The 30 Most Badass Guitarists of All Time
Guitar players are the coolest creatures on this planet.
Don’t believe us? Consider Buddy Holly. Take away his guitar and he might as well be Melvin Poindexter, full-time accountant and part-time carnival geek. Give him a Stratocaster and suddenly he’s dumping Peggy Sue Gerron and shacking up with Maria Elena Santiago, una caliente Latina!
In fact, guitarists are on a whole different planet when it comes to defining cool. When you play guitar, you can get away with all kinds of acts normal people could never attempt. Face it: An ordinary dude could not walk down the street wearing a leopard-skin jacket, high-heel cowboy boots, flowing silk scarves and dozens of silver bangles without getting beaten up within minutes.
But put a guitar case in that dude’s hands and suddenly grown men want to buy him a drink, and ladies slip him their phone numbers. Or try doing Chuck Berry’s famous duck walk without a guitar; people will think you’re mental. But do it with a guitar and they’ll pelt you with a sea of money and panties.
Since guitar players are automatically cool, that means cool guitar players are the coolest of the cool. In this issue, we exalt this elite class of cold—the players who even we would sell our wives and first born just to have some of their mojo rub off on us. Some of them are pioneers who paved a bold, daring path to define new styles of cool, while others are simply the kind of guitarists we want to be when we never grow up (which is part of being cool).
These people are the real reason why the guitar remains the world’s most popular instrument, so let’s all raise our headstocks and give them a 21-power-chord salute.
Born August 3, 1963
Iconic Guitar 1984 Gibson Explorer
Coolest Riff “Leper Messiah” — Master of Puppets
Most metal guitarists would kill to have half of the power and precision of James Hetfield’s right hand, not to mention his ability to write the most devastating riffs known to mankind, from “Seek and Destroy” and “Creeping Death” to “Enter Sandman.” Of course, most musicians with skills comparable to Hetfield’s have such big egos that they become the targets of our murderous intentions. That’s not the case with Hetfield.
Years of hard-earned success and fame have not changed his down-to-earth attitude. Even though he has become one of the world’s richest rock stars, he hasn’t married a supermodel or become a pompous art collector. Instead, he’s remained true to his working-class roots, spending his spare time building incredibly cool kustom cars and cruising the streets with his car club buddies, the Beatniks of Koolsville.
His kustom masterpieces like “Slow Burn” (a 1936 Auburn boat-tail speedster), “Skyscraper” (a 1953 Buick Skylark) and his daily driver known as “The Grinch” (a 1952 Oldsmobile) are drivable works of art that defy the bland Toyota Priuses, Lexuses and Land Rover SUVs of his Northern California environs like a stiff middle-finger salute wearing a skull ring.
Born August 21, 1952 (died December 22, 2002)
Band The Clash, Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros
Iconic Guitar 1968 Fender Telecaster
Coolest Riff "Train in Vain" — London Calling
Joe Strummer was far from the most proficient rhythm guitarist in punk rock, and his tone was often downright wimpy.
Yet you’d never find a punk rocker who didn’t want to be just like him. Whereas most punk guitarists found inspiration from the same hard rock and proto-metal players that they pretended to despise, Strummer was influenced by reggae, rockabilly, soul, ska and even early New York rap music when most of the world still hadn’t heard of the Sugarhill Gang.
Those influences helped him develop a truly unique rhythm guitar style that no one has been able to duplicate since. Perhaps the coolest thing about Joe Strummer is no one could ever predict what he would do next. In 1981, the Clash played 17 consecutive nights at the 3,500-capacity Bond’s International Casino nightclub in Manhattan, but when they returned to New York the next year they played two sold-out shows at Shea Stadium as an opening act for the Who.
Julien Temple’s documentary, Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, reveals what many would perceive as Strummer’s flaws: from his hippie squatter roots to the way he dissed former bandmates during the Clash’s last gasps. But ultimately, Strummer was a man who simply did wanted he wanted to do without giving a shit what anybody else thought.
