Game-changers, taste-makers and trend-setters: here are 2023's guitarists of the year

Guitarists of the year 2023
(Image credit: Getty Images)

With 2023 drawing to its inevitable conclusion, it’s about time we reflect on what has been a pretty stellar 12 months of guitar playing, and tip our hats to some of the players that made our world such a joy this year.

We’re talking about the game-changers, taste-makers and trend-setters of the electric guitar world – those who went above and beyond both on the fretboard and off it – delivering defining guitar music and reaching all-new heights, and whose achievements we’ll be talking about for years to come. 

Without further ado, here the 2023 guitarists of the year…

Nuno Bettencourt

Nuno Bettencourt

(Image credit: Neil Lupin/Redferns)

In April of this year, an always gunslinging, Washburn N4-brandishing, unapologetically candid Nuno Bettencourt told Guitar World, “As I was doing the album [2023’s Six], I was re-inspired to kind of go for blood again. I basically said, ‘I want to bring guitar playing back,’” before adding, “I just wanted to make [guitar] fun again.” Well, as we round out the year, it’s safe to say that Nuno clearly understood his self-imposed assignment.

Since late 2020, we’ve suffered from a lack of Edward Van Halen. Then our despair grew deeper when we lost Jeff Beck at the start of 2023. But with a flick of his magic wand and no warning, Nuno stood in the shadows alongside Rihanna during the halftime show for Super Bowl LVII. Then and there, Nuno had us; we were transfixed, thinking, “Was that Nuno Bettencourt?” before saying, “OK, yes, it was. But what now?” 

Turns out that beneath piles of 15-years-in-the-making fairy dust was Rise, featuring a God-like solo that transported us back to Nuno’s 1992 MVP year, aka the year of his last Guitar World cover (until his August 2023 cover, that is). How about that? 

Sure, back when Nuno was 26, it was obvious that he’d not only be on a GW cover but be crowned the MVP. But entering 2023, especially seeing as Extreme hadn’t been heard from in 15 years, Bettencourt was mostly thought of as just another guitarist within screaming distance of 60. We guess Nuno didn’t get the memo, as he curb-stomped his way through 2023 with the same balls-to-the-wall guts that made him famous back when More Than Words was a thing.

And so, is Nuno still the MVP? Absolutely. Has he inherited the throne from EVH? Probably. And yes, Nuno did bring guitar back to the forefront. But Nuno isn’t just an MVP or the heir to the throne; he’s a no-brainer as a 2023 GOTY.

Wolfgang Van Halen

Wolfgang Van Halen

(Image credit: Andraia Allsop)

After debuting on our GOTY list and the January 2023 cover of Guitar World, Wolfgang Van Halen reclaims a top spot with the release of his second Mammoth WVH album, Mammoth II, support slots on tour with Metallica and Alter Bridge, a collaboration with Slash on I’m Just Ken, as featured on the soundtrack to Barbie – and his first headline tour with support from returning GOTY, Nita Strauss. 

Guitar solos are more prominent and plentiful on Mammoth II than they were on the debut album, showcasing Wolfgang’s impressive chops and emerging distinctive voice. The highlight is his 90-second solo on Take a Bow – a strong contender for solo of the year – where moody, bluesy bends build up to a frenzied fury of fretboard tapping. 

Wolf recorded the solo playing his dad’s legendary Frankenstein guitar and “number one” Marshall. “It was a very emotional moment for me to play that solo with Pop’s guitar and amp,” he says. “It was like he was there with me in the studio.” 

While we’re at it, next year looks even bigger for Wolfgang. In addition to Mammoth WVH’s ongoing headline tour, his band will open several shows on the Foo Fighters’ Everything Or Nothing At All stadium tour this summer.

But the most exciting news is the upcoming, long-awaited release of the very first EVH guitar model developed completely under his own input and direction, the EVH SA-126 semi-acoustic electric

Josh Klinghoffer

Multi-instrumentalist Josh Klinghoffer of Pluralone performs live on stage at Viejas Arena at San Diego State University on May 03, 2022 in San Diego, California.

