Here we tackle that most explosive of subjects, who is the best guitarist to ever live?
This isn’t a countdown list, as we think it’s frankly ridiculous to say who the best is. Instead, we’re going to list all the guitarists who we think deserve a seat at the table, and why, and let you decide.
So what is the hallmark of greatness?
Is it speed, technique, versatility? Sure, those things matter.
But to be truly great you need to have your own instantly distinguishable sound.
With the greats, you instantly know who you’re listening to from the first few notes.
So here’s who we think should be on the list of guitar greats. Because the world of guitar is so vast, we’ve grouped the artists by three broad genres: rock, jazz, and indie.
Note: if you’re looking for guitars (rather than guitarists), check out our article about the best guitar of all time.
Without question, one (if not the) most influential guitarist of all time, Jimi Hendrix more than deserves his seat at the table.
Jimi was a songwriter, singer, and innovator of the guitar and music in general.
Through the use of experimentation and effects, he pushed the boundaries of music and – along with his peers The Beatles – created a new way of making music that relied a lot on experimentation in the studio.
Of course, as a guitarist, his technical ability was impeccable through the many years working as a session musician for the likes of Little Richard, B.B. King, and the Isley Brothers.
He starting off playing the 58 Ozark Supremo, with a brief period playing the Fender Duo Sonic (a popular short scale guitar). He finally settled on the Stratocaster and was a large reason why sales of the Strat took off.
Another man who needs no introduction, George Harrison was another guitar player who created his own signature distinct sound through his work with The Beatles.
So what makes him worthy of appearing on this list, other than the fact he was a member of the fab four?
In a word: feeling. He had an enormous warmth to this playing.
He wasn’t as flamboyant as Hendrix, but he had an intimacy to his playing that many impersonators tried to imitate throughout the late ’60s and ’70s, but few could get anywhere close. Of course, he was a consummate songwriter too.
Led Zeppelin guitarist and songwriter Jimmy Page is responsible for some of the rawest and downright dirtiest licks ever produced from an electric guitar. Listen to ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and ‘Black Dog’ for a taster.
His acoustic playing is as soft as his electric is hard though. Take a listen to ‘Ramble On’, or ‘Goin’ to California’, and you’ll hear what I mean.
Of course, the most overplayed song ever (‘Stairway to Heaven’) is his tour de force, where he showcases in one song just how versatile a player he is.
Clapton is another legend of the guitar.
He started out in the mid-sixties with the Yardbirds, played with Steve Winwood and Ginger Baker in Cream, and cropped up just about everywhere in the 60s and beyond.
He was so good that George Harrison asked him to play lead on his ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’.
It’s safe to say that no one plays blues on a Stratocaster quite so well, except perhaps Hendrix, and even Jimi wasn’t quite as slick as Clapton is.
Check out his solo on the song Key To Love, from John Mayall’s Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton album. Brian May, himself is a huge fan of Clapton’s.
“It’s the hottest, burning, high-passion piece I’ve ever heard in my life – still to this day. I just love it. It totally rips, and I’ll never get over that. That’s one of my great inspirations.“ May said.
Jeff Beck might not be as famous as some of his peers but among his contemporaries, he’s probably the most revered guitarist of the lot.
He flies under the radar of popular music and probably likes it that way. He’s the consummate guitarists’ guitarist and everyone from Clapton to Page has respect for him.
In particular, his way of using a whammy bar is incredible. If you watch him closely, you’ll notice he plays vibrato with the palm of his hand and uses the palm of this right hand to change the tone, creating a swirling, ethereal sound.
Although considered a rock guitarist, he’s played a lot of jazz/rock fusion and is respected in the jazz world too.
For some reason, it was never fashionable to be into Queen. The Stones, yes. Led Zep. Most definitely. Pink Floyd. You Bet. But Queen, not so much. By their own admission, they were the band for the misfits at the back of the room.
But here’s the thing. Queen were freakin’ amazing.
In many ways, they were the perfect band. Stella rhythm from Roger Taylor and John Deacon, without question the best rock vocalist that’s ever lived (Freddy Mercury) and Brian May, an astrophysicist turned guitarist who picked up where Jimmy Page left. His contribution to orchestrated guitars is unprecedented.
After Hendrix, May is probably the most identifiable guitar player on this list. From the first measure, you know it’s May at the helm. Even more so than Jeff Beck, Page, or Clapton.
In a funny story told by Steve Vai, May actually handed him his guitar to play (much to Vai’s delight, a massive May fan). He had a play on the famous guitar nicknamed ‘the red special’ that May built with his dad, and it sounded nothing like the May sound. He handed it back to May, and straight away the sound was back!
It just goes to show, as is the case with all these guitarists – the sound of a great guitarist is much more than gear, it’s in the fingers (and curiously, the head).
By his own admission, Gilmour can’t play fast.
Isn’t speed one of the core ingredients to a great guitarist?
No, not at all.
And certainly not in the case of David Gilmour, who might be the greatest ‘slow’ rock guitar player of all time.
But what he lacks in speed he more than makes up for in feeling.
