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100 Greatest Guitarists

Find out who our panel of top guitarists and other experts picked

Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix

Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix

Chris Walter/WireImage/Getty; Ed Caraeff/Getty

We assembled a panel of top guitarists and other experts to rank their favorites and explain what separates the legends from everyone else. Featuring Keith Richards on Chuck Berry, Carlos Santana on Jerry Garcia, Tom Petty on George Harrison and more.

THE VOTERS: Trey Anastasio, Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys), Brian Bell (Weezer), Ritchie Blackmore (Deep Purple), Carl Broemel (My Morning Jacket), James Burton, Jerry Cantrell (Alice in Chains), Gary Clark Jr., Billy Corgan, Steve Cropper, Dave Davies (The Kinks), Anthony DeCurtis (Contributing editor, Rolling Stone), Tom DeLonge (Blink-182), Rick Derringer, Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars), Elliot Easton (The Cars), Melissa Etheridge, Don Felder (The Eagles), David Fricke (Senior writer, Rolling Stone), Peter Guralnick (Author), Kirk Hammett (Metallica), Albert Hammond Jr. (The Strokes), Warren Haynes (The Allman Brothers Band), Brian Hiatt (Senior writer, Rolling Stone), David Hidalgo (Los Lobos), Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Lenny Kravitz, Robby Krieger (The Doors), Jon Landau (Manager), Alex Lifeson (Rush), Nils Lofgren (The E Street Band), Mick Mars (Mötley Crüe), Doug Martsch (Built to Spill), J Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.), Brian May, Mike McCready (Pearl Jam), Roger McGuinn (The Byrds), Scotty Moore, Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Tom Morello, Dave Mustaine (Megadeth), Brendan O’Brien (Producer), Joe Perry, Vernon Reid (Living Colour), Robbie Robertson, Rich Robinson (The Black Crowes), Carlos Santana, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Marnie Stern, Stephen Stills, Andy Summers, Mick Taylor, Susan Tedeschi, Vieux Farka Touré, Derek Trucks, Eddie Van Halen, Joe Walsh, Nancy Wilson (Heart)

CONTRIBUTORS: David Browne, Patrick Doyle, David Fricke, Will Hermes, Brian Hiatt, Alan Light, Rob Tannenbaum, Douglas Wolk

chet atkins
21

Chet Atkins

As a record executive and producer in the Sixties, Chet Atkins invented the popwise "Nashville sound" that rescued country music from a commercial slump. As a guitarist, he was even more inventive, mastering country, jazz and classical styles and perfecting the ability to play chords and melody simultaneously, thanks to his distinctive thumb-and-three-finger picking style. "A lot of it was trial and error," Atkins told Rolling Stone in 1976. "I just had a damn guitar in my hands 16 hours a day, and I experimented all the time." Atkins could be laid-back and restrained (as heard on iconic recordings like Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart," Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" and several of the Everly Brothers' early hits). But his own instrumental-heavy solo albums are an endless bag of guitar tricks, mixing harmonics, arpeggios and pure notes with a brilliantly clear tone. "I think he influenced everybody who picked up a guitar," said Duane Eddy.

Key Tracks: "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Wake Up Little Susie"

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carlos santana
20

Carlos Santana

Mexican-born Carlos Santana had just finished high school in San Francisco, in 1965, when the city's music scene exploded, exposing him to a wealth of revelations – electric blues, African rhythms and modern jazz; guitar mentors such as Jerry Garcia and Fleetwood Mac's Peter Green – that became key strands in the Latin-rhythm psychedelia of his namesake band. Santana's crystalline tone and clean arcing sustain make him the rare instrumentalist who can be identified in just one note. As for his bold, exploratory style, he gives partial credit to his acid intake. "You cannot take LSD and not find your voice," he claims, "because there is nowhere to hide. You're not going to sound plastic or cute." The welcoming force of Santana's sound makes him an ideal collaborator – his superstar-laden 1999 album, Supernatural, won nine Grammys – and enduring inspiration. Prince called him a bigger influence than Jimi Hendrix: "Santana played prettier."

