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40 guitarists who changed our world since 1980

31. Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood & Ed O'Brien (Radiohead)

WHAT THEY DID: The fire and skill of Radiohead’s three-guitar frontline first drew major attention on 1995’s album The Bends. Two years later, these Brits upped the ante with OK Computer, creating a captivating brand of space rock.

Our ears get bored very quickly. Sometimes a guitar plugged into an amplifier isn’t really enough

Jonny Greenwood

Countless bands have imitated elements of OK Computer’s revolutionary sound – from Thom Yorke’s haunted vocal emotions to Jonny Greenwood’s adventurous guitar textures – but no one, not even Radiohead, have duplicated its intoxicating overall effect in the 23 years since its release. 

While Yorke handled the rhythm guitar parts, Greenwood took on the more “traditional” lead work (those freakazoid solos on the epic Paranoid Android are his doing) and Ed O’Brien specialized in wacky noises (that’s him pushing an AMS digital delay to its breaking point at the end of Karma Police). 

Lauded by critics, musicians and fans alike, OK Computer is arguably the most influential rock guitar album of the Nineties.

32. Malcolm & Angus Young (AC/DC)

WHAT THEY DID: The brothers Young are renowned for forging distinct, hard-driving guitar parts that weave together in a seamless, complimentary manner, as heard on such classic AC/DC songs as You Shook Me All Night Long, Back in Black, Hells Bells and many others.

Malcolm makes the band sound so full, and it’s hard to get a big ego if you play in a band with your brother – it keeps your head on earth

Angus Young

Malcolm and Angus Young’s uncanny sibling telepathy was the secret weapon that made AC/DC the ultimate “raise your plastic beer cup and bellow along” arena experience from the time of their 1979 breakthrough album Highway to Hell all the way up to Malcolm’s retirement from performing in 2014 due to illness. 

Since AC/DC’s beginnings in 1973, Malcolm’s massive rhythm guitar style provided a foundation so solid that drums and bass were almost superfluous. Angus’ hook-happy leads were concise epiphanies of rock guitar cool, while his schoolboy shtick exorcised metal’s tendency to take itself way too seriously. 

Undeniably the toughest one-two punch in hard rock up until the elder Young succumbed to the effects of dementia in 2017.

33. Michael Hedges 

WHAT HE DID: Acoustic fingerstylist renowned for his multitude of techniques and tunings (typically applied to a 1971 Martin D-28) as well as his breathtaking musicality and captivating performance style.

A good guitarist sees the original nature of the mind and channels it through the heart. The inspired guitarist adds some guts and makes you want to dance. A truly great guitarist forgets all this, and takes a chance

Michael Hedges

The 1981 release of Michael Hedges’ debut album, Breakfast in the Field, announced the arrival on the fingerpicking scene of a genuine iconoclast, a fabulous new voice among the herds of alternating thumb- and finger-specialists. 

Hedges, who died in a car accident in 1997, discovered that far beyond the metronomic regularity of Travis picking and even the classical-derived counterpoint playing of the Anglo-traditionalists, there existed a brave, new acoustic world. 

By banging and tapping on the face of his guitar and across the strings, Hedges created ghostly harmonic effects in compositions that rely on pure sound as much as melody for their effect.

Hedges has been an idol smasher in other areas, as well: he has often played the harp guitar, an instrument long considered obsolete, and finds his musical heroes among modern composers like Béla Bartók.

None of this is to say, of course, that Hedges totally eschewed melody, spits at Chet Atkins and laughed at traditional picking techniques. Even his “straight” playing is seriously spiced by his percussive patting, two-hand tapping and willful dissonances.

Hedges, whose albums on Windham Hill are generally categorized as “New Age,” was, at least, a new wave guitarist who found inspiration in unlikely sources and was unafraid to augment tradition with unusual inspiration.

34. Ian MacKaye

WHAT HE DID: As the leader of the hardcore quartet Minor Threat in the early Eighties and later Fugazi, MacKaye brought a sense of honor to the Washington, D.C., punk scene with his strident sociopolitical lyrics and embrace of the straight-edge lifestyle.

Music is a form of communication that predates language and is completely important and necessary in the life of human beings. It doesn’t need to be classified, explained or rationalized

Ian MacKaye

Igniting hardcore punk and and post-hardcore with his Gibson SG, Ian MacKaye has also been one of the movement’s chief socio-political ideologues. In the Eighties and Nineties, with his groups Minor Threat and Fugazi, he carried punk rock’s original D.I.Y. philosophy to its logical conclusion, steadfastly refusing to sign with major record labels, charge too much money for shows or do interviews with corporate media outlets. 