SLASH & IZZY STRADLIN
Born July 23, 1965 (Slash); April 8, 1962 (Izzy)
Band Guns N' Roses
Iconic Guitar 1985 Gibson Les Paul Standard (Slash); Gibson ES-175 (Izzy)
Coolest Riff "Welcome to the Jungle" — Appetite for Destruction
Rock music has produced some memorable tandem guitar teams: Keef and Ronnie, Angus and Malcolm, Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing to name a few.
But Slash and Izzy Stradlin, with the original lineup of Guns N’ Roses, have to go down as one of the coolest duos ever. Gutter rats Slash and Izzy had just enough yin and yang going on to provide the color and contrast that made them more than the ordinary lead and rhythm guitar team.
Both loved similar bands, like Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin, but Izzy’s tastes leaned more toward groove-oriented bands like the Rolling Stones and the Doors, with a healthy dose of punk rock thrown in, while Slash loved guitar heroes like Michael Schenker and Jeff Beck.
The combination of Slash’s rough-edged pyrotechnic solos and Izzy’s raw power chords and off-kilter rhythms resulted in an unusual mish-mash with massive crossover appeal that metalheads, punks, glam poseurs, pop fans and classic rockers loved alike. Slash and Izzy also made vintage guitars cool again, strapping on Gibson Les Pauls, Telecasters and ES-175 hollowbodies when most guitarists were playing DayGlo superstrats, pointy metal weapons or minimalist headstock-less Stein-bortions.
Balding guitar players also have Slash and Izzy to thank for making hats fashionable rocker attire during a time when big hair was all the rage.
Born November 27, 1942 (died September 18, 1970)
Band The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Band of Gypsys
Iconic Guitar Fender Stratocaster
Coolest Riff "Machine Gun" — Band of Gypsys
Most guitarists view the guitar in terms of scales to master and tones to tame, but Jimi Hendrix viewed the instrument as an open canvas for his imagination, pulling sounds out of his Stratocaster and Marshall stacks that no one previously knew the guitar was capable of making.
The first guitarist to chain effect pedals together, Hendrix combined their tones and textures with whammy bar squeals and growls and unorthodox playing techniques to make the guitar sound like a symphony, animals, armies or the far reaches of outer space. While most Sixties psychedelic music was banal bubblegum pop with fuzz-tone guitar hooks, Hendrix made music that actually sounded like a trip after ingesting a cocktail of LSD, mushrooms and THC.
What makes Hendrix stand out is how he could play chilling, beautiful music without the sonic bombast as well. Naked, unadorned songs like “Little Wing” and “Red House” still burn with intensity even without sound effects and studio trickery, showing Jimi’s uncanny ability to speak through his instrument.
His playing shocked, awed and frightened even Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, who still view Hendrix as some sort of supernatural, mythical being. Of course, they may have also been scared of how Jimi could make even a puffy shirt and a marching band jacket look fashionable.
EDDIE VAN HALEN
Born January 26, 1955
Band Van Halen
Iconic Guitar Homemade "Frankenstein" Strat
Coolest Riff "Panama"—1984
Eddie Van Halen forever changed the way that the guitar is made and played, but that’s not why he’s cool. Sure, he’s single-handedly responsible for the whole hot-rodded guitar and amp phenomenon that brought companies like Jackson and Charvel fortune, techs like Jose Arredondo and Lee Jackson fame and inventors like Floyd Rose immortality.
Yes, he perfected the two-handed tapping technique that made the guitar sound like a fucking synthesizer. And, okay, he crafted a legendary sound that guitarists are still trying to duplicate today. But what makes Eddie cool is his attitude—especially how he makes work seem like it takes no effort at all.
While he could put out an album of his farts or slap his name on any shitty guitar and still make millions, he is a painstaking perfectionist who spent years agonizing over every minute detail of his EVH Wolfgang guitar and EVH 5150 III amp before offering it to the public and who has refused to release a new Van Halen album until he feels it’s ready.
