Here’s the thing. Choosing our collective 100 favourite guitarists turned out to be just too darned tough for TG’s fanatical team of nerds! So, armed with a ‘shortlist’ of over 250 players, we decided to ask you lovely readers to have the casting vote in an online poll on Guitar World. Here’s how it works.
We took 170 guitarists from our big list and grouped them into six categories: classic rock, blues, heavy metal, shred, indie/alternative and a ‘best right now’ contemporary poll. Six categories and six polls later, we had some results. The winning guitarists make up 80 of the 100 you’ll see here.
We've also singled out a number of other players we deemed too important to leave out, who appear at the end of each section as ‘TG Picks’, as well as early innovators, trailblazers, acoustic, and jazz/fusion categories.
Read on for tips, profiles, interviews and lessons on all 100 players - you can use the handy navigation bar above to jump between categories.
The best rock guitarists of all time
1. Brian May
Topping our classic rock poll and receiving more votes than any polled player, Brian’s a true pioneer of tone and one of those rare guitarists who’s instantly recognisable from a single note.
We caught up with the Queen guitarist to talk about his influences, tone, trademark harmonies and what it means to him to be so highly regarded in the guitar community.
But this is Mr Brian May's response to being the reigning popular champion of guitar: “I’m absolutely speechless. I’m blown away. I have to say it’s completely unexpected. Obviously I’m deeply touched that people feel that way about me. I’m not under any illusions that, technically, I’m even on the tree of great guitarists.
“I guess this tells me that what I’ve done has affected people, and that means a great deal to me. I will never claim to be a great guitarist in the sense of, you know, a virtuoso. I guess I just try to play from my heart and that’s about it.”
- Brian May: "I will never claim to be a great guitarist in the sense of a virtuoso. I just try to play from my heart"
2. Jimi Hendrix
Just two months after featuring Jimi on the cover of this very magazine we find ourselves talking once again about his influence. Perhaps it's no surprise. Jimi frequently tops online 'best guitarist' polls, and, so deep is his influence, there's a good chance you already use a raft of techniques and sounds he pioneered.
It turns out you’d be in good company! Eddie Van Halen, Joe Satriani, Kirk Hammett and Ritchie Blackmore all cite Jimi as a major influence.
3. Jimmy Page
The Led Zep legend on the subject of riffs
“Well, when you think of what a riff is, it’s hypnotic and that’s going back to the blues, which is coming out of Africa. We didn’t know that at the time. Interestingly, I’ve just got a bootleg from a gig in Orlando and in between every song I’m playing all these riffs.
Somebody played it to me and I thought, ‘Crikey, they’re really good riffs!’ They never got used again, but they just came out on the spur of the moment. It was such an inspiring time, playing with inspired people, and we were all absolutely on top of it.”
The trick here is co-ordinating the sixth string palm mutes between the other notes. Try using alternate picking for the first three upbeats, and downstrokes for the rest.
4. Eddie Van Halen
Eddie Van Halen talks technique
On rhythm playing
“I’m a very rhythmic player, out of necessity. Because believe it or not, we used to play without a bass player. It was just Alex and I. I also had a tendency to fill every f*cking hole possible, but I had to because there was no other instrument.”
On tremolo picking
“It’s just kind of a spasm. The guys who use [small plectrums] are the guys who pick the way I can’t!”
On using a mix of picking techniques
“It’s just been part of my playing for so long that I don’t think about it. If you have to think about it, you’d better go home and practise some more, you know? I relate a lot of things to racing – things happen in a nanosecond so you’d better be ready to respond. But yeah, if I couldn’t do it, I wouldn’t do it. The less thinking I do, the better. Get out of my own way!”
A combination of picking and pull-offs is one of Eddie’s secrets that gives the illusion of really fast picking speed. Practise this lick slowly, ensure a good ‘snap’ on your pull-offs and you’ll get a sound similar to picking with only half the effort.
5. Eric Clapton
Incendiary blues from the man once apocryphally called ‘God’
“It’s unrecordable.” That was the verdict of a shellshocked engineer in March 1966, as a 21-year-old Eric Clapton plugged a 1960 Les Paul into a 1962 Marshall 2x12 combo, dialled up the volume and detonated Decca Studios.
“I thought the obvious solution was to get an amp and play it as loud as it would go,” the guitarist reasoned of his approach to the trailblazing Blues-breakers album with John Mayall. “Until it was just about to burst.”
It’s fair to say that history has proved the engineer wrong. The guitarist was not only recordable, but revolutionary, lighting the fuse on the British blues boom, jostling with Jimi Hendrix as the era’s ultimate guitar hero and reaffirming his status as guitar legend ever since.
