100 Greatest Guitarists: David Fricke's Picks - Rolling Stone
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100 Greatest Guitarists: David Fricke’s Picks

From Jerry Garcia and Joan Jett to B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix, Rolling Stone critic chooses the best and most influential guitarists in rock

Jerry Garcia Grateful Dead

Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead was a folk and blue-grass obsessive who started playing guitar at 15.

David Redfern/Redferns/Getty

In 2003, I proposed to my editors a special issue devoted to the best and most influential guitarists in rock. They suggested a number – 100 – and the idea of ranking them. I came up with the names, based on my life-long love of the instrument and those who play it. One hundred proved to be too small for the job – my working list of the worthy ran closer to 500 – and the running order was frustrating work. In the end, I looked at it this way: Jimi Hendrix was Number One in every way; the other 99 were all Number Two.

The original inspiration was a celebration of the guitar and how it changed the world – and me. Everyone has their own version of this list. This was mine, in 2003.


Kim Thayil

Soundgarden didn't set out to destroy metal — just take it
back to basics. Thayil updated the forbidding sludge and
tweaked-out solos of prime Zep. His fondness for the drop-D tuning,
in which the low E string is loosened a whole step for maximum
heaviosity, still resonates throughout hard rock.


Greg Ginn

Ginn reshaped blues-based rock in the crucible of punk. From Black
Flag's 1978 debut EP, Nervous Breakdown, to their 1986
demise, Ginn steered the band from blue-collar punk to
molasses-thick metal, anticipating the rise of Seattle grunge.


Leigh Stephens

Back in 1968, before heavy metal had a name, Stephens was shredding
eardrums with the psychedelic-blues trio Blue Cheer. The group
bragged of being the loudest in the world, and Stephens' molten
solos epitomize Sixties rock at its most untethered and abandoned.


Robert Randolph

A pedal steel guitarist who made his name playing gospel,
Randolph's family band is one of the most intense live acts in all
of jamdom. His thirteen-string instrument has a chillingly clear
tone, and his solos are dotted with howling melodies and
perpetually cresting, lightning-fast explorations.


Angus Young

Young specializes in the sort of filthy solos that first made
people characterize the blues as the devil's music. His playing is
drenched in testosterone, booze and punk venom, but it's the blues
swing that keeps AC/DC's hard rock trend-proof.


Kevin Shields

In concert, Shields stood stone-still and played at such
unspeakable volume the overtones suggested instruments that weren't
there. His band was labeled "shoegazers" and his music "dream pop."
My Bloody Valentine's shape-shifting, surreal melodies and contrast
of delicate beauty with unbearable noise concocted an entirely new
language for the electric guitar.


Bert Jansch

Jimmy Page was obsessed with him, and Neil Young has called him his
favorite acoustic guitarist. Jansch's fusion of jazz, blues and
classical with traditional folk has made him a standout since his
1965 debut, and even latter-day groups such as Oasis and Pulp have
given him props.


Fred “Sonic” Smith

In the MC5, Wayne Kramer and Smith funneled Sun Ra's sci-fi jazz through
twin howitzers. Together they staked out a vision for hard rock
that felt ecstatic, giddy, boundless.


Wayne Kramer

In the MC5, Kramer and Fred Smith funneled Sun Ra's sci-fi jazz through
twin howitzers. Together they staked out a vision for hard rock
that felt ecstatic, giddy, boundless.


Robby Krieger

Krieger's strengths are flexibility and self-effacement. A broad
stylist whose influences extend to country, flamenco and raga, he
could also get as nasty as he needed to, but he understood that
instrumental interplay was what mattered.


Glen Buxton

Buxton was a gifted mimic whose ability to unlock the guitar
secrets of his Stones and Yardbirds 45s gave a Phoenix garage band
the breathing room to develop into Alice Cooper. His dirty,
elemental leads wrapped around Michael Bruce's meaty riffs to
create a legacy of exemplary hard rock.


D. Boon

At the time of his death, in 1985, it seemed nothing was out of
reach for Boon. The forty-three songs on the Minutemen's masterful
Double Nickels on the Dime ventured thrillingly into
free-jazz dissonance, up-tempo country, helter-skelter funk and
dense experimental rock.


