As far back as the 1950s, guitarists such as Link Wray, Hank Marvin, Grant Green and Giovanni Paolo Foscarini (look him up!) taught us compelling guitar-based music doesn’t require vocals or lyrics.
To celebrate the release of new Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and Animals As Leaders albums – not to mention the arrival of fresh Polyphia material – we offer up a guide to 30 (technically 31!) hard-working instro-centric guitarists whose solos are worth at least a thousand words.
Among our list are trailblazers who assembled the blueprint for every player who followed, those who took the formula to new, altogether faster heights during the shred era, and the next generation of players shaping guitar-forward music in their own progressive image.
Here’s what makes each of them such instrumental inspirations – we’ve even snagged a few pro tips along the way…
1. Joe Satriani
Much like his old student Steve Vai, Joe Satriani’s influence has echoed in the waves of guitarists that have come after him.
His ear for big, bluesy hooks and liquid legato lines set him apart early on – as evidenced by the enduring popularity of his solo albums like Surfing with the Alien, Flying in a Blue Dream and The Extremist, his session work with Mick Jagger and, in more recent years, his achievements in supergroup Chickenfoot.
“Context is everything,” he once told me. “It’s all about how you apply the artistry. It has to make sense [at] that moment in time. Imagine you’re playing music for a scene in a film with a cute baby walking toward the camera. You wouldn’t play the most grotesque and dissonant notes possible, right?
“But what if that baby was covered in blood and had a huge knife in its hand? That’s totally different! I can’t say flat nines always sound bad… they sound perfectly beautiful in Phrygian or Phrygian dominant. But if you play a C# when everyone else is in C major and you are going to stick out. There’s the context!”
LISTEN NOW: Cryin’, Flying in a Blue Dream, Nineteen Eighty
2. Tosin Abasi and Javier Reyes
Few players of the last decade or so have felt quite as innovative as Tosin Abasi, whose use of extended-range instruments and thumb-slap techniques have blurred the lines between guitar and bass in the most mesmerizing ways.
There’s so much low-end info in his lines, as well as those of Animals As Leaders co-guitarist Javier Reyes, that there’s no need for a bass player in the band. Why bother when you have two eight-strings?
Though their early albums were more rooted in tech-metal, 2014’s The Joy of Motion saw the trio expanding more upon their fusion influences, and with stunning results. This year’s fifth studio album, Parrhesia, stands as one of the best instrumental rock albums of 2022.
LISTEN NOW: Physical Education, Arithmophobia
3. Donna Grantis
The name Donna Grantis may sit among the more obscure in this list, but her credentials speak for themselves. In 2012, the Canadian guitarist was hired by Prince as part of his 3rdeyegirl trio, touring around the world and eventually releasing the chart-topping Plectrumelectrum, as well being involved in the late funk star’s New Power Generation supergroup.
“Donna can whup every man on guitar, bar none,” said the Purple One at the time. After his passing in 2016, Grantis started working on her Diamonds & Dynamite solo debut of 2019 – channeling Jimi Hendrix at his most experimental via the jazz rock wizardry of John McLaughlin and Jeff Beck, and even roping in Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready for two tracks.
LISTEN NOW: Elsa, Lioness
4. Nick Johnston
Out of the newer generation of instrumental fusion rock players, Schecter endorsee Nick Johnston is certainly one of the most revered.
The Canadian virtuoso seems to have the perfect blend of tone and phrasing, generally sticking with single coils on low gain to bring out the nuances encased within his stunning usage of legato and hybrid picking.
But more than anything else, it’s his note choices that have elevated him far – often lingering on the less-expected outside notes for full dramatic tension before reining it back in.
LISTEN NOW: Atomic Mind, Remarkably Human
5. Steve Vai
Many game-changing guitarists emerged during the ’80s, though none felt quite as revolutionary as Steve Vai.
After a period of playing with stadium rock royalty like Whitesnake and David Lee Roth, he released his second solo album, Passion and Warfare, in 1990, not only embracing the unconventional in his approach to guitar but also the music framing it – using a wide range of instrumentation to bring his otherworldly manifestations to life.
