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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


Teenie Hodges

One of the key components of the Memphis soul sound, Mabon “Teenie” Hodges added sumptuous grooves to some of American pop’s most memorable cuts. A member of the Hi Rhythm Section, Hodges’ limber style was crucial to that label’s signature sound — and his songwriting credits on tracks like “Take Me to the River” cemented his legacy as an architect of R&B. “As a brother, he made me proud. And as a musician, he was one of the greatest of the rhythm players,” his brother, Hi Rhythm Section organist Rev. Charles Hodges, told Guitar Player in 2021. “He had that style, bounce, and soul pocket, which he worked on real hard to create as he was growing up.” —M.J.Key Tracks: “Love and Happiness,” “Take Me to the River”


Liz Phair

Liz Phair made her legend with the eccentric, freewheeling, innovative guitar stylings of Exile in Guyville and her Girly Sound tape — even when her playing was the last thing people noticed. “I have always advocated for her genius on guitar,” her producer Brad Wood says. “There is no one else that I’ve ever recorded in 30-plus years of doing this that approaches the guitar like she does. Her chord shapes have more to do with Glenn Branca than they do with Joni Mitchell or anyone.” She blends brilliantly with Casey Rice’s slide solo in “Mesmerizing,” but the epic shred-and-run showcase “Strange Loop” is all Phair. Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan got her start in a tribute band called Lizard Phair. —R.S.Key Tracks: “Fuck and Run,” “Strange Loop,” “Shane”


Joe Perry

Captivated by British blues stylists like Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and Peter Green, Aeresmith;s Perry developed an expressive and elastic style that evolved with and around the untamable voice of his longtime partner and occasional adversary Steven Tyler. The Boston band’s powder keg mix of rock and R&B would become a blueprint for a great deal of 1980s and Nineties hard rock. Next-gen virtuosos like Eddie Van Halen, Slash, and Billy Corgan have all pointed to Perry as an early North Star. “I saw the blues as a beautiful mongrel,” Perry said. “English and American, Black and white, [people] who had taught their guitars to talk in a secret language that seemed as easy as a conversation.”–S.G.Key Tracks: “Mama Kin,” “Walk This Way,” “Janie’s Got a Gun”


Roger McGuinn

Roger McGuinn’s sparkling, chordal 12-string Rickenbacker riffs on the Byrds‘ early hits were the sonic bridge between folk and rock — and an irreplaceable color in rock’s palette. Every indie band who’s more interested in beatific strumming than screaming solos owes him a debt (the striking break in “The Bells of Rhymney” could be on a Smiths record). McGuinn could do a lot more than chime, however, as demonstrated by his still-astonishing psychedelic-raga-Coltrane licks on “Eight Miles High.” —D.B.Key Tracks:“Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Eight Miles High”


Bob Mould

The image of Bob Mould onstage with Minnesota three-piece Hüsker Dü coaxing swarms of noise from his Flying V guitar was the stuff of indie-rock myth. Mould’s work in that band was the essential link between Sixties harmony, Seventies punk, and Nineties dissonance — Pete Townshend wall-of-strum rhythm guitar, clarion Byrds beauty, Ramones buzzsaw,and Kevin Shields-style blanket drone. “I’ll sit down to write something that sounds like the Association,” he once said, “and it’ll come out like My Bloody Valentine.” He was being deprecating, but his casual brilliance at collapsing all that history is at the heart of his greatness. —J.D.Key Tracks: “Real World,” “Celebrated Summer”


Robert Cray

Robert Cray played a huge role keeping blues on the mainstream radar during the 1980s, influencing a wide swath of younger guitarists including Christone “Kingfish” Ingram and John Mayer with his traditionally informed yet ever-evolving style of blues playing. Born in Columbus, Georgia, he relocated to Seattle as a teenager, where he found success after being inspired by seing iconic blues artists like Muddy Waters and Albert Collins. Cray debuted with Who’s Been Talkin’ in 1980, quickly going on to have crossover success with his 1986 album, Strong Persuader. Unsurprisingly, Cray has performed with a murderers’ row of guitar royalty over the course of his storied career, including John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. —B.M.Key Tracks: “Smoking Gun,” “This Man,” “Foul Play”


