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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


Kurt Vile

Kurt Vile comes across like an easy-breezy slacker dude, but he’s a serious guitarist — and his style, which combines chilled-out drones and intricate yet melodic solos, is rooted in part in his getting a banjo from his parents as a teen after he’d asked for a guitar. “Banjos are in an open tuning, and they’ve got that high drone string,” the Philadelphian told guitar.com in 2018. “It’s not like you’d even think about that when you’re playing as a kid, but I came to really like that ethereal drone.” Over the course of his career, he’s incorporated influences from all over music’s map, synthesizing them into his bed-headed style that’s gently, subtly virtuosic. —M.J.Key Tracks: “Pretty Pimpin,” “Wakin on a Pretty Day”


Keiji Haino

Japanese musician Keiji Haino’s free-form solo performances are squealing, noisy exercises in catharsis where it’s not clear whether he’s playing or actually performing an exorcism on his guitar, and in ensemble settings like the late-Nineties group Aihiyo, whose self-titled debut is beautifully ragged and deeply emotive. He soothes with soft, shimmering chords one moment and shreds his listener’s eardrums with squalls of fuzz the next. “People practice really hard because they want people to check them out,” he told Vice Japan. “And then they say it’s improvisation. That drives me nuts.” —T.B.Key Tracks: “A Shredded Coiled Cable Within This Cable Sincerity Could Not be Contained,” “Why in the Courtesy of the Prey Always Confused With the Courtesy of the Hunters Pt. 1”


Lucy Dacus

For Lucy Dacus, the guitar is as essential an instrument as her voice, whether she’s strumming gentle acoustic chords or unleashing blaring riffs. From her pulsing 2016 standout “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” to her contributions in supergroup boygenius, Dacus’ arrangements are the driving force behind her devastating lyrics. Her skill is showcased best on “Night Shift,” from her excellent 2018 album, Historian, where Dacus shreds a hugely cathartic near minute-long instrumental interlude. Her floating vocals weave in and out of an increasingly distorted wall of sound, driving in her declaration of a final goodbye to an old lover, and by the time the final chord is strummed, it’s clear that she means it. —L.L.Key Tracks: “Night Shift,” “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore”


José Feliciano

Thinking of José Feliciano solely as the guy who belts out “Feliz Navidad” during the holiday season would be spectacularly unfair. Born blind, Feliciano became an acoustic guitar virtuoso in his teens. Alternately lyrical and ferocious, his playing is imbued in the boleros and folk songs of his Puerto Rican heritage. His ragged mosaic of styles — rock, jazz, soul, bossa nova — changed the sound of mainstream pop rock in the Sixties. Feliciano’s radical 1968 reinvention of the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” found him vocalizing in Spanish like a salsa sonero, and the guitar pyrotechnics of his “Light My Fire” took the Doors classic into darker, cinematic territory. —E.L.Key Tracks: “Light My Fire,” “Here, There and Everywhere”


Nick Zinner

When New York City’s garage-rock trio Yeah Yeah Yeahs formed in 2000, their aim was to create something “trashy, punky, grimy.” Nick Zinner’s style is all that and more, fusing the dance-punk of ESG, the panache of Van Halen, the violence of Rowland S. Howard, and the grandeur of Johnny Marr into his signature catchy, glittering riffs. Zinner’s guitar work is minimal but holds chasmic emotion, from the longing of “Maps” to the monstrous tension of “Heads Will Roll.” —Z.Y.Key Tracks: “Y Control,” “Maps,” “Gold Lion”


Kaki King

A tireless sonic adventurer, Kaki King takes a Preston Reed-meets-John Cage approach to the acoustic guitar, experimenting with alternate tunings, “treated” instruments, and electronic loops while utilizing finger-style, two-handed tapping and percussive slapping techniques. “I’ll think, ‘Let’s see what happens if I lower this string here and raise that one there,’” she told Premier Guitar in 2011. “When you tune your guitar differently, all of a sudden your fingers and your mind have to be creative again because you’re not relying on shapes and places that sound good or feel familiar. You have to explore the fretboard to find new fingerings and sounds, and that leads to new discoveries.” —D.E.Key Tracks: “Playing With Pink Noise,” “Skimming the Fractured Surface to a Place of Endless Light”


Gary Clark Jr.

Initially pigeonholed as an heir to the crown of Jimi Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughn, Grammy-winning blues-rock guitarist Gary Clark Jr. has consistently demonstrated a much broader reach in his fiery playing, incorporating elements of soul, funk, grunge, and hip-hop into his records, and collaborating with the disparate likes of Foo Fighters, Alicia Keys, Tech N9ne, and Bun B. “I don’t think that I’m reaching my full potential if I just do what people expect of me,” he told Rolling Stone in 2014. “I love to play, and I love to experiment, and there are a lot more roads to explore. 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.” —D.E.  Key Tracks: “This Land,” “Grinder”


Amadou Bagayoko

The Malian couple Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia, who met at an institute for the blind in 1977, broke big performing and recording as Amadou and Mariam when their brightly melodic duets, led rhythmically by Amadou’s jaunty, occasionally skronky leads, crossed over to the rock festival circuit. It makes sense, though: “People are often surprised when we explain how much we were influenced by Western pop music,” Amadou Bagayoko once told an interviewer with a laugh. “I grew up listening to records by Rod Stewart, Led Zeppelin, James Brown, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder … That’s because they were the only records we had in Mali!” —M.M.Key Tracks: “Djanfa,” “Ce N’est Pas Bon”


