Some of the most iconic bands of all time would be nothing without the talented guitarists that delivered the legendary power chords, riffs, string bending, and finger tapping behind some of your favorite songs. But who among the rock legends are the best of all time?
As a self-taught composer and performer, guitarist Frank Zappa was, quite frankly, known for being a little peculiar. His penchant for oddity can even be seen in the names of his children: Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet, and Diva. But his almost comedy and parody rock was also frighteningly good.
A master of many things, Zappa composed rock, pop, jazz, jazz fusion, and even orchestral music, but managed not to conform into any of the molds. His music is basically its own genre. As a musician, Zappa was just as fun to watch as he was to listen to, with his love for free-form improvising that kept audiences guessing what would come next.
Mark Knopfler is known for somehow managing to be both the lead guitarist, lead singer, and songwriter for the rock band Dire Straits. Even while balancing all of those roles, he also managed to break through the noise during a time when punk rock seemed to be phasing out guitar solos in popular music.
Knopfler was able to achieve a sound like no one had heard before, in part due to his unique style of playing his instrument. He was known to be a fingerstyle guitarist, meaning he played without a pick, saying the style helped him play with “immediacy and soul.”
This English guitarist and songwriter was one of the founding members of the band Deep Purple and, in turn, helped define what it means to play heavy metal guitar. Need an example of that? Just listen to the guitar riff at the heart of “Smoke On The Water.” You’ll get the idea.
Blackmore combined classical style music composition with a hint of raw blues-rock to deliver some of the best hard rock jams. Apparently, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame agrees and inducted Blackmore for his work in the Deep Purple days to its list of most influential artists.
Even if someone does not recognize Les Paul for his music, then they might know the name from the famous guitar named after him. Paul was the mastermind behind the solid-body guitar that we know and love today, but when he was not making the famed instrument, he was composing some famed music himself.
Paul honed in on his signature style – characterized by a clean, elegant sound and effortless shifts to improvisation – throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Whether he was playing solo, or alongside his co-guitarist and wife, Mary Ford, he was churning out hit songs. His love for his craft stayed with him for his entire life, and he continued to play weekly gigs in New York until he passed away at age 94.
Kurt Cobain is perhaps one of the most well-known names when it comes to guitar playing greats. As the frontman and guitarist for Nirvana, his short career made a lasting mark on the music world that has lasted well beyond his years.
Even before Cobain and his bandmates in Nirvana reached megastar status with the release of their second album Smells Like Teen Spirit, Cobain was inspiring an entire generation of musicians, and truly introduced the world to the grunge genre we hear today. Through his commanding guitar performances and his equally commanding voice, Cobain cemented himself as one of the most influential rock musicians of all time.
Scotty Moore is best known for being the genius guitarist who backed the iconic vocals of Elvis Presley. Music critics have praised Moore for being the inventor of the power chord. One listen to Presley’s hit song “Jailhouse Rock,” and anyone would get an idea of why Moore was an easy choice for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Moore’s guitar style has gone on to inspire generations of guitar players. Keith Richards, who went on to be the lead guitarist for The Rolling Stones even said Moore’s musicality on “Heartbreak Hotel” inspired him to take up the guitar himself. “Everyone else wanted to be Elvis, I wanted to be Scotty,” Richards said.
The story of Tony Iommi, and one of the factors that makes him so fascinating, started in the industrial city of Birmingham, England. It was there that a teenage Iommi lost the tips of his middle and ring fingers in a factory accident. His ability to not only play the guitar after this accident, but to truly master it, is one of the things that makes Iommi so impressive.
As a guitarist of Black Sabbath (and a very brief stint with Jethro Tull), Iommi was known for detuning his guitar, making his instrument sound lower and heavier, and created a louder, more diabolical sound that ultimately lead to the beginning of true heavy metal.
Slash, whose birth name is Saul Hudson, has made a name for himself for being one of the best electric guitar soloists. We mean, have you heard the guitar riff in “Sweet Child of Mine”? It was named one of the best riffs of all time.
The British-American lead guitarist in Guns N’ Roses helped give the iconic rock band its signature sound. And along with that signature sound, Slash also came with his own signature look. From his iconic top hat, sunglasses, and famous orange Gibson guitar, Slash’s music was not the only thing that was grabbing the attention of rock fans around the world.
As a lead guitarist for The Beatles, George Harrison had a real natural talent when it came to his instrument. Fellow rocker Tom Petty once told Rolling Stone that Harrison explained to him how he came up with the beginning riff heard on “You Can’t Do That” by saying “I was just standing there and I thought, I’ve got to do something.”
