The future of music

54 Best Guitarists of All Time

July 21, 2023
best guitarists of all time

Get ready to rock as we take you through the 54 best guitarists of all time.

We have tried to include a mixture of pioneers that helped shape the fabulous genres we hear played today. 

Each of those who have made our list has brought a unique stamp to the instrument. 

You’ll find some of the most famous guitarists to have ever picked up the instrument. 

Legends who play stylistically in a recognizable manner that has inspired every guitarist to follow.

Now we can’t ignore the earlier pioneers, but we’ll be honest and to the point, today’s showcase is electric and rock oriented.

While you’ll find a few iconic blues representatives in the mix and even a little flamenco for the most part we are getting heavy.

1. Ritchie Blackmore

We are opening with the former frontman of Deep Purple, The Outlaws, Rainbow, and Blackmore’s Night.

Ritchie Blackmore is an epic guitarist, sometimes overlooked when people give their top ten for the likes of Vai, Van Halen, and other noisy boys.

But for us, he remains one of the most influential guitarists having redefined guitar throughout his career.

His solo’s with Deep Purple are ranked among the best solo’s in guitar history.

His Project with Rainbow was a bold blend of baroque-n-roll.

It is hard to see experimental classical guitarists like Yngwie Malmsteen stepping into the limelight without Blackmore’s experimentation expanding horizons.

2. Pete Townshend

Townshend has a wild and aggressive, playing style that gives The Who a rhythmic brand of its own.

He is technically proficient and again overlooked by some when recounting legendary guitarists.

His right-hand control set him apart from other emerging rock bands at the time.

He created a dynamic push/pull that many later imitated.

However, as the pioneer, Townshend plays with an understated nuance that is hard to compete with.

The sound he achieved is distinctive and revolutionized rock making him one of the most celebrated rock guitarists of all time.

3. Jimi Hendrix

Another revolutionary rock guitarist that will make any shortlist is the late Jimi Hendrix.

His R&B laced rock’n’roll was crammed with distortion and wah wah pedal play.

At the time it was pretty new.

Clapton was all the rage back then but Hendrix’s noisy renditions blew minds and he soon became “tough competition”.

Clapton himself said; “It’s something that no one is ever going to beat.” 

With his liberal embrace of effects Hendrix kickstarted the Psychedelic rock movement.

He was integral in changing the way we viewed the guitar as an instrument and expanding the possibilities in terms of sound production.

4. Jimmy Page

With a raucous fusion of rock and blues Jimmy Page and his many iconic riffs steals a spot as one of the best guitarists of all time.

While arguably a lot of their inspiration was pilfered and not out of the ethos, Led Zeppelin remains one of the best rock bands in history.

The well-deserved title comes down to Page’s hyperactive, clamorous but glorious guitar playing.

The mastermind dominated the 70s encompassing hard rock’n’roll and leaving behind a legacy that will surely outlive him.

5. Steve Vai

Known for his repertoire of skilled playing techniques, Vai is probably one of the names on everyone’s lips as they read through our introduction.

Vai mastered a range of skills like two-handed tapping, hybrid and sweep picking, and whammy bar acrobatics, in his playing.

While that is true, it’s important to add that the biggest thing he mastered was how to string them together coherently.

He wasn’t just about showing off.

He had musicality not just fast fingers and a pedal board full of distortion.

His innovative circular vibrato could probably be dubbed his calling card.

In a Masterclass he said vibrato is “the soul of your note”.

Vai combined an up-down vibrato that raises the pitch and a side-to-side one that slightly flattens the note to create a distinct vibrato sound.

6. Eddie Van Halen

Another pioneer that every modern guitarist owes a lot to is the late legendary guitarist Eddie Van Halen.

Hendrix ripped up the rulebook and Van Halen followed suit.

With no formal music training, he listened to Bach’s recitals and improvised on the piano with great skill. 

But once he picked up a guitar and developed lightning-speed arpeggios he became a total sensation.

His instrumental solo “Eruption” was voted number 2 in a poll of the “100 Greatest Guitar Solos”.

He defined the sound of an era, with his fiery finger-tapping and cocksure showmanship. 

Known for some of the busiest solos and hard-rock rhythms he will forever be remembered as one of the greatest guitarists of all time.

7. Yngwie Malmsteen

While we are discussing fast fingers and technical mastery we have to mention Yngwie Malmsteen.

The Stockholm-born guitarist practiced 10-12 hours a day to hone his craft and filled the boots that Hendrix left behind.

