live explorations, delivered with the most bored-looking guitar face of all time, captured to perfection in The Song Remains the Same. Particularly impressive are his passionate slow blues on “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” and his his slow, menacing, wah-wah-infused work on “Dazed and Confused,” which in live versions included a section where Page played his guitar using a violin bow.
7. Ted Nugent
Ted Nugent regularly achieves energy levels that most artists never reach in their careers. His maniacal live solos on songs like “Wang Dang Sweet Poontang” and “Stormtroopin’” feature hair-raising bends and lightning-fast runs that are both precise and full of feeling, while the complex tones of his Gibson Byrdland also work wonders on the slow burn of “Stranglehold” and the flickering harmonies of “Hibernation.” His unrestrained rhetoric, lack of well-written new songs, and deteriorating singing voice have seen Uncle Ted fade from the musical spotlight in recent years, but his performances on Double Live Gonzo and Full Bluntal Nugity demonstrate a rare level of genius and facility with the guitar.
8. Buddy Guy
Buddy Guy’s guitar seems to quiver with a barely restrained energy that vents itself in his metallic bursts and sly bends. His early work from the ’60s is slightly more restrained due to the conventions of the era, but his dissonant experimentation comes through in recordings like the bristling “My Time after a While” and the beautifully understated “A Man and the Blues,” while his work as a sideman nearly stole the show on Junior Wells’ excellent Hoodoo Man Blues. His sound gradually grew louder and more aggressive, drawing closer to the rock music he helped inspire, culminating with his 1991 comeback album Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues. He is a master of dynamics and inflection, accomplishing more with a single well-placed note and a mischievous smile than most guitarists can with an entire solo. Records such as Live: The Real Deal and Live at Legends give a glimpse of his enthralling live performances.
9. David Gilmour
Pink Floyd is one of the most creatively ambitious bands ever, and when the band separated from early guitarist Syd Barrett, they needed someone special to fill his shoes. New guitarist David Gilmour helped the band reach even higher heights on some of the greatest albums of all time such as Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and The Wall. His sound was at once towering and monumental, cool and serene, with perfect tone and touch. Probably his best-known solo is the sublime “Comfortably Numb.” His massive double-tracked sound in “Money” and the pinpoint accuracy of his notes in “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2” are also notable among his many invaluable contributions.
10. Jack White
In 1999, a strident guitar backed by a furiously creative drive burst onto the scene as The White Stripes introduced themselves to the world. They consisted of only Jack White on vocals and guitar and Meg White on drums, but that was all they needed. On 2003’s Elephant, White tuned his guitar to sound like a bass for the opening of “Seven Nation Army,” giving the twenty-first century its greatest riff yet before lighting it on fire in the solo. On “Ball and Biscuit,” he injected a loose, bluesy rocker with solos featuring some of the fiercest bends ever recorded. White demonstrates his comfort with a slide on his finger in songs such as Icky Thump’s “Catch Hell Blues,” building from the subtle finesse of the opening to the incendiary climax. After the White Stripes, White has led The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather, and his own solo career, all while continuing to impress with his intensely driven playing and acute rhythmic sensibility.
11. Eddie Van Halen
The name Van Halen is synonymous with fast and wild guitar, and well it should be, as the Dutch-born guitarist from California epitomized the best in ’80s hard rock guitar. At times his playing can be unfocused, at others obscured in songs like the synth-rocker “Jump,” but it shines through in hits like “Panama” and the breakneck “Hot for Teacher,” and especially in his legendary instrumental “Eruption.” Underlying his speed and wildness though is a level of sophistication best heard in drawn-out live recordings of songs like “Eruption” and “316,” which reveal elegant harmonics and classical references that seem to spring forth organically from the adventures of his solos.
12. George Harrison
The Beatles are impossible to categorize, exploring numerous styles throughout their career, within albums, often within the same song. For that to succeed on such a high level they needed a guitarist who was not only talented but could do anything the situation called for, and George Harrison was the perfect fit. He could make an indelible impression with brief, lively solos in “Drive My Car” and “Back in the USSR,” perfectly place cool pinpricks in “Come Together,” rock out in “Helter Skelter” and “Yer Blues,” sustain a long, slow jam in “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” or switch to sitar for “Within You Without You” and “Love You To.” Harrison always placed the song ahead of his own playing, but the cohesive masterpieces that resulted would not have been possible without him.
13. Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson is regarded as an almost mythical figure, spoken of in hushed, reverential tones, his records listened to as if they were relics from a pilgrimage shrine. Dead at 27, with a catalog short enough to fit on two CDs, he was still revolutionizing music thirty years after his death. Johnson was a great admirer of Delta blues legends Son House and Charley Patton, but when his early playing didn’t pass muster, he devoted himself to study and practice (or sold his soul to the devil, if you prefer the legend), and reemerged as an incredibly advanced and forward-thinking musician. Johnson crafted his songs to far more exacting standards than his peers, yet his oft-repeated renditions managed to sound raw and fresh each time, his complex phrasing and structure performed with gripping immediacy. While he died before his music reached a wide audience, his recordings were reissued by John Hammond on Columbia Records in 1961, greatly influencing the artists of the British invasion, particularly Eric Clapton.
14. Derek Trucks
Derek Trucks started as a child prodigy, began touring professionally as a teenager, and developed into the finest contemporary practitioner of slide guitar. By the age of twenty he began playing with the Allman Brothers Band, joining his uncle, the drummer and founding member Butch Trucks. In 2010, Derek and his wife, blues singer and guitarist Susan Tedeschi, formed the successful Tedeschi Trucks Band. Trucks’ graceful, melodic bottleneck sound is immediately recognizable yet blends seamlessly into any song he plays. He can perform powerful riffs in “The Storm” and “Learn How to Love” or accompany a delicate ballad like “Midnight in Harlem.” On the live Tedeschi Trucks album Everybody’s Talkin’, Trucks immerses listeners in his exploratory solos in songs like “Bound for Glory” and “Nobody’s Free.”
15. Carlos Santana
When someone mentions Latin rock guitar, likely the first thing to come to mind is a signature lick from Carlos Santana. He popularized Latin and African rhythms and percussion in mainstream rock, while his cool, melodic guitar sound drew inspiration from the greats of blues, jazz, and British rock. With a slight dissonant edge to his fluid lines, the sublime beauty of his guitar leapt from the grooves of Santana’s self-titled debut album and the follow-up Abraxas in songs such as “Black Magic Woman,” “Soul Sacrifice,” and “Samba Pa Ti.” His addictive sound even topped the charts thirty years after his band’s debut with his 1999 comeback hit “Smooth.”
16. Mark Knopfler
Despite his laid-back style, Mark Knopfler’s cool tone and nuanced approach have made his guitar a mesmerizing force since the 1978 debut of Dire Straits. Knopfler’s deft finger picking combined with his tone to bring a subtle verve to “Sultans of Swing,” while his playing conveyed tremendous depth and soul in the contemplative blues of “Brothers in Arms” and the epic narrative of “Telegraph Road.” In a rare departure from his typical sound, Knopfler mimicked the raucous buzz of ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons on “Money for Nothing,” creating perhaps the best rock anthem of the ’80s.
17. Peter Green
In the late ’60s, Peter Green seemed destined to join the ranks of Clapton, Beck, and Page as one of British blues-rock’s greatest guitarists. His recordings with Fleetwood Mac ranged from faithful blues covers to innovative originals like the dreamy instrumental “Albatross” and the foreboding “The Green Manalishi.” His live virtuosity can be heard in Fleetwood Mac’s 1970 Boston recordings, despite their slightly rough recording quality, with highlights including the extended improvisations on “Rattlesnake Shake” and the exquisite B.B. King tribute “If You Let Me Love You.” However, mental illness, drug use, and an aversion to the pressures of stardom forced Green to leave Fleetwood Mac in 1970 and gradually fade into obscurity. He has reemerged in recent decades but has maintained a relatively low profile.
