The Absolute Best Guitarists of All Time
A simple chord progression or an epic guitar solo can make a song memorable. But it takes a truly gifted guitarist to develop a sound that’s uniquely their own.
These guitar prodigies stand out for pioneering or exemplifying the power that a guitar can give a genre. Music wouldn’t be the same without these talented artists, and in some cases, the world wouldn’t be the same without their artistic achievements.
40. Stevie Ray Vaughan
Everything changed for Vaughan after the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1982. With his band Double Trouble at his side, Vaughan showed the world his blues/jazz guitar prowess. Immediately following the festival, Vaughan got calls to release an album.
39. Kaki King
The youngest of the greats on this list, King brings an otherworldly blend of genres to her unique style of guitar playing. She's a composer, a fingerpicking virtuoso and an improvisational mastermind. Each piece quickly weaves through jazz, classical, trip-hop, flamenco and pop right before your eyes.
38. Buddy Guy
A leading force in blues, Guy combined his Louisiana roots with Muddy Waters' Chicago sound. It's a unique blend of free jazz, soul and avant rock. His style influenced guitar greats like Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton.
37. George Harrison
As the Beatles' sound evolved, so too did George Harrison. Whether the band played pop, psychedelic rock or Indian classical, Harrison led the way. He was the Beatle in the studio, constantly exploring the latest technical innovations. But No matter how far their experimentation went, Harrison always stayed true to the Beatles' sound.
36. Freddie King
King was an American blues legend. He based his unique guitar style on blues influences from Texas and Chicago. His best guitar work also incorporated vocal nuances by using Texas' open-string sound. He also stood out for avoiding the popular '50s style blues, opting instead for a more innovative, youthful edge.
35. Robert Johnson
Little information exists about the Robert Johnson's life, except for the legend he once sold his soul to the devil to achieve musical success. That must have been a solid deal, because Johnson is regarded as a pioneer of the Delta blues. His life was tragically cut short at 27, but his 29 recordings built the blueprint for blues music around the world.
34. Kurt Cobain
Cobain's contribution to guitar playing goes beyond "grunge". With Nirvana's release of Nevermind in '91, Cobain slaughtered the sound of '80s hair metal. His aggressive use of feedback, fuzz and distortion furthered alternative rock's sound. It wasn't quite punk, blues or pop-rock, but a mix characterized by force and urgency.
33. Thurston Moore
A veteran of independent and alternative music, Thurston Moore pushed boundaries from the very start of his prolific career. As a founding member of Sonic Youth, Moore and band member Lee Renaldo composed complex melodies by using unusual guitar tunings.
32. Tony Iommi
Iommi is an English guitarist and one of the founding members of the heavy metal band Black Sabbath. Many guitar aficionados have credited Iommi with creating the genre of heavy metal music. His aggressive riffs and compositions pioneered the genre's bombastic sound.
31. Jeff Beck
The guitarist's guitar player. Beck was a pioneer in the rock music scene by launching bizarre solo attacks at full volume. Throughout his career, Beck's imagination helped him explore his technique and over-the-top approach to rock and roll music. His legacy as one of the most influential lead guitarists of all time is immortalized (twice!) at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
30. Bill Frissel
Bill Frisell helped pioneer the next generation of jazz guitar from his start in the late 80s. Frisell blended the pure, clean sound of jazz guitarists with the distortion and sound manipulation of rock and soul players. His sound is eclectic and versatile, and uniquely his own in the world of jazz guitar.
29. Keiji Haino
Sometimes silence can be golden. So can noise. That's been Japanese musician Keiji Haino's blueprint for great guitar playing over his forty-year career. His work is influenced by psychedelic music, free improvisation and minimalism among countless other genres.
28. Peter Frampton
Frampton is synonymous with his guitar playing, particularly with his signature talk box. A talk box is an effects unit that allows musicians to apply speech sounds to instruments. Frampton famously made guitar solos using a talk box that sounded like his own voice.
27. Tom Morello
Morello is best known for his music with rock bands Audioslave and Rage Against the Machine. He more than earned his spot on this list for his atypical incorporation of feedback noise, tapping, picking and heavy use of guitar effects throughout his career.
26. Ry Cooder
Ry Cooder has been a top-notch blues-rock guitarist since his start in the ‘60s. His catalog is made up of a diverse array of music that always incorporated his American roots sound. His exploration of world music later in his career led to the formation of the Cuban Buena Vista Social Club in 1996.
25. Glenn Branca
Guitar, avant-garde and classical orchestrations aren’t normally bedfellows, but Branca was far from normal. As a 15 year old, Branca practiced the guitar while creating a series of sound art collages for fun. He later evolved into one of the most eclectic guitar composers of all time.
24. Jack White
White represents the guitar icon for the modern era. His signature, modern garage sound helped launch the rock revival of the early 2000s as a member of The White Stripes. He has since taken his signature sound to other bands, including The Dead Weather and The Raconteurs.
23. Kevin Shields
As the vocalist and guitarist of My Bloody Valentine, Shields pioneered the shoegaze movement in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. By detuning the guitar’s whammy bar, Shields used it in a new way, taking the sound in and out of tune.
22. John Lee Hooker
Hooker took Delta blues, one of the earliest styles of blues music, and brought it to a new age. His electric guitar strumming was a distinct, new approach to blues music in the late ‘40s, incorporating more rhythm into his talking blues tracks.
