When I pick up a “[Some #] Greatest Guitar Players” list, I dread having to wade through the usual soup of Clapton, Hendrix, B.B. King, etc. to get to those names lurking at the fringes who have really expanded the possibilities of the instrument in the years since the blues and “classic” rock ruled the roost, the ones I haven’t heard absolutely beaten to death by greyhairs who insist rock hasn’t been great since [insert year they turned twenty-five]. So here is my semi-scientific list of what I consider to be the top 50 rock-related guitarists (or guitar tandems) since the advent of punk in 1976, which is a nice arbitrary dividing point.
I based my rankings on a loose set of values:
Originality/Influence – Did they dramatically change or define how guitar is played in their genre? Do they have significant followers?
Creativity – Did they create unforgettable riffs or wrenching solos or coax incredible textures out of their instruments?
Distinctiveness – Do they still sound unique, even after many have borrowed heavily from them?
Longevity/Prolificacy [That’s a word, right?] – While hardly a pre-requisite, a longer period of relevance is a strong boost to any player’s case.
* Some significant guitarists of the pre-’76 years remained vital and exciting well into the ’80s and beyond, presenting an obvious problem given the nature of this list. How to rank Robert Fripp or Richard Thompson or David Gilmour? I’ve struggled with it, and have ultimately decided to include only their work from ’76 onward; as a result Fripp and Thompson made it, while Gilmour was less fortunate (spoiler!).
For bands with multiple guitarists, I give credit to the lead player or the guitarist whose playing has more strongly contributed to the band’s sound. In most cases on this list I have chosen to credit both guitarists, though I will note when it is otherwise.
With that said, here we go!
50. Kim Thayil (Soundgarden): Thayil is guitar as prism; standard metal riffs go in one end and come out the other split back into the shades of acid rock, heavy psych and white noise that created it. Soundgarden could’ve artlessly thudded and scraped their way to moderate early ‘90s success like so many others, but Thayil’s arcane sense of rhythm and exotic tones helped them live up to the lushness of their name.
Rusty Cage from Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger
Jesus Christ Pose from Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger
4th of July from Soundgarden’s Superunknown
49. Rivers Cuomo (Weezer): That Rivers Cuomo is viewed in some circles at a legitimate guitar god says everything about the proficiency standards of ‘90s alternative rock, but that’s hardly a bad thing; Cuomo’s great gift as a songwriter has always been his almost scientific understanding of how rock songs work, and the same holds true of his guitar style. He filters all of the most pleasing features of classic guitar pop, ‘80s party metal and grunge into one casually pristine package. Cuomo charms by not seeming to try very hard, yet at his best you never have to try at all to love his music.
Surf Wax America from Weezer’s Weezer (Blue)
Tired of Sex from Weezer’s Pinkerton
Hash Pipe from Weezer’s Weezer (Green)
48. Joe Satriani: Satch is probably the definitive modern virtuoso rock guitarist, achieving success by welding his insane technical skills to clean, catchy melodies that don’t intimidate the untrained ear. If his playing isn’t terribly adventurous or unpredictable, it is at least energetic and distinctive, blazing a trail of influence that trickles through students like Steve Vai, Kirk Hammett and Larry Lalonde, in addition to the legion of bedroom axe-murderers who practice his stuff religiously.
Satch Boogie from Surfing with the Alien
Flying in a Blue Dream from Flying in a Blue Dream
Summer Song from The Extremist
47. Adrian Utley (Portishead): Trip-hop legends Portishead are deservedly famous for their ability to craft sensuous, captivating music from disparate samples and technological simulacra, but when they need to kick things up a notch (or drag you down to the depths) they turn to Adrian Utley. Utley’s a master of finding places to subtly wind his minor key twang through programmer Geoff Barrows’ dense soundscapes, but when he solos his guitar shivers and shudders like he’s worked to eliminate every intercession between the electricity powering the instrument and the listener’s ear, like its very body threatens to shake apart for all the spark contained within it.
Glory Box from Portishead’s Dummy
Cowboys from Portishead’s Portishead
Small from Portishead’s Third
46. Jónsi (Sigur Rós): Do you remember that part in Led Zeppelin’s insufferable The Song Remains the Same video where Jimmy Page uses a cello bow on his guitar to make creaky noises for like twenty minutes? Terrible, I know, which should accord Jón “Jónsi” Þór Birgisson all the more credit for utilizing the technique to make some of the most beautiful music of the rock era. Jónsi’s guitar sings like an alien glyph at the beginning of time (what?), glimmering at the edge of feedback without ever suggesting those words like “tortured” or “screaming” that often apply to distortion. His creations are seamless, notes stretched exactly to their fullest possibility, and left balancing perfectly, persisting sublime. [Less pretentious translation: Weird fucking dolphin music.]
Svefn-g-englar from Sigur Rós’ Ágætis byrjun
Untitled #7 from Sigur Rós’ ( )
Glósóli from Sigur Rós’ Takk
45. John Reis and Rick Froberg (Drive Like Jehu): Reis and Froberg might not be marquee names, but their work during Drive Like Jehu’s all too brief existence established them as two of the greatest practitioners of post-hardcore guitar. Like Fugazi’s MacKaye and Picciotto, Froberg and Reis work in interlocking, droning figures, but Drive Like Jehu exploded the idea into shrapnel, creating multi-layered symphonies of screeching, odd-timed, airplane-into-building panic (thanks, Stockhausen). It was beautiful.
Essential Reis & Froberg
Good Luck in Jail from Drive Like Jehu’s Drive Like Jehu
Sinews from Drive Like Jehu’s Yank Crime
New Intro/New Math from Drive Like Jehu’s Yank Crime
44. Warren Haynes(Gov’t Mule): Haynes would be a legendary guitarist if he’d been born about ten years earlier. As it stands, he’s one of the finest blues-based players in the world having played for years opposite the likes of Dicky Betts and prodigy Derek Trucks in the “they still exist?” Allman Brothers Band. Able to jam for seemingly days at a time, Haynes’ rich whiskey tone and effortless licks disguise his willingness to murk up his countrified twang with tints of funk and even dub, making him much more than the anachronism he seems at first blush.