Where perhaps other shred heroes of the same era may be more connected to blues or harmonic minor scales, Vai’s creativity with the Lydian mode in particular is one of many things that set him apart.
LISTEN NOW: Blue Powder, Tender Surrender, Teeth of the Hydra
6. Guthrie Govan
The term “best guitarist in the world” is thrown around a little too loosely, but if there was a player who’s been able to realize the full creative potential of their instrument time and time again, and in a whole variety of styles, it’s Guthrie Govan.
There’s been endless praise for how Govan has conquered just about every technique on guitar and at blistering speeds, but it’s the fusion maestro’s impeccable note choices and phrasing that have made him undoubtedly one of the finest to ever pick up the six-string.
The UK virtuoso released Erotic Cakes in 2006, an album that’s often regarded as the greatest instrumental rock album of the last two decades, though there’s never been a follow-up, only adding to the record’s cult status.
Since then, Govan has been busy working as a session musician, with stints playing for artists as diverse as Hans Zimmer, Steven Wilson and Dizzee Rascal, as well as recording and touring with the Aristocrats.
“Listen to those bluegrass licks that feel like 16th notes forever; the excitement for me is almost like watching someone run down a steep hill trying not to trip over. But those outside notes operate in the same way when it comes to bebop licks or Bach partitas for solo violin.
“You notice there’s a template, almost skeletal version of the line. Look at the notes falling in important parts of the musical pulse; generally those are the nice notes reinforcing the chord you’re listening to. In between, the chromatic notes add to its sense of movement. I guess if you listen to enough chromatic notes, you start to like them!”
LISTEN NOW: Wonderful Slippery Thing, The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde
7. Yvette Young
Few guitarists since Eddie Van Halen have managed to make two-handed techniques look and sound quite as impressive as Covet guitarist Yvette Young, who has delved deep inside her piano past to carve her own identity as a guitarist.
Then there’s her use of altered tunings – approaching electric guitar in ways very similar to a modern fingerstyle acoustic player, using myriad taps, harmonics and open strings to turn her instrument into what can feel like an orchestra.
“I always put emphasis on trying to create a compelling melody that tells a good story,” she says. “I try to enhance the meaning of the story I want to tell… by selectively coloring in parts of the song with different effects. I also make sure the riffs are strong.
“If a riff is good enough, you can actually just repeat it through an entire song without people noticing. You can even vary it up rhythmically or dynamically (with effects) to keep it from going stale too. I sing all my parts first before I can play them – this way I ensure that I’m writing the music that wants to be written rather than let comfort or habit of shapes dictate what I write.”
LISTEN NOW: Shibuya, Ares
Bands like Periphery and Animals As Leaders have led the charge in tech-metal over the last decade or so, using complicated patterns and rhythms to take their music in new directions.
Australian guitarist Plini may well be one of the newer names within that scene, but although he’s only two albums in, he’s already one of its brightest-burning stars.
“If I told you the secret to making good instrumental music, it wouldn’t be a secret,” Plini tells us. “But I think for me, the key is focusing on the ‘music’ part, rather than the ‘guitar’ part. Of course, there will be moments where I want to remind the listener that I’ve spent almost 20 years playing guitar in my bedroom, but mostly, the goal is to use guitar proficiency as one tool among many to find meaningful emotions to express and stories to tell.
“When I was getting into the electric guitar, I got the Anthology compilation albums of Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, and that sent me on a wild journey. Between those two, there are many examples of just about everything that can be done technically, tonally, harmonically... and all within the context of great songwriting. More recently, Animals As Leaders and Tigran Hamasyan have inspired me to always look for new musical territory to explore.”
LISTEN NOW: Electric Sunrise, Papelillo
9. Omar Rodríguez-López
Though the At the Drive-In and Mars Volta guitarist is mainly known for music with vocals, a sizable portion of his solo material actually falls under the instrumental bracket.
His take on the six-string is one that’s very different from the other players in this list, with more of an emphasis on effects and ambience as colors to create moods.
His 2010 album with John Frusciante in particular is a potently psychedelic affair, twisting acoustic and electric atmospheres into kaleidoscopic lullabies that ease the listener into stupendous, otherworldly delights.
