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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


Kerry King

Although his best-known solo is probably a cameo on the Beastie Boys’ 1986 hit “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” Slayer co-founder Kerry King’s contributions to the sound and sensibility of Eighties thrash metal will be his lasting contribution to the world. King, along with his co-guitarist Jeff Hanneman, created a much darker, more dissonant and twisted brand of riffage on Slayer classics like “Angel of Death” and “Dead Skin Mask” than any of other guitar teams in thrash’s “Big Four” of Metallica, Anthrax, Megadeth, and Slayer. King’s solos, a face-melting onslaught of tremolo picking, atonal chromatic runs, and howling whammy bar dives, are both unnerving and tinged with a free-jazz skronk that is not just downright evil, it’s timelessly hip as well. “There’s nothing that says playing out of key is wrong,” King told Music Radar. “To me, anything that sounds good is right.” —T.B.Key Tracks: “Angel of Death,” “Raining Blood”


Tosin Abasi

His prodigious chops were first recognized when he was the guitarist in Washington, D.C., technical metalcore group Reflux, but it was only after launching his aggressive, acrobatic instrumental outfit Animals as Leaders that Tosin Abasi cemented his reputation as one of the most exciting and innovative of guitarists of the past decade. Abasi adopted an eight-string, extended-range instrument and invented finger-boggling techniques like selective picking, thumping, and “swybrid picking.” It could be argued that Abasi is also redefining the very notion of what it means to be a guitarist. “I’m always trying to progress,” he said in a 2020 interview. “And that means that I have to conceive of new ways of producing harmony and rhythm on the guitar.” —T.B.Key Tracks: “Cafo,” “Tooth and Claw,” “The Problem of Other Minds”


Link Wray

When Link Wray released the thrilling, ominous “Rumble” in 1958, it became one of the only instrumentals ever to be banned from radio play — for fear that it might incite gang violence. By stabbing his amplifier’s speaker cone with a pencil, Wray created the distorted, overdriven sound that would reverberate through metal, punk, and grunge. Wray, who proudly claimed Shawnee Indian ancestry and lost a lung to tuberculosis, was the archetypal leather-clad badass, and his song titles alone — “Slinky,” “The Black Widow” — convey the force and menace of his playing. “He was fucking insane,” said the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. “I would listen to ‘Some Kinda Nut,’ over and over. It sounded like he was strangling the guitar — like it was screaming for help.” —A.L.Key Tracks:“Rumble,” “Jack the Ripper,” “Raw-Hide”


Stephen Malkmus

When Pavement started, Stephen Malkmus came on like a feedback-loving indie prankster. But he soon proved himself the great guitar romantic of his era. He plays his beautifully ragged, fluently emotional ripples all over albums like Pavement’s Brighten the Corners (“Fin”) or the Silver Jews’ American Water (“The Wild Kindness”). He gets shreddier over the years, in the shaggy psych of Real Emotional Trash, the elegiac wit of Mirror Traffic, or his folk experiment Traditional Techniques. He jams hard on the recent Pavement tours, jokingly introducing the band as “Phishport Convention.” But his crackpot independence has made him an icon to younger guitarists of the Snail Mail/Soccer Mommy generation, inspiring the Beadadoobee tribute, “I Wish I Was Stephen Malkmus.” —R.S.Key Tracks: “Gold Soundz,” “Night Society,” “Share the Red”


Mark Knopfler

Mark Knopfler’s first big guitar-hero moment — the fleet, gloriously melodic solo on Dire Straits’ 1978 hit “Sultans of Swing” — came at a time when punk seemed to be rendering the idea of a guitar hero obsolete. And yet Knopfler built a reputation as an intensely creative virtuoso (not to mention an ace songwriter), showing remarkable command over a range of tones and textures — from the gnarly distortion on hit single “Money for Nothing” to the stinging precision of “Tunnel of Love.” One key to Knopfler’s signature style: playing without a pick. “Playing with your fingers,” he has said, “has something to do with immediacy and soul.” Knopfler’s versatility made him much in demand for projects with artists including Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, and Bob Dylan, who first called on Knopfler for 1979’s Slow Train Coming. —A.L.Key Tracks:“Sultans of Swing,” “Romeo and Juliet”