True Gravity from The Allman Brothers Band’s Seven Turns
Mule from Gov’t Mule’s Live… With a Little Help from Our Friends
Wandering Child from Gov’t Mule’s Life Before Insanity
43. Luc Lemay (Gorguts): Sherbrooke, Quebec’s Gorguts are responsible for what may be the most intellectually and musically challenging death metal album of all-time in 1998’s “What the fuck am I hearing?!” landmark, Obscura. Lemay and his various guitar partners (most notably Steeve Hurdle and Martyr’s Daniel Mongrain) disembowel the death metal formula in order to scry its innards like ancient soothsayers; the result is an alternate reality of truly atonal melodies, piercing pick-slides and circuitous riffs that rely upon pure sound more heavily than anything so organized as a note or scale. Lemay has looked into the abyss, and he’s playing it on guitar.
Sweet Silence from Gorguts’ Obscura
Clouded from Gorguts’ Obscura
Inverted from Gorguts’ From Wisdom to Hate
42. East Bay Ray (Dead Kennedys): The endlessly dynamic “East Bay” Ray Pepperell was pretty much the Dick Dale of ‘80s hardcore, transmuting the speedy strumming of surf rock into a powerful brand of punk guitar; it seems like all fun in the sun at first, but you quickly realize this stuff is at least as frothing mad as Discharge’s edgiest stomach punches. This uneasy juxtaposition suits the DK’s satirical outlook, and over the course of the band’s short lifespan Ray evolved to include influences ranging from military marches to primitive noise rock to the sweeping vistas of Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western soundtracks.
Holiday in Cambodia from the Dead Kennedy’s Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables
California uber Alles from the Dead Kennedy’s Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables
Riot from the Dead Kennedy’s Plastic Surgery Disasters
41. Ira Kaplan (Yo La Tengo): It can be hard to describe the subtle pleasures of a band as prone to making sounds rather like the noise an old computer makes when you leave it on too long as they are winsome pop, but Ira Kaplan’s muffled, feedback-laden landscapes are capable of evoking profound longing and gentle comfort in equal measures. Kaplan has become the most patient of guitarists since Yo La Tengo’s early noise jam years, developing his phrases increasingly gradually, allowing the listener to become accustomed to Yo La Tengo’s unique sounds before surprising with some jangling college rock chords or a squall of feedback. The dreaming is in the details.
Nowhere Near from Yo La Tengo’s Painful
Moby Octopad from Yo La Tengo’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One
Night Falls On Hoboken from And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out
40. Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits): Dire Straits often get lumped in with a lot of the regrettable soft rock of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, but it should be recalled that Mark Knopfler was one of the most effortlessly smooth players of his or any other generation, an admirably understated guitar hero. Knopfler’s solos captured the attention of stadiums without ever resorting to pointless dive-bombs and pick slides, relying instead on his precise country-influenced fingerpicking and gorgeous tone to win over the patient listener.
Sultans of Swing from Dire Straits’ single Sultans of Swing
Telegraph Road from Dire Straits’ Love Over Gold
Cosmic Square Dance from Chet Atkins’ Stay Tuned
39. Vernon Reid (Living Colour): Has any guitarist ever sounded faster than Vernon Reid soloing? Long respected for his technique, what sets Reid apart from his virtuoso contemporaries is his wildness, his willingness to let passion rather than precision dictate his work. His “home style” is probably best described as jazz-fusion, but he’s experimented in everything from hard rock (most notably with Living Colour) to reggae and shown great facility in most areas. Moreover, throughout his career he has done everything in his power to bring these disparate influences together into new sounds that cross not only generic distinctions, but boundaries of race and class. If his compositional skills matched his ambitions, he’d be in the top ten of the list; even with his somewhat spotty record, his skills and successes more than merit this placing.
Cult of Personality from Living Colour’s Vivid
Type from Living Colour’s Time’s Up
Voodoo Pimp Stroll from Vernon Reid & Masque’s Known Unknown
38. Angus Young & Malcolm Young (AC/DC): It would be a considerable understatement to say that the brothers Young don’t hold with the idea that variety is the spice of life. They’re more than happy to churn out similar riff after similar solo, familiar song after familiar album. That being said, their patented formula has produced some of hard rock’s most well-loved anthems, and inspired untold millions of young players. AC/DC’s rise was roughly contemporary with punk rock and they shared something of its no-nonsense aesthetic, stripping away the bloat and excess of the early ‘70s to produce pure, unadulterated voltage. Along the way Angus established himself as one of the guitar’s most exciting soloists, burning through the standard blues scales with an energy and swagger they’d seldom seen before, as quiet Malcolm laid down some of the loudest and most iconic riffs in all rock. Why change, when you do what you do better than anyone else?
T.N.T. from AC/DC’s T.N.T. [Aus] / High Voltage [US]
Let There Be Rock from AC/DC’s Let There Be Rock
Back in Black from AC/DC’s Back in Black
37. Nels Cline: Probably not too many Wilco fans knew what they were getting when Nels Cline joined the band in 2004. An insanely prolific and versatile guitarist, Cline has played everything from free jazz to avant garde sound collages to folk pop on the roughly 150 albums (?!?!?!) he’s been involved with. His “home” style these days is a glistening, improvisational sort of noise rock that hones the experiments of buddy Thurston Moore into even more carefully textured sonic sculptures. YouTube this guy immediately, kids.
Something About David H. from the Nels Cline Singers’ The Giant Pin
Four Guitars Live from Ranaldo/Giffoni/Moore/Cline’s Four Guitars Live at Luxx
Impossible Germany from Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky
36. Billy Corgan (The Smashing Pumpkins): Billy Corgan’s axework is by turns bitingly metallic, post-punk gothic and sweetly poppy, often all at the same time, and its sawing, teeth-on-edge tone captured a certain early ‘90s teen nervy restlessness like few other sounds could. As often as Corgan’s rock genius pretentions threatened to sink his compositions under their own weight, he was nonetheless as not usually able to punch his way through on the strength of his angular, distortion-drenched harmonics and spidery soloing style. No other band had a sound so cyborgian as the Pumpkins did on their heaviest tracks, and in their more introspective moments Corgan’s guitar was beautiful in its, yes, melancholy.