The creator of neoclassical metal,  he has a powerful and lethal swift-picking technique. 

Like Ritchie Blackmore, he was influenced by baroque music and other classical styles which shines through in his composition.

With a non-conformity to contemporary techniques and an eagerness to experiment he reset the bar and left an explosive mark in music history.

8. Brian May

Lead guitarist to the unforgettable rock band Queen, Brian May’s mix of power chords and effortless fretwork are also noteworthy.

He may not have pioneered or pushed boundaries like some we have delved into but he earns his place among the best guitarists of all time.

May has a distinctive sound, with memorable riffs and high-energy solos that climb ever higher in an ecstatic sort of way. 

His solo composition has a stately, graceful manner to it, regal in some way.

He is known to have played with a six-pence rather than a pick which gave his chords more attack with the right hand. 

He also had a distinct sound thanks to his now-famous homemade custom guitar “The Red Special”.

The cornerstone of Queen’s signature sound, many generations of guitarists will be glad that May put his dreams of being an astrophysicist on hold.

9. David Gilmour

The Pink Floyd co-founder and his iconic “Black Strat” paved the path for psychedelic rock to blossom into prog-rock.

Setting off from Hendrix’s brazen rule-breaking Gilmour has been described as the missing link between Hendrix and Van Halen.

Known for his bluesy explosions and mind-bending string-bending accuracy Gilmour is a powerhouse that rouses emotion regardless of what he plays.

Building soundscapes and creating atmospheres that drag the listener right inside he plays like no other.

With jazz-rock influences dancing in among a swampy lake of psychedelia, David Gilmour’s smooth playing is distinct.

Favoring subtler playing with vibrato, whammy, hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides he innovated and cultivated the band’s signature sound.

10. Stevie Ray Vaughan

American musician, singer, songwriter, and record producer Stevie Ray Vaughan helped to revive the Blues.

An influential electric guitar player and game-changer, he had an important role in the history of music although his career was cut short.

He had a dynamic sound and his playing style was inspired by the original Blues to have emerged out of Mississippi.

His bending technique was inspired by Albert King, another prominent guitar figure.

Vaughan is known for his vibrato and rhythmic rubato, known as a floating rhythm. 

He favored simplistic solos but boy did they shine.

He started off life playing with his brother in the Austin group Double Trouble and went on to play guitar for some of the biggest artists of the era.

The majority of Bowie’s Let’s Dance album featured Vaughan on guitar.

11. Chet Atkins

Chet Atkins is one of the legends of country music, with a refined finger-picking style he made many contributions to the genre.

If we were listing the best country guitarists he would stand out by miles.

Alongside some of this guitar royalty, he may seem like an odd choice but we are all for representation.

Rolling Stone credited Atkinsas the inventor of the “Nashville sound”.

Atkins holds 14 Grammy Awards and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

His calling card is his “Atkins style” of playing that uses the thumb and first two or sometimes three fingers of the right hand which he owes to years of listening to Merle Travis.

12. Paco de Lucía

Next up we have the Spanish virtuoso flamenco guitarist and composer Paco de Lucía.

A Prominent figure who shaped flamenco playing taking it into new realms. 

A known perfectionist Paco would practice for up to 11 hours a day and the hard work paid off.

He is known for his high-speed fingerstyle runs and impassioned rasgueados. 

With a penchant for jazz, he often embedded abstract scale tonality into his playing. 

The music he created had a juxtapositional feel with the fiery flamenco battling against less intricate vulnerable playing that came from his love of classical music and jazz.

He is a leading proponent of “new flamenco” and is certainly one of the best guitarists in history.

13. Carlos Santana

No one is going to argue with this one.

Carlos Santana is a versatile fusion performer. 

His myriad of cross-genre influences all play a vital role in the sound he has cultivated as his own.

Santana worked with Latin and Afro-inspired rhythms and bucketloads of world-music playing techniques up his sleeves.

His meaty blues-rock with its Mexican flavor helped widen the soundscape of rock ‘n’ roll. 

A great example of his distinct vibe comes from his cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Black Magic Woman”.

Santana gave it a gypsy swing makeover unleashing its hip-swaying potential with lashings of Latin flair.

For his contribution, he will go down in history as one of the greatest guitarists hands down.

See also: Best Santana Songs

14. Joe Satriani

Satch is a revered rock guitarist and one of the most accomplished solo instrumentalists.

With a tonne of music theory behind his skills he knows exactly how and when to apply all the crazy techniques that he can turn his hands to.