18. Dickey Betts
While Duane Allman was the most famous Allman Brothers guitarist, Dickey Betts was also vital to their success, first as the rhythm and co-lead player with Duane and then as the lead guitarist who helped guide the band in the years after Duane’s untimely death. His best-known lead guitar appears on the album Brothers and Sisters, the first Allman Brothers album not to feature Duane. Betts’ bright tone produced catchy rock leads on “Southbound” and “Ramblin’ Man,” while “Jessica” elegantly blended his jazz-inspired solo with the more country-influenced sound heard throughout the album. However, his best playing may be his back-and-forth with Duane Allman on At Fillmore East. On the long jams “You Don’t Love Me,” “Whipping Post,” “Mountain Jam,” and his own composition “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” Betts is nearly a match for Duane Allman, deploying a similar tone as the two trade stunning improvisations for twenty minutes at a time.
19. Frank Zappa
Frank Zappa was weird, at once completely unabashed and calculated in his eclectic transgression of conventions. You never knew if he would be conducting avant-garde jazz or reciting a twenty-minute satire about an anthropomorphic mountain carving a path of oblivious destruction across the United States. Somewhere in all that, Zappa was also an excellent and versatile guitarist. He might go most of a concert without touching his guitar, only to rip off a brief solo that perfectly fit the moment, or he might jam extensively, often trending in a bluesy direction and featuring outstanding use of effects. Highlights of his guitar playing include the wah-wah-heavy jam on “Willie the Pimp,” the grungy blues tying together “Advance Romance,” and the delicate grace of “Watermelon in Easter Hay.”
20. Brian May
While Queen is primarily known for the sensational vocals of Freddie Mercury, they had another incredible weapon in guitarist Brian May. His resonant semi-hollow body guitar provided strong melodic leads and lightning-fast reverberating riffs, and he often harmonized brilliantly with himself either through overdubs or inspired use of delay. On many of Queen’s hits, May was content with a simple approach that let Mercury shine, but his playing leapt dramatically to the fore on “Keep Yourself Alive” and “Brighton Rock,” as well as in many live performances.
21. Johnny Greenwood
Radiohead’s duo of Johnny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien is one of the most creative guitar pairings in rock, allowing Radiohead to transform four-minute songs into complex tapestries conveying a variety of tones and emotions. O’Brien often uses effects and understated riffs to create an ambient background over which Greenwood paints in twisted, sometimes violent strokes. The quavering, metallic lines in “My Iron Lung” and the plaintive jabs that interrupt them are perhaps Greenwood’s high point, while he also impresses with the crazed bends of the solos in “Paranoid Android” and the climax in “Just.”
22. T-Bone Walker
T-Bone Walker was the epitome of suave and sophisticated, with his cool, melodic guitar tone and his smooth, sultry voice. He pioneered the use of electric guitar in the blues, adding a rare depth to the jazz-influenced form of blues emerging in his adopted home of Los Angeles. His flowing but clearly articulated lines graced classic originals such as “T-Bone Blues” and “Call It Stormy Monday” and covers like “How Long Blues.” He could also speed up his style effectively on big band stomps like “Strolling with Bones” and “Tell Me What’s the Reason.”
23. Rory Gallagher
Blues-rocker Rory Gallagher was known for his epic live performances. He famously braved a turbulent period in his home country’s history on his Irish Tour ’74, sporting a strained, reedy tone on extended workouts of rock anthems like “Walk on Hot Coals” and blues covers like “Too Much Alcohol.” On recordings from the late ’70s and the ’80s, like Live at Montreux, his tone was deeper and fuller, while his solos smoldered on numbers like the slow blues “Off the Handle.” His blistering runs and chunky riffs were balanced by elegant sustained notes and skilled use of feedback. He sometimes showed another side to his playing on acoustic covers such as Lead Belly’s “Out on the Western Plain.”
24. Ronnie Earl
Ronnie Earl’s playing is deeply soulful, and his delicate, precise picking and cool tone work wonders on his largely instrumental blues repertoire. He is a master of dynamics, capable of holding an audience in the palm of his hand through the quietest of passages and then building climactic crescendos with the thrilling repetition of a single note. Earl performed with jump blues revivalists Roomful of Blues in the ’80s before transitioning to a solo career, gradually trending away from vocals in favor of instrumentals. The pinnacle of Earl’s playing can be heard in the 1993 performance released as Blues Guitar Virtuoso Live in Europe. Earl pays tribute to his blues inspirations in numbers like “Thank You Mr. T-Bone,” deftly explores jazz influences in songs like “Akos” and “Moanin,’” and concludes with the gorgeous fifteen-minute “Rego Park Blues.” In 2000, Earl was forced to cut back on touring for health reasons, but he continues to record quality albums and perform near his home base of Boston.
25. Roy Buchanan
Even on his staple slow blues numbers, Roy Buchanan’s guitar bristled with intensity. With his constant improvised embellishments, a delicate passage could burst forth with slashing runs, piercing single notes and volume swells, or manic crescendos before returning to its subtle origins. Whether fierce or calm, his tone always bore a brittle edge and conveyed deep emotion. “Roy’s Bluz” and his covers of “Down by the River” and “Hey Joe” show his relentless improvisational drive, while his beautiful version of “After Hours” shows a more laid-back sound, and the beginning of the solo in “The Messiah Will Come Again” shows the depth of feeling that can be expressed in just a few notes.
26. Django Reinhardt
In the capable hands of Django Reinhardt, jazz music and guitar playing grew in exciting new directions in the 1930s and ’40s. Born to a Romani family in Belgium and later making his home in Paris, Reinhardt formed the Quintette du Hot Club de France with violinist Stephane Grappelli, pioneering the style often known as Gypsy jazz. Despite losing the use of two fingers on his fret hand when he was burned in a fire, Reinhardt was able to develop an incredibly sophisticated style of playing. He balanced swift percussive flurries with delicate, quavering single-note solos in his primarily instrumental repertoire, including such classics as “Blues Clair,” “Minor Blues,” “Minor Swing,” and “Limehouse Blues.”
27. Mike Bloomfield
In the mid-1960s, while British rockers were bringing the blues into the mainstream, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was doing the same thing on the blues’ home court in Chicago, and the guitar playing of Mike Bloomfield was essential to their sound. Bloomfield opted for a clearer sound than many of his contemporaries, but his playing was packed with feeling, featuring flowing runs that often escalated into biting dissonance. The band’s self-titled debut fell very much under the banner of traditional Chicago Blues, but in their second album East-West, Bloomfield was given the chance to experiment on extended instrumentals with a cover of the jazz tune “Work Song” and his original composition “East-West,” which built on modal influences from jazz and Indian music. In the late ’60s Bloomfield would perform with The Electric Flag and record on keyboardist Al Kooper’s album Super Session, although he failed to find consistency in the ensuing decade, his drug addiction claiming his life in 1981 at age 37.
28. Johnny Winter
Johnny Winter’s brand of Texas blues-rock may not have been revolutionary, but his fluid licks were executed with ruthless speed and precision. His early work in the ’60s and ’70s often had strong psychedelic influences, such as the echoing excesses of Second Winter’s “Fast Life Rider,” although he always remained firmly rooted in the blues. In the ’70s he helped lead a comeback for Muddy Waters, giving Waters’ sound a slightly harder edge but restraining his playing to fit the style of the Chicago blues legend. Winter’s virtuosic playing truly shined in live performances, whether he was playing soulful slow blues like his version of B.B. King’s “It’s My Own Fault” or pounding out breakneck blues-rock in his original “Mean Town Blues.”
29. Chet Atkins
As a producer, Chet Atkins helped create the smooth, heavily orchestrated, and commercially popular country style known as the Nashville Sound, but as a guitarist he pushed the music in a different direction, preferring low-key instrumentals that hummed with understated virtuosity and sophistication. He drew on influences ranging from the warm, ragtime-inspired picking of country legend Merle Travis to the fiery swing of Gypsy jazz pioneer Django Reinhardt. On simple instrumental tunes such as “Dizzy Strings,” “Jitterbug Waltz,” “Get on With It,” and many more, Atkins’ deft touch brought forth beautiful harmonies and nuances that never failed to delight.