Starla from Smashing Pumpkins’ single I Am One [B-side]
Cherub Rock from Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream
Zero from Smashing Pumpkins’ Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
35. Dylan Carlson (Earth): On a recent Earth release drone pioneer Carlson credits himself with performing “electric guitars/amplifiers” and he’s not joking. Fellow Washingtonian volume wallowers The Melvins had been grinding to the edge of sense for years, but it was Carlson’s brilliant innovation to essentially take the heaviest chord Black Sabbath never played and then stretttttttttch it out until it achieved profundity. Early Earth is endless waves of subtly undulating skronk; it worships the very texture of the amplified electric sound that makes rock music possible. Rather than beat the idea into the ground, Carlson has pushed drone into surprising directions, first by attempting to melt alternative rock, and more recently by composing pulsating, reverberating Western-tinged colossi that take sound into new, cinematic territories.
Teeth of Lions Rule the Divine from Earth’s Earth 2
Tethered to the Polestar from Earth’s Hex: Or Printing in the Infernal Method
Rise to Glory from Earth’s The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull
34. Piggy (Voivod): No guitarist on this planet or any other sounded like Denis “Piggy” D’Amour when he and his cosmos-spanning quartet Voivod teleported in from the ice-wastes of Jonquiere, Quebec. D’Amour’s childhood training in classical violin gave him a different understanding of his instrument, and he combined his idiosyncratic technique with acid jazz, experimental post-punk, spacy prog rock, sloppy proto-black metal and frenzied hardcore to scatter metal’s atoms into a dangerous new alloy. Piggy was perhaps the first metal player to experiment seriously with dissonance, sawing alien sounds from his guitar even as he slithered through riffs of jawbreaking violence. D’Amour’s exploring new dimensions now, but I doubt they’re adequately prepared for him.
Suck Your Bone from Voivod’s War & Pain
Chaosmongers from Voivod’s Dimension Hatröss
Psychic Vacuum from Voivod’s Nothingface
33. Johnny Ramone (Ramones): If greatness is measured exclusively by influence and iconography, it’s a crime to seat Johnny Ramone at #33 on this list, punishable by having the listmaker’s head shoved into his amplifier and left there for an entire set. If it’s measured by variety, technique or ability as a soloist, #33 epically overrates the man. It’s a blurred average of both, though, and as such I think #33 is perfect for the man most singularly responsible for the buzzsaw, aggro-pop sound of American punk. Feeding off of all manner of delicious ‘60s girl-group and surf rock junk, Ramone amphetamized it all until it had blurred into a sweetly nihilistic, “1, 2, 3, 4!” I-IV-V sort of heaven.
Blitzkrieg Bop from Ramones’ Ramones
Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment from Ramones’ Leave Home
Sheena is a Punk Rocker from Ramones’ Rocket to Russia
32. Chuck Schuldiner (Death): To many fans, Death’s Chuck Schuldiner was almost like the John Keats of metal. Like Keats, the self-taught Schuldiner had a unique approach to his art, playing off the established tropes of extreme metal with a spirituality and contemplativeness seldom seen in the genre. He was rarely an innovator, but had an impeccable sense of where the progressive edge of metal sliced, adapting the lessons of contemporaries like Possessed and later Cynic into his own style, which did much to popularize their work. He was in some ways the most soulful of death metal soloists, even as his riffing became increasingly fractured and unpredictable, and his legendary perfectionism would prove an object lesson to aspiring players. His early demise, again like Keats’, has lent itself to mythologizing and hyperbole, but there is no denying the beauty and truth that poured from his guitar.
Pull the Plug from Death’s Spiritual Healing
The Philosopher from Death’s Individual Thought Patterns
Crystal Mountain from Death’s Symbolic
31. Omar Rodriguez-Lopez (At the Drive-In): Perhaps the single most eccentric talent to rise from the late ‘90s post-hardcore boom, Rodriguez-Lopez’s self-described “war on the guitar” has made him one of the most innovative and influential players of his generation. Probably most noted for his Latin-tinged prog/punk freakouts, Rodriguez-Lopez was actually for the most part atmospheric and understated during his time with At the Drive-In, wielding an array of effects and distortion pedals to create dreamy, unguitar-like phrases that rendered his jagged counterpoint detonations even more invigorating. Along with rhythm foil Jim Ward, Rodriguez-Lopez put together some of the genre’s finest, and most advanced, guitar clinics. As with many experimental players Rodriguez-Lopez was often at his best when working within certain constraints, but for all its garishness and bloat The Mars Volta has offered the man a stage upon which to really cut loose, sometimes with results that truly amaze.
For Now… We Toast from At the Drive-In’s In/Casino/Out
Enfilade from At the Drive-In’s Relationship of Command
Drunkship of Lanterns from The Mars Volta’s Deloused in the Comatorium
30. Mick Jones and Joe Strummer (The Clash): Though Johnny Ramone and Steve Jones were arguably most responsible for the basic template of punk guitar, it was Mick Jones and Joe Strummer who defined and perfected it. If the Clash did it, you can probably just call it punk; if they didn’t, it’s got to be post-punk or hardcore or something else entirely. That’s not to say that they didn’t push their playing in surprising directions or rewrite the rulebook many times over; it’s just that after the Clash had set their stamp on a sound, it became part of the genre’s essential DNA. Joe Strummer intensity and honesty suffused his steady, effortlessly anthemic riffing, while Mick Jones’ acute pop instincts and melodic sense balanced his partner’s ferocity with a catchiness that made them loved as well respected. Their fascination with reggae would spawn whole subgenres, and their sprawling early ‘80s works would find them trying on and discarding more styles than most punk guitarists attempt over a career. Put it this way; half the guys above them on this list might not even have careers if it weren’t for these guys.
