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.


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.


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.


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.


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."


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.


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


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.


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
, 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."


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.


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.


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."


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.


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.


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


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.


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
, 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.


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.


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.


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
, 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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
, 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.


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


Mike Bloomfield

Bloomfield's reputation as the American white-blues guitarist of
the 1960s rests on a small, searing body of work: his licks on Bob
Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, his two LPs with the Paul
Butterfield Blues Band and his sublime jamming with Al Kooper on
1968's Super Session. Born in Chicago, Bloomfield grew up
in local blues clubs, where he worked with many black legends. His
modal runs and jabbing breaks were executed with pinpoint force in
a ringing-bell tone. Bloomfield's gifts faded as he fell into drug
abuse. He died of an overdose in 1981.


George Harrison

As the Beatles' lead guitarist, George Harrison never played an
unnecessary note. In his solos and fills, he prized clarity and
concision above all things. But every note made history, from the
Cavern Club R&B frenzy of his breaks in "I Saw Her Standing
There" to the hallucinogenic splendor of his contributions to
Revolver and the matured elegance of his work on Abbey
. John Lennon and Paul McCartney dominated the Beatles'
revolutionary course through 1960s pop, but Harrison defined the
musical character of those innovations in his explorations of
studio technology, tonal color and Indian scales. At the same time,
he never strayed from the terse, earthy qualities of his first
love, 1950s rockabilly, and his biggest idol, Sun Records star Carl
Perkins. Harrison's final album, Brainwashed
recorded in the years before his death from cancer in 2001 —
features some of his finest twang.


James Burton

James Burton mainly plays a dark-red '53 Fender Telecaster that he
bought in a Louisiana music store when he was thirteen. He's
performed a lifetime's worth of hot licks and fluid solos on it, on
songs such as Dale Hawkins' "Susie Q" and Ricky Nelson's "Hello
Mary Lou." As an in-demand Sixties sessionman, Burton played
often-uncredited guitar and Dobro on countless records by artists
ranging from Buck Owens and Buffalo Springfield to Frank Sinatra.
In the Seventies he anchored the touring bands of Elvis Presley and
Emmylou Harris. Burton's country-rock style combines flatpicking
and fingerpicking; he's also a master of a damped-string,
staccato-note "chickin' pickin'."


Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson is the greatest guitarist in British folk rock
— and that's only one of the genres he has mastered. He was
eighteen when he co-founded the English folk band Fairport
Convention in 1967. By the time he left, in '71, Thompson had
created a seamless world music for acoustic and electric guitar
drawn from Celtic minstrelsy, psychedelia, Cajun dance tunes and
Arabic scales. He is also one of Britain's finest
singer-songwriters. His records with his former wife Linda, made
between 1974 and 1982, are marvels of hair-raising musicianship and
emotional candor. Try to see him live, with an electric band: The
solos run long and wild.


John Frusciante

In 1989, Eighteen-year-old John Frusciante, a bedroom-guitar
prodigy from California's San Fernando Valley who had never played
in a group before, auditioned for his favorite band, the Red Hot
Chili Peppers. He got the job — replacing Hillel Slovak, who
died of a drug overdose in 1988 — and transformed the
Peppers' rascally punk funk into beefy arena pop. On the 1992
multiplatinum album, BloodSugarSexMagik, Frusciante
fortified the band's bone-hard grooves with a mix of Hendrixian
force and, in the hit ballad "Under the Bridge," poignant
Beatlesque melody. When Frusciante abruptly quit the Peppers in the
middle of a Japanese tour in 1992, he left a big hole in the
group's sound that was only filled with his drug-free return on the
Peppers' 1999 comeback album, Californication.


Jack White

White has become the hottest new thing on six strings by
celebrating the oldest tricks in the book: distortion, feedback,
plantation blues, the 1960s-Michigan riff terrorism of the Stooges
and the MC5. Onstage, decked out like a peppermint dandy, he
violates classic covers (Dolly Parton's "Jolene," Bob Dylan's
"Isis") with fireball chords and primal, bent-string scream. He is
also an acute orchestrator in the studio, stirring the scratchy-78s
atmosphere of Blind Willie Johnson sides, 1970s punk and Led
Zeppelin-style drama into his own howl. Don't pay attention to the
notes; White is not a clean soloist. He's a blowtorch.