Even after splitting with Valerie Bertinelli after 26 years of marriage, surviving battles with alcohol and cancer and enduring the presence of David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar for most of the last 38 years, nothing has wiped the big, warm, friendly smile off of his face.
Born May 2, 1929 (died November 5, 2005)
Band Link Wray and the Ray Men, Robert Gordon
Iconic Guitar Supro Dual Tone
Coolest Riff "Run Chicken Run" — Rumble: The Best of Link Wray
Back in 1958, most guitarists and guitar amp designers tried to avoid distortion. Not Link Wray. When he recorded his instrumental “Rumble,” Wray poked holes in the tweeters of his Premier Model 71 amp to make it sound even more nasty and distorted than it could on its own.
A direct line can be drawn from “Rumble” to “My Generation,” “Anarchy in the U.K.” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The song is often credited as the origin of the power chord, but it also heralded the transformation of rock from the music of youth to the soundtrack of juvenile delinquency. Several radio stations banned “Rumble” because they thought it was too sexy, raunchy and violent. Wray even dressed like a juvenile delinquent, embellishing his greasy black pompadour with a leather jacket, jeans and shades at a time when most white rock and rollers still took fashion cues from Perry Como and Bing Crosby.
Wray kept the hits coming through the Sixties, issuing singles like “Jack the Ripper,” “Ace of Spades,” the manic “Run Chicken Run,” the appropriately titled “The Fuzz” and the coolest version of the Batman theme ever. Wray rocked hard until the end, playing his last gig only four months before he passed away at the age of 76.
Born October 8, 1948 (died September 15, 2004)
Band The Ramones
Iconic Guitar Mosrite Ventures II
Coolest Riff "Blitzkrieg Bop" — Ramones
If ever there were a forensic investigation to identify the true biological father of punk rock guitar, all DNA evidence would point clearly to Johnny Ramone. The guitar style that people most associate with punk—briskly downpicked barre chords executed with blinding precision at breakneck tempos and marshaled in service of concise catchy song structures—is the invention, progeny and proud legacy of the man born John Cummings on Long Island, New York.
Johnny was a strange case, a rock and roll outsider who was obsessed with uniformity. And that obsession helped forge the Ramones aesthetic: the identikit leather jackets and ripped jeans worn by each band member, the single surname shared by all four (in the absence of any actual familial kinship) and the terse pacing of the music itself, with not a single excessive note or lyrical utterance.
It all added up to a cartoonish minimalism that struck a vital cultural nerve when the Ramones burst out of Manhattan’s Lower East Side CBGB scene in the mid Seventies. They were the perfect antidote to the bloated self-indulgence of Seventies arena rock and the tendency—a hangover from the hippie era—for rock and rock musicians to take themselves way too seriously. The Ramones were passionate about rock, without ever being pompous.
Their songs cut right to the melodic and rhythmic core of great rock and roll. Johnny contributed song ideas and slashing guitar arrangements, but he also kept the whole thing on the rails. A straight guy in a world of addicts, perverts, weirdoes and psychos, Johnny’s politics were dubious. But, like Mussolini, he made the Ramones’ rock and roll train run on time for more than two decades. John Cummings passed from this life in 2004 after a five-year fight with prostate cancer.
But in the clashing clangor of Green Day, Rancid, Blink-182 and the next bunch of punk rock misfits rehearsing in some basement or garage, Johnny Ramone lives on.
Born October 29, 1949
Band Iggy and the Stooges, Iggy Pop
Iconic Guitar Gibson Les Paul Custom
Coolest Riff "Search and Destroy"—Raw Power (Iggy and the Stooges)
James Williamson was the man who facilitated Iggy Pop’s transition from self-lacerating Stooges frontman to solo artist, icon and all-around elder statesman of punk. In a way, Williamson was the only man for the job. He shared Iggy and the Stooges’ Detroit garage rock roots and was a friend of Stooges founding guitarist Ron Asheton during the mid Sixties.