Harrison was known among his friends to be the “quiet Beatle,” but you would not be able to tell by the way he commanded audiences with his music. He was renowned for his embrace of Indian music and culture, and those influences can definitely be heard in his guitar playing. Harrison was renowned for learning sitar from the famous Ravi Shankar, and introducing that unexpected Indian sound to Western audiences.
The legendary Robert Johnson is known now to be the master of the blues, specifically Delta-style blues. But before he passed away in the 1930s, Johnson was actually famous for being able to perform really any style of music to perfection, from jazz to slide guitar to pop.
Unfortunately, not that much else is known about Johnson, and the lack of information has sparked a few rumors about his life. Among the most famous is the rumor that he sold his soul to the devil to achieve his musical success. If true, we’d say that it was a good trade-off, because he solidified himself as one of the best guitar players to have ever lived.
As the lead guitarist (among many other musical roles) in the rock band The Who, British-born Pete Townshend commanded attention through his energetic performances. Townshend was known for his windmill arm as he struck chords on his guitar, his wild jumps in the air as he played, and his propensity to smash most of his instruments after shows.
Thanks to Townshend’s help in creating The Who’s unforgettable sound, the band cemented itself in rock history and even won the record for the world’s loudest concert from the Guinness Book of World Records. Even as a guitarist who was not known for playing many solos, he made a name for himself all on his own.
Guitarist Brian May is definitely the only musician on this list who can say he has a degree in astrophysics. The lead guitarist, and, oftentimes, songwriter for the band Queen had an incredible ability to layer multiple guitar parts onto tracks to create unforgettable sounds, just take a listen to his solos in Killer Queen and Bohemian Rhapsody and you’ll get the idea.
May used his natural nerdy talents to even create his own guitar, the Red Special, also known as The Old Lady, which he played with a coin rather than a regular guitar pick. May and his father built his main guitar out of wood from a few different places, including from his own fireplace. Now that takes ingenuity!
While David Gilmour was not the original guitarist for Pink Floyd, his natural musical abilities left a lasting mark on the band and its signature sound. As a guitarist, Gilmour pioneered the use of echo and other effects that Pink Floyd is so well known for.
Known for his prowess when it came to improv guitar, Gilmour’s first love was actually blues music, even while he played in a band that rarely ever played blues music. And while it is true that Gilmour is not the fastest guitar player in the pack, the dreamy, ambient, floating texture in his music gave him an instantly recognizable sound.
Listening to the music produced by Duane “Skydog” Allman of The Allman Brothers Band is truly listening to southern rock at its very finest. His abilities on the guitar had artists like Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, and even jazz musicians like Herbie Mann and King Curtis, lining up to make music with this Allman brother.
Of his many talents, perhaps he is most known for being excellent at improvising. His love of improv explains why many of the songs from the Allman Brothers Band suddenly became half an hour-long on live albums. But, luckily, no one seems to mind. Unfortunately, Allman passed away at the early age of 24.
Keith Richards is known for being the co-founder, lead guitarist and secondary vocalist behind The Rolling Stones. In addition to those roles, Richards quickly became known as part of one of the greatest songwriting duos in history, alongside his bandmate Mick Jagger.
Richards is known for writing two and three-note tracks that have just as much impact as any of your favorite guitar solos. Take another listen to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and the combination of riffs and chords layered within it to get the idea. Richards also mastered the art of alternate and open tunings and became a legend of his own.
Anyone of this Mexican-born guitarist’s songs can be identified from hearing just one note. Carlos Santana’s instantly-recognizable sound has made him one of the best guitarists in history and has earned him 10 Grammy Awards and 3 Latin Grammys throughout his career.
Santana is known for taking a blues-based music style and combining it with inspiration from Latin and African rhythms to create his district sound. His signature musical style has earned him praise from many of the greats. Take, for example, Prince, who said that Santana had an even bigger influence on his music than Jimi Hendrix. “Santana played prettier,” he once said.
Jeff Beck has been referred to at times as the “guitarist’s guitarist” because anyone who knows good guitar knows that Jeff Beck is a master at his craft. And if you need more proof, consider the fact that when recording albums, Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger, Tina Turner, Morrissey, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Cyndi Lauper, Brian May, ZZ Top, and a few others were knocking on his door.
