100 Greatest Guitarists
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
During Fleetwood Mac's hitmaking era, Lindsey Buckingham transmuted the folk music of his banjo-playing youth into stadium rock: glistening harmonized leads, crisply snapping chords and frenetic arpeggiated breakdowns. "It's not acceptable classical technique," he has said. "You do what you can to get the sound you want."
Key Tracks: "Rhiannon," "Go Your Own Way"
• The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time: Fleetwood Mac's 'Go Your Own Way'
• The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Fleetwood Mac's 'Rumours'
In the eighties, the Sonic Youth leader emerged as indie rock's premier guitar radical, mixing strange drone tunings, jamming screwdrivers or drumsticks under his strings, and blasting out feedback-swirled punk jams. Thurston Moore influenced a generation of noiseheads, from grunge rockers to shoegazers. Neil Young once said that if Sonic Youth wanted to record with him, "Hell, I'd be there."
Key Tracks: "Expressway to Yr. Skull," "Silver Rocket"
• The Rolling Stone Interview: Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore
• Thurston Moore: The Six-Pack Q&A
Even if he had never progressed beyond the brain-rattling riffing of "2112" and "Xanadu," Rush's guitarist would have left his mark on Metallica and other like-minded metalheads. But he went on to fill out Rush's power-trio sound with a seamless mix of lush arpeggios and rock crunch that sounded like at least two players at once. "The guitar just had to make a broader statement," he says. Alex Lifeson reserves his most daring playing for his solos – just try wrapping your head around the extraterrestrial lunacy of "Freewill."
Key Tracks: "La Villa Strangiato," "The Spirit of Radio"
• Video: Rush Rock Madison Square Garden
• Rush's Return to the Limelight
The Sex Pistols, Steve Jones' brutish power chords and flamboyant gutter-glam solos were a perfect mirror for the taunting bile of Johnny Rotten – and a yardstick for every punk-rock noise-maker that followed. His legacy was set with indelible riffs on one record – 1977's Never Mind the Bollocks… – that inspired guitarists from Slash to Billie Joe Armstrong. It was an attitude as much as a sound. As Jones told a journalist during his days with the Sex Pistols, "Actually, we're not into music. We're into chaos."
Key Tracks: "God Save the Queen," "Pretty Vacant"
• The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: The Sex Pistols' 'Never Mind the Bollocks… Here's the Sex Pistols'
Bruce Springsteen has always had a not-so-secret weapon: "I got signed in the pack of new Dylans," he told Rolling Stone, "but I could turn around, kick-start my Telecaster and burn the house down." Springsteen didn't make any technical breakthroughs on guitar, but few players are better at coaxing emotion from steel and wood: witness the surf-rock recklessness of the "Born to Run" solo, the junkyard-dog bite of "Adam Raised a Cain" and the melancholy twang of "Tougher Than the Rest."
Key Tracks: "Kitty's Back," "Backstreets"
• The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Bruce Springsteen
• The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Bruce Springsteen
• The 25 Boldest Career Moves in Rock History: Bruce Springsteen Fires the E Street Band
Roger McGuinn's sparkling, chordal 12-string Rickenbacker riffs on the Byrds' early hits were the sonic bridge between folk and rock – and an irreplaceable color in rock's palette: Every indie band who's more interested in beatific strumming than screaming solos owes him a debt (the striking break in "Bells of Rhymney" could be on a Smiths record). McGuinn could do a lot more than chime, however, as demonstrated by his still-astonishing psychedelic-raga-Coltrane licks on "Eight Miles High."
Key Tracks: "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Eight Miles High"
R.E.M.'s guitarist was a less-is-more master who never needed much more than swarming melodies and spangled riffs. From the laser-guided arpeggios on "Radio Free Europe" to the supersize power chords of "The One I Love," his sound was both gorgeous and matter-of-factly aggressive – a DIY style that helped Eighties underground rockers push beyond punk rock. "They created 50,000 guitar bands after them," noted Billy Corgan, "America was inundated with jangly R.E.M. type bands."
