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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


Eric Clapton

Since starting his career on the British blues-rock scene during the 1960s, Clapton had a unique gift for melody that made his solos just as catchy as the songs they adorned. He was always a diligent student of the blues, from Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters to Albert King and Otis Rush, and even cut an album of (mostly) pre-electric repertoire with Wynton Marsalis. But his most memorable recordings were born of real-life tragedy, from “Layla,” inspired by stealing the wife (Patti Boyd) of his best friend (George Harrison); to “Tears in Heaven,” a lament for the infant son who fell to his death from an apartment window. These days, nobody really considers Clapton god (his COVID comments clearly rule out any chance of being all-knowing), but that doesn’t stop guitarists from worshipping his playing. —J.D.C.Key Tracks:“Bell Bottom Blues,” “Crossroads,” “White Room”


Jerry Garcia

Jerry Garcia was a folk and bluegrass obsessive who started playing guitar at 15. Those roots, plus a lifelong love of Chuck Berry, fueled his astral experiments with the Grateful Dead. As Carlos Santana said,“He played blues but mixed it with bluegrass and Ravi Shankar. He had country and Spanish in there.” Garcia made every Dead show a different trip, never playing the same lick twice, which is why his psychedelic live jams stand up to endless listens. “I think of notes as objects that have perspective,” he once told Rolling Stone. “They have the front part of them and the back part of them, the attack and the release. To me, it’s very visual. If I had the time, I would illustrate all my solos.” Aug. 27, 1972, is one of the great days in the history of the guitar: Garcia levitates in a field full of sun-fried hippies in Veneta, Oregon. He died in 1995, but his guitar still shines like a headlight on a northbound train. —R.S.Key Tracks: “Dark Star” (2/27/69), “Bird Song” (8/27/72), “Morning Dew” (5/8/77)


Brian May

Probably the only guitarist to get a degree in astrophysics, Queen‘s lead guitarist (and frequent songwriter) is a brainy adventurer who’s always seeking new effects. An early goal of his was “to be the first to put proper three-part [guitar] harmonies onto a record” – like the orchestrated squeals of his solo in “Killer Queen.” Brian May layered dozens of guitar parts onto individual tracks, building palatial walls of sound. Appropriately, even his instrument sprang from his imagination: His main guitar, the Red Special, a.k.a. the Old Lady, is a homemade wonder, constructed by May and his father in the early Sixties out of components including wood from a fireplace (he has been known to play it with a sixpence coin rather than a pick). It’s yielded everything from the pirouetting, trebly solo in “Bohemian Rhapsody” to the proto-metal riffing of “Stone Cold Crazy.” “I can listen to any player and pantomime their sound,” Steve Vai said, “but I can’t do Brian May. He’s just walking on higher ground.” —D.W.Key Tracks:“Keep Yourself Alive,” “Brighton Rock”


Jack White

When the White Stripes started building their hipster rep with albums like 2000’s De Stijl, big guitar rock was dominated by the overly processed grotesquery of nu metal and dull plod of second-gen grunge. That all changed when the joyfully primitive garage-blues charge of “Fell in Love With a Girl” made the Stripes stars. Jack White gave us the most recognizable rock riff of the 21st century with the thick, low-end stomp of “Seven Nation Army,” but over the years he’s refused to rest on old glories, becoming a lovably cantankerous sonic quester — from the stoner funk and hippie folk on his 2012 solo album Blunderbuss to the almost comically over-the-top, fuzz-toned drones on 2022’s Fear of the Dawn. For White, every time he picks up a guitar, there’s a new challenge. “When I play a solo, it’s an attack — this is a fight, this is a struggle,” White told Rolling Stone in 2014. “I don’t care about virtuoso notes. If you stop me in the middle of a solo, I can’t say, ‘That’s an F-sharp, that’s a C.’” —J.D.Key Tracks:“Seven Nation Army,” “Ball and Biscuit”


George Harrison

With the Beatles, George Harrison took the instrument into new territory, innovating and expanding with each record. He didn’t just create the role of a lead guitarist in a rock band. He defined the guitar’s place at the heart of pop music. Back in Liverpool, England, he was the younger kid who bluffed his way into the Beatles by studying his chords and outplaying the others. He took off from his boyhood rockabilly heroes like Carl Perkins, as in his crazed Cavern Club solo on “I Saw Her Standing There.” But he kept experimenting with the Indian-inspired drones of Rubber Soul, the psychedelia of Revolver, the elegance of Abbey Road, never wasting a note. “Everyone else has played all the other bullshit,” Harrison said. “I just play what’s left.” Yet he did his deepest playing after the Beatles, with his cosmic slide on All Things Must Pass and Living in the Material World. As his friend Tom Petty said, “It really sounded like a voice, like a very distinct, signature voice that came out of him.” —R.S.Key Tracks: “Something,” “Let It Be,” “Give Me Love”


