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The 250 Greatest Guitarists of All Time

Celebrating six-string glory in blues, rock, metal, punk, folk, country, reggae, jazz, flamenco, bossa nova, and much more

250 best guitarists of all time list

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mdou Moctar, Randy Rhoads, Carlos Santana, Wes Montgomery, Yvette Young, Prince, King Sunny Ade, Jimmy Page and Odetta


“MY GUITAR IS not a thing,” Joan Jett once said. “It is an extension of myself. It is who I am.” The guitar is the most universal instrument, the most primal, and the most expressive. Anybody can pick up a little guitar in no time at all, but you can spend a lifetime exploring its possibilities. That’s why thinking about what makes a great guitarist is so much fun.

Rolling Stone published its original list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists in 2011. It was compiled by a panel of musicians, mostly older classic rockers. Our new expanded list was made by the editors and writers of Rolling Stone. This one goes to 250.

Guitar players are often as iconic as the lead singers for the bands they play in. But mythic guitar gods like Jimmy Page, Brian May, and Eddie Van Halen are only one part of the story. We wanted to show the scope of the guitar’s evolution. The earliest entrant on the list (folk music icon Elizabeth Cotten) was born in 1893, the youngest (indie-rock prodigy Lindsey Jordan) was born in 1999. The list has rock, jazz, reggae, country, folk, blues, punk, metal, disco, funk, bossa nova, bachata, Congolese rumba, flamenco, and much more. There are peerless virtuosos like Pat Metheny, Yvette Young, and Steve Vai, as well as primitivists like Johnny Ramone and Poison Ivy of the Cramps. There are huge stars like Prince, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young, and behind-the-scenes masters like Memphis soul great Teenie Hodges and smooth-rock assassin Larry Carlton.

Many great guitarists realized their genius as part of a duo, so Kim and Kelley Deal of the Breeders, Adrian Smith and Dave Murray of Iron Maiden, and other symbiotic pairs share an entry. Our only instrumental criteria is that you had to be a six-string player. (All you Balalaika shredders out there, keep at it; maybe next time.)

In making the list, we tended to value heaviness over tastiness, feel over polish, invention over refinement, risk-takers and originators more than technicians. We also tended to give an edge to artists who channeled whatever gifts god gave them into great songs and game-changing albums, not just impressive playing.

As modern blues visionary Gary Clark Jr. put it, “I don’t know if I want to get too far off the path — I don’t want to get lost in the forest — but I like to wander out a bit and adventure.”

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From Rolling Stone US


Ana da Silva

The Raincoats exploded out of the London punk scene, four women out to challenge all the rules—starting with Ana Da Silva’s inventive guitar. She had her own raw, piercing, jagged clatter, like a Dylan/Patti sneer translated to guitar. As a Dylan fanatic who grew up under Portugal’s fascist dictatorship, she insisted on punk rock as liberation—as she said in 1980, “It is important to find the most honest way of living.” On classic DIY singles like “Fairytale in the Supermarket,” or albums like Odyshape and The Raincoats, she blends with Gina Birch’s bass, Vicky Aspinall’s violin, and Palmolive’s drums for an off-kilter, disorienting sound that inspired kindred rebel spirits like Bikini Kill, Sonic Youth, and Kurt Cobain.–R.S. Key Tracks: “Fairytale in the Supermarket,” “Only Loved at Night,” “No One’s Little Girl”


Nels Cline

A true guitar polymath, Nels Cline has tackled everything from gothic country rock with the Geraldine Fibbers to a full remake of John Coltrane’s late improvisational masterwork, Interstellar Space. He’s best known, of course, as Wilco’s gangly guitar hero, spiraling into lyrical jam flights (Sky Blue Sky’s “Impossible Germany”) or refined noise reveries (Star Wars’ “You Satellite”). “Nels can play anything,” Jeff Tweedy said. “We struggle with his spot in the band sometimes — but we always come to a place that’s unique and interesting because we did struggle.” That place sometimes includes colors and tones that don’t sound much like rock guitar, which makes Cline’s work all the more beguiling. —W.H.Key Tracks: “Impossible Germany,” “You Satellite,” “Confection”


Robert Quine

Robert Quine was equally fluent in free jazz and punk rock, bringing his own style of angry NYC chaos to everything he played. He was a famously combative type — as he said, “The only trouble with music is you gotta play it with other people.” He roughed up the CBGB punk of Richard Hell and the Voidoids, in his live-wire Strat blurts. He teamed with Lou Reed for the classic guitar showcases The Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts, with his nightmare meltdown in “Waves of Fear.” Quine shone with Tom Waits, John Zorn, Brian Eno, and Matthew Sweet. Hell said, “It was the combination of rage and delicacy, and the pure monstrosity of invention, that set him apart.” —R.S. Key Track: “Blank Generation,” “Waves of Fear,” “Girlfriend”


