In a close battle with the lead singer, guitarists are generally the most loved and adored members of a band. Those lucky enough to gain a place in this list have become so influential and iconic that in many cases they have completely overshadowed the other members of their respective groups. The rankings in this list was compiled from a Reader’s Poll over at Guitar World, so please direct all your angry retorts and inquiries about the ranking of your favourite guitarist towards them.
25. George Harrison
Though he spent the early part of his career in the shadow of Lennon and McCartney, the legendary Beatle proved to be the band’s secret weapon. Once he moved beyond lacing the tracks with his distinctive, melodic approach, Harrison blossomed as a songwriter in his own right – as his extensive solo career proved. Harrison’s distinctive slide guitar sound and unique guitar was also the envy of close friend Eric ‘Slowhand’ Clapton.
24. Buddy Guy
A highly influential bluesman, Buddy Guy’s live performances are the stuff of legend. His unique, experimental style has been acclaimed by everyone from Jimi Hendrix to John Mayer, and his playing can be heard on the albums of such artists as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.
23. Paul Gilbert
Perhaps less well known than some of the names on this list, Gilbert can legitimately say that he is big in Japan, where his bands Racer X and Mr. Big have achieved the greatest success – he is even “honorary Dean” of the Japanese branch of the Guitar Institute of Technology. One of the fastest guitar players of all time, he also has a series of online tutorials called Rock Guitar School.
A guitarist almost as well-known for his uniform as his playing, Slash is rarely seen without his signature top hat perched on top of his seemingly never cut or brushed hair. Originally playing in “the most dangerous band in the world,” Guns N Roses, he then moved on to form supergroup Velvet Revolver with Scott Weiland from Stone Temple Pilots. He has also written an autobiography, and for a how-to guide on how to live a true rock n roll lifestyle of debauchery and success, there are few better volumes.
21. Angus Young
Well known for his school boy uniform and the frenetic duckwalk of his live show, we can thank the AC/DC guitarist/songwriter for such rock staples as ‘Long Way to The Top’, ‘Thunderstruck’, ‘TNT’ and ‘Highway to Hell.’ Technically from Glasgow, Scotland, he is still proudly upheld by Aussies as one of our country’s greatest musicians of all time.
20. Ritchie Blackmore
With a last name like that, how was Blackmore ever not going to become a metal guitarist? Responsible for probably the most recognisable riff ever with ‘Smoke On the Water’, the Deep Purple/Rainbow guitarist also has quite an impressive back catalogue of renaissance music.
19. James Hetfield
A lot of guitarists may claim that “music saved my life” – but the Metallica guitarist/singer’s life was literally saved by his guitar in 1992 when it took the brunt of an accidental pyrotechnic explosion during the song “Fade To Black,” shielding Hetfield from the blast but depriving obituary writers everywhere of a great pun. It did light virtually his entire left side on fire though, which lends some credence to Metalica’s badass reputation.
18. Zakk Wylde
The road to Rock God status wasn’t easy for the Black Label Society frontman who claims he would practice 12 hours a day during high school. All that practice paid off, and he became best known as Ozzy Osbourne’s right hand man - but perhaps best loved for repeatedly threatening to beat up Fred Durst on national television, when they both appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live. We can only hope he followed through.
17. John Petrucci
The Dream Theater guitarist is known as one of the world’s best and most technical shredders, and also one of the most generous with sharing his considerable knowledge – he has released a book with the secret to his “wild stringdom,” a series of Rock Discipline DVDs, and has also run competitions with the winner getting to attend a master class with the virtuoso himself.
16. Robert Johnson
The original blues master, Robert Johnson was pumping out raw, dirty Mississippi-Delta-blues guitar before most people on this list were born. He lived the classic life of an old-school bluesman, traveling and playing around the country, stopping only for whiskey and women. He is even rumoured to have gained his incredible guitar ability by making a crossroads pact with the devil, who came to collect the price - Johnson’s life - at the young age of 27.
15. Duane Allman
Attending a show from Blues legend B. B. King with brother Gregg inspired Allman to take up the instrument, with the guitarist for The Allman Brothers Band reportedly saying to his brother at the concert “we got to get into this.” And get into it he did, dropping out of high school to focus on his signature slide guitar technique and inventive improvisational skills. The man dubbed ‘Skydog’ has featured on many other Best Guitarists countdowns, including grabbing the #2 spot on the Rolling Stones list in 2003, and 9th position in 2011.
14. Les Paul
Yep, that Les Paul. Probably best known for his invention of the solid-body electric guitar that facilitated the sound of rock ‘n’ roll, Lester William Polsfuss also dabbled with overdubbing, which also proved to be highly essential to the genre. Recording much of his material with wife Mary Ford, Paul is one of the very few artists that can lay claim to having a permanent, stand-alone exhibit in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.