Satriani’s instrumentals demonstrate a wealth of technical prowess. 

His smooth and flowing runs are like no other with their legato hammerings.

He favors the more extreme side of whammy-bar use too.

Considered something of a virtuoso he has total mastery of two-handed tapping and arpeggio tapping.

His pitch harmonics are otherworldly complementing the science-fiction themes some of his music centers around.

He creates atmospheres with his volume swells and other effects.

Sadly, he holds the record for fourth-most Grammy nominations without a win!

15. Chuck Berry

If we compare Chuck Berry to the technically gifted innovators we have been highlighting then sure he falls a little short.

But he is considered one of the world’s best guitarists for his contribution to music history.

Without Chuck Berry, rock’n’roll wouldn’t have been brought to life with his Chicken Strutt.

There were many other pioneers at the time who are also considered among the best guitarists. 

Players like Sister Rosetta Tharpe the grandmother of rock ‘n’ roll, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Link Wray. 

But Berry brought his rockabilly-inspired solos to the masses with huge appeal.

His playing style was driving rhythms and wild, rocking solos born from his R&B and Country music influences.

“Johnny B Goode” is a track that will go down in history, just about everyone recognizes its hot-rod, high-octane intro, and ecstatic solo section.

16. Eric Clapton

Before Hendrix came and changed the game Clapton was considered top dog.

“Clapton Is God” was a familiar graffiti addition to the walls in London. 

When it comes to the blues he really is still king.

Clapton can make a guitar wail, he is a versatile player who knows when to employ a heavy-driven riff or an emotional legato blues lick.

His music shaped a genre and the songs are timeless. 

Most of his work is considered rock and blues canon.

He is responsible for some of the world’s most recognized riffs and they will live on forever.

The euphoria he brought to the track “Layla” shows off his innate ability. 

See also: Best Eric Clapton Songs

17. Jeff Beck

Alongside Clapton was another stellar blues musician who was sometimes overshadowed, Eric’s close friend Jeff Beck.

Clapton had a tried and tested formula that he sank his teeth into.

Beck pushed the boundaries a little more than Clapton who tapped out of the psych-rock after cream.

Beck joined The Yardbirds in the 60s and had a warm fuzzy sound that spoke to audiences of the era.

His playing was raw, grittier, and laced with a little more experimentation.

He had an adventurous side and dabbled with Latin-based scales in his playing.

He incorporated jazzier inversions and had a choppier funkier feel to some of his later songs.

He had great whammy-bar control that he used for the bluesier pieces that he recorded with the Jeff Beck Group.

He was also known for having good slide precision beyond the guitar neck, often tapping the note with the slide.  

18. Tony Iommi

To be fair we could list all of the Black Sabbath lead guitarists in this article and Randy Rhoads is a favorite, but when it comes to hard-rock credentials Iommi trumps. 

Heavy metal owes a lot to Iommi’s ominous cataclysmic riffs with their dark colorations and his choice of scale use.

The fact that Iommi lost the tips of his fingertips in a welding accident makes his feats and fretwork all the more impressive.

Because of his accident, he was forced to invent his own way of playing, giving him a unique style.

His hammer-ons are hellbound; there is something Wagnerian about his lingering note-by-note solos.

The blues had never sounded gloomier, Iommi’s doom-laden vibe sculpted the sound of Black Sabbath and birthed a new genre.

He also took over from Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple.

19. John Petrucci

With scorching solos, astounding shreds, and technical skills that bring him high acclaim Petrucci is up there with the best of the best.

The founding member of the Grammy Award Winning progressive metal band Dream Theater draws on a wide range of influences to form his unique sound and style.

One of the finest metal guitarists out there, he has a sound understanding of theory which can be seen in the way Dream Theatre tracks are constructed outside of the traditional contemporary rules. 

He does away with standard time signatures and has a finesse quite unlike others redefining the instrument.

His work is a neoclassical, jazz-infused progressive mix full of tapping, sweep picking, and proficient chops with a diabolical edge.

20. Gary Moore

The late Gary Moore began his musical walk of fame in Skid Row and was also a frequent face in Thin Lizzy’s lineup but he will be remembered more for his solo work.

The legendary blues powerhouse had a sound that was almost too big to believe.

The virtuoso added a jazz fusion edge to his blues arrangements and even dabbled with hard rock and metal.

A talented and emotive player his searing tones wail with a lament over tracks like “Still Got The Blues” and who could forget his elegant masterpiece “Parisian Walkways”?

