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.


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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