Key Tracks: "Radio Free Europe," "The One I Love"
• R.E.M. In The Real World: Rolling Stone's 1987 Cover Story
• Photos: R.E.M. Through The Years
Paul Simon, the great wordsmith, speaks as vividly through his guitar as his lyrics. Weaned on early doo-wop and rock & roll, Simon got caught up in the folk revival during the mid-Sixties, traveling to England to study the acoustic mastery of Bert Jansch. He has continued absorbing new influences, as on "Dazzling Blue," off his most recent album, So Beautiful or So What: "All that folk fingerpicking is what I did with Simon and Garfunkel, but [here] it's on top of this rhythm with Indian musicians playing in 12/8." At 70, he's as nimble as ever.
Key Tracks: "Dazzling Blue," "Kathy's Song"
• The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Paul Simon's 'Graceland'
One of modern metal’s key figures, Dimebag Darrell founded Pantera with his brother, drummer Vinnie Paul Abbott – forging a style that combined brutally precise, punk-honed grooves with splatter-paint melodic runs. After he was tragically shot by a deranged fan during a show with his band Damageplan in 2004 – on the anniversary of John Lennon‘s death, freakishly enough – the tributes rolled in from fans, peers and forerunners. “One of the greatest musicians to grace our world,” Black Sabbath‘s Geezer Butler said simply. “Rest in peace.”
Key Tracks: “Floods,” “Cemetery Gates,” “Mouth for War”
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"
• Dave Davies Steps Out of Kinks Shadow
• The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time: The Kinks' 'You Really Got Me'
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"
• Television's Refined Tuning
• Tom Verlaine Returns with 'Songs'
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"
• The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Bonnie Raitt
• The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Bonnie Raitt's 'Nick of Time'
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"
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"
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"
• Video: J Mascis Performs 'Several Shades of Why' at SXSW 2011
• Video: Exclusive Interview with J Mascis at SXSW
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"
• The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time: The Police's 'Every Breath You Take'
• The 100 Best Albums of the Eighties: The Police's 'Synchronicity'
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”
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"
• The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Funkadelic's 'Maggot Brain'
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"
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"
• The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Lou Reed
• Q&A: Lou Reed
• The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Lou Reed's 'Transformer'
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"
• The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Buddy Holly
• The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Buddy Holly
• The Last Days of Buddy Holly
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, 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"
• Guitarist John Fahey Dead
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 Tracks: "Whiskey River," "Night Life"
• The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Willie Nelson
• The Saga of Willie Nelson
• Willie Nelson Gets the Blues
Schooled in flamenco and jazz, Robby Krieger pushed beyond rock at a time when most players were still bound to the blues. In the Doors, he had the improvisatory flair to follow Jim Morrison's wildest journeys, wrote some of their biggest hits ("Light My Fire"), and picked up the slack in their keyboard-drums-guitar lineup. "Not having a bass player… made me play more bass notes to fill out the bottom," he said. "Not having a rhythm player also made me play differently, to fill out the sound. I always felt like three players simultaneously."
Key Tracks: "Riders on the Storm," "Roadhouse Blues"
The strongest thing I did for Joni as a producer on Song to a Seagull, from 1968, was keep everybody else off of that record. She was a folkie who had learned to play what they call an indicated arrangement, where you are like a band in the way you approach a chord and string the melody along. She was so new and fresh with how she approached it. It's the reason I fell in love with her music. She was a fantastic rhythm player and growing so fast. She had mastered the idea that she could tune the guitar any way she wanted, to get other inversions of the chords. I was doing that too, but she went further. I understood her joy in using bigger tools later – jazz bands, orchestra. But the stuff she did that was basically her, like 1971's Blue, was her strongest stuff. Match her and Bob Dylan up as poets, and they are in the same ballpark. But she was a much more sophisticated musician. By David Crosby
Key Tracks: "I Had a King," "Nathan La Franeer," "Night in the City," "Coyote," "A Case of You"
• The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Joni Mitchell
• The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Joni Mitchell
• The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Joni Mitchell's 'Blue'
"I wanted my guitar to sound like Gene Krupa's drums," Dick Dale said, and the hyperpercussive style he invented for his jukebox wonders – including a juiced-up arrangement of the old Greek tune "Misirlou" – pioneered the sound of surf rock. Dale played as fast as possible, at max volume; Leo Fender once attempted to design an amp that wouldn't be destroyed by Dale's sheer loudness. "His arrangements were really complex, really unruly," said Rush's Alex Lifeson. "It was all staccato strumming reverb, but with a reverb that just sounded so cool."
