The Greatest Guitarists Of All Time

Sara | September 11, 2019 4:39 pm

Although every member of a band plays a crucial role, one that tends to stick out is the guitarist. Almost all bands have at least one, and it is often even the preferred instrument of a band’s frontman. Extremely versatile and undeniably cool, guitarists are responsible for creating melodies, keeping rhythm, and smashing their instruments from time to time. A revered position, it takes stage presence, practice, and natural talent to be the best of the best. Here are some of the greatest guitarists who have it all.

Les Paul Revolutionized The Guitar

Les Paul and wife
Express/Express/Getty Images
Express/Express/Getty Images

If you don’t know Les Paul for his incredible guitar skills, you may know him from the iconic guitar named after him. He was the creator of the solid-body guitar that essentially dominates the music scene today, and when he wasn’t busy making them, he was certainly playing them.

A self-taught musician, Paul is mostly known for his jazz hits but got his start playing country music. His style of using, licks, trills, and other fretting techniques set him apart from other musicians of the time, with him and his wife, Mary Ford, selling millions of records together.

Scotty Moore Invented The Power Chord

Scotty Moore in the studio
GAB Archive/Redferns
GAB Archive/Redferns

Credited as being the guitarist who invented the power chord, Scotty Moore is best known for playing the guitar and singing backup vocals for Elvis Presley. Listening to “Jailhouse Rock,” Moore’s talent is clear as well as the incredible influence he has made on music, landing him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Even famed Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards claims that Moore’s performance on “Heartbreak Hotel” is one of the reasons that he picked up a guitar in the first place. He went on to say “Everyone wanted to be Elvis, I wanted to be Scotty.”

Robert Johnson May Or May Not Have Sold His Soul

Johnson with his guitar
Pinterest
Pinterest

Born in 1911, Robert Johnson was a renowned blues singer, guitarist, and songwriter. Between 1936 and 1937, he released a series of recording that would influence countless future musicians.

Because there is little known about his life, many legends have circulated about it, the most popular being that he sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads for his musical talent. He is famous for being able to play a diverse group of genres flawlessly even though he only participated in two recording sessions during his life.

Angus Young Backed Up His Sneer

Angus Young posing for a picture
Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images
Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images

Simple, yet powerful riffs are the essence of Angus Young’s style of guitar playing. Of course, he can do just about anything on the guitar, but some of his most memorable licks come from songs such as “Back in Black” and “Highway to Hell” among others, which blow listeners away every time.

He has a way of going from incredibly complex fingerings straight back into a series of heavy power chords that few guitarists can handle with such ease. While he doesn’t consider himself to be a soloist, he’s up there with the best.

Pete Townshend Is A Wildman

Townshend jumping
Chris Morphet/Redferns
Chris Morphet/Redferns

Although he held numerous positions in the band, Pete Townshend is best known as the lead guitarist for the hugely successful rock band The Who. Revered for his incredibly and sometimes outlandish performances.

Townshend is recognized for his signature windmill maneuver while jumping around the stage, adding an extra flair to his playing abilities. Caught in the heat of the moment, it also wasn’t unusual for him to destroy most of his instruments at the end of a show. He helped solidify The Who as one of the greatest rock bands of all time

David Gilmour Is The king Of Psychedelic Guitar

David Gilmour playing and singing
Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images
Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images

Although Gilmour wasn’t the original guitarist for the psychedelic rock group Pink Floyd, there’s no denying everything he has done for the band and music as a whole. Known for experimenting with his instrument, he helped to normalize the use of echo and other effects, while simultaneously giving Pink Floyd their signature sound.

Skilled at improv guitar, it’s no surprise that he started out playing blues, a style that can definitely be heard in his music. While he might not be the fastest or most technical guitar player in the world, he certainly is one of the most uniques.

Duane Allman Was A Master Improvisor

Duane sitting down with guitar
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Known as Duane “Skydog” Allman of the Allman Brothers band, Duane took the Allman Brother’s music to another level with his southern rock riffs and twang. His skill with the guitar wasn’t restricted to playing with his band either, musicians such as Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, Herbie Mann, and more were all eager to get him into the studio with them.

One of his most notable skills, however, was improvisation, the main reason why some of the Allman Brother’s tracks clock in above 30 minutes. Sadly, he was taken from us too soon at the young age of 24.

Jeff Beck Is A Master Of His Craft

Jeff Beck playing on stage
Jeremy Bembaron/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images
Jeremy Bembaron/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

Described by critics as the “guitarist’s guitarist,” Jeff Beck is known for his innovative sound and his ability to play impressively across most genres. Although he had a successful solo career, he is also known for playing with some of music’s biggest stars such as Rod Stewart, Roger Waters, ZZ Top, Mick Jagger, Morrisey, among countless others.

