If you’ve ever played air guitar and imagined power riffs and screeches coming from your invisible instrument, then chances are you’ve experienced the influence of someone on this list. But who are the greatest names in guitar music? Who are the guitarists other guitarists look up to? Below, we’ll explore who is the best guitarist of all time — and what you can learn from all of these icons’ unique styles.
The Best Guitarists of All Time
Who are the best guitarists of all time? You can find definitive lists, like Rolling Stone’s Top 100. Or you can create your own.
What follows, however, is not a mathematical ranking, but a pantheon of some of the most famous guitarists to ever live. There’s a good argument for any of the following to make a “top 10” list of the best guitarists ever—but ultimately, #1 belongs to your personal favorite. If you haven’t picked one out yet, here are some of the most worthy entries:
1. Jimi Hendrix
There’s a legend in classic rock circles, and it goes like this. Eric Clapton, one of the all-time great guitarists in his own right, heard Hendrix play guitar for only about 10 bars’ worth. Clapton’s hands fell from his own guitar. His reaction was pure astonishment—the talent in Hendrix was that obvious.
“Everyone was gobsmacked,” Clapton would later write. “I remember thinking that here was a force to be reckoned with. It scared me because he was clearly going to be a huge star, and just as we were finding our own speed, here was the real thing.”
Coming from Clapton, that’s saying something. Later named #1 on Rolling Stone’s list of greatest guitarists, Hendrix…
…exploded our idea of what rock music could be: He manipulated the guitar, the whammy bar, the studio, and the stage. On songs like “Machine Gun” or “Voodoo Chile,” his instrument is like a divining rod of the turbulent Sixties—you can hear the riots in the streets and napalm bombs dropping in his “Star-Spangled Banner.”Rolling Stone
Hendrix’s sound was a combination of effortlessness and guitar maximization. While it never felt like he strained, Hendrix was able to squeeze more unique sounds out of the instrument than anyone else. Of all the rock guitarists who ever lived, it’s Hendrix who revolutionized the sound more than anyone.
Case in point: His famous “Star-Spangled Banner” turned the familiar notes of America’s national anthem into a protest of the Vietnam War. Hendrix wouldn’t have been able to do that if he couldn’t transform a simple stringed instrument into sounds like bombs and screams.
2. George Harrison
Pop quiz: Who was the best musician in the Beatles? Ringo Starr’s unique left-handed drum style and Paul McCartney’s melodic fingerstyle playing aside, the Beatles were probably more famous for studio innovations and the never-ending songwriting locomotive that was the famous Lennon/McCartney duo.
But it was George Harrison who gave the Fab Four their chops. Ranked #11 on Rolling Stone’s Greatest Guitarists list, Harrison tends to get overshadowed by Lennon and McCartney, one of whom sang lead on most Beatles songs.
But listen closely. You’ll notice Harrison’s voice is almost always there, at least in the form of his guitar solos and those familiar riffs. During the Beatles’ later years, when Harrison was threatening to leave the group, the only possible replacement the group floated was another all-timer, Eric Clapton.
Meanwhile, Harrison quietly learned more than just guitar techniques. He composed behind Lennon/McCartney until he became a talented songwriter in his own right. By the end of the Beatles—“Abbey Road” and beyond—he was contributing singles like “Something,” “Here Comes the Sun,” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
When the band broke up, Harrison had enough unpublished material for All Things Must Pass, a triple album full of songs he was never able to record while part of the Fab Four. It’s an album full of George’s untapped musical prowess and the unleashed energy of his raucous guitar solos. Many consider it the best post-Beatles album, entries from Lennon and McCartney included.
3. Eddie Van Halen
When Michael Jackson needed a guitar solo for “Beat It” on his famous album Thriller, his first choice was The Who’s Pete Townshend. Though Townshend was unavailable, he recommended Eddie Van Halen.
Despite Van Halen’s decidedly un-pop reputation, Jackson and producer Quincy Jones trusted Van Halen enough to not only come in with his own guitar solos, but advise how to edit the song. Jackson accepted the changes, and “Beat It” became the iconic song we know today.
As the main driving force behind the band Van Halen, Eddie became famous for his “tapping” technique. This technique made it possible to blaze up and down the guitar scales with hard-hitting arpeggios while using two hands on the fretboard.
In other words, Van Halen helped popularize the idea of a guitarist as something like a piano virtuoso—and did it all while playing heavy, hard-hitting rock.
4. Stevie Ray Vaughan
Stevie Ray Vaughan had a unique style that seemed counterintuitive at first. He found influence from famous blues guitarists like B.B. King—with a little Jimi Hendrix thrown in. Yet the influence of the blues doesn’t quite define Vaughan’s style, which was powerful and distinctive. As famous guitarist Gary Clark, Jr. told Rolling Stone:
If you listen to his records and watch his videos, you can tell he’s just giving you everything he had. His passion is overwhelming.Gary Clark, Jr.
Vaughan had picked up a guitar at the age of seven or so and never put it down. After playing one gig, David Bowie noticed the blues style and asked Vaughan to play on one of his own albums. It wasn’t long before Vaughan’s style gained even more widespread notice.