Essential Jones and Strummer
(White Man in) Hammersmith Palais from The Clash’ single White Man in) Hammersmith Palais
Safe European Home from The Clash’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope
London Calling from The Clash’s London Calling
29. Andy Gill (Gang of Four): Sharp, slicing, cutting, jagged. Critics have used these terms and other synonyms with remarkable consistency to describe Andy Gill’s guitar style, and rightly so. Gill’s riffs have funk’s staccato rhythms, played with punk’s force; the resulting stop-start effect is like accelerating from 0 to 100km/h, slamming on the brakes, and then stomping on the gas again. When you finish picking your teeth out of the steering wheel, you might notice you can dance to it. Gill’s riffing style has been immensely influential, but he was also a brilliant and unique soloist, expressing himself through shortwave bursts of feedback and strange, lingering chords.
I Found that Essence Rare from Gang of Four’s Entertainment!
What We All Want from Gang of Four’s Solid Gold
The History of the World from Gang of Four’s Songs of the Free
28. John McGeoch (Magazine): That John McGeoch spent the last nine years of his life working as a nurse because he was no longer able to support himself playing music is an absolute travesty (if a boon for the health industry). Still less well-known than he should be, McGeoch was a seminal figure in the post-punk movement as the original guitarist of Magazine, axeman for Siouxsie and the Banshees during their glory years and clean-up man with the perennially fluxing Public Image Ltd., lasting longer there than anyone other than John Lydon himself. Though he was too versatile to be as instantly identifiable as, say, Johnny Marr or The Edge, McGeoch was an incredibly creative guitarist, picking out the strange arpeggios and haunting harmonics that would define post-punk’s transition to the pop charts. McGeoch’s idiosyncratic ear for tone and enigmatic playing would lead many young guitarists to expand outside of the classic rock box, and in doing so, sowed seeds for the instrument’s continued evolution.
Shot by Both Sides from Magazine’s Real Life
A Song from Under the Floorboards from Magazine’s The Correct Use of Soap
Spellbound from Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Juju
27. Joey Santiago and Black Francis (Pixies): If ‘80s punk guitar can be summarized as “combine punk with [strange influence] and experiment with feedback” then the Pixies’ surf aficionado Joey Santiago and Charles “Black Francis” Thompson were like the cherry on top of a towering chocolate sundae. Francis took every mangled, misshapen sound he and Santiago could wring out of their guitars and wrought something sweetly, eccentrically poppy out of it. Santiago’s solos are all wrong notes and strange phrases, but it never sounds like clinical experimentation; it’s just passionate music from imperfect hearts, made for listeners for whom pop needn’t be an exercise in gloss and subterfuge.
Essential Santiago and Francis
Vamos from Pixies’ Come On Pilgrim
Where is My Mind? from Pixies’ Surfer Rosa
Monkey Gone to Heaven from Pixies’ Doolittle
26. James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett (Metallica): It could be argued that no single subgenre of metal has had the lasting impact and influence commanded by the thrash revolution of the 1980s, and by any standard, the leading light of the movement was Metallica. James Hetfield’s incredibly tight, blisteringly fast palm muted rhythm guitar was the style which separated heavy metal’s singular past from the seemingly infinite varieties of its future, while Kirk Hammett was the ultimate underground guitar hero. Neither have spectacular chops, but the scale of their compositions took the metal guitar tandem format further than it had ever gone before, establishing new benchmarks for complexity and ambition. Their work since their mid-‘80s salad days has been admittedly uneven, but if any two metal guitarists can afford to rest on their laurels, it’s these guys. [And hey, I’m one of like seven intelligent people worldwide who thinks Load is amazing.]
Essential Hetfield and Hammett
The Call of Ktulu from Metallica’s Ride the Lightning
Master of Puppets from Metallica’s Master of Puppets
One from Metallica’s …And Justice for All
25. Richard Thompson (Richard Thompson): As I mentioned in the intro, Richard Thompson was one of the first guitarists I thought of when it occurred to me that some players would be ill-served by the ’76 cut-off. By 1976, Thompson had established himself as the definitive British folk revival guitarist with Fairport Convention, done piles of session work, and released two of the finest singer-songwriter efforts of the decade in I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight and Pour Down Like Silver. He’d already made a mark that would place him among the top twenty or twenty-five guys to ever pick up a guitar. But none of that matters here.
Even with his career gruesomely bisected, Richard Thompson easily makes this list because there still isn’t anyone else who can play like he does, though not for lack of trying. Thompson’s idea of old music isn’t the blues; it’s 13th century folk songs, Scottish pipes and classical symphonies. These influences blend with 20th century rock and jazz to create the sort of timeless sound that has allowed the man to pursue insanely ambitious ideas like the 1000 Years of Pop Music project, as well as his trademark low-key folk rock character sketches. From his well-loved albums with (now ex-)wife Linda to his early ‘90s mini-renaissance, Thompson has remained among the most consistent of the guitar’s great masters.
Essential Richard Thompson
Shoot Out the Lights from Richard & Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights
1952 Vincent Black Lightning from Rumor and Sigh
Hard on Me (live) from Walking on a Wire: Richard Thompson (1968-2009)
24. Bob Mould (Hüsker Dü): Sometimes the fastest, most intense bands are also those with the strongest pop sensibilities; such was the case with Bob Mould and Hüsker Dü, the band who went from setting hardcore’s “Land Speed Record” to transcending the genre’s limitations with elaborate concept albums, psychedelia and sublime melodic sensibilities. From the start Bob Mould was as fierce a guitar player as there’s ever been, gorgeously noisy and biting and distorted and hideous, but his real gift was for finding the people-moving anthems amidst the fuzz-tone screech, the riffs that reached out to the fans with evangelical conviction. Zen has never been so loud.
8 Miles High from Hüsker Dü’s 8 Miles High (single)
Celebrated Summer from Hüsker Dü’s New Day Rising
Divide and Conquer from Hüsker Dü’s Flip Your Wig
23. Stephen Malkmus (Pavement): Stephen Malkmus’ trebly, lo-fi guitar heroism on Slanted and Enchanted was, arguably, the great demarcation between alternative rock and modern indie rock. In the ‘80s, alternative rock really was the alternative, but by the ‘90s it had blown up so big that its name became a total misnomer; meanwhile, the actual alternative/underground scene had lost its title, it took up “indie” as its new, different mantle. And we know how that turned out… but I digress. Malkmus’ rough, garage-y style bit as much from R.E.M. as it did the Replacements or Sonic Youth, and its combination of fragility, snark and noise strummed all the right chords with the intelligent and disenfranchised. Malkmus got weirder and more inventive with the instrument as he got druggier, but he never lost his almost laconic take on the guitar, his slacker’s drift and sway.