Mary Timony

The ferociously brilliant Mary Timony has been rewriting the guitar rulebook for three decades. A teen Satriani/Vai devotee, she took all her classically trained technique to punk rock. “I’d gone to music school, but I was playing in the D.C. hardcore scene,” she says. “I knew I wanted to be loud.” She made her bones with Helium, one of the Nineties’ most head-spinning bands, in avant-fuzz classics like The Dirt of Luck. She moved on to prog, psychedelia, the rock swagger of Wild Flag and Ex Hex. Other shredders idolize her. Carrie Brownstein calls her “Timony, that woozy wizard.” Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan — one of her guitar students — told Rolling Stone, “Everybody wants to be her.” —R.S.Key Tracks: “XXX,” “Pat’s Trick,” “Glass Tambourine”


Joe Satriani

Even if he was only known as the guitarist who once counted Kirk Hammett and Steve Vai among his pupils, Joe Satriani might still be a player whose name is whispered in hushed tones. But in the “faster is better” ecosystem of the Eighties, Satriani astutely found a niche for himself as the “tasteful shredder,” a melodic voice of reason in a the era’s fretboard arms race. Sure, “Satch” as he is often referred to, had chops to burn, but on signature tracks such as “Surfing With the Alien” and “Summer Song,”he deploys them judiciously and always in service of the song like the classic rock guitarists he grew up idolizing. “If someone wants to play really fast, they can practice six hours a day, and in two years see amazing results,” Satriani told Guitar Player. “But there’s no method to playing like Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page.” —T.B.Key Tracks: “Surfing With the Alien,” “Summer Song”


Leo Nocentelli

Growing up in New Orleans, Leo Nocentelli wanted to play jazz like his guitar heroes Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery. But when he would “wake up in the night with a riff in my head,” as he told a reporter, the music would take on a funkier shape. Along with his bandmates in the Meters, Nocentelli “used to take things that were already pretty funky and make them really funky,” as generations of hip-hop and dance-music samplers would affirm. Nocentelli’s riffs stung coolly, whether on Meters masterworks like “Cissy Strut “ and “Just Kissed My Baby” or while accompanying Labelle on “Lady Marmalade,” among many others. —M.M.Key Tracks: “Cissy Strut,“ “Just Kissed My Baby”



More than the guitar, Wata’s instrument is her amplifier. Over the years, her band, the avant-garde metal trio Boris, have titled albums Amplifier Worship, Feedbacker, and Noise — literalisms for how she conjures long, grumbling drones and overtones from her amp, letting each fuzzy chord burble until it fizzles away. But Wata is a master of more than noise. On Boris’ nearly 30 albums, including collaborations with noiseniks like Merzbow and Sunn O))), she and her bandmates have alternated between psychedelic rock, doom metal, and shoegaze. Most impressively, on Pink, she uses an EBow (an electronic violin bow for electric guitars) to create notes that surf atop the waves of sound. —K.G.Key Tracks:“Huge,” “Just Abandoned Myself”


Cat Coore

Stephen “Cat” Coore of Third World practically redefined the heights that reggae guitar could soar to, with searing solos that can stand alongside those of the most acclaimed rock guitar gods — check out his string work on 1982’s “Try Jah Love” for an example of why his lead playing is sometimes compared to that of Carlos Santana. But Coore’s appreciation of the importance of rhythm is essential to his style, and his pick accompaniments often help drive the engine of Third World’s best. He’s also a master on the acoustic guitar, not always associated with Jamaican music — his fretwork on “1865 (96 Degrees in the Shade)” helped open the minds of Jamaican listeners and other Jamaican guitarists as to the possibilities of the acoustic in reggae. —M. GoldwasserKey Tracks: “Try Jah Love,” “1865 (96 Degrees in the Shade”


Mdou Moctar

Growing up in Niger, Mdou Moctar was forbidden by his strict parents from playing guitar. Undaunted, he built a four-string guitar out a piece of wood, repurposed bicycle cables, and sardine-can openers and began a musical journey that has brought his unique and hypnotic brand of Touareg music to Europe, the U.S., and beyond. Having now graduated to a Fender Stratocaster, Mdour uses modulation effects like flanging and chorus along with echo and reverb to give his sharp but unerringly tuneful lines a sheen that evokes vast expanses both spiritual and terrestrial. “The sky and the stars, that inspires you when you want to write something or when you need to play,” he told Guitar World in 2021. “It’s a feeling of being free to do whatever you need to do.” —T.B.Key Tracks: “Tarhatazed,” “Mdou’s Theme,” “Afrique Victime”


