Top 10 Greatest Rock Guitarists of All Time
With a long history of pissing people off myself, I thought I would make my own list. It turns out that 100 is kind of silly. After the first 10 or 20, you’ve only heard maybe an album or their greatest hits. After the first 50, you’ve probably only heard a few songs. So the ranking is not that informed and mostly arbitrary at that point. So I stuck with the top 10.
I also kept it to rock guitarists. Once you throw in classical, flamenco, jazz, and early blues players like Andre Segovia, Carlos Montoya, Paco de Lucia, Django Reinhardt, and Robert Johnson, it just gets too convoluted.
10) Everyone else
I wanted to put Dave Davies of The Kinks at number 10 for his role in developing distortion and riff-based songwriting with “You Really Got Me” (not to mention that bad ass solo!); John Lennon for the heavily distorted intro to Revolution, and more importantly, his songwriting (what’s a guitar performance or solo without a great song?); Keith Richards for putting sex in song form; Eddie Hazel of Funkadelic for blowing everyone’s mind post-Hendrix with his solo on “Maggot Brain”; Prince for his guitar playing on “Purple Rain,” as well as his songwriting; Hell, even Yngwie Malmsteen for developing a revolutionary guitar style a mere five years after Eddie Van Halen had done the impossible himself.
There are just too many important and great guitarists that can’t fit into the top ten, but as I said above, at the same time it makes little sense to try to rank 100 of them. If you don’t see your favorite guitarist on the rest of this list, they’re right here at number 10 (except for Johnny Marr — he doesn’t belong on any list of the greatest guitarists).
9) Chuck Berry
There are a lot of people that contributed to the birth of rock and roll (Robert Johnson, Trixie Smith, and Little Richard, to name a few), but I like to think that Chuck Berry is the true starting point of the modern three-piece, guitar-driven rock sound with his first song ever released in 1955: “Maybellene.”
While he was heavily influenced by, and borrowed directly from Louis Jordon and T-Bone Walker, he was one of the first to solidify the guitar as the lead instrument of a rock band … or certainly the most influential.
With a little help from his influences, he perfected his style and sound three years later with “Johnny B. Goode,” — the song that many people think of when asked about the beginnings of rock and roll.
Beyond style and sound, Chuck Berry also established showmanship as an important part of a rock and roll performance. Again borrowing from T-Bone Walker, the duck walk no doubt ignited the flame of a million teenagers to want to play the guitar on stage.
8) Angus Young
The old joke is that all AC/DC songs sound exactly the same. In fact, Angus Young once reportedly joked “I’m sick and tired of people saying that we put out 11 albums that sound exactly the same. In fact, we’ve put out 12 albums that sound exactly the same.”
And just how many times can you mine the same five notes for a solo? Angus Young figured it out, and he does it with a raw expression that can go from slow and soulful in songs like “You Ain’t Got A Hold On Me” and “Ride On” to explosive, sounding like a train flew off the tracks and is wrecking through your house, in songs like “Bad Boy Boogie” and “Squealer.”
The band’s music, and Angus Young’s playing, has endured forty years of trends and fads, all while their style has remained mostly unchanged, and instantly recognizable.
7) Ace Frehley
Kiss and Ace Frehley are most rock guitarists’ dirty little secret. While Ace Frehley wasn’t the first to use the pentatonic box, double stops and idiosyncratic phrasing, he was damn good at it, and influenced millions and millions of people to pick up the guitar and learn his songs and solos … and to just want to be him.
His solos are memorable, anyone can hum them, and he’s got a distinct style, despite relying heavily on the pentatonic scale.
Ace Frehley’s stamp on rock music is undeniable, as he had to have been a big part of taking Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley from hippie rockers (“She” with Wicked Lester) to balls-out rock and fucking rollers (“She” with Kiss). What would follow, despite the accusations and cries of “shitty” music from many, is 40 years of undeniable success, selling tens-of-millions of albums, and defining what a rock band should sound and look like.
He was emotionally raw, and did a lot with only a few notes, by using unique phrasing and bends. Oh yea, and he looked cool as hell!
6) Randy Rhoads
In only two years time, Randy Rhoads carved out his own revolutionary spot in rock guitar history. Who else could fill the spot of Ozzy’s guitarist following Tony Iommi, and not be lost in the commotion caused by Eddie Van Halen … all while writing some of the most timeless and memorable riffs, while playing some of the most hummable yet complex solos? Yes, you can hum the solo to Mr. Crowley!
Combining blues rock and heavy metal (“I Don’t Know”), with pop sensibilities (“Flying High Again”) that were honed in his previous band, Quiet Riot, he added another layer of classically-influenced elements (“Diary of a Madman”) to create something unique.
Over thirty years after his death, he is still a major influence on anyone that picks up the guitar to play rock or metal.
5) Dave Mustaine
While everyone generally thinks in terms of solos when thinking about the greatest guitarists, Dave Mustaine is incredibly notable for more or less developing a brand new rhythm style now known as thrash metal. Of course he had a lot of influences from Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Diamond Head, and almost certainly bands like Venom, but he took these and distilled them down into a very focused style and sound from which others could distinctly build, and was commercially successful with it.