Neil Young

Long before he became a successful solo act, Neil Young fine-tuned his guitar skills in the Squires, the Mynah Birds, and ultimately Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. By the time Harvest came around, he was equally adept on electric and acoustic, toggling between gentle, folk tunes like “The Needle and the Damage Done” and wild, proto grunge songs like “Down by the River” in a single evening. “If I was ever going to teach a master class to young guitarists, the first thing I would play them is the first minute of Neil Young’s original ‘Down by the River’ solo,” said Trey Anastasio. Some guitar purists have dismissed his work as “primitive” since some of his most famous solos are literally one note repeated multiple times. But they’re missing the point of his work completely. “Nobody cares if you know how to play scales,” Young said in 1992. “Nobody gives a shit if you have good technique or not. It’s whether you have feelings that you want to express with music, that’s what counts, really.” —A.G.Key Tracks: “Cowgirl in the Sand,” “Powderfinger,” “Rockin’ in the Free World”


Eddie Hazel

Legend has it that “Maggot Brain,” the 10-minute guitar solo that turned the late Eddie Hazel into an instant guitar legend, was envisioned during an acid trip when Funkadelic bandleader George Clinton told him to imagine hearing that his mother just died — and then learning that she was, in fact, alive. “I knew immediately that he understood what I meant,” Clinton wrote in his memoir. “I could see the guitar notes stretching out like a silver web. When he played the solo back, I knew that it was good beyond good, not only a virtuoso display of musicianship but also an almost unprecedented moment of emotion in pop music.” Hazel’s other work with P-Funk and on his own was a thrilling mix of groove power and psychedelic soaring. But it was “Maggot Brain” that most inspired guitarists who followed, including Nels Cline, J. Mascis, Warren Haynes, and Mike McCready, all of whom have played the song live, channeling the spirit of a profoundly gifted soul. —W.H.Key Tracks:“Maggot Brain,” “Funky Dollar Bill”


David Gilmour

As a producer and songwriter, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour is drawn to floating, dreamy textures, but when he picks up his black Stratocaster to play a solo, an entirely different sensibility takes over: “I wanted a bright, powerful lead guitar tone that would basically rip your face off,” he says. He was a fiery, blues-based soloist in a band that hardly ever played the blues — his sprawling, elegant, relentlessly melodic solos were as bracing a wake-up call as those alarm clocks on The Dark Side of the Moon. But Gilmour was also adept at droning avant-garde improv, as seen in Floyd’s Live at Pompeii days, and could be an unexpectedly funky rhythm guitarist, from the slinky riff to “Have a Cigar” to the Chic-like flourishes on “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2.” His pioneering use of echo and other effects — initially inspired by original Floyd guitarist Syd Barrett — culminated with his precision use of delay on “Run Like Hell,” which directly anticipates the Edge’s signature sound.Key Tracks:“Comfortably Numb,” “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”


Buddy Guy

Buddy Guy got used to people calling his guitar style a bunch of noise — from his family back in rural Louisiana, who chased him out of the house for making a racket, to Chess Records heads Phil and Leonard Chess, who, he says, “wouldn’t let me get loose like I wanted” on sessions with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter. But as a new generation of rockers discovered the blues, Guy’s fretwork became a major influence on titans from Jimi Hendrix to Jimmy Page. Guy’s flamboyant playing — huge bends, prominent distortion, frenetic licks — on such classics as “Stone Crazy” and “First Time I Met the Blues,” and his collaborations with the late harp master Junior Wells, raised the standard for six-string fury. His showmanship, complete with mid-solo strolls through the audience, remains electrifying at age 87. “He was for me what Elvis was probably like for other people,” said Eric Clapton at Guy’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2005. “My course was set, and he was my pilot.” —A.L.Key Tracks:“Stone Crazy,” “First Time I Met the Blues”


St. Vincent

Annie Clark — a.k.a. St. Vincent — creates complex and atmospheric music that isn’t inherently guitar-centric yet profoundly imprinted by her innovative approach to the instrument. Though educated at the Berkelee School of Music and heavily influenced by such dexterous players as Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, and Marc Ribot, the Grammy-winning artist layers her recordings with arresting guitar tones, colors, voicings, harmonies, and effects rather than treating the compositions as a showcase for her considerable six-string chops. “I don’t approach guitar like an ego thing — like, ‘I’m going to play faster than somebody else,’” Clark explained to Premier Guitar in 2011. “I’m not that interested in that athletic aspect. That’s the difference between being an athlete and being an artist, and it’s great when those things can combine. That’s the ideal — to make something that’s musically viable also emotionally compelling. That’s the happy medium.” —D.E.Key Tracks: “Rattlesnake,” “Cruel,” “Masseduction”