Key Tracks: "Misirlou," "The Peter Gunn Theme"
He was no virtuoso, and that's the whole point: By snatching electric guitar from note-shredding technicians and giving it back to artists, freaks and poets, Kurt Cobain became one of the most important players ever. Cobain didn't invent alt-rock. But with his love of Cheap Trick, the Melvins and Kiss, he gave it the metallic power necessary to conquer the world. His playing wasn't all untutored squall, either: See the unconventional chord progression and mastery of quiet-loud-quiet dynamics on "Lithium" – and pretty much every other Nirvana song.
Key Tracks: "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Scentless Apprentice"
• The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Kurt Cobain
• Kurt Cobain's Downward Spiral: Rolling Stone's 1994 Feature
• Kurt Cobain: The Rolling Stone Interview
The Red Hot Chili Peppers always knew how to rock a party; it took John Frusciante to turn them into an arena-packing band with a sound they could call their own. Frusciante is a remarkably elastic stylist and a gifted sculptural arranger who pushed the Chilis to explore new worlds without getting in the way of their funk-pumped energy; he beefed up their sound with both well-placed fire (the volcanic, Hendrix-style solo on “Dani California”) and remarkable elegance (the indelible opening chords of “Under the Bridge”).
Key Tracks: “Dani California,” “Under the Bridge”
• John Frusciante Quits Red Hot Chili Peppers with ‘No Drama’
• The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ‘Californication’
• The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Career in Photos
He was barely known for decades after his 1938 death. But the 29 songs Robert Johnson recorded in 1936 and 1937 became holy writ to rock guitarists from Clapton to Dylan. They were dazzled by the way he made a guitar sound like an ensemble – slide and rhythm parts yelping in dialogue, riffs emerging from the mist. Dylan remembered playing King of the Delta Blues Singers, the 1961 LP that rescued Johnson from obscurity: "The vibrations from the loudspeaker made my hair stand up. The stabbing sounds… could almost break a window."
Key Tracks: "Ramblin' on My Mind," "Traveling Riverside Blues"
• The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Robert Johnson's 'King of the Delta Blues Singers'
• Clapton Covers Robert Johnson
By the turn of the century, new-metal grinders and post-grunge plodders had given loud guitars a bad reputation. Then Jack White hit the reset button. With each savage riff, he reconnected hard rock and roots music and showed that a blues-based band could escape what he calls "note-pushing Stratocaster white-blues bullshit." And he didn't let his analog leanings prevent him from ingenious use of a DigiTech Whammy pedal – the secret behind the faux-bass thunder of "Seven Nation Army" and the screaming leads of songs like "Ball and Biscuit."
Key Tracks: "Seven Nation Army," "Ball and Biscuit"
• Jack White, the Decade's Dirty Bluesman
• The Decade's Dirty Bluesman: Jack White on the Stripes' Rise, the Industry's Fall and His Next Move
• Jack White on Jack White: Rolling Stone's 2005 Cover Story
Richard Thompson has been one of rock's most dazzling stylists since his days with Fairport Convention, a British folk-rock band that veered into English traditional music. Shooting out life-affirming riffs amid lyrics that made you want to jump off a bridge, he combined a rock flatpick attack with speedy fingerpicking. His electric-guitar solos, rooted less in blues than in Celtic music, can be breathtaking, but his acoustic picking is just as killer; no one knows how many tears have been shed by players trying to nail "1952 Vincent Black Lightning."
Key Tracks: "Shoot Out the Lights," "1952 Vincent Black Lightning"
John McLaughlin was invited to record with Miles Davis while still in his twenties, co-parenting jazz fusion on Bitches Brew and other Davis LPs. But he achieved guitar-god status with his own Mahavishnu Orchestra, where he made his Gibson spit fire like a many-headed dragon. A breakneck stylist, McLaughlin was peerless, mixing psychedelic rock, R&B, gypsy jazz, flamenco and Indian raga techniques. That polyglot mastery earned him huge respect from jazz and rock peers alike: Jeff Beck called him "the best guitarist alive."