Perfume-V from Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted
Gold Soundz from Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
Grounded from Pavement’s Wowie Zowie
22. Johnny Marr (The Smiths): Johnny Marr was, along with similarly jangly American counterpart Peter Buck, probably the guitarist most responsible for resuscitating guitar pop after more than a decade of heavy metal, punk and AOR had obscured its unique charms. But Marr wasn’t content to be a mere revivalist; he played faster, brighter and in stranger configurations, taking what sounded like experiments in the hands of the post-punks and turning them into proofs. One of the greatest studio technicians of his time, Marr’s elaborate orchestration of his own guitar parts gave them a haunting, almost web-like quality, pushing his signature chiming Rickenbacker riffs to ever greater levels of sophistication. He could play gentle, cuckoo lullabies or switch on a freight-train swagger; few other “indie” pop guys come even close to Johnny Marr.
This Charming Man from the Smiths’ The Smiths
How Soon is Now? from the Smiths’ How Soon is Now? (single)
Bigmouth Strikes Again from the Smiths’ The Queen is Dead
21. J Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.): The brilliant thing about J Mascis is how little he gives a fuck. He doesn’t care about what genre he’s supposed to be playing in, whether he’s breaking new ground or coming off as a fossil, blazing through an incredible guitar solo or making ungodly drunken noise. His guitar playing is like a stoned teenager aimlessly flipping channels; too slack for noise rock, too cool for metal, he just rocks out jagged squawk over pummelling metal riff and if it works, it works. Call it what you like. He just calls it Dinosaur Jr.
Sludgefeast from Dinosaur Jr.’s You’re Living All Over Me
Freak Scene from Dinosaur Jr.’s Bug
Been There All the Time from Dinosaur Jr.’s Beyond
20. Adrian Belew: Probably best known these days as King Crimson’s squirmy singer and guitar foil to Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew is in fact one of the great journeyman guitarists in all of rock, and a considerably influential player in his own right. The astonishingly inventive Belew has never met a noise he couldn’t capably imitate through his guitar, from elephant “talk” to bird calls, and his ability with the whammy bar is legendary. Belew’s playing was unusual well before his apprenticeships under Frank Zappa and later Fripp, but with their teachings he has achieved a perfect balance between technical virtuosity and effects wizardry. Adrian Belew can sound like anything, except like anyone else.
The Great Curve from Talking Heads’ Remain in Light
Elephant Talk from King Crimson’s Discipline
This is What I Believe In from Inner Revolution
19. Randy Rhoads (Ozzy Osbourne): The most tragic thing about Randy Rhoads’ stupid, senseless death was how much more he had to offer the world of rock guitar. Like fellow hard rock virtuosos Eddie Van Halen and Yngwie Malmsteen, Rhoads had considerable classical training, but where Van Halen was playfully reckless and Malmsteen stodgy and pretentious, Rhoads was a perfect combination of precision and swagger. Bob Daisley wrote workmanlike metal hooks for Ozzy to sing, but it was Rhoads’ proto-speed metal riffs and novel integration of lightning neo-classical licks that made Ozzy’s early solo career as artistically groundbreaking as it was commercially successful. In just two short years, Rhoads forged the most important connection between the classical discipline and metal since Ritchie Blackmore’s prime. If he had continued his artistic growth at the pace he was on, there’s no telling how far he might have gone.
Mr. Crowley from Ozzy Osbourne’s Blizzard of Ozz
Over the Mountain from Ozzy Osbourne’s Diary of a Madman
Diary of a Madman from Ozzy Osbourne’s Diary of a Madman
18. Greg Sage (Wipers): You never got the impression Greg Sage cared much about the way his music was received, even as he made outlandish plans to release an album per year for ten years and then retire. It’s an idea that smacks of pretentious artiness, until you hear the immense hurricane of distortion he pulls out of his sizzling guitar; it just blows away any doubts you might have had about the Wipers’ honesty and integrity. It also signals their greatness. Too expansive for punk, but too honest, kinetic and early to be anything else, Sage’s Sister Ray by way of Verlaine and Quine slash n’ roll harnessed the primal scream potential of guitar feedback like no one before him, while composing hammering proto-alt. rock that resonated through generations of post-hardcore and grunge players to come.
D-7 from Wipers’ Is This Real?
Youth of America from Wipers’ Youth of America
No One Wants an Alien from Wipers’ Over the Edge
17. Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King (Slayer): Lots of people like to talk about how Metallica don’t deserve credit for “inventing” thrash metal, as if it matters whether some unheard-of band’s demo tape was a month earlier than Kill ‘Em All (or even No Life ‘Til Leather). Similarly, Slayer may not have been the very first to make resolutely ugly, unflinchingly violent metal, but no band had more to do with making it extreme metal’s raison d’etre. Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King were equally big fans of Judas Priest and Black Flag, and they took the pristine tag-team guitar vocabulary of Tipton and Downing and used hardcore’s unpredictable speed-at-all-costs non-structure to torment it into insanity. King’s atonal, wandering key solos were nothing less than a revolution in metal guitar, while Hanneman’s more melodic style acted as an equally forceful but precision-slicing counterpoint. The dentist-drill droning quality of their faster-than-sense riffs ensured that Slayer would never experience the minor mainstream breakthroughs enjoyed by Anthrax and Megadeth, but somehow in spite of selling millions of albums, they remain the first truly frightening band most enterprising metalheads discover, the first taboo, an impact no other band no matter how intense can match afterward.
