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Best Guitarists Of All Time: 20 Iconic Players Who Electrified The World
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List & Guides

Best Guitarists Of All Time: 20 Iconic Players Who Electrified The World

With fearlessly inventive fills and riotous riffage, the best guitarists of all time tore up the stage and created a rock’n’roll ruckus.

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Many musicians have revolutionised music and helped define their respective eras. From zesty riffs to sprightly strumming, the thrum of distortion ringing out from six steel strings affixed to a piece of wood has never failed to awaken gig-goers to the transformative power of music. By plugging into their amps and cranking up the volume, the best guitarists of all time have also often harnessed flamboyant stage antics to their awe-inspiring musical prodigiousness, leaving us hungry for more life-changing experiences to satiate our appetites. These 20 iconic players electrified the world – and are still worth turning up to 11.

Listen to our Rock Classics playlist, here, and check out our 20 best guitarists, below.

20: Johnny Marr

With his shimmering jangle-pop riffs complementing singer Morrissey’s bone-dry lyricism, The Smiths’ guitarist, Johnny Marr, spent much of the 80s as a luminary of the Manchester indie scene. The whirling sonic assault of How Soon Is Now? and the sparkly opening riff of This Charming Man amply demonstrate why Marr held such sway: he expertly combined the dour sunglasses-wearing demeanour of Keith Richards with the funk-tinged minimalist tones of Nile Rodgers. By uniting shoplifters of the world through his ringing guitar sound, Marr helped turn The Smiths into the band of a generation. Without Johnny Marr’s vivaciousness, the best The Smiths songs wouldn’t continue to be as inspiring or enduring as they are today.

Must hear: How Soon Is Now?

19: Nile Rodgers

The disco explosion had its share of detractors, but Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers proved them wrong with his unique brand of sophisto-funk. Rodgers’ stripped-back approach to choppy yet danceable riffs, impeccably arranged funk grooves and angular soloing easily made him one of the best guitarists of the late 70s and early 80s, and his influence on new wave pop acts such as Duran Duran and even Madonna proves just how ahead of the curve he was. Headhunted by David Bowie to produce his commercial game-changer, Let’s Dance, Rodgers anticipated pop music’s drive towards clean tones and neat electronic rhythms. The best Chic songs would later be sampled on records such as Modjo’s Lady (Hear Me Tonight) and Fatman Scoop’s hip-hop banger Be Faithful, proving that, as the grand master of uptempo funk, Nile Rodgers remains one of the best guitarists of any era.

Must hear: Le Freak

18: John Frusciante

With his rip-roaringly quirky take on funk-rock, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ John Frusciante was one of the best guitarists to emerge from the 90s’ alternative scene. Deliriously eccentric and often idiosyncratic in his playing, his guitar work ranged from the jagged Parliament-esque funk of Give It Away to the gleaming slide guitar of Scar Tissue, as well as encompassing the melancholic inflections of Under The Bridge and the panoramic sweep of the Californication album’s title track. Having left and rejoined the band on multiple occasions, Frusciante is something of an on-off RHCP member, but they owe their distinctive sound to Frusciante’s sonic clout and his epic mastery of pedals and effects. Always experimenting with funky hooks and psychedelic textures, the guitarist instigated a revolution in sound.

Must hear: Under The Bridge

17: Neil Young

Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young doesn’t always get the credit he deserves as a lead guitarist. The much-lauded “Godfather Of Grunge” pioneered a swampy, roots-based squall of noise (Like A Hurricane) and often flirted with meandering solos that toyed with dissonance (Down By The River). Young’s astonishing run of influential 70s albums often showcased both sides of his unique playing style – a mix of despairing acoustic country-rock and heavily distorted rock tracks with solos that threaten to blow the listener away. In tandem with his masterful songwriting, Young never gave up on pushing sonic boundaries in order to weather changing trends. Whether you treasure Heart Of Gold or you’re partial to Rockin’ In The Free World, Young has always been among the best guitarists, connecting the bohemian spirit of late-60s hippiedom with the world-weary angst of punk-inspired misfits.