30. Albert King
Albert King’s unique guitar attack is instantly recognizable, with his forceful bends able to wring a song’s worth of feeling out of a single note. His classic recordings for Stax in the late ’60s, from his signature “Born under a Bad Sign,” to the smooth “I’ll Play the Blues for You,” are seemingly the soundtrack of every dimly-lit, smoke-filled bar on the wrong side of town, with piercing staccato licks alternating with low, smoky rumbles. While his playing was more understated on the Stax studio recordings, in live performances with a smaller band he would turn up the volume on slow blues workouts like “Blues Power,” filling every corner of the auditorium with the mighty bends of his trademark licks. King’s playing found an especially strong disciple in Stevie Ray Vaughan, and the two powerful axe-slingers joined forces in 1983 to record a TV special later released as In Session on CD and DVD.
31. Eddie Hazel
To help Eddie Hazel create the emotional journey that is the ten-minute solo in Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain,” bandleader George Clinton is said to have told Hazel to imagine hearing that his mother was dead, and then learning that she was still alive. Whatever the inspiration, Hazel’s solo, played over a slow, quiet rhythm guitar part, reached stratospheric levels of feeling, stretching the cathartic cries of his clear, fragile notes up through layers of fuzz, wah, and delay effects. Hazel was an important part of Funkadelic’s early albums, gradually lessening his involvement with the band throughout the ’70s until his 1992 death. In addition to “Maggot Brain,” Hazel’s fluid, shimmering lines are especially impressive as they weave through Funkadelic’s “Good Thoughts, Bad Thoughts” and the incredibly natural covers of “California Dreamin’” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” that appear on Hazel’s solo album Games, Dames, and Guitar Thangs.
32. Tom Morello
It stands to reason that the guitarist of a band named Rage Against the Machine would be defined by his forceful and unorthodox playing. Morello’s style is influenced by metal, punk, and hip-hop, and he makes ample use of effects and innovative picking methods to achieve a broad array of guitar sounds. Just as vocalist Zach de la Rocha’s lyrics demonstrate the band’s left-wing revolutionary fervor, Morello’s guitar evokes a chaotic urban dystopia with the oscillations of “Testify,” the deep tremolo of “Guerilla Radio,” or the furtive runs of “Take the Power Back.” It may not be pretty, but then again rage is not a pretty emotion. It is, however, one that Morello’s guitar conveys eloquently.
33. Link Wray
With “Rumble” in 1958, Link Wray pushed the power chord, soon to be a rock staple, into the mainstream, but even without that chord he was ahead of his time with his innovative use of distortion to embellish his impressive picking. After the slow, menacing “Rumble,” Wray picked up the pace over the next few years in a series of aggressive instrumentals such as “Raw-Hide” and “Jack the Ripper.” After his early hits, Wray faded from the charts but remained a guitar force in live shows and sporadic albums, pushing his use of feedback and distortion into wild territory in performances like the wicked, scraping tremors of “Switchblade” or the chunky wall of slow blues distortion in “Midnight Lover.”
34. Danny Gatton
Although he didn’t gain wide recognition until late in his career, Danny Gatton tore up the D.C. music scene for decades with his eclectic blend of rockabilly, blues, jazz, and country. He deployed a banjo-inspired hybrid picking technique to achieve dizzying speeds on songs like “Nitpickin’,” while he also wrung emotional bends from his guitar on slow blues songs like his version of “Sleepwalk.” Highlights from his mostly instrumental repertoire can be found on albums such as Unfinished Business and 88 Elmira St.
35. Steve Vai
Steve Vai’s unrelenting yet tasteful virtuosity made him perhaps the best instrumental rock guitarist to emerge from the ’80s heyday of hard rock and heavy metal. The slow, bluesy, and heartfelt “Tender Surrender” shows Vai at his best, using his full array of effects and techniques to enhance rather than distract from the emotional core of the song, although he could also turn up the heat, as in the thunderous riffs and lightning bends of “Bad Horsie.” His live performances are equally as impressive as his studio work, and he has also contributed to numerous films, most notably playing the devil’s guitarist in the climactic duel of 1986’s Crossroads.
36. Lightnin’ Hopkins
Texas blues legend Lightnin’ Hopkins played with a laid-back virtuosity, with his deft touch, inventive lines, and impeccable rhythmic sense adding great depth to seemingly simple performances like “Baby Please Don’t Go” and “Coffee Blues.” Often playing solo, he accompanied himself, integrating rhythm and lead parts, doing so with equal comfort on acoustic and electric guitar. On his classic “Mojo Hand” he broke out in brief but surprisingly fiery acoustic solos, while he could also use his unique tone and technique to play up the intensity of the sparsest of passages as in his live rendition of “Ain’t It a Pity” from the American Folk Blues Festival.
37. Mississippi Fred McDowell
Mississippi Fred McDowell was a fine slide guitarist who became one of the first blues musicians from the Mississippi Hill Country to gain widespread recognition after he was first recorded at the age of 53 by folklorist Alan Lomax. McDowell balanced a clear bottleneck tone with a jangly playing style. He delivered many excellent acoustic performances, such as his version of “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” but his approach to electric guitar was revelatory. On “Meet Me Down in Froggy Bottom,” McDowell starts with slow, dragging notes that summon the sounds of frogs and mosquitoes from the swamp, gradually escalating the tempo as he works his way into the song. The languid “Levee Camp Blues” provides another great example of his electric tone.
38. B.B. King
B.B. King and his black semi-hollow body Gibson named Lucille may have been one of the best duets of all time, as B.B. coaxed singing, melodic lines from his guitar to accompany his own full-bodied vocals. B.B. rarely played riffs or rhythm parts, preferring single-note solos and fills that highlighted his fluid, echoing tone and instantly recognizable fast vibrato. King’s outsized personality came through in his playing, always complementing his performance, whether friendly and mischievous or serious and dramatic. His playing is especially strong on his many renditions of slow blues classics “Sweet Sixteen” and “Sweet Little Angel” as well as the minor-key masterpieces “Chains and Things” and “The Thrill is Gone.” One of Lucille’s best showcases came on the album Live in Japan, recorded in 1971 in the middle of B.B.’s prime, which even features some rare long instrumental jams.
39. John Fogerty
As the leader of blues and folk inspired rockers Creedence Clearwater Revival, John Fogerty didn’t always put his guitar front and center, but when he did he could produce blistering performances. Fogerty shows his range on “Suzy Q,” an early hit for the band, deploying his metallic twang creatively throughout the lengthy swamp rock jam. He takes the intensity to another level in a cover of “I Put a Spell on You,” delivering hair-raising flurries eerily stretching his notes to complement his vocal screams. Fogerty’s playing is also excellent on songs such as “Keep on Chooglin’,” “Ramble Tamble,” and “Born on the Bayou.”
40. James Gurley
While Janis Joplin was the star of Big Brother and the Holding Company, another vital component of the band was the guitar of James Gurley. His greatest moment came on the classic “Ball and Chain” from the live album Cheap Thrills. After a few beginning notes, Gurley leaves a dramatic pause of eight seconds before ripping into a vicious introductory solo through layers of deep distortion. On the live collection Ball & Chain, his wild improvisation on “In the Hall of the Mountain King” shows his penchant for relentless psychedelic exploration. Also noteworthy are his intertwining lines with fellow guitarist Sam Andrew on “Summertime” from Cheap Thrills. Gurley was unfortunately never able to find the same level of success again after Big Brother and the Holding Company disbanded, but his work with that band remains a testament to his brilliance as a guitarist.
