Home Music Music Lists

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.”

CONTRIBUTORS: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

From Rolling Stone US


Kevin Shields

Kevin Shields pursued his own vision of heavy bliss with the angelic sludge of My Bloody Valentine, and he completely transformed the next 30 years of indie-rock. His signature reverb-heavy, quavering “glide guitar” style — created on his Fender Jazzmaster by moving the tremolo arm while strumming — created sheets of gorgeous, overlapped noise that gave the impression of an artist subsuming his ego into oceans of sound. The results affected scads ofbands that wanted to be painfully loud, deeply mind-blowing, and uncannily intense without reverting to hand-me-down rock-hod tropes. Over three decades after the release MBV’s epoch-making album Loveless, it remains the shoegaze grail. As Shields told Rolling Stone 2017, “When you play punk-rock guitar or sounds-based guitar, it starts to become more about your ability to transcend yourself.” —J.D.Key Tracks: “Only Shallow,” “Soon”


Ry Cooder

Ry Cooder once likened his playing — a sublime amalgam of American folk and blues, Hawaiian slack-key guitar, the Tex-Mex zest of conjunto, and the regal sensuality of Afro-Cuban son — as “some kind of steam device gone out of control.” As a sideman, Cooder has brought true grit and emotional nuance to classic albums by Randy Newman, the Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton. Cooder is also a soulful preservationist, keeping vital pasts alive and dynamic in the modern world. A good example: the night Bob Dylan showed up at Cooder’s house asking for a lesson on how to play guitar like the bluesman Sleepy John Estes. —A.L.Key Tracks:“Memo From Turner,” “Boomer’s Story”


T-Bone Walker

When B.B. King heard T-Bone Walker, he “thought Jesus himself had returned to Earth playing electric guitar.” Walker invented the guitar solo as we know it, building a new style on fluid phrasing, bluesy bends, and vibrato. It was the clear tone and melodic invention of his 1942 single “Mean Old World” that blew everyone’s mind, and Walker refined his approach through hits like “Call It Stormy Monday.” “I came into this world a little too soon,” Walker said. “I’d say that I was about 30 years before my time.” —A.L.Key Tracks:“Call It Stormy Monday,” “T-Bone Shuffle,” “Mean Old World”


Carrie Brownstein

Carrie Brownstein makes her Gibson SG ring out like a fierce voice of rage and exuberance. When Sleater-Kinney rose out of the Pacific Northwest riot-grrrl scene, Brownstein loved to shred—now here was a shameless guitar hero, a punk claiming the whole rock heritage as her turf. She even busted out the Pete Townshend windmill move. She traded riffs with Corin Tucker over Janet Weiss’ drums for the almighty roar of 1997’s Dig Me Out and 2005’s The Woods; she teamed up with Mary Timony in The Spells and Wild Flag. “I wanted the guitar to feel weaponized,” Brownstein once said. “It could tell stories or sing on my behalf. I wanted it to be trenchant, also a little scary.”–R.S.Key Tracks: “Call The Doctor,” “Get Up,” “Entertain”


Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson has been one of rock’s most dazzling stylists since his days with Fairport Convention, a British folk-rock band that veered into English traditional music. Shooting out life-affirming riffs amid lyrics that made you want to jump off a bridge (literally: see Richard and Linda Thompson’s 1982 classic “Did She Jump Or Was She Pushed?”), he combined a rock flat-pick attack with speedy fingerpicking. His electric-guitar solos, rooted less in blues than in Celtic music, can be breathtaking, but his acoustic picking is just as killer; no one knows how many tears have been shed by players trying to nail “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” —W.H.Key Tracks:“Shoot Out the Lights,” “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”


Peter Green

In late 1966,Peter Green had the job of replacingEric Claptonin John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Mayall told his producer, “He might not be better [than Clapton] now. But you wait … he’s going to be the best.” Soon, with the originalFleetwood Mac, he was Britain’s most progressive blues guitarist, with a Chicago-informed aggression heightened by the melodic adventure on albums like 1969’sThen Play On. Green soon entered a dark age of mental and health problems, returning in the Nineties with more subdued but recognizable gifts. “It doesn’t mean a thing, playing fast,” Green told the British music paperRecord Mirror. “I like to play slowly, and feel every note — it comes from every part of my body and my heart and into my fingers. I have to really feel it. I make the guitar sing the blues.” —D.F.Key Tracks:“Albatross,” “Rattlesnake Shake”


