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.

50

Pete Townshend

Pete Townshend destroyed guitars almost as much as he played them
in the mid- and late 1960s, smashing his Rickenbackers and Strats
in frenzies of ritual murder at the end of the Who's stage shows.
But he also pioneered the power chord on the Who's 1965 debut
single, "I Can't Explain," and on the follow-up, "Anyway, Anyhow,
Anywhere, "Townshend was arguably the first in rock to use feedback
as a soloing tool. Live at Leeds is an exhilarating
display of his unique guitar violence, while Who's Next,
the Who's greatest studio achievement, shows how much melody and
beauty there was inside Townshend's thunder and lightning.

49

John McLaughlin

After playing with British Blues Bands in the mid-Sixties,
McLaughlin moved to New York, where he helped pioneer the jazz rock
that became known as fusion in the early Seventies. Miles Davis'
jazz-rock classic Bitches Brew doesn't just feature
McLaughlin, it also boasts a track named after him. In 1971,
McLaughlin formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra, which combined the
complex rhythms of Indian music with jazz harmonies and rock power
chords. McLaughlin played blizzards of notes, clearly influenced by
the sheets of sound of his idol, John Coltrane. The first two
Mahavishnu albums, The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds
of Fire
, are every bit as incendiary as their titles suggest.

48

Joe Perry

Joe Perry has spent most of his three decades in Aerosmith being
compared to Keith Richards: as the guitar pirate and songwriting
foil to Aerosmith's own Jagger, Steven Tyler. But Perry's
admiration for both Richards' riffing and Jeff Beck's screaming
leads was grounded in blues and R&B: Perry's immortal pimp-roll
lick in "Walk This Way" was a natural progression from Aerosmith's
early covers of Rufus Thomas' "Walking the Dog" and James Brown's
"Mother Popcorn." And everything Perry loves about Jimi Hendrix's
iridescent lyricism comes through in Aerosmith's "Dream On," one of
the only power ballads worthy of the term.

47

T-Bone Walker

T-Bone Walker invented the guitar solo as we know it — he was
the guy who figured out how to make an electric guitar cry and
moan. Born in Texas in 1910, he was a bluesman touring the South by
the age of fifteen. As early as 1935, he was playing primitive
electric-guitar models. But he shocked everyone with his 1942 debut
single, "Mean Old World," playing bent notes, vibrato sobs and more
wild new electric sounds that other guitarists hadn't even dreamed
of. Walker invented a new musical language, from the urban flash of
"The Hustle Is On" to the dread of "Stormy Monday." Through the
Forties and Fifties, he led his suave L.A. jump-blues combo on
classics such as "You're My Best Poker Hand," "I Know Your Wig Is
Gone" and "Long Skirt Baby Blues."

46

Les Paul

Les Paul, born Lester Polfus in Waukesha, Wisconsin, on June 9th,
1915, is a guitar inventor as well as a player. He was tinkering
with electronics at age twelve and built his first guitar pickup
from ham-radio parts in 1934. By 1941 — after a career as a
hillbilly star under the names Hot Rod Red and Rhubarb Red —
he had built the first solid-body electric guitar prototype. In
1952, Gibson began selling the Les Paul model, now a rock &
roll standard. He was also a pioneer in multitrack recording and a
staggeringly talented guitarist, cutting a string of futuristic pop
hits with wife Mary Ford in the early Fifties.

45

Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa was a drummer (at age twelve) and composer (writing a
string quartet in his teens) before he got serious about the
guitar. But in his more than four decades on stage and record,
Zappa — who died in 1993 — soloed with the same
discipline and experimental appetite that he applied to the rest of
his protean legacy: symphonies, doo-wop parody, big-band fusion,
sociopolitical satire. For a man who ran his Mothers of Invention
with an iron fist, Zappa was actually a joyful improviser who
combined the melodic rigor of his orchestral ideals with the dirty,
frenzied pith of his earliest love, 1950s R&B. He also came up
with the best instrumental titles in the business, including
"Invocation and Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin" and
"In-A-Gadda-Stravinsky."

44

Scotty Moore

Moore played electric on the eighteen epochal sides Elvis Presley
cut for Sun Records in 1954 and '55, including "That's All Right,"
"Good Rockin' Tonight" and "Mystery Train." His mix of country
picking and bluesy bends would later be termed rockabilly. When the
King signed with RCA, Moore went along with him, and the result was
another round of classics: "Heartbreak Hotel," "Hound Dog," "Too
Much" (the last featuring a particularly angular Moore solo).
Later, Elvis would turn to Nashville and L.A. session guitarists,
but when he wanted to reconnect with his roots for his 1968
comeback special, Moore got the call once again.

