25 Greatest Classic Rock Guitarists
Rock Artists May Be the Most Versatile of All Guitarists
This list only includes rock guitarists, but players of blues and R&B qualify, since rock sprang from those genres around 1950. So, no jazz, classical, flamenco, bossa nova, folk, bluegrass or country guitarists are included. And keep in mind this list only includes guitarists who became famous during the twentieth century; therefore, they could be considered “classic” rock guitarists.
Now let’s begin the countdown!
25. Stephen Stills
Stephen Stills was already an extraordinary guitarist by the end of the 1960s, evidence of which can be found on the classic album Super Session (1968), as well as his work with the legendary Buffalo Springfield. Over the years, he’s jammed with just about everybody, including Jimi Hendrix, with whom he was going to make an album until Hendrix’s premature death. But most of his guitar work has been with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, of course, though his oeuvre of solo work is impressive. Master of many styles - hard or soft, using finger-picking, slide or whatever, Stills is one of the greatest all-around rock guitarists ever. Interestingly, Stills played at three of the iconic rock festivals of the 1960s – Woodstock, the Monterey Pop Festival and Altamont.
24. Buddy Guy
A purveyor of Chicago blues since the late 1950s, and mixing with such blues legends as Muddy Waters, Magic Sam, Otis Rush and Junior Wells, Buddy Guy developed a stylistic repertoire that changes with every performance. But during the British Invasion of the middle 1960s, Guy’s guitar slinging began to be noticed by the Brits, particularly young guitar slingers such as Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Keith Richards. Guitarist Eric Clapton once called him “the best guitar player alive.” Then in the 1980s and ‘90s, when the blues underwent a revival, Guy joined the 24 Nights all-star blues lineup in the UK. Please note that when you hear Guy play, he may hit an off-key note or two, but Buddy would probably tell you that the blues ain’t perfect. Interestingly, Buddy Guy owns Buddy Guy’s Legends, a blues joint in Chicago, Illinois.
23. Chuck Berry
Chuck Berry practically invented rock ‘n’ roll lead guitar and, in the process, influenced countless guitarists in the 1950s, ‘60s and into the following century. In fact, Berry may be the most influential rock guitarist of all time. Berry played his most famous riffs on the immortal tune, “Johnny B. Goode,” of which well over a hundred recorded versions exist. Rolling Stones lead guitarist Keith Richards may have learned more from Chuck Berry than any other artist. Yes, Berry could “play his guitar like ringin’ a bell,” as the song goes. Furthermore, if the so-called King of Rock ‘n’ Roll came from the 1950s, then it would surely be either Elvis Presley, Little Richard or Chuck Berry. Which illustrious cat would you pick?
22. Angus Young
The only constant member of Australian hard rock band AC/DC, Angus Young, and his schoolboy looks and attire, along with older brother Malcolm, formed the band in 1973. Young’s first electric guitar was a Gibson SG, which eventually rotted away from overuse, so abusive is the style of Young’s wringing wet, frenetic guitar shredding. Thereafter AC/DC produced a string of hit albums, culminating in Back in Black (1980), which sold an astonishing 50 million copies! Then they released For Those About to Rock We Salute You (1981), establishing the band as the best hard rock assemblage in the world. But critics have labeled AC/DC’s music as little more than three-chord rock. Responding to this, Young says, “To us, the simpler a song is, the better, 'cause it's more in line with what the person on the street is."
21. Jerry Garcia
Jerry Garcia was the lead guitarist for the Grateful Dead from 1965 to 1995, but over his extensive musical career he played in many other bands, notably the Jerry Garcia Band, New Riders of the Purple Sage and Not for Kids Only, and released a number of solo albums; he also worked many times as a session musician or guest guitarist. Garcia’s style of guitar playing was unique and much imitated by other artists: it had a country-rock twang played with a bluesy feel, generally using major pentatonic and mixolydian licks; other times it had a more acid rock sound, though his guitars, all 25 of them, have no whammy bars. Interestingly, Garcia’s first recording was “Raunchy” by Bill Justis, produced in 1959.