Key Tracks: "Right Off," "The Noonward Race"
• The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Miles Davis' 'Bitches Brew'
When B.B. King heard T-Bone Walker, he "thought Jesus Himself had returned to Earth playing electric guitar." Walker invented the guitar solo as we know it, building a new style on fluid phrasing, bluesy bends and vibrato. It was the clear tone and melodic invention of his 1942 single "Mean Old World" that blew everyone's mind, and Walker refined his approach through hits like "Call It Stormy Monday." "I came into this world a little too soon," Walker said. "I'd say that I was about 30 years before my time."
Key Tracks: "Call It Stormy Monday," "T-Bone Shuffle," "Mean Old World"
Leslie West (real name: Leslie Weinstein) first made his mark in mid-Sixties garage rock, with the Vagrants' meaty cover of Otis Redding's "Respect." By 1969, West was the heavy vengeance in the Cream-like quartet Mountain. On songs like the 1970 hit "Mississippi Queen," West played roughened blues lines with deceiving facility and an R&B flair, through a black forest of stressed-amp distortion. "The riffs were incredible," says Dave Davies. "He could play flashy, intricate phrases. But he wasn't a look-at-me guy. He played with feel."
Key Tracks: "Mississippi Queen," "Nantucket Sleighride (To Owen Coffin)"
He may have spent much of his Guns n' Roses prime shirtless, drunk and surrounded by snakes, but Slash brought good taste and restraint back to hard-rock guitar. "It was a stripped-down rock & roll sound compared to what everybody else was doing," says Slash. He could riff like Joe Perry, and intertwine, Stonesstyle, with Izzy Stradlin. And lyrical solos like the from-the-mountaintop grandeur of "November Rain" were permanently laced into the songs' fabric. "It's hard to play those solos any other way," says Slash. "It will sound wrong."
Key Tracks: "Sweet Child O'Mine," "Welcome to the Jungle"
• The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Guns n' Roses
• Photos: Guns n' Roses Early Days
• The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time: Guns n' Roses' 'Sweet Child O' Mine'
If there was any doubt left in the late 1950s that the guitar – not the saxophone – was rock & roll's essential lead instrument, Duane Eddy settled the argument: See his 1958 single "Rebel Rouser," curled with country twang and rippling with tremolo. "Chet Atkins used vibrato in a selective way – Duane Eddy used it to thrash the music," says the Kinks' Dave Davies. The impact of Eddy's hits, like "Forty Miles of Bad Road" and "Peter Gunn," would soon be heard in surf music and guitarists such as Jeff Beck and George Harrison.
Key Tracks: "Rebel Rouser," "Peter Gunn"
Out of all the hopped-up Caucasians who turbocharged the blues in the late Sixties, Texas albino Johnny Winter was both the whitest and the fastest. Songs like his 1969 cover of "Highway 61 Revisited" are astonishing showpieces of his lightningfast thumb-picked electric slide playing. Jimi Hendrix sought him out as a sideman, and Muddy Waters recognized his talent at first glance, becoming a friend and collaborator: "That guy up there onstage – I got to see him up close," Waters later said. "He plays eight notes to my one!"
Key Tracks: "I'm Yours and I'm Hers," "Fast Life Rider"
Since King Crimson‘s first rehearsal in 1969, Robert Fripp has been its distinguishing instrumental voice, a singular blend of distorted complexity and magisterial sustain. That duality is best heard on the most progressive prog-rock album ever made, Crimson’s 1973 thorny-metal classic, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic. Fripp’s most famous guitar line is the fuzz-siren hook in the title track to David Bowie‘s Heroes. Fripp would “start up without even knowing the chord sequence,” said producer Brian Eno, adding that Fripp’s work
Key Tracks: “21st Century Schizoid Man,” “Heroes”
• King Crimson Celebrate 40th Anniversary with Rhythm and Grace
"I'm the famous guitar player," the late Duane Allman said, "but Dickey is the good one." The two spent less than three years together in the Allman Brothers Band, but they established an epic rapport – jamming at length, trading solos and playing their famous twin-guitar leads. After Allman's death in 1971, the group continued with Betts, scoring with "Ramblin' Man" and "Jessica." For all his blues and slide chops, his roots are in jazz, and you can hear the influence of his clean-toned modal soloing in every Southern rock group that's followed.