Key Tracks: "Black Magic Woman," "Oye Como Va," "Soul Sacrifice"

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james burton
19

James Burton

James Burton's trademark "chicken pickin'" style – bright, crisp and concise –l is one of the most unique sounds in country music, and a huge influence on rock guitar as well. Burton got his start when he was 14, writing "Susie Q," for Dale Hawkins, and became a teenage star when he joined Ricky Nelson's band in 1957. With Nelson, Burton created his distinct technique: He used a fingerpick and a flatpick, and replaced the four highest strings on his Telecaster with banjo strings, so that his guitar snapped, popped and stuttered. "I never bought a Ricky Nelson record," Keith Richards said. "I bought a James Burton record." In the late Sixties and Seventies, he convened Elvis' TCB band and became a go-to guy on country-minded records by Joni Mitchell and Gram Parsons, and still tours today. "He was just a mysterious guy: 'Who is this guy and why is he on all these records I like?'" says Joe Walsh. "His technique was allimportant."

Key Tracks: "Hello Mary Lou,""Susie Q," "Believe What You Say"

les paul
18

Les Paul

Les Paul is best known as the genius who invented the solid-body guitar that bears his name. But he was just as imaginative as a player. "He made the very best guitar sounds of the 1950s," said Brian Wilson. "There's nobody that came close." A long string of hits in the Forties and Fifties (on his own and with his wife, singerguitarist Mary Ford) established his signature style: elegant, clean-toned, fleet-fingered improvisations on current pop standards. Paul created a groundbreaking series of technical innovations, including multilayered studio overdubs and varispeed tape playback, to achieve sounds nobody had ever come up with – check out the insect-swarm solo on his 1948 recording of "Lover." Until shortly before Paul's 2009 death at age 94, he was still playing weekly gigs at a New York jazz club, with adoring metalheads in the audience. In Richie Sambora's words, "He had all of the licks, and when you heard it, it sounded like it came from outer space."

Key Tracks: "How High the Moon," "Vaya Con Dios," "Tiger Rag"

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neil young
17

Neil Young

If I was ever going to teach a master class to young guitarists, the first thing I would play them is the first minute of Neil Young's original "Down by the River" solo. It's one note, but it's so melodic, and it just snarls with attitude and anger. It's like he desperately wants to connect. Neil's playing is like an open tube from his heart right to the audience. In the Nineties, we played a festival with Crazy Horse. At the end of "Like a Hurricane," Neil went into this feedback solo that was more like a sonic impressionist painting. He was about six feet back from the microphone, singing so you could just hear him over the colorful waves of hurricanelike sound.

I think about that moment a lot when I'm playing. Traditional concepts of rhythm and keys are great, but music is like a giant ocean. It's a big, furious place, and there are a lot of trenches that haven't been explored. Neil is still blazing a trail for people who are younger than him, reminding us you can break artistic ground.  By Trey Anastasio

Key Tracks: "Down by the River," "Mr. Soul"

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derek trucks
16

Derek Trucks

Literally raised in the Allman Brothers family, Derek Trucks – the nephew of Allmans drummer Butch Trucks – started playing slide guitar at age nine and was touring by 12. But Trucks' precociousness was charged with an explorer's fever. When he stepped into the late Duane Allman's slide-guitar spot in the Allman Brothers Band in 1999, at age 20, Derek's soloing exploded in thrilling directions, managing to incorporate Delta blues, hard-bop jazz, the vocal ecstasies of Southern black gospel, and Indian-raga modality and rhythms.

"He's got infinitely more sounds than I have," John Mayer concedes admiringly. In addition to touring regularly with the Allman Brothers, Trucks now co-leads the Tedeschi Trucks Band, a swinging 11-piece beast in the Delaney and Bonnie tradition, along with his wife, singer-guitarist Susan Tedeschi. "He's like a bottomless pit," said Eric Clapton, who took Trucks on tour as a sideman in 2006 and 2007. "His thing is very deep."