John Frusciante

The Red Hot Chili Peppers have never been easy to pin down musically, and for that one can largely thank Frusciante, the son of a Juilliard pianist. The band’s wild-eyed original guitarist, the late Hillel Slovak, was a hard act to follow, but Frusciante — who is now in his third tenure with the band — played a major role in dragging the Chili Peppers out of the white-funk ghetto and into musical worlds all their own. Always playing in service to the song, Frusciante gave the Chili Peppers a breadth they hadn’t had before: consider the headbanger riffing beneath their cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” the sensitive strumming in “Under the Bridge” and “Scar Tissue,” the metallic funk sleaze on “Give It Away,” the moody strumming on “Beneath the Girl,” and the volcanic, Hendrixian solo on “Dani California.” That eclectic palette lent Chili Peppers albums like Californication and Blood Sugar Sex Magik a remarkable variety — and made Frusciante one of the most influential and vital guitarists of the alt-rock era. —D.B.Key Tracks:“Dani California,” “Under the Bridge”


James Burton

James Burton’s trademark “chicken pickin’” style — bright, crisp, and concise — is one of the unique sounds in country music, and a huge influence on rock guitar as well. Burton got his start when he was 14, writing “Susie Q” for Dale Hawkins, and became a teenage star when he joined Ricky Nelson’s band in 1957. With Nelson, Burton created his distinct technique: He used a fingerpick and a flat pick, and he replaced the four highest strings on his Telecaster with banjo strings, so that his guitar snapped, popped, and stuttered. “I never bought a Ricky Nelson record,” Keith Richards said. “I bought a James Burton record.” In the late Sixties and Seventies, he convened Elvis Presley’s TCB band and became a go-to guy on country-minded records by Joni Mitchell and Gram Parsons. “He was just a mysterious guy: ‘Who is this guy and why is he on all these records I like?’” said Joe Walsh. “His technique was all important.” —A.L.Key Tracks:“Hello Mary Lou,””Susie Q,” “Believe What You Say”


James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett

Metallica burst into the world as speed demons, with singer–rhythm guitarist James Hetfield riffing away at whiplash-inducing paces, like Black Sabbath played at 78 rpm, and lead guitarist Kirk Hammett spray-painting notes anywhere he could. Hetfield and Hammett’s predecessor, Dave Mustaine (now a guitar hero himself in Megadeth), brainstormed techniques that allowed them to move their fingers as little as possible so they could play faster than anyone else, redefining metal on songs like “Phantom Lord” and “Jump in the Fire.” But by Metallica’s second album, when Hammett, a former student of Joe Satriani’s, started adding soulful melody to songs like “Fade to Black” and “The Call of Ktulu,” the band achieved something unique. That duality of Hetfield’s bludgeoning fury and Hammett’s emotive, wah-wah–driven sensitivity came to define their biggest successes: “Enter Sandman,” “One,” “Master of Puppets” — songs that capture the band’s agony and ecstasy. —K.G.Key Tracks: “One,” “Fade to Black,” “Sad But True”


Albert King

When Rolling Stone asked Albert King in 1968 who his guitar influences were, he replied, “Nobody. Everything I do is wrong.” A pioneer of electric blues, King (who was left-handed) played a right-handed 1959 Gibson Flying V upside down, with the bass strings unconventionally facing the floor. He used an indecipherable secret tuning, hitting notes with his thumb. The six-foot-four, 300-pound King was able to bend notes farther and more powerfully than almost any other guitarist, and his records influenced a generation: Eric Clapton lifted the “Strange Brew” solo from King, and Duane Allman turned the melody of King’s “As the Years Go Passing By” into the main riff of “Layla.” Jimi Hendrix was star-struck when his hero opened for him at the Fillmore in 1967. “I taught [Hendrix] a lesson about the blues,” said King. “I could have easily played his songs, but he couldn’t play mine.”Key Tracks:“Born Under a Bad Sign,” “As the Years Go Passing By”


Randy Rhoads

Randy Rhoads’ career was far too short — he died in a plane accident in 1982, at the age of 25 — but his precise, architectural, hyperspeed solos on Ozzy Osbourne‘s “Crazy Train” and “Mr. Crowley” helped set the template for metal-guitar soloing for years to follow. “I practiced eight hours a day because of him,” Tom Morello has said, calling Rhoads “the greatest hard-rock/heavy-metal guitar player of all time.” Rhoads had co-founded Quiet Riot as a teenager, and joined Osbourne’s Blizzard of Ozz band in 1979 after a few years of working as a guitar teacher. According to legend, Rhoads would continue to take guitar lessons himself in different cities when he was on tour with Ozzy. By the time he recorded his final album, Osbourne’s Diary of a Madman, Rhoads was getting deeper into classical music, and even exploring jazz. He “was reaching deep into himself as a guitar player,” Nikki Sixx of Mötley Crüe said. “That was really the next step right there.” —D.W.Key Tracks:“Crazy Train,” “Mr. Crowley,” “Diary of a Madman”