21. Duane Allman
After seeing B.B. King live in concert, Allman and his brother Gregg knew they wanted to follow in King's footsteps. They immediately started practicing the guitar, but Duane stood out as the real talent. He eventually achieved legendary status for his electrifying slide guitar playing and outrageous improvisational skills.
20. Chet Atkins
Atkins, also known as "The Country Gentleman" is widely recognized as the creator of the pop-heavy "Nashville sound". At a time when country music was facing a slump, Atkins' distinctive picking style became his signature move. It reinvigorated country music and created new generations of country music fans.
19. Lou Reed
Reed first caught people’s attention as the lead guitarist of the rock band the Velvet Underground. His signature style of experimental guitar playing and laid back delivery made for a glamorous, ethereal combination. Outside of the band, Reed released twenty solo albums and achieved mainstream success.
18. Django Reinhardt
Reinhardt, the Belgian-born guitarist, was a jazz talent to emerge from France in the ‘30s. His band, Quintette du Hot Club de France, was unique at its time for featuring the guitar so prominently as a jazz act. But with a guitarist and visionary like Reinhardt, it was hard to hide his expertise.
17. Paco de Lucia
Paco de Lucía was an incredibly gifted and influential flamenco guitarist from southern Spain. He's often credited for incorporating classical and jazz influences into his sound during the 70s. This Latin jazz fusion helped revolutionize the new flamenco style.
16. Les Paul
His name is synonymous with the solid-body electric guitar, but Paul was also a wildly innovative guitar player in the ‘40s and ‘50s. His licks, trills and fretting techniques came to define the jazz, country and blues music of his era.
15. “Mother” Maybelle Carter
On the country guitar, no one compares to "Mother" Maybelle Carter. As a member of the historic Carter Family act in the ‘20s and ‘30s, she dazzled the folk scene with her new techniques. Her creative touch helped invent the thumb brush style, the church lick and her famous ‘Carter Family’ picking.
Prince had the versatility of Hendrix mixed with the delicacy of Santana. He could play a power ballad like no one else with "Purple Rain," get funky like Nile Rodgers on "Kiss" and shred on "Get Off." It's this blend of versatility and beauty that makes Prince's guitar playing so legendary.
13. Yngwie Malmsteen
Swedish guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen is a rare performer from the rock genre to blend neoclassical metal with heavy metal. His lightning-fast fingers conducted speedy classical symphonies while shredding his Stratocaster. It makes sense that he credits Bach and Paganini as his musical influences.
12. Peter Townshend
Townshend doesn't earn his spot on this list because he was the first to destroy a guitar on stage. No, that's an added bonus. But it is a testament to his punk mentality that he brought to his guitar playing.
11. Elizabeth Cotton
In Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a young Elizabeth Cotton taught herself the guitar. She learned using her brother's, which was strung for a right-handed player, but Cotton was a leftie. As a result, she taught herself how to play upside down, creating her own unique style of guitar playing.
10. Jimmy Page
Jimmy Page is the guitar prodigy from the ‘60s English rock band The Yardbirds and the hard rock ‘70s band Led Zeppelin. Drawing inspiration from blues, psychedelia and folk, Page has some of the most powerful guitar riffs in rock music.
9. B.B. King
Born on a cotton plantation in Itta Bena, Mississippi, King has become the most influential blues musician of all time. A true craftsman with a Gibson ES-355, King is influential for his expert shortened bursts, always executed with a sophisticated delivery.
8. Keith Richards
When it comes to riffing, no guitarist compares to Keith Richards. Throughout his catalog of superior guitar playing with The Rolling Stones, Richards played both lead and rhythm guitar. At times, he'd often play all the guitar parts while recording some of the band's most legendary tracks.
7. Eric Clapton
Clapton has the distinction of being the only person inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times, and it's truly fitting. His contributions to rock and blues both as a solo artist and as a member of bands the Yardbirds and Cream are groundbreaking, to say the least.
6. Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Gospel music can rock, and the world can thank Sister Rosetta Tharpe for that. Dubbed "the Godmother of rock and roll," Tharpe pioneered the blending of her gospel roots with blues, soul and rock and roll. Her voice had a sonic, emotional power that made it a breeze for her to dominate every genre.
5. Carlos Montoya
Before Montoya picked up a guitar, flamenco music only played a supporting role to Spain's historic dance style. As he gained popularity in the ‘20s and ‘30s, his unique style caught more attention while angering flamenco purists. Although he was changing the sound of flamenco, he was popularizing it throughout the world.
4. Eddie Van Halen
Van Halen is widely regarded as one of the greatest electric guitar players in the world. His style includes two-handed tapping and the use of natural and artificial harmonics. Add his style to his rhythmic approach and you've got yourself a world class guitar player.
3. Carlos Santana
Mexican American guitar legend Carlos Santana came to prominence in the ‘60s and ‘70s with his band, Santana. His sound was a unique blend of rock and roll and Latin American jazz. His melodic, blues-heavy guitar would be the driving force in a band that blared Latin and African rhythms.
2. Chuck Berry
Berry's blend of rhythm and blues with a speedier guitar set the groundwork for rock and roll music. His fast guitar strumming paired with songs about "Johnny B. Goode" were the first songs about the experiences as one of the world’s first rock stars.
1. Jimi Hendrix
His mainstream career lasted only four years, but Hendrix is often regarded as the most influential guitarist of the 20th century. The wah-wah pedal, amplifier feedback and stereophonic phasing effects are just a few of Hendrix's many contributions. His albums, and previously unreleased recordings, continue to sell years after his sudden death.