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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


Paul McCartney

Paul McCartney is a legend for so many things — songwriter, singer, bassist, Beatle — it’s easy to overlook his six-string virtuosity. But Macca played so many of the Fabs’ greatest guitar solos — the psychedelic flash of “Taxman” and “Sgt. Pepper,” the metal blast of “Helter Skelter,” the jagged rock of “Paperback Writer” and “Back in the U.S.S.R.” He’s also got his own folkie acoustic style, as in “Blackbird.” He still blazes on guitar, shredding all over his 2020 gem McCartney III. As he said in 2018, “I’m still thrilled with having the privilege of being able to go up to an amp, turn it on, get my guitar, plug it in and play it very loud.” —R.S.Key Tracks: “Taxman,” “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “Too Many People”


Chrissie Hynde

Chrissie Hynde’s groundbreaking songwriting and fierce rhythm guitar playing in the Pretenders can’t be divorced from the band’s rock-solid rhythm section and dazzling array of lead players. “James Brown’s guitar player would play one figure throughout the whole song, and I love that,” Hynde once said. Hynde’s craft (and her beloved Telecasters) have meshed brilliantly over the years with a murderers row of six-string foils, from the late James Honeyman-Scott to Robbie McIntosh and, for a short time, Johnny Marr (whose own playing was influenced by Honeyman-Scott). As Hynde puts it, “My position in any band that I’ve been in is to set the guitar player up to make a goal.” —J.G.Key Tracks: “Tattooed Love Boys,” “Brass in Pocket,” “Stop Your Sobbing”


D. Boon

Minutemen guitarist D. Boon favored thick strings and bracing treble, and he sweated so much onstage it messed up his gear. He was influenced by the taut, wiry aggression of post-punk, the classic-rock bluster of the Who and Blue Oyster Cult, the populist choogle of CCR, and the economy of funk and R&B. All that and more came out in his playing. By the time the San Pedro, California, trio made their 43-song 1984 masterpiece, Double Nickels on the Dime, he was mixing punk rock with jazz, country, and folk in a joyously jangled conversational dissonance that perfectly fit the ravenous epiphanies in the Minutemen’s songs. He died in a 1985 van crash at the height of his potential. —J.D.Key Tracks: “Little Man With a Gun in His Hand,” “Corona”


Phil Manzanera

Phil Manzanera’s specialty: “Impossible Guitar,” as he calls it. He helped make Roxy Music one of the most influential bands of the 1970s with his space-glam flash. His sensibility came from growing up in Cuba, Venezuela, and Colombia, listening to his mother’s favorite cumbia and bolero alongside the Beatles. He landed in the London art-rock scene with his spirit of alien irreverence, always experimenting, often filtering his guitar through Brian Eno’s synth. “It’s all down to pan-tonality, man!” he said in 1974. Ever prolific, he’s played on 80 albums in 50 years, with Eno (his clatter on “Needles in the Camel’s Eye”), John Cale (his brutal barrage in “Gun”), and solo gems like Diamond Head. —R.S.Key Tracks: “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” “Amazona,” “Lagrima”


Jessie Mae Hemphill

Few traditions have influenced modern-day blues music like North Mississippi Hill Country blues, of which the late Jessie Mae Hemphill was a pioneer. Born in the hill country in 1923, Hemphill began playing guitar at a young age, honing her chops at family gatherings and joining her grandfather Sid Hemphill, another famed hill country musician, onstage with his band. It was when Hemphill relocated to Memphis later in life, where she’d live until her death at 82 in 2006, that she found true notoriety, becoming an award-winning, internationally touring act within just a few years thanks to her deeply intuitive playing, traditionally informed blues songwriting, and raw, emotive vocals. —B.M.Key Tracks: “She-Wolf,” “Shame on You”


John Cipollina

John Cipollina was the original psychedelic guitar hero of the Haight-Ashbury scene, playing in his San Francisco band Quicksilver Messenger Service. He rocked the Fillmore in the Summer of Love with his stratospheric vibrato twang. In Quicksilver, he soars in epics like “The Fool,” trading leads with Gary Duncan, or his whammy-bar blowout “How You Love.” “Jesus, they were magic,” Mickey Hart told Rolling Stone. “Cipollina just cut the air with his guitar.” A born gearhead, he chopped and channeled his whole rig — as he said, “I was just into hot-rodding guitars.” He died in 1989, just 45, but left his sounds to inheritors like Television, the Dream Syndicate, and Yo La Tengo. —R.S.Key Tracks: “How You Love,” “Maiden of the Cancer Moon,” “Gold and Silver”


James Williamson

Despite Williamson’s mild-mannered former day job — vice president of Sony Electronics — the man is a devil with the guitar, adding another layer of feral intensity to the already untamed Stooges, when he joined the band for their 1973 punk landmark Raw Power. As Johnny Marr once said: “He has the technical ability of Jimmy Page without being as studious, and the swagger of Keith Richards without being sloppy. He’s both demonic and intellectual, almost how you would imagine Darth Vader to sound if he was in a band.” Dirty, brutish, and dervish-fast, Williamson kicked down the proverbial door for generations of guitar players to get ugly in the most beautiful possible way. —B.E.Key Tracks: “Search and Destroy,” “Raw Power”


