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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

stephen stills
47

Stephen Stills

"He's a musical genius," Neil Young once said of Stephen Stills, his bandmate and co-lead guitarist in Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Stills is one of rock's most underrated guitarists, possibly because of his well-established reputation as a singer-songwriter. Off and on for more than four decades, he has challenged and complemented Young's feral breaks with a Latin-and country-inflected chime, and as his soaring solos at the recent Buffalo Springfield reunion shows have illustrated, Stills has never lost his fervor for adventurous shredding. Such was his pull as a musician that he got both Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix (a close friend of Stills') to make guest appearances on Stills' 1970 self-titled solo debut – the only album in rock history to feature both guitar giants. "I like all of every aspect of performing," Stills has said. "But I really enjoy the hell out of just getting up there and burning on my guitar."

Key Tracks: "Bluebird," "Carry On," "Go Back Home"

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jerry garcia
46

Jerry Garcia

Most people who play the blues are very conservative. They stay a certain way. Jerry Garcia was painting outside the frame. He played blues but mixed it with bluegrass and Ravi Shankar. He had country and Spanish in there. There was a lot of Chet Atkins in him – going up and down the frets. But you could always hear a theme in his playing. It's like putting beads on a string, instead of throwing them around a room. Jerry had a tremendous sense of purpose. When you take a solo, decide what to say, get there and give it to the next guy. That's how Jerry worked in the Dead. Jerry was the sun of the Grateful Dead – the music they played was like planets orbiting around him. He wasn't a superficial guy at all. It was a lot of fun to play with him, because he was very accommodating. He'd go up and down; I'd go left and right. And I could tell he enjoyed it, because the Dead always invited me back.  By Carlos Santana

Key Tracks: "Dark Star," "Sugaree," "Casey Jones"

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link wray
45

Link Wray

When Link Wray released the thrilling, ominous "Rumble" in 1958, it became one of the only instrumentals ever to be banned from radio play – for fear that it might incite gang violence. By stabbing his amplifier's speaker cone with a pencil, Wray created the distorted, overdriven sound that would reverberate through metal, punk and grunge. Wray, who proudly claimed Shawnee Indian ancestry and lost a lung to tuberculosis, was the archetypal leather-clad badass, and his song titles alone – "Slinky," "The Black Widow" – convey the force and menace of his playing. "He was fucking insane," said the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach. "I would listen to 'Some Kinda Nut,' over and over. It sounded like he was strangling the guitar – like it was screaming for help." When Wray died in 2005, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen both performed "Rumble" onstage in tribute. "If it hadn't been for Link Wray and 'Rumble,'" said Pete Townshend, "I would have never picked up a guitar."

Key Tracks: "Rumble," "Jack the Ripper," "Raw-Hide"

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mark knopfler
44

Mark Knopfler

Mark Knopfler's first big guitar-hero moment – the fleet, gloriously melodic solo on Dire Straits' 1978 hit "Sultans of Swing" – came at a time when punk seemed to be rendering the idea of a guitar hero obsolete. And yet Knopfler built a reputation as an intensely creative virtuoso (not to mention an ace songwriter), showing remarkable command over a range of tones and textures – from the gnarly distortion on hit single "Money for Nothing" to the stinging precision of "Tunnel of Love." One key to Knopfler's signature style: playing without a pick. "Playing with your fingers," he has said, "has something to do with immediacy and soul." Knopfler's versatility made him much in demand for projects with artists including Tina Turner, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan, who first called on Knopfler for 1979's Slow Train Coming. "He's one of the great players around," said Knopfler's hero-turned-collaborator, the late country legend Chet Atkins. "He doesn't think that, but he is."

Key Tracks: "Sultans of Swing," "Romeo and Juliet"

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hubert sumlin
43

Hubert Sumlin

"I love Hubert Sumlin," Jimmy Page has said. "He always played the right thing at the right time." During more than two decades playing alongside Howlin' Wolf, Sumlin always seemed to have an almost telepathic connection to the legendary blues singer, augmenting Wolf's ferocious cries with angular, slashing guitar lines and perfectly placed riffs on such immortal songs as "Wang Dang Doodle," "Back Door Man" and "Killing Floor." Sumlin made such an impact, in fact, that Wolf's greatest rival, Muddy Waters, even hired him away for a stint in 1956. Sumlin, who passed away in 2011 at age 80, played until the end, sometimes turning up onstage in the company of such acolytes as the Rolling Stones, Elvis Costello, Eric Clapton and the Allman Brothers. "You try to tell a story, tell it right, you live the story," Sumlin once said of his hugely influential guitar style. "It may be a little faster or a little classier, but it comes down to you playin' the blues or you ain't."

