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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


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”