Stevie Ray Vaughan

In the early Eighties, MTV was on the rise, and blues guitar was miles away from music’s mainstream. But Texas’ Stevie Ray Vaughan demanded your attention. He had absorbed the styles of just about every great blues guitarist — plus Jimi Hendrix and a lot of jazz and rockabilly — and his monster tone, casual virtuosity, and impeccable sense of swing could make a blues shuffle like “Pride and Joy” hit as hard as metal. Vaughan was recognized as a peer by the likes of B.B. King and Eric Clapton, and despite his 1990 death in a helicopter crash, he’s still inspiring multiple generations of guitarists, from Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready to John Mayer to Gary Clark Jr. “Stevie was one of the reasons I wanted a Stratocaster — his tone, which I’ve never been able to get down, was just so big and bold and bright at the same time,” Clark said. “If you listen to his records and watch his videos, you can tell he’s just giving you everything he had. His passion is overwhelming.” —W.H.Key Tracks:“Love Struck Baby,” “Cold Shot”


Freddy King

In a 1985interview,Eric Claptoncited Freddy King’s 1961 B side “I Love the Woman” as “the first time I heard that electric lead-guitar style, with the bent notes … [it] started me on my path.” Clapton shared his love of King with fellow British guitar heroes Peter Green,Jeff Beck,and Mick Taylor, all of whom were profoundly influenced by King’s sharpened-treble tone and curt melodic hooks on iconic singles such as “The Stumble,” “I’m Tore Down,” and “Someday, After Awhile.” Nicknamed “The Texas Cannonball” for his imposing build and incendiary live shows, King had a unique guitar attack. “Steel on steel is an unforgettable sound,” says Derek Trucks, referring to King’s use of metal banjo picks. “But it’s gotta be in the right hands. The way he used it — man, you were going to hear that guitar.” Trucks can still hear King’s huge impact on Clapton. “When I played with Eric,” Trucks said recently, “there were times when he would take solos, and I would get that Freddy vibe.” —D.F.Key Tracks:“Hide Away,” “The Stumble”


Tom Morello

With rare exception — Hendrix comes to mind, as always — rock guitars during the past 40 or 50 years have mostly sounded like rock guitars. Then came Rage Against the Machine and its six-string innovator. As much as Zack de la Rocha brazenly threw politics into the mix and our faces, Tom Morello did the same with his guitar and the audacious sounds he pulled out of it. That turntable scratching on “Bulls on Parade” from Evil Empire? Those aliens playing video games on “Killing in the Name” or that dive-bomber attack on “Fistful of Steel,” both from Rage’s 1992 debut? All Morello, with just his guitars, effects pedals, and imagination. Morello’s blend of gizmos and thunderous chords brought to mind heroes like the Stooges’ Ron Asheton (on Rage’s “Sleep Now in the Fire”), but Morello added an even more souped-up moxie to his playing. Ever since Rage disbanded as a studio band, Morello’s been comparatively restrained with his Nightwatchman and Street Sweeper Social Club projects, but his rage against guitar clichés has forever left its mark. —D.B.Key Tracks:“Guerrilla Radio,” “Killing in the Name”


Mother Maybelle Carter

Maybelle Carter did not invent her signature guitar style — known, eventually, to the world as “the Carter Scratch” — out of thin air: She fully credited the roots pioneer Lesley Riddle with teaching her the distinct finger-picking style. But she did, however, on the series of singles with the Carter Family, help popularize the style around the world on songs like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Wildwood Flower,” and “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow.” Carter’s playing, which she began as a 13-year-old, transformed the guitar from simple rhythm strumming into an instrument that could play melody, rhythm, and bass simultaneously, making her “perhaps the most emulated guitar player of all time,” as singer-songwriter (and one of thousands of disciples) Courtney Marie Andrews said in 2019. “When I started playing, I didn’t have nobody to play with me,” she once explained, “so that’s how I developed this style.” —J.B.Key Tracks: “Wildwood Flower,” “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow”


Robert Johnson

He was barely known for decades after his 1938 death. But the 29 songs Robert Johnson recorded in 1936 and 1937 — including classics such as “Cross Road Blues,” “Love in Vain,” and “Traveling Riverside Blues” — became holy writ to rock guitarists from Clapton to Dylan. They were dazzled by the way he could make a single guitar sound like a whole ensemble — picking, slide, and rhythm parts all chattering and yelping in dialogue with one another, riffs emerging from the mist and then receding. Cream, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and the White Stripes all covered his songs, along with practically every other blues-inspired artist. In Chronicles, Bob Dylan remembers playing Johnson’s King of the Delta Blues Singers shortly after it was released: “From the first note the vibrations from the loudspeaker made my hair stand up. The stabbing sounds from the guitar could almost break a window.” —D.W.Key Tracks:“Ramblin’ on My Mind,” “Traveling Riverside Blues”