Dave Davies

Davies' guitar was the dynamo that drove the Kinks. Brash,
aggressive and entirely unforgettable, his chord progressions on
their early hits have become a rock & roll rite of passage for
any aspiring guitarist; "You Really Got Me" has alone launched
countless garage bands.


Joan Jett

Lead guitarists gave rock its icons; rhythm players gave it soul.
The line runs from Eddie Cochran to Pete Townshend to Johnny
Ramone, a lineage in which Joan Jett should not be taken lightly.
In the early Runaways and the later Black-hearts, she played it
straight ahead: No frills, all heart, no fucking around.


Tony Iommi

Heavy, really heavy, starts here. While others were spinning solo stairways to the stars, the left-handed Iommi went in the opposite direction. Black Sabbath took rock's simplicity and simplified it even further. The occasional minor chord and a low, rumbling tone added to a guitar sound dripping menace and foreboding.


Randy Rhoads

In 1980, Ozzy Osbourne hired the diminutive, classically trained
twenty-three-year-old Rhoads from Santa Monica, California, away
from Quiet Riot. His screeching, arpeggiated solos on "Crazy Train"
introduced the one true contemporaneous peer of Eddie Van Halen.
Were it not for his 1982 demise in a plane crash, his already
enormous influence on metal-guitar playing would have increased a


Eddie Cochran

He became a rockabilly star at nineteen, in 1957, and died at
twenty-one. In between, his itchy, aggressive strum of fat,
irresistible rhythm figures was a mighty weapon that could be
wielded to battle authority ("Summertime Blues"), rally the troops
("C'mon Everybody") or summon some lovin' ("Somethin' Else").
"Summertime Blues," Somethin' Else (1998)


Neil Young

The haunting, delicate clarity of Young's acoustic playing should
not be underestimated. But it's on electric that he has staked his
claim to ragged glory. A restless experimenter, he returns without
fail to simple melodies, bludgeoning chords and a savant's knack
for transforming the most obvious music into something revelatory.


David Gilmour

Roger Waters gave Floyd conceptual weight and lyrical depth, but
Gilmour brought drama. His solos exuded a slow-burn stateliness
that could be soulful ("Comfortably Numb") or evoke sci-fi
dreamscapes ("Echoes") first glimpsed by the man he succeeded, acid
casualty Syd Barrett.


Derek Trucks

Trucks hit the road with his first band at age twelve. Now
twenty-four, he does double duty as guitarist with the Allman
Brothers Band and leader of the jazz-tinged Derek Trucks Band. He's
a fluid slide guitarist who moves easily between Southern rock,
reggae, gospel, jazz and African music.


Robert Quine

With a guitar style that owed as much to free jazz as it did to
blues and rock, Quine was the perfect choice to complement Richard
Hell's intuitive street poetry in the New York punk band the
Voidoids. Quine went on to make vital contributions to Lou Reed's
solo masterpiece The Blue Mask and Matthew Sweet's Girlfriend.

cliff gallup

Cliff Gallup

In the few months he spent as lead guitarist for Gene Vincent's Blue Caps in 1956, Gallup introduced the stylistic swagger that every rock guitarist now takes for granted. His slashing, razor-blade-in-the-ducktail assaults pushed the instrument one big step away from country picking and down the mean streets that rock & roll guitar has traversed ever since. "Race With the Devil," The Screaming End: The Best of Gene Vincent (1997)


Robbie Robertson

Robertson's songwriting laid the foundation for the Band's rustic
soul, but his terse, poignant guitar playing was the group's most
underrated weapon. The Canada-born Robertson and the rest of the
Band — then still called the Hawks — backed Bob Dylan
on his first electric tour, in 1966, during which Dylan proclaimed
him a "mathematical guitar genius."


Henry Vestine

Vestine's interplay with Alan Wilson's slide in Canned Heat sparked
hits including "On the Road Again" and "Going Up the Country."
"Sunflower," as he was called, was an early member of Zappa's
Mothers and played with free-jazzman Albert Ayler.