Vaughan, like Hendrix, lived a short life. Dying at the age of 35 in a helicopter crash in Wisconsin, Vaughan nonetheless seemed to have assembled a larger lifetime’s worth of musical fame. In 2015, about 25 years after his death, he finally got his posthumous admittance to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
5. Jimmy Page
Jimmy Page’s talent was big enough in Great Britain in the 60s that he had already earned a spot with the Yardbirds before founding Led Zeppelin. He’s famous for his distinctive “power riff” style—a style of guitar playing we might consider ubiquitous today, partially thanks to Page’s influence. You will be hard-pressed to find a lead guitarist who doesn’t point to Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin as having a major impact on developing their style.
Page envisioned Led Zeppelin as a fusion of blues, hard rock, and even acoustic guitar influences. The resulting sound was a revolution in metal and rock that resonated with audiences across the world.
It’s easy to take this for granted now, but Led Zeppelin helped pioneer where rock would go in the post-Beatles environment of the ’70s and ’80s. Chances are, if you play “air guitar,” you’re probably imagining a sound something similar to what would come out of a Jimmy Page riff.
6. Chuck Berry
When NASA was assembling a sample of human music to send out into the universe on its Voyager “Golden Record,” it included music from across the world and across history. That meant regional traditional music. It meant Mozart. It meant Bach.
It also meant Chuck Berry.
Berry’s influence on rock and roll is considered that fundamental to the 20th century. But perhaps the best demonstration of Berry’s talent comes out of fiction. In the 1985 film Back to the Future, Marty McFly plays “Johnny B. Goode” in front of a 1955 crowd who’s enthralled with the new sound. It’s a scene that reminds us how fresh and exciting guitar music must have sounded at a time when there was nothing else like it in the world.
Chuck Berry isn’t only famous as the artist behind hits like “Johnny B. Goode,” but as the artist who drove other artists forward. Chuck Berry served as something of a nexus between the blues and rock that would introduce the roll to rock ‘n’ roll—and after this nexus, you can hear his direct influences in bands from The Beatles to The Who.
7. B. B. King
Said King of his famous guitar, Lucille:
When I sing, I play in my mind; the minute I stop singing orally, I start to sing by playing Lucille.
It’s this style that defines B.B. King as perhaps the most famous blues guitarist of all time—it sounds as if his guitar is crying out.
Born in Mississippi in 1925, King comes straight out of blues influences. Perhaps the only one on this list who is in the Blues, R&B, and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame, B.B. King’s legendary status makes him one of the most prolific and important guitar voices of the latter half of the 20th century.
What made him so distinct? That singing quality in his guitar is one reason. He’s also famous for short bursts in his riffs, as though the music coming out of his guitar is too painful to sustain for longer periods. He famously wiggles his finger when he hits specific notes, squeezing out as much sound from every tone as the guitar will let him.
King also had loyal relationships with his favorite guitar brands, especially variants of the Gibson brand and the Fender amplifiers. His long-standing relationships with his equipment helped develop his distinctive style.
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8. Jeff Beck
The second guitarist from the Yardbirds to make this list, Jeff Beck is known for the fusion of his technical skill with a unique personality—almost a sense of humor in the way he plays, according to Rolling Stone magazine.
After finding prominence with the Yardbirds, Jeff Beck’s career took a unique turn: He went primarily instrumental, focusing specifically on sound and not on lyrics. The increased sophistication of his music saw him widening to influences like blues, jazz fusion, and even electronica.
But perhaps Beck’s most important contribution to guitar playing is the use of feedback and distortion. During the “British invasion” phase of music in the ’60s, lead guitars tended to have clean, clear, twangy sounds. While Beck was with the Yardbirds, however, he started experimenting with electric guitar morphing that would create a heavier, more “fuzzy” sound that we eventually came to associate with rock guitar.
If the early Beatles now sound dated to you, you might have people like Jeff Beck to blame.
9. Pete Townshend
Have you ever found yourself playing a guitar with one hand up in the air, ready to hammer its way down on a power chord? Then you’ve likely been emulating Pete Townshend, the famous guitarist behind The Who. The Who are famous for adding noise and power to rock, finishing some shows in a cacophony of stage-smashing.
“We advanced a concept,” wrote Townshend. “Destruction is art when set to music.”
Alongside one of rock’s most famous drummers, Keith Moon, Townshend helped give The Who a raucous-but-focused sound that helped lift rock and roll out of the British invasion stages and into the heavier version of rock we’re familiar with today. And Townshend did it with particular flair, including his famous “windmill” guitar-playing motion that became his signature.
Understanding the Best Guitarist of All Time
Whether you’re partial to Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page, George Harrison, or Chuck Berry—ultimately, you’ll find that the people on this list all belong thanks to one word: influence.
It’s hard to find a modern-day guitarist who can’t name a Pete Townshend or a Jeff Beck as one of the primary reasons they got into music. And although there are plenty of names who deserve a spot on this list, you’ll find it hard to argue that any of these nine virtuosos don’t claim the title of best guitarist of all time.
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