43

Eddie Hazel

Hazel was the guitar visionary of George Clinton's
Parliament-Funkadelic empire. Born in Brooklyn in 1950, Hazel grew
up in Plainfield, New Jersey, where he fell in with Clinton's funk
mob. For the title track to Funkadelic's 1971 album Maggot
Brain
, Clinton famously asked Hazel to imagine the saddest
possible thing. Thinking of his mother's death, Hazel unleashed ten
minutes of sad acid-rock guitar moans. "Maggot Brain" became a
landmark, and Hazel inspired disciples from Sonic Youth to the
Chili Peppers with a Strat full of cosmic slop. Hazel died in 1992.
They played "Maggot Brain" at his funeral. You can still hear his
soulfully twisted freakouts in P-Funk gems such as "I'll Bet You,"
"Music for My Mother" and "Standing on the Verge of Getting It On."

42

Robert Fripp

Starting in 1969 with King Crimson, this native of Dorset, England,
has helped define prog-rock guitar. Robert Fripp's trademarks are
swooping fuzz-tone solos that skirt the fringes of tonality;
slashing rhythm parts in an array of tricky time signatures;
intricate, finger-punishing single-note lines. In the
mid-Seventies, Fripp and his friend Brian Eno invented the
"Frippertronics" infinite tape-loop system, thus helping create a
new subgenre: ambient music. As a sideman, Fripp played on David
Bowie's Heroes; as a producer, he handled Peter Gabriel's
second album and the Roches' 1979 debut.

41

Clarence White

A child-prodigy bluegrass picker, White found early fame with the
Kentucky Colonels, but he's best remembered for his association
with the Byrds. His classy twang first popped up on their 1967
album Younger Than Yesterday, came through loud and clear
on 1968's Sweetheart of the Rodeo and only grew more
important as the band delved further into country rock. White's
fame among players was sealed with his co-invention of the Parsons/
White StringBender, which enables a regular guitar to simulate a
pedal steel. It's used by everyone from Jimmy Page to Kirk Hammett.
Sadly, the man who brought it to prominence died way too soon,
mowed down by a drunk driver in 1973.

40

John Fogerty

In the late 1960s, at the height of psychedelic excess, John
Fogerty wrote, sang and played guitar with Creedence Clearwater
Revival like a man from another decade: the 1950s. His impassioned
vocals and plainspoken workingman's politics were a big part of
CCR's crossover appeal on underground-FM and Top Forty radio. But
Fogerty's taut riffing, built on the country and rockabilly
innovations of Scotty Moore and James Burton, was the dynamite in
CCR hits such as "Born on the Bayou" and "Green River." Fogerty can
also be a lethal jammer: See his extended break in CCR's '68 cover
of Dale Hawkins' "Susie Q."

39

Brian May

When the lead singer of your band is Freddie Mercury, you're lucky
if anybody notices your guitar playing at all. But Brian May was
every bit as flamboyant as his frontman in terms of getting
attention, and he defined the sound of Queen with his
upper-register guitar shrieks. May juiced the treble all the way
for a clear and piercing tone, playing solos with grandeur and
campy feather-boa humor. From "Killer Queen" to "Bohemian
Rhapsody," May offered counterpoint to Mercury's operatic falsetto,
pushing glitter rock over the top until the sound was sheer heart
attack. He will, he will rock you.

38

Peter Green

Many six-string devotees — including fellows named Carlos and
B.B. — insist that Britain's greatest blues guitarist isn't
Clapton or Beck, it's Peter Green. In the Sixties, first with John
Mayall's Bluesbreakers, then as the original frontman for Fleetwood
Mac (long before Stevie Nicks entered the picture), Green played
with a fire and fluidity that's rarely been matched. But in 1970,
with the Mac on the verge of super-stardom, Green quit the band,
saying he needed to escape the evils of fame. It was the beginning
of a long, drug-fueled breakdown that would include stints in
mental institutions and on the street. Miraculously, Green
recovered and took up guitar again in the mid-Nineties; though his
leads aren't as authoritative now, the spirit of a true survivor is
in every note.

