The world of rock and roll is filled with electric guitars, stacks of amps, and high-energy music.
Leading the charge are the guitar heroes, some of whom are household names, and others…well, we guarantee you’ve heard their riffs.
The electric guitar revolutionized rock and pop music and forever changed the music industry.
It’s for these reasons we’ve rounded up the best guitarists of all time to deliver you a complete resource on these guitar-wielding superstars.
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The 10 Best Guitarists of All Time
When selecting the greatest guitarists for this list, we considered worldwide record sales, their musical impact, and their virtuosity on their instrument.
So without further ado, here’s our list of the 10 best guitarists of all time:
10. David Gilmour
Born in 1946 in England, David Gilmour showed an early aptitude for the guitar. While in high school, he met future Pink Floyd bandmates Roger Waters and Syd Barrett.
Pink Floyd released their first album in 1967, with Gilmour filling in for the ever-erratic Syd Barrett, who had mental illness and took hallucinogenic drugs. Gilmour replaced Barrett, and the band paid homage to him with songs like “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.”
David Gilmour cites Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Roy Buchanan as musical influences. Pink Floyd fans boast that Gilmour’s playing made the band recognizable as one of the front runners of psychedelic rock.
David Gilmour’s tone is rich and complex, with solos being simple yet prolific. A great example of such virtuosity is his work on one of the best songs of all time, “Comfortably Numb.”
While the solo is sparse, his guitar tone is exhilarating, and he sings with the gusto of an opera singer.
9. Stevie Ray Vaughan
Stevie Ray Vaughan was a prolific blues-rock guitarist who listened to masters like Muddy Waters, Albert King, and Otis Rush. Next, he discovered rock guitarists like Jimi Hendrix and Lonnie Mack. The combination of these guitar legends forged Vaughan’s sound.
With his band Double Trouble, Stevie Ray Vaughan became a household name on the blues guitar. They formed in 1980 and had chart success with songs like “Crossfire,” “Pride and Joy,” and “Texas Flood.”
When Stevie Ray Vaughan performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival, David Bowie was in attendance. Impressed by the Texan’s musicality, he invited Stevie to play on his upcoming album. Stevie accepted and performed the solo on “Let’s Dance” and other songs on the album.
Stevie Ray Vaughn’s robust guitar tone can be attributed to using vintage Fender Stratocasters, heavy string gauges, and down-tuning a half-step. But, while he used some pedals, Vaughan’s secret to his tone lay in his fingers, amp, and guitar.
8. Randy Rhoads
You may not know who Randy Rhoads is, but we guarantee you’ve heard him play!
When Randy was in high school, he and some classmates formed a band that evolved into Quiet Riot. Unfortunately, Rhoads left before they signed with one of the biggest record labels in the world, but he was instrumental in developing their sound and following.
Randy’s departure was destiny-knocking. The lead singer of a heavy metal band was starting a solo career. He needed a lead guitarist. One thing led to another, and Randy Rhoads became the guitarist for Ozzy Osbourne.
With the release of Osbourne’s Blizzard of Ozz, Ozzy and Rhoads were on a meteoric rise to stardom. Randy co-wrote many of Ozzy’s hits, one of which contains a guitar riff we know you’ve heard: “Crazy Train.” Tragically, Rhoads died in a freak plane accident in 1982.
Randy Rhoads is considered the pioneer of metal guitar playing. His technical ability was astounding, and his love of music shaped him into a well-rounded musician. For these reasons, Randy Rhoads was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2021.
7. Eddie Van Halen
Eddie Van Halen takes precedence when considering the guitar heroes of the 80s. He and his brother Alex formed the band Van Halen which ruled the rock airwaves. “Jump” is considered by many to be one of the best 80s songs and continues to be a favorite on today’s playlists.
Eddie’s technique and distinctive sound are why he’s a premiere guitar virtuoso, but success didn’t come overnight.
When he first started playing, Eddie practiced non-stop, often locked in his bedroom. To improve on lead guitar, he listened to guitar solos by Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page and jazz innovators like Alan Holdsworth.
As his technical prowess developed, Eddie pushed the envelope and utilized tapping, a unique playing style. This advanced technique allowed him to play multiple arpeggios with both hands at blinding speeds.
Next is Eddie Van Halen’s guitar sound, which comes from “Frankenstrat,” a creation formed by combining various guitars into one. This multi-colored instrument appeared in early videos, on their first album cover, and when he and David Lee Roth reigned as kings of stadium rock.
Eddie Van Halen passed away in 2020, but his legacy as a guitar hero and innovator will shine on for decades.
6. Chuck Berry
Chuck Berry is nicknamed the “Father of Rock and Roll” and was one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Berry was born in 1928 and was musically influenced by bluesman and showman T-Bone Walker. Berry’s music break came when he performed for Muddy Waters, who introduced him to Chess Records, where he released “Mabelline,” which became a massive R&B hit.
Berry was an accomplished songwriter who helped rock be one of the most popular genres in the world with classics like “Johnny B. Goode.” Additional songs in his catalog include “Rock and Roll Music” and the novelty song “My Ding-A-Ling.”
Chuck Berry’s guitar of choice was a semi-hollow body Gibson ES 3501 that he nicknamed “Maybelline.” While Berry didn’t push his Fender amp to get a distorted tone, he nonetheless influenced many guitarists like Keith Richards with the opening riff to “Johnny B. Goode.”
Chuck Berry was also the consummate entertainer, scooting across the stage while ripping off hot licks. The “Father of Rock and Roll” passed at age 90 but continues to impact the music world.
