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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

robbie robertson
59

Robbie Robertson

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)"

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peter green
58

Peter Green

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"

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rory gallagher
57

Rory Gallagher

"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"

albert collins
56

Albert Collins

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"

john lennon
55

John Lennon

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"

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joe walsh
54

Joe Walsh

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"

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otis rush
53

Otis Rush

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
52

Clarence White

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"

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johnny marr
51

Johnny Marr

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?"

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