Key Tracks: "Smokestack Lightning," "Spoonful," "Killing Floor"

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mike bloomfield
42

Mike Bloomfield

"He didn't get a chance to expand the mission of his soul, but those few albums he played on – those are enough," says Carlos Santana, referring to Mike Bloomfield's death in 1981, of a drug overdose at age 37, and the key recordings Bloomfield left behind. Bloomfield helped Bob Dylan go electric with his work on Highway 61 Revisited (those are Bloomfield's skyward spirals on "Like a Rolling Stone") and two albums with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, including 1966's raga-blues monster, East-West. (Check out Bloomfield's winding, epic solo on the title track.) A native of Chicago, Bloomfield studied the local electric-blues legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf up close while he was growing up, and he packed those lessons into a piercing clean-treble tone and solos that took off with fluid, modal-jazz ecstasy. "Michael always sounded like a salmon going against the current," Santana says. "He comes from B.B. King. But he went somewhere else."

Key Tracks:"East-West," "Like a Rolling Stone," "Groovin' Is Easy"

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mick ronson
41

Mick Ronson

It was an exhilarating collaboration – Mick Ronson's terse phrasing and skewering distortion igniting David Bowie's sexually blurred confrontation, during the latter's king-glam role as Ziggy Stardust in the early Seventies. "Mick was the perfect foil for the Ziggy character," Bowie said. "We were every bit as good as Mick and Keith or Axl and Slash… the personification of that rock & roll dualism." The historic partnership actually predated Ziggy Stardust, hitting its first peak in the long, metallic furor of Bowie's 1970 recording "The Width of a Circle." Ronson's blues-with-flair style was also a vital component on sessions for Lou Reed, John Mellencamp and Morrissey, and during his second great partnership, in the late Seventies and early Eighties, with ex-Mott the Hoople singer Ian Hunter. "I want people to say, 'Wow, isn't that great, and isn't it simple?'" Ronson, who died in 1993, once said. "If you get sort of fancy and cluttered, you're just baffling people with science."

Key Tracks: "The Width of a Circle," "Suffragette City"

tom morello
40

Tom Morello

Tom Morello re-imagined rock guitar for the post-hip-hop world in the 1990s with Rage Against the Machine. Leaning heavily on his effects pedals, he created a new sonic vocabulary – the replicated turntable scratches on "Bulls on Parade," the funky laser blasts on "Killing in the Name" and the divebomber attack on "Fistful of Steel." Morello's blend of gizmos, pyrotechnic solos and thunderous chords is equal parts the Stooges and Public Enemy: "The Bomb Squad were hugely influential to me as a guitarist," Morello said, referring to the hip-hop crew's noiseloving production unit. "I was basically the DJ in Rage." After stepping back from guitar theatrics in the past five years with his lefty-folk alias, the Nightwatchman, Morello turned up the volume once again on his most recent album, World Wide Rebel Songs. "I figured I can play guitar like that," he told Rolling Stone earlier this year, "so I should."

Key Tracks: "Guerrilla Radio," "Killing in the Name"

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steve cropper
39

Steve Cropper

Peter Buck has called Steve Cropper "probably my favorite guitarist of all time. You can't think of a time when he really ripped off a hot solo, but he just plays perfectly." Cropper has been the secret ingredient in some of the greatest rock and soul songs: As a teenager, he had his first hit ("Last Night") with the Mar-Keys; he went on to spend most of the Sixties in Booker T. and the MGs, the Stax Records house band that played on hits by Carla Thomas, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. Since then, his spare, soulful playing has appeared on records by dozens of rock and R&B artists, including a stint in the Blues Brothers' band. Think of the introduction to Sam and Dave's "Soul Man," the explosive bent notes in Booker T.'s "Green Onions" or the filigreed guitar fills in Redding's "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay" – they all bear Cropper's signature sound, the quintessence of soul guitar. "I don't care about being center stage," says Cropper. "I'm a band member, always been a band member."

