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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

dave davies
91

Dave Davies

You can trace all things loud and riff-y right back to the Kinks' Dave Davies, starting with the fantastically simple power chords of "You Really Got Me," which he recorded at age 17 – setting off a run of proto-metal singles from "All Day and All of the Night" to "Till the End of the Day." Davies, who created the distortion on "You Really Got Me" by slicing an amp speaker with a razor, has laughed off claims that it was actually played by an uncredited Jimmy Page: "Who'd want to play a solo that crazy, anyway? Only Dave Davies could do that."

Key Tracks: "You Really Got Me," "All Day and All of the Night"

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tom verlaine
90

Tom Verlaine

Patti Smith famously described Tom Verlaine's guitar sound as "a thousand bluebirds screaming." Television's leader soaked up the flavor of favorite records by John Coltrane, the Stones and the Dead – then synthesized them into something entirely new on the band's 1977 debut, Marquee Moon, spinning out endless fluid solos in concert with fellow guitar aesthete Richard Lloyd. Verlaine has kept a low profile in recent decades, but he remains a model for generations of guitarists with a taste for both punk violence and melodic flight.

Key Tracks: "Marquee Moon," "Little Johnny Jewel," "Breakin' in My Heart"

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bonnie raitt
89

Bonnie Raitt

Her dad was Broadway star John Raitt, but Bonnie's artistic parents were blues giants like Howlin' Wolf and Mississippi Fred McDowell, whom she met and performed with early in her career. She learned fast: Starting with her acoustic slide workout on 1971's "Walking Blues," Raitt rolled out a fearsome repertoire of blues licks, fingerpicking with the best and wielding a slide like an old master. Most of all, she set a crucial precedent: When guitar was still considered a man's game by many, Raitt busted down that barrier through sheer verve and skill.

Key Tracks: "Runaway," "Something to Talk About"

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carl perkins
88

Carl Perkins

In the Beatles' early days, George Harrison briefly billed himself as Carl Harrison in honor of his quick-picking hero. Perkins' bright, trebly style – which the rockabilly king picked up from blues players in Tennessee – defined the singles he put out on Sun Records ("Blue Suede Shoes," "Glad All Over") and influenced scores of players from Eric Clapton to John Fogerty. "He took country picking into the rock world," Tom Petty has said. "If you want to play Fifties rock & roll, you can either play like Chuck Berry, or you can play like Carl Perkins."

Key Tracks: "Blue Suede Shoes," "Glad All Over"

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james hetfield
87

James Hetfield

There were precedents for the palm-muted, ultra-percussive chug James Hetfield gave Metallica (Judas Priest, Motörhead), but he made it the gold standard of Eighties metal. He's never been a monochromatic headbanger, though, delving early on into the delicate picking of "Fade to Black" and later embracing the more nuanced hard rock of the Black Album. "I wonder if James Hetfield knows how to play the drums," Dave Grohl once said. "Because basically he's taking care of the percussion and melody of Metallica's songs with his guitar. And it's great."

Key Tracks: "Seek and Destroy," "Master of Puppets"

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86

J Mascis

The massive slabs of rock-candy noise that J Mascis heaved from his Fender Jazzmaster in Dinosaur Jr. contained multitudes: Black Sabbath savagery, melodic Neil Young soul, punk-rock pig slop. As his recent solo set, Several Shades of Why, showed, he can get shamelessly pretty with an acoustic, too. "I remember seeing Dinosaur play this soft, plaintive song – and then it was just completely detonated by this ravaging solo that J did," says Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore. "The whole room was incinerated."

Key Tracks: "Feel the Pain," "Little Fury Things"

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andy summers
85

Andy Summers

The Police were a new kind of power trio, and Andy Summers was the main reason. Quickly moving away from punk, he recast jazz chords and reggae rhythms as headlong rock & roll. Summers played as sparely as possible, constructing clipped twitches or dubby washes of sound – leaving ample room for Sting and Stewart Copeland. "His tone and style were just absolutely perfect – he left space around everything," Rush's Alex Lifeson said. "And he can handle anything from beautiful acoustic playing to jazz to hybrid kinds of stuff."

Key Tracks: "Message in a Bottle," "Every Breath You Take"

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joe perry
84

Joe Perry

It’s hard to conceive a better musical foil for Steven Tyler than his longtime partner and occasional adversary. For more than 40 years, Joe Perry’s monstrous, blues-on-steroids riffs have been Aerosmith‘s bedrock. And his solos, jutting out from “Walk This Way” or slashing boldly through the high-gloss production of later hits like “Janie’s Got a Gun” and “Cryin’,” have a caffeinated energy that’s every bit Tyler’s match. “He had a streamlined style that reminded me of Keith Richards,” said Slash. “And a careless style that’s really cool.”