(Image credit: Jim Bennett/Getty Images)

Since parting ways with the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 2019, Josh Klinghoffer has worked non-stop, touring with Pearl Jam as opening act and band member, with Eddie Vedder’s solo project, guesting onstage with Jane’s Addiction, joining the band to sub for a recuperating Dave Navarro and working with Iggy Pop. 

He also records solo projects as Pluralone, releasing three albums to date: To Be One with You, I Don’t Feel Well and his latest, This Is the Show.  

Speaking with Guitar World, Klinghoffer offered some thoughts about his playing, range of opportunities and bosses who seemingly just can’t get enough of him. “I think it’s a combination of a lot of things,” he said. “Some of it’s pure luck and timing, but I also think it might have something to do with my thirst for musical knowledge. I love other people’s music, but I don’t try to emulate anybody’s playing. 

“I’ve never lost this sense that I’m a beginner, and I think that gives me a more primal approach to the guitar, and perhaps that makes my playing sound individualistic. Also, I never really lost the fan side of me… I think that’s part of what carries me through.”

Andrew Watt

Andrew Watt

(Image credit: Adam DeGross)

Ever since Ozzy Osbourne’s 2020 album, Ordinary Man, Andrew Watt has been in consistently high demand as a side musician and producer. Among his latest accomplishments: producing new albums by Pearl Jam, the Rolling Stones and Iggy Pop, and performing with the all-star Iggy Pop and the Losers – Josh Klinghoffer, Duff McKagan and Chad Smith – on Jimmy Kimmel Live. 

“I’ve been very lucky to get together with people that take me for who I am,” Watt told us in 2020, when he appeared next to Ozzy on our May 2020 cover. “They let me play guitar and they let me come in with a guitar player’s mentality and sit down with them and write in that way. 

“And when I’m approaching a song in general, it always starts with a guitar for me, because that’s just how it’s always been. I count my lucky blessings that I’m still making music the exact same way I was making it when I was 10.” 

How do the artists he works with feel about him? “[Watt] brought in exactly what we needed,” the Stones’ Keith Richards recently told Guitar Player. “He knew our stuff back to front, and I think he had a ball making the Stones’ record. It was fun to make, very quick, compared to a lot of our records. We did most of it in a month or two. I enjoyed working with him.”

The Rolling Stones

Ronnie Wood, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are seen performing onstage during the final stop of the "No Filter" tour at Hard Rock Live on November 23, 2021 in Hollywood, Florida.

(Image credit: Jason Koerner/WireImage)

Speaking of Richards, in October the Rolling Stones released Hackney Diamonds, their first album of original material since 2005’s A Bigger Bang. The band – with that Andrew Watt guy at the helm – tracked at Henson Recording Studios in Los Angeles, Metropolis in London, Sanctuary Studios in Nassau, Bahamas, Electric Lady Studios and The Hit Factory/Germano Studios in New York City. 

The interesting thing about the album is, it’s pretty damn good, as evidenced by tracks like Get Close, Tell Me Straight and Sweet Sounds of Heaven, the latter of which features a completely unexpected (and completely awesome) guest appearance by Lady Gaga. (“She’s one of the Stones now,” Richards told Guitar Player).

The album also features appearances by Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Bill Wyman and, of course, the late Charlie Watts.

John 5

John 5 playing his Fender Ghost signature Telecater

(Image credit: John 5/YouTube)

As a few of you, um, might have heard by now, John 5 joined Mötley Crüe this year – adding to an already diverse resume that includes Rob Zombie, Marilyn Manson, David Lee Roth, Rod Stewart and k.d. lang. 

Basically, this is as momentous – and as exciting for the person involved – as Noel Gallagher being asked to join the Anthology-era Beatles in 1994. “I envision staying with Mötley Crüe,” John told Guitar World (when he earned his first bona fide GW cover appearance). “As long as Mötley Crüe are around, I don’t plan on leaving – and I hope I never get fired. 

