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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

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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