Key Tracks: "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay," "Green Onions," "Soul Man"

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the edge
38

The Edge

A lot had already been said about the guitar by the time the Edge picked it up. His secret is that he taught himself to play – that's why he's so unique. He's got such an innovative mind: Every U2 album that I've been involved with had a new sound from the Edge. There's not a lot of strumming in his playing; he's very much a servant to the melody. He focuses on the interplay between his guitar and Bono's vocals. The Edge is a scientist, and a poet by night; he's always got a little rig at home. He'll take home a Larry Mullen drumbeat, then come back into the studio the next morning and say, "Bono, I have one for you" – and present "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," with a simple jank-a-jank Dublin/Bo Diddley riff that spearheads the entire direction of the song. He's dedicated to note-taking. He and his guitar tech, Dallas Schoo, document every detail of his sound – what pedals, what pickup he used – anything that he thinks he might use. There's a breakdown about two-thirds of the way through "Mysterious Ways," before the song goes into symphonics, that, for me, is up there with the greatest James Brown guitar parts or one of the greatest horn lines played by Tower of Power. It's not really a riff – it's a moment. It brings me to tears whenever I hear it.  By Daniel Lanois

Key Tracks: "I Will Follow," "Pride (In the Name of Love)," "The Fly"

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mick taylor
37

Mick Taylor

"I was in awe sometimes listening to Mick Taylor," Keith Richards wrote in his memoir. "Everything was there in his playing – the melodic touch, a beautiful sustain and a way of reading a song." Taylor was only 20 when the Rolling Stones recruited him from John Mayall's Bluesbreakers as the replacement for Brian Jones in 1969. His impact, on masterworks such as Exile on Main Street and Sticky Fingers, was immediate. The down-and-dirty slide on "Love in Vain"; the jaw-dropping precision on "All Down the Line" (where his playing brilliantly mimics the sound of a harmonica); the extended, Latin-jazz-inflected coda on "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" – it's no accident that Taylor's stint coincided with the Stones' most consistently great recordings. "He was a very fluent, melodic player… and it gave me something to follow, to bang off," Mick Jagger said of Taylor, who left the band in 1974. "Some people think that's the best version of the band that existed."

Key Tracks: "Can't You Hear Me Knocking," "All Down the Line"

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randy rhoads
36

Randy Rhoads

Randy Rhoads' career was far too short – he died in a plane accident in 1982, at the age of 25 – but his precise, architectural, hyperspeed solos on Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" and "Mr. Crowley" helped set the template for metal-guitar soloing for years to follow. "I practiced eight hours a day because of him," Tom Morello has said, calling Rhoads "the greatest hard-rock/heavy-metal guitar player of all time." Rhoads had co-founded Quiet Riot as a teenager, and joined Ozzy's Blizzard of Ozz band in 1979 after a few years of working as a guitar teacher; according to legend, Rhoads would continue to take guitar lessons himself in different cities when he was on tour with Ozzy. By the time he recorded his final album, Ozzy's Diary of a Madman, Rhoads was getting deeper into classical music, and even exploring jazz. He "was reaching deep into himself as a guitar player," Nikki Sixx of Mötley Crüe said. "That was really the next step right there."

Key Tracks: "Crazy Train," "Mr. Crowley," "Diary of a Madman"

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john lee hooker
35

John Lee Hooker

"I don't play a lot of fancy guitar," John Lee Hooker once said. "I don't want to play it. The kind of guitar I want to play is mean, mean licks." Hooker's style couldn't be defined as urban or country blues – it was something entirely his own, mysterious and funky and hypnotic. On monumental classics like "Boogie Chillen" – a Number One R&B hit in 1949 – "Boom Boom" and "Crawlin' King Snake," he perfected a droning, stomping groove, often in idiosyncratic time signatures and locked on one chord, with an ageless power. "He was a throwback even in his own time," Keith Richards said. "Even Muddy Waters was sophisticated next to him." Hooker was a critical figure in the Sixties blues boom; his boogie became the basis for much of ZZ Top's early sound; his songs were covered by everyone from the Doors to Bruce Springsteen; and then, well after turning 70, he won four Grammys in the 1990s. "When I was a child," said Carlos Santana, "he was the first circus I wanted to run away with."

Key Tracks: "Boogie Chillen," "BoomBoom," "I'm in the Mood"

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curtis mayfield
34

Curtis Mayfield

The late Curtis Mayfield was one of American soul's finest singers, songwriters and producers. He was also a quietly influential guitarist whose gently fluid melodies and fills, running through records like the Impressions' "Gypsy Woman," left a deep impact on Jimi Hendrix, especially in his psychedelic balladry. "In the Sixties, every guitar player wanted to play like Curtis," George Clinton affirmed. Mayfield went on to reinvent his playing for a solo career in the Seventies, building his new music around the flickering funk rhythms and spare, gestural, wah-wah-inflected lead parts heard on his Superfly soundtrack and hits like "Move On Up." His liquid chord sequences were difficult for other musicians to imitate, in part because Mayfield played almost exclusively in an open F-sharp tuning. "Being self-taught, I never changed it," he said. "It used to make me proud because no matter how good a guitarist was, when he grabbed my ax he couldn't play it."

Key Tracks: "Gypsy Woman," "Move On Up," "Freddie's Dead"

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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, on which he hamm