“It’s such a wonderful band to be in. It really is a dream to be playing with your friends. It’s something I never envisioned, but I’m so thankful it’s happened. I know every single song. That’s the other thing; I didn’t have to learn any songs. I know them all. To get a new chapter, a new beginning in your life – what a gift it is. It’s hard to explain. It’s such an epiphany to receive a gift like this, to go, ‘OK, here we go.’” 

Mr. 5 also introduced his latest Fender signature model, the limited-edition Ghost Tele.

Cory Wong

Cory Wong performs during the 2022 Newport Jazz Festival at Fort Adams State Park on July 30, 2022 in Newport, Rhode Island.

(Image credit: Douglas Mason/Getty Images)

With so much going on – a YouTube variety show, his Wong Notes podcast, being a member of the Fearless Flyers, recording almost a dozen solo albums, teaching online and maybe getting some sleep – Cory Wong found time to introduce another signature Fender Stratocaster in 2023

“I’ve wanted to release my Stratocaster in other colors since the original Sapphire Blue Transparent version was released in 2021,” Wong said in a PR statement.

“I’m a visual person and I believe the look of a guitar can affect the approach one takes to playing it. With the release of these two new colors, my goal was to provide players with a guitar that exudes a bright, fun energy.” 

“Fun energy” is key in Wong’s playing. As he told Total Guitar, “My right hand is constantly going like the pistons running in an engine. No matter what, I’m always going down and up in 16ths, and my hand is always moving, whether I hit any notes or not. I never have to think about the strumming pattern; I think about the rhythm. That’s what dictates how I play the pattern.” 

Whatever he’s doing, it’s clearly working. This year saw Wong embark on the biggest international shows of his career, visiting legendary venues like the 5,300-capacity Eventim Apollo in London with his solo band Vulfpeck, the funk collective who arguably helped launch him into the spotlight.

Sophie Lloyd

Sophie Lloyd

(Image credit: Sam Cahill)

Lloyd spent her year touring the U.S. and Europe with Machine Gun Kelly, recording and releasing a new solo album, Imposter Syndrome, and earning a cover story – including an actual cover – in Guitar World. “It’s interesting that I’ve been able to enter touring at such a high level,” she told GW’s Joe Bosso. “People always say, ‘You haven’t paid your dues,’ but I feel as though I’ve done that in a different way.” 

To which GW Editor-in-Chief Damian Fanelli replied (in the September 2023 Woodshed column), “I very much agree. And what does ‘paying your dues’ even mean in 2023? Isn’t building a massive online following over the course of several years paying your dues? Isn’t somehow shifting from the digital empire onto major stages like MSG, Wembley Arena and the weirdly named KFC Yum! Center paying your dues? 

“Lloyd’s is definitely a unique story, and although I have zero inside information, I can promise you that her ongoing stint with Machine Gun Kelly is still just the beginning.”

Nita Strauss

Nita Strauss

(Image credit: Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for iHeartRadio)

Nita Strauss enjoyed a banner 2023. She picked up right where she left off in Alice Cooper’s band following a stint with Demi Lovato, released and toured a new solo album, The Call of the Void, and wrapped things up on the road with Mammoth WVH. 

She also found herself on the cover of practically every guitar magazine, including, once again, Guitar World. The Call of the Void marked a departure for Strauss, taking her from solely instrumental work to collaborations with a variety of vocalists. As for its final track, Surfacing, she roped in ex-Megadeth and Cacophony legend Marty Friedman.

“Talk about a storyteller!” she said. “I’ve learned so much from Marty over the years. He knows what he wants. This collaboration was such an education for me, as a sort-of young guitar player at the foot of the master! The first metal song I ever heard had Marty playing guitar on it. I wanted him to critique me… He would tell me how I could make melodies better and what notes I should use instead of the ones I’d initially chosen. 

“I came out the other side a better player. He sent pages of detailed notes and through him I learned you have to know what your story is and what you’re trying to say or convey. Pick phrases that help tell the story. Resist the temptation to use your songs to show off your fastest licks.”