Justin Broadrick

Justin Broadrick has created his own guitar lexicon between industrial-metal crushers Godflesh, grindcore pioneers Napalm Death, and the psychedelic post-metal band Jesu (among countless other projects). His steamrolling, elastic riffs and spongy textures in Godflesh breathed rare humanity to the band’s mechanical rhythms. In Napalm Death, he helped pioneer the “grinding” sound of grindcore (hyper-fast death metal) by turning up his distortion so high you felt the pulse more than the notes on songs like “Instinct of Survival.” And in Jesu, his psychedelic post-metal guise, he layered miasmas of noise until they created a beautiful shadow world in which his voice echoed. On everything he does, his guitar sighs, groans, and weeps, but nothing else sounds like it. —K.G.Key Tracks: “Like Rats,” “Silver,” “Scum”


Hugh McCracken

East Coast guitarist Hugh McCracken was never a showy soloist but left his tasteful mark on countless classics. That’s his piercing lead on Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen,” his sprinting opening lick on Van Morrison’s ”Brown Eyed Girl,” and his silky acoustic throughout Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” In an unobtrusive but vital way, he also enriched Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You,” and John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “I’m Losing You.” McCracken was so busy, and so content with studio work, that he turned down Paul McCartney’s offer to join Wings after playing on Ram. —D.B.Key Tracks: “Hey Nineteen,” “Killing Me Softly With His Song”


Eric Johnson

A consummate technician, Austin-born Eric Johnson is the sort of player whose abilities are more appreciated by his peers than by the public at large. “Eric’s so good it’s ridiculous,” raved Steve Morse, while Stevie Ray Vaughan deemed him “one of my favorite guitarists.” “Damn, that guy can play!” was Billy Gibbons’ assessment. A fusion stylist whose approach leaned more rock than jazz, he was a rising star on the mid-Seventies Austin scene but lost career momentum after being sidelined in a contractual dispute. Although his 1990 instrumental album Ah Via Musicom eventually went platinum, he’s mostly known for guitar-centric collaborations such as G3, with Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, and Eclectic, with Miles Davis guitarist Mike Stern. —J.D.C.Key Tracks: “Cliffs of Dover,” “Benny Man’s Blues”


Lynn Taitt

Lynn Taitt was born in Trinidad but made his mark in Jamaica, basically creating the guitar sound of rocksteady music through his playing on the earliest recordings in that style such as Hopeton Lewis’ “Take It Easy” and Derrick Morgan’s “Tougher Than Tough.” When the king of Jamaican guitar, Ernest Ranglin, left to work in England in 1964, Taitt became the top session man on the island. His work on Desmond Dekker’s “007 (Shanty Town)” is some of the most recognizable guitar in Jamaican music history, and though he was active in the scene for just a few years, leaving for Canada in 1968, his influence and importance were cemented when his student Hux Brown honed Taitt’s playing style to help create the sound of reggae guitar. —M. GoldwasserKey Tracks: “007 (Shanty Town),” “Take It Easy”


Grant Green

Grant Green came out of the hard bop scene to become a soul-jazz pioneer. A Charlie Parker fanatic from St. Louis, he cut his Blue Note debut in 1960, and went on to a stellar five-year run, with the impeccably cool grooves of Idle Moments and The Complete Quartets With Sonny Clark. He explored Latin jazz in his 1964 Matador, with Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner. Green died in 1979, only 43, while in New York for a gig at George Benson’s Breezin’ Lounge. But his influence still thrives, especially in hip-hop. His guitar has been sampled on rap classics from A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory to Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d City. —R.S.Key Tracks: “Idle Moments,” “Jean De Fleur,” “On Green Dolphin Street”


Vince Gill

It’s almost unfair — as a pure vocalist, Vince Gill is rightly celebrated as one of country music’s all-time greats. But what’s more, the man is lethal with an electrified Fender in his hands. In addition to the lively chicken picking and twangy bends on singles like 1991’s “Liza Jane,” Gill has paid homage to the California country guitar gods like Don Rich and Roy Nichols on 2013’s Bakersfield. What’s more, Gill has brought his guitar to sessions for countless other artists’ albums — like Miranda Lambert, Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless, Kenny Chesney, Dolly Parton, and Don Henley. Speaking of Henley, Gill’s been a touring member of the Eagles since Glenn Frey’s death in 2017, pulling double duty as a harmony vocalist and guitar slinger extraordinaire. —J.F.Key Tracks: “Liza Jane,” “Oklahoma Borderline”


Garry ‘Diaper Man’ Shider

When asked why he performed onstage wearing little more than an oversized diaper, Parliament/Funkadelic guitarist Garry Shider replied, “God loves babies and fools. I’m both.” Although originally celebrated for putting the -delic in Funkadelic through searing, distortion-fattened leads on jams like “Cosmic Slop,” Shider was also a master rhythm guitarist, as evinced by his insistently funky playing on “One Nation Under a Groove” and “Atomic Dog” (both of which he co-wrote). In addition to playing “Diaper Man” in Parliament/Funkadelic, he was called “Starchild” in Bootsy’s Rubberband, and served as music director for the P-Funk All Stars, while his post-P-Funk career included collaborations with both Paul Schaffer and the Black Crowes. —J.D.C.Key Tracks: “Cosmic Slop,” “One Nation Under a Groove”