Johnny Ramone

Johnny Ramone invented punk-rock guitar out of hatred: He couldn't
stand guitar solos. So the former Johnny Cummings of Queens, New
York, played nothing but concrete-block barre chords on twenty-one
albums and 2,263 shows with the Ramones. His elementary attack was
part of the essential simplicity — matching last names,
two-minute tunes, a strict uniform of black leather and ripped
denim — with which the kings of Queens ruled punk rock from
the mid-1970s until they called it quits in 1996. But there was
more to Johnny's sound than bricks of distortion. "In sound checks,
the band would do a couple of songs without vocals," recalled the
band's late singer, Joey Ramone, in 1999. "I'd listen to John's
guitar and hear all these harmonics, these instruments like organ
and piano that weren't really there. And he didn't use any
effects." Johnny now lives in retirement in Southern California.


Carlos Santana

The piercingly pure tone of Santana's guitar is among the most
recognizable sounds in popular music. A towering musician who
brought Latin rhythms and jazz improvisation to rock, Santana
formed the first lineup of his namesake band in 1968. His varied
influences — from Mike Bloomfield and Peter Green to Miles
Davis and John Coltrane — resulted in a singularly innovative
approach. A fiery, impassioned soloist, Santana articulates fluid
passages that culminate in lengthy sustained notes. From Santana's
career-breakthrough performance at Woodstock in 1969 to the 2000
Grammys — where he won eight awards for
Supernatural, tying Michael Jackson's record —
Santana has remained a compelling musician with a devotional
spirituality fueling his muse.


Jeff Beck

Beck was the second of the Yardbirds' three star guitarists,
leading the group's swing into R&B- charged psychedelia
("Shapes of Things," "Over Under Sideways Down") with his speed and
deft manipulation of feedback and sustain. In 1967, Beck formed his
own heavier variation on the Yardbirds — the Jeff Beck Group,
with then-unknown singer Rod Stewart — which added
heavy-metal pow to British blues and became a major role model for
Jimmy Page's Led Zeppelin. But Beck's commercial peak came in the
mid-1970s, with an idiosyncratic style of jazz fusion (whiplash
melodies; artful, roaring distortion; whammy-bar hysterics) that he
still plays today with undiminished class and ferocity, when he
isn't in his garage at home in England working under the hoods of
vintage cars.


Jerry Garcia

Garcia was a folk and blue-grass obsessive who started playing
guitar at 15. It was those roots, as well as a lifelong love
of Chuck Berry, that gave his astral experiments with the Grateful
Dead a sense of forward momentum. Garcia could dazzle on slide
(“Cosmic Charlie”) or pedal steel (“Dire Wolf”), but his natural
home was playing lead onstage, exploring the frontier of
psychedelic sound. The piercing lyricism of this tone was all the
more remarkable for the fact that he was missing the third finger
of his right hand — the result of a childhood accident while
he and his brother Tiff were chopping wood. He died in 1995 in
rehab for his longtime drug habit. But his guitar still shines like
a headlight on a northbound train.


Kurt Cobain

"Grunge" was always a lousy, limited way to describe the music
Kurt Cobain made with Nirvana and, in particular, his discipline
and ambition as a guitarist. His cannonballs of fuzz and feedback
bonfires on 1991's Nevermind announced the death of 1980s
stadium guitar rock. Cobain also reconciled his multiple obsessions — the Beatles, hardcore punk, the fatalist folk blues of Lead
Belly — into a truly alternative rock that bloomed in the
eccentric, gripping hooks and chord changes of "Smells Like Teen
Spirit" and "Come as You Are." Recorded six months before Cobain's
suicide in 1994, MTV Unplugged in New York reveals, in
exquisite acoustic terms, the craft and love of melody that
illuminated his anguish.