Zakk Wylde

Zakk Wylde

(Image credit: Future / Dustin Jack)

Many of this year’s GOTYs could easily qualify for a 2023 “Wrath of the Internet” list. Zakk Wylde is no stranger to the pack since taking on guitar duties as part of what some call a Pantera and/or Dimebag Darrell tribute/celebration tour and others call a variety of other names unsuitable for print. 

For Wylde, bringing Pantera’s legacy to old and new fans is a responsibility not taken lightly. “At the end of the day, I’m far beyond honored that I got asked to help to celebrate the incredible greatness of Saint Dime and Saint Vinnie,” he told Guitar World.

“I guess you could say I’m on a mission from God, just like Jake and Elwood! Joking aside, we’re just four friends celebrating our buddies’ memory and the amazing thing they created that brings so many people joy and happiness – just like their heroes did. 

“That’s why we still listen to Randy, Eddie, Sabbath, Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Pantera – because it brings you to your happy place. It’s a beautiful thing and to me, every show we’ve done in honor of Dime and Vinnie has been beyond special. Far beyond…” 

That would be enough to keep most guitar players busy, but not Wylde. MXR celebrated their 20-year relationship with the Ozzy Osbourne gunslinger by releasing an updated line of his signature pedals. He also resurrected tribute band Zakk Sabbath, who began their first tour in three years just before the holiday season.

And he announced one of the most striking Wylde Audio designs yet in the IronWorks Barbarian, which – at least to our eyes – looks like the hellborn love child of a Zemaitis and an SG. Like we said, the man just doesn’t stop.

Buddy Guy

Buddy Guy

(Image credit: Terry Wyatt/Getty Images)

At 87 years of age, blues icon Buddy Guy is still going strong, performing 150 shows every year, making guest appearances and recording new music. Last year’s The Blues Don’t Lie is his 34th studio album, following 2018’s Grammy-winning The Blues Is Alive and Well

This year, Guy joined Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival all-star lineup and announced his farewell tour. “I don’t want to cheat people,” he told Guitar World. “I have a reputation for giving 100 percent, but I’m 87 now, and I can’t kick my leg as high as I did when I was 27. I’ll still do blues festivals and one-offs, but I can’t tour the world anymore. I’m too old to be jumpin’ from town to town on a bus. 

“I’ll still be playing guitar; I’ll do that until I can’t. And I’ll keep making music, but I’m at the age where my heroes passed away. I’ve gotta keep that in mind… I remember listening to some of my heroes when they got older and thinking it wasn’t the same. I don’t want someone coming away from my show thinking, ‘He doesn’t sound any good.’”

Periphery

Periphery

(Image credit: Ekaterina Gorbacheva)

Periphery, featuring guitar triple-threat Misha Mansoor, Jake Bowen and Mark Holcomb, released their first album in four years. Titled Periphery V: Djent Is Not a Genre, the nine tracks were produced by the band and released via their 3DOT Recording label. 

Speaking with Total Guitar, the trio dug into the band’s approach to songwriting and recording, as well as the challenges they faced to surpass their own high expectations following 2019’s Periphery IV: Hail Stan

“We’ve written a lot of stuff and the bar gets raised. We’d like to elevate that every time,” Mansoor said. “I was personally very proud of Periphery IV, so much so that I didn’t know how we were going to beat that.” 

Mansoor also composed, assembled talent and performed in the mind-boggling “The Virtuoso Mega Shred,” a promotional track and video for Jackson Guitars’ latest American Series model, the Virtuoso. He was joined by Marty Friedman, Revocaton’s Dave Davidson, Heriot’s Debbie Gough and Erra’s Clint Tustin.

Steve Lacy

Steve Lacy and his signature Fender "People Pleaser" Stratocaster

(Image credit: Fender)

Steve Lacy has an A-to-Z list of studio musician and producer credits, including Kendrick Lamar, Thundercat, Vampire Weekend, Calvin Harris, Solange Knowles and Tyler, the Creator. That’s in addition to a pair of solo albums – 2019’s Apollo XXI and 2022’s Gemini Rights – plus a Grammy win for last year’s work and a hit single, Bad Habit.