Gary stuck to what he was good at and used it to great effect.

He favored the minor pentatonic and used hammer-ons and pull-offs rather than speed-picking his way through something.

The laid-back legato notes gave his solos grace and he inspired many other guitarists to come.

For that, he will be remembered as one of the best guitarists in history.

21. Mark Knopfler

Another superb guitarist who inspires each generation of players is the iconic Mark Knopfler.

There is something about just about every Dire Straits song that makes you want to pick up a guitar and learn.

His solos are more or less immaculate and his riffs are evocative, grabbing attention and drawing the listener straight in.

“Sultans Of Swing” is on everyone’s to-learn list.

It was Knopfler’s sweeping soft rock riffs that cemented the band’s sound from day one on this track, which quickly brought the act fame and fortune.

His playing style is inspired by roots music, he once described trying to find an idyllic middle-ground where the folk meets the blues.

An accurate description of the Dire Straits trademark vibe.

22. Dave Mustaine

Although he can shred and solo with the best of them, one of Dave Mustaine’s greatest and most overlooked attributes as a guitarist is his propeller-speed rhythm playing. 

Quite often a non-guitarist will be overly impressed by soloing skills and neglect the skill it takes to proficiently play rhythm.

In the early days of Metallica, his intricate solos and lightning-fast fretwork were unmatched and his rhythm work still is.

He has a virtuosic playing style, with spider chords and powerful riffs.

He is not afraid of incorporating some of the more complex techniques like his counterparts.

As Megadeth’s main composer, his thrashing and shredding and intricate riffs are full to the brim. 

There will always be debate over who was the best Metallica guitarist but his leads in Megadeth showcase him as one of the best guitarists of all time.

23. Dimebag Darrell

Guitarist for Pantera and Damageplan, the late Dimebag Darrell is considered one of the best metal guitarists of all time.

He played with both speed and accuracy, something tough to master.

Favoring a heavy gauge pick gave him his thick iconic sound perfect for delivering the heaviest of riffs.

The tonality and range of sounds achieved with his custom pick gave the band its own stamp, something unique to them.

He is something of a pioneer of the groove metal genre.

He would use the guitar riff and twist it to create a percussive feel that countered the drum playing. 

Pantera had an aggressive soundscape that was largely down to Dimebag’s guitar playing.

24. Robert Fripp

Everything about Robert Fripp is atypical, he looks more like a school teacher than a rock star but he helped shape the genre and push its boundaries beyond.

The classically trained Robert Fripp joined the original King Crimson line-up in 1969.

With a wide range of influences borrowed from the group’s first album was a huge success. 

With a folk-meets-Jazz- does-rock vibe, it has been cited as one of the most influential albums and an important cornerstone in the evolution of progressive rock.

He is a brazen musician, fearless when it comes to experimentation.

He employs unconventional harmonies and rhythms in his music.

He is credited with creating a tape delay technique known as “Frippertronics,” and New Standard Tuning (C/G/D/A/E/G).

Fripp might not be a name that your average Joe has heard too often, but we guarantee the majority of the guitarists on this list have been influenced by his bold accolades.

25. Peter Green

Possibly less iconic but undoubtedly another of the blues greats, Peter Green is one of the most gifted musicians out there.

His name may not be as big as a stand-alone guitarist like Vai, Malmsteen, or Satriani but he was the blues-rock windstorm beneath Fleetwood Mac.

His use of vibrato to create swelling build-ups would have audiences in a near-meditative state.

His solos soar to sky-scraper heights.

He played with a range of styles and influences littering his music making the band musically interesting.

Green turned his hand to pretty much anything bringing us gut-wrenching ballads and psych-rock with musical ingenuity.

The reason he makes the blues so authentic is down to simplicity, he doesn’t overplay.

Green denies his ego to make sure the track has the soul and passion of the blues.

Peter Green was rightly inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.

He is one of the least flamboyant and indulgent players on our list but one of the best guitarists of all time nonetheless.

26. Slash

We’ll start by saying there is nothing revolutionary about the way Slash plays his ax.

He hasn’t contributed anything mind-bending to the field and doesn’t perform like an ego-maniacal stuntman upon his fretboard.

His solos favor the pentatonic scale melodically and he sticks to traditional licks so musically they are pretty “safe”.

But the definition of a great guitarist is subjective.

If you favor speed and technical acrobats then he is going to rank a lot lower. 

Negatives aside, he is far from mediocre.