Kirk Hammett

On any given night, at least half the parking lots in America have
a car with the windows down, the speakers cranked and a couple of
dudes sitting on the trunk playing air guitar to Kirk Hammett
solos. Hammett is so steeped in metal history that he reportedly
paid for his first guitar at fifteen with ten dollars and a copy of
Kiss' Dressed to Kill. Metallica's dense thrash redefined
hard rock more completely than any band since Led Zeppelin.
Hammett's lead guitar is the emotional heart of the music, from
acoustic angst ("Fade to Black") to badass flailing ("Master of
Puppets"), and, in "One," the sound of a guitar tapping out a cry
for help in Morse code, over and over, until the parking lot closes


Keith Richards

In his forty-one years with the Rolling Stones, Richards has
created, and immortalized on record, rock's greatest single body of
riffs — including the fuzz-tone SOS of "(I Can't Get No)
Satisfaction," the uppercut power chords of "Start Me Up," the
black stab of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and the strum and slash of
virtually everything he plays on the Stones' 1972 classic,
Exile on Main St. Richards is not a fancy guitarist; his
style is a simple, personalized extension of his teenage ardor for
Chuck Berry and the swarthy electricity of Muddy Waters and Howlin'
Wolf. Born in Dartford, England, in 1943, he was expelled from a
technical college when he was sixteen. He immediately joined his
childhood friend Mick Jagger and another R&B aficionado, Brian
Jones, in a combo, Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys, that by 1962 — with bassist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts —
had become the Rolling Stones. Richards is routinely hailed as the
most indestructible of rock stars, but he credits his music with
giving him life. As he told Rolling Stone last year, "You gotta be
a real sourpuss, mate, not to get up there and play 'Jumpin' Jack
Flash' without feeling like, 'C'mon, everybody, let's go.' "
"Happy," Exile on Main St. (1972)


Jimmy Page

In the 1970s, there was no bigger rock group in the world than Led
Zeppelin and no greater god on six strings than Zeppelin's
founder-captain Jimmy Page. Nothing much has changed. The imperial weight, technical authority and exotic reach of Page's writing and
playing on Zeppelin's eight studio albums have lost none of their
power: the rusted, slow-death groan of Page's solo, played with a
violin bow, in "Dazed and Confused," on Zeppelin's 1969 debut; the
circular, cast-iron stammer of his riffing on "Black Dog," on the
band's fourth LP; the melodic momentum and chrome-spear tone of his
closing solo in Zeppelin's most popular song, "Stairway to Heaven."
Page actually built Zeppelin's sound and might from a wide palette
of inspirations and previous experience. In the early and
mid-1960s, Page was a first-call studio musician in London, playing
on Kinks and Everly Brothers dates and honing his production skills
on singles for John Mayall and future Velvet Underground vocalist
Nico. And before forming Zeppelin in London in the late summer of
1968 with singer Robert Plant, drummer John Bonham and bassist John
Paul Jones, Page had been the lead guitarist in the final lineup of
the Yardbirds.


Ry Cooder

In Ry Cooder's hands, the guitar becomes a time machine. Ever since
he began as a teen prodigy in the Sixties, he has been a virtuoso
in a host of guitar styles going back to the most primal bottleneck
blues, country, vintage jazz, Hawaiian slack-key guitar, Bahamian
folk music and countless other styles. He's combined these
different musical idioms into his own eclectic style as one of the
world's foremost performing musicologists. He got his start playing
the blues with Taj Mahal in the Sixties and, after a stint in
Captain Beefheart's Magic Band, began making solo records such as
Paradise and Lunch and Chicken Skin Music,
unearthing obscure folk tunes like "Vigilante Man" and "Boomer's
Story" and breathing slide-guitar life into them. Cooder also gave
one of the most significant guitar lessons in rock & roll
history: During his sessions with the Rolling Stones in 1968, he
taught Keith Richards five-string open-G blues tuning, which
Richards used to write some of his greatest riffs for songs on
Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed and Exile on
Main St.
He played on the Stones' "Love in Vain," which
features Cooder on mandolin, and on Randy Newman's "Let's Burn Down
the Cornfield." Since the Eighties, he has composed acclaimed
scores for films such as Paris, Texas. He continues to explore
sounds from around the world, collaborating with African guitarist
Ali Farka Toure on the 1994 Talking Timbuktu and
assembling old-school Cuban musicians for the wildly successful
Buena Vista Social Club.


