I'm a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
The Best Guitar Tones in the History of Rock
For most guitarists, the quest for great tone begins the moment they strike their first note. After a great deal of trial and error, some players eventually arrive at that perfect combination of guitar, amp, and effects that gets them to tonal heaven.
Others make do with something that’s close enough and reluctantly come to the conclusion that the sound they imagine in their head is only a fantasy, and not possible in the real world.
Still others spend their whole lives unhappy with their sound, and go to their graves never knowing the bliss of an E5 power chord struck with flawless tone.
But some famous guitar players have obviously cracked the code when it comes to nailing amazing tone. In fact, these guys are a big part of the reason the rest of us spend so much time pulling our hair out over the sounds coming from our amps.
We spend our money and our time trying to emulate their guitar sounds or trying to come up with something similarly awesome on our own. What do these guys have that we don’t?
In truth, many of these players are likely as self-conscious about their sound as we are about ours. They’ve spent countless hours listening to recordings and tweaking knobs, moving effects in and out of their signal chain and trying different amps and guitars. All of that is a big part of why they sound as good as they do, but I believe there is one more key factor that makes the biggest difference between them and us.
I’ll save that little secret until the end of this article. For now, here’s a look at my list of rock guitar players with the best tone.
1. Eddie Van Halen
Like most guitar players my age, I grew up listening to Van Halen and wondering how Eddie pulled such amazing sounds out of his guitar. Guitar tricks and tapping are one thing, but what really grabbed me was the texture and depth of his guitar tone.
Eddie has referred to his perfect tone as the now-legendary brown sound. It’s one of those things that’s hard to describe, but you know it when you hear it - high-gain and crunchy, with a woody resonance and tons of sustain, but still articulate. Truthfully, only Eddie knows for sure, but the rest of us can make some good guesses based on his sound over the years.
The interesting thing is how Eddie’s tone has retained those characteristics but still managed to evolve over time. In the early days of Van Halen, it was much more aggressive and brash. During the Sammy years, it became a little more polished, more mature and more expansive from a musical perspective.
Over his career Eddie has used a wide range of guitars to get his sound, and has been constantly improving an innovating. In his early days he used his famous Frankenstrats, equipped with a Gibson PAF humbucker, into Marshall amps. Today he employs his own branded EVH gear, featuring his Wolfgang guitars and 5150 III amplifiers.
2. Jimi Hendrix
Like Van Halen, the playing of Jimi Hendrix has always blown my mind. After more than thirty years as a guitarist, I can say I understand most of what the great guitar players do, except for these two guys. They seem to come from another planet, with brains that work differently from the rest of us.
It’s no secret that Jimi played primarily Fender Stratocasters through Marshall Plexis at the height of his career. Like most guitar players he went through many different guitars and amplifiers before arriving at this conclusion and had we not lost him he likely would have continued to evolve his gear arsenal. He's also noted for using a Dallas-Artiber Fuzz Face and Roger Mayer Octavia effects pedals.
But, unlike Van Halen there is little evidence Jimi was a tinkerer, ready to whip out a soldering iron and bend his instruments to his will. Most of what he played was stock, but remember Jimi was a left-handed guitar player.
That means when he restrung his right-handed Stratocasters, everything from the pickup angle, string length after the nut and even the electronics cavity of the guitar was reversed. Some say this, in part, accounts for his amazing sound, but I think that may an oversimplification.
Jimi's Live Sound Just Oozed with Amazing Tone
Crank It Up!
It's often said that both Hendrix and Van Halen (in his early days) believed volume played a big role in their sound and preferred their tone with their Marshalls turned all the way up.
3. Stevie Ray Vaughan
Stevie Ray Vaughan’s brand of Texas blues was a major influence in my career as a guitar player. I’m certainly not alone in that and exploring how he got his amazing sound can be as enlightening as his music itself.
SRV played Stratocasters at the height of his career, most notably a beaten-up sunburst model he dubbed “Number One”. The guitar signal went through an Ibanez Tube Screamer and into Fender amplifiers for his overdrive sound and Marshall amps for his clean tones. However, I think there are two key factors beyond gear that explain his sound.
The first is his creative use of the five-way switch on his Strats. He often switched pickups mid-song, and even mid solo, choosing the perfect texture for each passage.
The second thing is his picking style. If you know Strats, Fender amps and Tube Screamers you know that none of the three are inherently aggressive pieces of gear. However, SRV made them rip with strong right-hand technique and an incredible soulfulness to his playing.
The same can be said for his shuffling rhythm playing. SRV has left us with a great lesson: It’s not just what you play, but how you play. Your technique is a big part of your sound.
SRV's Version of Texas Flood Is a Classic
Tune It Down
Hendrix, Van Halen and SRV all tuned their guitars down a half-step. This slackened the strings slightly and certainly affected their tone.