The best word to describe his playing would be tasteful. He pushes a song as far as it needs to go and no further. 

The space between notes is as important as the notes you play and Slash understands that.

Guns N’ Roses is a well-loved classic/hard rock group with many memorable songs that would not have the edge that they do without his riffs, licks, and solos adorning them.

27. Nile Rodgers

With the seventies came disco music and while there are several guitarists we could mention the crown of the funkiest disco guitarist goes to Nile Rodgers.

As lead guitarist for Chic, he cultivated some of the grooviest chops of all time. 

His innovative style was a blend of jazz and funk, full of triads.

He played with a distinctive combination of left and right-hand string muting.

His picking attack is referred to as “chucking” and it has inspired many since.

His accuracy is astounding, his rhythms are precise and always danceable.

His versatility shows when you recount the acts he has been invited to play and record with. 

Rodgers has provided guitar for Duran Duran, David Bowie, and even Madonna!

Chic songs are still sampled to this very day in electronic music. 

When it comes to uptempo funk there is no greater guitarist.

28. Tom Morello

Now spending on which camp you are in Morello either gets more credit than he deserves, or not enough!

But creatively speaking, it is tough to argue that he isn’t one of the most original players on the field.

He is relentless and fearless, bringing new sounds and new techniques to the table and writing songs that change musical direction unexpectedly.

He has a love of metal deep-seated from his youth but he is also inspired by hip-hop and embraces a range of cultural influences to boot.

Say what you want about his technical finesse but he is never boring!

His unorthodox noises are often touted as ahead of the pack for how inventive they are.

His songs are often memorable for multiple riffs each as good or better than the last.

His phrasing choices are complex, and outside of the box.

His delivery timing and sense of rhythm are sophisticated.

29. John Frusciante

One more guitarist with a funkier feel is John Frusciante. 

Again, he isn’t going to compete with some of the guitar-god billing we have here but his rhythm guitar is on point.

He knows how to compliment Keidis and give Flea the room to play a delectable funk bassline.

His guitar skills are understated and his ego is under wraps.

Frusciante is less “Look at me, look what I can do” and more “Listen to us, listen to what I contribute to the unmistakable inimitable sound of the Red Hot CHilli Peppers”!

His versatile fret and fingerwork enable him to play jagged rhythms and funky chops, busy arpeggios, gleaming slides, or melancholic and pensive background accompaniments.

But he can still let rip when a song needs it.

Another of his skills is his mastery of pedals and effects that add psychedelic texture to his funky hooks.

You instantly recognize the Red Hot Chilli Peppers sound when you hear Frusciante’s guitar tone.

30. Joe Bonamassa

A young Joe Bonamassa opened for B.B. King when he was just 12 years old.

That tells you just about everything you need to know as to why he is one of the best guitarists of all time without looking further at his career.

The American blues rock guitarist has an interesting playing style.

This is because, in addition to the early blues artists like Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson, his influences came from overseas.

Jeff Beck, Clapton, Peter Green, and Gary Moore were among his favorites.

Bonamassa is very technically gifted and has what some describe as an encyclopedic knowledge of the blues.

He often uses a lot of notes in his songs.

31. Keith Richards

The stereotype of the debauched rocker that lives on in the collective imagination owes a large debt to the legendary, swaggering, insolent Keith Richards.

A wizard with the drop tuning, Richards was no one-trick pony – he adeptly balanced the needs of an inchoate rock and roll genre with the conventions of rockabilly roadhouse and the stadium excess.

Give the shimmering and sublime “Gimme Shelter” a listen and then branch out into the pure rock nirvana of “Start Me Up”, “Let’s Spend the Night Together”, “Beast of Burden”, “Wild Horses”, “Not Fade Away”, and “Back Street Girl.”

32. Neil Young

Canada’s homegrown hero, Young brought lucidity, an academic texture, and a piercing candor to the guitar.

His brand of folk is richly textured, even challenging, bringing swamp-ridden cacophonies to life with self-assured melodies and riffs.

Indeed, no one can quite bridge the philosophical divide between the bohemian summer of love set and the enraged and socially alienated punks of the later seventies the way Neil can.

His best work can be encountered on the luminous 1970 album After the Goldrush, and in the rolling acoustics of “Heart of Gold” or “Down by the River,” the audacious and menacing “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World,” the reflective “Old Man,” and the sumptuous, freefalling “Like A Hurricane.”