20. Tony Iommi
Of British descent, Tony Iommi is one of the founding members of Black Sabbath; in fact, Iommi was their main composer, and it seems safe to suggest that without his towering, apocalyptic riffs and power chords, Black Sabbath never would have existed (apologies to fans of singer Ozzy Osbourne). A left-handed axeman, evidence of Iommi’s screaming legato prowess can be heard on “Heaven and Hell,” “War Pigs,” “Supernaut” and “Children of the Grave.” Having injured two of his fingers on his right hand at 17, Iommi had to play with thimbles and lowered the tuning on his guitar a half step or even a step and a half, which other metal bands began doing in imitation. Eddie Van Halen says that “without Tony, heavy metal wouldn’t exist. He is the creator of heavy!”
19. Johnny Winter
Johnny Winter was “discovered” in December 1968 when he played at a concert starring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper at the Fillmore East in NYC. A representative of Columbia Records saw Winter perform his signature hit “It’s My Own Fault” and soon thereafter Columbia signed Winter with an advance of $600,000 – that’s big money even these days! Since then, Winters became a guitar slinger of blues and rock, often playing and recording with his younger brother Edgar Winter. Usually the lead guitarist and singer in a power trio, Winter played all over, including Woodstock. Perhaps Winter’s best album back then was Johnny Winter And (1971). Back in the day, Winter knew all the rock and blues standards, all the fills, frills, turnarounds, intros and outros, and was considered as fast and flashy as Hendrix, Beck, Page or Clapton!
18. Pete Townshend
Known primarily as the lead guitarist for The Who, Pete Townshend is a multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter, whose musical career began in 1961 while playing with the Detours. During the classic rock period from 1965 to 1975 or so, Townshend’s style of guitar playing included plenty of sustained power chords turned to stratospheric highs on his Marshall stack, while windmilling his right hand and performing acrobatic jumps. These days, though, Townshend doesn’t jump around a lot, much less bash his guitar into the stage; he doesn’t have to because his impressive career would place his bust on the Mt. Rushmore of Rock. Townshend has produced numerous solo albums, and he and Roger Daltrey, the surviving members of The Who, still record and perform when the urge strikes them. Interestingly, Townshend is a lifetime follower of Indian spiritual master Meher Baba, and in 2012 published his autobiography, Who I Am (2012).
17. Keith Richards
Keith Richards is an original member of the Rolling Stones, for which he plays lead or rhythm guitar, sings and writes songs. Most of the guitar riffs for which the Stones are famous were created by Richards. Session guitarist Chris Spedding says Richards’ guitar work is “direct, incisive and unpretentious.” Generally using a five-string open-G tuning, as heard on such hits as “Start Me Up” and “Street Fighting Man,” Richards creates an unrelenting, catchy, quintessential rock platform for the Stones. Collaborating with singer Mick Jagger on many of the Stones’ best songs, the duo’s first top-ten hit was “The Last Time” (1965). Since the turn of the twenty-first century, Richards has performed in many tribute concerts honoring music’s pantheon of great rockers. And, astonishingly, Richards has a collection of about 3,000 guitars!
16. Kirk Hammet
Replacing lead guitarist Dave Mustaine, who was fired from the band, Kirk Hammet joined Metallica, one of many great San Francisco Bay Area bands, in 1983. (What better name is there for a heavy metal band than Metallica? And they better be damn good,too!) Hammet soon began writing the riffs on Metallica’s songs, some of his best thrash metal work on “Enter Sandman” and “The Judas Kiss.” It could be said that Hammet’s guitar solos blaze like a California wildfire. Even though primarily a metal guitarist, Hammet also plays jazz and blues. Interestingly, Hammet is a big fan of horror movies and likes to read comic books rather than do drugs. Anyway, Hammet may have made Metallica the best metal band ever, as their name would seem to suggest.