In writing the 1981 Minor Threat song Straight Edge he launched the drug and alcohol-free straight edge movement, which also advocates responsible sexuality. Anti-war, vegan and feminist, his clearly reasoned political positions have played a key role in setting the latter-day punk agenda.

35. Kim Thayil

WHAT HE DID: The Soundgarden guitarist’s sludgy, down-tuned power chords were the perfect foil for frontman Chris Cornell’s high-pitched wail, and his spiraling, mind-bending solos proved to a whole new generation of listeners that it was possible to be psychedelic without being cheesy.

Your lack of technique can be part of your style. The thing about style is that it’s more entertaining, more important and hopefully more intellectual than technique

Kim Thayil

When Soundgarden set out in 1991 to record the pivotal Badmotorfinger, the last thing on Kim Thayil’s mind was creating a stylized tone that would become one of the most imitated guitar sounds of the Nineties. 

“I was trying to get a low, heavy sound while at the same time getting it to cut through,” said Thayil. “I was into Metallica’s sound back then, the Melvins, too, and wanted to achieve that same overwhelming heaviness.” 

He succeeded. With his beloved “Spider-man” Guild S-1 (customized with a sticker Kim found in a cereal box) pumped through his mainstay Peavey VTM setup, Thayil instinctively zeroed in on the earth-plowing sound by employing the now-famous dropped-D tuning and adjusting the amplifier’s bottom end.

“The VTMs have this circuitry where you can boost the lows,” he said. “I had it cranked. That sound has a good feel to it and good boom, which is great for muting. It also has a nice, full lead tone and a warm low end that is good for vibrato.”

36. Yngwie Malmsteen

WHAT HE DID: When Yngwie Malmsteen released his debut solo album, Rising Force, in 1984, he unleashed the fury on guitarists who were already having enough trouble keeping up with Eddie Van Halen. 

Malmsteen’s all-encompassing mastery of speed techniques like sweep-picked arpeggios, tremolo picking, legato, string skipping, tapping and more inspired guitarists to either woodshed or use their guitars as firewood. 

In my early teens, I was already fusing classical and metal together. So from an early age, I had a strong vision of where I was going

Yngwie Malmsteen

Growing up in Sweden, Yngwie Malmsteen worshipped at the altar of Ritchie Blackmore. But being a notoriously impatient fellow, he quickly tired of the usual rock guitar influences and turned instead to baroque and classical virtuosi/composers like Mozart, Vivaldi and classical violinist Niccolò Paganini for inspiration. 

In doing so, Malmsteen significantly altered the course of metal guitar playing, igniting the Eighties neoclassical boom. 

“I’ve always wondered why anyone would need to practice exercises that were clearly technical in nature when one can get the same benefits from playing real music,” Malmsteen said. “I mean, why run mindless patterns up and down the neck when you can play musical masterpieces by Johann Sebastian Bach or Paganini? 

“I can’t imagine a better workout for technique than Paganini’s 24 Caprices – particularly Numbers 5, 6 and 24. And since they’re also great compositions, they not only help a player’s technique but also expand his melodic and harmonic awareness.”

37. Nuno Bettencourt

WHAT HE DID: While others imitated Eddie, Nuno took his ideas to new places. His devastating syncopation gave Extreme funk where their peers had none.

The solo is the fun part. But you’ve gotta have the riffs and melodies too – that other three-and-a-half minutes of the song are just as important

Nuno Bettencourt

A late arrival on the Eighties metal scene, Boston’s Extreme stood out from the rest of the poodle-haired pack primarily because of Bettencourt, their guitarist and musical director. 

In an age of generic, cookie-cutter shredders, Bettencourt showed impressive stylistic range, deftly incorporating elements of disparate guitarists and musical styles – everyone from Eddie Van Halen to Brian May and James Brown to the Beatles – into his tasty playing, while still managing to put his own melodic stamp on the band’s material.

38. Prince

WHAT HE DID: Possessed of flash, funk, finesse and fury, he could dance like a goddamned genius, compose ballads that would break your heart, reinvent the popscape and perform entire albums by himself. But mainly – and above all – Prince could shred.

