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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


Ani DiFranco

Best known for her lefty politics, clever, pointed lyrics, and partnerships with folk luminaries like Pete Seeger and Utah Phillips, Ani DiFranco became the face of a certain flavor of 1990s alt-feminism, and she kept it going for more than 30 years. But underneath the raw anger and stealth sarcasm is a unique guitar style that she developed as a kid — DiFranco started playing out at about nine — in the bars of her hometown of Buffalo. It’s a particular sort of soft-loud combination that was designed to stun patrons into submission. “Loud against silence makes somebody’s conversations at the bar stick out,” she told Acoustic Guitar in 2014. “And they turn and they look at you, and then once you got them, you’ve gotta keep them.” —E.G.P.Key Tracks: ‘Both Hands,” ”Allergic to Water,” “Gravel”


Pete Cosey

A low-key sideman throughout his career, Pete Cosey never cut a solo album, but he and his pedals were the psychedelic soul of Miles Davis’ most extreme electric records during the 1970s such as Dark Magus, Get Up With It, Pangea, and Agharta. A session guy for the iconic blues label Chess in his native Chicago, his weird tunings, wah-wah, flange, and fuzz were a hallmark of crossover albums by Muddy Waters (Electric Mud) and Howlin’ Wolf (The Howlin’ Wolf Album) that terrorized blues purists. Davis later said Cosey gave his electric band the “Jimi Hendrix and Muddy Waters sound that I wanted.” An early adopter of guitar synth, he was always searching for new sounds. —J.G.Key Tracks: “Moja,” “Smokestack Lightning”