Key Tracks: "Joyful Noise," "Whipping Post" (One Way Out version)

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freddie king
15

Freddy King

In a 1985 interview, Eric Clapton cited Freddy King's 1961 B side "I Love the Woman" as "the first time I heard that electric lead-guitar style, with the bent notes… [it] started me on my path." Clapton shared his love of King with fellow British guitar heroes Peter Green, Jeff Beck and Mick Taylor, all of whom were profoundly influenced by King's sharpened-treble tone and curt melodic hooks on iconic singles such as "The Stumble," "I'm Tore Down" and "Someday, After Awhile." Nicknamed "The Texas Cannonball" for his imposing build and incendiary live shows, King had a unique guitar attack. "Steel on steel is an unforgettable sound," says Derek Trucks, referring to King's use of metal banjo picks. "But it's gotta be in the right hands. The way he used it – man, you were going to hear that guitar." Trucks can still hear King's huge impact on Clapton. "When I played with Eric," Trucks said recently, "there were times when he would take solos and I would get that Freddy vibe."

Key Tracks: "Hide Away," "Have You Ever Loved a Woman," "The Stumble"

david gilmour
14

David Gilmour

As a producer and songwriter, Pink Floyd's David Gilmour is drawn to floating, dreamy textures, but when he picks up his black Stratocaster to play a solo, an entirely different sensibility takes over: "I wanted a bright, powerful lead guitar tone that would basically rip your face off," he says. He was a fiery, blues-based soloist in a band that hardly ever played the blues – his sprawling, elegant, relentlessly melodic solos were as bracing a wake-up call as those alarm clocks on The Dark Side of the Moon. But Gilmour was also adept at droning avant-garde improv, as seen in Floyd's Live at Pompeii days, and could be an unexpectedly funky rhythm guitarist, from the slinky riff to "Have a Cigar" to the Chic-like flourishes on "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2." His pioneering use of echo and other effects – initially inspired by original Floyd guitarist Syd Barrett – culminated with his precision use of delay on "Run Like Hell," which directly anticipates the Edge's signature sound.

Key Tracks: "Comfortably Numb," "Shine on You Crazy Diamond"

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albert king
13

Albert King

When Rolling Stone reporter Jon Landau asked Albert King in 1968 who his guitar influences were, King replied, "Nobody. Everything I do is wrong." A pioneer of electric blues, King (who was left-handed) played a right-handed 1959 Gibson Flying V upside down, with the bass strings unconventionally facing the floor. He used an indecipherable secret tuning, hitting notes with his thumb. The six-foot-four, 300-pound King was able to bend notes farther and more powerfully than almost any other guitarist, and his records influenced a generation: Eric Clapton lifted the "Strange Brew" solo from King, and Duane Allman turned the melody of King's "As the Years Go Passing By" into the main riff of "Layla." Jimi Hendrix was star-struck when his hero opened for him at the Fillmore in 1967. "I taught [Hendrix] a lesson about the blues," said King. "I could have easily played his songs, but he couldn't play mine."

Key Tracks: "Born Under a Bad Sign," "As the Years Go Passing By"

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stevie ray vaughan
12

Stevie Ray Vaughan

In the early eighties, MTV was on the rise, and blues guitar was miles away from music's mainstream. But Texas' Stevie Ray Vaughan demanded your attention. He had absorbed the styles of just about every great blues guitarist – plus Jimi Hendrix and a lot of jazz and rockabilly – and his monster tone, casual virtuosity and impeccable sense of swing could make a blues shuffle like "Pride and Joy" hit as hard as metal. Vaughan was recognized as a peer by the likes of B.B. King and Eric Clapton, and despite his 1990 death in a helicopter crash, he's still inspiring multiple generations of guitarists, from Pearl Jam's Mike McCready to John Mayer and rising young star Gary Clark Jr. "Stevie was one of the reasons I wanted a Stratocaster – his tone, which I've never been able to get down, was just so big and bold and bright at the same time," says Clark. "If you listen to his records and watch his videos, you can tell he's just giving you everything he had. His passion is overwhelming."