41. John Lee Hooker
The singular rhythmic sensibility of John Lee Hooker was a crucial part of his guitar playing. In his first hit, 1948’s “Boogie Chillen’,” he introduced the world to his own style of guitar boogie, which he would perfect over the course of his career. In the innovative “Huckle up Baby,” Hooker combined his strident playing with percussive snaps and harsh twangs to produce one of his wildest guitar performances. But even on a seemingly simple country blues number like “Crawlin’ Kingsnake,” Hooker creates a deep and immersive experience with rhythms and patterns unique to his style. As Hooker honed his electric guitar approach, he added more reverb to his tone to deliver the guitar sound that would define most of his career, as heard on songs like “Dimples,” “Boom Boom,” and the haunting “I’m in the Mood.”
42. Albert Collins
Known as “The Iceman” or “The Master of the Telecaster,” Albert Collins earned some of the best nicknames in the blues. His darting attack and unusual open F minor tuning produced cool, piercing licks which evoked the cold-themed imagery he used in many of his song titles. Collins began his career with a string of catchy instrumentals like “Frosty” and “Don’t Lose Your Cool” before recording albums such 1978’s acclaimed Ice Pickin’, which included Collins imitating his wife’s voice on guitar in the smooth “Conversation with Collins.” Throughout his career, Collins was known as a formidable live performer, engaging audiences with dynamic renditions of rollicking numbers like “I Ain’t Drunk,” slow blues classics like “Lights Are on but Nobody’s Home,” and his many lively instrumentals.
43. Tom Verlaine
In an era when punk was stripping rock down to its raw nerves, Tom Verlaine took the music in a different direction, bringing a high level of sophistication to with the band Television. Interweaving rhythmic and melodic parts with fellow guitarist Richard Lloyd, Verlaine brought a clear tone, an ear for harmony, and an improvisational style that drew inspiration from disparate sources ranging from psychedelic and surf rock to avant-garde jazz and classical music. Verlaine and Television reached their highest heights on their debut effort Marquee Moon. The ten-minute title track starts with lilting riffs from Lloyd before Verlaine embarks on a lengthy, flowing solo that soars to a climax of bird-like chirps. Another impressive effort on the album is “Friction,” with its trembling minor-key runs, while the band’s debut single “Little Johnny Jewel” features some of Verlaine’s most avant-garde improvisations.
44. Billy Gibbons
Fronting the Texas power trio ZZ Top, Billy Gibbons is a master of riff-based blues-rock. His distorted guitar lays down huge, chunky riffs to open classics like “Sharp Dressed Man” and “My Head’s in Mississippi,” following them up with grinding solos full of stabbing bends that work the most out of his fuzz-laden tone. Gibbons’ shining guitar moment came in “La Grange,” with its John Lee Hooker-style boogie rhythm and high-energy solo of singular metallic fury. The Billy Gibbons style may be simple, but it is sincerely and flawlessly executed.
45. Son House
One of the foremost figures of Delta blues guitar, Son House perfected a strident, rhythmic style played with a bottleneck slide on a steel resonator guitar. While his 1930 Paramount recordings were not commercially successful, his hypnotizing live performances influenced future guitar greats, including Robert Johnson, who incorporated many of House’s patterns into his own compositions. After recording a couple of sessions for Alan Lomax in the early ’40s, House moved north to Rochester, NY, and gave up the blues, but he was rediscovered in 1964 during the folk blues revival. A young Alan Wilson, of future Canned Heat fame, helped House regain his mastery of the guitar in order to tour and record for a newly appreciative audience. House’s best-known guitar performance can be heard on “Death Letter Blues,” with its unique and forceful rhythms, although songs such as “Pearline” show there was also a tender side to the legend’s playing.
46. Charley Patton
While Charley Patton's recorded output is sadly confined to a few dozen battered Paramount and Vocalion sides recorded from 1929 to 1934, through the scratches one can hear the growling vocals and animated guitar of the first star of the Delta blues. Patton was renowned for his talent and showmanship, inspiring many subsequent Delta blues players. His playing was incredibly sophisticated, as he was able to simultaneously play driving rhythms and active, intricate leads that seemed to take on personalities of their own. A seemingly slow and simple song like “Pony Blues” is rife with bouncing rhythms and lively runs, while on the boisterous “Spoonful” his crying slide guitar sometimes finishes singing his lines for him.
47. Dick Dale
The rapid staccato attack that opened Dick Dale’s 1962 single “Miserlou” ushered in the early ’60s craze of surf rock. Inspired by his Lebanese roots to cover the traditional Eastern Mediterranean song, Dale gave it the rock treatment, playing it as loud and as fast and with as much reverb as possible. The success of “Miserlou” led Dale to record a run of similar instrumentals, continuing to deploy his signature staccato on furious riffs and dizzying flights in numbers such as “Hava Nagila” and his cover of the Peter Gunn theme. Dale was diagnosed with cancer later in the decade, but he recovered and resumed his career by the ’80s, even playing with Stevie Ray Vaughan on a cover of the Chantays’ “Pipeline” in the 1987 beach movie parody Back to the Beach.
48. Ry Cooder
Ry Cooder’s solo career and his many contributions to other musicians and bands have produced a discography so eclectic as to defy summary. As a guitarist, Cooder is known for his fine slide guitar. In addition to his own blend of roots music, Cooder has lent his guitar to various projects such as Captain Beefheart’s 1967 album Safe as Milk, Mick Jagger’s 1970 single “Memo from Turner,” and the soundtrack for the 1986 film Crossroads. A few performances that give a picture of Cooder’s range include his clear, soaring solo on the gospel-blues number “The Dark End of the Street” from 1977’s Show Time, his psychedelic experimentations in “On Tomorrow” from Safe as Milk, and the hair-raising strains of “Let Me Go Back to the Country” from Bobby King and Terry Evans’ album Live and Let Live.
49. Jimmy Thackery
Jimmy Thackery manages to achieve technical excellence while also having remarkable warmth and depth to his tone. After starting in the DC-area band The Nighthawks, Thackery branched out on his now three-decade solo career. His guitar influences range from blues masters to rock legends, while a bit of country twang often surfaces in his playing. Thackery makes masterful use of effects while ensuring they always complement the song rather than distract from it. The Blind Pig Records collection Guitar gathers some of Thackery’s best instrumentals, from blazing covers of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Roy Buchanan to the tender original “Edward’s Blues” and the “La Grange”-esque “Jimmy’s Detroit Boogie.”
50. Joanne Shaw Taylor
A young guitarist from Britain, Joanne Shaw Taylor wowed fans in 2009 with her debut album White Sugar, standing out from other young blues-rockers by backing up her raw talent with vivid phrasing and improvisation on songs like the deep slow blues workout “Blackest Day.” On subsequent albums, Taylor has worked to define her own style, achieving particularly impressive results on her third album Almost Always Never, which features searing solos on the energetic “Soul Station” and the wrenching “Jealousy,” as well as incredibly intricate interplay between her overdubbed guitar parts in “Maybe Tomorrow.”
51. Sonny Landreth
Louisiana slide guitar master Sonny Landreth is known for his vibrant, singing sound as well as his use of techniques likes fretting notes and chords above his slide with the free fingers on his left hand. His guitar rings throughout his broad repertoire of solo recordings and collaborative performances with artists ranging from Robben Ford to Derek Trucks. Some of his best playing can be found on the haunting bayou stomp “Congo Square,” an excellent version of which can be found on Landreth’s live album Grant Street.
52. Muddy Waters
While Muddy Waters is rightly known primarily for his rich, timeless voice, his guitar playing was also an integral part of his success, especially in his early work with Chess Records before the formation of his famous band. He burst onto the Chicago blues scene playing an infectious slide guitar part to accompany his vocals on “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” and on his early Chess singles he continued to play electric guitar in a style similar to the acoustic Delta blues, with only a bass as accompaniment. The amplification accentuated the forceful picking and shivering plunges and bends in his playing, as well as his powerful sense of rhythm, on numbers like “Rollin’ Stone.” Even seemingly simple songs such as “I Feel Like Going Home” and “Train Fare Home” find every one of his economically placed notes humming with raw energy. In later years, Waters would cede much of the band’s guitar playing to a succession of excellent sidemen, from Jimmy Rogers to Pat Hare to Johnny Winter, but he would still frequently liven things up with his full-bodied slide guitar licks on numbers like “Baby Please Don’t Go.”