37

Bo Diddley

Diddley's beat was as simple as a diddley bow, the one-stringed
African instrument that inspired his nickname. But in songs such as
"Mona," "I'm a Man" and "You Can't Judge a Book by the Cover," his
tremolo-laden guitar argued that rhythm was as important as melody,
maybe more so. Born in Mississippi, he grew up as Ellas McDaniel in
Chicago, where he studied violin and learned how to make both
violins and guitars. His late-1950s singles on Checker could be
both terrifying ("Who Do You Love") and hilarious ("Crackin Up").
The sounds he coaxed out of his homemade guitar were
groundbreaking, influencing just about everyone in the British
Invasion.

36

Steve Cropper

As a member of the stax records house band Booker T. and the MG's,
Steve Cropper, a white guy from Willow Springs, Missouri, was a
prime inventor of black Southern-funk guitar — trebly,
chicken-peck licks fired with stinging, dynamic efficiency. If
Cropper had never played on another record after 1962's "Green
Onions," his stabbing-dagger lines would have ensured him a place
on this list. But he also played on — and often co-wrote and
arranged — many of the biggest Stax hits of the late 1960s
and early 1970s. Four decades after "Green Onions," he continues to
perform and record with his seminal, down-home touch.

35

John Fahey

John Fahey created a new, enduring vocabulary for acoustic solo
guitar — connecting the roots and branches of folk and blues
to Indian raga and the advanced harmonies of modern composers such
as Charles Ives and Béla Bartók — on an
extraordinary run of albums in the 1960s, released on his own
Takoma label. Fahey knew American pioneer song in academic detail;
he wrote his UCLA master's thesis on blues-man Charley Patton.
Fahey was also a precise fingerpicker addicted to the mystery of
the blues as well as the music, a passion reflected in apocryphal
album titles such as The Transfiguration of Blind Joe
Death
, from 1967. Fahey endured illness and poverty in the
1990s, but re-emerged to a new wave of acclaim from bands such as
Sonic Youth. He continued touring and recording — often on
electric guitar — until his death in 2001.

34

Thurston Moore

When Sonic Youth burst onto New York's downtown scene in the early Eighties, guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo got plenty of attention for attacking their axes with drumsticks and screwdrivers. But their real legacy can't be bought in a hardware store; it's the way they've opened rock guitar up to the world of alternate tunings. On the band's masterpiece, 1988's Daydream Nation, Sonic Youth created their own language of strange and blissful guitar noise. Neither Moore nor Ranaldo is a master of technique, but they're both virtuoso soundsmiths, and a generation of alt-rockers — from Nirvana to Dashboard Confessional — owes them big.

33

Lee Ranaldo

When Sonic Youth burst onto New York's downtown scene in the early Eighties, guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo got plenty of attention for attacking their axes with drumsticks and screwdrivers. But their real legacy can't be bought in a hardware store; it's the way they've opened rock guitar up to the world of alternate tunings. On the band's masterpiece, 1988's Daydream Nation, Sonic Youth created their own language of strange and blissful guitar noise. Neither Moore nor Ranaldo is a master of technique, but they're both virtuoso soundsmiths, and a generation of alt-rockers — from Nirvana to Dashboard Confessional — owes them big.

32

John Cipollina

Cipollina was half of the twin-guitar team — with Gary Duncan
— that drove San Francisco's Quicksilver Messenger Service,
the best acid-rock dance band of the 1960s. Cipollina's spires of
tremolo, enriched with the erotica of flamenco, in "The Fool," from
the band's 1968 debut, and his ravishing improvisations in Bo
Diddley's "Mona" and "Who Do You Love" on '69's Happy
Trails
, are supreme psychedelia, authentic evidence of what it
was like to be at the Fillmore in the Summer of Love. The classic
quartet lineup of 1967-69 made only two albums, though Quicksilver
re-formed with various players over the years. Cipollina, who
suffered from severe emphysema, died in 1989.

31

Dick Dale

Dick Dale reigns across the decades as the undisputed king of the
surf guitar. In Dale's own words, "Real surfing music is
instrumental, characterized by heavy staccato picking on a Fender
Stratocaster guitar." Moreover, it's best played through a Fender
Showman Amp — a model built to spec for Dale by Leo Fender
himself. Igniting California's surfing cult with such regional hits
as "Let's Go Trip-pin'," "Surf Beat" and "Miserlou," Dale made
waves with his fat, edgy sound and aggressive, proto-metal attack.
"Miserlou," released in 1962, marked the first use of a Fender
reverb unit — creating an underwater sound with lots of echo
— on a popular record. Fittingly, it sparked a surf-music
revival when director Quentin Tarantino used it in the opening
scene of Pulp Fiction.

