First, the disclaimers. This is a list of my FAVORITE guitarists – not necessarily the best or most technically proficient. I don’t play guitar myself, but guitar playing is at the heart of most of the music I love best. I’ve neglected certain genres: classical music, heavy metal, reggae, flamenco and jazz – musical forms that lay claim to some of the most brilliant and artistic guitar playing. The emphasis here is on rock and blues, because it’s the stuff I listen to most.
50. Joe WalshWalsh doesn’t just make his guitar sing – he makes it screech, and delightfully so. His distinctive playing is instantly recognizable in memorable riffs (“Life in the Fast Lane”), classic solos (“Hotel California”) and slide guitar (“Rocky Mountain Way”).
49. Elmore James
One of the great delta bluesmen who plugged in and took Chicago by storm, James was renowned for his slide work and powerful playing on tracks like “Dust by Broom” and “The Sky is Crying.” You can hear his influence on Hendrix, Stevie Ray, Clapton and many other blues and rock guitarists.
48. Richard Thompson
It's easy to overlook the great acoustic guitarists. I was familiar with some of Thompson’s early work with Fairport Convention and the recordings with wife, Linda (especially 1982’s “Shoot Out the Lights”) but I didn’t really appreciate his guitar playing until I heard him play a remarkable acoustic version of The Who’s “Substitute” on a radio program.
47. Jerry Garcia
Jerry Garcia was such a cultural icon that even worshipful Dead Heads sometimes overlook his guitar playing. Best known for the extended improvisational jams for which the band is famous, he also incorporated elements of country, jazz and blues to make a sweet sound very much his own.
46. Robert Cray
The blues revival of the 1980s was partly owed to the success of Cray’s Strong Persuader, one of the staple albums of my college listening years. He’s a smooth and soulful singer, but what really stands out is his rapid-fire, staccato guitar solos and a sound that’s as clear as a bell.
45. Peter Green
Not everyone remembers early Fleetwood Mac but when you listen to the heavy blues of “Oh Well” or the lovely “Albatross,” you begin to appreciate why Green was regarded as a guitar legend who is still mentioned in the whispered tones reserved for the likes of Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton.
44. Jack White
The musical force behind the White Stripes and the Raconteurs, White combines dirty blues with the raw energy of punk and garage rock, to create some of the best sounding rock of the new millennium.
43. Wes Montgomery
I hardly ever listened to jazz guitar but then a friend gave me the CD Smokin’ at the Half Note featuring Wes Montgomery and the Wynton Kelly Trio. I totally get it now.
42. Joe Perry
Aerosmith’s axe-man, is one of the quintessential rock guitarists. Rooted in the blues like his British guitar heroes, Perry is responsible for so many classic riffs.
41. Billy Gibbons
Forget the beards and the MTV videos, what makes ZZ Top is Billy Gibbon’s guitar work - the boogie shuffles, the classic riffs and killer tone.
40. Bruce Springsteen
He won’t make lists for technical proficiency and even die-hard Springsteen fans talk about his songwriting and his stage performance before they mention his guitar-playing. But when Springsteen plays the songs on Darkness on the Edge of Town, his guitar lends a violence that perfectly captures the emotions of the characters and the power of so many of the songs.
39. Dave Davies
As the guitarist for the Kinks, Davies is responsible for some of Rock’s classic riffs (“You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night”) and a use of distortion that influenced countless garage bands and punk rockers.
38. Johnny Marr
Morrissey’s misery may have been the signature feature of The Smiths, but it’s the guitar playing of Johnny Marr that made the songs so striking.
I never had much use for heavy metal or for the hair bands of the 80s but when Guns ‘n Roses came along, they seemed altogether different. The elemental force of their sound grabbed me by the throat. Slash’s guitar work was a big reason why.
36. Angus Young
Sure, the school boy outfits and on-stage antics are pure shtick, but when it comes to AC-DC’s guitarist, what it’s really about is power chords, high energy and ass-kicking solos.
35. Neil Young
No relation to Angus. Neil Young is a strange and unique artist. His acoustic playing and classic songs are impressive enough, but it’s when he’s rocking out with Crazy Horse that he reaches the height of his artistry, tapping into something that’s elemental and, at the same time, not of this world.