Essential Hanneman and King
Chemical Warfare from Slayer’s Haunting the Chapel
Hell Awaits from Slayer’s Hell Awaits
Angel of Death from Slayer’s Reign in Blood
16. Stevie Ray Vaughan (Stevie Ray Vaughan): It could be argued that there has never been a more talented all-around blues guitar player than the unforgettable Stevie Ray Vaughan. Some might argue that there’s never been a more talented guitar player, period. Arriving at a time when the blues was becoming increasingly irrelevant to mainstream music listeners, Stevie Ray Vaughan didn’t even need to innovate to get attention; he just played hard pentatonic, 12-bar blues with more fire, passion and speed than anyone since his idol Buddy Guy. It cut through all of the synths and hairspray of the era and fed the need in people looking for rich, heartfelt guitar music like nothing else. Vaughan was also a hell of a country fingerpicker and had an ear for soul, and much of his success can be attributed to his ability to synthesize the best elements of those genres into his blues. For a while it looked like Vaughan would be lost, like so many others, to drugs, but he cleaned himself up, which made his death in a helicopter accident all the sadder. If SRV goes down as the last truly legendary blues guitarist it’ll be a shame, but it’ll also testify to just how good he was.
Testify from Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s Texas Flood
Life Without You from Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s Soul to Soul
Tightrope from Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s In Step
15. Peter Buck (R.E.M.): R.E.M. could not have sounded more different from the norm when they emerged from Athens, GA to revolutionize the American independent music scene. If you listen closely enough though, Peter Buck’s influences on guitar seem clear enough; Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd of Television, Andy Gill of Gang of Four. Yet his intricate, insistent jangling arpeggios and enigmatic textures were singular and unlike anyone else’s playing, at once alien and strikingly familiar. Buck’s guitar signalled the rise of a new left-of-center brand guitar pop, and he would go on to become one of its most versatile and innovative players, incorporating country and folk elements well before it was fashionable to do so, and also proving himself as an underrated master of distortion and feedback. Peter Buck’s sarcasm and self-deprecating humour can obscure the seriousness with which he takes his craft, but no one has done more to define and expand the vocabulary of alternative and indie rock guitar.
Wolves, Lower from R.E.M.’s Chronic Town EP
Camera from R.E.M.’s Reckoning
Feeling Gravitys Pull from R.E.M.’s Fables of the Reconstruction
14. Jack White (The White Stripes): Arguably the most distinctive guitarist to emerge since the turn of the millennium, Jack White is the ultimate result of a garage rock lineage reaching back to old blues men, through legends like the Stooges and Dinosaur Jr. and onward to lesser-known Motor City visionaries like the Gories and Flat Duo Jets. White’s enormous sound is the product of a gearhead’s obsession with old amps and customized guitars, crossed with the eccentricities of his self-taught playing; the result is a crackling, overdriven take on the blues, with White making use of the space accorded to him by the absence of a bassist to indulge in towering chords and speaker-bursting squeals. White has shown admirable versatility through his many guest appearances and side-projects, dabbling in folk and even proggish rock, but it’s his highly influential revival of the hard rock duo format with the recently retired White Stripes that’s made him something of a legend in his own time.
Fell in Love with a Girl from The White Stripes’ White Blood Cells
Seven Nation Army from The White Stripes’ Elephant
Ball and Biscuit from The White Stripes’ Elephant
13. Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine): Kevin Shields has one of the shortest discographies of anyone on this list, and he really only does one thing. But that one thing, which we call shoegaze but which might better be described as “the ecstasy of noise,” is largely of his own invention, and something which he has worked at with an almost obsessive single-mindedness. A virtuoso of the tremolo arm, Shields sets his amps to “obliterate,” and exploits the full sonic potential of each chord he strums, helping the listener to parse all of the frequencies and reverberations of what can seem at first to be a wall of unpleasant white noise, but soon becomes a complex, hypnotic rapture. Shields is almost without peer in terms of making music predominantly through the manipulation of tone, pitch and texture, an impressionistic swirl which has been one of the most important innovations in contemporary guitar.
You Made Me Realise from My Bloody Valentine’s You Made Me Realise EP
(When You Wake) You’re Still in a Dream from My Bloody Valentine’s Isn’t Anything
Soon from My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless
12. Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine): There are a few players on this list who made the cut largely based on their experiments with making the guitar sound like a completely different instrument; the difference between most of them and Tom Morello is that his reinvention of the guitar took place while playing in one of the most popular and successful hard rock bands of his time. Listeners were drawn to Rage Against the Machine by Morello’s monster truck rally riffing and Zach de la Rocha’s Molotov politik, but it was Morello’s unusual solos which captured the attention of guitarists. Not since Brian May’s heyday have so many people wondered how such sounds could be produced from the instruments, from his array of squelching chirrups and squeaks to his uncanny simulation of turntable scratching, and it sent a whole generation of guitarists (some already established stars) out to the woodshed to figure out what the hell he was doing. Morello takes the usual fleet-fingered metal solos and distorts them so thoroughly that they seem like transmissions from an alternate six-string dimension. While he has in recent years occasionally forsaken the compositional element of songwriting in favour of lazy knob-fiddling, he remains a walking, talking, soloing guitar paradigm-shifter.
Wake Up from Rage Against the Machine’s Rage Against the Machine
Bulls on Parade from Rage Against the Machine’s Evil Empire
Mic Check from Rage Against the Machine’s The Battle of Los Angeles
11. Robert Quine (Richard Hell & The Voidoids): Sports columnist Bill Simmons once wrote about how some elite athletes like Shaquille O’Neal and Roger Clemens who have memorable, successful runs with multiple franchises become, in effect, “Legends without a team.” In a way that’s true of Robert Quine, a player whose unique fusion of jazz licks, bluesy shuffle and edgy, jutting punk guitar threaded through landmark recordings with promising newcomers (Richard Hell, Matthew Sweet), resurgent veterans (Lou Reed, Tom Waits) and experimentalists (Brian Eno, John Zorn) alike. No less an authority than Lester Bangs claimed that Quine represents a groundbreaking fusion of experimental garage rock and the jazz of Miles Davis; you can hear it in his unorthodox, off-kilter solos with the Voidods, which are essentially the foundation of the punk and post-punk guitar solo. Probably no guitarist of the past thirty-five years has done more with less recognition than Robert Quine, but his name deserves to ring out as loudly and widely as his guitar has.