Nils Lofgren

At this point, Nils Lofgren is likely best known for his supportive role in the E Street Band. He’s done splendid work there — his solo on live versions of “Youngstown” and their remake of Edwin Starr’s “Wire” more than proved he was up to the task. But his own records, both solo and with his early band Grin, remain the best showcases for his sinewy, switchblade-sharp solos (“Keith Don’t Go,” “A Child Could Tell”), gossamer slide guitar (“Cry Tough”), and refined fingerpicking (Grin’s “Rusty Gun,” his own “Two by Two”). And as heard on the two different versions of Neil Young’s “Tonight’s the Night,” his guitar can also snarl with the best of them. —D.B.Key Tracks: “Keith Don’t Go,” “Share a Little,” “Beggars Day”


Dimebag Darrell

One of modern metal’s key figures, Dimebag Darrell founded Pantera with his brother, drummer Vinnie Paul Abbott — forging a style that combined brutally precise, punk-honed grooves with splatter-paint melodic runs. After he was tragically shot by a deranged fan during a show with his band Damageplan in 2004 — on the anniversary of John Lennon‘s death, freakishly enough — the tributes rolled in from fans, peers, and forerunners. “One of the greatest musicians to grace our world,” Black Sabbath‘s Geezer Butler said simply. “Rest in peace.” —W.H.Key Tracks:“Floods,” “Cemetery Gates,” “Mouth for War”


Joe Walsh

In Cleveland power trio the James Gang, Joe Walsh combined Who-style fury with Yardbirds-style technical fireworks and R&B crunch, notably on 1970’s “Funk #49.” The humor in Walsh’s bluesy facility came out in the talk-box flight on his ’73 solo hit “Rocky Mountain Way.” But it was when he joined the Eagles in 1975 that he truly lodged himself on classic-rock radio. Walsh brought a hard-rock edge to the Eagles’ easygoing pop songs, creating a series of indestructible licks in the process: See his staccato-snarl riff in “Life in the Fast Lane” and his elegant aggression in the dueling-guitars section of “Hotel California.” —D.B.Key Tracks:“Rocky Mountain Way,” “The Bomber,” “Funk #49”


Nita Strauss

Having made her name through smoothly virtuosic solos with Alice Cooper’s touring band, L.A.-bred Nita Strauss cemented her reputation as a six-string hired gun after being recruited forDemi Lovato’s all-female Holy Fvck band. In her spare time, Strauss released two solo albums,as well as serving as house guitarist for the L.A. Rams. (She even got a Super Bowl ring for the2021 season.) Basically, she was born to shred. “I was always drawn to guitar players that playfast,” she told Guitar Girl Magazine. “I saw Steve Vai in Crossroads, and that was it for me.” —J.D.C.Key Tracks: “Halo of Flies,” “The Wolf You Feed”


Bob Stinson

The Replacements’ chaotic guitar genius loved technical masters like Johnny Winter, Steve Howe of Yes, and Prince, but Bob Stinson was in a band of drunk wiseass Minnesota boys whose records had titles like Stink! and Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, so what came out was a kind of gloriously mangled, self-immolating virtuosity. At his best he bridged the divide between classic-rock flash and punk-rock trash so instinctually it was like he never even knew it was there — though it’s probably more likely he just never cared. “He was one in a million,” ‘Mats leader Paul Westerberg said when Stinson died in 1995. “I haven’t met his equal yet.” —J.D.Key Track: “Kids Don’t Follow,” “I Hate Music,” “Nowhere Is My Home”