Must hear: Like A Hurricane

16: Keith Richards

Few guitarists boast a sound that is distinctively their own, but Keith Richards’ love of drop tuning puts him ahead of the pack. Arguably The Rolling Stones’ heartbeat, Richards’ potent concoction of rock’n’roll, blues and R&B helped lay the foundations for the rise of the stadium-rock phenomenon in the latter part of the 20th century. First invading our ears with a fuzz box fanfare ((I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction) before tapping into the stirring power of gospel-rock (Gimme Shelter), Richards’ guitar-playing was a raucous, era-defining delight. Once the poster boy for drug-addled excess, he now enjoys a reputation befitting an elder statesman, and can easily lay claim to being one of rock’n’roll’s most influential guitarists.

Must hear: Gimme Shelter

15: Tony Iommi

We all know about Black Sabbath’s hard-rock credentials, but it cannot be said enough: without guitarist Tony Iommi’s doom-laden riffs, there would be no such thing as heavy metal. Conjuring a dark, ominous sound from the factories of Birmingham, Iommi developed his unique style in order to compensate for the loss of his fingertips in a welding accident. Forced to invent a whole new way of playing, the guitarist’s marriage of sinister single-note soloing and hellbound hammer-ons helped turn Black Sabbath into a force of nature, summoning the spirit of the blues but playing it with the gloomy, understated thump of a Wagnerian battle cry. Iommi deserves a huge amount of respect for the way he faced up to adversity and, in doing so, birthed a whole new genre of music.

Must hear: Paranoid

14: George Harrison

There wasn’t a single soul on the planet who didn’t know about The Beatles in the 60s – though George Harrison was unfairly tagged as “The Quiet One”. Up against the indomitable songwriting duo of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Harrison doesn’t get as much credit as he should for all the embellishments he added to their songs. It took him some time to blossom as a songwriter himself but, once he did, there was no stopping him: the guitarist penned some of The Beatles’ finest late-period tunes, among them the beautiful love ballad Something and the sun-worshippers’ anthem Here Comes The Sun, and he reached transcendence on his prayer-like solo anthem My Sweet Lord. Inspired by rockabilly icon Carl Perkins, Harrison brought a country-tinged twang to the British Invasion party and became adept at delivering sweet-sounding solos that roused spiritual longing and a reverence for nature. For this reason, he deserves recognition as one of the best guitarists in history.

Must hear: Something

13: Peter Green

A troubled soul but a supremely gifted musician, there was a time when Peter Green’s blues-rock windstorm left his peers in the dust. A master of sustain and highly emotive reverb, Green’s sky-scraping vibrato caused souls to swell with meditative instrumentals such as Albatross and his thrilling finger work on Oh Well. Mining his personal troubles to compose heart-rending ballads such as Man Of The World and the nightmarish psych-rock of The Green Manalishi (With The Two Prong Crown), Green proved that virtuosic acrobatics weren’t always necessary in order to tap into the essence of the blues. With his sweet tone and gleaming solos, the former Fleetwood Mac frontman wowed his contemporaries with a musical ingenuity that allowed him to shoulder-barge his way to the front line of his era’s best guitarists.

Must hear: Oh Well

12: Carlos Santana

A versatile performer, Carlos Santana fused blues-rock feels with Latin American and Afro-inspired sounds, doing far more than most guitarists to widen the sonic scope of rock’n’roll. Working with his band, Santana, his cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Black Magic Woman gave a gypsy-tinged swing to Peter Green’s spellbinding composition, and his late-career comeback hit, Smooth, reminded the world of the upbeat, hip-swaying potential of transcendental Latin rock. Always inventive, Carlos Santana’s guitar playing was spirited and exemplary, lifting moods by verging on Caribbean-tinged fusion sounds while never losing touch with the carnival-esque flair of his Mexican roots. From performing at Woodstock to selling 100 million records worldwide, Santana deserves his status as one of the best guitarists, and is one of the most fiercely individualist talents to spring from the San Francisco music scene.

Must hear: Black Magic Woman

11: BB King

The undisputed “King Of The Blues”, BB King is one of the best guitarists to have electrified the blues and popularised it for mass audiences. Active from the 50s right up until his death, aged 89, in 2015, King was a seminal figurehead for many of the British blues-boom guitarists. With his stirring string bends and expressive vibrato, the Mississippi mavern took the guitar he nicknamed Lucille and expertly mined the blues for sorrowful exaltations (The Thrill Is Gone) and even toyed with funk-laced cuts that exposed racial injustice (Why I Sing The Blues). Despite often sticking to the pentatonic scale, King soared well beyond its limitations. Often emulated but never matched, he deserves to wear the crown more than anyone.