What characterizes his style is his use of bends and vibrato. He frequently plays one and a half step (and even physics-defying two whole steps) bends.
But his style is not about gimmicks. He is, as Bob Geldof said, “very English in this reticence to show off”.
But his solos and riffs stay with you, and they stay in your head long after you heard them. Think of that four-note motif in ‘Shine on you Crazy Diamond’.
Or take his solo on the classic track ‘Comfortably Numb’. There’s nothing flashy there, even though he has tons of space.
He plays to express, not impress, which is the way it should be.
Keef’s on the list? Keith Richards?
Yes, he deserves a place. Here’s why:
His rhythm guitar pretty much is the Rolling Stones sound (ok, over-exaggeration, all the Stones are great, but his rhythm really is the DNA of their sound).
Think about the riffs on ‘Gimme Shelter’, ‘Brown Sugar’, ‘Honky Tonk Women’, ‘Jumpin Jack Flash’, or ‘Start Me Up’. Or the gorgeous acoustics on ‘Wild Horses’.
They’re Keith all over.
His style is so unique. Even the way he holds his 5 string Telecaster (he removes the high E string) is like no other.
He rarely plays lead – he had the late Brian Jones to do that in the early days, followed by the superb Mick Taylor (see below) then Ronnie Wood.
Technically, he’s not great, but like David Gilmour, he’s all about feeling.
He’s a student of the blues and rock n’ roll – his adoration for the old-time blues and rock n’ roll men is evident in the show he put on for Chuck Berry’s 60th birthday (made into a movie called Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll).
Then there’s his overall persona.
He’s the ultimate non-conformist rock artist: with a swagger and laissez-faire attitude that is almost a caricature of the rock guitarist. But he’s the real deal.
When Johnny Depp was researching his role as Captain Jack Sparrow for Pirates of the Caribbean, he took Keith out to dinner and based his pirate character on him.
I don’t think you can talk about Keith Richards without giving the great Mick Taylor a nod too.
Taylor joined The Stones in the late sixties as their lead guitarist, replacing the late Brian Jones.
Big boots to fill.
While Jones was a crucial ingredient to the early sound of the Stones, it was Taylor who really added serious soloing capability to the band.
While Richards can knock out a decent solo when he wants to, he’s not a natural.
Taylor on the other hand was an absolute solo demon. His lead parts on Let it Bleed and Sticky Fingers kick some serious butt.
For example, check out his solo on the track ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?’ from the Stones album Sticky Fingers. It’s a masterclass in slow, deliberate note selection.
It’s really storytelling with a solo.
Slash himself is a fan, and said this of the track.
“It’s very simple stuff, but it’s about how the notes are placed and how you approach them. One of the things that the new guard of guitarists always forget about is this simplistic and very effective guitar playing that speaks to you, instead of just always two-hand tapping.”Slash
Check out this performance when he joined the Stones at Glastonbury in 2013 (from around minute 5:50). See how he builds up the solo to a crescendo…it’s an incredible bit of guitar mastery.
Stevie Ray Vaughan
Texas-born Stevie Ray Vaughan (or ‘SRV’ for short) was around in the 80s and, like Hendrix, was hugely talented but died at a tragically young age (in a helicopter crash).
In fact, you can hear the influence of Jimi in SRV’s playing – he also did straight-up covers of his material, and it’s safe to say nobody had covered ‘Voodoo Chile’ quite so convincingly.
But SRV was much more than just a credible cover artist. He was a supremely gifted guitarist who wrote not only some great songs (‘Texas Flood’, for example), he had a style and tone to his playing which is very much his own.
David Bowie was quick to spot him and invited him to play on his Lets Dance long player. The incredible guitar solo on ‘China Girl’ you’ve probably heard a million times (a song we include on our playlist of songs with girl in the title)?
That’s SRV right there. Incredibly isn’t it.
Prince was such a formidable songwriter, singer, and performer, that his sheer genius as a guitarist is often overlooked.
He was supremely good, blending rock and jazz vibes.
One of his best soloing moments was when he stepped on stage to join Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne to play the solo from ‘While my Guitar Gently Weeps,’ when the late George Harrison was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004.
It’s a great example of how freakin’ good he was.
The song is going great, then Prince steps up, and blows it into outer space. My favorite bit is when he turns mid-solo to face Dhani Harrison (George’s son), pretends to fall backward off the stage – obviously planned, as there’s someone there to prop him up – and you see the absolute delight in Dhani’s face (as well as Prince’s showmanship as a performer).
If you want to know more about what Prince is doing here, check out this deep dive that breaks it down line by line.
Django Reinhardt, often simply referred to as ‘Django’ (well before the Quentin Tarantino movie) is regarded as ‘the world’s most influential pre-rock’n’roll guitarist‘.
Recording in the ’30s till his death in the early 50s, he left a body of work that is staggering in its breadth and quality.
A Romani Gypsy living in France, Django was a child prodigy and frequented the Parisian dancehalls in the 1920s playing a style of music called ‘musette’ (a sort of French folk music mixed with tango, polka, and waltzes).