Key Tracks: "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," "Jessica"
"My part is just a few notes over and over," Iggy Pop once said about the Stooges song "TV Eye," "but Ron created a whole world around that." In Asheton's hands – on proto-punk anthems like "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and "No Fun" – the classic three-digit barre chord felt more like a superpowered battering ram: droning, relentless and almost mystical. (Asheton, who died in 2009, called it "those magical three fingers.") You can hear Asheton's wild-man approach all over the playing of Kurt Cobain, Thurston Moore and Jack White.
Key Tracks:"No Fun," "TV Eye," "I Wanna Be Your Dog"
• The Stooges' Ron Asheton Remembered
• Iggy and the Stooges Remember Their Late Guitarist Ron Asheton
• Revisiting Ron Asheton's Influences: Guitarist on Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones and JFK
When Bob Dylan described the Band's "wild mercury sound," he was really talking about Robbie Robertson's guitar, as exemplified by his torrid, squawking solo on "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" from their 1966 tour. But by the time the Band were making their own LPs, Robertson had pared down his approach, evolving into a consummate ensemble player. "I wanted to go in the opposite direction," said Robertson, "to do things that were so tasteful and discreet and subtle, like Curtis Mayfield and Steve Cropper… where it was all about the song."
Key Tracks: "The Shape I'm In," "Like a Rolling Stone (Live 1966)"
• Video: Robbie Robertson Talks About the Evolution of his Guitar Style
• The Beginnings of the Band: Rolling Stone's 1968 Cover Story
• A Portrait of the Band as Young Hawks: Rolling Stone's 1978 Feature on 'The Last Waltz'
In late 1966, Peter Green had the job of replacing Eric Clapton in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. Mayall told his producer, "He might not be better [than Clapton] now. But you wait… he's going to be the best." Soon, with the original Fleetwood Mac, he was Britain's most progressive blues guitarist, with a Chicago-informed aggression heightened by the melodic adventure on albums like 1969's Then Play On. Green soon entered a dark age of mental and health problems, returning in the Nineties with more subdued but recognizable gifts.
Key Tracks: "Albatross," "Rattlesnake Shake"
• Peter Green Still Has Blues
"It seems a waste to me to work and work for years," Rory Gallagher told Rolling Stone in 1972, "and just turn into some sort of personality." Instead, the Irish guitarist, then only 23, became legendary for his nonstop-touring ethic and fiery craft. Playing a weathered Strat, often wearing a flannel shirt, Gallagher electrified Chicago and Delta styles with scalding slide work and hard-boiled songwriting. His fans included the Edge and Bob Dylan, who was initially turned away backstage at a 1978 show because Gallagher didn't recognize him.
Key Tracks: "Bullfrog Blues," "Laundromat," "Walk on Hot Coals"
In 1968, Jimi Hendrix talked about his love for a Houston blues luminary who wasn't known outside the region: "There's one cat I'm still trying to get across to people. He is really good, one of the best guitarists in the world." Albert Collins, who died of lung cancer in 1993, played with his thumb and forefinger instead of a pick to put a muscular snap into his piercing, trebly solos. His fluid, inventive playing influenced Hendrix, sometimes overtly: Jimi liked Collins' sustain in the song "Collins Shuffle" so much that he used it on "Voodoo Chile."
Key Tracks: "Frosty," "Sno-Cone Part 1"
When Rolling Stone founder Jann S. Wenner asked John Lennon how he rated himself as a guitarist, Lennon replied, "I'm not technically good, but I can make it fucking howl and move. I was rhythm guitarist. It's an important job. I can make a band drive." It is, and he did: Lennon was the Beatles' spark plug and bloodletter, often adding rawness to pristine pop songs. Listen to the airborne strums that power "Help!," the circular riffage of "Day Tripper" or the deceptively sloppy "The Ballad of John and Yoko" – where, with George Harrison away on holiday, Lennon turned rudimentary lead and rhythm lines into sharptoothed magic. He was also capable of generating a truly ferocious tone: In the live promo clip for "Revolution," Lennon makes his hollow-body Epiphone Casino screech like a very angry lawn mower. Still, he didn't get his due as a guitarist in the Beatles' heyday. "They call George the invisible singer," Lennon said. "I am the invisible guitar player."