Steve Vai

If Eric Clapton is “God,” then, to a certain segment of six-string aficionados, Steve Vai is “God Jr.” In the Seventies, he was a transcriptionist and “stunt guitarist” for Frank Zappa, performing his idol’s impossible black pages of notes with ease. In the Eighties, Vai became he of the wah-wah conversation with David Lee Roth, he of the 10-hour guitar workout, he of monkey-grip guitar, he of the thousand Guitar World covers. But it was in the Nineties when he graduated from cult hero to cult leader, playing elastic, soulful instrumental solos like “For the Love of God” and the funky “Bad Horsie.” At a time when the guitar hero was dead, Vai was still (and is still) inspiring budding musicians to learn what the word “phrygian” means. —K.G.Key Tracks: “For the Love of God,” “Yankee Rose”


Kim Thayil

As Soundgarden’s resident bearded riff wizard, Kim Thayil experimented with a wide range of alternate tunings, beginning with the ever-sludgy drop D (where the guitar’s low E string is tuned down one whole step), and then when other alt-rock and grunge bands began imitating the group’s approach, exploring a wide range of nontraditional ways to pitch the guitar’s six strings. As a soloist, Thayil is a committed subversive, never resorting to hard-rock clichés. Witness the solo in 1989’s “Gun” or his wah-wah-driven lead on Soundgarden’s 1994 mega-hit “Black Hole Sun”: It may be anarchic and perhaps atonal, but it’s brilliantly congruent with the song’s titular supernova. “I think anything different or mysterious can be channeled into heavy,” Thayil told Premier Guitar. “Abnormality is a key.” —T.B.Key Tracks: “Black Hole Sun,” “Gun”


Viv Albertine

When Viv Albertine was a teen, dreaming of making music in her bedroom, she didn’t have a pop-star voice or many role models when it came to women in bands. Still, the Slits guitarist channeled that inner sense of curiosity into her instrument, making it the engine of one of the Seventies seminal post-punk bands. On the band’s classic album Cut, she eschewed loud distortion for sharp treble and a style that leaped between punk and reggae. Later, she had to reteach herself to play guitar again years after the Slits split up, her marriage ended, and she survived cancer. “I was driven like I was a teenager,” she said in a 2016 interview. “My brain started to fire up again creatively after 20 years of being dead creatively. … All that led back to the guitar.” —B.E.Key Tracks: “Typical Girls,” “So Tough”


Mike McCready and Stone Gossard

From the start, the duality of Pearl Jam’s guitarists, Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, represented the core of the grunge: punk attitude with ragged rock-for-rock’s-sake roots. Gossard had played hard-driving riffs in the pioneering grunge group Green River and alt-rockers Mother Love Bone before finding McCready shredding away at a party. Their sensibilities crossed over one another when they formed Pearl Jam, as they started weaving their riffs together on songs like “Alive,” “Jeremy,” and “Animal,” with McCready’s leads eventually climbing on top of each song. They refined their sound, drew inspiration from Neil Young, busted out the acoustics on songs like “Daughter,” and have made lush rock textures their calling card for the past three decades. —K.G.Key Tracks: “Even Flow,” “Animal,” “Daughter”


Steve Howe

The current incarnation of Yes could otherwise be called Steve Howe’s Yes Experience since the guitar virtuoso is the only remaining member from the classic era. He’s equally fluent in jazz, classical, bluegrass, folk, and pop, as evidenced by his work in Asia and several under-the-radar solo albums, but he shines on wildly complex prog-rock songs. For proof, check out his work on “Close to the Edge,” “Yours Is No Disgrace,” and “Starship Trooper.” It’s virtually impossible for others to duplicate his work, even though only true devotees even know his name. “I’ve often said I’d rather be a Chet Atkins back-room guy,” he said. “I’d be quite happy with that. But certainly I’m an opportunist, too. So, if the spotlight keeps falling on me, I’ll have to rise to the occasion.” —A.G.Key Tracks: “Close to the Edge,” “Starship Trooper”


King Sunny Ade

A son of Nigerian royalty (yes, literally) who’d recorded more than three dozen LPs before he dropped his first U.S.-U.K. title, Juju Music, in 1982, King Sunny Adé’s propulsive, polyrhythmic, hypnotic style was led by his guitar — and “three or four” others. Sunny’s leads were both laid-back and stratospheric, riding the rhythms with catlike grace, with touches of Hawaiian and pedal-steel helping things sound even more otherworldly. “I want very unusual things to happen to my band,” he said in 1983. “We give respect to each instrument in juju music.” For an example of his verdant musicality, check out the lush jams collected on the excellent 2003 release Best of the Classic Years. —M.M.Key Tracks: “Sunny Ti De” (1974), “365 Is My Number/The Message”