Johnny Winter

Texas-born blues-rock prodigy Johnny Winter began playing professionally when he was 15 years old, on his own and occasionally with his brother Edgar’s band, and his career continued well into the 2000s. He was a lightning-fast electric picker — like his idol and occasional collaborator Muddy Waters, he plays with a thumb pick — and a molten-hot slide guitarist. (His slide of choice: a chunk of plumber’s pipe.) Jimi Hendrix sought him out as a sideman, and Waters recognized his talent at first glance, becoming a friend and collaborator: “That guy up there onstage — I got to see him up close,” Waters later said. “He plays eight notes to my one!” —R.T.Key Tracks:“I’m Yours and I’m Hers,” “Fast Life Rider”


Rokia Traoré

The daughter of a Malian diplomat, Rokia Traoré grew up largely outside her home country — which meant, per custom, that she was not supposed to study its music. “It was therefore more natural for me and less controversial for my entourage to take up playing the guitar,” Traoré writes on her website. That guitar, whether acoustic or electric, defines her utterly entrancing music on albums like 1998’s Mouneïssa and 2013’s Beuatiful Africa: As much as her fluttery, steely voice, her playing is both lissome but resonant, an instant scene-setter. —M.M.Key Tracks: “The Man I Love” (2009), “Né So” (2016)


Dave Davies

You can trace all things loud and riff-y right back to the Kinks’ Dave Davies, starting with the fantastically simple power chords of “You Really Got Me,” which he recorded at age 17 — setting off a run of proto-metal singles from “All Day and All of the Night” to “Till the End of the Day.” Davies, who created the distortion on “You Really Got Me” by slicing an amp speaker with a razor, has laughed off claims that it was actually played by an uncredited Jimmy Page: “Who’d want to play a solo that crazy, anyway? Only Dave Davies could do that.”Key Tracks:“You Really Got Me,” “All Day and All of the Night”


Wah Wah Watson

Wah Wah Watson named himself for his primary effect pedal (he was born Melvin Ragin) for good reason: Few guitarists, in the Seventies or now, have so adeptly utilized that box’s seesawing tonality to such tautly dramatic effect. Watson underlines the languid eroticism of Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On, and chopping, billowing chords lift the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” Rose Royce’s “Car Wash,” and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” alike. But Watson’s masterpiece may be the Pointer Sisters’ “How Long (Betcha Got a Chick on the Side),” from 1975 — his knife-slicing riffs perfectly underline the song’s combo platter of anger and desire. —M.M.Key Tracks: “Let’s Get It On,” “How Long (Betcha Got a Chick on the Side)”


Rosinha de Valença

Rosinha de Valença’s 1963 debuta, a breezy bossa nova classic, revealed to the world her pristine tone and effortless technique on the acoustic guitar. A self-taught performer,de Valença moved to Rio at just the right time, connecting with Baden Powell and accompanying tragic diva Sylvia Telles for concert performances that encapsulate the bossa’s bohemian cache. She recorded two silky albums with Sergio Mendes in 1965, then teamed up with soulful samba star Martinho da Vila. Her career was cut short at age 51 due to health issues, and she passed away in 2004, inspiring a tribute album with Maria Bethânia, Chico Buarque, and other Brazilian stars. —E.L.Key Tracks: “Tristeza Em Mim,” “Asa Branca”


Tim Henson

The guitarist for the adventurous latter-day prog band Polyphia is one of the most radical innovators the instrument has ever seen. To Henson, the emotive string-stretching of the blues and classic-rock era was just a bunch of “boomer bends” — instead, his playing is a wild, hyper-syncopated, video-game-soundtrack blend of freaky arpeggios, unexpected harmonics, and fractured, brain-bending riffs. His ever-morphing tone, meanwhile, almost always comes from digital models of amps and effects, not the actual thing. In his hands, the guitar is an instrument of the future, not the past, as the countless young players trying to imitate him on TikTok will attest. —B.H.Key Tracks: “Bad,” “Playing God”


Kim and Kelley Deal

When Kim Deal asked twin sister Kelley to join her post-Pixies outfit the Breeders in the early Nineties, Kelley didn’t have much experience on the six-string. “I had no interest in shredding,” she told Guitar World.  “I just wanted to play with sounds.” That approach served the band’s loopy, earworm-filled 1993 album, Last Splash — the first Breeders record to feature Kelley on guitar— well. The dual-Deal approach taken by the Breeders has resulted in songs that vary widely in terms of style, from the bubblegummy “Divine Hammer” to the cowpoke-y “Drivin’ on 9,” but all of them are marked by guitars that nestle into each song’s structure in a sneaky, and sometimes thrilling, way. —M.J.    Key Tracks: “No Aloha,” “Drivin’ on 9” 


<strong>John Lennon</strong>

When Rolling Stone founder Jann S. Wenner asked John Lennon how he rated himself as a guitarist, Lennon replied, “I’m not technically good, but I can make it fucking howl and move. I was rhythm guitarist. It’s an important job. I can make a band drive.” It is, and he did: Lennon was the Beatles’ spark plug and bloodletter, often adding rawness to pristine pop songs. Listen to the airborne strums that power “Help!,” the circular riffage of “Day Tripper,” or the deceptively sloppy “The Ballad of John and Yoko” — where, with George Harrison away on holiday, Lennon turned rudimentary lead and rhythm lines into sharp-toothed magic. —W.H.Key Tracks:“Help!,” “Day Tripper,” “Yer Blues”


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”