Allen Collins and Gary Rossington

Thanks to singer and songwriter Ronnie Van Zant, Lynyrd Skynyrd brought a burly sense of regional pride to Southern rock. That don’t-mess-with-us vibe was also bolstered by Gary Rossington and Allen Collins, the band’s two core guitarists. (Ed King and then Steve Gaines filled out the third-guitar slot). Each man contributed noteworthy solos to Skynyrd records: Rossington on “Tuesday’s Gone” and “Saturday Night Special,” Collins on “Simple Man,” to name a few. But their coexisting parts on the live version of “Free Bird” — Collins on paint-peeling lead and Rossington on mournful slide — turned the song’s second half into a triumphant affirmation of freedom. Together, both men invented a type of brawny guitar power that resonates to this day, especially in country. —D.B.Key Track: “Free Bird,” “Simple Man,” “Saturday Night Special”


Rowland S. Howard

Rowland S. Howard’s deranged goth-punk mayhem with the Birthday Party will stand forever as a bad influence on bad people. The Australian crew had Nick Cave yowling his gutter poetry, while Howard played the “Six Strings That Drew Blood,” in 1980s art-noise explosions like Junkyard and Mutiny. He kept exploring with Crime and the City Solution, These Immortal Souls, collaborations with Lydia Lunch and Nikki Sudden. But through it all, his guitar sound was as gaunt as his cheekbones, as ragged as his scarves. The documentary Autoluminescent chronicles his life and death. Cave called him “Australia’s most unique, gifted, and uncompromising guitarist.” —R.S.Key Tracks: “The Friend Catcher,” “Junkyard”


Kelley Johnson

Kelly Johnson helped make Girlschool one of the fiercest bands to blow up in the late-Seventies/early-Eighties U.K. metal explosion. They had their biggest hit with their 1981 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre EP, with their friends in Motörhead. As Lemmy said, “Kelly Johnson, on a good day, is as good as Jeff Beck in his rock & roll days. She’s a fucking brilliant guitar player.” She showed off her magnesium-flare guitar hooks in dirtbag classics like “C’Mon Let’s Go,” “Kick It Down,” and “Yeah Right.” Johnson died of spinal cancer in 2007, only 49. On their next album, Girlschool shook the urn with her ashes like maracas, just so they could include her in the music. —R.S.Key Tracks: “Not for Sale,” “Yeah Right”


Lindsey Buckingham

When he and his partner Stevie Nicks joined the British blues-rock band Fleetwood Mac eight years into their career, California guitarist Lindsey Buckingham had big shoes to fill — most famously the group’s original guitarist, Peter Green. It didn’t take long, though, for Buckingham to establish himself as a ferocious live soloist and an inventive, fleet-fingered picker, whose style is adapted from his early experience playing the banjo. “It’s not acceptable classical technique,” he’s said, “but most of what I do isn’t. You do what you can to get the sound you want.” You can hear his folk roots coming through on Mac classics like “Never Going Back Again” and “Go Your Own Way,” as well as his solo on “Hold Me.” —D.W.Key Tracks:“Rhiannon,” “Go Your Own Way”


Mick Ronson

It was an exhilarating collaboration — Mick Ronson’s terse phrasing and skewering distortion igniting David Bowie’s sexually blurred confrontation, during the latter’s king-glam role as Ziggy Stardust in the early Seventies. “Mick was the perfect foil for the Ziggy character,” Bowie said. “We were every bit as good as Mick and Keith or Axl and Slash … the personification of that rock & roll dualism.” The historic partnership actually predated Ziggy Stardust, hitting its first peak in the long, metallic furor of Bowie’s 1970 recording “The Width of a Circle.” “I want people to say, ‘Wow, isn’t that great, and isn’t it simple?’” Ronson, who died in 1993, once said. “If you get sort of fancy and cluttered, you’re just baffling people with science.” —A.L.Key Tracks:“The Width of a Circle,” “Suffragette City”


Merle Travis

Country picker Merle Travis frequently sounded like an entire ensemble with just one guitar. The Kentucky native had come out of a tradition of fingerstyle players in his home state, but built on the approach to include dazzling blasts of jazz, ragtime, and blues all effortlessly woven together. Using a thumbpick, he’d pluck a bass line — sometimes switching to bluegrass-style flat-picking at a moment’s notice — and dish out syncopated, multi-modal curlicues with his other fingers. Travis, who also wrote the classic “Sixteen Tons,” is sometimes credited with envisioning the first solid-body electric guitar before Les Paul and Leo Fender. Among his biggest followers was the great Chet Atkins, who developed his own style by listening to Travis. —J.F.Key Tracks: “Cannonball Rag,” “Nine Pound Hammer”