Our lick navigates a turnaround with minor-to-major-3rd hammer-ons. The final note lands on a change to the V chord, typical of a I-IV-V progression.
6. David Gilmour
Play like the godfather of melodic lead guitar
“I tend to play more with my fingers than a guitar pick these days, for some reason that I don’t quite understand. It just seems to be the way it is. That might make a little bit of difference to the sound, but it’s not really anything I’ve been analysing or intending to do...”
Gilmour told TG’s sister mag Guitarist about his soloing method, so, for a soulful, bluesy lead, why not try our example, which we’ve played fingerstyle and picked.
7. Ritchie Blackmore
The former Deep Purple guitarist talking about his tone back in 1990
The archetypal Deep Purple sound is quite unusual for a Strat.
“Yeah, I suppose it is. I think it has something to do with my Marshall being souped up a little, with an extra output stage. I’ve also converted one of the old tape recorders I used around the house into a preamp, and without that it doesn’t sound the same. It’s just a stupid box that I can’t seem to find anywhere else. In fact, I need another one, just in case it goes wrong. Anyway, that works really well.
“Most of today’s effects thin out the sound; they always say they won’t but they do. Also, with most of today’s guitar players it’s difficult to know who’s playing, because they all sound the same. It’s that thin, distorted, limited sound which was good when Eddie Van Halen first did it, but now it’s wearing a bit thin...”
8. Alex Lifeson
The Rush guitarist on whether there’s a solo he’d like to rerecord
“I suppose so, but, you know, I really try to step away from that. It is in a place in time and whatever you did, you did it for some reason. I work pretty hard on my solos but would I do some over again? Yeah, I probably would.
“But on the flip side of that coin, I’ve done a lot of solos that were just throwaway solos that weren’t meant to be anything other than a temporary plug in a space on a song. But they’ve stayed with us and they’ve become some of my favourite solos. The solo in Bravado for example, was at throwaway solo, just filling the demo, but it's among my favourites now.”
9. Jeff Beck
In a career now spanning over 50 years, Jeff Beck can truthfully be said to have pushed the boundaries of contemporary electric guitar playing consistently and beyond the expectation of his fans. Often cited as the guitar hero’s guitar hero, he wows audiences and fellow musicians alike with his unique playing style.
We could fill an entire issue with lessons on Jeff’s style but here we have just the briefest tip. A simple riff based on the Guitar Shop era – an album which, remember, saw off the likes of Steve Morse, Joe Satriani, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Andy Summers at the 1990 Grammy Awards. Enough said!
This riff shows you how Jeff’s fingerstyle approach works. Cut each diad short and pick with a fair amount of force.
The G N’ R icon on addressing weaknesses in his playing
“Playing rhythm is one of the main ones. There are specific things I practise before a show – for the first 20 minutes I won’t do anything too outrageous and just loosen up. I think it’s important to remember those techniques are a key part of what I play. You don’t want to be stiff when it comes to those right-hand patterns, so I might play any number of songs. Pinball Wizard is always a good one!
“And then for lead stuff, I might try to find things that move up and around the neck, random patterns I’ve picked up from other players that sound interesting. It’s about finding the things that help you do whatever it is you do before you walk out there and play. Don’t think about set rules or anything – just try to focus on your weaknesses.”
11. Carlos Santana
Santana says he relies on his ears for a collaborative project like 2017’s Power Of Peace
“I could hear what I wanted to accomplish with this project in my head even before we got in the studio. I stay really close to obeying my inner instructions, and that is to complement, complement and complement. And the only way to do that is to always listen.
“I learned a word from Magic Johnson,” Santana continues, referring to his friend, the basketball legend. “He said, ‘When I came to the Lakers, I deferred to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s a really, really high word.’ Defer. It means that you have learned honour and respect for those who came here before you.
“So I learned to defer to the vocalist, to the other guitarist, and to the drums. Then, when it’s my turn, I just get in there with all I’ve got. But I love deferring, too, because that space means I’m not afraid to bring my spirit into a situation.”
12. Mark Knopfler
Touch, tone and playing ‘for the song’ are Knopfler’s stock in trade
If you take only one thing from Mark Knopfler’s playing style, it must surely be his fingerstyle technique. Though his pick-hand position might appear unusual, Mark is able to control every nuance of his sumptuous tones and Strat cleans with a beautifully sensitive touch.
Fingerstyle offers unique phrasing options too; the ‘thumb, pull-off , thumb, first finger’ picking pattern of that lick in Sultans Of Swing can’t really be played another way if you want Mark’s feel.