34. Neels Cline
Wilco is probably my favorite band of the last decade. As Jeff Tweedy transformed his outfit from a very good alt-country group into a truly great band, the guitar playing of Neels Cline became part of that evolution. A player of great versatility and power, he’s equally at home playing avant-garde jazz, dissonant noise rock and tasty pop-rock licks.
33. T. Bone Walker
Few bluesmen made a greater mark on rock guitar than T-Bone Walker, who recorded classic tracks, played a signature Texas shuffle and pretty much defined the guitar solo.
32. J. Mascis
The front man for alternative rock outfit, Dinosaur Jr, Macis is responsible for some of the most ferocious sounding guitar rock of the late 1980s and 90s.
31. Mike Campbell
Guitar World Magazine paid the ultimate tribute to Tom Petty's guitarist: “there are only a handful of guitarists who can claim to have never wasted a note. Mike Campbell is certainly one of them".
30. Stone Gossard/Mike McCready
I cheated here by choosing both of Pearl Jam’s guitarists. Gossard’s rhythmic riffs, and McCready’s shredding solos are both so integral to the sound that I can hardly imagine one without the other.
29. Nils Lofgren
Best known as one of Springsteen’s sidemen, Lofgren got his start with Neil Young and Crazy Horse. He’s equally accomplished at delicate finger picking, soulful slide guitar and fret board pyrotechnics.
28. Robbie Robertson
Robbie’s tasty playing with the Band is, for me, essential listening. And when Bob Dylan unleashed his electric rock sound to an unprepared folky audience, Robbie helped Dylan make history. Spine-tingling stuff.
27. Albert King
Along with B.B. and Freddy, Albert was one of the three great “King” bluesmen. An expressive and understated player, his “Born Under a Bad Sign” is of the greatest guitar albums of all time.
26. Brian May
Queen’s guitarist is a great technician and his harmonics and timeless solos were a crucial part of the band’s power and signature sound.
25. Mick Taylor
A great English blues guitarist and member of John Mayhall’s Blues Breakers. He’s best known as a former member of the Rolling Stones from 1969-74 and it’s not an accident that the Stones recorded their best albums during that period.
24. Kurt Cobain
When magazines like Rolling Stone put Kurt Cobain high on their lists, the old school rock fans usually howl. But Cobain deserves his place. He wasn’t just the creative force behind Nirvana, possibly the best and most influential band of his decade. As a guitarist, his riffs, hooks and tuning helped create the grunge sound.
23. David Gilmour
Many Pink Floyd fans insist that Roger Waters was the greater creative force in the band. But what I like best about Pink Floyd is the emotional expression in Gilmour’s playing.
22. Eddie Van Halen
When I was growing up, every kid who picked up a guitar wanted to sound like Eddie Van Halen. For good reason.
21. Jeff Beck
Beck is a guitarist’s guitarist. Folks who play guitar tend to rank him higher. His playing with the Yardbirds and Rod Stewart is what’s most familiar to your average rock listener. But his 1970s solo work (“Blow by Blow”) is probably the better measure of his artistic and technical prowess.
20. George Harrison
To be fair, the quiet Beatle was one of three very good guitar players in his band. But his playing – the rockabilly in the early years, the jangly sound, his excellent slide guitar and exploration of Eastern sounds on the late albums - stand out as the most lyrical and distinctive. His influence is massive.
19. Dicky Betts
Twin guitar harmonics, mind-bending solos and blues-based jamming are staples of the Allman Brothers Band, the group that pretty much invented Southern Rock. After Duane Allman died, Dicky Betts created some of the Allman’s most melodic guitar work.
18. Roy Buchanan
Never really famous, Buchanan was one of those blues guitarists revered by other great guitarists. I was determined to find out why. So I picked up his two-disc Anthology and was blown away by the power and range of emotion.
17. Ry Cooder
The eclectic Cooder is a session man extraordinaire (from the Rolling Stones to John Hiatt), an expositor of world music and a terrific slide guitarist. Check out 1972’s Boomer’s Story and his LA concept album, Chavez Ravine.