53. Randy Rhoads
In his all-too-brief career with Quiet Riot and Ozzy Osbourne, Randy Rhoads greatly expanded the vocabulary for heavy metal guitarists. Rhoads played chugging riffs with a huge, powerful tone while adding dizzying improvisations that often drew as much inspiration from classical music as from other rock guitarists. Rhoads reached his highest heights on “Crazy Train” from Osbourne’s album Blizzard of Ozz, his rock-solid riffs trending upward into blinding, subtly dissonant flurries that showed his musical sophistication while never straying from the driving rhythm of the song. In a profession frequently marred by tragic early deaths, Rhoads suffered one of the most senseless when a reckless plane accident claimed his life at only twenty-five.
54. Skip James
One of the most enigmatic early blues guitarists, Skip James recorded a small number of sides for Paramount in 1931 and was later rediscovered in 1964 as part of the folk blues revival of the ’60s. James developed a unique style, playing in an open D minor tuning with complex and precise fingerpicking. His tuning helped give his playing the morose, haunting tone that opens “Devil Got My Woman,” his intonation and timing lending the simple song a hypnotic depth. Songs such as “Special Rider Blues” and “I’m So Glad” feature rapid fingerpicking and phrasing that was far ahead of its time. The riffs and sustained notes of “I’m So Glad” foreshadow rock music to such a degree that when Cream covered the song three-and-a-half decades later, they had to change surprisingly little to translate the scratchy acoustic recording into an arena-rocking standard.
55. Elmore James
In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Elmore James’ Chicago blues recordings defined the sound of slide guitar for a generation of blues and rock musicians. He mesmerized with his massive reverb and crying slide licks on slow blues numbers like his classic “The Sky Is Crying,” while he could also transform to play with a bouncy, upbeat feel on songs like “Shake Your Moneymaker” and “Look on Yonder Wall.” Perhaps his most enduring contribution is the opening riff of “Dust My Broom,” his electrified reworking of a Robert Johnson tune. James himself developed many variations on the riff, and it has since been borrowed by countless blues guitarists looking to start their own songs with a bang. James died in 1963 before he could perform in front of the new audiences afforded by the folk blues revival, but he still managed to have a lasting impact through his impressive recordings.
56. Tony Iommi
As the guitarist of Black Sabbath, Tony Iommi pioneered the sound of heavy metal guitar. Despite losing the tips of two fingers in a factory accident as a teenager, he fitted plastic thimbles to his fingers so he could still fret his guitar, in part inspired by the story of Django Reinhardt continuing to play after losing the use of three fingers in a fire. His deep, loud, distorted tone provided gravitas to the darkness of the band’s lyrics and stage presence. Iommi is best known for his monumental, slow-burning riffs on songs such as “War Pigs” and “Iron Man,” while he could also produce energetic solos on songs like “Paranoid.” Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut album shows off Iommi’s improvisational range on the fourteen-minute “A Bit of Finger/Sleeping Village/Warning.”
57. Luther Allison
Blues guitarist Luther Allison was a soulful performer, a great improviser, and an excellent showman throughout his career, although his tone evolved over the years. In his ’70s recordings, such as Luther’s Blues and Bad News is Coming, his tone was high, clear, and brittle, while by the time he made a comeback in the ’90s his tone had become deeper and larger with a broader range. Some of Allison’s best playing can be heard on Live in Chicago, recorded at the 1995 Chicago Blues Festival, including a burning performance on his towering slow blues classic “Cherry Red Wine” and bright, rousing solos and fills on the funky commentary on his hometown titled “Big City.”
58. Alvin Lee
Alvin Lee was a true guitar wildman, his fingers flying at lightning speed in fluid, fiery improvisations. His solos rambled at times, but always remained thrilling. Lee was known for his unmatched live energy as the leader of blues-rockers Ten Years After as well as his own solo band. His signature moment came with Ten Years After at Woodstock, where his blazing ten-minute version of “I’m Going Home” captivated the crowd and became a highlight of the concert film. Among his many other excellent performances, another standout is his 1990 version of “I Can’t Keep from Crying Sometimes,” which features a deeper tone and shows Lee’s range when augmenting his phenomenal picking with a variety of effects.
59. J. Mascis
As the guitarist and front man for Dinosaur Jr., J Mascis had a huge influence on the many alternative rockers who followed in the band’s footsteps in the ’90s. Mascis plays loud, with lots of distortion and feedback, yet the band’s aesthetic is supremely laid-back. Mascis immerses listeners in his droning riffs before breaking forth in squalling solos and fills. The deceptively broad range of his playing can be heard especially well in Dinosaur Jr.’s longer songs, such as 1991’s “Turnip Farm” and “Thumb” and 2009’s “I Don’t Wanna Go There.”
60. Freddie King
Freddie King’s forceful yet expressive guitar attack helped inspire many blues and rock guitarists. The Texas-born guitarist achieved success in the early ’60s with the rollicking “Hide Away,” which he followed up with more catchy instrumentals including “San-Ho-Zay” and “The Stumble.” King’s excellent guitar playing continued with his high, pinpoint stabs in “Palace of the King” and his devastating bends in “Going Down,” while he could also play slow and nuanced solos in songs like “My Feeling for the Blues.”
61. Robert Randolph
While the pedal steel guitar is usually thought of as a backing instrument in classic country music, a group of churches, including the one Robert Randolph grew up in, adopted the instrument, creating a “sacred steel” style that opened a new dimension of the pedal steel as an exultant and highly energetic gospel instrument. Randolph drew inspiration from his gospel roots as well as blues, funk, soul, and rock to develop his own style as leader of Robert Randolph and the Family Band. The slide-driven wah of his guitar flashes with joyous whoops and screams that supercharge his performances both in the studio and at his wild live shows. His playing can be heard to great effect on songs such as “Ain’t Nothing Wrong with That,” “Amped Up,” and “Squeeze,” although his band takes it to the next level live, as can be heard on Live at the Wetlands, with ten-plus minute jams on the likes of “Ted’s Jam,” “I Don’t Know What You Come to Do,” and “Tears of Joy.”
62. Hubert Sumlin
In addition to possessing one of the most unique voices in the blues, Howlin’ Wolf employed one of the most unique guitarists in Hubert Sumlin. Sumlin’s playing could range from lively and fun in the darting runs of “Shake for Me,” to smoky and dangerous in the precise notes of “Spoonful,” to tortured and anguished in the strains of “Goin’ Down Slow.” Sumlin’s tone perfectly complemented Howlin’ Wolf’s style, while his unusual phrasing and rhythm and his playful experimentation added an extra dimension to the Wolf’s already stellar band. After Howlin’ Wolf’s death in 1976, Sumlin never reached the same creative heights, but he continued to record and perform in his subtle and distinct style for the next thirty-five years.
63. Otis Rush
The distinctive sound of Otis Rush was key in developing the West Side offshoot of Chicago blues, as well as influencing many future blues and rock guitarists. The guitar solo in his most famous tune, “All Your Love (I Miss Loving),” begins with tortured strains that Eric Clapton would scarcely change when he covered the song eight years later. Another influential Rush song is the anguished slow blues “Double Trouble.” Rush’s big, clear guitar sound remained a fixture of albums and concerts throughout his career until his retirement in 2004.
64. Robby Krieger
With his inspirations ranging from blues to jazz to the flamenco that can be heard on “Spanish Caravan,” Robby Krieger’s guitar perfectly melded with the style of The Doors. In “LA Woman,” his flowing, tasteful lines balance against Jim Morrison’s powerful voice, while in driving blues numbers like “Roadhouse Blues” Krieger can turn up the intensity to match Morrison with his menacing riffs. In “The End,” Krieger combined his influences into a psychedelic blend to provide a gripping and mysterious backdrop to Morrison’s rambling opus.