John Mayer

John Mayer’s explosive success as a pop singer-songwriter in the early 2000s overshadowed his playing, but his guitar chops were there right from the beginning. Just listen to the slick city gem “Neon” on his 2001 debut, Room for Squares, or anything he’s ever done with the John Mayer Trio, and you’ll hear his expert blending of Stevie Ray Vaughan-esque blues and addictive pop licks. Mayer’s 2006 magnum opus, Continuum, contains some of his greatest solos, from “Gravity” to “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” to his cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Bold as Love.” And in 2015, he gained an entire new audience as a member of Dead and Company, expanding his resume to Jerry Garcia acolyte. According to Mayer, it’s all a dream that stems from his childhood. “I had this vision, sitting by a window on a rainy afternoon, just playing guitar,” he told Rolling Stone in 2007. “I said to myself, ‘If I have enough strings and electricity, I can play guitar forever. I don’t need anything else.’” —A.M. Key Tracks: “Gravity,” “In Your Atmosphere”


Scotty Moore

On July 5, 1954, Elvis Presley, guitarist Scotty Moore, and bassist Bill Black messed around with a hopped-up version of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right” during a break in a session at Sun Records in Memphis. The guitar would never be the same: Moore’s concise, aggressive runs mixed country picking and blues phrasing into a new instrumental language. The playing was so forceful that it’s easy to forget there was no drummer. If Moore had done nothing but the 18 Sun recordings — including “Mystery Train” and “Good Rockin’ Tonight” — his place in history would be assured. “Everyone else wanted to be Elvis,” Keith Richards said. “I wanted to be Scotty.” —A.L.Key Tracks:“That’s All Right,” “Mystery Train”


Robert Fripp

Since King Crimson‘s first rehearsal in 1969 right up to their last tour in 2021, Robert Fripp was their distinguishing instrumental voice, a singular blend of distorted complexity and magisterial sustain. “Crimson was always a players’ band,” Fripp told Rolling Stone in 2019. “My interest was to present platforms where you take good musicians to a certain point and then say,‘Go.’” That duality is best heard on the most progressive prog-rock album ever made, Crimson’s 1973 thorny-metal classic, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic. Fripp’s most famous guitar line is the fuzz-siren hook in the title track to David Bowie‘s Heroes. Fripp would “start up without even knowing the chord sequence,” said producer Brian Eno, adding that Fripp’s work on the 1977 Bowie album “was all first takes.” —D.F.Key Tracks:“21st Century Schizoid Man,” “Heroes”


Alex Lifeson

Even if he never progressed beyond the brain-rattling riffing of “2112” and “Xanadu,” Rush’s Alex Lifeson would have still exerted a huge, if unheralded, influence on Metallica and other metal acts. But he went on to fill out Rush’s power-trio sound with a seamless mix of lush arpeggios and rock crunch that sounded like at least two players at once — and reinvented his sound further as the Eighties approached, finding his own take on Andy Summers’ echo-and-reggae approach. “Playing in a three-piece band always seemed a little empty to me,” Lifeson says, “and the guitar just had to make a broader statement.” But Lifeson reserves his most daring playing for his solos, which often use wildly exotic note choices: Just try to wrap your head around the extraterrestrial lunacy of, say, his “Freewill” solo. —R.T.Key Tracks:“La Villa Strangiato,” “The Spirit of Radio”


Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo

Starting in the Eighties, Sonic Youth decided the rock handbook didn’t apply to them: Songs didn’t need traditional structures, voices didn’t have to be perfectly in tune, and feedback could easily overtake everything. That subversive approach also applied to the dual guitar work of Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo. Each man had a very distinctive style — Moore’s rooted in punk, Ranaldo’s in everything from the Dead to classic rock — but both attacked their beat-up, reconstructed instruments with screwdrivers or drills or waved them around amps for as much distortion as possible. Trading textures more than solos, they created, in tandem, a new wall of sound and rewrote the rules for how guitars should not only look but sound. —D.B.Key Tracks: “Silver Rocket,” “The Diamond Sea,” “Theresa’s Sound-World”


Johnny Marr

The Smiths’ guitarist was a guitar genius for the post-punk era: not a showboating soloist, but a technician who could sound like a whole band. As a kid studying Motown records, Johnny Marr would try to replicate not just guitar riffs but piano and strings too, all with his right hand. His voluptuous arpeggios — often played on a chiming Rickenbacker with incredible flow and detailing — were every bit as essential to the Smiths’ signature sound as Morrissey’s baritone. And he was a tireless explorer: For 1983’s “This Charming Man,” Marr dropped knives onto a ’54 Telecaster, a revelatory incident that Radiohead may have been alluding to in their Smiths-inspired “Knives Out.” “He was a brilliant rhythm player, rarely played solos, so full of sounds,” said Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien, part of an entire generation of British guitarists who took their cues from Marr. —W.H.Key Tracks:“This Charming Man,” “How Soon Is Now?”