In fact, he did it twice! First as a member and arguably the most important songwriter of Metallica. Then after getting kicked out, he founded Megadeth and was somehow able to take what he did in Metallica and push it to another level — faster, more complex and sophisticated.
After a few years of kicking everyone’s ass but still getting too little recognition, Dave decided he would establish himself as the preeminent thrash artist once and for all by recording Rust in Peace.
4) Eddie Van Halen
Seemingly out of nowhere, Eddie Van Halen developed a new guitar sound and style, leaving everyone in his dust, scrambling to imitate and catch up.
In 1977, the best know guitar players in the world were cranking out solos comprised of mid-tempo eighth notes, with some bursts of triplets and sixteenth notes here and there. Led Zeppelin, Ted Nugent, Foreigner, and even the aforementioned Kiss were doing amped-up blues — it wasn’t broke, so why fix it?
Eddie Van Halen felt like fixing it, or more accurately, he felt like fucking with it. With the release of Van Halen’s 1978 debut album, he upped the tempo, upped the notes per beat, upped the gain, yet kept all the emotion. This is captured most notably in his revolutionary-sounding instrumental “Eruption,” but he continued to keep things interesting on “I’m The One,” “Romeo Delight (guitar track),” “Mean Street,” “Unchained,” and everything in-between.
This is without even explicitly mentioning his finger tapping technique, which sent every teenager, not to mention established guitarist, back to their bedroom to figure it out and add it to their repertoire. While others had flirted with the technique before him, Eddie Van Halen fully developed it and made it a household term.
3) Tony Iommi
Few have changed the course of contemporary rock music so dramatically, as Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath did in 1969. More distinctly than anyone else, he created heavy metal music. He took blues rock and psychedelic rock and decided to blow it all out of the water with a tritone.
And while there had been a number of riff-based songs at this point (“My Girl,” “You Really Got Me,” “Satisfaction,” “Sunshine of Your Love”), no one else wrote so many that were so identifiable and powerful. Tony Iommi made guitar riffs mandatory for rock bands; he made it a fucking art form: “Black Sabbath,” “War Pigs,” “Paranoid,” “Iron Man,” “Sweet Leaf,” “Children of the Grave” … and those are just the songs that casual rock fans would recognize.
As a result, we have seen over 40 years of countless metal bands trying to be as heavy, as revolutionary as Black Sabbath.
2) Jimmy Page
Is there anyone else on this list that has so many great songs? Nine studio albums that can be listened to from start to finish without skipping a single track? (Ten albums if you want to count Physical Graffiti as two albums.) All with essentially perfect structure, perfect instrumentation, perfect arrangement, perfect performances.
Forty years later and the debut album from Led Zeppelin is just as fresh and powerful as the day it was released. It’s simply timeless songwriting, and playing.
Jimmy Page often wrote incredibly memorable riffs (“Whole Lotta Love”), but also tasteful chord-based songs (“Tangerine”). He incorporated blues, rock, folk, jazz, reggae, and Middle Eastern sounds seamlessly.
His playing was loose, emotional, and full of true swagger. He could take you from controlled disaster, to the edge of destruction, and all the way back to a soft restraint, and it all feels consistent; the same player, the same band.
There has probably never been another guitar player that has reached such a combination of commercial and critical success, particularly for such and extended period of time.
1) Jimi Hendrix
Surprisingly, a lot of people, and even guitarists, don’t understand Hendrix. If you only listen to his studio albums, this is almost understandable. But once you hear his live performances, it becomes extremely clear why Hendrix is consistently number one on these lists of top guitarists.
Yes, he was innovative. But the real reason he is considered the greatest of all-time is because there was no filter between his emotions and what came out of the speaker. Most musicians get in their own way, over-thinking songwriting, technique, strings, amps, speakers, pedals … effectively creating obstacles between what they are feeling and what they are playing.
Expressing emotion is the pinnacle of what playing music is about. And no guitar player has done that as effectively has Jimi Hendrix.
His ability to convey emotion was further amplified by his visual performance. His on-stage movements, playing with his teeth, fucking his speaker cabinets, setting his guitar on fire.
Here’s the studio version of “Purple Haze,” compared to a live version from Winterland (audio only). The live version is full of dissonance, feedback, and raw emotion. Hendrix was already growing tired of playing his hits at this point, and you can hear it in the performance.
You can go even further and listen to different live versions of the same songs, and they’re not even on the same emotional planet. Compare the Monterey version of Foxey Lady above to this version from Winterland. “Voodoo Child” at Woodstock vs. “Voodoo Child” at Rainbow Bridge might as well be two different songs. Woodstock is emotional and blistering, but mostly in control, while Rainbow Bridge is wild and frenetic, just out of control chaos.
Of course one of his most famous and emotional performances was the “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. Who at this point in time was thinking of playing guitar list this, much less able to execute?
It’s unlikely that anyone will ever eclipse Hendrix in his ability to convey emotion, but it’s what every guitar player strives for, whether they know it or not. Obviously, everyone has their own feel and emotion to express, but searching for the ability to say exactly what you want to say, exactly how you want to say it is the reason anyone picks up an instrument. Hendrix is number one at that, and probably always will be.
Well, let me hear your worst! Who did I leave off the list that should have been here?