In some ways Purple Rain scared me. It was too successful, and no matter what I do I’ll never top it. It’s my albatross and it’ll be hanging around my neck as long as I’m making music

Prince

After spending the late Seventies and early Eighties releasing albums that appealed primarily to R&B and funk audiences, Prince exploded into the American mainstream in 1982 with his fifth studio album, 1999

The record, fueled by such hits as Little Red Corvette and the mechanized dance-stomp of the title track, introduced a purple, polished, trenchcoat-clad whirling sex demon – who also happened to be a highly gifted musician, producer and songwriter – to MTV and households across the country. 

Prince’s 1984 follow-up album, Purple Rain, a guitar-rock masterpiece as deserving of study as any album released that year, was swaddled in sexy synths and futuristic dance beats and cemented the Minneapolis native as a bona-fide rock god. 

To even the most casual listener, there’s no denying that Prince’s speedier licks on Purple Rain tracks like Let’s Go Crazy or When Doves Cry could put a hair-metal extrovert to shame. 

But a deeper dive into the artist’s extensive body of work yields a wealth of material that should be acknowledged by anyone with a true appreciation for guitar mastery, some of which is only now being discovered by the masses, thanks to YouTube. 

One shining example is the extended outro solo that the Minneapolis native, playing his Hohner T-style, unleashed at a 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony alongside Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood and others. The clip, a truly glorious moment that showcases the great one’s magnificent live blend of taste and heroics, has now been viewed over 93 million times, and with good reason. 

When Prince went off on a pentatonic rock solo, it was pure emotional expression being mined with a Santana-level vibrato (Prince was a huge admirer of the early Santana records especially), and he understood the power of holding a sustained note for the emotive shot to the heart. 

But his energetic improvisation was always anchored in the hooks reflected in his approach to vocal melody construction. 

“Guitarists should listen to singers for solo ideas – especially women singers,” he told Guitar Player in 2004. “Women haven’t had a chance to run the world yet, so you still hear the blues in their singing. Try to play one of the runs that Beyoncé or Ella Fitzgerald does and you will surely learn something.” 

The virtuosic multi-instrumentalist, born Prince Rogers Nelson in 1958, died of an accidental overdose on April 21, 2016, at his Paisley Park home and recording studio in Chanhassen, Minnesota.

39. Jason Becker

WHAT HE DID: A titan of neoclassical shredding, Jason Becker’s astounding arpeggios made him a youthful champion of the Shrapnel Records stable in the late Eighties. He went on to play with David Lee Roth but was stricken with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease) while working on Roth’s 1991 album, A Little Ain’t Enough

The condition has left him almost completely paralyzed and unable to speak, but his courage, determination and continued creativity in the face of extreme difficulty are every bit as inspiring as the dazzling virtuosity of his youthful guitar work.

Not being able to play guitar any more has made me focus more on beautiful melodies and soul-stirring stuff

Jason Becker

Jason Becker never had an album go Platinum or got his picture on the cover of a mainstream music magazine; he probably never even got to throw a TV out of a hotel window. But back in the days when he could still hold a guitar, Becker was a monster of a player. 

He made a name for himself among the shred crowd back in the Eighties when playing fast, smoking guitar was still cool. Just a teenager at the time, Becker (working with future Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman) recorded four albums of searing neo-classical shred guitar for Mike Varney’s Shrapnel label, forever earning himself a place in the shred Hall of Fame. 

By his 20th birthday, Becker had landed the plum guitar spot in David Lee Roth’s band. Given that Diamond Dave’s last two ax men had been a couple of hotshot guitarists named Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai, it was a high-profile gig for an aspiring shredder. 

For Becker, it was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream that began when he picked up the guitar at the age of five. Unfortunately, just as Becker was poised to become a major guitar hero, his guitar playing career came to an abrupt halt.

A week after acing his audition with Roth, Becker was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease – a terminal illness that gradually destroys the neurons that control movement. As the motor neurons die, patients steadily lose their ability to move. The brain, however, remains unaffected, and patients become trapped in a body that no longer works.

“In 1989, my doctors told me I would probably die in three to five years,” said Becker, now 51 and still very much alive. Confined to a wheelchair, he eats and breathes through a tube, receiving care and sustenance from his family and friends.

While ALS has left him not only motionless but speechless, Becker is able to communicate by a system of rapid eye movements developed by his father, Gary. Amazingly, Jason Becker’s spirit in 2020 remains as vital and positive as ever.