Dick Dale

“I wanted my guitar to sound like Gene Krupa’s drums,” Dick Dale said, and the hyperpercussive style he invented for his jukebox wonders — including a juiced-up arrangement of the old Greek tune “Misirlou” — pioneered the sound of surf rock. Dale played as fast as possible, at max volume; Leo Fender once attempted to design an amp that wouldn’t be destroyed by Dale’s sheer loudness. Most of his recordings are drenched in the reverb that became a surf hallmark, but that’s not what makes surf music, he’s explained: “I’m just into chopping … at 60-gauge, 50-gauge strings. That’s the sound, the sound of the waves chopping.” —D.W.Key Tracks:“Misirlou,” “The Peter Gunn Theme”


Warren Haynes

When Warren Haynes was asked to join former Allman Brothers Band guitarist Dickey Betts’ solo group in 1987, he was so impressive that when the ABB reunited in 1989, he was invited by Betts to join, and his muscular, blues-infused chops and improvisatory acumen were soon embraced by the group’s rabid fans. With his own outfit, Gov’t Mule, and when performing with fellow jam-rock travelers like the Dave Matthews Band and Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead — or even with progressive emo acts like Coheed and Cambria — Haynes has demonstrated that his guitar can hold musical conversations in many different dialects. He once said, “Whenever you limit yourself as to what you listen to or what you try and be influenced by, you’re makin’ a mistake.” —T.B.Key Tracks: “Soulshine,” “Blind Man in the Dark”


Donita Sparks

Armed with her Gibson Flying V guitar, Donita Sparks churned out blowtorch riffs on L7 songs like “Slide” and “Shove,” making the L.A. band one of the grunge era’s most explosive acts. “There’s so much about the Ramones that I appropriated — the downstroke barre chords and playing with my legs spread far apart,” Sparks toldRolling Stone. Like the Ramones, L7’s massive influence vibrated past their cultural moment. Earlier this year, Phoebe Bridgers honored the band when she woreL7 merch onstage with SZA. “We’ve never played Madison Square Garden or Coachella,” Sparks said. “But our T-shirt has.” —S.G.Key Tracks: “Deathwish,” “Slide,” “Mr. Integrity”


Adrian Belew

With his fluid playing and seemingly bottomless arsenal of weird and wonderful sounds, Adrian Belew has an immediately identifiable sonic fingerprint — yet he’s also versatile enough to have seamlessly collaborated over the years with a wide array of artists, including Frank Zappa, David Bowie, King Crimson, Talking Heads, Laurie Anderson, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Nine Inch Nails. “In Frank’s band, you didn’t need to be creative — you needed to just play his music consistently correctly,” he recently explained to Guitar Player. “David was quite the opposite. He wanted someone to throw lots of color at the canvas, and he just turned me loose … I think David’s encouragement to try wild and unusual things really helped me to do the things that I did on the guitar.” —D.E.Key Tracks: “The Great Curve,” “Elephant Talk”


Albert Collins

In 1968, Jimi Hendrix talked about his love for a Houston blues luminary who wasn’t known outside the region: “There’s one cat I’m still trying to get across to people. He is really good, one of the best guitarists in the world.” Albert Collins, who died of lung cancer in 1993, played with his thumb and forefinger instead of a pick to put a muscular snap into his piercing, trebly solos. His fluid, inventive playing influenced Hendrix, sometimes overtly: Jimi liked Collins’ sustain in the song “Collins Shuffle” so much that he used it on “Voodoo Chile.” —R.T.Key Tracks:“Frosty,” “Sno-Cone Part 1”