Jeff Beck has been recognized for his talent, being awarded a Grammy for Best Instrumental Performance on six different occasions, as well as being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice.

We Owe It All To Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry crouching down
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Considered to be the godfather of rock and roll, Chuck Berry made music the way he thought it should have been played regardless of what others thought. As it turns out, Berry was right, and help establish one of the most popular genres in music.

His tracks such as “Johnny B. Goode,” show his mastery over the guitar and his ability to create something that was uniquely his own. Coming up with riffs that had never been heard before, he immortalized himself as a pioneer of not only the guitar but all of music.

Ritchie Blackmore Fused Genres

Playing guitar in all black
Frank Hoensch/Redferns
Frank Hoensch/Redferns

A founding member of Deep Purple, Ritchie Blackmore is known for some of the most recognizable riffs in rock and roll music such as “Smoke On The Water” and “Highway Star.” On top of his time with Deep Purple, he also had a successful solo career under the name of Rainbow.

Blackmore was is recognized for his integration of baroque music with heavy metal, separating him from many of his contemporaries. For his work in Deep Purple, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016.

Tony Iommi Is The Godfather Of Heavy Metal

Playing for Black Sabbath
Fin Costello/Redferns
Fin Costello/Redferns

Considered as one of the founding fathers of heavy metal music, Tony Iommi lost the tips of one of his fingers working in a metal factory in Birmingham, England. To make up for his lost appendage, Iommi wore a leather fingertip, which gave his guitar a unique and heavy sound, putting his band, Black Sabbath, at the forefront of the rock and roll scene.

Along with his leather fingertip, Iommi was also known for his unique style of tuning his guitar, heard in tracks like “Iron man,” separating Iommi from other musicians of the time.

George Harrison

George Harrison playing guitar in a sweater
Richard E. Aaron/Redferns
Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

Known as the “Quiet Beatle,” George Harrison may not have been the face of the band, but his skills on the guitar said it all. Not only the lead guitarist for the group, but he was also a prominent songwriter, some of his credits including “Within Without You” and “I Want to Tell You” among others.

Inspired by Indian music and culture towards the end of his time with the Beatles, he showed what was truly possible to do with a guitar and that you didn’t have to stick with one genre.

Carlos Santana Brought The Blues Back

Carlos playing a solo
Paul Natkin/Getty Images
Paul Natkin/Getty Images

A Mexican-born musician, Carlos Santana came into popularity playing with his band Santana in the late 1960s and 70s. A natural at the guitar, what made Carlos Santana stand out especially was his incorporation of Latin and African rhythms into his music such as his use of timbales and congas, instruments that were uncommon in rock and roll at the time.

Throughout his career, Carlos Santana has received 10 Grammy Awards and three Latin Grammys for his unique take on rock and roll. Famed musicians such as Prince hailed him as one of the greatest guitarists of their time.

Stevie Ray Vaughn Had Undeniable Talent

Playing in a cowboy hat
Kirk West/Getty Images
Kirk West/Getty Images

Learning the instrument at just seven years old, Stevie Ray Vaughn solidified himself as one of the greatest guitarists of his age. An unbelievable blues guitarist, he was sadly killed at the young age of 35 in a helicopter crash.

However, during his music career, he was regarded as a pioneer of the guitar who was able to be progressive, yet still true to the blues. His natural talent with the guitar earned him six Grammy Awards and ten Austin Music Awards. Unsurprisingly, he was also inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and has been dubbed one of the greatest guitarists of all time.

Eddie Van Halen Was A Cut Above

Playing with signature guitar
Van Halen Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Van Halen Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Alongside his brother Alex Van Halen, the two rose in the ranks to become one of the biggest bands in the world, calling themselves Van Halen. Besides being a founder and one of the primary songwriters for the group, Eddie was best known for his incredible abilities on the guitar.

His riffs from songs such as “Eruption,” “Unchained,” and “Take Your Whiskey Home,” exhibit his incredible ability to play loud, fast, and with ease, something not easily accomplished by all guitarists.

Jimmy Page Is An Icon

Jimmy Page with violin bow
Chris Walter/WireImage
Chris Walter/WireImage

A founding member of Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Page is responsible for some of the most iconic and recognizable guitar riffs in music. Not only did he produce some of the heaviest and most memorable licks in music history, but he also had the ability to play beautiful and gentle tunes on the acoustic guitar and mandolin such as in “Over the Hills and Far Away.”

A legendary player, he helped popularize double-neck guitar and would even use a violin bow at times to evoke sounds most guitarists would never even think of.