LISTEN NOW: Zim, O
10. Eric Johnson
Though he’s not always been strictly instrumental over his career, Eric Johnson’s impact on music with the guitar at the forefront cannot be overstated.
Emerging during the mid-’80s, at a time when guitar acrobatics and breakneck speeds were very much the plat du jour, Johnson chose to focus more on the melodic content of his creative endeavors – drawing heavily from his knowledge of chordal theory and blues scales.
However, that’s not to say his approach is minimalistic by any stretch. His mastery of two-note-per-string pentatonics at high velocity is staggering, which is why albums like Ah Via Musicom and Venus Isle have become a huge source of inspiration for modern blues players like Joe Bonamassa, Eric Gales and many more.
“When you look at a piano, you see more of an unlimited potential,” he once told me. “[Guitar] seems smaller and more confined. The fretboard looks tiny compared to an 88-key piano. But we can decide how much we adhere to those confinements by pushing outside of them.
“If you listen to piano players, you can figure out their voicings and recreate it on guitar. You can push things wider than would apparently seem possible by imagining at the fretboard as something that is unlimited.”
LISTEN NOW: Cliffs of Dover, Manhattan
11. Nita Strauss
Though she cut her teeth playing in the Iron Maidens, which led to a spot in Alice Cooper’s band, it feels like Nita Strauss’ true arrival came in 2018 when she unveiled her instrumental solo debut, Controlled Chaos.
Fusing elements of metalcore with a neoclassical shred style that cheekily nods to her family roots – with ties to Austrian composer Johann Strauss on her father’s side – she’s become one of the most prominent guitar heroes of the modern age.
Her second album, slated for release later this year, will see her switching things up a bit with an even split between instrumentals and vocal-led pieces, including last year’s Dead Inside with Disturbed frontman David Draiman.
LISTEN NOW: Alegria, Our Most Desperate Hour
12. Julian Lage
Since releasing his Grammy-nominated Sounding Point debut in 2009, California guitarist Julian Lage has gone from strength to strength – establishing himself as one of the most talented and prolific jazz players to emerge in recent times.
On his many recordings, which include collaborations with Yoko Ono, John Zorn and Virgil Donati, every note screams class and control – with a distinguishable sense of restraint to focus on saying more with less.
This year, he unveiled his latest album, Squint, through legendary record label Blue Note – as well as the 470 JL, his new signature hollowbody with Collings Guitars.
LISTEN NOW: Boo’s Blues, Etude
13. Mike Sullivan
“It’s important to keep things minimal in order to leave room for your bandmates to add their own elements to the song,” says Mike Sullivan of post-rock trio Russian Circles, a band who certainly know a thing or two about instrumental dynamics and atmospherics.
“If you can’t hum the melody, it’s likely too busy or overly complicated. Play with dynamics by lowering your volume or distortion… maybe even don’t play anything at all!
“One thing I learned over the years is if you’re returning to a part of a song, introduce some sort of variation when it recurs, so the song has a sense of forward movement and growth. Don’t just repeat a part verbatim… introduce a new texture or harmony.”
LISTEN NOW: Youngblood, Mládek
14. Mateus Asato
Admittedly the Brazilian guitarist may not have actually released anything “officially” as of yet, but it only takes a quick look at Asato’s YouTube channel to appreciate why he’s become one of the most widely respected guitarists of the
The Suhr endorsee’s instrumental compositions and dependably tasteful online performances have won him attention far and wide, even landing him session work on stadiums around the world with pop stars such as Bruno Mars, Jessie J and Tori Kelly.
LISTEN NOW: The Pain, Bells
15/16. Tim Henson and Scott LePage
Controversially taking guitar to a future without “boomer bends” and drawing influence from electronic and hip-hop worlds far beyond that of typical six-string noise, it’s crystal-clear that Polyphia pair Tim Henson and Scott LePage have strong ideas about how guitars should sound in the modern age.
Whether you agree with them or not, sticking to said guns is working out very well for them indeed, with both players being awarded their own Ibanez signatures and even jamming alongside the likes of Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Paul Gilbert at the Ibanez 2020 NAMM Show showcase.