Still need more proof? Not only was Beck awarded a Grammy Award for the category of Best Rock Instrumental Performance six different times, but he was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice (once as a bandmember of The Yardbirds, and once as a solo artist).
Stevie Ray Vaughan
Stevie Ray Vaughan’s love for the guitar started when he was only 7 years old. And while his life was tragically cut short from a helicopter crash at age 35, his legacy and the mark he left on the music work continues to live on and inspire guitarists today.
Vaughan was most known for being a gifted blues guitarist, with a great sense of swing reminiscent of B.B. King and Eric Clapton. His blues-inspired tunes ultimately earned him six Grammy Awards and ten Austin Music Awards, along with a spot in the Blues Hall of Fame and recognition as one of the greatest guitarists of all time.
Regarded by many as one of the founders of rock and roll music, Chuck Berry paved his own path and made music like no one had heard before, like his classic tunes “Johnny B. Goode” and “Roll Over Beethoven.” His twist on the Chicago blues turned into something distinctly his own, as he took the guitar boogie to a whole new level.
This innovative artist was known to be a trailblazer, producing guitar riffs like no one had ever done before. His songs were commercially successful, without being pop, and had a swing that made his music easily identifiable. From his captivating solos to his on-stage showmanship, Berry was as much of a joy to watch as he was to listen to.
Eddie Van Halen
Eddie Van Halen, along with his brother Alex Van Halen, took his last name and made it into one of the biggest names ever in rock music. Although he was the founder and songwriter for Van Halen, perhaps his most impressive work came from his insane talents on the guitar.
Van Halen is known to be a master of riffs (think: “Unchained,” “Eruption,” and “Take Your Whiskey Home”), and a genius when it comes to harmonies and textures within his music. Van Halen was also known to hold his guitar pick between his thumb and middle finger, which opened his index finger up for finger tapping. But beyond that trick, there is an X-factor to his work that is undefinable.
The simplistic chords behind rock icon AC/DC’s “Back in Black” and “Highway To Hell” are just proof of how incredibly good Scottish-born Angus Young is at creating iconic guitar riffs. From his almost manic style to his booming power chords, AC/DC’s lead guitarist has landed himself a spot as one of the true guitar greats.
While he often says that he does not consider himself to be a soloist, his true mastering of his craft means that even surrounded by any other instruments, Young stands out as a star. And his onstage antics are just as entertaining as his music, from his signature schoolboy outfits to his shuffle as he prances around the stage.
B.B. King was a true soloist. His sophisticated solos were the stuff of legends, as he incorporated his string bending technique that he ultimately became famous for. Overall, his music was always rich and robust, paying homage to a true blues style.
Apparently, he loved performing just as much as audiences loved watching his performances. Even when he was in his 70s, he did not miss a beat, and reportedly performed at over 200 concerts every year. Between his love for his craft and his true talent, it's no wonder why B.B. King is often regarded as “The King of Blues.”
As a musician, Jimmy Page can bring an unbelievably diverse set of skills to his guitar playing. He could range from one minute playing gentle English folk music plucked from the countryside to the next minute delivering shrieking guitar solos. And, might we add, he performs both flawlessly.
From the start of Led Zeppelin’s onstage career (the band he founded and performed lead guitar for), he had really no need to leap about the stage. Instead, he stayed relatively still as he sent the audience’s heads reeling. He even used props like two-necked guitars, famously coaxing unearthly sounds out of his guitar with a violin bow on songs like “Dazed and Confused.”
Eric Clapton has a pretty incredible resume. The guitarist went through a huge range of hit bands, each of which had a psychedelic sound and plenty of wah-wah pedal, including the Yardbirds, Cream, and Derek & The Dominos, before ultimately going solo. It’s no wonder Clapton is regarded to be one of the most influential guitarists of all time.
Also included in his resume: 18 Grammy Awards, and the only musician to be inducted three separate times into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And it’s no wonder his work is so well recognized. He’s perfected his blues style rock, putting his own twist on both smooth and simple background notes as well as memorable solos in his signature style.
Jimi Hendrix’s hands flew up and down the neck of a guitar at blinding speed. In the studio, he would often ask sound engineers to filter his guitar and make it sound like such abstract things as the ocean, or the wind. He could play the guitar behind his head. He could play the guitar with his teeth. And he did it better than anyone.
His iconic performance at Woodstock, in particular his rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, could have alone led him to take home the title of best guitarist. During the performance, his guitar quite literally screaming out the sound of bombs and war at “and the rockets’ red glare,” and easily became one of the best-known rock performances of all time.