But he also had his act way more together than any of the Stooges during their cataclysmic heyday. By the early Seventies, the Stooges were two albums into their career and starting to come apart at the seams due to myriad drug problems and an overall lack of widespread commercial acceptance of their music.
Williamson injected new life into the group, bringing an ideal balance of discipline and frenzy, best heard on the group’s 1973 disc Raw Power, the album that launched thousands of punk and post punk bands. “I’m his biggest fan,” the legendary Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr once said of Williamson. “He has the technical ability of Jimmy Page without being as studious and the swagger of Keith Richards without being sloppy. He’s both demonic and intellectual, almost how you would imagine Darth Vader to sound if he was in a band.”
Williamson went on to produce and play on Iggy’s classic solo 1979 album New Values, which features gems like “I’m Bored” and “Five Foot One.” The guitarist also played a key role on the follow-up disc, Soldier, anchoring a punk rock all-star lineup that included ex-Pistol Glen Matlock, Ivan Kral from the Patti Smith Band and Barry Adamson from Magazine. Shortly after Soldier, Williamson took a hiatus from rock to study electronic engineering, becoming Vice President of Technology and Standards for Sony.
When Ron Asheton died, Williamson took an early retirement from Sony and returned to his rightful place as the Stooges’ guitarist. Their new album, Ready to Die, came out this year.
Born July 30, 1936
Band Solo, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy & Junior Wells
Iconic Guitar 1957 sunburst Fender Stratocaster, polka-dot Buddy Guy signature Fender Strats
Coolest Riff "The First Time I Met the Blues" — Can't Quit the Blues
Buddy Guy is our greatest living link to blues tradition—a man who sat and played with immortals like Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Willie Dixon and Otis Spann, and who still climbs up onstage at events like the Crossroads Festival to jam with greats such as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Carlos Santana, not to mention newcomers like John Mayer.
Clapton himself has repeatedly called Guy “the greatest living guitarist.” Hendrix literally knelt at Buddy’s feet in the late Sixties, the better to study his riffs. Guy’s secret? He combines an old-time blues feel with the technical facility of a modern guitar player. He was a youngster at the legendary Chess Records in early Sixties Chicago. Fresh up from Lettsworth, Louisiana, Guy was some 20 years junior to giants like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, yet old enough and gifted enough to share the studio with them.
And when Cream, Hendrix and Led Zeppelin brought amped-up guitar hysteria to the fore, Buddy was still in his prime, ready, able and eager to join the fray. He’s still going strong today, an inspiration—and intimidation—to all who would strap on an electric guitar and dive deep into the mighty river that is the blues.
Born July 15, 1952 (died April 23, 1991)
Band New York Dolls, the Heartbreakers, Gang War
Iconic Guitar Gibson Les Paul Jr.
Coolest Riff "Chinese Rocks" — Blank Generation: The New York Scene (1975-78) (The Heartbreakers)
Johnny Thunders’ snot-nosed New York take on Keith Richards’ cool is one of the pillars on which punk rock was built. An Italian-American guy (birth name John Anthony Genzale Jr.) from Queens, he was born a little too late to be part of the Sixties rock explosion. But the bands of that era were his influences, and he put his own spin on them in the early Seventies as the New York Dolls came together with Thunders on lead guitar.
Thunders had the riffs to match the glam-trash group’s mascara. He took rock guitar and cooked it down to its essence, playing open chords and switchblade riffs that laid bare the amphetamine urgency behind the Dolls’ concise, catchy tunes. The Dolls had split up by the time punk rock got underway in New York and London, but their influence was profoundly felt on both shores.
Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols has repeatedly cited Thunders as a major influence, Dee Dee Ramone was a friend, colleague and drug brother, and Richard Hell played alongside him in the Heartbreakers. While Thunders shared Keith Richards’ appetite for excess, he sadly was not blessed with Keef’s monumental endurance.