Ana da Silva

The Raincoats exploded out of the London punk scene, four women out to challenge all the rules—starting with Ana Da Silva’s inventive guitar. She had her own raw, piercing, jagged clatter, like a Dylan/Patti sneer translated to guitar. As a Dylan fanatic who grew up under Portugal’s fascist dictatorship, she insisted on punk rock as liberation—as she said in 1980, “It is important to find the most honest way of living.” On classic DIY singles like “Fairytale in the Supermarket,” or albums like Odyshape and The Raincoats, she blends with Gina Birch’s bass, Vicky Aspinall’s violin, and Palmolive’s drums for an off-kilter, disorienting sound that inspired kindred rebel spirits like Bikini Kill, Sonic Youth, and Kurt Cobain.–R.S. Key Tracks: “Fairytale in the Supermarket,” “Only Loved at Night,” “No One’s Little Girl”


Nels Cline

A true guitar polymath, Nels Cline has tackled everything from gothic country rock with the Geraldine Fibbers to a full remake of John Coltrane’s late improvisational masterwork, Interstellar Space. He’s best known, of course, as Wilco’s gangly guitar hero, spiraling into lyrical jam flights (Sky Blue Sky’s “Impossible Germany”) or refined noise reveries (Star Wars’ “You Satellite”). “Nels can play anything,” Jeff Tweedy said. “We struggle with his spot in the band sometimes — but we always come to a place that’s unique and interesting because we did struggle.” That place sometimes includes colors and tones that don’t sound much like rock guitar, which makes Cline’s work all the more beguiling. —W.H.Key Tracks: “Impossible Germany,” “You Satellite,” “Confection”


Robert Quine

Robert Quine was equally fluent in free jazz and punk rock, bringing his own style of angry NYC chaos to everything he played. He was a famously combative type — as he said, “The only trouble with music is you gotta play it with other people.” He roughed up the CBGB punk of Richard Hell and the Voidoids, in his live-wire Strat blurts. He teamed with Lou Reed for the classic guitar showcases The Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts, with his nightmare meltdown in “Waves of Fear.” Quine shone with Tom Waits, John Zorn, Brian Eno, and Matthew Sweet. Hell said, “It was the combination of rage and delicacy, and the pure monstrosity of invention, that set him apart.” —R.S. Key Track: “Blank Generation,” “Waves of Fear,” “Girlfriend”


Allen Collins and Gary Rossington

Thanks to singer and songwriter Ronnie Van Zant, Lynyrd Skynyrd brought a burly sense of regional pride to Southern rock. That don’t-mess-with-us vibe was also bolstered by Gary Rossington and Allen Collins, the band’s two core guitarists. (Ed King and then Steve Gaines filled out the third-guitar slot). Each man contributed noteworthy solos to Skynyrd records: Rossington on “Tuesday’s Gone” and “Saturday Night Special,” Collins on “Simple Man,” to name a few. But their coexisting parts on the live version of “Free Bird” — Collins on paint-peeling lead and Rossington on mournful slide — turned the song’s second half into a triumphant affirmation of freedom. Together, both men invented a type of brawny guitar power that resonates to this day, especially in country. —D.B.Key Track: “Free Bird,” “Simple Man,” “Saturday Night Special”


Rowland S. Howard

Rowland S. Howard’s deranged goth-punk mayhem with the Birthday Party will stand forever as a bad influence on bad people. The Australian crew had Nick Cave yowling his gutter poetry, while Howard played the “Six Strings That Drew Blood,” in 1980s art-noise explosions like Junkyard and Mutiny. He kept exploring with Crime and the City Solution, These Immortal Souls, collaborations with Lydia Lunch and Nikki Sudden. But through it all, his guitar sound was as gaunt as his cheekbones, as ragged as his scarves. The documentary Autoluminescent chronicles his life and death. Cave called him “Australia’s most unique, gifted, and uncompromising guitarist.” —R.S.Key Tracks: “The Friend Catcher,” “Junkyard”