Key Tracks: “Dream On,” “Walk This Way,” “Janie’s Got a Gun”

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eddie hazel
83

Eddie Hazel

Legend has it that funkadelic's "Maggot Brain," the 10-minute solo that turned the late Eddie Hazel into an instant guitar icon, was born when George Clinton told him to imagine hearing his mother just died – and then learning that she was, in fact, alive. Hazel, who died of liver failure in 1992 at age 42, brought a thrilling mix of lysergic vision and groove power to all of his work, inspiring followers like J Mascis, Mike McCready and Lenny Kravitz. "That solo – Lord have mercy!" says Kravitz of "Maggot Brain." "He was absolutely stunning."

Key Tracks: "Maggot Brain," "Funky Dollar Bill"

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nels cline
82

Nels Cline

A true guitar polymath, Nels Cline has tackled everything from gothic country rock with the Geraldine Fibbers to a full remake of John Coltrane's late improvisational masterwork, Interstellar Space. He's best known, of course, as Wilco's gangly guitar hero, lurching into extended seizures ("Spiders [Kidsmoke]") or spiraling into lyrical jam flights ("Impossible Germany"). "Nels can play anything," Jeff Tweedy said. "We struggle with his spot in the band sometimes – but we always come to a place that's unique and interesting because we did struggle."

Key Tracks: "Spiders (Kidsmoke)," "Impossible Germany"

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lou reed
81

Lou Reed

Lou Reed has been blowing traditional guitar styles to bits since his Velvet Underground days. A fan of Ike Turner's R&B and Ornette Coleman's free jazz, he created epic bad-trip psychedelia on songs like "Sister Ray." "He was rightfully quite proud of his own soloing," wrote fellow New York guitar luminary Robert Quine, "but resigned to the fact that most people weren't ready for it." As a solo artist, Reed kept on ripping up the rulebook: See 1975's Metal Machine Music, a noise opus that took feedback further than Hendrix could have imagined.

Key Tracks: "Sister Ray," "Heroin," "Foggy Notion"

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buddy holly
80

Buddy Holly

Buddy Holly turned a generation of future heroes – George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck – onto the guitar, with an elemental style: an antsy mix of country and blues that merged rhythm and lead; check the push-and-tease phrasing on "It's So Easy," which echoes Holly's growl-and-hiccup vocals. Playing his Stratocaster and fronting a double-guitar-bass-and-drum quartet, Holly essentially invented the rock band. "Listen to the songs on the first three Beatles albums," says John Mellencamp. "Take their voices off and it's Buddy Holly."

Key Tracks: "That'll Be the Day," "Peggy Sue"

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mike campbell
79

Mike Campbell

Tom Petty's lead guitarist for more than 40 years, Mike Campbell never clutters up a song with notes when two or three bull's-eyes will suffice. "It's a challenge to make your statement in a short amount of time," he has said, "but I prefer that challenge as opposed to just stretching out." Listen to the skeletal hook that holds "Breakdown" together or the laconic, tone-bending solo in "You Got Lucky" to hear Campbell's ingenious use of negative space. "Michael is not one to show off," Petty once said. "What he says is essential."

Key Tracks: "Breakdown," "You Got Lucky"

john fahey
78

John Fahey

John Fahey, who died in 2001 at age 61, was American folk guitar's master eccentric, a dazzling fingerpicker who transformed traditional blues forms with the advanced harmonies of modern classical music, then mined that beauty with a prankster's wit. "His music speaks of a boundless freedom," says ex-Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas. In the Nineties, Fahey switched to a spiky minimalism on electric guitar that made him a post-punk icon. "To be validated by John Fahey," says Thurston Moore, "was really special for our scene."

Key Tracks:"Poor Boy," "The Yellow Princess"

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willie nelson
77

Willie Nelson

Like his conversational singing, Willie Nelson's guitar playing is deceptively laidback, playfully offbeat and instantly recognizable. Amazingly, Nelson has been playing the same Martin M-20 classical guitar, nicknamed Trigger, since 1969; it has defined his sound, a nylon-stabbing mix of country, blues and Django Reinhardt's gypsy jazz. Though the guitar now has a large gaping hole, Nelson still plays it nightly. "I have come to believe we were fated for each other," he said. "The two of us even look alike. We are both pretty battered and bruised."

Key Trac