5. Jeff Beck
Jeff Beck is an English guitarist who came to fame during the 60s in a band called the Yardbirds. While the band had chart success with songs like “For Your Love” and “Heart Full of Soul,” they’re best known for the members.
The Yardbirds were the launching point for rock’s most prolific guitarists. Members include Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Beck. While Clapton and Page had more chart success than Beck, he nonetheless is regarded as a “guitarist’s guitarist.”
Beck later formed the Jeff Beck Group in 1967 with Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood, who joined the Rolling Stones in 1975.
The musicians that played on “Beck’s Bolero” read like a “who’s who” of rock. There were Page and John Paul Jones, who later formed Led Zeppelin, and Keith Moon from The Who.
When you listen to his solo on “Beck’s Bolero,” you can hear how his playing was different than his counterparts. He used a Fender Stratocaster, and his tone is recognizable as he is the master of sustain, fluid bends, and a whammy bar to alter notes.
Jeff Beck continues to tour as a solo artist, influencing future guitarists worldwide with his memorable riffs.
4. Brian May
When you read Brian May’s education, it’s a wonder he ended up in the music business. In school, he navigated through physics easily and, in 2007, earned a doctorate in astrophysics.
So how did a science geek become one of the world’s foremost guitarists? Well, it took a fireplace, some motorcycle parts, and mother-of-pearl buttons. All of which he used to build a custom guitar.
One look at Brian’s guitar will tell you that it’s not a Fender, a Gibson, or any other known brand. Instead, the Red Special, nicknamed by May, came into existence with the help of his father, an electronics engineer.
Remember our list of odds and ends? Brian and his father took the wood from an 18th-century fireplace to create the neck. Motorcycle springs were used with the tremolo bar that came from a bicycle.
With his Red Special, Brian May created rock music’s richest soundscapes. Listen to Queen’s first hit, “Keep Yourself Alive.” Instead of using traditional plastic picks, May used coins. You can hear that coin’s metallic “clank” in the opening riff.
On subsequent albums, May layered the tracks with keyboard-like tones. Toss in Queen’s genre-altering hit “Bohemian Rhapsody” with one of rock’s greatest solos, and you can see why Brian May made our list.
3. Jimmy Page
Jimmy Page dropped out of school to pursue music, which was a great decision. He became one of Britain’s most sought-after studio musicians and played acoustic guitar on the James Bond theme “Goldfinger” and the 1964 hit “Downtown,” to list a few.
But session work didn’t satisfy Page’s artistic side, which led to him forming the star-studded supergroup The Yardbirds. When the band broke up, he became a member of The New Yardbirds to fulfill concert obligations.
The New Yardbirds signed a record deal but got into a legal dispute about their name. While brainstorming, Page remembered Keith Moon’s funny comment after recording “Beck’s Bolero.” When the musicians discussed forming a supergroup, Moon quipped that it would go over like a lead balloon.
Page altered Moon’s joke to create his band’s new name. He dropped the “A” from lead and, instead of a balloon, referenced the aerial Zeppelins from the 20s. The result was Led Zeppelin, who created one of the best-selling albums of all time, their fourth album entitled Led Zeppelin IV.
With his Gibson Les Paul, Page used alternate tunings, drew upon Eastern music, and even used a violin bow to create rich, sonic tones. Additionally, Zeppelin was a great rock band possessing some of the best musicians of all time who will forever shape the music scene.
2. Eric Clapton
Many fans consider Clapton, the greatest guitarist in rock history. In the 60s, one adoring fan went so far as to spray-paint “Clapton is God” on a wall in Islington, London.
Clapton got his break when he joined The Yardbirds. Later, he became disinterested in their radio-friendly sound and quit. After playing for a stint with John Mayall, Clapton formed the power trio, Cream.
During this phase, Clapton’s style of playing was aggressive. He played a Gibson SG, and the guitar’s dark tone jumped out on their hit “Sunshine of My Love.” But their live recording of “Crossroads” had fans claiming he was of godlike status.
Clapton befriended George Harrison and played the solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” but when he attended an Allman Brothers Band concert, he was impressed with Duane Allman’s slide guitar playing. Clapton invited Duane to play on his next Derek and the Dominos record. Together, they crafted one of rock music’s iconic songs: “Layla.”
Today, Clapton pursues a solo career, has won numerous Grammy Awards and is a three-time inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
1. Jimi Hendrix
Fans and musicians consider Jimi Hendrix one of the best rock guitarists of all time. One reason for this is because of his radical approach to playing guitar.
Hendrix played a right-handed Fender Stratocaster that he turned upside down to play left-handed. He threaded his strings in the usual manner, but because the pickups were in different positions, they altered how his guitar sounded.
The next step that developed his sound was discovering amplifiers made in England by Marshall that allowed Hendrix to create distortion and be loud. Harnessing the Marshall amp to his Strat became a union that would make rock and roll history.
Jimi was one of the first to use showmanship when performing and played behind his back or used his teeth to pick the strings. Because of his forward-thinking technique, musicianship, and songwriting abilities, Hendrix reigns as king of the best guitarists.
We hope you enjoyed our tour through rock history to discover the best guitarists of all time. These musicians shaped their sound using a particular guitar, amp and playing technique.
While this list is anything but final, it’s a good starting point when rounding up the greatest guitarists ever to live, so be sure to check back to see who we add in the future!
Who’s the best guitarist of all time, in your opinion? Leave a comment below.
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