Blank Generation from Richard Hell & the Voidods’ Blank Generation
Waves of Fear from Lou Reed’s The Blue Mask
Girlfriend from Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend
10. Glenn Branca: I struggled with where to rank Glenn Branca, and even whether or not he should be ranked at all. Branca is after all, a “composer” rather than a “songwriter” and a guitar “theorist” as much as he is a guitar “player.” But no matter how many symphonies he pens, his ideas originate in experimental punk/No Wave, and his compositions have had their greatest influence in the same realm. Branca first grabbed attention with the performance art/noise rock group Theoretical Girls, before beginning his transition into the “orchestral” guitar realm with ever-expanding collectives of feedback-garrulous avant-garde players like Moore and Ranaldo of (the great) Sonic Youth, Michael Gira of (the excellent) Swans and Page Hamilton of (the decent) Helmet. With titles like Lesson No. 1 for Electric Guitar, Branca made no bones of his pedagogical intent, but his ideas backed up the bravado. Branca took No Wave ideas off of the streets and into the conservatory, and the rigour to which he subjected it morphed into the template for most of the avant-garde guitar experiments which followed, not to mention the even more significant trickle down into mainstream and indie guitar theory. A genius, and I don’t mean that like Rolling Stone do when they say it about Keith Richards.
Computer Dating from Theoretical Girls’ Theoretical Record
Lesson No. 1 for Electric Guitar from Lesson No. 1
The Spectacular Commodity (for Eiko and Koma) from The Ascension
9. K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton (Judas Priest): While Tony Iommi will always go down as metal’s greatest guitarist, it’s quite possible that Judas Priest’s Downing and Tipton have contributed more to the genre’s present style than any other artist before or since. While ‘70s hard rock acts like Thin Lizzy, Queen, Sweet, Van Halen and U.F.O. all chucked out foundational metal texts from time to time, it was Judas Priest who drew them together into a completely new style. Tipton and Downing’s labyrinthine early compositions had a proggish complexity, but the emphasis was on speed, strength and technique, a sort of riff-mad baroque/sci-fi flavour that would define the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) and every band that followed. Like any great tandem, each partner had a distinctive personality that came through in his playing. K.K. Downing was the dive bombing speedfreak Hendrix aficionado, Glenn Tipton the classically-inclined, legato-heavy technician; between them, there seemed to be nothing they couldn’t work into metallic innovation. The wellspring from which all metal tropes, and clichés, flow.
Essential Downing and Tipton:
Dissident Aggressor from Judas Priest’s Sin After Sin
Stained Class from Judas Priest’s Stained Class
Tyrant from Judas Priest’s Unleashed in the East
8. Greg Ginn (Black Flag): Greg Ginn’s guitar idols include B.B. King, Johnny Ramone and Jerry Garcia. These days he plays noodly, vaguely psychedelic jam rock. He looks like the kinda guy who would delightedly throw a community “weenie roast” on the slimmest of pretexts. So how did he develop a guitar style so captivating in its ugliness and clamour that it made the LAPD actually beat up some white kids for a coupla years (while reinventing guitar-based rock, yada yada)? Like John Cale and Lou Reed of the noise-innovating Velvet Underground, Ginn was a massive fan of Ornette Coleman’s free jazz, and took his cues more from avant-saxophonists and trumpeters than his fellow six-stringers; the guitar is a more guttural instrument, and the modal experiments which sounded strange on those instruments became a hideous, fractured noise in the Ginn’s hands. Hardcore was born from the sense that true anger doesn’t coalesce into easily-digested hooks and melodies; it’s coughed out in chunks of blood and phlegm, in flurries of frustration. Probably the most gifted improvisational player in punk, Greg Ginn made enough horrible noise in the ‘80s to debilitate most normal human beings. I’d say he’s earned the right to noodle in his old age.
Damaged I from Black Flag’s Damaged
Scream from Black Flag’s My War
Black Love from Black Flag’s In My Head
7. The Edge (U2): David “The Edge” Evans humanized the art of guitar effects and distortion. Before him, most players who really spent time processing the hell out of their guitar sound and exploring texture and delay tended to be experimentalists. The Edge introduced extensive guitar manipulation to the emotional language of mainstream rock, the mournful yearning of his chiming, gently reverberating tone melting hearts in arenas around the world. The Edge’s actual guitar style is extraordinarily spare, playing relatively few notes and scratching out percussive figures rather like Gang of Four’s Andy Gill; the secret is in the way each note rings out two or three more times as it diminishes, creating a seamless wall of sound that billows and flows from measure to measure. The master of delicate thunder, The Edge’s willowy treble is nonetheless behind some of pop’s most grandiose climaxes. Think what you may of U2, but The Edge’s sound is a definitive influence on modern music.
Sunday Bloody Sunday from U2’s Under a Blood Red Sky
The Unforgettable Fire from U2’s The Unforgettable Fire
Where the Streets Have No Name from U2’s The Joshua Tree
6. Prince: By acclamation the most talented pop musician of his generation, Prince Rogers Nelson is also among the most visionary guitar players of the past thirty years. Prince is equally comfortable playing funk, blues, R&B, hard rock and jazz, his supple guitar style yo-yoing through a century of black music with the greatest of ease. Prince’s skill is most obvious when he chooses to indulge in extended, Hendrix-like solos, but his real genius lies in the novel ways he flexes the instrument into new soundscapes, demonstrating how the guitar can persist as popular music drifts away from the rock box. A fearless experimenter, the Artist’s loose, informal style is endlessly entertaining, and remains among the most influential in pop.