4. Billy Gibbons
When I was a first learning guitar ZZ Top was known for hits like Sharp Dressed Man and Legs, as well as fluffy guitars and some pretty cool vintage cars. It didn’t take a whole lot of exploration to discover that this Little Ol’ Band from Texas has a lot more going on than what MTV was showing me.
ZZ Top took the electric Texas blues to the mainstream public while SRV was still playing in bar bands. Their sound is thick and huge, and it’s hard to remember they are a three-piece sometimes.
A big part of that sound is the guitar, and the driving force of the guitar sound behind ZZ Top is, of course, the legendary Billy Gibbons. His earlier band, Moving Sidewalks, had opened for Jimi Hendrix once upon a time, and it’s easy to see how Gibbons has been influenced by Jimi’s rock-oriented take on the blues.
Billy’s tone is heavy with distortion, yet super articulate. Much of his early sound is attributed to his classic ’59 Les Paul, named Pearly Gates, but today he often plays a Grestch Billy Bo Jupiter Thunderbird along with assorted Les Pauls and Telecasters.
Billy G Is Still Just About as Cool as They Come
5. Jimmy Page
Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin rounds out my list of guitar players with the best tone, and it’s not because he occasionally plays his guitar like a violin. Page, I think, is the master at something all of the guitars players listed above have done very well: Controlling the tone at the guitar itself.
Like Van Halen and Gibbons, Page’s career has spanned many decades, so it is tough to nail down one piece of gear that makes or breaks his sound. I use the movie The Song Remains the Same as a good benchmark to Page’s tone at its finest. Here he primarily uses his iconic Les Paul Standard, along with a Gibson double-neck. In the backline, we can see several Marshall Plexi stacks, plus a Marshall cabinet with an Orange head on top.
Page’s gear is interesting, but for me the real take-away message from this live footage is how he uses the controls on his Les Paul. He often seems to employ both pickups in rhythm sections where most guitar players would use only the bridge pickup. His pickup choices, as well as his manipulation of the volume and tone controls, are conscious decisions that subtly alter his tone.
Mix It Up
Jimmy Page experimented with a huge range of sounds during his days in Led Zeppelin. It's hard to think of a more innovative guitar player.
More Tone Monsters
In this article, I’ve listed my top five guitarists that I think have the best tone. You may not agree with my choices, and I would hope not! We all come to the guitar by a different path, and our personal experiences make up our own versions of what we like and don’t like. So, who do you think I missed?
I know there are a few I would consider adding if I were to expand this list to a Top 10. I’ve always loved David Gilmour’s lead tone. Angus Young gets some crushing sounds out of a Marshall and a Gibson SG thanks to his ferocious rhythm technique. It goes without saying that Clapton has recorded some of the most epic sounds in early hard rock. Zakk Wylde and his detuned Les Paul-and-Marshall-powered tone is brutal. Steve Vai’s guitar sounds like liquid silver.
There are many more. Surely I’m forgetting someone. Maybe there’s someone you know about and I’ve never heard of. So let me know in the comments section!
What About Gear?
You also might have noticed I shied away from getting too in-depth when it comes to the gear some of these guys have used and use today. There are two reasons for this.
Firstly, there is a lot of mystique surrounding many of the guitars, amps, and effects used by famous guitar players. In some cases they themselves don’t remember or don’t care about, the specifics behind the gear they used decades ago.
There is a lot of misinformation and conjecture on the internet, and if you want to go down that rabbit hole you are welcome.
Does that mean we shouldn't care about their gear? Well, we’re guitar players, so we are going to care whether we should or not. I know I do! We need to know the “secrets” behind their amazing sounds! But the real secret is a little simpler, and that brings me to the second reason I didn’t go super in-depth into gear, which I alluded to at the beginning of this article.
The secret to great tone is this: The sound is in the player. Eddie Van Halen sounds amazing because he’s Eddie Van Halen. SRV had killer tone because he played like only SRV could. Hendrix sounded incredible because he was Hendrix, and possibly because he was dropped off on Earth by a super-advanced race of guitar-playing aliens.
Even if you or I were to hook into one of their guitar rigs, we would still sound like ourselves. Gear is fun and cool, but the secret to your sound is you!
Sound depressing? It should be liberating. That means you don’t need to depend on a special guitar or amp to sound great. You don't need to build your guitar yourself like Van Halen, find the perfect guitar stashed away in barely-played condition like Gibbons, or have unique effects created for you like Hendrix.
You just need to be you, and play like yourself. Despite all of their legendary guitars and amps, that’s really what the great guitar players throughout history have done.
Who has the best tone?
Scott on December 30, 2019:
Michael Schenker Nowhere To Be Found On Your Lists...
Without Him On It The Lists Are Lame Michae Schenker Not Even Mentioned
Sorry Lame List
K.K. on December 23, 2019:
Gary Moore, Frank Marino, and Criss Oliva.
Christopher Nowak on December 08, 2019:
THE WORST: B B. king
THE BEST: Michael Angelo Batio
JIMMY REEVES: YES. I have TINA S. and MICHAEL ANGELO BATIO as tied for the best guitarists in the world but if I had to pick one, it would be BATIO because he is 50% Italian like myself.