Ali Farka Toure

The Malian singer and guitarist is often compared to John Lee
Hooker, though that's too easy. He has clearly been influenced by
rural blues, but Toure is a technical marvel, and his delicately
plucked clusters and blindingly fast runs gather influences from
African hymns to folk songs.


Adam Jones

In high school, Tool's Adam Jones played bass in a band with future
Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello. In Tool, he
combines the tuned-down chug of death metal with ominous
atmospherics influenced by Rush and King Crimson. Rarely letting
loose with a conventional solo, Jones prefers riffing in 15/8 time.


Johnny Winter

In the early Seventies, Winter took the blues into hard-rock
territory with his overdrive takes on anthems such as "Johnny B.
Goode"and "Jumpin' Jack Flash." He produced a string of solid
albums for his hero Muddy Waters in the late Seventies. "It's a
living music," Winter has said. "For me, blues is a necessity."


Trey Anastasio

Anastasio can play anything he hears. Phish's guitar anti-hero has
Pat Metheny's cinematic sense of pacing and Frank Zappa's impish
inclination toward noise. His epic solos balance technical
finger-work against screaming climaxes, and they're exciting even
when he's sloppy. Especially when he's sloppy.


Joni Mitchell

The secret to Mitchell's daring guitar work is that she uses more
than fifty different tunings. Mitchell devised the alternate
tunings to compensate for a left hand weakened by childhood polio.
In time she used them as a tool to break free of standard
approaches to harmony and structure.


Lightnin’ Hopkins

Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins learned the blues from Blind Lemon
Jefferson in the Twenties. He was a ferocious electric stylist in
the Fifties, though he's perhaps best known for his nimble acoustic
fingerpicking during the Sixties folk-blues revival. As
unpredictable as John Lee Hooker, he seemed to be making it up as
he went along, and often was.


Eddie Van Halen

The sound-obsessed Van Halen makes even simple lines sound like
towering chorales and pioneered all kinds of tricks, such as
fingers hammering the fretboard. Van Halen sought something
different from his rock peers: music that was defiantly arty, but
never so much so that it lost touch with devastating hooks.


Steve Howe

During an era when everyone wanted to be a bluesman, Howe brought
jazz, country, flamenco, ragtime and psychedelia into the mix for
prog — rockers Yes. The ringing harmonics that open
"Roundabout" may be Howe's best-known moment but Close to the Edge
shows his range, from acoustic delicacy to high-octane riffs.


Jerry Miller

Miller was tightly tempered on the Pacific Northwest R&B bar
scene before joining the San Francisco ballroom band Moby Grape.
His playing was never self-indulgent, and his soloing was
propulsive, always aware of where the song was headed.


Link Wray

Wray is the man behind the most important D chord in history. You
can hear that chord in all its raunchy magnificence on the epochal
1958 instrumental "Rumble." By stabbing his amplifier's speaker
cone with a pencil, Wray created the overdriven rock-guitar sound
taken up by Townshend, Hendrix and others.


Vernon Reid

Reid reinvigorated hard rock with shots of soul, jazz and hip-hop.
Reid's solos embraced the free-form abstraction of his early days
as a jazz player, but they flexed enough muscle to bowl over any
Metallica fan.


Hubert Sumlin

Sumlin's work on Howlin' Wolf classics such as "Wang Dang Doodle,"
"Back Door Man" and "Spoonful" inspired Keith Richards and an
entire generation of British bluesmen. Wolf's idiosyncratic
phrasing humbled countless sidemen, but Sumlin embellished the
singer's every pronouncement with angular phrases, vibrato-laden
riffs and audacious glissandos.


Mick Ronson

This working-class lad from northern England lent musical substance
to David Bowie's theatrical conceits in the Seventies. Ronson, who
died in 1993, was the archetypal flash Brit guitarist, known for
wrenched, physical solos that favor his hero, Jeff Beck. A sharp,
sensitive accompanist, he worked with everyone from Bob Dylan to


Danny Gatton

Never a superstar, Gatton was nevertheless a hero to fellow
guitarists. He could pluck easygoing, banjo-like country rambles or
grind out power chords or create wonderfully melodic jazz
excursions that revealed just a sliver of his massive technique.
Gatton committed suicide in 1994, just as his national profile was
on the rise.