16. Carlos Santana
Such a rich and fascinating career fusing different musical styles but what always emerges when you listen is a passionate guitar sound that is entirely his own.
15. The Edge
His distinctive playing gives U2 its unique sound. He's an innovator, making creative use of delay and digital technology, but it’s his sense of rhythm and feel is that really drives the music.
14. B.B. King
Iconic. B.B. King established a sort of prototype for what a blues guitarist should sound like and look like. Never bothering with chords, he’s the master at putting everything into each note.
13. Keith Richards
The heart of the Rolling Stones.
12. Buddy Guy
Clapton called him the greatest living guitarist, but please don’t take his word for it (or mine). Just listen. Try his older classics and his 1990s comeback album (Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues.)
11. Steve Cropper
The ultimate soul guitarist and house band accompaniest, Cropper’s work with Booker T and the MGs and Stax Volt artists (Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Wilson Picket, etc.) is definitive. He always manages to find the right groove and play licks that are perfect for the song.
10. Pete Townshend
John Hiatt put it well: “It breaks my heart to see those stars, smashing a perfectly good guitar.” But Pete Townshend’s episodes of guitaricide were more than showmanship – the destruction matched the ferocity and nihilistic energy of the Who’s music. More importantly, Townshend was the king of the power chord, a great rhythm player and author of some of rock’s enduring anthems. (“Pinball Wizard” “Won’t Get Fooled Again” etc.)
9. Django Reinhardt
The Belgian born Gypsy Jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt, could be the most influential guitarist of all time. I can listen to him all day.
8. Chuck Berry
It’s really this simple: Without Chuck Berry, rock and roll, as we know it, would not exist.
7. Duane Allman
Regarded by some as the best slide-guitarist of all time, Allman’s playing on “At Fillmore East” and with Derek and the Dominos is some of the greatest music ever played by any mortal.
6. Robert Johnson
It’s not just the immeasurable influence he’s had on the guitarists who followed. Rock fans of today appreciate the influence and love the Robert Johnson mythology (the deal with the devil at the Crossroads) but many don’t actually find the recordings all that listenable. I find them thrilling. The first thing you notice is the emotional power - deep and haunting. And then you realize that something crazy is happening on the strings. You’d swear there were two guitars being played. It’s enough to make you wonder what really did happen at the Crossroads.
5. Steve Ray Vaughan
Critics used to knock him as a Hendrix rip-off artist. And if that was ALL he was, he’d still deserve to be regarded as one of the greatest guitarists ever. But the Texas blues he played with Double Trouble stands on its own brilliance. He would have amazed even Hendrix.
4. Mark Knopfler
I fell in love with his playing the very first time I heard “Sultans of Swing” on the radio. With Dire Straits, he created a distinctive sound that incorporated elements of classical guitar into majestic themes for rock anthems. His solo albums feature more understated playing and exploration into folk, country and Gaelic traditions, but his playing remains lovely, expressive and unique.
3. Eric Clapton
For sheer brilliance, I’m not sure he’s ever surpassed Layla and other Assorted Love Songs recorded over 40 years ago. But let’s suppose he had he died tragically in 1970 (the year Hendrix died). He’d by judged by Layla, his work with the Yardbirds, John Mayhall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, Delaney & Bonne, and his first (and arguably, best) solo-album. In other words, he’d be worshipped as a rock god and one of the greatest guitarists of all time. So let’s not penalize him for being a survivor. And some of his solo-albums are pretty damn good (461 Ocean Boulevard, Journeyman, From the Cradle). He makes it look so easy but can still blow you away.
2. Jimmy Page
The classic solos, the killer riffs, the heavy blues, the kick-ass tone, the manic energy, the timeless songs. Led Zeppelin’s guitarist was a force of nature.
1. Jimi Hendrix
No apologies for the obvious choice. Virtuosity, emotion, innovation, influence, pyrotechnics (literally), showmanship and great songs. Hendrix had it all and did it all before his 28th birthday. My favorite album just might be the posthumous Blues compilation released in 1994. Usually posthumous collections repackage what you’ve already heard in a cynical effort to squeeze more money from an adoring public. This one is different. Just when you think you’ve experienced the depth of Hendrix’s artistry, here was an album that went even deeper.