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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



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”