Zoot Horn Rollo

"Mr. Zoot Horn Rollo, hit that long, lunar note and let it float,"
commanded Captain Beefheart, and the former Bill Harkleroad did
that and much more. Rollo was only nineteen when he cut the
astonishing Trout Mask Replica in 1969; for the next five
years, he brought Beefheart's cubist riffs and science-fiction
Delta blues to life.


Ike Turner

Born on the Mississippi Delta, Turner was one of the first
guitarists to successfully transplant the intensity of the blues
into more-commercial music. His sound, built around his own
razor-sharp rhythm guitar, combined four-on-the-floor rock energy,
brash soul shouts and precision execution into a dizzying assault.


Jonny Greenwood

Radiohead's two lead guitarists have a symbiotic relationship.
Greenwood is closer to a traditional lead man; those are his unwell
bends at the end of "Just" and "Paranoid Android." O'Brien likes
the wacky noises; the ghostly above-the-nutjangle on OK Computer's
"Lucky" and the high, reverberating pops on Hail to the
's "2 + 2 = 5" are his handiwork.


Ed O’Brien

Radiohead's two lead guitarists have a symbiotic relationship.
Greenwood is closer to a traditional lead man; those are his unwell
bends at the end of "Just" and "Paranoid Android." O'Brien likes
the wacky noises; the ghostly above-the-nutjangle on OK Computer's
"Lucky" and the high, reverberating pops on Hail to the
's "2 + 2 = 5" are his handiwork.


Dickey Betts

From 1969 to 1971, Duane Allman swooped and soared while Betts kept
the music moving with lyrical boogie. After Duane's death, Betts
handled both roles. He also wrote many of the Allmans' best-known
songs, including "Ramblin' Man" and the instrumental "Jessica."


Roy Buchanan

In 1971, a documentary about Roy Buchanan aired on public TV; it
was called The Best Unknown Guitarist in the World. The
title remains apt today. Buchanan's gritty blues-rock playing
entranced other guitarists such as Jeff Beck. But the Washington,
D.C., virtuoso never caught the break he deserved, and in 1988, at
age forty-eight, he took his own life while in jail for public


Tom Verlaine

There was punk energy propelling Television, but guitarist Tom
Verlaine was no angry primitive hacking at the strings. He used a
crisp, needling attack and favored long, carefully developed
exchanges with guitarist Richard Lloyd. The result was music of
Coltrane-like depth at a time when the spastic outburst was the


Ritchie Blackmore

The Deep Purple and Rainbow leader is a master of both bottom-line
riffs and jaw-dropping virtuoso flights. It's ironic that despite
his classical leanings, this master technician is best-known for
one of the most simplest riffs of all time: Purple's "Smoke on the


Jorma Kaukonen

Jefferson Airplane's and Hot Tuna's Kaukonen is a gifted
fingerpicker and bluesman who developed a raga-inflected style as
the Airplane's folk rock grew increasingly psychedelic. His
acid-rock peak may be "Spare Chaynge," nine minutes of jamming on
After Bathing at Baxter's that grew out of his admiration
for Cream.


Mickey Baker

Baker may have been the busiest session guitarist of the Fifties
— it's his brittle playing that underpins R&B classics
such as Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle and Roll" and the Drifters'
"Money Honey." But it's his million-selling 1956 duet with Sylvia
Vanderpool, "Love Is Strange," that's his crowning achievement.
Those keening licks and hectic chords sound as unearthly today as
they did five decades ago.


Lou Reed

Reed's ramrod stroke makes him one of the all-time great rhythm
players, and he brought a thrilling sense of anarchy to his leads.
With the Velvet Underground, he established a sound that owed as
much to free-jazz maverick Ornette Coleman as to "Louie Louie."


Paul Kossoff

Kossoff's solos for British hard-rock pioneers Free —
particularly in the radio classic "All Right Now" — are
better-known than his name, but he is admired by guitarists for the
economy of his lines and the purity of his tone. He made his
presence felt by what he did not play, and the exquisite way he
sculpted what he did.

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