30

Buddy Guy

A key influence on Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray
Vaughan, Buddy Guy put the Louisiana hurricane in 1960s electric
Chicago blues as a member of Muddy Waters' band and as a house
guitarist at Chess Records. A native of the Baton Rouge area, he
combined a blazing modernism with a fierce grip on his roots,
playing frantic leads heavy with swampy funk on Howlin' Wolf's
"Killing Floor" and Koko Taylor's "Wang Dang Doodle" as well as on
his own Chess sides and the fine series of records he made with
harp man Junior Wells. One of the last active connections to the
golden age of Chess, Guy still plays with his original fire.

29

Ron Asheton

Nobody ever accused Ron Asheton of being a nice guy. "Any guitar
player worth his salt is basically a thug," his lead singer, Iggy
Pop, once said. "They test you with that thug mentality. They ride
you to the edge." Asheton was the Detroit punk who made the
Stooges' music reek like a puddle of week-old biker sweat. He
favored black leather and German iron crosses onstage, and he never
let not really knowing how to play get in the way of a big, ugly
feedback solo. This spring, Asheton joined Iggy and the other
Stooges for their first gigs in nearly thirty years. He still
sounds like a thug.

28

Stephen Stills

"He's a musical genius," Neil Young said of Stills in a 2000
interview. He should know. The two have been bandmates and
competing lead guitarists on and off since 1966: in Buffalo
Springfield, the supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and the
short-lived Stills-Young Band. But those groups' ego-and-drug
dramas have obscured Stills' prowess as a musician — he
played nearly every instrument on Crosby, Stills and Nash's 1969
debut — and especially as a guitarist. In Springfield and
CSNY, Stills challenged and complemented Young's feral breaks with
a country-inflected chime. And a continuing highlight of CSNY shows
is Stills' acoustic picking in "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" — a
paragon of unplugged beauty.

27

Mark Knopfler

Dire Straits founder and solo artist Mark Knopfler emerged at a
time when guitar virtuosos were spurned by punks and New Wavers.
Yet from the first stinging notes of "Sultans of Swing," Knopfler's
roots-based approach and supple, burnished leads found almost
universal appeal. A fingerpicker who favors Fender Stratocasters
— a Knopfler-designed Strat was introduced in July as part of
Fender's "Artist Series" — he's known for his rich tone,
sinuous melodicism and rangy, fluid solos. "My sound is fingers on
a Strat," he once said.

26

Tom Morello

In the early days of Rage Against the Machine, Morello watched
local California metal guitarists play "as fast as Yngwie
Malmsteen" and realized, "That wasn't a race I wanted to run." So
he began to experiment with the toggle switch on his guitar to
produce an effect like a DJ scratching a record. The result was
true rap metal and a redefinition of the guitar's potential.
Morello absorbs hip-hop mixology as a true son of Grandmaster Flash
and the Voodoo Child, making his riffs rumble and boom like
crosstown turntable traffic.

25

Freddy King

King was born in Texas, but in 1950, when he was sixteen, his
family moved to Chicago, where he would sneak into clubs to play
with Muddy Waters' band. His style was a mixture of country and
urban blues, and his instrumental sides such as "Hide Away," "Just
Pickin" and "The Stumble," from the early Sixties, had immense
impact on the British blues scene — Eric Clapton says King
was one of the first guitarists he tried to copy. His playing
employed taut, melodic riffs that erupted into frantic, wailing
solos on the upper strings. King, who also recorded for the
Cotillion, Shelter and RSO labels, died at forty-two of heart
failure in 1976.

24

The Edge

Rarely has a guitarist achieved so much by playing so little. Most
of what the Edge (real name Dave Evans) played on U2's early
albums, from Boy in 1980 to the '87 global smash The Joshua
Tree
, can be described thusly: circular skeletal arpeggios
swimming in oceans of reverb; few conventional chords or solos. But
the elegant urgency of the Edge's minimalism on those records
perfectly framed and fueled the earnest, flag-waving theatricality
of Bono's voice. With U2's swerve into apocalyptic dance music on
1991's Achtung Baby, the Edge coated his riffs in extreme
distortion and electronic treatments but without betraying his
playing credo: Less is most.

23

Warren Haynes

Haynes is possibly the hardest-working guitarist on the planet
— a cornerstone of the Allman Brothers Band, leader of Gov't
Mule, pivotal member of Phil Lesh and Friends. Displaying
controlled intensity, he's a meaty and masterful slide player, as
well as a soulful singer and songwriter. Steeped in the uncut blues
of Muddy Waters and Elmore James, and especially bitten by the
heavy rock-trio sound of Cream and Mountain, Haynes has kept the
blues-rock