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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

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 king
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 the songs he wrote and produced. Jimmy built this incredible catalog of experience on the Yardbirds and doing session work, so when he did the first Led Zeppelin record, he knew exactly what kind of sounds he wanted to get.

He had this vision of how to transcend the stereotypes of what the guitar can do. If you follow the guitar on "The Song Remains the Same" all the way through, it evolves through so many different changes – louder, quieter, softer, louder again. He was writing the songs, playing them, producing them – I can't think of any other guitar player since Les Paul that can claim that.  By Joe Perry

Key Tracks: "Dazed and Confused," "Heartbreaker," "Kashmir"

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clapton
2

Eric Clapton

Eric Clapton is basically the only guitar player who influenced me – even though I don’t sound like him. There was a basic simplicity to his playing, his style, his vibe and his sound. He took a Gibson guitar and plugged it into a Marshall, and that was it. The basics. The blues. His solos were melodic and memorable – and that’s what guitar solos should be, part of the song. I could hum them to you.

What I really liked was Cream’s live recordings, because you could hear the three guys playing. If you listen to “I’m So Glad,” on Goodbye, you really hear the three guys go – and Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were a couple of jazz guys, pushing Clapton forward. I once read that Clapton said, “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.” He was just trying to keep up with the other two guys!

After Cream, he changed. When he started doing “I Shot the Sheriff” and this and that, and when he hooked up with Delaney and Bonnie, his whole style changed. Or at least his sound. He focused more on singing than playing. I respect him for everything he’s done and is still doing – but what inspired me, what made me pick up a guitar, was his early stuff. I could play some of those solos now – they’re permanently imprinted in my brain. That blues-based sound is still the core of modern rock guitar.  By Eddie Van Halen

Key Tracks: “Bell Bottom Blues,” “Crossroads,” “White Room”

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