13. David Gilmour
Pink Floyd’s blues-inspired guitarist is known for sustained solos that are often voted in ‘Best Of All Time’ lists, including ‘Comfortably Numb’, ‘Time’ and ‘Money’, all being included on Guitar World’s list of 100 Greatest Guitar Solos. Not content with being one of the greatest axemen of all time, Gilmour is also Pink Floyd’s dominant singer and songwriter, with the band selling a whopping 250 million plus records worldwide.
12. Dave Mustaine
Falling quite a few places from being named #1 Metal Guitarist in Joel McIver’s book The 100 Greatest Metal Guitarists, the founder, songwriter and lead vocalist of Megadeth checks in at Number 12. Speaking about being named as #1 in McIvers book, Mustaine was most enthused with having beaten out Metallica in the list; stating “to be better than both of them (James Hetfield and Kirk Hammet) meant so much – it’s been one of the pet peeves of my career and I’ve never known how to deal with it”. Mustaine will definitely be basking in the glory of again beating out Hetfield in this list, placing seven spots higher than the Metallica guitarist.
11. Randy Rhoads
The guitarist for Quiet Riot, as well as playing for Ozzy Osbourne on occasion, Rhoads combined his studies of classical music with a passion for heavy metal, and became a hugely influential player. Rhoads’ career was unfortunately cut short after passing away in a flying accident when he was only 25 years old.
10. Steve Vai
Formerly a music transcriptionist for Frank Zappa, Vai places 17 spots higher than his old boss. With eight solo albums under his belt and three Grammy wins, he is regarded as a virtuoso and uses his knowledge and technical ability to great effect.
9. Dimebag Darrell
The former guitarist for metal band Pantera had a wide range of influences, including KISS’s Ace Frehley, who Darrell even had a tattooed signature on his chest of, as well as Joe Satriani, Anthrax, Tony Iommi, and Metallica. Following his tragic death after a shooting at a concert, a tribute guitar was released in honour of Darrell, featuring the Dimebag logo and a rusty-metal-style graphic.
8. Stevie Ray Vaughan
Double Trouble’s founder and guitarist found his passion for the instrument at a very young age, beginning to play when only 7-years-old - dropping out of school when he was 17 to pursue a career in music. With blues and jazz influences, this proved to be quite a good decision for Ray Vaughan, winning five W.C. Handy Awards and being inducted into the Blues Hall Of Fame posthumously.
7. Tony Iommi
Employing a “revolutionary signature sound” that is intensely deep and heavy, as well as extremely loud, the Black Sabbath guitarist simply states that the influential British metal band played at this volume “because we were fed up with people talking over us while we were playing”. Iommi also dabbled in the manufacturing of guitars, mainly because he “couldn’t get guitars built the way [he] wanted;” after losing the tips of his middle and ring fingers in an accident on his dominant-playing left hand.
6. Jimmy Page
Former session guitarist, Yardbird, then Led Zeppelin founder and double-necked guitar enthusiast Jimmy Page must be used to placing so highly in these lists, coming in at #2 in Gibson’s list of ‘Top 50 Guitarists Of All Time’ and #4 on Classic Rock Magazine’s ‘100 Wildest Guitar Heroes’ countdown.
5. Joe Satriani
Not content with being one of the most talented and widely acknowledged guitarist of his generation, Satch also taught many others to play during his time as a guitar instructor, including Steve Vai, Larrly LaLonde and Kirk Hammet. The bald-headed virtuoso has received 15 Grammy nominations and sold over 10 million albums worldwide to date.
4. Jimi Hendrix
Probably a lot of people’s pick for the number one spot, Hendrix checks in at #4. The psychedelic pioneer managed a few spots higher in Rolling Stone’s countdown, claiming the top position, while also being inducted into the US Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame posthumously; fair enough, you could say the man invented the way modern electric guitar is played.
3. Alex Lifeson
The Rush guitarist makes a huge jump up this list after placing 98th in Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists. Lifeson plays both electric and acoustic guitars in the Candian power rock trio; while also enjoying many other stringed varieties, including mandola, mandolin and even the under-appreciated bouzouki.
2. Brian May
The big-haired British guitarist is behind an array of iconic Queen tracks, including ‘Tie Your Mother Down’, ‘We Will Rock You’ and ‘I Want It All’, while also dabbling in a bit of astrophysics on the side. May commonly plays a custom guitar he built himself, saying that “the tremolo is interesting in that the arm’s made from an old bicycle saddle bag carrier, the knob at the end’s off a knitting needle and the springs are valve springs from an old motorbike”. A fascination first started when May built his first guitar at age 14. Continuing with the DIY approach, May can also usually be seen using coins instead of a traditional plectrum when performing live.
1. Eddie Van Halen
Guitar World readers voted the Van Halen guitarist as the best of all time, while also voting his solo in ‘Eruption’ as the second best ever (behind Page’s solo in ‘Stairway To Heaven’). Iconic for his use of two-handed tapping, natural harmonics and tremolo picking, Van Halen played his very own creation, dubbed the ‘Frankenstrat’. Van Halen has described his overall tone as a “brown sound” that is “a feeling that [he is] always working at.”
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