33. Alex Lifeson

Alex Lifeson was, if you will, the lifeblood of Rush, Canada’s most enduring and creatively vigorous progressive rock band.

A guitar in Lifeson’s adept hands is a cosmic time traveler, bridging a temporal gap between nostalgic, evocative riffs and space-age, zinging riffs that hit the listener like a robotic one-two punch.

At once heartening and surrealist, Lifeson birthed some of the most provocatively original guitar tabs of all time, felt best in the quirky, outrageously immersive “Free Will”, “Limelight”, “Spirit of Radio”, and “Subdivisions.”

34. Johnny Ramone

Plucky, with an exuberant zeal, Johnny Ramone was single-handedly responsible for bringing a nostalgic downtown-cum-surfer ethos to the thriving punk scene of the late seventies and eighties. 

Ramone brought a swinging, gritty, generous N.Y.C. verve to punk, keeping gritty chords balanced by luminous, delightful melodies.

35. Jerry Garcia

The Grateful Dead owes much of its jam session street cred and psychedelic, unedited dynamism to the visceral originality of Garcia.

Garcia was unedited, unruffled, and possessed of an almost otherworldly sense of wisdom, vision, and cosmic insight.

He personified the Summer of Love ethos and embraced a surreal, zany earthiness that elevated the Dead to living bohemian legends in their own time.

He sustained mind-bending long improvisations, giving credence to the countercultural values of spontaneity, unmediated encounters, and sagacious vision.

36. George Harrison

The unsung hero and poetic prophet of the British Invasion, Harrison was above all a cerebral, reflective, endlessly curious spirit who brought a luminous, preternatural gravity to The Beatles’ best work.

Harrison was a man of the world, a dabbler in culture, philosophy, and literature and his academic interests could be felt in the loving, curated melodies he helped birth.

His turn in India with the gang is the storied material of legend, and he absorbed the impressions with an eye to elevating his own sound.

Melodies under Harrison’s direction are above all reverential – if you don’t believe me turn off the lights and listen to “My Sweet Lord.”

37. Tom Petty

The godfather of the generous, open-hearted Southern anthem, Petty brought an earnest, expansive, visionary aplomb to the guitar, creating twangy, evocative melodies that startle and haunt.

Petty’s chords are plucky, with a healthy dose of swampland splendor, and he maintains a plaintive, melancholic frankness blended with optimistic wisdom throughout his visionary canon.

Petty is unpretentious and earnest to the core, never deviating from the gentle, candid realism that makes his music so potently stirring. 

“Last Dance With Mary Jane”, “Here Comes My Girl”, “A Face in the Crowd”, and “Won’t Back Down” are essential road trip anthems.

38. Cat Stevens

The guitar is a lyrical, poetic, literary device under the command of folksy reluctant hero Cat Stevens.

His melodies enchant and elicit a flurry of emotions, from delight to deep introspection to restrained pathos. 

Cat was always a musician’s musician, a true craftsman who had an immaculate sense of quality control – a bad song didn’t enter his canon.

His 1970 album Matthew and Son is a treasure trove of ambitious experimentation, forthcoming authenticity, and charming intellect. 

“Bitterblue”, “The First Cut is the Deepest”, “I Found A Love”, and “Wild World” are essentials. 

39. Duane Allman

The Allman Brothers Band has a legacy that hasn’t lost any of its luster in the Southern Rock genre over the decades, in large part to Duane’s generous, enthusiastic, immersive chords.

During his tragically short career, he became a veritable virtuoso of the slide guitar and a practiced hand at expressive, untamed improvisational solos.

Indeed, when he broke out into one of his melodic, hypnotizing solos the room would fall silent and people would be gripped by the organic, inimitable intensity. 

In 2003, he was ranked number 2 in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time, and he is still referred to by lifelong obsessives by his endearing nickname “Skydog.”

40. Gordon Lightfoot

Often overlooked for his Canadian folk rock peer, Neil Young, Lightfoot is the undisputed master of blending tender, soaring, earthy acoustics with traditional Irish and Maritime melodies. 

Lightfoot can be plucky and self-assured but so too can he be graceful and generous and he brings to mind the vagaries, joys, and inner fragilities of a life spent uncommonly.

Although he embodies a mood of lucid optimism. he always maintains a knowing, sometimes even cynical, wisdom of the ways of the world and the vulnerabilities of the heart.

If you are ready to encounter your next folk obsession, start with “Go-Go Round,” “Oh So Sweet,” “Carefree Highway,” “Did She Mention My Name,” “Early Morning Rain,” “Rich Man’s Spiritual,” and “Ribbon of Darkness.”

