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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

prince
33

Prince

He played arguably the greatest power-ballad guitar solo in history ("Purple Rain"), and his solo on an all-star performance of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" during George Harrison's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2004 had jaws on the floor. But he can also bring the nasty funk like Jimmy Nolen and Nile Rodgers (listen to the groove magic of "Kiss") or shred like the fiercest metalhead ("When Doves Cry"). Sometimes his hottest playing simply functions as background – see "Gett Off" and "Dance On." Prince gets a lot of Hendrix comparisons, but he sees it differently: "If they really listened to my stuff, they'd hear more of a Santana influence than Jimi Hendrix," he once told Rolling Stone. "Hendrix played more blues, Santana played prettier." To Miles Davis, who collaborated with the Purple One toward the end of his life, Prince was a combination of "James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye… and Charlie Chaplin. How can you miss with that?"

Key Tracks: "Purple Rain," "Kiss," "When Doves Cry"

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billy gibbons
32

Billy Gibbons

Billy Gibbons was a guitarist to be reckoned with long before he grew that epic beard. In early 1968, his psychedelic garage band, the Moving Sidewalks, opened four Texas shows for the Jimi Hendrix Experience. According to local acidrock lore, Hendrix was so impressed by Gibbons' facility and firepower that he gave the young guitarist a pink Stratocaster as a gift. Gibbons has since glibly described what he plays with his four-decade-old trio, ZZ Top, as "spankin' the plank." But from the muscular boogie of "La Grange" and the gnarly offbeat shuffle of "Jesus Left Chicago" to the synthlined glide of Eighties hits "Legs" and "Sharp Dressed Man," Gibbons' guitar work has been religiously true, in its thunderbolt attack and melodic concision, to his Texas forebears (Freddy King, Albert Collins) and the electric-Delta charge of Muddy Waters. "You can definitely make someone wiggle in their seat a little bit," Gibson says of his solos, "if you know where you're heading with it and end up there."

Key Tracks: "Jesus Left Chicago," "La Grange"

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ry cooder
31

Ry Cooder

Ry Cooder once likened his playing – a sublime amalgam of American folk and blues, Hawaiian slack-key guitar, the Tex-Mex zest of conjunto and the regal sensuality of Afro-Cuban son – as "some kind of steam device gone out of control." Cooder's life on guitar has been distinguished by a rare mix of archaic fundamentals and exploratory passion, from his emergence as a teenage blues phenomenon with Taj Mahal and Captain Beefheart in the mid-Sixties to his roots-and-noir film soundtracks and central role in the birth and success of the 1996 Havana supersession Buena Vista Social Club. As a sideman, Cooder has brought true grit and emotional nuance to classic albums by Randy Newman, the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. Cooder is also a soulful preservationist, keeping vital pasts alive and dynamic in the modern world. A good example: the night Bob Dylan showed up at Cooder's house asking for a lesson on how to play guitar like the bluesman Sleepy John Estes.

Key Tracks: "Memo From Turner," "Boomer's Story"

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elmore james
30

Elmore James

Mississippi-born singer-guitarist Elmore James had one immortal lick: the staccato-and-downhill slide riff in his 1951 adaptation of Robert Johnson's "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom." "But it was a great lick," says slide guitarist Derek Trucks. "There was something unleashed in his playing, that acoustic guitar with the electric pickup. When he's singing, you hear his voice through the electric pickup." James also scored with sizzling variations of that lick in "Shake Your Moneymaker" and "Stranger Blues," which became blues-boom standards following his death in 1963. James' tone inspired a generation of guitarists: "I practiced 12 hours a day, every day, until my fingers were bleeding, trying to get the same sound as Elmore James got," Robbie Robertson said. "Then somebody told me that he plays with a slide." Trucks particularly loves James' solo in a 1960 version of "Rollin' and Tumblin'": "It's real simple, but every note is in the right spot – funky and nasty. Say 'Play that Elmore lick,' and everybody knows what to do."

Key Tracks: "Dust My Broom," "The Sky Is Crying"

scotty moore
29

Scotty Moore

On July 5th, 1954, Elvis Presley, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black messed around with a hopped-up version of Arthur Crudup's "That's All Right" during a break in a session at Sun Records in Memphis. The guitar would never be the same: Moore's concise, aggressive runs mixed country picking and blues phrasing into a new instrumental language. The playing was so forceful that it's easy to forget there was no drummer. If Moore had done nothing but the 18 Sun recordings – including "Mystery Train" and "Good Rockin' Tonight" – his place in history would be assured. But he continued to play with Elvis, contributing the scorching solos to "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Hound Dog." And when Elvis wanted to get back to his roots on the 1968 "comeback special," he summoned Moore, for the sound that helped change the role of the guitar in pop music. "Everyone else wanted to be Elvis," Keith Richards said. "I wanted to be Scotty."

Key Tracks: "That's All Right," "Mystery Train," "Heartbreak Hotel"

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johnny ramone
28

Johnny Ramone

The father of punk-rock guitar and a huge influence on riff-driven modern metal, Johnny Ramone is one of the instrument's great anti-heroes. John Cummings made his name with an inexpensive Mosrite guitar,