Keith Richards

Keith Richards has always made playing guitar look easy. The power behind his greatest guitar riffs — “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Start Me Up,” “Brown Sugar” — is the raw simplicity of his technique, the symmetry of the notes, and the ineffable and effortless way he makes it all swing. In the Sixties, his rock-solid playing buttressed Brian Jones’ madcap bursts of inspiration; whether Jones was playing slide guitar or marimba, Richards provided a swinging foundation on “Time Is on My Side,” “Paint It, Black,” and “Under My Thumb.” In the Seventies, when lead guitarist Mick Taylor joined, Richards provided lush grooves as backdrops — “Tumbling Dice,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” “Wild Horses.” On acoustic, he’s equally adept at blues (“Love in Vain”) and ballads (“Angie”). And ever since Ron Wood came into the fold, he has become one half of a musical yin yang, as he and Wood weave their guitar parts, drifting between riffs and solos. “[A great riff] just appears at your fingertips and is coming out of the instrument,” he told Rolling Stone in 2020. “And that is a great riff, totally unthought about, unstructured, no rules, no nothing. It’s just, one minute it ain’t there, and the next minute, there it is.” —K.G.Key Tracks:“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Gimme Shelter”



He played arguably the greatest power-ballad guitar solo in history (“Purple Rain”). He can funk it up like Jimmy Nolen and Nile Rodgers, or scream like Eddie Van Halen. Like Bo Diddley, he reimagined the shape of the guitar itself — first his yellow “cloud guitar” from the mid-Eighties, and later his crazily-phallic “symbol guitar,” sculpted like the icon he briefly adopted as his name. And while he got a lot of Jimi Hendrix comparisons, Prince saw things differently: “It’s only because he’s Black. That’s really the only thing we have in common,” he once told Rolling Stone. “If they really listened to my stuff, they’d hear more of a Santana influence than Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix played more blues, Santana played prettier.” He also has identified one little-known benefit to being a guitar god. “Playing electric guitar your whole life does something to you,” he says. “I’m convinced all that electricity racing through my body made me keep my hair.” —W.H.Key Tracks: “Purple Rain,” “When Doves Cry”


Tony Iommi

One of the principal pillars of heavy metal guitar, Black Sabbath co-founder Tony Iommi developed his deliciously doomy style as the result of an industrial accident that severed the middle and ring fingertips of his fretting hand. Though he was able to play again with the help of plastic finger caps, the homemade prosthetics forced him to use lighter gauge strings and dig into the neck harder for his chords and solos. Combined with massive Laney amplifiers distorted with the help of a specially modified Dallas Rangemaster treble booster, this out-of-necessity playing style created something unusually dark and menacing — and by tuning his guitars down several steps to facilitate easier bends, Iommi created the earth-shuddering template for countless metal guitarists to come. “In them days, you had tomakeyour sound,” Iommi told Guitar World in 2020. “You couldn’t buy a gadget that made whatever sound you wanted, you had to put the hard yards in and build a tone yourself. And I felt that was great, really, because you believe in it more when you’ve made it all yourself.” —D.E.Key Tracks: “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” “Symptom of the Universe”


Jimmy Nolen

Years before joining James Brown’s band, guitarist Jimmy Nolen developed a way around lame drummers: “I used to just try to play and keep my rhythm going as much like a drum as I possibly could,” he said. “It kind of keeps the drummer straight.” When Nolen got on board Brown’s group, in early 1965, his bright forward motion and Brown’s rhythmic combustion met like lovers in the movies. Real life was less romantic — Nolen died in 1983, and requested his widow importune Brown not to work his successors so hard — but no one can argue with the results. Beginning with the 1965 landmark “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” —the intro, with its rolling chord, belongs to the guitarist — and continuing for a triumphant half-decade on classics ranging from “Let Yourself Go” (another showcase for Nolen’s stop-start genius) to “Cold Sweat” to “Funky Drummer,” Nolen defined funk (and R&B) guitar: fearsomely choppy rhythm, precise, needling leads, both off to the sides and dead center of the action. —M.M.Key Tracks: James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “Cold Sweat”