Key Tracks: "Love Struck Baby," "Cold Shot," "Look at Little Sister"

george harrison
11

George Harrison

George Harrison and I were once in a car and the Beatles song "You Can't Do That" came on, with that great riff in the beginning on the 12-string. He goes, "I came up with that." And I said, "Really? How?" He said, "I was just standing there and thought, 'I've got to do something!' " That pretty much sums him up. He just had a way of getting right to the business, of finding the right thing to play. That was part of that Beatles magic – they all seemed to find the right thing to play.

George knew every obscure Elvis solo; his initial influences were rockabilly – Carl Perkins, Eddie Cochran, Chet Atkins, Scotty Moore – but he always added something to it. Even going way back, I used to just swoon over that solo in "I Saw Her Standing There." You just can't imagine anything else there. He had that knack. And how many Rickenbacker 12-strings did that guy sell? That was a whole new sound too – Roger McGuinn got the idea from George, and then Roger took it to his own place with the Byrds.

When he moved over to the slide guitar later in the Beatles' career, it was a really beautiful thing to hear him play that. He once said to me, "I think modern guitar players are forgetting about pitch," and that was something he really cared about. He was very in tune when he played, the slide was very precise, and just a beautiful vibrato on it. It really sounded like a voice, like a very distinct, signature voice that came out of him. Just listen to those records. They're so immaculate, so inventive. He was a guy who could just add so much.  By Tom Petty

Key Tracks: "I Saw Her Standing There," "Something"

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pete townshend
10

Pete Townshend

Pete Townshend doesn't play many solos, which might be why so many people don’t realize just how good he really is. But he's so important to rock – he’s a visionary musician who really lit the whole thing up. His rhythm-guitar playing is extremely exciting and aggressive – he's a savage player, in a way. He has a wonderful, fluid physicality with the guitar that you don't see often, and his playing is very much a reflection of who he is as a person – a very intense guy. He's like the original punk, the first one to destroy a guitar onstage – a breathtaking statement at that point in time. But he's also a very articulate, literate person. He listens to a lot of jazz, and he told me that's what he'd really like to be doing. On "Substitute" you can hear the influence of Miles Davis' modal approach in the way his chords move against the open D string. He was using feedback early, which I think was influenced by European avant-garde music like Stockhausen – an art-school thing. The big ringing chords he used in the Who were so musically smart when you consider how busy the drumming and bass playing were in that band – it could have gotten chaotic if not for him. He more or less invented the power chord, and you can hear a sort of pre-Zeppelin thing in the Who's Sixties work. So much of this stuff came from him.  By Andy Summers

Key Tracks: "My Generation," "I Can See for Miles," "Summertime Blues"

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duane allman
9

Duane Allman

I grew up playing slide guitar in church, and the whole idea was to imitate the human voice: After the old lady or the preacher stopped singing, we had to carry on the melody of the song just like they had sung it. Just in those terms, Duane Allman took it to a whole other level. He was so much more precise than anybody who'd ever come before. When I first heard those old-school Allman Brothers records, it was strange to me because the sound was so similar to what I had grown up listening to.

Listen to "Layla" – especially when it goes into that outro. Duane is sliding all over that melody. I used to put that on "repeat" when I would go to bed. All of us guitar players sit and practice, but that's one of those records where you want to put the guitar down and just listen.

Eric Clapton told me he knew working with Duane was going to take guitar music to a whole new place; they had a vision, and they got there. Clapton said he was really nervous about two guys playing guitar, but Duane was the coolest cat – he'd say, "Let's just get down!"

