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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


Johnny Thunders

The New York heir to Keith Richards’ vibe, the man born John Anthony Genzale bridged the gap between glammy riffs and pre-hardcore punk, powering first the New York Dolls, then with the chaotic Heartbreakers, then as a mercurial solo act. “The sound he got was so uniquely his; the combination of the Junior and a Twin Reverb, cranked to the max and with a ton of reverb was what rock & roll should sound like,” said Mick Rossi, from U.K. punks Slaughter and the Dogs. Thunders was equally capable of trashy fire and shocking sensitivity, as exemplified by his startlingly beautiful “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” a song stranded in the gutter but staring at the stars. —J.G. Key Tracks: “Born to Lose,” “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” “Jet Boy”


Pat Metheny

Calling Pat Metheny a jazz guitarist doesn’t begin to do the job. Though he is one of the leading figures in contemporary improvised music, the 17-time Grammy winner grew up being influenced by the Beatles as much as by Miles Davis. And like those two shape-shifting creative forces, he has constantly jumped over genre barriers. Metheny has worked with Joni Mitchell, David Bowie, and Ornette Coleman. He has played pastoral Americana, melodic fusion, ambient minimalism, and hard-charging free jazz; his aggressive 1994 solo guitar release Zero Tolerance for Silence was called “the most radical recording of (the) decade … a new milestone in electric guitar” by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. —A.L.Key Tracks: “Bright Size Life,” “And I Love Her”


Carl Perkins

In the Beatles’ early days, George Harrison briefly billed himself as Carl Harrison in honor of his quick-picking hero. Carl Perkins’ bright, trebly style — which the rockabilly king picked up from blues players in Tennessee — defined the singles he put out on Sun Records (“Blue Suede Shoes,” “Glad All Over”) and influenced scores of players from Eric Clapton to John Fogerty. “He took country picking into the rock world,” Tom Petty once said. “If you want to play Fifties rock & roll, you can either play like Chuck Berry, or you can play like Carl Perkins.” —A.L.Key Tracks:“Blue Suede Shoes,” “Glad All Over”


Yvette Young

Like many successful players of the internet age, Yvette Young originally created a fan base on YouTube by posting clips showcasing her almost pianistic two-handed tapping exploits. As a solo artist, and as the leader of the math-rock band Covet, she has demonstrated time and again that she is more than a flash in the pan. Using a multitude of alternate tunings, a sparkling clean tone, and a composer’s knack for polyphonic invention, the guitarist manages to combine the chime of alternative icons like Television’s Tom Verlaine with the wicked precision and rhythmic complexity of late aughts/early 2010s instrumentalist like Scale the Summit and Chon. “I’ve never been interested in being a ‘shredder,’” Young told Guitar.com. “I’ve always been more interested in making the things in my head come to life and being able to play those things.” —T.B.Key Tracks: “Firebird,” “Falkor,” “Nero”


Bill Frisell

Bill Frisell came out of the experimental jazz scene where blustery skronk is often an improvisational lingua franca,, but the 72-year-old musician’s decadeslong trademark has usually been his ability to bend tradition with a tender touch, revealing revelatory textures at a casually investigative pace. Whether he’s covering Madonna or Bob Dylan, doing country (1997’s Nashville), rock & roll (2014’s Guitar In the Space Age), or Beatles tunes (2011’s All We Are Saying…), his slurred, spacious, iridescent notes can give familiar sounds a lovingly warped feel, causing you to reconsider musical traditions you thought you knew well. —J.D.Key Tracks: “Live to Tell,” “Keep Your Eyes Open,” “Pipeline”


Otis Rush

A Mississippi native who moved to the Windy City in the late Forties, Otis Rush was a fearsome electric guitarist — with a gritty treble tone and lacerating attack, like a gunslinging cross of Muddy Waters and B.B. King — as well as a knockout songwriter. Along with guitarists like Magic Sam and Buddy Guy, Rush helped create the more modernized, R&B-influenced approach to Chicago blues that came to be known as the West Side Sound. Rush’s impact on later generations was enormous: His late-Fifties and early-Sixties singles were go-to covers for Led Zeppelin (“I Can’t Quit You Baby”), John Mayall (“All Your Love [I Miss Loving]”), and the J. Geils Band (“Homework”), while Stevie Ray Vaughan named his band after Rush’s lethal ’58 lament “Double Trouble.” —A.L.Key Tracks:“I Can’t Quit You Baby,” “Double Trouble,” “Homework”


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”