Key Tracks: "Help!," "Day Tripper," "Yer Blues"
• The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: John Lennon
• The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: John Lennon
• Special Tribute: John Lennon's Last Days
In Cleveland power trio the James Gang, Joe Walsh combined Who-style fury with Yardbirds-style technical fireworks and R&B crunch, notably on 1970's "Funk #49." The humor in Walsh's bluesy facility came out in the talk-box flight on his '73 solo hit "Rocky Mountain Way." But it was when he joined the Eagles in 1975 that he truly lodged himself on classic-rock radio. Walsh brought a hard-rock edge to the Eagles' easygoing pop songs, creating a series of indestructible licks in the process: See his staccato-snarl riff in "Life in the Fast Lane" and his elegant aggression in the dueling-guitars section of "Hotel California." Walsh influenced the Who's 1971 classic, Who's Next, although he didn't play a note on it: He gave Pete Townshend, as a gift, the 1959 Gretsch Chet Atkins guitar that Townshend played all over that album. Townshend later repaid the favor while talking to Rolling Stone in 1975: "Joe Walsh is a fluid and intelligent player. There're not many like that around."
Key Tracks: "Rocky Mountain Way," "Funk #49"
• 'Hotel California' Voted Best Guitar Solo
In Chicago in the sixties, "the rules had been laid down" for young, white blues bands, Mike Bloomfield told Rolling Stone in 1968. "You had to be as good as Otis Rush." That wasn't easy. A Mississippi native who moved to the Windy City in the late Forties, Rush was a fearsome electric guitarist – with a grittytreble tone and lacerating attack, like a gunslinging cross of Muddy Waters and B.B. King – as well as a knockout songwriter. Along with guitarists like Magic Sam and Buddy Guy, Rush helped create the more modernized, R&B-influenced approach to Chicago blues that came to be known as the West Side Sound. Rush's impact on later generations was enormous: His late-Fifties and early-Sixties singles were go-to covers for Led Zeppelin ("I Can't Quit You Baby"), John Mayall ("All Your Love [I Miss Loving]") and the J. Geils Band ("Homework"), while Stevie Ray Vaughan named his band after Rush's lethal '58 lament "Double Trouble."
Key Tracks: "I Can't Quit You Baby," "Double Trouble," "Homework"
Clarence White helped shape two genres: His acoustic flatpicking, first displayed as a teenager when he and his brother formed the Kentucky Colonels band, was key in making the guitar a lead instrument in bluegrass. Later, he set the stage for country rock and transferred that dynamic precision and melodic symmetry to the electric guitar. A top session man in the Sixties, he played on the Byrds' 1968 landmark, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. After he joined the band later that year, White brought a full-bodied rock elation to his California-inflected Nashville chops. "He never played anything that sounded vaguely weak," said the Byrds' leader, Roger McGuinn. "He was always driving… into the music." White had returned to bluegrass with the acclaimed Muleskinner album when he was killed by a drunk driver in 1973. He was 29. "Clarence was immersed in hard country and bluegrass," said Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. "He incorporated those elements into rock & roll, and it totally blew people's minds."
Key Tracks: "Time Between," "This Wheel's on Fire," "Chestnut Mare"
• The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: The Byrds' 'Sweetheart of the Rodeo'
The Smiths' guitarist was a guitar genius for the post-punk era: not a showboating soloist, but a technician who could sound like a whole band. As a kid studying Motown records, Johnny Marr would try to replicate not just guitar riffs but piano and strings too, all with his right hand. His voluptuous arpeggios – often played on a chiming Rickenbacker with incredible flow and detailing – were every bit as essential to the Smiths' signature sound as Morrissey's baritone. And he was a tireless explorer: For 1983's "This Charming Man," Marr dropped knives onto a '54 Telecaster, a revelatory incident that Radiohead may have been alluding to in their Smiths-inspired "Knives Out." "He was a brilliant rhythm player, rarely played solos, so full of sounds," said Radiohead's Ed O'Brien – part of an entire generation of British guitarists who took their cues from Marr. "I've been in the studio with him, and there's nothing he cannot do on guitar," said Oasis' Noel Gallagher. "The man's a fuckin' wizard."
Key Tracks: "This Charming Man," "How Soon Is Now?"
• Johnny Marr Flies Solo
• Johnny Marr Considers Writing Tell-All Book About The Smiths