Who are the best rock guitarists of all time? This question has challenged music critics and fans ever since Bill Haley first rocked around the clock. The reason it’s such a difficult question to answer is that there are so many different criteria you could use to judge them. Perhaps it’s mastery of technique, or historical influence on the genre, or the ability to deliver an incredible stage performance. The choices are endless.
While you’ve probably heard of Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page, there are a ton more famous rock guitarists that aren’t talked about as much. Here are nine greats that you should definitely check out if you haven’t yet.
9 Famous Rock Guitarists to Know
An enigmatic singer and performance artist, Prince is considered one of the greatest songwriters in modern music. He churned out hit after hit for his own career, including the instant classic album Purple Rain. He also contributed some of the biggest songs for other groups—“Manic Monday” for the Bangles and “Nothing Compares 2 U” for Sinead O’Connor, for example.
However, some people forget that he was also a guitar master. Prince seamlessly blended influences from funk, soul, R&B, and synth-infused pop music to create a sound all his own. And then, out of nowhere, he would crank out a massive rock solo that could smash your right in the eardrums.
Need proof? Watch Prince destroy during this tribute to George Harrison at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. He makes his guitar disappear at the end of the song—pure rock magic.
2. Brian May
A guitarist’s equipment is just as important as the ability to play the instrument. But if you don’t have the cash to buy your dream guitar, you can just do what Brian May did—build your own. And, if you’re lucky, you’ll create a guitar tone that is entirely unique in rock music and start selling out arenas.
May brought his guitar The Red Special to the band Queen and quickly defined the band’s sound, writing some of their biggest hits: “We Will Rock You,” “Stone Cold Crazy,” “Fat Bottomed Girls,” and “I Want It All,” to name a few. His use of multi-part harmonies and his ability to create amazing special effects with his instrument led the band to add the note “No synthesizers were used” to their early albums. Critics were so baffled by the sounds of his guitar, they couldn’t even believe it was an actual guitar. Not surprising coming from May, who also holds a PhD in astrophysics.
3. Carlos Santana
These days, Carlos Santana is best known for his collaboration with Rob Thomas on the radio superhit “Smooth.” But he’s been at it since the 1960s—his career exploded after an electrifying performance at Woodstock. It’s a pretty incredible feat to be relevant and successful for over 50 years.
Santana changed the rock ’n roll landscape of the 1970s by adding Latin American elements and instrumentation into his songs. His rhythm section incorporated congas and timbales, which were a novel addition to rock music. And, where traditional Latin music would feature a brass section, he replaced those with his guitar and a Hammond organ.
In his hit “Oye Como Va”—originally written by Latin great Tito Puente—Santana’s solos are a perfect fusion of blues-infused rock and riffs from the Puente version. His ability to balance several musical genres at once while still staying true to the spirit of rock makes him stand out in the history of the genre.
4. Joe Walsh
The Eagles are every dad’s favorite band. But no one can listen to the dueling solos at the end of “Hotel California” and not be impressed. That’s thanks to Don Felder and the “Clown Prince of Rock” himself, Joe Walsh.
When Walsh joined the Eagles in 1975, he brought an edge—both personally and musically— to the band that helped elevate them to the next level. The arpeggiated finale to “Hotel California” is credited to him, and you can hear just how epic that makes the song. In addition to these contributions, he’s also a prolific solo artist. He’s released 12 albums, including the 1978 But Seriously, Folks… with the hit song “Life’s Been Good.” Eric Clapton has gone on record saying that Walsh is “one of the best guitarists to surface in some time.” That’s high praise coming from ol’ Slow Hand.
5. Melissa Etheridge
In the ’90s, Etheridge hit the national stage as a powerful singer-songwriter, with songs like “Come To My Window” and “I’m the Only One” being massively successful. While her incredible voice and lyrical talent made everyone pay attention, her expertise at guitar was somehow not as noted.