Thunders died in New Orleans in 1991 under mysterious, although most likely drug-related, circumstances.
Born December 18, 1943
Band The Rolling Stones, the X-Pensive Winos
Iconic Guitar 1953 Fender Telecaster Coolest Riff “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” — Out of Our Heads
Keith Richards has made living on the edge his life’s mission. Grinning blissfully—and blatantly stoned—from mid-Sixties picture sleeves, lean and lanky, swathed in flowing scarves and stylish shades, he defined the look, the attitude and the swagger essential to the vocation of rock guitarist.
From day one, his playing asserted the primacy of riffs and rhythm as the structural backbone of rock music. Following his lead, an entire generation discovered the ancient mysteries of the blues and learned to cultivate a little sympathy for the devil. Effortlessness is the key to Keef’s cool.
He’s sauntered down through the decades unfazed by stints in jail and hospital, heroin addiction, assorted femmes fatales, copious boozing, rampaging Hells Angels and assaults from fellow icons like Chuck Berry and Peter Tosh. Unconstrained by the grinding gradations of clock, calendar, public morality or legal prohibition, he has defined life on his own terms.
The same lawless sense of effortlessness defines his playing. Guitar slung low, cigarette dangling from his lip, he’s never hyper, never tries too hard and always swings free of such limited concepts as lead versus rhythm. This is what enables him to get down to the raw truth of the groove.
Born April 23, 1936 (died December 6, 1988)
Band Solo, the Traveling Wilburys
Iconic Guitar Gibson ES-335
Classic Riff “Oh, Pretty Woman”—The Essential Roy Orbison
Most people think of Roy Orbison as the super-smooth crooner who sang songs like “Crying,” “In Dreams” and “Only the Lonely.” But Orbison was also a wicked guitar player, who ripped out several impressive solos on early Sun Records singles like “Ooby Dooby.” In fact, Sun owner Sam Phillips was more impressed with Orbison’s guitar playing than his singing during the early days of the rocker’s career.
Although Orbison’s good friend and Sun Records labelmate Johnny Cash may be known as “the Man in Black,” Orbison habitually dressed from head to toe in black in the early Sixties, a decade before Cash adopted his dark uniform. Even Orbison’s raven hair and impenetrable jet Ray-Bans were blacker than the cover to Spinal Tap’s Smell the Glove, adding to his alluring persona as a mysterious, brooding artiste.
By 1964, most of Orbison’s early rock and roll contemporaries were either dead, strung-out on drugs, in jail or making crappy movies, but Orbison’s musical career still hadn’t reached its peak. In between the ballads, he recorded singles like “Mean Woman Blues” (check his wild guitar solo) and “Oh, Pretty Woman” that showed upstarts like the Beatles, the Animals and the Rolling Stones that Americans still could rock harder than any Brit.
Born April 3, 1962
Bands Social Distortion, Easter, solo
Iconic Guitar 1971 Gibson Les Paul gold top with Seymour Duncan P-90s
Coolest Riff “Ball and Chain”—Social Distortion
Bull necked and heavily tattooed, Mike Ness is not the kind of guy you’d want to mess with. The Southern California guitarist, singer and songwriter has known good times and bad, punching his way out of a serious drug addiction in the mid Eighties. He has funneled these experiences into some of the most hard-hitting, plain-dealing rock songs to come out of the SoCal punk milieu. Ness launched Social Distortion in 1978.
Initially a hardcore act—in fact one of the most vital bands on the Orange County beach town/skater hardcore scene—Social Distortion morphed over the years into a vehicle for Ness’ ever-evolving narrative songwriting gift, dedicated to a few simple-but-slamming guitar chords and lyrics that recount life’s hard lessons.
An avid skateboarder and hot-rod enthusiast, Ness epitomizes working-class Southern Californian culture. Springsteen comparisons are always dangerous, but the Boss did appear on Ness’ 1999 solo disc Cheating at Solitaire. Springsteen also named Social Distortion’s Heaven and Hell as his favorite record of 1992. Brian Setzer is another kindred spirit and musical collaborator. Ness is one skate punk kid who has stood the test of time.