Clarence White

Clarence White helped shape two genres. His acoustic flat-picking, first displayed as a teenager when he and his brother formed the Kentucky Colonels band, was key in making the guitar a lead instrument in bluegrass. Later, he set the stage for country rock and transferred that dynamic precision and melodic symmetry to the electric guitar. A top session man in the Sixties, he played on the Byrds’ 1968 landmark, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. After he joined the band later that year, White brought a full-bodied rock elation to his California-inflected Nashville chops. “He never played anything that sounded vaguely weak,” said Byrds leader Roger McGuinn. “He was always driving … into the music.” —A.L.Key Tracks:“Time Between,” “This Wheel’s on Fire,” “Chestnut Mare”


Peter Buck

Like Johnny Marr, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck was a guitar anti-hero in the Eighties — a guy who made his mark with swarming melodies and spangled riffs rather than pushy solos. From the mix of laser-guided arpeggios and power chords on “Radio Free Europe” to the growling, super-sized version of the same on “The One I Love,” his sound was both gorgeous and matter-of-factly aggressive. “When Peter plays guitar, there’s a strong sense of fuck off that comes from his side of the stage,” says Bono. Buck became a major influence on players who followed. “They were a bridge for me between purist indie labels like Homestead and SST and power pop like Big Star and mellow Velvet Underground,” said Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus. —W.H.Key Tracks:“Radio Free Europe,” “The One I Love”



In 1987, Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction made top-hatted, hard-living Saul “Slash” Hudson an instant guitar hero. His lacerating opening riff to “Sweet Child O’ Mine” would have done the trick on its own, but the rough, headlong sound of his playing on “Paradise City” and “Welcome to the Jungle” sealed the deal. “It was a stripped-down rock & roll sound compared to what everybody else was doing,” says Slash. He could riff like Joe Perry and intertwine, Stones-style, with Izzy Stradlin. And lyrical solos like the from-the-mountaintop grandeur of “November Rain” were permanently laced into the songs’ fabric. “It’s hard to play those solos any other way,” says Slash. “It will sound wrong.” —D.W.Key Tracks:“Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “Welcome to the Jungle”


Ali Farka Touré

Long before Bombino or Tinariwen took flight, the Malian singer-songwriter Ali Farka Touré put his magnetic lead guitar front and center of a slippery groove that bridged electric blues and traditional West African music. When asked in 1994 about the differences between himself and his American influences — John Lee Hooker foremost among them — he said, “I’ve stayed in the tradition, and they’ve evolved in exile.” But he’s always evolving, too: Touré’s playing on the 2023 album Voyageur is, if anything, even more joyously earthy than on earlier classics such as The River, from 1990. —M.M.Key Tracks: “Heygana,” “Safari”


Nancy Wilson

“Nancy could bust out this beautifully complicated flat-picking, then turn on a dime, dig in, and grind out a riff that could leave many a guitar dude humbled,” said Chris Cornell of Soundgarden. This statement is valid at any point in Nancy Wilson’s five-decade career, with Heart and as a solo artist. “Crazy on You,” from Heart’s 1975 debut, is a prime example. At just 21, Nancy’s scorching, flamenco-inspired instrumental asserted the acoustic guitar’s place in the hard-rock format. Wilson was always pushing the boundaries of how her instrument could serve not only rock, but folk, pop, and soul, and that versatility enabled her to lift and cradle her sister Ann’s towering vocals, amplifying their celestial power. —S.G.Key Tracks: “Crazy on You,” “Mistral Wind,” “”Dog and Butterfly”


Billy Gibbons

Billy Gibbons wasa guitarist to be reckoned with long before he grew that epic beard. According to Texas acid-rock lore, Jimi Hendrix was so impressed by Gibbons’ facility and firepower that he gave the young guitarist a pink Stratocaster as a gift. Gibbons has since glibly described what he plays with his four-decade-old trio,ZZ Top, as “spankin’ the plank.” But from the muscular boogie of “La Grange” and the gnarly offbeat shuffle of “Jesus Left Chicago” to the synth-lined glide of Eighties hits “Legs” and “Sharp Dressed Man,” Gibbons’ guitar work has been religiously true, in its thunderbolt attack and melodic concision, to his Texas forebears (Freddy King, Albert Collins) and the electric-Delta charge ofMuddy Waters. “You can definitely make someone wiggle in their seat a little bit,” Gibbons says of his solos, “if you know where you’re heading with it and end up there.” —R.T.Key Tracks:“Jesus Left Chicago,” “La Grange”


John Fogerty

By his own admission, John Fogerty is not the flashiest or most technical guitarist out there, but the Creedence Clearwater Revival founder is an absolute monster of tone and feel. Some of the early CCR recordings like “Travelin’ Band” and “Up Around the Bend” feature stinging licks from Fogerty’s modified Rickenbacker 325, with which he was reunited in 2017, but he also began using a Gibson Les Paul Custom that was detuned a whole step. That produced the ominously rumbling chords of “Bad Moon Rising” and a scorching cover of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” both of which sound like nothing else on earth but Creedence in their swampy, garage-rocking prime. —J.F.Key Tracks: ““Up Around the Bend,” “Ramble Tamble”