65. John McLaughlin
With his virtuosity and broad range of influences, John McLaughlin was an important figure in expanding jazz fusion, first with Miles Davis, then with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and finally as part of a successful solo career. Recording four fusion albums with Davis, one of McLaughlin’s greatest showcases came on 1971’s A Tribute to Jack Johnson. On the first side, “Right Off,” he intersperses hard-edged bluesy licks and improvisations with Davis’ trumpet playing, while on the second side, “Yesternow,” he contributed a mellow, funky, wah-infused accompaniment which interacts with fellow guitarist Sonny Sharrock’s wild improvisations in the second half of the song. Later in the decade, McLaughlin produced some of his best-known work as the founder of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Incorporating Indian influences, he played fast, intricate, and challenging parts, with songs such as “Vital Transformation” showing his technical proficiency and virtuosic range.
66. Tony McPhee
As the leader of British blues-rock trio The Groundhogs, Tony McPhee never gained the same widespread recognition as some guitarists of his generation, but he has built a consistent track record of excellent guitar work over his long tenure with the band. His sound is thin and brittle, yet brimming with power and tension. Perhaps his best composition, the paranoid “Split – Part Two,” features a swirling wah intro followed by insistent rhythmic licks. He demonstrates his slide guitar excellence on “Times,” while he delivers an impressive emulation of John Lee Hooker in a cover of the band’s namesake “Groundhog Blues.” BBC Radio One Live in Concert finds McPhee at his wildest near the end of the set, highlighted by a seventeen-minute jam on “Still a Fool” that shows his full range of techniques and improvisational ability.
67. Jim McCarty
Jim McCarty has performed in numerous blues-rock groups, starting with Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels and reaching his greatest success with the band Cactus from 1969 to 1972. McCarty’s playing style was wild and unrestrained, searching for new sounds and seeking maximum levels of energy, as exemplified in the band’s version of “Evil,” with its churning rhythms and screaming leads. However, McCarty could also produce a clear, mellow tone in a more laid-back blues performance like the live version of “No Need to Worry” from Ultra Sonic Boogie 1971. McCarty was a primary influence on fellow Detroit guitarist Ted Nugent, who was inspired by his intricate playing style and the full tone he achieved by playing a hollow body Gibson Byrdland through a Fender Twin amp.
68. Keith Richards
Keith Richards may not be a flashy lead guitarist, but he has been an invaluable part of one of the most successful bands of all time. Often playing rhythm parts, he is known for great riffs such as the gritty, fuzzy underpinning of “Satisfaction.” While most associated with a rough honky-tonk sound, Richards could adapt to perfectly fit any of the Stones’ many songs. As a lead guitarist, his greatest moments include the fluid riffs and wailing solo of “Gimme Shelter” and the raw, cutting solos on “Sympathy for the Devil.” Richards is noted for his ability to intertwine with other guitarists in the band, as demonstrated by his flawless melding with Ronnie Wood in the laid-back groove of “Beast of Burden.”
69. John Frusciante
As part of the Red Hot Chili Peppers in two stints, John Frusciante largely played a mix of riffs ranging from simple to incredibly complex, his warm tone adding depth to his playing and forming the core of the band’s laid-back, funky sound. One of the more guitar-forward pieces from Frusciante’s tenure is “Funky Monks,” with a catchy, funky riff that briefly breaks forth in one of his occasional pyrotechnic flourishes. Frusciante elevates the hit “Californication” with a hypnotic riff and a simple, melodic solo. On the other end of the spectrum, Frusciante demonstrates his extreme technical ability when standing in for Omar Rodriguez-Lopez of The Mars Volta to lay down guitar for tracks such as the epic “Tetragrammaton” for the progressive rockers’ album Amputechture.
70. Gary Moore
Northern Irish guitarist Gary Moore graced several Irish and British rock bands with his bold sound, most notably replacing Eric Bell after his departure from Thin Lizzy, before embarking on a solo career in 1979. In 1990, he shifted focus back to his blues roots with the album Still Got the Blues, its title track becoming his signature song with its emotional solos full of melancholy sustained notes delivered in his big, clear tone. While Moore was great ripping into explosive blues-rockers like his cover of Albert King’s “Oh, Pretty Woman,” his full range can be heard on long, soulful, slow blues solos such as “I Had a Dream” and “Don’t Believe a Word” from Live at Bush Hall.
71. Thurston Moore & 72. Lee Ranaldo
As co-lead guitarists in Sonic Youth, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo formed a symbiotic relationship, pushing the sonic limits of their instruments. The duo heavily employed alternate tunings and techniques while also making use of extremely high volumes and levels of feedback. In “Bull in the Heather,” the two remain quiet but tense, trading metallic, scratching riffs behind Kim Gordon’s breathy vocals. In “Sugar Kane,” the riffs evolve through a multitude of tones erupting into a brief swirl of wild noise. Even in solos like “Expressway to Yr. Skull” and “Silver Rocket” that sound like pure noise at first, a closer listen reveals a complex tapestry of rapid-fire notes, strained harmonies, and pulsing rhythms.
73. Les Paul
Even if he had never recorded a note, Les Paul would be a guitar legend. As a guitar builder, he pioneered the solid-body electric guitar which became the preferred instrument of rock musicians, and he helped design one of the instrument’s most enduring models, the Gibson Les Paul. As an engineer and producer on many of his own recordings, he perfected such influential techniques as overdubbing, tape delay, and multitracking. But he was also a guitarist to be reckoned with, able to play with amazing speed and dexterity, augmenting his technical brilliance with playful flourishes. His best-known work came when paired with his wife Mary Ford in the 1950s, with Paul contributing fast-paced, high-pitched guitar to jazzy pop singles like “How High the Moon,” “Tiger Rag,” and “Lover.” Although Paul slowed his pace in ensuing decades, he enjoyed an incredibly long career, and he was still performing weekly shows at New York’s Iridium Jazz Club until his death in 2009 at age 94.
74. Joe Walsh
The long and versatile career of Joe Walsh has seen success in many forms, with the James Gang, the Eagles, his solo career, and collaborations with many other artists. Walsh’s early works often featured heavy, insistent riffs that could be rhythmically stiff but could also open into tonal explorations like the “Bolero” section of the James Gang’s “The Bomber.” Walsh developed a more subtle and understated approach to fit in with the Eagles after joining them in 1975. He still supplied great guitar work with the band, achieving gorgeous harmony with Don Felder on the dual-guitar solo of “Hotel California.” Another excellent Walsh moment can be found in the first solo of Eagles bandmate Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry,” with Walsh sliding gracefully through the reverb-laden soundscape.
The hard rock sound of Guns N’ Roses is synonymous with the infectious, muscular riffs of lead guitarist Slash. Pulling back from the shredding of his ’80s peers, Slash established a more restrained, blues-influenced hard rock that focused on great tone and great riffs but was no less wild. One of Slash’s best performances comes on “Welcome to the Jungle,” where he intertwines riffs with Izzy Stradlin and punctuates the action with a detailed solo full of screaming energy. The Use Your Illusion albums gave the band a chance to stretch out, and Slash responded with crying, soaring bends in “November Rain” and menacing riffs in the paranoid “Coma.” After leaving Guns N’ Roses, Slash formed the supergroup Velvet Revolver and recorded several solo projects before returning to the band two decades later in 2016.
76. Steve Howe
As the versatile and inventive guitarist for Yes in the ’70s, Steve Howe was a seamless fit for the pioneers of progressive and art rock. His high, clear tone and delicate touch complemented Rick Wakeman’s organ and the band’s harmonized vocals led by Jon Anderson, while he was able to draw on a wide range of influences from blues to classical music. His versatility was perfect for Yes’ lengthy multi-part songs, varying between fluid solos and jangling wah-wah riffs in “Yours Is No Disgrace” and between heavy riffs and bright, soaring solos in “Machine Messiah.” Perhaps his best-remembered moment is the elegant, reverberating acoustic intro to Yes’ hit “Roundabout,” while another highlight is the complex, undulating solo in the first part of the eighteen-minute epic “Close to the Edge.”