Born November 4, 1956 (died June 16, 1982)
Band The Pretenders
Iconic Guitar 1980 custom metal-front Zemaitis
Coolest Riff “Tattooed Love Boys”—The Pretenders
James Honeyman-Scott’s moment in the spotlight was far too brief. He recorded only two albums with the Pretenders before he died of heart failure, but those tracks revealed incredible talent and versatility that quickly made him the most revered guitarist to emerge during the early days of post-punk new wave.
Honeyman-Scott’s solos were concise and economical, getting the point across in only a few measures. His solo on “Kid” is a pop song unto itself that evokes the Beatles’ finest melodic moments, while his three- and four-second bursts on “Tattooed Love Boys” unleash more emotion, fire and style than most guitarists can convey in an extended 15-minute solo.
Unlike most new wave guitarists at the dawn of the Eighties, Honeyman-Scott had impeccable fashion sense. He always maintained a timeless detached rocker look, and his aviator shades, medium-length shag haircut, suit jacket and jeans attire never really went out of style, unlike the geometric haircuts and DayGlo suits that many of his contemporaries wore. He always played the coolest guitars onstage as well, from classic Gibson Les Pauls and Firebirds to custom-made Hamers and Zemaitis metal-front guitars.
He even married a model with coolest imaginable name for a guitarist’s girlfriend—Peggy Sue Fender.
Born April 10, 1959
Bands Stray Cats, Brian Setzer Orchestra
Iconic Guitar 1959 Gretsch 6120
Coolest Riff “Runaway Boys”—Stray Cats
Most musicians who revive a musical style from the past are like classic-car restorers, refusing to modify it in any way and insisting on keeping it exactly as it was back in the day. Brian Setzer is more like a hot rodder, keeping certain essential elements as a foundation but updating them with a lot more power, speed and style.
With the Stray Cats he made rockabilly sound as dangerous as punk, and his fleet-fingered solos impressed even the most technically minded metalheads. He pulled off a similar feat in the Nineties with the Brian Setzer Orchestra, making big-band jazz appealing to rockers.
Although Gretsch went out of business and ceased making guitars about the same time that the Stray Cats emerged, Setzer helped bring the company back to life by showing players just how cool Gretsch guitars could sound. As a result, Setzer was the first artist since Chet Atkins to be honored with his own signature-model Gretsch guitar.
For those of us who dread Christmas music, Setzer’s holiday collections with the Brian Setzer Orchestra provide relief, giving guitar fans plenty of shredding solos to enjoy in between schmaltzy verses about figgy pudding and some fat, creepy man in red velvet pajamas.
Born January 23, 1910 (died May 16, 1953)
Band Quintette du Hot Club de France
Iconic Guitar Selmer Modèle Jazz
Coolest Riff “Mystery Pacific”—The Very Best of Django Reinhardt
Electric guitarists like Charlie Christian and T-Bone Walker rightfully get a lot of credit for introducing the concept of the single-string electric guitar solo, but many historians forget that Belgian Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt was shredding the strings a few years before those gents—and he didn’t need electricity.
The acoustic solos Reinhardt recorded with the Quintet of the Hot Club of France between 1936 and 1940 are simply astounding displays of virtuosity, melodic taste and speed that left indelible impressions on players throughout several generations, including Les Paul, Jimmy Page and Michael Angelo Batio. Django didn’t even need all four fretting fingers either, using only two left hand fingers to play complicated chords and hyperspeed solos (his third and fourth fingers were badly burned in a fire).
Django’s “handicap” later inspired Tony Iommi and Jerry Garcia to keep playing guitar after they permanently injured their fretting hands. Django lived life as hard and fast as he played guitar. A notorious gambler, drinker, gourmand and womanizer, he died of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 43, but his solos continue to awe players today.