4. Eric Clapton
It first appeared in 1965, written on the walls of the London subway: "Clapton is God." Eric Patrick Clapton, of Ripley, England — fresh out of his first major band, the Yardbirds, and recently inducted into John Mayall's Bluesbreakers — had just turned twenty and been playing guitar only since he was fifteen. But Clapton was already soloing with the improvisational nerve that has dazzled fans and peers for forty years. In his 1963-65 stint with the Yardbirds, Clapton's nickname was Slowhand, an ironic reference to the velocity of his lead breaks. But Clapton insisted in a 2001 Rolling Stone interview, "I think it's important to say something powerful and keep it economical." Even when he jammed on a tune for more than a quarter-hour with Cream, Clapton soloed with a daggerlike tone and pinpoint attention to melody. The solo albums that followed Layla, his 1970 tour de force with Derek and the Dominos, emphasize his desires as a singer-songwriter. But on the best, like 1974's 46I Ocean Boulevard and 1983's Money and Cigarettes, his solos and flourishes still pack the power that made him "God" in the first place.