Kelley Johnson

Kelly Johnson helped make Girlschool one of the fiercest bands to blow up in the late-Seventies/early-Eighties U.K. metal explosion. They had their biggest hit with their 1981 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre EP, with their friends in Motörhead. As Lemmy said, “Kelly Johnson, on a good day, is as good as Jeff Beck in his rock & roll days. She’s a fucking brilliant guitar player.” She showed off her magnesium-flare guitar hooks in dirtbag classics like “C’Mon Let’s Go,” “Kick It Down,” and “Yeah Right.” Johnson died of spinal cancer in 2007, only 49. On their next album, Girlschool shook the urn with her ashes like maracas, just so they could include her in the music. —R.S.Key Tracks: “Not for Sale,” “Yeah Right”


Lindsey Buckingham

When he and his partner Stevie Nicks joined the British blues-rock band Fleetwood Mac eight years into their career, California guitarist Lindsey Buckingham had big shoes to fill — most famously the group’s original guitarist, Peter Green. It didn’t take long, though, for Buckingham to establish himself as a ferocious live soloist and an inventive, fleet-fingered picker, whose style is adapted from his early experience playing the banjo. “It’s not acceptable classical technique,” he’s said, “but most of what I do isn’t. You do what you can to get the sound you want.” You can hear his folk roots coming through on Mac classics like “Never Going Back Again” and “Go Your Own Way,” as well as his solo on “Hold Me.” —D.W.Key Tracks:“Rhiannon,” “Go Your Own Way”


Mick Ronson

It was an exhilarating collaboration — Mick Ronson’s terse phrasing and skewering distortion igniting David Bowie’s sexually blurred confrontation, during the latter’s king-glam role as Ziggy Stardust in the early Seventies. “Mick was the perfect foil for the Ziggy character,” Bowie said. “We were every bit as good as Mick and Keith or Axl and Slash … the personification of that rock & roll dualism.” The historic partnership actually predated Ziggy Stardust, hitting its first peak in the long, metallic furor of Bowie’s 1970 recording “The Width of a Circle.” “I want people to say, ‘Wow, isn’t that great, and isn’t it simple?’” Ronson, who died in 1993, once said. “If you get sort of fancy and cluttered, you’re just baffling people with science.” —A.L.Key Tracks:“The Width of a Circle,” “Suffragette City”


Merle Travis

Country picker Merle Travis frequently sounded like an entire ensemble with just one guitar. The Kentucky native had come out of a tradition of fingerstyle players in his home state, but built on the approach to include dazzling blasts of jazz, ragtime, and blues all effortlessly woven together. Using a thumbpick, he’d pluck a bass line — sometimes switching to bluegrass-style flat-picking at a moment’s notice — and dish out syncopated, multi-modal curlicues with his other fingers. Travis, who also wrote the classic “Sixteen Tons,” is sometimes credited with envisioning the first solid-body electric guitar before Les Paul and Leo Fender. Among his biggest followers was the great Chet Atkins, who developed his own style by listening to Travis. —J.F.Key Tracks: “Cannonball Rag,” “Nine Pound Hammer”


Clarence White

Clarence White helped shape two genres. His acoustic flat-picking, first displayed as a teenager when he and his brother formed the Kentucky Colonels band, was key in making the guitar a lead instrument in bluegrass. Later, he set the stage for country rock and transferred that dynamic precision and melodic symmetry to the electric guitar. A top session man in the Sixties, he played on the Byrds’ 1968 landmark, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. After he joined the band later that year, White brought a full-bodied rock elation to his California-inflected Nashville chops. “He never played anything that sounded vaguely weak,” said Byrds leader Roger McGuinn. “He was always driving … into the music.” —A.L.Key Tracks:“Time Between,” “This Wheel’s on Fire,” “Chestnut Mare”


Peter Buck

Like Johnny Marr, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck was a guitar anti-hero in the Eighties — a guy who made his mark with swarming melodies and spangled riffs rather than pushy solos. From the mix of laser-guided arpeggios and power chords on “Radio Free Europe” to the growling, super-sized version of the same on “The One I Love,” his sound was both gorgeous and matter-of-factly aggressive. “When Peter plays guitar, there’s a strong sense of fuck off that comes from his side of the stage,” says Bono. Buck became a major influence on players who followed. “They were a bridge for me between purist indie labels like Homestead and SST and power pop like Big Star and mellow Velvet Underground,” said Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus. —W.H.Key Tracks:“Radio Free Europe,” “The One I Love”