41. B.B. King

B.B. King looms large over the entire post-1950 Western canon and he inspired much of the output that followed in fields as dynamic as blues, rock, rockabilly, and pop. 

With his inviting vibrato and his emotive, unrestrained string bends, King brought the endearing, disarming warmth and spirit of his Mississippi provenance to his rich, multifarious compositions. 

The candor and unvarnished sorrow of “The Thrill is Gone” and the delightful “Rock Me Baby” resonates to this day. 

42. Kurt Cobain

Stroppy alienated icon Cobain was always more than a devilishly melodic, poignant voice – he was also the originator of an uncommonly intimate, enraged, cathartic guitar sound.

Grunge produced a generative vocabulary of challenging chords, raw riffs, and tortured tabs and none mastered it as intuitively and preternaturally as did Cobain. 

Cobain’s ennui and inner torments were displaced into his art and his guitar wailed, provoked, and startled, but never bored or soothed.

His best works are his acoustic and doom-laden compositions: “Lake of Fire,” “Oh Me,” “All Apologies,” and “You Know You’re Right.”

43. Jerry Cantrell

Alice in Chains would never have achieved the melancholic, haunting, tortured highs that it did without the plaintive, mournful guitar chords of Jerry Cantrell.

He brought a dark, gloomy, oppressive magic to the instrument, turning it into a stark medium through which to channel the most unsavory, cloistered emotional states.

Cantrell was foundational to infusing their grungey, swampy sound with a visceral metal streak, felt in disconcerting solos like “Man in the Box,” “Rooster,” and “Dirt.”

Few can plumb the depths of the human psyche, come back with unvarnished wisdom and sincerity, and then render them in sonic forms like “Brother”, “Don’t Follow”, and “My Song.”

44. Mick Taylor

Mick is often overlooked in favor of Keith Richards but his influence and mighty charisma can be felt in The Rolling Stone’s output between 1969-1974, the time many diehard acolytes consider the most intriguing and expansive years of their careers.

That five-year stretch saw Let it Bleed, Exile on Main Street, and Sticky Fingers, some of the band’s most tectonic masterpieces.

His working-class roots gave him an amicable, disarming persona and his bluesy-twangy moves expanded the scope of turn-of-the-seventies classic rock.

If you worship at the altar of the Gibson Les Paul you have Taylor to thank for that.

45. Mike McCready

McCready of Pearl Jam and Temple of the Dog fame encapsulated all of the beautifully harrowing, elusively intricate, mesmerizingly mournful currents of the Pacific Northwest and brought them to the fore in each band’s full-bodied, evocative sound.

I wax lyrical, but McCready rendered sonic poetry with his blend of bluesy, sparse, intentional chords and immersive, cathartic exegeses. 

Reflecting on the high quality and consistent vision that marked his career, McCready picked out five tracks that he believes showcase his best work – drum roll.

The Temple of the Dog anthem “Reach Down” and the not-quite-as-famous Pearl Jam sleeper hits “Present Tense”, “Given to Fly”, “Inside Job”, and “Sirens.”

46. Freddie King

One of the “Three Kings of the Blues Guitar” along with B.B. King and Albert King (none of whom were related), Freddie brought a soulful ethos and a full-bodied, animated guitar.

He has had an outsized impact on rhythm and blues and electric guitar and he brought a lively, small-town Texas spirit to his showmanship.

He was ranked 25th in Rolling Stone Magazine’s “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” for blending unvarnished Chicago blues sounds with the traditional open-string sound associated with Southern blues.

Go get yourself a Gibson Les Paul with P-90 pickups and feel King’s ghost resonate. 

47. Paul Simonon

You know Paul as the petulant guitar-smashing punk icon forever immortalized on the cover of The Clash’s London Calling. 

Indeed he was the verve, the spirit, and the defiant beating heart of The Clash’s audacious, exuberant, invigorating originality.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Simonon, and The Clash, forever disrupted and reoriented the shape of British music to come, layering unflinching social commentary upon trenchant, unflappable guitar chords.

Encounter Simonon at his best with “Lost in the Supermarket,” “This Is England,” “Straight to Hell,” “Train in Vain,” and “Police On My Back.” 

48. Les Paul

How could we leave the inspiration for the Gibson Les Paul off the list?

Early adopter Les Paul was the godfather of blues, country, and American jazz and he was one of the first musicians to master the solid-body electric guitar. 