He also introduced his signature Fender Stratocaster, the People Pleaser, which we reviewed back in the summer

Asked by GuitarWorld.com about the key to getting so many callbacks, Lacy noted, “I think it’s about being able to read the room. It’s an intuitive thing to keep the energy flow going and make people feel comfortable, as well as having a little bit or enough talent to hold your own and present new ideas. 

“You need to find compatibility and some type of synergy together. That’s what keeps me going! I [also] think my openness helps. I’m not too afraid to present something or try something completely different. That’s what I love about being a producer.”

Vernon Reid

Vernon Reid

(Image credit: Scott Legato/Getty Images)

Living Colour may still be working on the follow-up to their 2017 album Shade, but that wasn’t enough to keep guitarist Vernon Reid quiet for the duration of 2023. The band were chosen to support Extreme on their big comeback tour, making it even more of a top-drawer event for rock enthusiasts and guitar lovers across the U.S. 

Reid also actively campaigned for under-appreciated six-string legends like Robin Trower, Robert Cray and Mike Stern to gain more recognition on the social media platform X.

“This situation is unacceptable,” he wrote, while also observing how “Trower didn’t have to play fast to be interesting or emotionally effective,” and ultimately made you “feel the narrative” in an era where “vibrato has been practically abandoned as expressive ornamentation in favor of scalar exotica.”

Joe Bonamassa

Joe Bonamassa performs live

(Image credit: Kit Wood)

Blues ambassador Joe Bonamassa was everywhere in 2023.

A partial overview: he performed at the Crossroads Festival, appeared with Black Country Communion bandmate Glenn Hughes at the Saban Theater in Beverly Hills, collaborated again with Scary Pockets for a cover of Madonna’s Like a Prayer, jammed with Brad Paisley at the Nashville Let Freedom Sing July 4 celebration, debuted another Epiphone signature guitar, hosted his “Live from Nerdville” podcast, created his “Tales from Nerdville” columns for Guitar World, maintained his two nonprofits (Keeping the Blues Alive and Fueling Musicians), joined Eric Gales, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram and Marcus King at Bluesfest in Australia, teamed with Joanne Shaw Taylor, Carmen Vandenberg and Josh Smith for a cover of B.B. King’s Ain’t Nobody Home, and released a new album, Blues Deluxe Vol. 2, an homage to his milestone third studio album, Blues Deluxe, which turned 20 this year. 

“If you had told me 20 years ago my career would last long enough to see the 20th anniversary of this little record called Blues Deluxe, I’m sure I would have laughed,” he said. “Blues Deluxe was my last shot after being dropped by two major record labels and my booking agent. 

“It was then that my manager, Roy Weisman, had his first ‘all in’ moment. We would go back into the studio and record a record that would hopefully define the direction of whatever future career I might have…”

Tom DeLonge

Tom DeLonge's Fender Limited Edition Stratocaster

(Image credit: Fender)

Tom DeLone's meaty, concert hall – and sonic spectrum – filling riffs speak to an entire generation, proving yet again that one need not be a virtuoso (subjective and overused term that it has become) in order to be a guitar “hero”… or to land on a GOTY list. 

Late last year, Blink-182 fans’ wishes and hopes came true when the band announced DeLonge’s return to the fold, following months of speculation. The official word was followed by the release of Edging, their first song as a trio in more than a decade, and One More Time… – their ninth studio album. 

They began a world tour that keeps them on the road through early 2024. Summer 2023 also saw the reissue (and quick sell-out) of DeLonge’s in-demand signature Strat. The guitar was discontinued in 2004, leading to a cult following and peak prices on the resale market, particularly on the heels of his reunion with the band.

John Osborne

John Osborne

(Image credit: Evan Mattingly)

This year saw the release of a much-anticipated fourth album from Brothers Osborne. The self-titled project is their first since 2020’s Skeletons. Drawing from rock, blues, country and bluegrass, the duo’s sound is defined by rhythm guitarist T.J. Osborne’s vocals and John Osborne playing lead. 