15. George Harrison
Most people know that George Harrison was the lead guitarist for the Beatles, perhaps the greatest rock group of all time, but he was also a prolific solo artist, having produced 12 solo albums, including All Things Must Pass (1970), a triple-album set. Harrison was also a great song writer, whose songs often dealt with Indo-Asian spirituality. As for his guitar work, Harrison seldom played long solos; his were short, flexible and to the point. Eric Clapton says that Harrison was “clearly an innovator” and “was taking certain elements of R&B and rock and rockabilly and creating something unique.” Harrison’s solo on “Something,” a song he wrote, is considered a masterpiece and one of his most memorable. Harrison was also one of the first rockers to play the sitar, as evident on “Norwegian Wood” and “Within You Without You,” both tunes showing a joining of pop and Indian music.
14. Frank Zappa
Frank Zappa, composer/producer/singer/guitarist and much more, is perhaps the most radical, experimental, eclectic, avant-garde and satirical artist on this list. AllMusic called Zappa the “godfather of comedy rock.” Influenced by Edgard Varése, Zappa and the Mothers of Invention formed in 1965 and soon released their debut album - Freak Out! featuring “Trouble Every Day,” a tune about the Watts riots and perhaps the first rap tune ever. Thereafter, Zappa kept blowing minds with his radical format, iconoclastic messages, bizarre lyrics and idiosyncratic guitar playing. Certainly one of the fastest guitarists around, at times Zappa seemed to be squeezing the innards from some outer space beast. Late in life, Zappa worked with the Synclavier, producing Civilization Phase III (1993). And in 2016, the editors of Guitar Player wrote, “Brimming with sophisticated motifs and convoluted rhythms, Zappa's extended excursions are more akin to symphonies than they are to guitar solos."
13. Eric Johnson
An impressive guitarist while only a teenager, Eric Johnson joined his first professional band at 15. Then he formed a jazz fusion band, the Electromagnets, in 1974. This work propelled Johnson toward virtuosic mastery of the guitar, a fusion of rock, jazz and classical, culminating in such masterpieces as “Cliffs of Dover” (1991). Mostly a solo act or a session artist since the 1970s, Johnson continues playing blistering legato runs that leave one’s head spinning. Well into the 2000s, Johnson has been performing and touring with the greatest rock, jazz and fusion guitarists of the era: Joe Satriani, John Petrucci, Sonny Landreth and Steve Vai. Johnson’s solo albums keep coming as well – Souvenir (2002), Bloom (2005) and Europe Live (2014).
12. Brian May
Primarily known for his guitar work with British rock group Queen, Brian May’s licks with Queen are truly unique, a kind of melodrama on strings, over-the-top, grandiose and operatic. A Night at the Opera (1975), perhaps the greatest album for the classic Queen lineup, features “Bohemian Rhapsody,” considered by many to be one of the greatest rock tunes of all time. Since the demise of Queen’s lead singer Freddie Mercury in 1991, May has produced numerous solo projects and performed with other incarnations of Queen. About May’s meteoric guitar licks, singer Sammy Hagar says, “I think Brian May has one of the great guitar tones on the planet.” Interestingly, May hand-made his first guitar, the famous Red Special; he also earned a PhD in astrophysics in 2007; and has an asteroid named after him: 52665 Brianmay.
11. David Gilmour
David Gilmour joined prog rock band Pink Floyd after the departure of Syd Barrett, one of Gilmour’s best friends, and over the ensuing years “the Floyd” became one of the most popular rock bands in the world, selling a quarter billion records by 2012. David Gilmour’s guitar work, singing and songwriting helped propel this psychedelic assemblage to create their signature, laid-back, trippy dreamscape of sound. Gilmour’s mesmerizing guitar solos take one on a journey to alternate universes with plenty of sustain, heartfelt bends and bluesy transitions. Rolling Stone critic Alan di Perna says Gilmour was the most important guitarist of the 1970s and the “missing link between Jimi Hendrix and Van Halen.” Gilmour has produced four solo albums and also plays bass, keyboards, synthesizer, banjo, lap steel, mandolin, harmonica, drums and saxophone.