Carlos Santana

Carlos Santana’s pioneering fusion of blues, jazz, and Latin music was introduced to the world with a show-stopping performance at Woodstock. It was just as powerful 30 years later, when Supernatural sold 15 million copies and won nine Grammys. For all that time, Santana simply remained his ultracool self, conjuring glorious melodies with one foot in the barrio and the other in some distant astral plane. “His music was something new, but it was intertwined with everything else that was out there at the time,” said Henry Garza of Los Lonely Boys. “He incorporated his culture into the music.” Like Miles Davis, B.B. King, and very few other musicians, Santana is the rare instrumentalist who can be identified in just one note. He says that he attempted to imitate his own heroes, especially jazzmen like Wes Montgomery and Grant Green, but “as hard as I tried, I couldn’t — I always sounded like me.” In turn, no one can replicate Santana’s exquisite, crystalline guitar tone, but his impact has truly been global. Prince, for one, has claimed him as a bigger influence than Jimi Hendrix, explaining simply that “Santana played prettier.” —A.L.Key Tracks:“Black Magic Woman,” “Oye Como Va,” “Soul Sacrifice”


Duane Allman

Duane Allman didn’t live long — he was only 24 when he was killed in a 1971 motorcycle crash. But he crammed those years with several lifetimes’ worth of visionary guitar. With the Allman Brothers Band, he traveled all the dirt roads of American music: modal jazz, blues, country, psychedelic Southern juke-joint rock. As a Florida teen, he learned his Gibson Les Paul by playing along with his Robert Johnson and Chuck Berry records. He first made his name as a sideman, especially his Muscle Shoals soul sessions with Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin. But he started the ABB in 1969 with his little brother Gregg. The first time the musicians jammed together, Duane told them, “Anybody who doesn’t want to be in my band is going to have to fight his way out the door.”His ultimate statement: At Fillmore East, improvising under the spell of John Coltrane and Miles Davis, from the bottleneck blast of “Statesboro Blues” to the 19-minute jam “You Don’t Love Me.” But Duane also dropped by the Miami sessions for Derek and the Dominos’ Layla, started playing with Eric Clapton, and impulsively made history, especially his high-pitched slide shriek in the title song. His symbolic farewell was the two-minute down-home lullaby “Little Martha.” The notes of “Little Martha” are engraved on his tombstone. The road took Duane Allman too soon — but in his music, the road goes on forever. —R.S.Key Tracks: “Statesboro Blues,” “You Don’t Love Me,” “Whipping Post”


Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell has reigned as rock’s ultimate acoustic guitarist for over 50 years, using alternate tunings to devise her own complex guitar language. “I wanted to play the guitar like an orchestra,” she told Rolling Stone in 1999. “I know I have a unique way of playing, but nobody seemed to notice. I found it kinda silly that they kept describing it as folk guitar when it was more like Duke Ellington.” After childhood polio weakened her left hand, she compensated by using over 50 different tunings. “I always thought of the top three strings as a horn section and the bottom three as a rhythm section.”Other musicians were in awe of her playing. “Am I a god?” she asked in Rolling Stone. “I’m a godette. I never had a guitar god.” The best place to hear her go off is the 1976 masterwork Hejira, with bassist Jaco Pastorius. As her chords grew too difficult for sidemen to follow, she just took over the electric leads herself — half of them on Hejira, nearly all on Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Mingus. In Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder tour doc, she plays “Coyote” for Roger McGuinn and Bob Dylan — McGuinn goes over to stare at her hands up close, because he can’t believe these chords. “Something about those rich modal tunings she was using left a big impression on me,” said Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo. “What Joni was doing was very mysterious.”—R.S.Key Tracks: “For the Roses,” “Coyote,” “Refuge of the Roads”


B.B. King

The “Ambassadorof the Blues” was such a beloved figure in American music, it’s easy to forget how revolutionary his guitar work was. As Buddy Guy said, “Before B.B., everyone played the guitar like it was an acoustic.” King made his famous Gibson “Lucille” weep like a real woman. From the opening notes of his 1951 breakthrough hit, “Three O’Clock Blues,” you can hear his innovative, fluid style. King’s string-bending and vibrato came from his idol T-Bone Walker, but he took it all somewhere new, changing how everyone else played. “Every electric guitarist you listen to, there’s a little bit of B.B. in there,” Guy said. “He was the father of squeezing the string on the electric guitar.”King grew up on a Mississippi Delta plantation, picking cotton and learning the country blues from his cousin Bukka White. He took off for Memphis in 1948, where he became a radio DJ and developed his eclectic blues style, with gospel fire and jazz finesse. His 1965Live at the Regalremains one of the hottest guitar showcases ever made. But King refused to slow down, touring hard into his late eighties, and held on to Lucille as the love of his life. “Lucille don’t want to play anything but the blues,” King said. “Lucille is real. When I play her, it’s almost like hearing words, and of course, naturally I hear cries.” —R.S.Key Tracks: “Every Day I Have The Blues,” “Sweet Sixteen,” “The Thrill Is Gone”