Etheridge plays the six- and 12-string guitars like a lead electric player—the passion that comes in her lyrics seamlessly flows through her instrument. She follows in the tradition of acoustic superstars like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan but turns up the volume, giving her songs a much harder edge than her predecessors. And, with the acoustic at the forefront of her songs, it helps distinguish her music in the rock sphere, making it sound very unique.
This 2014 live version of her song “A Little Bit of Me” has her doing an extended 12-string solo section in the song that is quite impressive.
6. Angus Young
If you’ve ever seen an AC/DC concert, you may have noticed the lunatic with a guitar running around on stage, dressed like a school boy, and burning more calories than a marathon runner. That’s Angus Young, and he is much of a genius as he is a madman.
The beauty of Young’s guitar playing lies in its simplicity. He takes the traditional 12-bar blues form—the progenitor of all rock music—and cranks up the distortion and the volume, making AC/DC one of the purest, straight-ahead rock bands of all time. Critics would sometimes deride their music for being too simplistic, but you can’t argue with stone-cold rock classics like “T.N.T.”, “Highway to Hell,” “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” and “Back in Black,” among many others.
Young is a riff machine that has influenced countless bands to follow. Check out the start of this version of Jailbreak from a 1991 concert to see him in action.
7. Nancy Wilson
Heart is one of the strongest ’70s rock bands that managed to make a bold transition into the ’80s with a whole new style. Frontwoman Ann Wilson gets a lot of the attention here, and rightfully so—she has a voice that rivals Robert Plant’s in sheer rock power. But you can’t forget that this is a family act, and guitarist Nancy Wilson is equally bringing the heat.
Heart has always managed to straddle the hard rock sound with soulful acoustic interludes thanks to Wilson’s beautiful guitar playing. She delivers the most iconic guitar moment for the band on their very first album—the driving, technically brilliant, acoustic piece “Silver Wheels,” which perfectly leads into their massive hit “Crazy on You.” Utilizing all the tools in her arsenal—fingerpicking, harmonics, flamenco/classical influences—Wilson proves that she is absolutely the real deal.
Check out this television performance from 1977 if you need more convincing.
8. Carrie Brownstein
Long before her career as a sketch comedian on Portlandia, Carrie Brownstein started out as an important figure in the mid-’90s indie music scene. Emerging out of the riotgrrrl movement, her group Sleater-Kinney became a genre-defining band with their feminist edge and politically charged lyrics.
Brownstein’s guitar playing is unique because Sleater-Kinney does not have a bass player. However, she and fellow guitarist Corin Tucker still manage to create a full, impressive sound by slightly downtuning their guitars and having Brownstein play lead and Tucker play rhythm and more traditional bass parts. The interplay between the two is perfect. Brownstein’s lead parts fluctuate between harsher punk influences and more intricate indie stylings that emerged from the alternative music scene of the era.
Watch this live version of their song “Dig Me Out” to get a feel for their impressive stage energy.
9. Bo Diddley
It’s safe to say that none of the guitarists mentioned would not even exist if not for the contributions of Bo Diddley. Along with his contemporaries like B.B. King and Chuck Berry, he helped bridge the gap between traditional blues guitar and the electric rock guitar sound that you know of today.
Diddley became famous for what was appropriately called the “Bo Diddley Beat.” This syncopated guitar rhythm had roots in earlier Afro-Cuban music, but in Diddley’s hands—with plenty of tremolo and reverb effects—it defined an entirely new sound for guitar and the blossoming rock genre. Artists like Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, and The Who have all used the Diddley Beat to great effect. You can even hear it in George Michael’s song “Faith”—the song is a Diddley Beat start to finish.
Diddley’s influence has even transcended rock music, with his guitar stylings even appearing in hip hop music. There’s no question that he is a titan of rock guitar history.
Who Is Your Favorite Rock Guitarist?
No matter who your favorite rock guitarist is—whether it’s one from this list or another major guitar hero—listening to and emulating them is one of the best ways to improve your own playing. These musicians are famous for their skills, and it stands to reason that they could teach you a thing or two about strumming the old six-string.
So, the next time you sit down to practice, put on your favorite record and try to play along. You may pick up a new trick and become a better player for it. And besides, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
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