Duane died young, and it's just one of those things. You could tell he was going to get 50 times better. But God works it out like that, and that’s the legacy he left behind. In my iPod is everything Duane recorded. I listen to Allmans tunes every other day.  By Robert Randolph

Key Tracks: "Statesboro Blues," "Whipping Post," "Blue Sky"

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eddie van halen
8

Eddie Van Halen

When I was 11, I was at my guitar teacher’s place, and he put on “Eruption.” It sounded like it came from another planet. I was just learning basic chords, stuff like AC/DC and Deep Purple; “Eruption” really didn’t make sense to me, but it was glorious, like hearing Mozart for the first time.

Eddie is a master of riffs: “Unchained,” “Take Your Whiskey Home,” the beginning of “Ain’t Talking ‘Bout Love.” He gets sounds that aren’t necessarily guitar sounds – a lot of harmonics, textures that happen just because of how he picks. There’s a part in “Unchained” where it sounds like there’s another instrument in the riff.

A lot of it is in his hands: the way he holds his pick between his thumb and middle finger, which opens things up for his finger-tapping. (When I found out he played that way, I tried it myself, but it was too weird.) But underneath that, Eddie has soul. It’s like Hendrix – you can play the things he’s written, but there’s an X factor that you can’t get.

Eddie still has it. I saw Van Halen on their reunion tour two years ago, and the second he came out, I felt that same thing I did when I was a kid. When you see a master, you know it.  By Mike McCready of Pearl Jam

Key Tracks: “Eruption,” “Ain’t Talking ‘Bout Love,” “Hot for Teacher”

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chuck berry Best Guitarist Rolling Stone
7

Chuck Berry

When I saw Chuck Berry in “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” as a teenager, what struck me was how he was playing against the grain with a bunch of jazz guys. They were brilliant – guys like Jo Jones on drums and Jack Teagarden on trombone – but they had that jazz attitude cats put on sometimes: “Ooh… this rock & roll…” With “Sweet Little Sixteen,” Chuck took them all by storm and played against their animosity. To me, that’s blues. That’s the attitude and the guts it takes. That’s what I wanted to be, except I was white.

I listened to every lick he played and picked it up. Chuck got it from T-Bone Walker, and I got it from Chuck, Muddy Waters, Elmore James and B.B. King. We’re all part of this family that goes back thousands of years. Really, we’re all passing it on.

Chuck was playing a slightly heated-up version of Chicago blues, that guitar boogie – which all the cats were playing – but he took it up to another level. He was slightly younger than the older blues guys, and his songs were more commercial without just being pop, which is a hard thing to do. Chuck had the swing. There’s rock, but it’s the roll that counts. And Chuck had an incredible band on those early records: Willie Dixon on bass, Johnnie Johnson on piano, Ebby Hardy or Freddy Below on drums. They understood what he was about and just swung with it. It don’t get any better than that.

He’s not the easiest guy in the world to get along with, which was always a bit of a disappointment for me – because that cat wrote songs that had so much sense of humor and so much intelligence. The old son of a bitch just turned 85. I wish him a happy birthday, and I wish I could just pop around and say, “Hey, Chuck, let’s have a drink together or something.” But he ain’t that kind of cat.  By Keith Richards

Key Tracks: “Johnny B. Goode,” “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven”

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BB KingVariousRainbow Theatre, London 31 October 1973
6

B.B. King

B.B.‘s influences were set at an early stage. Being from Indianola, Mississippi, he goes back far enough to remember the sound of field hollers and the cornerstone blues figures, like Charley Patton and Robert Johnson. The single-note phrasing of T-Bone Walker was another thing. You can hear those influences in the choice of melodies that he not only sings vocally but lets his guitar sing instrumentally.

He plays in shortened bursts, with a richness and robust delivery. And there is a technical dexterity, a cleanly delivered phrasing. This was sophisticated soloing. It’s so identifiable, so clear, it could be written out. John Lee Hooker – his stuff was too difficult to write out. But B.B. was a genuine soloist.