10. John McLaughlin
Perhaps the greatest all-around guitarist on this list, John McLaughlin excels at playing rock, jazz, Indian classical music, Western classical music, flamenco, blues and jazz fusion. Extrapolation (1969), McLaughlin’s debut album as a jazz player, still sounds astonishingly good. Then McLaughlin played the lead for the Mahavishnu Orchestra in the 1970s and ‘80s, a collaboration that propelled fusion to orbital ascension. McLaughlin’s aggressive mastery of the fretboard has been very influential, as shown on “Miles Beyond” from his album, Live at Ronnie Scott’s (2018). Guitarist Frank Zappa said this about McLaughlin: “I think anybody who can play that fast is just wonderful. And I'm sure 90 per cent of teenage America would agree, since the whole trend in the business has been 'faster is better'." This seems apt praise for McLaughlin, who often plays his Marshall amp in the “meltdown mode.”
9. Carlos Santana
Carlos Santana, whose Latin-flavored, Afro-Cuban rock has been revolutionary in the world of rock, is the frontman for Santana, another sensational San Francisco Bay Area band, which arose in the late 1960s. (Who can forget Carlos’ tasty, staccato riffs on “Soul Sacrifice” at Woodstock in 1969?) Ever evolving, Carlos Santana’s melodic, ethereal riffs sound as polished as that of the best jazz guitarists. Edging into his seventh decade, his licks seem to get better with age, like redwood forests. Over the years, often teaming with such virtuosic talents as Neal Schon or John McLaughlin, Carlos Santana continues to expand his eclectic oeuvre well into the twenty-first century. And, always a positive, spiritual fellow, Carlos Santana brims with thoughtful quotes: “The most powerful possession you can own is an open heart,” he says. “The most powerful weapon you can be is a weapon for peace.”
8. Stevie Ray Vaughan
Stevie Ray Vaughan was an Albert King-inspired blues guitarist who also played rock. Vaughan’s fondness for Jimi Hendrix songs is evident on his stellar version of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” (He and Hendrix played the same style of guitar, showing a masterful use of the wah-wah and overdrive pedals and offering stage histrionics such as playing the guitar behind their heads.) Vaughan simply attacked his 1959 Fender Strat – or overwhelmed it could be a better way of describing it. Perhaps his best albums were two concert cuts: Live at Carnegie Hall and Live Alive, the second of which featuring a rousing version of “Say What!” In 1983, as Vaughan rose to worldwide fame, Variety wrote that Vaughan, after playing a set at the Beacon Theatre in NYC, “left no doubt that this young Texas musician is indeed the 'guitar hero of the present era.' "
7. Eddie Van Halen
Eddie Van Halen, trained as a classical pianist in his native Holland, developed a wild, finger tapping, whammy bar-accentuated guitar style that became the rage of the hard rock genre in the late 1970s; and throughout the 1980s and ‘90s he continued to astonish fans and fellow guitar players with his scatterbrained wizardry on the fretboard. Eddie’s solo work on the tune “Eruption” is considered a heavy metal classic. Perhaps one of the fastest rock guitarists ever, Eddie also has a keen melodic sense that all great guitarists seem to possess. Notably, Van Halen says this about his playing style: “I've always said Eric Clapton was my main influence, but Jimmy Page was actually more the way I am, in a reckless-abandon kind of way.”
6. Jimmy Page
Jimmy Page, along with Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, emerged from the Yardbirds - the “yardstick” of rock, if you will, in the middle 1960s, and then Page formed Led Zeppelin, considered one of the top hard rock bands in history. The Zep, an enduring bunch, kept the same personnel for 12 years and influenced multitudes of rock guitar enthusiasts. Page played lead, of course, showing his artistry for blues, rock, classical and Celtic folk. Perhaps his best riffs were on “You Shook Me,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Black Dog,” “Stairway to Heaven” and “Whole Lotta Love.” Brian May says this about Page: “I don't think anyone has epitomized riff writing better than Jimmy Page. He's one of the great brains of rock music.” Interestingly, surviving members of Led Zeppelin reunited for a concert in 2007. But Page, who hasn’t worked solo since 1988, wants to record and tour with Led Zeppelin, but singer Robert Plant says no way.
5. Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton has played with just about everybody, and in every place, except Woodstock, but don’t forget Live Aid, where he performed in 1985. Starting as a blues guitarist, as many rock guitarists have, Clapton was so ass-kickingly good by the time he was 22 that some rockers began referring to him as “god.” Then, in 1966, Clapton formed the quintessential power trio, Cream, moving heavily into acid rock and long, improvisational blues jams. Perhaps Clapton’s best rock tunes over the years are “I’m So Glad,” “I Feel Free,” “Sunshine of Your Love,” “White Room”, “Layla” “I Shot the Sheriff,” “Cocaine,” and “Wonderful Tonight.” Like Stephen Stills, Clapton can blast away with awesome riffs or play poignantly slow, such as in the self-penned song, “Tears in Heaven.”
4. Joe Satriani
Joe Satriani, like Steve Vai and Jeff Beck, has been a solo act for most of his career. Able to read and write music, and working as a renowned teacher of guitar since the 1970s, Satriani doesn’t seem to need much help working as an instrumental guitarist in the hard rock, jazz fusion or progressive rock categories. Moreover, Satriani is another one of those guitar slingers who’s played with just about everybody, particularly when involved with his G3 Jam Concerts, started in 1996. Regarding such concerts, Satriani shows technical virtuosity, boldness and dash, and if there’s a faster lead guitarist around, who in the heck would that be? Interestingly, Satriani’s first hit album was Surfing with the Alien (1987), and his highest grossing album to date is The Extremist (1992). Satriani’s latest studio album is What Happens Next (2018).
3. Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix died way too young to be higher on this list, but his guitar swagger and electrifying technique are without equal. Borne from the R&B bands of the early 1960s, when he toured through the famous Chitlin Circuit, Hendrix formed in 1966 his power trio, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, which soon took the rock world by storm, and within a year or two Hendrix was considered the greatest rock guitarist in the world. (Can you hear the rolling feedback, stuttering vibrato and outrageous distortion?) But he didn’t go around and tell everybody how great he was – Jimi was modest about such matters. Hendrix’s most creative work can be found on the double-album set, Electric Ladyland (1968), perhaps the greatest rock album of the 1960s, though that would be very hard to prove.
2. Steve Vai
Steve Vai is as good as he is because he took lessons from Joe Satriani. He’s also surpassingly good because he has the balls to play a “triple-neck” guitar! Schooled in the avant-garde irreverence of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, with whom he played in the early 1980s (Zappa referred to him as his “little Italian virtuoso”), Vai also played with various artists and bands at the time, including David Lee Roth, Alcatrazz, Ozzie Ozbourne and Whitesnake. Then he went solo in 1989. His second solo album was the critically acclaimed Passion and Warfare (1990), which includes one of his best guitar solos on “For the Love of God.” Then Vai produced Fire Garden (1996), an album including 18 cuts, perhaps the best of which was “Dyin’ Day.” In 2002, Vai played with a 100-piece orchestra in Tokyo. He’s also played on numerous sound tracks, video games and acted in several movies. In short, in the world of contemporary rock and roll, Steve Vai has been there, done that.
1. Jeff Beck
Jeff Beck made his own guitar from scratch as a kid, and he’s been amazing people with what he plucks from guitars ever since. One of three amazing axemen to play in the short-lived Yardbirds, Jeff Beck formed the Jeff Beck Group in the late 1960s, producing such classic albums as Truth, Beck-Ola and Rough and Ready. Then he developed his own jazz-fusion style in the middle 1970s, creating the incomparable album, Blow by Blow, which includes the dreamy, ethereal masterpiece, “Diamond Dust,” and then a notable follow-up disk, Wired, with Jan Hammer on keyboards. Since those days Beck has been a lone wolf, working as a soloist, sideman or studio musician. Beck continued the artistry in 1989 with Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop, which includes the frenetic, incendiary number, “Big Block,” and produced many other exceptional albums in the 1990s and 2000s. Beck’s latest album is Loud Hailer (2016), which shows that Beck's Beckisms on the guitar make him the greatest rock guitarist ever.
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© 2009 Kelley Marks