What makes the Django story even more incredible, is that his left fretting hand was disfigured after an accident, which meant he only had the use of his thumb and two fingers. But often tragedy breeds greatness.
Django taught himself how to play with this affliction, and in the process formed a new way of playing the guitar. With his hand disfigured, he was limited to what he could play. As a result, he made new chord voicings and played horizontal arpeggio runs along the fretboard that nobody had ever done before.
Some seventy years on, Django is still the most respected guitarist of the lot. The list of guitarists who cite him as the best is impressive: from Jimmy Page to SRV to Tommy Emmanuel. They all love him, and so should you. He might even be the greatest guitarist of all time.
“Django didn’t have any book or anything to borrow from. He wrote the book. Same with Jimi. Nobody was doing those kinds of electronic things he was doing. He just did it.” said Stevie Ray Vaughn
Wes Montgomery is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest guitarists in the history of jazz, and was known for an unusual technique of plucking the strings with the side of his thumb which gave him a distinctive sound (by the way, he didn’t use any type of guitar pick).
He also popularised the use of playing octaves.
Recording prolifically and mainly for Blue Note Records as both leader and sideman, Grant Green is simultaneously one of the most and least celebrated guitarists in jazz history, who performed hard bop, soul jazz, bebop, and Latin-tinged guitar styles.
He attained a new following in the ’90s when his funk-laded mid-’70s records were spun by rare-groove and acid-jazz DJs and sampled by hip hop and rap bands such as A Tribe Called Quest and Cypress Hill.
An American jazz guitarist, Byrd helped to popularise Brazilian music, especially bossa nova, into North American music. In 1962, he collaborated with Stan Getz on the album Jazz Samba, an album that changed the world.
Here he is with some other greats of jazz guitar, Barney Kessel, Charlie Byrd and Herb Ellis
Bireli Lagrene is a French Manouche (or Gypsy Jazz) guitar virtuoso who came to prominence in the 1980s for his Django Reinhardt-influenced style (see above).
His infectious style and ‘joie de vivre’ makes his playing irresistible and one of the most accomplished jazz guitar players of modern times.
Pat Metheny incorporates elements of progressive and contemporary, latin, and jazz fusion into his playing.
Over his long career, he’s established himself as one (if not the) most accomplished and respected modern jazz guitarist, working with everyone from David Bowie to Joni Mitchell.
His collaborations with fab bassist Jaco Pastorius are excellent too, as is his work with Charlie Haden (see below).
Some people think he’s a touch boring. More fool them I say, listen closely and you’ll find magic there.
Like Keith Richards, Marr is more a rhythm player and maker of catchy riffs than a player of solos. His style was intentionally ‘anti’ what he called ‘all the cock rock’ around in the 1980s.
He’s also – like Richards – first and foremost a songwriter, and penned most of The Smiths music (which is some achievement).
He’s so good that immediately after the Smiths broke up, David Byrne of Talking Heads bagged him for their superb final album, Naked. See if you can recognize his playing on the song ‘(Nothing But) Flowers‘.
Marr is without question the most influential indie guitarist.
So what makes his style so special? His playing has a swagger and gusto that is somehow defiant while being delicate and interesting. His playing is particularly lyrical too, even though he only ever really fingerpicking chords and doesn’t improvise per se.
Another Mancunian guitarist John Squire was lead guitarist for 1990s indie band The Stone Roses.
Whereas Marr was all about creating ‘moods’ through fingerpicking arpeggiated chords, Squire was very much a return to the Jimmy Page school of rock. Punchy, growling, distorted lead and tons of improvisation.
Blurs guitar player, the awkward introverted Coxon is who respected producer William Orbit named the best guitarist he’d ever worked with, after Johnny Marr.
Coxon is technically very strong, and arguably the best indie-guitarist of the past 20 years.
So there you have it, that’s our take on the best guitarists of the past 50 years across three genres.
Use this article as an opportunity to discover new musicians. Nothing inspires you more than when you discover a new guitarist. If you are a guitarist yourself (I hope so, if you aren’t, start here), there will be a whole load of new listening pleasure right around the corner. Go find it.
Have we missed your favorite off the list? Maybe you think Chuck Berry should be there. Or Eddie Van Halen? Or Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac? Bo Diddley? Robert Johnson? Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth? Perhaps we missed some heavy metal players? Or classical players?
Let me know in the comments.
Note: Thanks for your comments guys (keep ’em coming – any abusive comments just don’t get published by the way, save your time). Other guitarists who are in the process of getting a full write up:
- Rory Gallagher
- Mike Bloomfield
- Terry Kath
- Steve Vai
- Charlie Christian
- Chet Atkins
- Alvin Lee
- James Hetfield
- Al di Meola
- John McLaughlin
- Stochelo Rosenberg
- Frank Zappa
- Steve Hackett
- Richie Blackmore
- Carlos Santana
- Paco De Lucia
- Joe Pass
- Jerry Garcia
- John Frusciante
- Vini Reilly
- Nels Cline
- John Mayer
- BB King
- Peter Green
- Kenny Burrell
- Billy Gibbons
- John Scofield