“We’re kinda just doing whatever the fuck we want,” said Henson in a conversation we had in 2018. “There’s shit on our albums that’s probably pretty out there! [Laughs] There are a lot more genres now.
“People just do wacky shit with music, and that probably makes the kids more open-minded these days. The funny thing is none of us can rap. The only thing we can do is play guitar, so the music we make is rap music through guitars… it’s almost like a mixture of the two.”
LISTEN NOW: G.O.A.T., 40oz
17. Mark Lettieri
Heading up the new wave of funk alongside Cory Wong, multiple Grammy winner Mark Lettieri is also one hell of a fusion player, with no shortage of interesting ideas up his sleeve.
Last year’s Deep: The Baritone Sessions Vol. 2 proved once again just how versatile he is – knocking out monster grooves and mouth-watering licks in the lower register. 2021 also saw the arrival of his first instrument, the PRS Fiore.
There’s no one secret to creating instrumental music, he tells GW, other than sticking to clear and purposeful compositions.
“It’s easy to try and cram as many ideas as possible into one song, when sometimes it’s probably better to just write three different songs,” Lettieri says. “Even if the sections you’ve come up with are all good individually, it doesn’t always mean they’re going to work collectively.
“Forcing ideas together can result in a song that sounds disjointed or scattered. With funk, or other groove-based forms of instrumental music, one thing to be wary of is the density of the arrangement, and this is something I’m constantly refining with my own music. There has to be room for the instruments to breathe as that ‘space’ is where the groove and vibe really resides.”
LISTEN NOW: Seuss Pants, Goonsquad
18. Matteo Mancuso
It’s not often you hear Joe Bonamassa describing another guitarist as “the one guy who freaks him out” – or Tosin Abasi doffing his cap to “a virtuoso beyond virtuosos”, but then again Matteo Mancuso is far from your average player.
The 25-year-old Sicilian started out on classical before switching to electric for more jazz and fusion-based musings – as demonstrated by his jaw-dropping covers of Guthrie Govan, Allan Holdsworth and Joe Pass on Instagram. Instead of using a pick, however, he chose to continue work in pure fingerstyle, using flamenco techniques to hit mind-boggling levels of speed.
LISTEN NOW: Time to Leave, Past Language
19. Mike Dawes
Following in the footsteps of fingerstyle masters like Michael Hedges, Tommy Emmanuel and Andy McKee, UK guitarist Mike Dawes had become one of the rising stars of modern acoustic.
In 2020, his solo rearrangement of Van Halen’s Jump became an Internet sensation for its ingenious mix of synth lines, vocal melodies, guitar leads and rhythms. He points to Pierre Bensusan and Joe Satriani as early inspirations for big melodic hooks.
“Growing up on the music of players like that, I was always drawn to strong melody with creative harmony,” Dawes says. “One tip I learned from touring with Tommy Emmanuel is that writing lyrics for your instrumental tune can be a great way to create a meaningful topline. If you’re trying to write instrumental music, use your ears, not your eyes or any dumb social media metric.
“Timeless music creates an emotional response far beyond, ‘Wow, did you see that?!’ Sometimes arranging your solo tune in a band context, or even transcribing it into Guitar Pro can afford you the opportunity to just step back and listen. Then comes the quality control away from the fingers.”
LISTEN NOW: Jump, Boogie Shred
20. Lari Basilio
“The key to great instrumental music lies in each musician’s identity and their ability to make that personality appear in their compositions,” says Brazilian melodic rock sensation Lari Basilio, who unveiled her LB1 Ibanez signature last year.
“One thing that always catches my attention when listening to instrumental music – and it’s the same thing I pursue when writing my own tunes – is a story told through melodic lines. I enjoy a well-told story that doesn’t seem to be walking in circles. It begins, happens and resolves.
“A pretty remarkable instrumental album to me is That Was Then, This Is Now by Andy Timmons. The compositions are brilliant and well-structured compositions.”