Nile Rodgers

There’s “influential,” then there’s “massively influential,” then there’s Nile Rodgers. The story of pop music over the past 50 years is basically the story of Rodgers’ guitar. The manic-staccato funk jangle he invented with Chic, in Seventies disco hits like “Le Freak” and “Good Times” — that’s been the heartbeat of global pop ever since. His warp-speed guitar on the 1980 Diana Ross classic “I’m Coming Out” was still the toughest sound on the radio almost two decades later, when Biggie turned it into “Mo Money Mo Problems.” Now that’s staying power. He founded Chic with bass man Bernard Edwards, inspired by seeing Roxy Music in London. “When I first started, all I played was super heavy-duty rock & roll,” Rodgers told Rolling Stone in 1979. “To be Hendrix or Jimmy Page was success to me.” His unstoppably dynamic Strat powers the classics he made for Ross (“Upside Down”), Sister Sledge (“We Are Family”), David Bowie (“Let’s Dance”), Duran Duran (“Notorious”), and Daft Punk (“Get Lucky”). His riffs also helped start the hip-hop era — the Sugarhill Gang rhymed over “Good Times” for the first rap hit, “Rapper’s Delight.” His impact goes everywhere, both his jazzy chords and his mighty rhythms. He was the biggest influence on the Smiths — Johnny Marr always called Rodgers his hero. (He even named his son “Nile.”) But he’s a true innovator who never slows down, still making history with his guitar. —R.S.Key Tracks: “Le Freak,” “Good Times,” “I’m Coming Out”


Sister Rosetta Tharpe

As a sexually fluid Black woman who propelled gospel music into the mainstream, Sister Rosetta Tharpe smashed any number of taboos. Before rock & roll even existed, she also practically invented the concept of the guitar hero. Bob Dylan would refer to her as a “powerful force of nature — a guitar-playing, singing evangelist.” Inspired by her mother’s mandolin playing, Tharpe, who was born in Arkansas and relocated to Chicago with family, learned to play guitar around kindergarten age. By the time she started making records in the Thirties, she’d clearly mastered it: Her picking and arpeggios on 1945’s “Strange Things Happening Every Day” matched the song’s buoyant boogie-woogie and her own vivacious singing, and she could unleash a rumble of notes during a solo in the traditional gospel uplifter “Up Above My Head.” In 1964, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Jeff Beck were all have said to have journeyed to a Manchester, England, train station to see Tharpe play for a televised folk, blues and gospel special. That day, her rollicking version of the spiritual “Didn’t It Rain” spotlighted both her gospel lung-power roots and her effortless way of making her guitar sing. Tharpe died in 2013, but she continues to get her due. Reflecting the way a new generation owes Tharpe a debut or three, Brittany Howard inducted Tharpe into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as an early influence.” —D.B.Key Tracks: “Strange Things Happening Every Day”


Jeff Beck

Jeff Beck never wanted to be a guitar hero. He quit the Yardbirds, disbanded the Jeff Beck Group (declining a Woodstock gig), and he let other bands fizzle before they even got famous. But as much as Beck rejected fame, he still wanted to play guitar. His technique evolved rapidly from total blues mastery with the Yardbirds and the Jeff Beck Group to using a wah-wah to make his keening Stratocaster sing out on the instrumental “Beck’s Bolero.” A constant sound tinkerer, Beck found inspiration in jazz fusion during the mid-Seventies, choosing to make guitar his total focus on Blow by Blow, an instrumental album that found him flicking his whammy bar, tossing off grace notes, and bending notes’ pitches to mirror R&B singer Syreeta’s voice on his cover of “‘Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers.” He got better and better at interpreting the human voice on guitar in unusual ways: the stinging pride of his solo in “People Get Ready,” the floating, shimmering sound of almost crying on “Nadia,” his sighing and swooning interpretations of “Over the Rainbow” and “Nessun Dorma.” “I’ve never made the big time, mercifully probably,” Beck said in 2018. “When you look around and see who has made it huge, it’s a really rotten place to be when you think about it. Maybe I’m blessed with not having had that.” —K.G.Key Tracks:“Beck’s Bolero,” “Freeway Jam,” “‘Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers”


Eddie Van Halen

If “Eruption” were all Eddie Van Halen ever released, he would have still secured a spot in the guitar pantheon. With finger-tapped, piano-like cascades of sound, gut-checking dive bombs, and trumpet-like reveilles, he showed the world that the guitar was capable of more than anyone had ever dreamed of on that solo. But Van Halen’s true magic was how he could take these showstopping tricks and transform them into songs that people would enjoy singing along to: “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” “Dance the Night Away,” “Everybody Wants Some!!,” “Jump” — tunes that combined Van Halen’s formidable techniques in tuneful ways alongside David Lee Roth’s gonzo lyrics. Beyond the party anthems, guitar solos like “Spanish Fly,” “Cathedral,” and “Little Guitars” felt more like compositions than solos, and he never stopped experimenting; he recorded an electric drill next to his pickup on “Poundcake” to make his instrument scream. “With Eddie Van Halen, everyone was riveted,” Tom Morello said after his death. “Because everyone knew we were in the presence of our generation’s Mozart.” And even when Van Halen wasn’t playing, he was applying his genius to his instrument, building his “Frankenstrat,” inventing a floating whammy bar, and securing various patents, completely changing the way people thought about guitar. Oh, and he was self-taught. —K.G.Key Tracks:“Eruption,” “Ain’t Talking ‘Bout Love,” “Hot for Teacher”