There are two things he does that I was desperate to learn. He originated this one cut-to-the-bone phrase where he hits two notes, then jumps to another string and slides up to a note. I can do it in my sleep now. And there’s this twoor three-note thing, where he bends the last note. Both figures never fail to get you moving in your seat – or out of your seat. It’s that powerful.

There was a turning point, around the time of [1965’s] Live at the Regal, when his sound took on a personality that is untampered with today – this roundish tone, where the front pickup is out of phase with the rear pickup. And B.B. still plays a Gibson amplifier that is long out of production. His sound comes from that combination. It’s just B.B.  By Billy Gibbons

Key Tracks: “3 O’Clock Blues,” “The Thrill Is Gone,” “Sweet Little Angel”

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jeff beck
5

Jeff Beck

Jeff Beck has the combination of brilliant technique with personality. It’s like he’s saying, “I’m Jeff Beck. I’m right here. And you can’t ignore me.” Even in the Yardbirds, he had a tone that was melodic but in-your-face – bright, urgent and edgy, but sweet at the same time. You could tell he was a serious player, and he was going for it. He was not holding back.

There is a real artistry to playing with and around a vocalist, answering and pushing him. That’s the beauty of those two records he made with Rod Stewart, 1968’s Truth and 1969’s Beck-Ola. Jeff is not getting in the way, but he’s holding his own. And he stretched the boundaries of the blues. “Beck’s Bolero,” on Truth, is un-bluesy, but still blues-based. One of my favorite tracks is the cover of Howlin’ Wolf‘s “I Ain’t Superstitious,” on Truth. There is a sense of humor – that wah-wah growl. I don’t know if Clapton plays with the same sense of humor, as great as he is. Jeff’s definitely got that.

When he got into his fusion phase, the cover of Stevie Wonder‘s “‘Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers,” on Blow by Blow, got me immediately. The tone was so pure and delicate. It’s like there was a vocalist singing, but there was a guitarist making all of the notes. I saw him last year at a casino in San Diego, and the guitar was the voice. You didn’t miss the singer, because the guitar was so lyrical. There is a spirituality and confidence in him, a commitment to being great. After I saw that show, I went home and started practicing. Maybe that’s what I took from him: If you want to be Jeff Beck, do your homework.  By Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers

Key Tracks: “Beck’s Bolero,” “Freeway Jam,” “A Day in the Life,” “I Ain’t Superstitious,” “Heart Full of Soul”

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keith richards
4

Keith Richards

I remember being in junior high school, hearing "Satisfaction" and being freaked out by what it did to me. It's a combination of the riff and the chords moving underneath it. Keith wrote two-and three-note themes that were more powerful than any great solo. He played the vibrato rhythm and the lead guitar in "Gimme Shelter." I don't think anyone has ever created a mood that dark and sinister. There is a clarity between those two guitars that leaves this ominous space for Mick Jagger to sing through. Nobody does alternate tunings better than Keith. I remember playing the chorus to "Beast of Burden." I'm like, "These are the right chords, but they don't sound anything like Keith." He had some cool tuning, a beautiful chord so well-tuned that it sings. That is the core of every great guitar part on a Rolling Stones record. Keith finds the tuning that allows the work – the fretting, muting strings – to get out of the way of what he's feeling.

I went to see Keith with the X-Pensive Winos. In the dressing room, Keith started practicing a Chuck Berry riff. I'd never in my life heard it sound like that. I love Chuck Berry. But this was better. Not technically – there was an emotional content that spoke to me. What Chuck is to Keith, Keith is to me.  By Nils Lofgren of the E Street Band

Key Tracks: "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," "Gimme Shelter"

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jimmy page
3

Jimmy Page

Listening to what Jimmy Page does on guitar can transport you. As a lead player, he always plays the right thing for the right spot – he's got such remarkable taste. The solo on "Heartbreaker" has such incredible immediacy; he's teetering on the edge of his technique, and it's still a showstopper. But you can't look at just his guitar playing on its own. You have to look at what he did with it in the studio and how he used it in th