When thinking of Prince’s music, the first things that come to mind are likely his sensitive and wide-ranging vocals over synth-heavy funk and pop beats. But Prince had no reservations about picking up a guitar and ripping into a solo with an absolutely massive reverberating tone. His best-known song “Purple Rain” is capped by just such a monumental solo, while “Let’s Go Crazy” features strong riffs and a fiery ending solo. Many of his best guitar moments came in live performances, both of his own songs and of covers like Jimi Hendrix’s “Red House” and the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination.”
78. Wes Montgomery
A master of tone and harmony, Wes Montgomery is remembered as one of the leading figures of jazz guitar. His unique soloing style made heavy use of octaves and block chords, which gave rise to deep, rich harmonies when paired with his smooth touch and mellow tone. His tune “Bumpin’ on Sunset” gives a perfect showcase for his style, the cool wells of his harmonies opening up over a Latin-inflected rhythm, while his version of “Caravan” shows how his playing could translate equally well to a warm, fast-paced environment. A good example of Montgomery’s soloing in a longer piece is his languid “Willow Weep for Me.”
79. Charlie Christian
While others had flirted with the potential of the new instrument, Charlie Christian was the first musician to show the full ability of the electric guitar as a lead instrument. Christian realized the instrument had a greater range than its acoustic forebear, modeling his solos more after those of tenor saxophonists than fellow guitarists. His energetic single-note solos were a major influence in the development of bebop. Christian’s career was all too brief. He enjoyed national fame playing for Benny Goodman from 1939 to 1941, but he suffered from tuberculosis and died in 1942 at only 25. Some of Christian’s best bop-oriented soloing can be heard on “Swing to Bop” and “Stompin’ at the Savoy” on the album After Hours, recorded with Dizzy Gillespie in 1941, while his tender side is well illustrated in his own quartet’s version of “Stardust” that can be found on the album Electric.
80. Stephen Stills
Stephen Stills’ versatile talent has been a core part of Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills, & Nash (& sometimes Young), and a successful solo career. He doesn’t try to be flashy with his guitar, but he always plays with skill, authority, and depth. Some of his best electric playing can be found on the soaring, wah-wah jam on “The Treasure” from Manassas, while his equally impressive acoustic picking is well demonstrated on “Blues Man” from the same album and “Black Queen” on his self-titled debut. Another excellent and understated Stills number is “Treetop Flyer,” especially the 1968 demo version from Just Roll Tape where he plays slide on a Dobro with a subtle electric accompaniment.
81. Joe Bonamassa
One of the most visible of the younger generation of blues-rockers, Joe Bonamassa has produced a remarkably full and diverse catalog of recordings, often releasing several albums per year between his various studio, live, and side project efforts. His playing is technically excellent, and while he sometimes sounds overly cerebral or substitutes his signature fast pentatonic lick for a more organic climax to his solos, he has had many brilliant moments in his career. Perhaps his best guitar song is “Blues Deluxe” from his album of the same name, where his passion is evident as he vividly shows off his dynamic range with delicate picking and volume swells surrounding a towering solo. Other great performances include his slide work on “Burning Hell” from the same album, his devastatingly fast acoustic workout on “Woke Up Dreaming” from Live from the Royal Albert Hall, and his covers of Albert King from Live at the Greek Theatre.
82. Robin Trower
Robin Trower’s heavy, psychedelic-tinged blues-rock was a major force in the guitar world in the 1970s. After building a reputation during several years as the guitarist for Procol Harum, Trower made his solo debut with Twice Removed from Yesterday in 1973 and achieved breakout success the next year with Bridge of Sighs. The latter album especially featured some of his best work, with Trower alternating between funky riffs and a reverberating bluesy solo on “Too Rolling Stoned” and laying down dark and heavy psychedelic blues on the album’s title lament. At the same time, his big sound filled arenas with live performances of songs like “Rock Me Baby” and “I Can’t Wait Much Longer.” While his popularity in the charts waned after the ’70s, Trower is still active recording albums and dazzling live audiences.
83. Gary Clark Jr.
It is rare in the twenty-first century for a blues-rock musician to make such a strong entry onto the scene as Gary Clark Jr. made with “Bright Lights,” gripping audiences with the song’s haunting, insistent riff and massive fuzz-toned guitar solo casually reaching into screaming dissonance. In his studio work, Clark is known for blending blues, rock, soul, and hip hop to push the limits of the genres that influence him. His guitar playing especially shines in his live work, rendering huge, distorted jams underpinned by excellent collaboration with his incredible rhythm guitarist Eric “King” Zapata on songs such as “Bright Lights” and “When My Train Pulls In,” as well as faster workouts like “Don’t Owe You a Thang” and “Ain’t Messin’ ’Round.”
84. Robert Fripp
As the founder of King Crimson and the band’s only continuous member since 1968, Robert Fripp helped usher in progressive rock by introducing elements from classical music, avant-garde jazz, and various world folk traditions to psychedelic rock. A meticulous performer, Fripp’s most recognizable moments are the buzzing riffs in songs such as “Red,” “21st Century Schizoid Man,” and “Easy Money,” while his wide-ranging improvisations always complement the complex array of percussion and co-lead instruments in the band, whether pushing to a screaming cacophony or exploring slow and haunting dissonances.
85. John Cipollina
As lead guitarist for Quicksilver Messenger Service, one of the pioneering acts of San Francisco’s strong late ’60s psychedelic scene, John Cipollina was an improviser extraordinaire, producing a wealth of long, bluesy psychedelic jams on the band’s extensive live catalog. Some of his best work can be found on the live album Happy Trails, including the innovative set of variations on the Bo Diddley classic “Who Do You Love?” and the understated exploratory rumble of “Calvary,” with its echoes of Western movie soundtracks. Cipollina’s excellence on slide is well demonstrated jamming on the Howlin’ Wolf cover “Smokestack Lightnin’” from Live at the Fillmore, June 7, 1968.
86. Jorma Kaukonen
With Jefferson Airplane at the head of San Francisco’s scene, guitarist Jorma Kaukonen was a major contributor to psychedelic rock, while also maintaining his deep affinity for the blues. His guitar was vital to the band’s 1967 breakthrough album Surrealistic Pillow, although some of Kaukonen’s best work was revealed among the bonus tracks from the 2003 remaster, including the slow blues “In the Morning” and the driving “Come Back Baby.” On the more psychedelic side of things, Kaukonen could produce lengthy and compelling improvisations that showed his range such as the subtle and trippy “Spare Chaynge” from After Bathing at Baxter’s and the sprawling live performances the band recorded at Woodstock. After splitting from Jefferson Airplane, Kaukonen formed Hot Tuna, which allowed him to focus more on blues and display his talent as an acoustic fingerstyle guitarist, and he has also enjoyed a versatile solo career.
87. Warren Haynes
As a member of the Allman Brothers Band, founder of Gov’t Mule, and leader of an acclaimed solo career, Warren Haynes has been a powerful and prolific force in the Southern rock, blues, and jam band scenes. The muscular buzz of his guitar was a key part of the Allman Brothers after their 1989 reunion, first alongside Dickey Betts and later Derek Trucks, while in Gov’t Mule and his solo work he has also produced an array of excellent guitar-oriented jams. Live at the Moody Theater showcases some of his best solo work, especially the long wah-wah infused improvisations of “On a Real Lonely Night” and “Invisible.” The many great examples of his playing with Gov’t Mule include his covers of Wilson Pickett’s “I’m a Ram” from the reggae-inflected Mighty High and Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” from Live…With a Little Help from Our Friends.
88. Joe Satriani
Joe Satriani started his career teaching guitar to a remarkable field of students including Steve Vai, Kirk Hammett, and Larry LaLonde. He then struck out on his own to become one of the most successful and highly regarded guitarists in the ’80s and ’90s wave of instrumental rock virtuosos. His 1987 sophomore album, Surfing with the Alien, was a breakthrough hit, with Satriani ripping through a slate of catchy and manic instrumentals like the title track and “Satch Boogie.” Satriani’s playing is highly technical, and he is known for his impressive speed and his mastery of a wide range of techniques and effects. Satriani can be heard stretching out for longer improvisational jams on Satriani Live with the immersive soundscapes of “A Cool New Way” and “Made of Tears.”