Purple Rain from Purple Rain
I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man from Sign O’ the Times
Anna Stesia from Lovesexy
5. Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto (Fugazi): This is one legendary guitar tandem where you could make a case for both making the list as individuals; MacKaye had already starred in Minor Threat, one of hardcore’s greatest bands, and the influential Embrace, while Picciotto was a driving force behind “emocore” groundbreakers Rites of Spring and their strange offspring Happy Go Licky and One Last Wish. But it is together in Fugazi that they would have their greatest, most sustained success. Pioneering a new interlocking approach to rock guitar teamwork in which each guitarist played separate, complimentary phrases, Fugazi changed the way punk and alternative players approached the instrument. Picciotto’s scratchy, high-frequency Rickenbacker stabs hover over MacKaye’s guttural, sledgehammer chords, tumbling together like clothes in a washer as their compositions escalate in force and fervour. As Fugazi progressed over the years, the pair expanded on their grating, bone-dry style, working in weirder effects and ever-stranger transitions, and maintaining their reputation as one of the most challenging guitar bands of all time.
Essential MacKaye and Picciotto:
Repeater from Fugazi’s Repeater
Downed City from Fugazi’s Red Medicine
Strangelight from Fugazi’s The Argument
4. Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd (Television): Collaborator and ex-girlfriend Patti Smith once described Tom “Verlaine” Miller’s guitar as sounding like “a thousand bluebirds screaming” and that about covers it. His is a sound unlike anyone else’s in rock, even the thousands of post-punks and later goth rockers and later still indie revivalists who followed one another into the orbit of the Marquee Moon. Not enough is ever said about the equally essential Richard Lloyd, a sometime protégé of Jimi Hendrix himself (!) and white-hot soloist who was, if anything, the more technically skilled of the two. When Lloyd saw Verlaine play, legend has it that he told his manager that Verlaine was missing something, and that something was what Lloyd had in spades; if it’s the case, then Richard Lloyd may have experienced the single most brilliant insight in rock history. Lloyd’s solos burn rubber where Verlaine’s sky-write, Verlaine’s melodies paint pictures where Lloyd’s drive nails. Unbelievable combo; unbelievable band.
Essential Verlaine and Lloyd
See No Evil from Television’s Marquee Moon
Marquee Moon from Television’s Marquee Moon
The Fire from Television’s Adventure
3. Robert Fripp (King Crimson): If you consider his combination of innovation, influence, technique, tone, consistency and longevity, Robert Fripp may well be the greatest guitarist who has ever lived. By 1976, Fripp’s King Crimson had already released two of the most influential albums of all time (1969’s In the Court of the Crimson King and ‘74’s Red), pioneered and quickly outgrew the progressive rock movement, and generally set a new standard for icily inventive art rock. As much as Fripp had accomplished prior to ’76, he was arguably even better from that point onward. He continued to develop the influential and widely-copied “Frippertronics” tape-delay system, which allowed him to simulate complex multi-guitar arrangements in live solo settings. He would bring this signature sound to public attention through high-profile guest appearances with the likes of Peter Gabriel, Daryl Hall, Talking Heads and David Bowie, and for a short time became one of rock’s hottest session players. The ‘80s version of King Crimson with fellow guitar wizard Adrian Belew (#20) would push Fripp’s rhythmic chops to the fore as he expanded upon the template of Red with helpings of post-punk and New Wave, while his solo work turned towards a new style he refers to as “Soundscapes.” One of the great innovators of the instrument, Robert Fripp has pushed guitar further than any other player. And he’s not done yet.
Heroes from David Bowie’s “Heroes”
Under Heavy Manners from God Save the Queen/Under Heavy Manners
EleKtrik from King Crimson’s The Power to Believe
2. Eddie Van Halen (Van Halen): Eddie Van Halen may be the single most imitated guitarist in the history of rock, and that includes Jimi Hendrix. Before Van Halen, the most vaunted mainstream rock guitarists all drew from a similar base of blues licks and Chuck Berryisms. Van Halen’s incendiary Paganini-esque classical leanings ushered in a new standard for guitar virtuosity that remains in place to this day, while his outrageous divebombs and volume swells endeared him to rock aficionados. As important as his popularization of techniques like two-hand tapping was, it was his playfulness, raunchy tone and unconventional melodicism that made him endlessly popular. The icon of his style.
Essential Van Halen
Eruption from Van Halen’s Van Halen
Mean Streets from Van Halen’s Fair Warning
Little Guitars (intro)/Little Guitars from Van Halen’s Diver Down
1. Eric Clapton: Sure Clapton takes a lot of shit for completely stagnating as an artist seemingly within minutes of leaving the Derek & the Dominoes Layla sessions, but his kid fell out a window and stuff, so I have to put him at number one right? Poor dude.
n/a (though I dig some of the ‘80s pop tunes, TBH)
I’m kidding obviously. Read on…
1. Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth): 35 years, 50+ guitarists and 8000+ words later, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo stand as the greatest guitar tandem of their generation. Given the uncertain state of their band at the moment, it seems a reasonable time to take stock of their accomplishments. It’s not just their radical experiments with noise, innovative (and thrifty) guitar modifications or introduction of radical alternative tunings to mainstream (adjacent) rock, or the massive influence of their intellectual slacker approach to alternative rock riffing. It’s not even their extensive repertoire of avant-garde recordings and interaction with other guitar legends like Glenn Branca (#10), Peter Buck (#15) and Nels Cline (#43). It’s all those things, but it’s also the sinuous way they play off of each other, the way they make their most out-there experiments sound just as natural as their most crowd-pleasing melodies. Laid back and intense, earache noisy and sweet-tooth poppy, Ranaldo and Moore are the anchor and anvil upon which modern rock guitar is held fast and beaten into unimaginable new configurations.
Essential Moore and Ranaldo
Shadow of a Doubt from Sonic Youth’s EVOL
Kotton Krown from Sonic Youth’s Sister
‘Cross the Breeze from Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation
Thanks for reading!
* If you got this far and even remember what the asterisk here was connected to, congrats! Anyway, just wanted to say before some commenter breaks ground on a new real estate development in my asshole that I am aware of Mr. Clapton’s marvelous ability as a guitar player and historical importance as a member of the Yardbirds, Bluesbreakers, Cream and Derek & the Dominoes. It’s just that since those halcyon days, he has been completely staid and artistically irrelevant, while selling tons of records and scoring numerous hits. As such, he’s easier to take shots at than Jimi Hendrix (dead) or Jimmy Page (also dead)**.
** Correction, he’s actually just fat.