Keith Richards Is Still Rocking

GettyImages-113840544
Jason Merritt/Getty Images
Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Easily one of the most recognizable names in rock and roll, Keith Richards has been playing lead guitar for the Rolling Stones since the band’s inception in 1962. On top of his out-of-this-world guitar skills, he has also acted as one of the primary songwriters next to Mick Jagger.

Although his music isn’t always the most complex, his two and three no tracks such as “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” are as impactful as they come. Richards is also considered to be the master of alternate and open tuning, opening new doors to the diversity of the instrument.

Eric Clapton Had Quite The Career

Eric Clapton on stage
David Redfern/Redferns
David Redfern/Redferns

Not only did Eric Clapton have an exceptional solo career, but he was also instrumental in major bands such as The Yardbirds, Cream, and Derek and the Dominos. He stood out for his unique use of the wah-wah pedal, giving his playing a psychedelic sound that other guitarists could only hope to imitate.

For his raw talent, Clapton has received 18 Grammy Awards and is the only musician to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on three separate occasions.

Kurt Cobain Made His Mark In A Limited Amount Of Time

Cobain with wings behind him
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc

Known as the frontman for the grunge band Nirvana, Kurt Cobain may have had a short career, but a long-lasting influence on music. After the release of the band’s second album Smells Like Teen Spirit, the band exploded into popularity, elevating Cobain to the status as one of the most popular musicians of his time.

Credited with bringing garage rock to the forefront of the music scene, Cobain commanded the stage with his presence as well as his distinct style of guitar playing. He could be slow, loud, quiet, or fast, yet you always knew it was Kurt Cobain.

Jimi Hendrix Did Things His Own Way

Jimi Hendrix playing on stage
David Redfern/Redferns
David Redfern/Redferns

Widely considered as one of the greatest guitarists to ever take the stage, Jimi Hendrix played by his own rules. Whether it was using his teeth, playing behind his back, or setting his guitar on fire, he never failed to disappoint.

He didn’t even play the guitar the “correct” way, learning to play on right-handed guitars that he turned upside down and restrung to be able to play left-handed. He left us with songs such as “Foxy Lady,” “Hey Joe,” and “Purple Haze,” demonstrating his mastery of the guitar and his skill with experimentation.

Frank Zappa Is More Than A Little Experimental

Frank Zappa Is More Than A Little Experimental
Ginny Winn/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Ginny Winn/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

From a young age, Frank Zappa was known for being a bit “out there.” As a self-taught composer, performer, and musician, Zappa went straight for the experimental side of music. His work is characterized as being free-form improvisation with more than a few experimental sounds mixed in.

In a career spanning more than 30 years, Zappa has released over 60 albums, both as a solo artist as well as with this band, The Mothers of Invention. With his unique style, Zappa is considered to be one of the most diverse musicians of his era.

Mark Knopfler Is A Four-Time Grammy Winner

Mark Knopfler Is A Four-Time Grammy Winner
Dave Hogan/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Dave Hogan/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Not only was Mark Knopfler the lead guitarist of the band Dire Straits, but he was also the lead singer and composer, as well. Even while punk music was phasing out drawn-out guitar solos in popular music, Knopfler was able to stand out.

It might have helped that he’s been fortunate enough to collaborate with talents such as Elton John, Bob Dylan, and Eric Clapton. A four-time Grammy Award-winner, Knopfler is known for more than just his solo gigs and playing with the band. He also composed and produced multiple film scores, including The Princess Bride, Local Hero, and Cal.

Slash Has One Of The Most Iconic Guitar Riffs Ever

Slash Has One Of The Most Iconic Guitar Riffs Ever
Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Gibson
Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Gibson

Considering the guitar solo in “Sweet Child of Mine” is said to be one of the best riffs in history, it’s no surprise that Slash is on a list among some of the greatest guitar players of all time. Born Saul Hudson, Slash found his footing in the music world as the guitarist of the rock band Guns N’ Roses.

Known for his long, curly black hair, sunglasses, top hat, and legendary orange Gibson guitar, Slash made himself an icon for more than just his skills with the instrument. Even so, more than one source has named him one of the best guitarists of all time, including by Rolling Stone.

Brian May Created His Own Guitar

Brian May Created His Own Guitar
Michael Putland/Getty Images
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Not only is he a skilled guitar player, but Brian May also has a degree in astrophysics! Even so, music called to him a bit more than science, allowing him to become one of the greatest guitarists ever. As the lead guitarist for Queen, May had the uncanny ability to layer multiple sounds together to create the band’s unique style.