Stevie Ray Vaughan

With the blinding stratocaster fireworks on his debut album,
Texas Flood, in 1983, Stevie Ray Vaughan kicked off a
blues-rock renaissance when the music needed one most: the heyday
of hair-spray metal and synth-pop. Until 1982, Vaughan's fame was
limited to clubs in central Texas, where he perfected a
brass-knuckled soul influenced by Jimi Hendrix's psychedelia and
the funky twang of Lonnie Mack. But after David Bowie saw him at
the 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival (a rare gig for an unsigned act),
Vaughan was invited to play on Bowie's Let's Dance. By the
late 1980s, he was filling arenas with his longtime band Double
Trouble. On August 27th, 1990, Vaughan died in a helicopter crash
in East Troy, Wisconsin, after leaving a venue where he had just
jammed with his guitarist brother Jimmie, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy,
Jeff Healey and Robert Cray. He was thirty-five.


Chuck Berry

There would be no rock & roll guitar without Chuck Berry. His
signature lick — a staccato, double-string screech descended
from Chicago blues with a strong country inflection — is the
music's defining twang. He introduced it in his 1955 Chess Records
debut, "Maybellene," and used it to dynamic effect in nearly two
dozen classic hits in the next ten years, including the best songs
about playing rock & roll: "Roll Over Beethoven," "Rock and
Roll Music" and "Johnny B. Goode." Born in San Jose, California, in
1926, Berry learned to play guitar as a teenager but did time in
reform school for attempted robbery and moonlighted as a beautician
in St. Louis before "Maybellene" made him a star. Berry's career
was sidelined by a two-year jail stint in the early 1960s; his only
Number One single was the mildly pornographic singalong "My
Ding-a-Ling" in 1972. But Berry was the first giant of rock & roll guitar. Nothing else matters.


Robert Johnson

Johnson is the undisputed king of the Mississippi Delta blues
singers and one of the most original and influential voices in
American music. He was a virtuoso player whose spiritual
descendants include Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Jack White.
Johnson's recorded legacy — a mere twenty-nine songs cut in
1936 and '37 — is the foundation of all modern blues and
rock. He either wrote or adapted from traditional sources many of
the most popular blues songs of all time, including "Cross Road
Blues," "Sweet Home Chicago" and "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom."
Johnson, the illegitimate son of a Mississippi sharecropper, poured
every ounce of his own poverty, wandering and womanizing into his
work — documenting black life in the Deep South beneath the
long shadow of slavery with haunted intensity. "It was almost as if
he felt things so acutely he found it almost unbearable," Clapton
said of Johnson's music. Legend has it that Johnson made a deal
with the devil to acquire his guitar gifts. There was certainly a
lot of daredevilry in his flouting of standard tempos and
harmonics; his records are breathtaking displays of melodic
development and acute brawn. Johnson died in 1938 at twenty-seven,
poisoned by a jealous husband. Fifty-eight years later, a box set
of his recordings was certified platinum. "Hell Hound on My Trail,"
Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings (1990)


Eric Clapton

It first appeared in 1965, written on the walls of the London
subway: "Clapton is God." Eric Patrick Clapton, of Ripley, England
— fresh out of his first major band, the Yardbirds, and
recently inducted into John Mayall's Bluesbreakers — had just
turned twenty and been playing guitar only since he was fifteen.
But Clapton was already soloing with the improvisational nerve that
has dazzled fans and peers for forty years. In his 1963-65 stint
with the Yardbirds, Clapton's nickname was Slowhand, an ironic
reference to the velocity of his lead breaks. But Clapton insisted
in a 2001 Rolling Stone interview, "I think it's important to say
something powerful and keep it economical." Even when he jammed on
a tune for more than a quarter-hour with Cream, Clapton soloed with
a daggerlike tone and pinpoint attention to melody. The solo albums
that followed Layla, his 1970 tour de force with Derek and the
Dominos, emphasize his desires as a singer-songwriter. But on the
best, like 1974's 46I Ocean Boulevard and 1983's Money
and Cigarettes
, his solos and flourishes still pack the power
that made him "God" in the first place.