Must hear: The Thrill Is Gone

10: Prince

As well as being a prolific songwriter, a bona fide pop star and all-round game-changing icon, Prince was also rightly regarded as a formidable guitarist. You only have to hear the sweeping majesty of Purple Rain or the eye-popping shredding at the start of When Doves Cry to understand why. Throughout the 80s and 90s, the best Prince songs offered a jaw-dropping mix of new-wave pop, funk-rock and R&B which, combined with his astute melodicism, always left room for him to showcase his awe-inspiring fretwork, regularly flaunted with Hendrixian flair. When no less a guitar god than Eric Clapton was asked how it felt being the best guitarist in the world, he replied, “I don’t know. Ask Prince.” High praise, indeed – and more than enough to explain why Prince stands shoulder-to-shoulder among the best guitarists of all time.

Must hear: Purple Rain

9: Jeff Beck

A longstanding friend of Eric Clapton’s, Jeff Beck has long been recognised as a stellar blues musician who more than earns his right to be considered one of the best guitarists of his era. Upon joining The Yardbirds in the 60s, Beck ventured into psychedelic rock with Heart Full Of Soul, pioneering a fuzz-laden sound courtesy of his Tone Bender MK I pedal. When he formed Jeff Beck Group, he found his way back to his roots by utilising a whammy bar to play a raw, hard-edged take on the blues (I Ain’t Superstitious) as well as flirting with electrified Latin-inspired soloing (Beck’s Bolero). Though often overshadowed by contemporaries such as Clapton and Hendrix, Beck deserves praise for his adventurous tenacity. Later crossing over to jazz and funk, the sound he creates is wondrous.

Must hear: I Ain’t Superstitious

8: Mark Knopfler

From the smoky dives of the UK pub-rock scene all the way to gracing Wembley Stadium at Live Aid, Newcastle-born Mark Knopfler’s immaculate guitar work has inspired millions. His chugging laidback rhythms and uplifting, evocative riffs helped Dire Straits blow the doors open with Sultans Of Swing before going on to become one of the best-selling acts of the 80s with their MTV anthem Money For Nothing and the moving Falklands War protest song Brothers In Arms. Always affecting and sweet-sounding, Knopfler set out his stall with a sweeping soft-rock sound verging on easy listening, sprouting from his love of roots music. “My idea of heaven is a place where the Tyne meets the Delta, where folk music meets the blues,” Knopfler once said. He should know – he’s taken us there countless times.

Must hear: Sultans Of Swing

7: Eddie Van Halen

Simply put: Eddie Van Halen was a pioneer. Not since Hendrix had a guitarist ripped up the rulebook and changed the way rock music sounded. “To hell with the rules,” he once said, becoming an overnight sensation with his ultra-busy blend of fiery finger-tapping and lashings of iceberg-sized hard-rock rhythms. As one of the best guitarists of the 80s, Van Halen’s barnstorming solos harnessed the cocksure showmanship of heavy metal (Eruption), defining the sound of his era so much that no self-respecting teen would be seen dead without a Van Halen cassette in their car. Even Michael Jackson couldn’t resist inviting him to play on Beat It – no small accolade from the world’s biggest pop star.

Must hear: Eruption

6: Brian May

When Brian May put his dreams of being an astrophysicist on hold and customised his guitar – lovingly known as the Red Special – the sky was the limit. As the lead guitarist of Queen, May’s mix of hard-rock power chords and classicist fretwork fuelled Freddie Mercury’s delightfully outlandish rock operas (Bohemian Rhapsody) as well as giving us solos that launched themselves like projectile missiles at the football terraces (We Will Rock You). Across Queen’s diverse body of work, it’s May’s distinctive sound that stands out the most, always bombarding the listener with a glittering array of stately riffs no matter what genre the band turned their hand to. While playing live, May has often paid tribute to Jimi Hendrix with his rendition of the UK national anthem, God Save The Queen, giving us further proof of his place among rock royalty.