Lou Reed

Revered more as a songwriter than a virtuoso player, Lou Reed has always been a ferocious guitarist — a fan of both Ike Turner’s muscular R&B and Ornette Coleman’s scalding free jazz who was inventing new approaches straight out of the gate (including his single-pitch “ostrich tuning”) with the Velvet Underground. Listen to the sweetness and blood of “Heroin,” the godhead garage rock of “What Goes On,” the epic bad-trip psychedelia of “Sister Ray.” “He was rightfully quite proud of his own soloing,” wrote fellow New York guitar luminary Robert Quine, “but resigned to the fact that most people weren’t ready for it.” As a solo artist, Reed kept on ripping up the rulebook: See 1975’s Metal Machine Music, a noise opus that took feedback further than Jimi Hendrix could have imagined. —W.H.Key Tracks:“Sister Ray,” “Heroin,” “Foggy Notion”


Kurt Cobain

Not surprising for someone who grew up adoring both Kiss and the Melvins, Kurt Cobain’s approach to his instrument lay in that fertile ground between arena rock and indie punk. “I never wanted to sing,” Cobain told Rolling Stone in 1994, recalling his pre-success days. “I just wanted to play rhythm guitar —hide in the back and just play.”Cobain knew his way around a potent power chord (“In Bloom” and “Stay Away”), but his solos were always inventive and unconventional, from the serrated-edge grind in “School” (on Nirvana’s debut, Bleach) to the fire-alarm buzz in his last recording, Nirvana’s “You Know You’re Right.” Cobain favored texture and rawness over flash, and from him, a generation of alt rockers learned you didn’t have to be a virtuoso to be a guitar hero. —D.B.Key Tracks:“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Scentless Apprentice”


Poison Ivy

Poison Ivy put it best herself: “Nobody ever talks to me about music or guitar. I’m the queen of rock & roll, and for this not to be recognized is pure sexism.” The true engine of the Cramps, Ivy and her orange 1958 Gretsch 6120 added the zombie Dick Dale flavor to the haunted rockabilliy band. Despite being the band’s de facto co-lyricist and composer, Ivy may have at times taken a back seat to her more flamboyant bandmate and partner Lux Interior, who died in 2009, but her six-string stylings have inspired countless bands with a taste for sexy surf rock with a bloody edge. “Maybe that made it easier for me to consider playing guitar because I was such a misfit anyway,” she once said. “Maybe it’s harder for someone who fits in to do that. For me, anything was fair game.” —B.E.Key Tracks: “Human Fly,” “Goo Goo Muck”


Sonny Sharrock

Sonny Sharrock wanted to be the next John Coltrane — until asthma drove him to the guitar instead of sax. But as he said in 1990, “I consider myself a jazz saxophonist with a very fucked-up horn.” Sharrock brought rock-style distortion to jazz on classics like Pharoah Sanders’ Tauhid (1966) and Miles Davis’ Jack Johnson (1971). He disappeared for years but hit his prime in the Eighties with his solo Guitar and Bill Laswell’s avant-noise band Last Exit. He finally made his masterpiece in Ask the Ages, blasting with Sanders and drummer Elvin Jones, right before his tragic death in 1994. “Interdenominational intergalactic music,” Carlos Santana called him. “He’s like Coltrane — he’s the cosmic lion.” —R.S. Key Tracks: “Yesternow,” “Sheraserhead’s High-Top Sneakers,” “Many Mansions”


Larry Carlton

When Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan, two of the most musically adventurous acts of the Seventies, wanted to make jazz-infused masterpieces, they both turned to the same guitarist: session master Larry Carlton, who played as if there was no difference between dauntingly sophisticated chord changes and the most elementary rock and folk. You can hear Carlton’s signature licks intertwining with Mitchell’s own playing throughout Court and Spark and Heijira, as well as all over the Dan’s Aja. But his most famous moment came with dual leads on that band’s “Kid Charlemagne,” where he casually melds blues-rock bends, jazz runs, and cosmic psychedelia into one of the greatest guitar solos ever recorded. —B.H.Key Tracks: “Kid Charlemagne,” “Josie,” “Rio Samba”