89. Ritchie Blackmore
As guitarist for Deep Purple and later Rainbow, Ritchie Blackmore was a major hard rock and heavy metal pioneer. Highlighted by 1972’s Machine Head, his Deep Purple output featured fast and precise solos like the one in “Highway Star” and huge, heavy riffs such as the immortal riff from “Smoke on the Water.” In Rainbow, Blackmore embraced baroque and classical influences, producing more rhythmically staid pieces with a grand scale and heroic imagery such as “Stargazer” and “A Light in the Black” from Rising.
90. Alex Lifeson
Befitting the reputation of his band, Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson is a technically excellent musician and a progressive rock innovator. Rush began with a more blues-rock-oriented style, exemplified by the Canadian band’s 1974 US breakthrough hit “Working Man,” where Lifeson lays down heavy riffs and an extended bluesy solo. On the progressive rock side, “The Spirit of Radio” shows his range of abilities, opening with an oscillating riff and varying between heavy rhythms, playful staccato interludes, and screaming solos. Lifeson also impresses in Rush’s lengthy and intricate live performances, such as “Xanadu” from Different Stages and the version of “La Villa Strangiato” from Rush in Rio.
91. Gary Rossington & 92. Allen Collins
As founding members of Southern rock powerhouse Lynyrd Skynyrd, Gary Rossington and Allen Collins led a formidable twin and often triple guitar attack. In the band’s concert staple “Free Bird,” Rossington’s soaring and emotional slide guitar carried the vocal section of the song while Collins took the lead for the fiery burst of energy in the closing solo. In other performances, such as “Call Me the Breeze” and “That Smell,” Rossington and Collins skillfully interwove their playing as they produced solid riffs, muscular solos, and striking fills, often with the additional talents of Steve Gaines or Ed King as a third guitarist. After the tragic 1977 plane crash that killed several band members and forced a hiatus for Lynyrd Skynyrd, the two guitarists formed the Rossington Collins Band and participated in other musical projects. Collins was forced to quit performing after being partially paralyzed in a 1986 drunk-driving accident, and he died from complications in 1990. When Lynyrd Skynyrd reformed in 1987, Rossington rejoined as the lead guitarist and is the only original member still with the band.
93. Omar Rodriguez-Lopez
As the guiding force behind the Mars Volta, several other bands and collaborations, and an active solo career, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez is a creative and contrarian guitarist, songwriter, and producer. His songs with the Mars Volta are characterized by manic rhythms, sharp vocals, and complex guitar parts. They are also often heavily produced, featuring many separately recorded elements blended and rearranged in the studio. Consequently, they display many aspects of his playing, including experimentations with effects, tones, and harmonies. “Drunkship of Lanterns” exemplifies this style, while more ambitious listeners can immerse themselves in the thirty-minute “Cassandra Gemini.” His solo works often feature performances with longer uninterrupted guitar solos, such as the watery strains of the jazz-influenced “Coma Pony” or the tough wah-wah solos of the bluesy and psychedelic “Old Money.”
94. John Scofield
Jazz and fusion guitarist John Scofield has explored the ways jazz intersects with a wide range of genres, including rock, funk, blues, and country, and (aside from occasionally straying close to smooth jazz and easy listening sounds) has produced reliably solid results. His playing is precise, with a bright yet complex tone, and his works are accentuated by his nuanced bends and phrasing, especially when he slows down and drags out his notes for effect. With an expansive oeuvre of consistent quality, one can start anywhere, but a few standout tracks include “Slinky,” “Freakin’ Disco,” and “Groan Man.” Scofield’s strong work continues in his latest release Country for Old Men, featuring his instrumental jazz takes on classic country tunes, ranging from an intense improvisational version of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” to a melodic rendition of the plaintive “Jolene.”
95. Jeff Healey
Canadian guitarist Jeff Healey was one of the most accomplished blues-rockers of the 1980s and ’90s. Blind from infancy, he developed a style of playing seated with the guitar flat across his lap. His playing was big, fast, and powerful, yet had a sensitive and detailed element that added depth and contrast to his often incendiary works. As the Years Go Passing By: Live in Germany is a particularly good retrospective of his guitar mastery, collecting three live performances from 1989 to 2000. The highlight is the fourteen-minute 1995 version of “See the Light,” with its playfully syncopated intro and blistering improvised solos. Healey also blazes through a range of excellent covers such as “How Blue Can You Get?,” “Put the Shoe on the Other Foot,” and “Roadhouse Blues.” While mostly known for his hard-rocking blues, Healey had another side, producing several tasteful classic jazz albums including Among Friends and Adventures in Jazzland.
96. Joe Perry
As lead guitarist for Aerosmith, Joe Perry was the source of many an iconic riff, sometimes grabbing the lead in brief but gripping solos while at other times forming a dynamic tandem with second guitarist Brad Whitford. Some of his best guitar work comes on “Walk This Way,” where he leads the twin guitar attack with a complex and infectious riff interspersed with short, piercing solos. His contributions in other Aerosmith songs range from riffing like his gritty slide guitar in “Draw the Line” to solos like his melodic passages in the intense “Dream On.” Even in Aerosmith’s more pop-oriented post-reunion work, Perry finds moments to shine, as in “Cryin’,” where his soloing adds a bluesy bite to the over-the-top power ballad.
97. Kurt Cobain
While Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain may be better known as a singer, songwriter, and lyricist, he is also highly regarded as a guitarist, his raw and emotional playing style perfectly complementing the other aspects of the band. His style employed strong dynamic variation, as demonstrated in the contrast between the verses and chorus in Nirvana’s hit “Smells like Teen Spirit.” In “Come as You Are,” Cobain made use of effects to create a foreboding watery echo in the rhythmically entrancing riff. He displayed his acoustic talent in the band’s MTV Unplugged concert, especially on the deep blues of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” Cobain could also wring the guitar mercilessly for tortured but compelling performances like the effects-laden “Endless, Nameless,” the hidden track from Nevermind.
98. Mark Farner
Underpinning the sound of ’70s rockers Grand Funk Railroad was the strong, simple, hard-driving guitar of front man Mark Farner, which shined through on expansive jams both on albums and in live shows. The band’s second album Grand Funk features Farner at his peak, especially on “Inside Looking Out,” with his screaming, fuzzy solos and staccato, metallic riffs. The album also features impressive performances on “In Need” and “Paranoid,” while “All You’ve Got Is Money” from Survival is also excellent.
99. Leigh Stephens
Leigh Stephens only played on two albums for San Francisco rock band Blue Cheer, both released in 1968, but he still had a major impact on rock music. His massive, heavily distorted tone defined the band’s blues-influenced psychedelic sound while serving as an inspiration for heavy metal. Stephens’ playing also employed large amounts of dissonance, and his unrelenting sonic onslaught immersed listeners in his innovative if challenging sound. The band scored a hit from their first album Vincebus Eruptum with a heavy cover of Eddie Cochrane’s “Summertime Blues,” while Stephens also shined on tracks including “Doctor Please” and the blues covers “Parchman Farm” and “Rock Me Baby.”
100. Joey Santiago
Regardless of where the Pixies’ eclectic brand of alternative rock takes them, Joey Santiago has just what the doctor ordered on guitar. While his capable contributions are often understated, the song “Vamos” from Surfer Rosa is a wild standout performance for Santiago. His slashing riffs give way to manic “Flight of the Bumblebee”-esque figures, breaking in the middle for a feedback-heavy solo full of crazy abstract experimentations. Santiago’s talent and versatility is evident throughout the Pixies’ catalog, with other highlights including the harsh bluesy sound of “Caribou” and the soaring yet gritty chords of the band’s signature “Where Is My Mind?”
Check out my “More Great Guitarists” playlist on Spotify to hear these 50 great guitarists.
(In alphabetical order)
(Associated bands in parentheses)
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