B.B. King

The self-proclaimed "Ambassador of the Blues" has become such a
beloved figure in American music, it's easy to forget how
revolutionary his guitar work was. From the opening notes of his
1951 breakthrough hit. "Three O' Clock Blues," you can hear his
original and passionate style, juicing the country blues with
electric fire and jazz polish. King's fluid guitar leads took off
from T-Bone Walker. His string-bending and vibrato made his famous
guitar, Lucille, weep like a real-life woman. It was the start of a
hugely influential blues-guitar style. As Buddy Guy put it, "Before
B.B., everyone played the guitar like it was an acoustic."

King grew up on a Mississippi Delta plantation and took off in
1948, at twenty-three, for Memphis, where he found fame as a radio
DJ on WDIA and earned the nickname "Beale Street Blues Boy." Along
the way, he picked up a uniquely eclectic vision of the blues,
blending the intricate guitar language of country blues, the raw
emotion of gospel and the smooth finesse of jazz. His Fifties
classics — "Every Day I Have the Blues," "Sweet Little
Angel," "You Upset Me Baby" — are tender as well as tough,
and 1965's Live at the Regal remains one of the hottest
blues-guitar albums ever recorded. King remains unstoppable,
touring hard and cutting albums such as his recent Eric Clapton
collaboration, Riding With the King.


Duane Allman

If the late Duane Allman had done nothing but session work, he
would still be on this list. His contributions on lead and slide
guitar to dozens of records as fine and as varied as Wilson
Pickett's down-home '69 cover of "Hey Jude" and Eric Clapton's 1970
masterpiece with Derek and the Dominos, Layla and Other
Assorted Love Songs
, constitute an astounding body of work.
But Allman also transformed the poetry of jamming with the Allman
Brothers Band, the group he founded in 1969 with his younger
brother, singer-organist Gregg. Duane applied the same black soul
and rebel fire he displayed as a sideman to the Allmans' extended
investigations of Muddy Waters and Blind Willie McTell covers and
to his psychedelic-jazz interplay with second guitarist Dickey
Betts in live showpieces such as "Whipping Post." Although Duane
and Gregg had played in bands together since 1960, Duane did not
learn to play slide until shortly before the start of the Allmans.
In his only Rolling Stone interview, in early' 71, Duane said that
the first song he tried to conquer was McTell's "Statesboro Blues."
Allman's blastoff licks in the recording that opens his band's
third album, At Fillmore East, show how far and fast he
had come — and leave you wondering how much further he could have gone. In October 1971, eight months after the Fillmore East
gigs, Allman died in a motorcycle accident in the band's home base
of Macon, Georgia.


Jimi Hendrix

I feel sad for people who have to judge Jimi Hendrix on the basis of recordings and film alone; because in the flesh he was so extraordinary. He had a kind of alchemist's ability; when he was on the stage, he changed. He physically changed. He became incredibly graceful and beautiful. It wasn't just people taking LSD, though that was going on, there's no question. But he had a power that almost sobered you up if you were on an acid trip. He was bigger than LSD.

What he played was fucking loud but also incredibly lyrical and expert. He managed to build this bridge between true blues guitar — the kind that Eric Clapton had been battling with for years and years — and modern sounds, the kind of Syd Barrett-meets-Townshend sound, the wall of screaming guitar sound that U2 popularized. He brought the two together brilliantly. And it was supported by a visual magic that obviously you won't get if you just listen to the music. He did this thing where he would play a chord, and then he would sweep his left hand through the air in a curve, and it would almost take you away from the idea that there was a guitar player here and that the music was actually coming out of the end of his fingers. And then people say, "Well, you were obviously on drugs." But I wasn't, and I wasn't drunk, either. I can just remember being taken over by this, and the images he was producing or evoking were naturally psychedelic in tone because we were surrounded by psychedelic graphics. All of the images that were around us at the time had this kind of echoey, acidy quality to them. The lighting in all the clubs was psychedelic and drippy.