Muddy Waters

Had he stayed in Mississippi playing roadhouses in and around Clarksdale, McKinley Morganfield would undoubtedly have been remembered as a giant of country blues. But after he’d moved north to Chicago and discovered the electric guitar, Muddy Waters changed the rules by which the blues were played. At first, he went electric simply to ensure his guitar would be heard over the din of raucous, big-city crowds. But as his playing adapted to the new instrument, his music took on a more aggressive edge, one that was intensified by a band that included pianist Otis Spann and harmonica wizard Little Walter. His songs, which included such classics as “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Got My Mojo Working,” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” became touchstones for blues players and young rockers alike. —J.D.C.Key Tracks:“Rollin’ Stone,” “Mannish Boy”


Adrian Smith and Dave Murray

Iron Maiden’s secret weapons have always been speed and harmony, techniques pioneered by guitarists Dave Murray and Dennis Stratton on the band’s self-titled debut and later perfected by Murray and Adrian Smith beginning with 1981’s Killers and the band’s classic Eighties albums. The duo commands the band’s galloping riffs with rare intensity, taking breaks only to indulge in their own unique solos: smooth, creamy leads for Murray and cutting blues licks for Smith. It’s a combo that defines beloved songs like “The Trooper,” “Run to the Hills,” and “Aces High.” Since 1999, the guitar line has been a trio with Janick Gers, only adding to its harmonies and power. —K.G.Key Tracks: “Hallowed Be Thy Name,” “Aces High,” “The Evil That Men Do”


Wes Montgomery

In the documentary Influences, Carlos Santana named Wes Montgomery as one of the three guitarists who most inspired him. Known for a unique thumb-picking style that allowed him to play melody lines in octaves, Montgomery became one of the most sought-after guitarists in jazz. Working with producer Creed Taylor, he cut everything from driving hard bop (1965’s Smokin’ at the Half Note) to funky soul jazz (1966’s Tequila). But it was his lushly orchestrated take on rock hits, 1967’s A Day in the Life, that earned him his biggest audience, in the process paving the way for smooth jazz. Said Bill Frisell, ““Wes Montgomery was playing music that was popular at that moment. It was like he was the Pied Piper or something”. —J.D.C.Key Tracks: “Four on Six,” “Willow Weep for Me,” “Bumpin’ on Sunset”


Bert Jansch

The U.K. folk-rock scene of the Sixties gave us a music class full of accomplished players, including Richard Thompson and John Renbourn. But there’s a reason Bert Jansch, the Scottish singer and guitarist, was name-checked by Jimmy Page and Neil Young. Whether on his own records or with the classic band Pentangle, which also featured Renbourn, Jansch’s austere fingerpicking (which also matched his singer voice) had an agile, moody personality all its own. In his hands the acoustic guitar conjured isolated walks in the British countryside more than sing-alongs in pubs. His “Black Water Side” clearly inspired Led Zeppelin’s “Black Mountain Side,” and their “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” takes a cue or two from Jansch’s “The Waggoner’s Lad,” and Young covered “Needle of Death.” —D.B.Key Tracks: “Black Water Side,” “The Waggoner’s Lad”


Derek Trucks

Literally raised in the Allman Brothers family, Derek Trucks — the nephew of Allmans drummer Butch Trucks — started playing slide guitar at age nine and was touring by 12. When he stepped into the late Duane Allman’s slide-guitar spot in the Allman Brothers Band in 1999, at age 20, Derek’s soloing exploded in thrilling directions, managing to incorporate Delta blues, hard-bop jazz, the vocal ecstasies of Southern black gospel, and Indian-raga modality and rhythms. “He’s like a bottomless pit,” said Eric Clapton, who took Trucks on tour as a sideman in 2006 and 2007. “His thing is very deep.” —D.F.Key Tracks:“Joyful Noise,” “Whipping Post” (One Way Outversion)