In 1987, Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction made top-hatted, hard-living Saul “Slash” Hudson an instant guitar hero. His lacerating opening riff to “Sweet Child O’ Mine” would have done the trick on its own, but the rough, headlong sound of his playing on “Paradise City” and “Welcome to the Jungle” sealed the deal. “It was a stripped-down rock & roll sound compared to what everybody else was doing,” says Slash. He could riff like Joe Perry and intertwine, Stones-style, with Izzy Stradlin. And lyrical solos like the from-the-mountaintop grandeur of “November Rain” were permanently laced into the songs’ fabric. “It’s hard to play those solos any other way,” says Slash. “It will sound wrong.” —D.W.Key Tracks:“Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “Welcome to the Jungle”


Ali Farka Touré

Long before Bombino or Tinariwen took flight, the Malian singer-songwriter Ali Farka Touré put his magnetic lead guitar front and center of a slippery groove that bridged electric blues and traditional West African music. When asked in 1994 about the differences between himself and his American influences — John Lee Hooker foremost among them — he said, “I’ve stayed in the tradition, and they’ve evolved in exile.” But he’s always evolving, too: Touré’s playing on the 2023 album Voyageur is, if anything, even more joyously earthy than on earlier classics such as The River, from 1990. —M.M.Key Tracks: “Heygana,” “Safari”


Nancy Wilson

“Nancy could bust out this beautifully complicated flat-picking, then turn on a dime, dig in, and grind out a riff that could leave many a guitar dude humbled,” said Chris Cornell of Soundgarden. This statement is valid at any point in Nancy Wilson’s five-decade career, with Heart and as a solo artist. “Crazy on You,” from Heart’s 1975 debut, is a prime example. At just 21, Nancy’s scorching, flamenco-inspired instrumental asserted the acoustic guitar’s place in the hard-rock format. Wilson was always pushing the boundaries of how her instrument could serve not only rock, but folk, pop, and soul, and that versatility enabled her to lift and cradle her sister Ann’s towering vocals, amplifying their celestial power. —S.G.Key Tracks: “Crazy on You,” “Mistral Wind,” “”Dog and Butterfly”


Billy Gibbons

Billy Gibbons wasa guitarist to be reckoned with long before he grew that epic beard. According to Texas acid-rock lore, Jimi Hendrix was so impressed by Gibbons’ facility and firepower that he gave the young guitarist a pink Stratocaster as a gift. Gibbons has since glibly described what he plays with his four-decade-old trio,ZZ Top, as “spankin’ the plank.” But from the muscular boogie of “La Grange” and the gnarly offbeat shuffle of “Jesus Left Chicago” to the synth-lined glide of Eighties hits “Legs” and “Sharp Dressed Man,” Gibbons’ guitar work has been religiously true, in its thunderbolt attack and melodic concision, to his Texas forebears (Freddy King, Albert Collins) and the electric-Delta charge ofMuddy Waters. “You can definitely make someone wiggle in their seat a little bit,” Gibbons says of his solos, “if you know where you’re heading with it and end up there.” —R.T.Key Tracks:“Jesus Left Chicago,” “La Grange”


John Fogerty

By his own admission, John Fogerty is not the flashiest or most technical guitarist out there, but the Creedence Clearwater Revival founder is an absolute monster of tone and feel. Some of the early CCR recordings like “Travelin’ Band” and “Up Around the Bend” feature stinging licks from Fogerty’s modified Rickenbacker 325, with which he was reunited in 2017, but he also began using a Gibson Les Paul Custom that was detuned a whole step. That produced the ominously rumbling chords of “Bad Moon Rising” and a scorching cover of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” both of which sound like nothing else on earth but Creedence in their swampy, garage-rocking prime. —J.F.Key Tracks: ““Up Around the Bend,” “Ramble Tamble”