Must hear: Hammer To Fall

5: Chuck Berry

The development of rock’n’roll owes much to the pioneering ideas of Chuck Berry. With his famous chicken strut and rockabilly-inspired solos, Berry threw down the gauntlet for countless guitarists to follow. As the quintessential voice of 50s youth, he kickstarted a revolution by soundtracking the exploits of hot-rod-driving teens (Maybellene) and championing the excitement of the roving guitarist (Johnny B Goode). From his unique approach to guitar intros through to his undeniably fleet-fingered solos, it’s Berry we have to thank for influencing a whole generation of rock’n’rollers to pick up a guitar and throw all their dreams into a gunny sack. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single guitarist in the 60s who wasn’t inspired by him. “If you tried to give rock and roll another name,” John Lennon said, “you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.”

Must hear: Johnny B Goode

4: Eric Clapton

In the 60s, in the days before Hendrix, graffiti could be found daubed on London’s walls declaring that “Clapton Is God”. It’s not hard to see why. From his time with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers to his stint with supergroup Cream, Clapton’s roots-based mastery of the blues has continually impressed throughout his entire career. From the euphoric driving riffs on Derek And The Dominoes’ Layla to the tragic sincerity on Tears In Heaven, at every step of the way Clapton has wowed us with his enduring gift for bluesy feels and his innate ability to make guitars sing. Throughout the years, he has always imbued his work with great heft and moving tones as only the best guitarists can. The influence of Clapton’s mind-boggling proficiency and his continuing commitment to reigniting the blues canon cannot be overstated.

Must hear: Layla

3: David Gilmour

Picking up on the psychedelic sonic touchstones paved by Pink Floyd co-founder Syd Barrett, David Gilmour and his iconic “Black Strat” created a guitar sound like no other. Atmospheric and otherworldly, Gilmour’s free-form feel for soul-stirring improvisation – from his rip-roaring bluesy explosion on Money to the soaring riffs that scaled the heavenly heights of Shine On You Crazy Diamond – helped turn Pink Floyd into a progressive-rock powerhouse. His epic solo on Comfortably Numb is rightly considered to be one of the greatest guitar performances of all-time, offering listeners a perfect distillation of his ability to rouse emotion with every note played. By bridging the swamplands of psychedelia with the new terrain of jazz-rock, David Gilmour’s innovative work with Pink Floyd rightly marks him out as one of the best guitarists to ever grace the stage.

Must hear: Comfortably Numb

2: Jimi Hendrix

After arriving in the UK in September 1966, Seattle-born guitarist Jimi Hendrix single-handedly revolutionised rock’n’roll with his virtuosic wail of electric blues. Stealing the thunder from 60s guitar god Eric Clapton, Hendrix’s noisy interpretation of R&B and his hair-raising tendency to play solos with his teeth was the stuff of legend. “He got up and blew everyone’s mind,” Clapton later recalled. “It’s something that no one is ever going to beat.” From the superhuman Purple Haze to his definitive cover of Bob Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower, the legendary guitarist arguably did for rock’n’roll what Beethoven did for classical music. Thanks to his freewheeling embrace of distortion and wah-wah pedals (Voodoo Child (Slight Return)), Jimi Hendrix embodied the very essence of psychedelia, transformed the sound of rock music forevermore and truly deserves to be considered one of the best guitarists in history.

Must hear: Voodoo Child

1: Jimmy Page

The mastermind behind hard-rock giants Led Zeppelin is without a doubt the best guitarists who ever lived. Jimmy Page’s clamorous fusion of blues-rock and hyperactive riffage took the revolutionary spirit of Jimi Hendrix’s innovations and turned them into pure magic. Laying the foundation for what would later evolve into heavy metal and stadium rock, Page amplified the seething ire of the blues (Whole Lotta Love) and the allure of exotic sounds (Kashmir) while blending it all with an English folk tradition (Stairway To Heaven). Crafting a mythos like a wizard from days of yore, he dominated the 70s as the world’s most recognisable rock star. Irrefutably talented, Jimmy Page’s all-encompassing vision of the power of rock’n’roll left an immortal impression that remains to this day.

Must hear: Stairway To Heaven

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