Ernie Isley

When Ernie Isley first picked up the guitar as a teenager, it was to learn Jose Feliciano’s acoustic version of the Doors’ “Light My Fire” — and, of course, one-time Isley Brothers guitarist Jimi Hendrix had lived with the family when Ernie was an adolescent. So he was ready for the spotlight when he took his soaring solo on “That Lady,” in 1973, done in a single take. ”I plugged in, and when I hit the very first note on the ‘That Lady’ rhythm track, it went from black-and-white to 3D Technicolor,” he recalled. “It was astounding.” The song had an immediate, outsized impact on the Isleys’ sound — his long solos were a feature of both the band’s classic Seventies albums and their live shows — and his irradiated, ecstatic fuzztone remains a marker of a halcyon era. —M.M.Key Tracks: “That Lady,” “Voyage to Atlantis”


Charlie Christian

He never led a recording session, and spent a scant three years in the national spotlight before succumbing to tuberculosis in 1942, but Charlie Christian still managed to become one of the most influential guitarists of all time. He bought his first electric, a Gibson ES150, in 1937, and a year later the company was advertising it “as used by Charlie Christian.” His big break came in 1939, when he was hired by Bennie Goodman, who quickly made him a featured soloist in his sextet, where his punchy, single-note style put him on par with the horn players. “The beat came first,” said Les Paul, a friend. “He locked himself into that driving sound.” —J.D.C.Key Tracks: “Solo Flight,” “Gone With What Wind,” “Lester’s Dream”


Willie Nelson

Like his conversational singing, Willie Nelson’s guitar playing is deceptively laid-back, playfully offbeat, and instantly recognizable. Amazingly, Nelson has been playing the same Martin M-20 classical guitar, nicknamed Trigger, since 1969; it has defined his sound, a nylon-stabbing mix of country, blues, and Django Reinhardt’s gypsy jazz. “I named my guitar Trigger because it’s kind of my horse,” he explained. “Roy Rogers had a horse called Trigger.” Though the guitar now has a large gaping hole, Nelson still plays it nightly. “I have come to believe we were fated for each other,” he said. “The two of us even look alike. We are both pretty battered and bruised.”Key Tracks:“Whiskey River,” “Night Life”


Joan Jett

Joan Jett’s future as a rocker was foreordained, she once explained: “When I was 11 or 12, I finally got the balls to say, ‘Mom, Dad, I want a guitar for Christmas, and I don’t want no folk guitar.” By age 15, she was hired to play guitar for the mid-Seventies all-girl raunch-rockers the Runaways — not least because, as their manager Kim Fowley put it, “I could tell Joan wanted to be Keith Richard instead of Duane Allman.” The difference is that while Keef always had a foot in the blues, Jett’s glam-derived rhythmic power is more pile-driving and straight-on: She’s a punk lodestone as much as Johnny Ramone was. —M.M.Key Tracks: “Cherry Bomb,” “Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah)”


Ritchie Blackmore

Best known for the gargantuan riff at the heart of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” Ritchie Blackmore helped define heavy-metal guitar by mixing intricate classical composition with raw-knuckled blues rock. Blackmore made waves on 1972’s Machine Head; his solos on the boogie rocker “Highway Star” and “Lazy” remain models of metal pyrotechnics. He looked back toward early European music with his next band, Rainbow — even learning cello to write 1976’s stomping “Stargazer” — and has explored Renaissance-style fingerpicking with Blackmore’s Night. But it’s his Deep Purple work that influenced a generation of headbangers. “Blackmore epitomized this fascination I had with the bare essence of rock & roll, this element of danger,” says Metallica‘s Lars Ulrich. —R.T.Key Tracks:“Smoke on the Water,” “Highway Star,” “Speed King”


J Mascis

The massive slabs of rock-candy noise that J Mascis heaved from his Fender Jazzmaster in Dinosaur Jr. contained multitudes: Black Sabbath savagery, melodic Neil Young soul, punk-rock pig slop. His greatest moment may be the sputtering solo on “Freak Scene”, which is so captivating he barely pauses it to wedge in the final verse. Mascis’ 2011 solo set, Several Shades of Why, also showed he can get shamelessly pretty with an acoustic, too. “I remember seeing Dinosaur play this soft, plaintive song — and then it was just completely detonated by this ravaging solo that J did,” says Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. “The whole room was incinerated.” —W.H.Key Tracks:“Feel the Pain,” “Little Fury Things”