In 2020, he told Guitar World, “It’s very gratifying to know that guitarists are paying attention, but I can’t think about blowing them away when I come up with a solo. That’s a little like wagging the dog. I try to think big-picture when we’re in the studio.” 

The simplicity of the Telecaster allows you to find your voice. It’s a desert island guitar

Integral to those solos, and the overall sound, is his guitar of choice: the Telecaster. “As simple of a design as the Telecaster is, it’s the most versatile guitar out there,” he told Guitarist. “It just works with any style, any amp, any pedal you put in front of it. The Telecaster works so well because it’s just a guitar. 

“When you add switches and knobs that do crazy things, you start getting away from the actual point of an electric guitar, which was to be loud enough to be heard over drums. 

“Some guitars push you in a direction, and when you fight against it, it doesn’t work as well. But the simplicity of the Telecaster allows you to find your voice. It’s a desert island guitar.”

Synyster Gates

Synyster Gates

(Image credit: Ollie Millington/Getty Images)

Life Is But a Dream… is Avenged Sevenfold’s first studio recording since 2016’s The Stage. In addition to a long-awaited comeback, the album showcases why Synyster Gates ranks among the 100 greatest guitarists of all time.

Gates is also prolific in classical and jazz guitar technique and theory. In an interview with Minneapolis-based 93X Radio, he said, “When I was 30 I picked up a gypsy jazz guitar and I didn’t put it down… Four years after that, when I was 34, I went fucking berserk and downloaded, absorbed, just consumed mass amounts of guitar nerd content. 

“I did that for a few years there where I had a guitar in hand, even when I was on the road, from the minute I woke up until I went to the show and went to bed… I went down gnarly rabbit holes online, just trying to get my hands on every piece of technique, every piece of theory, every piece of songwriting – it was always very much from songwriting. I didn’t stop playing guitar for three years.”

Graham Coxon

Graham Coxon

(Image credit: Lorne Thomson/Redferns via Getty)

Chosen as one of Total Guitar’s 100 greatest guitarists of all time, Graham Coxon once told that publication, “I think I’m more in the free-jazz world when it comes to lead playing, and I play physically. I like the sound of a guitar being thumped! I’d hear other people making rock albums that sounded really polished, but my records always sound like me: slightly shambolic and about to break. I cover my lack of technical ability with weird noises!” 

This year was a mixture of old and new for Coxon: massive reunion shows from Blur (not to mention a brand-new Blur album, The Ballad of Darren) and a debut album from his new project, the WAEVE, with musical partner Rose Elinor Dougal. 

As to the future of Blur, “Although we don’t talk that much now when we get together, it’s still very intuitive,” he told GuitarWorld.com. “I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to put my finger on the dynamic of Blur and I don’t know if other sorts of musicians talk that much about what they’re bringing into the music, especially if they are intuitive players and not hugely technical musicians. 

“But I think we make it up as we go along. It’s always been a bit more instinctive because I don’t know any scales or anything; it’s action painting for me. I don’t really know what I’m gonna do from one moment to the next when it comes to Blur; I just let it happen as it will.”

QOTSA's Josh Homme and Troy Van Leeuwen

Josh Homme playing guitar live

(Image credit: Astrida Valigorsky/Getty Images)

Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme and Troy Van Leeuwen made it onto the GOTY list together with a new album, In Times New Roman… – the band’s eighth full-length studio album and their first since 2017’s Villains

For Homme, the period between albums was particularly challenging, as he faced cancer, divorce, rehab, grief and legal issues, all of which played into songwriting and recording. 

Speaking with NME, he said, “That’s what this is. You start dropping the armor that protects you from your insecurities, and once you drop a piece of that armor you can’t put it back on. I think on this journey of Queens of the Stone Age, there’s no armor left. It’s only about walking deeper into the darkness.”

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Guitar World Staff

Since 1980, Guitar World has been the ultimate resource for guitarists. Whether you want to learn the techniques employed by your guitar heroes, read about their latest projects or simply need to know which guitar is the right one to buy, Guitar World is the place to look.

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