And that is not all – he also experimented prolifically with overdubbing, tape delay, phasing, and unprecedented fretting techniques and chording sequences. 

To find the ancestral roots of many of classic, country, and blues rock’s biggest names, you need to start with Paul’s forties output, much of which feels so fresh and riveting you’ll be surprised he doesn’t have his own exhibit in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Oh wait, yes he does.

49. Buddy Guy

The consummate Chicago blues guitarist, Buddy Guy’s heady, self-assured influence can be felt in crossover blues-rock guitarists like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck.

The son of sharecroppers, Guy grew up with an insatiable energy and a generous, curious spirit that endeared him to spectators and onlookers the world over. 

He blended a soulful ethos with electric, playful experimentations to create a rich, warm sound that filled rooms, and hearts, with satisfying sonic payoff. 

Listen to “Stone Crazy” to get a taste of pre-classic-rock guitar at its most captivating best.

50. Frank Zappa

The strangest, most offbeat man in rock, Zappa was zany, neosurreal, and committed to a vision that no one else could discern, much less fully comprehend.

His nonconformist, free-form improvisations, and discordant tempos made him an eccentric prophet of the seventies and led to much head-scratching among those who just didn’t get it. 

He infused jazz, opera, and orchestral arrangements with a found object approach that calls to mind the Dada art movement of the early twentieth century.

He was also immensely prolific, releasing more than sixty albums with the group The Mothers of Invention.

51. Angus Young

Ruthless, arrogantly sexual, and violently individualistic, Young is one of Australia’s most revered heroes and he embodied the unapologetic, rough n’ ready ethos of the surly nation down under.

AC/DC was sheer high-voltage electricity, with brash and mercurial chords that would give the unassuming listener rug burn.

AC/DC were strangers to low volume and social niceties and no one carried the mischievous, crude flag better than Young.

The Gibson SG guitar was a banshee, a dynamo, and a hellraiser in Young’s cocksure hands.

52. William Reid

Glaswegian shoegaze prophet William Reid brought the rain-soaked, melancholic serenity of his Scottish provenance to the alternative scene, forever imprinting itself in the form of intensive introspection graceful, melodic pay-offs.

Reid’s guitar was a thing of haunting, cursed beauty and luminosity and he single-handedly cultivated a raw, verdant, atmospherically dense sound that soothes, charms and mediates the tensions within.

His exuberant, echoing splendor can best be encountered in “Don’t Ever Change,”“April Skies,” “Sometimes Always,” “Drop,” “Some Candy Talking,” and “The Longest Walk.”

53. Johnny Marr

The Smiths’ guitarist was the jangle-pop king of maudlin misery and cheerful discontent and, along with lead Morrissey, pioneered an arrestingly ambivalent sound, the likes of which have never been seen before or since. 

Throbbing riffs break out into delicate, almost whimsical jangles in songs like “This Charming Man” and “Cemetery Gates” while lush, sculptural chords in “I Won’t Share You” and “Girlfriend in a Coma” demonstrate his unparalleled innovative vision.

His solo turn throughout the nineties is well worth a listen for its Britpop candor.

54. Prince

Prince is often overlooked when it comes to round-ups of the best guitarists, remembered more for his flamboyant posturing and theatrical dynamism. 

But Prince was a wildly talented guitarist, responsible for some of the most stirring, cinematic, animated melodies known to modern music. 

His sound was unapologetically pop-forward but never one-dimensional.

Indeed, Prince’s compositions were always on the margins, pushing the boundaries of what was palatable to the status quo.

“When Doves Cry” is a veritable gem of the eighties catalog while “Purple Rain” elevates and seduces with its solemn, poignant beauty. 

Best Guitarists of All Time – Final Thoughts

Opinions on the best guitarists of all time are subjective, ultimately they come with a bias that is born out of the genres you enjoy listening to. 

But for the most part, we are sure you will agree with our choices for “best guitarist”.

They are certainly some of the most famous guitarists in history and many have left a mark on the way the instrument is used in a group.

Some pioneered entire genres for their innovative playing techniques.

Our rundown includes the most iconic and legendary guitarists to have ever picked up an ax and perform, we hope there were a few that made your list too!

You may also like: Best Guitar Solos of All Time

Will Fenton

Will, the founder of MIDDER, is a multifaceted individual with a deep passion for music and personal finance. As a self-proclaimed music and personal finance geek, he has a keen eye for futuristic technologies, especially those that empower creators and the public.

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