25 Greatest Guitarist Ever
These are the men who did not allow the guitar to control them. If they did not build their own, these musical legends made the guitar bend to their whims.
Ladies and gentlemen, the greatest guitarists of all time:
King is credited for molding blues music in Britain; Eric Clapton has made no secret of his adulation for King’s guitar-playing. King’s kind of playing blended urban blues and country. He used melodic riffs that explode into frenetic, sniveling guitar solos on the upper strings.
Eddy Van Halen
Van Halen distinguished himself from cookie-cutter guitarists by making music that was at once very avant-garde and hooking. He was, to understate it, obsessed with sound. Guitarists everywhere still emulate him for guitar tricks like hammering one’s fingers on the fretboard.
Allman has racked up plenty of slide- and lead-guitar credits in his astounding career. His best works can be heard on Eric Clapton’s 1970 album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs and Wilson Pickett’s revival of “Hey Jude.”
According to Rolling Stone, the first song Duane practiced playing guitar to was Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues.” By the time the band released At Fillmore East, their third album, Duane’s blastoff licks have become something of legend. One wonders about the full extent of his potential had his life not been tragically cut short in 1971 by a vehicular accident.
Bloomfield is one of the more unforgettable guitarists to come out of the white blues movement in the 1960s. His talent is on full display in Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited; Al Kooper’s Super Session; and his own albums with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
Bloomfield was raised in Chicago’s blues clubs, where he worked at close range with personages of black blues. Coming from this privileged background, Bloomfield learned to execute mesmerizing runs and breaks in bell tone. Sadly, Bloomfield’s expertise waned as he spiraled down to drug addiction, which took his life away in 1981.
If Roger Waters brought lyrical profoundness to Pink Floyd, David Gilmour gave drama. His guitar solos oozed with soulfulness and evoked alien landscapes. For examples, listen to “Comfortably Numb” or “Echoes.”
Burton is another guitar player of the first order. He is a master of “chickin’ pickin’,” a damped-string, staccato guitar trick. In addition, he knows fingerpicking and flatpicking like no other.
In the 1960s, he contributed his skills to the records of a wide span of musicians, including Frank Sinatra and Buck Owens. In the subsequent decade, he toured with Elvis Presley and Emmylou Harris.
English folk rock had no greater champion than Richard Thompson. It all started when he jointly launched the group Fairport Convention in 1967.
Hailed among Britain’s nonpareil singer-songwriters, Richard Thompson smoothly made Cajun songs and Celtic tunes to fit with the electric and acoustic guitar. Just hear his 1974-82 records with ex-wife Linda.
This Deep Purple guitarist is legendarily known for his heart-stopping virtuoso flights and bottom-line riffs. If anything, he is easily associated with one of the most basic riffs ever: “Smoke on the Water.”
White Stripes’ leader found celebrity by going back to the basics: distorted sounds, feedback, and MC5- and Stooges-style riffs. His style evokes Blind Willie Johnson, Led Zeppelin, and 1970s punk even as it remains distinctively Jack White.
Hear the strings bend fantastically on his covers of Bob Dylan’s “Isis” and Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”
Believe it or not, the guitarist formerly known as John Cummings loathes guitar solos. That’s why he birthed punk-rock guitar.
With the Ramones, he played marble-hard barre chords and almost nothing else. But Joey Ramone, the band’s vocalist, remembered hearing Johnny playing organ and piano during sound checks. Only that where there were these instruments, there was only a guitar in Johnny’s hands.
His guitar’s unadulterated tone is instantly recognizable in the universe of music. He successfully wedded rock to Latin and jazz and has since served as the international face of this musical style.
Influenced by greats like Miles Davis, Mike Bloomfield, John Coltrane, and Peter Green, Santana is an awe-inspiring soloist, able to express long sustained notes. His appeal bridges generations, from his 1968 debut to his millennial rebirth with Supernatural, for which he won eight Grammy awards.
With the quickness of his digits and adept control of feedback, Jeff Beck anchored the Yardbirds’ greatness in R&B-tinged psychedelia. His eponymous group with Rod Stewart, founded after the Yardbirds, functioned as a template for Led Zeppelin’s sound no less. The Jeff Beck band explored the possibility of making British blues more heavy-metal. In the 1970s, Beck’s star shined its brightest by perpetuating a peculiar derivative of jazz fusion that still resonates today.
A blue-grass and folk fanatic, the Grateful Dead’s Garcia was a natural in lead guitar, with which he pushed the limits of psychedelia. He could impress audiences as profoundly with slide guitar as with pedal steel guitar. Check out Grateful Dead songs like “Cosmic Charlie” and “Dire Wolf.” All of these are made even more notable for the knowledge that he lost a finger as a boy while hacking wood.
Kurt introducing grunge to the 1990s was the end of the era of stadium guitar rock. He landed like a meteor in the music world and bombarded it with fuzz and feedback fireballs.
Through his masterpieces with Nirvana, Cobain was able to harmonize his penchant for hardcore punk, Lead Belly, and the Beatles. The result was genre-bending, genuinely alternative rock that has touched many music lovers long after his 1994 suicide.