Mick Taylor

“I was in awe sometimes listening to Mick Taylor,” Keith Richards wrote in his memoir. “Everything was there in his playing — the melodic touch, a beautiful sustain and a way of reading a song.” Taylor was only 20 when the Rolling Stones recruited him from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers as the replacement for Brian Jones in 1969. His impact, on masterworks such as Exile on Main Street and Sticky Fingers, was immediate. The down-and-dirty slide on “Love in Vain”; the jaw-dropping precision on “All Down the Line” (where his playing brilliantly mimics the sound of a harmonica); the extended, Latin-jazz-inflected coda on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” — it’s no accident that Taylor’s stint coincided with the Stones’ most consistently great recordings. —A.L.Key Tracks:“Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” “All Down the Line”


Bonnie Raitt

Bonnie Raitt may have been the daughter of Broadway star John Raitt, but her surrogate parents were Howlin’ Wolf, Furry Lewis, and Mississippi Fred McDowell, whom she met and toured with early in her career. And it showed: Starting with 1971’s acoustic slide workout on “Walking Blues,” Raitt revealed an effortless command of blues guitar licks and feel. She could fingerpick with the best (1972’s “Love Me Like a Man”) or play slide like an old master (1973’s “Kokomo Blues/Write Me a Few of Your Lines”), and her 1989 breakthrough hit “Thing Called Love” slammed electric slide onto the pop charts. As heard in the work of successors like Susan Tedeschi and Kaki King, Raitt broke genuine ground when playing vernacular guitar was still considered a man’s game. —D.B.Key Tracks:“Runaway,” “Something to Talk About”


Trey Anastasio

It’s one thing to influence other guitarists, but Trey Anastasio’s expansive approach to the instrument has proved to be nothing less than a cultural beacon. Anastasio and his Phish bandmates, much like the Grateful Dead before them, have created a tribe of obsessive fans who follow the band from show to show and vigorously debate the merits of both official and bootlegged live recordings. And while psychedelic recreationis certainly part to the Phish ritual, it’s Anastasio’s preternatural ability to keep his slippery and sly modal improvisations fresh, kinetic, and almost telepathically connected to his bandmates that guides fans through their musical trip. It’s no wonder that everyone from Dave Matthews to the New York Philharmonic are eager to collaborate with the guitarist when Phish is on hiatus. “During a lot of Phish jams, I’ll land on a simple phrase, almost childlike, and then run with it,” he told Guitar Player. “Some of my favorite improvisers work that way.” —T.B.Key Tracks: “Stash” (A Live One version), “Divided Sky,” “Fluffhead” (8/26/89)


John Lee Hooker

“I don’t play a lot of fancy guitar,” John Lee Hooker once said. “I don’t want to play it. The kind of guitar I want to play is mean, mean licks.” Hooker’s style couldn’t be defined as urban or country blues — it was something entirely his own, mysterious and funky and hypnotic. On monumental classics like “Boogie Chillen” — a Number One R&B hit in 1949 — “Boom Boom” and “Crawlin’ King Snake,” he perfected a droning, stomping groove, often in idiosyncratic time signatures and locked on one chord, with an ageless power. “He was a throwback even in his own time,” Keith Richards said. “Even Muddy Waters was sophisticated next to him.” Hooker was a critical figure in the Sixties blues boom; his boogie became the basis for much of ZZ Top’s early sound; his songs were covered by everyone from the Doors to Bruce Springsteen; and then, well after turning 70, he won four Grammys in the 1990s. “When I was a child,” said Carlos Santana, “he was the first circus I wanted to run away with.” —A.L.Key Tracks:“Boogie Chillen,” “Boom Boom,” “I’m in the Mood”


Tom Verlaine

Patti Smith famously described Tom Verlaine’s guitar sound as “a thousand bluebirds screaming.” Television’s leader soaked up the flavor of favorite records by John Coltrane, the Stones, and the Dead — then synthesized them into something entirely new on the band’s 1977 debut, Marquee Moon, spinning out endless fluid solos in concert with fellow guitar aesthete Richard Lloyd. Verlaine kept a low profile in subsequent decades, but he remained a model for generations of guitarists with a taste for both punk violence and melodic flight. As he told Rolling Stone in 1977, “There are any number of ways to get from one place to another on the neck of the guitar that I don’t know about.” —W.H.Key Tracks:“Marquee Moon,” “Little Johnny Jewel”