Hubert Sumlin

“I love Hubert Sumlin,” Jimmy Page has said. “He always played the right thing at the right time.” During more than two decades playing alongside Howlin’ Wolf, Sumlin always seemed to have an almost telepathic connection to the legendary blues singer, augmenting Wolf’s ferocious cries with angular, slashing guitar lines and perfectly placed riffs on such immortal songs as “Wang Dang Doodle,” “Back Door Man,” and “Killing Floor.” Sumlin made such an impact, in fact, that Wolf’s greatest rival, Muddy Waters, even hired him away for a stint in 1956. Sumlin, who passed away in 2011 at age 80, played until the end, sometimes turning up onstage in the company of such acolytes as the Rolling Stones, Elvis Costello, Eric Clapton, and the Allman Brothers Band. —D.W.Key Tracks:“Smokestack Lightning,” “Spoonful,” “Killing Floor”


John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin was invited to record with Miles Davis while still in his twenties, co-parenting jazz fusion on Bitches Brew (which includes a song titled “John McLaughlin”) and the sublime In a Silent Way, among other Davis LPs. But he achieved guitar-god status with his own Mahavishnu Orchestra, where he made his Gibson spit fire like a many-headed dragon. A breakneck stylist, McLaughlin was peerless, mixing psychedelic rock, R&B, gypsy jazz, flamenco, and Indian raga techniques. He was also an acoustic guitar visionary: see 1970’s My Goal’s Beyond. That polyglot mastery earned him huge respect from jazz and rock peers alike: Jeff Beck called him “the best guitarist alive.” —W.H.Key Tracks:“Right Off,” “The Noonward Race”


Franco Luambo

A towering figure in the history of African music, Congolese singer-guitarist-bandleader François Luambo Makiadi, better known as Franco, released 84 albums in a 31-year career and earned nicknames like Sorcerer of the Guitar and the Grand Maître of Zairean Music — all in just 51 years of his larger-than-life career. A patient, fluid musician who mastered the art of simultaneously glistening off and digging into a repetitive groove, Franco and his band OK Jazz began playing Afro-Latin “rumba” in the Fifties and hit their peak in the Seventies and Eighties as that sound sped up and blossomed into the high-energy guitar weaves of soukous. A team player who enjoyed full-band synergy more than flashy solos, he balanced muscularity and grace like few players in any genre. —J.D. Key Tracks: “Ngungi,” “Mario”


Django Reinhardt

Born in Belgium in 1910, Django Reinhardt was one of first players to unlock the potential of the guitar as lead instrument suitable for single-note soloing. After a tragic injury early in his life caused him to lose the use of his third and fourth fingers, he learned how to approach the instrument with only two functional digits on his left hand. Reinhardt eventually connected with violinist Stéphane Grappelli in Paris, and in 1934 the two would form the legendary Quintette du Hot Club de France, a group in which the guitarist would perfect the sinuous and fluid improvisatory style that would not only influence jazz legends like Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery, but also rock innovators like Jeff Beck and Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers Band. —T.B.Key Tracks: “Django’s Tiger,”“Djangology, ”“Honeysuckle Rose”


Robbie Robertson

When Bob Dylan described the Band’s “wild mercury sound,” he was really talking about Robbie Robertson’s guitar, as exemplified by his torrid, squawking solo on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” from their 1966 tour. But by the time the Band were making their own LPs, Robertson had pared down his approach, evolving into a consummate ensemble player. As much as any guitarist of his era, Robertson demonstrated the ways guitarists could contribute to ensembles without overpowering them. “I wanted to go in the opposite direction,” said Robertson, “to do things that were so tasteful and discreet and subtle, like Curtis Mayfield and Steve Cropper … where it was all about the song.” —D.B.Key Tracks: “The Shape I’m In,” “Like a Rolling Stone (Live 1966)”


Les Paul

Les Paul is best known as the genius who invented the solid-body Gibson guitar that bears his name. But he was just as imaginative as a player. “He made the very best guitar sounds of the 1950s,” said Brian Wilson. “There’s nobody that came close.” A long string of hits in the Forties and Fifties (on his own and with his wife, singer-guitarist Mary Ford) established his signature style: elegant, clean-toned, fleet-fingered improvisations on current pop standards. Paul created a groundbreaking series of technical innovations, including multilayered studio overdubs and varispeed tape playback, to achieve sounds nobody had ever come up with — check out the insect-swarm solo on his 1948 recording of “Lover.” —D.W.Key Tracks:“How High the Moon,” “Tiger Rag”


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”