40. John Frusciante

WHAT HE DID: The Nineties master of the Jimi Hendrix/R&B style of rhythm guitar served as the primary writing force behind many of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ biggest hits: Under the Bridge, Give It Away, Scar Tissue and Californication.

Remember, there’s an endless supply of creativity in the universe; it’s never going to run out. Explore the possibilities and don’t make too much of an agenda about blowing people away

John Frusciante

Drafted into the Red Hot Chili Peppers – his favorite band – at the age of 18, John Frusciante brought with him an economical playing style that was the perfect tonic to Flea’s slap-bass excess. 

It turned the group’s 1989 effort, Mother’s Milk, from frat rock into something vital and genuinely potent. Behind the incendiary gigs and creative sock wearing, however, a storm was brewing, and after casually knocking out the guitar album of the Nineties – one that helped launch the Lollapalooza generation – with the wah-drenched, funky Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Frusciante embarked on what might well be described as a descent into hell. 

He quit the Chili Peppers in 1992 and spent five years as a heroin addict. He came perilously close to dying many times, barely escaping with his life after setting fire to his home in the Hollywood Hills on one occasion and suffering severe burns.  

The drugs and the near-death experiences brought him into intimate contact, he says, with realms beyond this life. He describes the period as a fight for control of his mind, an intense battle between friendly and hostile spirits – manifestations of the voices in his head he’d heard since childhood but which became vividly tangible. 

Miraculously, though, Frusciante rose again from the dead. He returned to the land of the living, kicked his addictions and rejoined the Chili Peppers to make the Grammy-winning 1999 album Californication. It was the start of an upward trend for Frusciante and the Chili Peppers.

Californication, By the Way (2002) and Stadium Arcadium (2006) form a trilogy that traces Frusciante’s musical evolution and his profound impact on the band. His plaintively dramatic chordal sensibility is the key ingredient in many of the band’s greatest hits. 

His keen arrangement and production skills have burnished the three albums with the deep golden glow of timelessness. The Chili Peppers may have started out as Eighties punk funk pranksters, but they’ve long since grown to the stature of a classic band. 

Frusciante – who quit the band again in the summer of 2009 and rejoined in December 2019 after releasing a string of solo albums – has been a prime mover in that transubstantiation.

41. Poison Ivy Rorschach

WHAT SHE DID: Long before Goth, there was Poison Ivy of punk rock innovators the Cramps, whose spiky, reverb-drenched riffs explored the scariest reaches of the human mind.

There’s kind of a scarcity of guitar players, at least any that have a primitive, strong style. That’s what I like – I’m not impressed by speed or technique. I like somebody that’s got just a really frightening, violent style

Poison Ivy

Equally inspired by crazed old rockabilly masters, voodoo rhythms and acid trips, Poison Ivy Rorschach – born Kristy Wallace in 1953 – was a vision in leather at the Cramps’ legendary live shows during the late Seventies and Eighties, playing off the insane writhing of ghoulish frontman Lux Interior.

Interior slapped an audacious sneer onto the band’s lewd, rude rhythms, while Rorschach – who became known as the queen of psychobilly punk – coaxed unsettling, almost human noises out of her instrument. Together, they crafted the nefarious surf sound at the core of the Cramps’ primitive rock and roll.   

42. Joe Bonamassa

WHAT HE DID: Joe Bonamassa picked up a guitar at age four, could cop SRV and Hendrix licks note-for-note by age seven, and was discovered by B.B. King while still in his pre-teens. Now 43, Joe Bonamassa is known for his awe-inspiring electric work, consisting of lethal licks and fist-pumping riffs. He’s hugely responsible for today’s blues-rock popularity.

I was thrust into an adult world very quickly, and that can make anyone somewhat socially maladjusted to dealing with people your own age. But I wouldn’t trade any of it. It makes me who I am today

Joe Bonamassa

Joe Bonamassa has been a professional musician for three-quarters of his life. When he was 12, the kid from Utica, New York, was appearing with the likes of B.B. King. By 14, “Smokin’ Joe” was signed to EMI Records as a member of Bloodline, a band whose nucleus consisted of the sons of musical greats like Miles Davis and the Doors’ Robby Krieger. 

Bonamassa was a blues guitar virtuoso years before Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Jonny Lang or Gary Clark Jr. appeared on the scene and, like them, the former virtuoso whiz kid has grown up to become one of the most influential blues guitarists of his day thanks to his studio and live recordings as a solo artist, his work with singer-songwriter Beth Hart and as a member of rock act Black Country Communion.