Kirk Hammett is so famous he has passed into urban legend. When he was 15, he supposedly only had ten dollars in his pocket for buying his first guitar and the Kiss album Dressed to Kill.
Rolling Stones’ founding member is singularly beyond the first order of musical excellence. He contributed the one largest compendium of riffs to music, including those of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” and “Start Me Up.” Refer to Stones’ 1972 Exile on Main Street for even more examples.
Led Zeppelin ruled the (rock) world in the 1970s and its king regnant was founder Jimmy Page. His unparalleled guitar-playing might lives on today in such classics as “Stairway to Heaven,” “Dazed and Confused,” and “Black Dog.”
Page first paid his dues in the 1960s as a studio musician in England. There he produced for John Mayall and Velvet Underground’s Nico and helped out with the Everly Brothers and Kinks. Page later played lead guitar for the last reassembly of the Yardbirds.
Ry Cooder is what you would call a guitar maestro. Name a style; he probably knows it. he can play the earliest styles of country, bottleneck blues, vintage jazz, etc. With his slide guitar, he reinvigorated forgotten folk songs such as “Boomer’s” and “Vigilante Man.”
As it were, Cooder’s persona was essentially a crossroads in music history. In 1968 sessions with the Rolling Stones, Cooder taught Keith Richards how to tune five-string open-G blues. This piece of education did Richards immense good. He used it to compose some of his most famous riffs on Rolling Stones albums like Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, and Exile on Main St. Probably as a form of homage, the Stones let him play in “Love in Vain.”
Stevie Ray Vaughan
Stevie Ray Vaughan was singlehandedly responsible for the resurgence in blues-rock in the 1980s, at a time when hair metal and synth-pop acts bordered on megalomania. He gave the world a breather in 1983’s Texas Flood.
It was David Bowie who parlayed Vaughan’s knack for psychedelic soul and funk rock into record-store eminence. After watching Vaughan perform at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1982, Bowie beckoned him to collaborate with him on Let’s Dance. As the 1990s were closing in, Vaughan was playing to sold-out stadium shows.
It took a helicopter crash in 1990 to cut it all short. Vaughan was 35.
Without this man, rock ‘n’ roll guitar would have been created only last night. He was rock ‘n’ roll guitar’s original titan, a god to other gods.
You can instantly single out Chuck Berry’s trademark lick: a Chicago blues-influenced staccato, double-string squeal. Record buyers first heard it on his first single “Maybellene,” and were treated to more in “Johnny B. Goode”, “Roll Over Beethoven,” and “Rock and Roll Music.” It is not for nothing these songs talked mostly about the delicacy of playing rock & roll.
There is no doubt that Robert Johnson is the omnipotent one among the Mississippi Delta blues songsters. His influence cannot be denied; he spiritually guided anyone from Keith Richards to Eric Clapton to Jack White. That he only recorded 29 songs is no detriment to the fact that all of his works formed the bedrock of modern rock and blues. He is responsible for some of the world’s most famous blues songs such as “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom“, “Cross Road Blues,” and “Sweet Home Chicago.”
His greatness is only matched by his misery. Johnson, child of a black Mississippi farmer, parlayed his experiences with poverty and slavery into periphery-tearing tempos and harmonics. He was murdered in 1938.
Clapton is unquestionably a guitar deity. Not for nothing was he ironically called Slowhand during his Yardbirds stint in the 1960s; the speed of his lead breaks could be supersonic. Look for his best guitar works in 461 Ocean Boulevard (1974) and Money & Cigarettes (1983). Of course, there is always 1970’s Layla.
B. B. King
“Before B.B., everyone played the guitar like it was an acoustic.” – Buddy Guy
This only begins to underscore the legacy of the self-appointed “Ambassador of the Blues,” who started a revolution with his vibrato and string-bending. By making his famous guitar, Lucille, sound like a crying lady, King spawned a million copycats.
Clearly BB is less of an ambassador than a king. Blues-guitar found a new route to greater heights in King’s music. Just listen to his 1950s singles like “Everyday I Have the Blues” and 1960s albums like Live at the Regal.
Guns N’ Roses may not have experienced planetary success had Slash Hudson not been their lead guitarist. His riff in “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and solo in “November Rain” are still revered as some of the greatest in history. Not bad for a man who had a one-stringed Hawaiian guitar for his first.
During the band’s hiatus, Slash reestablished his stake in music in the 2000s with the superband Velvet Revolver.
Simply put, Hendrix is the greatest guitar player of all time. No one else can strike a perfect ying-yang balance between modern sounds and authentic blues guitar. His playing per se is a delight, a visually arresting show of chord manipulation. He is the main developer of the heretofore difficult technique of guitar amplifier feedback.
You can envy, hate, or just gape at these men for being so awesome with the guitar. Or you can turn your idolatry into something productive, like learning the guitar.
Be a tamer of this instrument with Gibson’s Learn and Master Guitar today. There is no telling when you would take your rightful place as the 26th on this list.