LISTEN NOW: Sunny Days, Not Alone
21. Andy Timmons
Very few players have been able to express and articulate themselves as well as Andy Timmons. The longtime Ibanez and Mesa/Boogie endorsee has an approach to phrasing that can make even the most simple of lines sound beautiful, with so much depth and feel it makes you wonder how he’s doing it.
“I don’t think there’s any one particular secret to making a great instrumental,” he tells us. “It’s really about following your personal muse so that it’s as organic as possible. Authenticity is everything.
“For me that’s generally going to be something melodic as I’m really just trying to write the song I want to hear, which is based on a lifetime of musical experience. Everything from Chopin to Hendrix gets put through the filter of ‘me’. As a guitarist, one of the pitfalls is to feel pressure to include dexterous solos, which can be cool, but only if they serve the song. I was very happy to let go of that years ago.”
LISTEN NOW: Electric Gypsy, Pink Champagne Sparkle
22. Greg Howe
As a hired gun, Greg Howe has played for some of the biggest names in pop, from Michael Jackson and Enrique Iglesias to ’N Sync and Justin Timberlake. But it’s his legendary Shrapnel solo albums and numerous collaborations that established him as one of the world’s most formidable six-stringers.
His 1988 self-titled solo record showcased a fusion rock legend in the making, with no shortage of attitude found in his notably wide sliding vibrato. His two albums with Richie Kotzen from the mid-’90s, Tilt and Project, documented two Shrapnel stars going head to head, while his 2003 jazz fusion odyssey with Dennis Chambers and Victor Wooten, Extraction, remains one of the finest instrumental records of its kind.
LISTEN NOW: Kick It All Over, Extraction
23. Pat Metheny
Much like the late, great Allan Holdsworth, Pat Metheny doesn’t so much play jazz as he does his own unearthly variant of it – a kind that no-one else can come close to imitating – which explains why he’s been headhunted by superstars like David Bowie and Joni Mitchell.
Metheny is as dimensional as a guitar player can get, having applied his jaw-dropping techniques and theoretical knowledge to all kinds of situations, from more classic Wes Montgomery-inspired jazz musings to wonderfully ethereal world music and solo acoustic pieces like One Quiet Night.
He’s been notably active since the pandemic started, having released two studio albums and one live album. Let’s hope that burst of creativity continues through the coming years.
LISTEN NOW: Bright Size Life, Have You Heard
24/25. Rory Friers and Niall Kennedy
Over the past decade or so, Belfast noise rockers And So I Watch You from Afar have made a good case for being one of the loudest propositions from Northern Ireland.
Their fuzz-ridden transcendental instrumentals pack some serious tonal weight, transporting the listener through an array of sonic realms that feel like a voyage into the great unknown – a place where crunchy Telecasters, cranked Oranges and pitch-shifting pedals are able to do all the talking for them.
This year’s sixth album, titled Jettison, sees the quartet enlisting the likes of Emma Ruth Rundle and Clutch’s Neil Fallon for “cryptic dialog” – but make no mistake, it’s still very much instrumental music by nature.
LISTEN NOW: Three Triangles, Big Thinks Do Remarkable
26. Angel Vivaldi
Much like Nita Strauss, you can tell Angel Vivaldi has a connection to classical music before you’ve even heard him play a note – though, by his own admission, no famous relatives of the past.
The New Jersey-born melodic shredder, who cites Kurt Cobain, Alex Skolnick, Eric Johnson and Yngwie Malmsteen as influences, switched from Ibanez to Charvel in 2018 and now has six-string and seven-string models in his signature DK24 NOVA series.
“I break up guitar into three aspects,” he once told me. “First there’s the intervals, so you can play three simple notes in different orders, like E/A/G, E/G/A, G/A/E, G/E/A, A/G/E or A/E/G. The second element is the rhythm, the beat [at which] you play those notes.
“The final pillar is the phrasing; it’s the finesse behind the fingers, the type of vibrato, whether you slide into notes, what techniques you use from the whammy bar to harmonics… all those little things that make each guitarist different. … The great players are instantly identifiable.”
LISTEN NOW: A Martian Winter, Serotonin
27. Jason Becker
In 1989, when Jason Becker was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as motor neurone disease or Lou Gehrig’s disease, the doctors told him he only had another few years left to live.