Just listen to “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Killer Queen,” and you’ll understand what we mean. Of course, he’s still a scientist, and he used his abilities to create his own guitar, known as the Red Special or The Old Lady.

B.B. King, AKA “The King Of The Blues”

B.B. King, AKA
Gilles Petard/Redferns
Gilles Petard/Redferns

If there was ever a true soloist, it’s B.B. King. With the incorporation of his signature string bending technique, King’s sound was sophisticated and quickly became the stuff of legend, paying homage to the true style of the blues. Thankfully, people loved watching him just as much as he loved performing.

And King would perform up to 200 concerts per year, even when he was in his 70s. With his passion and talent, it’s no wonder King’s been dubbed the “King of the Blues.”

Prince Was Considered A Guitar Virtuoso

Prince Was Considered A Guitar Virtuoso
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Contrary to popular belief, Prince was not only an amazing singer and performer, but the man knew his way around the strings of a guitar. Considered a guitar virtuoso, or someone who has an uncanny talent for the instrument, Prince, was known for his ability to cross over many genres.

He’s inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as well as the Rythm and Blues Music Hall of Fame, if that tells you anything. His popularity resulted in 130 million of his records sold worldwide, making him one of the best-selling artists of all time.

Chet Atkins Inspired “The Nashville Sound”

Chet Atkins Inspired
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Chet Atkins is known as “Mr. Guitar” and one of the founders of what is known as “the Nashville sound.” Rolling Stone even credited him for bringing country music “out of its commercial slump.”

During his time, Chet was awarded 14 Grammy Awards as well as a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to the music industry, not to mention his nine Country Music Awards for Instrumentalist of the Year. Even talents such as George Harrison credit Chet as an early influence.

Steve Vai Has One Of The Best Hard Rock Albums Of The ’80s

Steve Vai Has One Of The Best Hard Rock Albums Of The '80s
Scott Dudelson/Getty Images
Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

Steve Vai started his career in the music industry at the age of 18, as a transcriptionist for none other than the great Frank Zappa. Vai even played in Zappa’s band for a time, before embarking on a solo career in 1983. As of 2020, Vai’s released eight studio albums.

Described as a “highly individualistic player,” Vai’s been the proud recipient of three Grammy Awards and 15 nominations, with his album Passion and Warefare being considered “the richest and best hard rock guitar-virtuoso album of the ’80s.”

Buddy Guy Influenced Many People

Buddy Guy Influenced Many People
Paul Natkin/Getty Images
Paul Natkin/Getty Images

An American blues guitarist and singer, Buddy Guy has influenced more than one legendary guitar player. From Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix to John Mayer and Eric Clapton, Guy’s Chicago blues style has proven to translate over to many artistic talents through the years.

When Guy was being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Clapton spoke of his talent, saying, “No matter how great the song, or performance, my ear would always find him out. He stood out in the mix, simply by virtue of the originality and vitality of his playing.”

Tom Morello Influenced Rock Of The ’90s

Tom Morello Influence Rock Of The '90s
Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Audible
Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Audible

Becoming part of his first band at the age of 13, Tom Morello went on to become the guitarist for more than one well-known band. Best known for his time as part of the band Rage Against the Machine, Morello has also worked with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band as well as Prophets of Rage.

Helping influence rock music in the 1990s, Morello is now known as one of the top 100 best guitar players of all time.

Joe Satriani Is A 15-Time Grammy Winner

Joe Satriani Is A 15-Time Grammy Winner
Rick Kern/WireImage
Rick Kern/WireImage

Before becoming known as one of the greatest guitarists of all time, Joe Satriani was an instructor, with many of his former students went on to find fame, including Steve Vai, Rick Hunolt, and Charlie Hunter. As a solo artist, though, Satriani did more for the music industry than produce lead guitarists.

A 15-time Grammy Winner, Satriani is the best-selling instrumental rock guitarist of all time, with over 10 million records sold. He was even recruited by Mick Jagger to play on his solo tour, while Deep Purple wanted him to play for their band after Blackmore left. Talk about popularity!

Kirk Hammett Was Asked To Join Metallica The Same Day He Auditioned

Kirk Hammett Was Asked To Join Metallica The Same Day He Auditioned
Julia Reinhart/Getty Images
Julia Reinhart/Getty Images

Starting off as the founder of the band Exodus in 1979, Kirk Hammett quickly found fame when he went on to become the guitarist for a little heavy metal band called Metallica. He was called the very afternoon the former lead guitarist was fired.

Never having left his home state of California before, Hammett jumped on a plane to New York for an audition. He was instantly asked to join the group and has been with them ever since. He’s written multiple riffs for the band, including their most popular one in the song “Enter Sandman.”