I also think that BATIO'S tone fits the rock mode better than TINA'S.
J on November 17, 2019:
Shredchest on November 15, 2019:
Talking about tone.. Ritchie blackmore are more appealing n worldly best improvised n favourable expose guitarist especially live!!! n much way better than two jimmy..
Sandiablo on November 14, 2019:
Nathan Kittock on November 12, 2019:
Really? No Angus Young? I mean how can you truly decide the top 5? Top twenty is a little easier because you have some room to work with.
Jimmy Reaves on November 11, 2019:
Check out Miss Tina S. from France on YouTube. She was Female Guitarist of the year in 2016 at age 16. Watch Tina S. playing Beethoven's 3rd movement of the Moonlight Sonata and Her cover of Steve Vai's "For the Love of God." Tina S. is hands down the best Guitarist in the world. She never says a word nor utters a sound. She speaks with Her Hands and Her words flow freely from the tips of Her Fingers....
Taimur on November 10, 2019:
Mark Knopfler, hands down.
Michael James (author) on November 10, 2019:
@Wesman - SRV's sound was crazy. Everyone gets so caught up on what gear he used, but his tone was mostly in his hands. Just amazing.
Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on November 09, 2019:
No way I could ever argue with any of your selections. All are fantastic. I will tell you I voted SRV in your poll, but not because he's my favorite of the list, he's actually not, but because his tone, I felt, was maybe the most distinctive.
Mike Porter on October 22, 2019:
Not surprising the best guitarist, Roy Buchanan, was not on list
Jeremy Thomas on October 20, 2019:
What about ADAM JONES?! He is known for his unique and puzzling tone which sounds epic and makes your blood curdle!
Alice Meagher on October 20, 2019:
I think you made an error in not mentioning "Joe Perry" of Aerosmith. All the others are dead or retired. He's still out there, still rocking on & still a living legend.
Allan Holdsworth on March 22, 2019:
Eddie Van Halen Cited Allan Holdsworth as the best. Allan had an amazing tone. Shame he is not even mentioned.
Brandi on February 01, 2019:
YOU FORGOT SLASH!!!! YOU CANT EVEN SAY GREATEST GUITAR PLAYERS WITHOUT THINKING OF SLASH!!!!
MagicDave on October 13, 2018:
Guitar Tone Monsters? Tone is an incredibly subjective judgement besides the author left out some very important "Tone Monsters" such as Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Ted Nugent, Jerry Garcia. There are others too such as Gary Duncan from Quicksilver Messenger Service. The "vote" is an exercise in subjectivity. Some tonal nuances are the result of guitar resonance coupled with electronic variances of tubes and transformers, caps, etc. Personally my guitars have different tonal characteristics even though they are both Music Man Silhouettes with DiMarzzio's and maple fingerboards. The body woods are different. One swamp ash and one alder. Speaker choices also have an effect on tone. The mere suggestion that even Eddie Van Halen's tinkering is the reason for his tone is mostly nonsense. Clapton's "woman tone" was a pickup choice coupled with his old Fender Bassman with 4-10" speakers. Tube amp designs have different tonal characteristics. One of my favorites was my old Peavey Delta Blues with a 15" speaker. I like moving a lot of air and prefer big speakers. Currently I use a Roland Blues Cube Artist with a 12" speaker. I wish it was a 15" The 212 model sounds great but the cab is too big. There are tube snobs that claim that their blackface Deluxe is the greatest tone monster ever but my blackface Vibrolux did not possess the richness of my Delta Blues. Some of that difference is EL84 vs 6L6/6V6 but now that I am 70 years old light weight is very important to me and frankly suggesting it is always possible to tell the difference is bullshit.
BigFatAngus on October 12, 2018:
JD on October 07, 2018:
I have seen Eric Clapton , Keith Richards, Carlos Santana, Greg Schon from Journey and Eddie Van Halen , they all rock and are Rock n Roll Hall of Famers
Michael James (author) on September 08, 2018:
@William - We all have different tastes, preferences and experiences. Thanks for mentioning those guys, though. I am always interested to see other guitar players comment on who they would have chosen. I'm sure we could add many more players to the list!
William Higgins on September 07, 2018:
I am stunned that you have left Rory Gallagher and Gary Moore off your list of personal favorites.
Carmen on September 03, 2018:
Let’s not forget Prince Rogers Nelson!!!
Michael James (author) on July 19, 2018:
@Ran - I've always been blown away by Eddie's tone, from the early albums until today. It is kind of unique, and I see why some people could be turned off I guess, but to me it is part of what makes him such a great guitarist.
Ran123 on July 19, 2018:
Van Halen tone ? You are crazy !
Deguello on June 03, 2018:
I would put Mark Knopfler’s distinctive sound on the list.
Flemming Giese on June 03, 2018:
Jerome pozarski on May 31, 2018:
Ritchie blackmore has to be in the conversation!