He was dusty — he had cobwebs and dust all over him. He was a very unremarkable-looking guy with an old military jacket on that was pretty dirty. It looked like he'd maybe slept in it a few nights running. When he would walk toward the stage, nobody would really take much notice of him. But when he walked off, I saw him walk up to some of the most covetable women in the world. Hendrix would snap his fingers, and they followed him. Onstage, he was very erotic as well. To a man watching, he was erotic like Mick Jagger is erotic. It wasn't "You know, I'd like to take that guy in the bathroom and fuck him." It was a high form of eroticism, almost spiritual in quality. There was a sense of wanting to possess him and wanting to be a part of him, to know how he did what he did because he was so powerfully affecting. Johnny Rotten did it, Kurt Cobain did it. As a man, you wanted to be a part of Johnny Rotten's gang, you wanted to be a part of Kurt Cobain's gang.

He was shy and kind and sweet, and he was fucked up and insecure. If you were as lucky as I was, you'd spend a few hours with him after a gig and watch him descend out of this incredibly colorful, energized face. There was also something quite sad about watching him. There was a hedonism about him. Toward the end of his life, he seemed to be having fun, but maybe a little bit too much. It was happening to a lot of people, but it was sad to see it happen to him.

With Jimi, I didn't have any envy. I never had any sense that I could ever come close. I remember feeling quite sorry for Eric, who thought that he might actually be able to emulate Jimi. I also felt sorry that he should think that he needed to. Because I thought Eric was wonderful anyway. Perhaps I make assumptions here that I shouldn't, but it's true. Once — I think it was at a gig Jimi played at the Scotch of St. James [in London] — Eric and I found ourselves holding each other's hands. You know, what we were watching was so profoundly powerful.

The third or fourth time that I saw him, he was supporting the Who at the Saville Theatre. That was the first time I saw him set his guitar on fire. It didn't do very much. He poured lighter fluid over the guitar and set fire to it, and then the next day he would be playing with a guitar that was a little bit charred. In fact, I remember teasing him, saying, "That's not good enough — you need a proper flamethrower, it needs to be completely destroyed." We started getting into an argument about destroying your guitar — if you're going to do it, you have to do it properly. You have to break every little piece of the guitar, and then you have to give it away so it can't be rebuilt. Only that is proper breaking your guitar. He was looking at me like I was fucking mad.

Trying to work out how he affected me at my ground zero, the fact is that I felt like I was robbed. I felt the Who were in some ways quite a silly little group, that they were indeed my art-school installation. They were constructed ideas and images and some cool little pop songs. Some of the music was good, but a lot of what the Who did was very tongue-in-cheek, or we reserved the right to pretend it was tongue-in-cheek if the audience laughed at it. The Who would always look like we didn't really mean it, like it didn't really matter. You know, you smash a guitar, you walk off and go, "Fuck it all. It's all a load of tripe anyway." That really was the beginning of that punk consciousness. And Jimi arrived with proper music.

He made the electric guitar beautiful. It had always been dangerous, it had always been able to evoke anger. If you go right back to the beginning of it, John Lee Hooker shoving a microphone into his guitar back in the 1940s, it made his guitar sound angry, impetuous, and dangerous. The guitar players who worked through the Fifties and with the early rock artists — James Burton, who worked with Ricky Nelson and the Everly Brothers, Steve Cropper with Booker T. — these Nashville-influenced players had a steely, flick-knife sound, really kind of spiky compared to the beautiful sound of the six-string acoustic being played in the background. In those great early Elvis songs, you hear Elvis himself playing guitar on songs like "Hound Dog," and then you hear an electric guitar come in, and it's not a pleasant sound. Early blues players, too — Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Albert King — they did it to hurt your ears. Jimi made it beautiful and made it OK to make it beautiful.

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