Alex Lifeson Is Known For His Signature Riffing

Alex Lifeson Is Known For His Signature Riffing
Scott Dudelson/Getty Images
Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

Alex Lifeson is best known as the guitarist for the progressive rock band Rush, a group he formed with the original drummer John Rutesy and singer Jeff Jones. Playing both the electric and acoustic guitar, Lifeson is known for his signature riffing and unorthodox chord structures.

In 2013, Lifeson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Rush. More impressively, though, a Guitar World poll has him ranked as the third-best guitarist of all time, right behind Eddie Van Halen of Van Halen and Brian May from Queen.

Randy Rhoads Created His Own Unique Sound

Randy Rhoads Created His Own Unique Sound
Fin Costello/Redferns
Fin Costello/Redferns

While he played with the band Quiet Riot, Randy Rhoads’ peak fame was when he played guitar for Ozzy Osbourne. Combining classical guitar influences with a blend of heavy metal to create his own unique sound, Rhoades contributed to some of the best riffs in music history.

On the Blizzard of Ozz album, Rhoades plays guitar on the popular tracks “Mr. Cowley” and “Crazy Train.” Even though his career was cut short by a dreadful accident, Rhoades is considered to be a major influence on heavy metal guitarists.

Jerry Garcia Was All About Improv

Jerry Garcia Was All About Improv
Clayton Call/Redferns
Clayton Call/Redferns

Jerry Garcia and his iconic band, The Grateful Dead, climbed up the ladder to fame during the counterculture of the 1960s. Known for his technical and musical ability, Garcia played with The Grateful Dead during their entire 30-year career, playing on huge stages such as Woodstock.

Known for his distinctive guitar playing, Garcia had the ability to feel the music and improvise long, drawn-out solos that left crowds in complete awe of his talent as a musician. Garcia once said he believe his improv released stress from his playing, allowing him to make quick decisions he wouldn’t have otherwise thought to have made.

Albert King Is One Of The Three “Kings of Blues”

Albert King Is One Of The Three
David Redfern/Redferns
David Redfern/Redferns

As one of the famous “Kings of the Blues,” alongside B.B. King and Freddie King, Albert King was notorious for being the left-handed King. Known for his “deep, dramatic sound that was widely imitated by both blues and rock guitarists,” Albert quickly acquired the name of “The Velvet Bulldozer” for his intimidating size and musical ability.

Well, that, and also because he drove a bulldozer during his day job. First inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1983, in 2013, King was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Muddy Waters Was The Father Of Modern Chicago Blues

Muddy Waters Was The Father Of Modern Chicago Blues
Richard E. Aaron/Redferns
Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

By the time he was 17, Muddy Waters was playing the guitar and harmonica, influenced by the sounds of local blues artists Robert Johnson and Son House. He was an important figure of the post-war blues scene and is wildly considered to be the “father of modern Chicago blues.”

Described as having a style that’s “raining down Delta beatitude,” aka the earliest style of blues, Waters is credited for bringing the foundation of the genre across the pond to England. Afterward, there was a massive resurgence of interest in the blues style.

Neil Young Is The Godfather Of Grunge

Neil Young Is The Godfather Of Grunge
Rick Diamond/Getty Images
Rick Diamond/Getty Images

Ever since embarking on his music journey in the 1960s, Neil Young has released a steady stream of solo albums as well as records with his backing band Crazy Horse. His guitar work and signature vocals earned him a two-time induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The first time as a solo artist in 1995 and the second time as part of the band Buffalo Springfield in 1997. Young’s distorted sounding guitar playing has earned him the nickname of “Godfather of Grunge.”

Django Reinhardt Is One Major Influence

Django Reinhardt Is One Major Influence
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Django Reinhardt was the first major jazz talent to come out of Europe. Forming the group Quintette du Hot Club de France in 1934, Reinhardt and his band are credited as being the first jazz group to feature a guitar as the lead instrument.

Popular jazz guitarist Frank Vignola credits Reinhardt’s style as being one of the major influences for a majority is not all of the popular guitarists throughout the world. His popularity hasn’t wavered since his death in 1953, with festivals held in his honor each year in both Europe and The United States.

Tom Petty Is One Of The Highest-Selling Artists Of All Time

Tom Petty Is One Of The Highest-Selling Artists Of All Time
Jason Merritt/Getty Images
Jason Merritt/Getty Images

The lead singer and guitarist for the band Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Tom Petty recorded a number of hit singles. Songs from the band, as well as his solo act, such as “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” ‘Free Fallin’,” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” led Petty to become one of the highest-selling artists of all time.

In 2002, Petty was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.