Jimmy Page

Long before the formation of Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Page had already made a tremendous impact in the world of rock due to his playing in the Yardbirds and his work as a session guitarist all across the London scene. When he was just in his early twenties, Page was the first-called guitarist to play on records by the Who, the Kinks, Donovan, Marianne Faithfull, and others. But in 1968, he solidified his role as one of the all-time rock guitar gods when he formed a band with singer Robert Plant, bassist John Paul Jones, and drummer John Bonham. With Led Zeppelin, everything about Page became instantly legendary — from his embroidered dragon suit to his obsession with the occult — but his blazing riffs were always at the forefront. You can’t hear “Communication Breakdown” or “In the Evening” and not have it in your head for 72 hours. “A riff ought to be quite hypnotic, because it will be played over and over again,” he told Rolling Stone in 2012. And his playing also has its delicate moments, like the stunning fingerpicking on “Going to California” or the intro to “Stairway to Heaven.” “He had this vision to transcend the stereotypes of what the guitar can do,” Aerosmith’s Joe Perry said. “If you follow the guitar on ‘The Song Remains the Same’ all the way through, it evolves through so many different changes — louder, quieter, softer, louder again. He was writing the songs, playing them, producing them — I can’t think of any other guitar player since Les Paul that can claim that.” —A.M.Key Tracks: “Achilles Last Stand,” “Kashmir,” “No Quarter”


Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry didn’t just invent rock & roll guitar — he perfected it. You can hear it all in his intro to his 1956 classic “Johnny B. Goode,” as he kicks off the song with an 18-second six-string manifesto, for the definitive guitar-hero anthem. He figured out how to mix the blues and country music he loved, fusing boogie-woogie and hillbilly twang into his own original style of high-speed electric flash. In other words, rock & roll. Every tradition of American music is somewhere in Chuck Berry’s guitar. As his disciple Keith Richards said, “Chuck is the granddaddy of us all.”He was a St. Louis hairdresser when he cut his revolutionary 1955 debut hit, “Maybellene,” for Chess Records. He always said he wrote “Maybellene” to copy a country classic, Bob Wills’ “Ida Red.” But he created something new, and it set the world on fire. He defined rock & roll with a barrage of genius hits: “Roll Over Beethoven,” “You Can’t Catch Me,” “Little Queenie,” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.” His riffs begat the Beatles and Stones, Hendrix and Zeppelin, the Velvets and the Clash. Berry was railroaded into prison in the early 1960s, where he wrote the bitterly ironic “Promised Land.” But by the Woodstock era, he was celebrating his new hippie fanbase with the great 1970 stoner choogle “Tulane.”“There’s nothing new under the sun,” Berry insisted in the 1987 film Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll. On his guitar playing, he said, “It’s just a washboard of time passing.” There couldn’t be a more poetic summary of Chuck Berry’s achievements. —R.S.Key Tracks: “Maybellene,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”


Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix lighting his Fender Stratocaster on fire at Monterey Pop is one of the most iconic images in rock history. He was a showman who played with his teeth or behind his back. But underneath all the theatrics is the true master of the instrument. His career may have lasted eight years, but musicians spend a lifetime studying his dazzling technique and improvisational genius. Hendrix sang, but he chose to make his guitar the leading voice. He popularized the use of feedback, invented his own fusion of blues and psychedelia, and influenced the development of rock, metal, funk, and much more. Hendrix was eloquent not only in his playing, but the way he spoke about playing. “The wah-wah pedal is great because it doesn’t have any notes,” he told Rolling Stone in 1968. “Nothing but hitting it straight up using the vibrato and then the drums come through and that there feels like … not depression, but that loneliness and that frustration and the yearning for something. Like something is reaching out.” In an era when music was still largely racially segregated, the emergence of Hendrix — a Black artist who left white crowds gaping in awe — was a seismic event that obliterated cultural barriers. And decades after his death, his audience just keeps getting bigger. “Jimi Hendrix exploded our idea of what rock music could be,” Tom Morello said. “It’s impossible to think of what Jimi would be doing now; he seemed like a pretty mercurial character. Would he be an elder statesman of rock? Would he be Sir Jimi Hendrix? Or would he be doing some residency off the Vegas Strip? The good news is his legacy is assured as the greatest guitar player of all time.” —A.M.Key Tracks: “Purple Haze,” “Voodoo Child,” “Little Wing,” “The Star-Spangled Banner”