He may have lost his ability to play guitar, walk and speak – but the musical genius is still very much alive, composing intricate music by communicating with his eyes. His late-’80s Cacophony records with Marty Friedman showcased some truly sublime musicianship, as did his solo debut, Perpetual Burn, and his first and only record with David Lee Roth, A Little Ain’t Enough.
In 2018, he released Triumphant Hearts – arguably the most dazzlingly compelling guitar album that year – with a spectacular lineup of guests that included Joe Bonamassa, Richie Kotzen, Mattias Ia Eklundh, Neal Schon and more. Defiantly persevering through tragic circumstances, his journey as a guitarist is quite possibly the most inspirational of them all.
“My advice for creating instrumental music would depend on what kind of tune you are making,” Becker tells us. “Having a strong melody is a good starting point. If you find something that sounds nice, put all of your heart and soul into it. Try to do something that makes it unique to you.
“Think creatively. I try to make each of my songs special in its own way. I like to have different moods and flavors in one song. I never got off on having every song sound the same, with only one type of energy. Really, anything creative and different is cool.”
LISTEN NOW: Altitudes, Once Upon a Melody
28. Marcos Mena
Guitarist Marcos Mena – one half of California math-rockers Standards – literally wrote the book on compositional guitar tapping (His popular workbook, Compositional Guitar Tapping, is available for $10 from Marcos Mena (opens in new tab).)
And – if they’ve seen even one of Mena’s many videos, readers of his workbook know they can have complete faith in its author. His mind-boggling two-hand tapping technique – not to mention his penchant for naming songs after an array of fruits (and/or the random lobster, starfish or shark) – have made him one of instrumental rock’s more interesting characters and fiercest new talents.
“I want to make sure I can control all the aspects of melody and harmony, so my playing looks a little funny,” Mena told us in 2020. “I’m usually crossing my hands tapping with one hand and strumming with the other.
“However, I think it’s never about how many techniques one can use but rather how the song sounds to the listener. Very few people will care about how you’re playing guitar, but everybody cares about the sound that comes out of it.”
LISTEN NOW: Special Berry, Papaya
29. John McLaughlin
Cited by none other than Jeff Beck as “the best guitarist alive,” John McLaughlin’s musical achievements are as vast as they are impressive.
He started working with Miles Davis for what would be a stretch of albums through the late-’60s right up to the jazz pioneer’s passing in 1991, while also inspiring a whole movement of guitar-led fusion rock in the Mahavishnu Orchestra during the early ’70s.
As well as bridging the gap between Eastern and Western tonalities in ways that hadn’t yet been heard, his machine-gun alternate picking and wide fretting-hand stretches bore the mark of a musician light years ahead of the rest.
On top of his own sizeable solo discography, he’s worked with Carlos Santana, Chick Corea and many more, also teaming up with Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucía for the legendary Friday Night in San Francisco live album that would set the benchmark for acoustic virtuosity in the early ’80s.
LISTEN NOW: Meeting of the Spirits, Thelonius Melodius, Acid Jazz
30. Jeff Beck
If there’s one figure whose influence and presence has never ceased to loom high over instrumental rock, it’s Jeff Beck.
There are many reasons for that: from the tones and techniques heard on his early solo albums of the mid-’70s – which helped popularize a new movement of jazz and fusion rock – to the endless creative well he draws from and that radical sense of “never playing the same thing twice”. But it always comes down to how the U.K. trailblazer makes his guitar speak, often in ways every bit as lyrical as the human voice.
He’s been described as a guitarist’s guitarist or a hero’s hero for having broken down every barrier between him and the instrument.
“I’m an experimenter,” Beck said in 2016, when quizzed on his reputation for pulling magic out of thin air.
“Every album I’ve done, except for a couple of techno-y records, is different. You’ve got to hand it to the Strat; there are songs in that guitar. It’s a tool of great inspiration and torture at the same time because it’s forever sitting there, challenging you to find something else in it, but it is there if you really search… My Strat is another arm, it’s part of me.”
LISTEN NOW: Freeway Jam, Brush with the Blues (the Who Else! version, of course), Nessun Dorma