“With me”, Mark says, “there are two sides to it. Most of the time I just use the guitar as something to help the songwriting. But every now and again, if I’m sitting down and trying to learn something, moving it forward a little bit, you realise the depth of the thing. It’s a whole different thing being a musician from being a ‘guitar player’.”
13. Angus & Malcolm Young
Learn to riff like classic rock’s most famous brothers
Ever since 1976’s High Voltage landed like a right hook, nobody has done it harder, louder or lairier than the Youngs. There’s a case that AC/DC’s wrecking-ball riff-raff hinges on those world-beating right hands, but you won’t nail the vibe without getting the gear cornerstones right.
Angus has been an SG disciple since his first ’68, and has used various Standards, Specials and Customs, retiring them when the pickups get waterlogged by sweat.
“They’re all the basic, stock Gibson pickups,” said his tech Geoff Banks. “He plays on the bridge pickup all the time.” Malcolm generally turned to his ’63 Gretsch Jet Firebird, customised by removing the middle pickups; leaving a solitary ’60s bridge Filter’Tron.
The classic AC/DC lead sound is built on just a Marshall 1959 SLP 100-watter with the EQ at half-mast and volume cranked.
Keep the fourth string ringing as you alternate between the diads in bar 1. Finger the D at the end of bar 1 right and the lick that opens bar 2 will be easier.
14. Gary Moore
The late bluesman on returning to his roots
“Blues For Greeny, to me, is my first real blues album because it’s stripped right down, it’s gone back to what the blues is about and I’m playing in a style that I can play. I’m not trying to play in a way that’s alien to me.
“People think they have to just pick up a guitar and play three chords and that’s the blues. It’s a lot more than that – constantly refining, taking away stuff you don’t need until all that’s left is the bare bones and what’s totally necessary.
“It’s just very honest. It’s like you’re in the room. You can hear the mistakes – sloppy playing for me, but I wanted people to hear it the way it was done.”
15. Billy Gibbons
The secret to great slide? Give it the finger!
“I’ve managed to learn to hold the slide with my middle finger. A lot of players believe it belongs on the pinky or the ring finger. I prefer the middle, it leaves the other three digits free to do what you want. You can even play chords that way.
“The main thing is training to only follow where you get the proper pitch. You can’t play in between the frets, you need to actually be on them. That’s a critical move. If you go between the lines, you’re actually going out of pitch.”
This Gibbons-style example necessitates wearing the slide on your second finger, leaving the others free to fret the A5, C5 and G/B chords.
16. Duane Allman
A true slide pioneer
The young Allman had greatness thrust upon him after Clapton heard his blistering outro solo on Wilson Pickett’s Hey Jude. Having supplied all the slide and Gibson tones on Derek And The Dominos’ album, Allman played on records by soul stars Aretha Franklin and Percy Sledge.
Fame beckoned with his own band, and he established himself as the world’s foremost slide guitarist. His style laid the groundwork for Southern rock, influencing every drawl-inflected band from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Black Stone Cherry. He was dead at just 24, but thankfully one of his slide students – a certain Master Joe Walsh – kept his style going...
17. Joe Walsh
Joe recalls recording his legendary Hotel California guitar duel…
“Don Felder played a 12-string Takamine, I think, for the basic track, but it’s enhanced by a Hammond B3 Leslie cabinet. If I played single-coil, Don Felder would always use a humbucker, just so there was contrast between the guitars, so on Hotel California, I used a Telecaster and a little Roland 30-watt Cube with a 10-inch speaker, and he had a Les Paul, with, I think, an old Fender tweed Deluxe.
“It wasn’t that hard to nail. Don would put his lead parts on, then I’d put mine on – then we gave each other one more shot. He listened to what I played and replayed his part, then I listened to what he played and redid mine. We didn’t do it over and over, and I think that’s what you hear. We didn’t beat it into the ground. Those performances were pretty fresh.”
18. Keith Richards
How to get your guitar playing satisfaction
The “human riff” best known for his open G-tuned rhythm work, hinging around a steadily anchored first finger, as his second and third fingers generate the magical, weaving chord variations. If you’re trying to emulate the man, start with open G tuning, a first-finger barre and a few simple ideas for your remaining digits to experiment with.
Open G (D G D G B D) tuning is key to creating many of Keith’s iconic riffs. He usually discards his sixth string, though, turning his guitar into a five-string instrument. Here, in this example, we’ve featured a few of Keith’s most-used chord shapes plus a really easy one-finger powerchord shape.
19. Frank Zappa
In 2019, Guitarist quizzed Frank’s son Dweezil on performing his father’s legendary Hot Rats album live
“I had to make a decision: how much of this record will I play note-for note? Certain things were worth playing exactly the same. Like, obviously, the solo in Peaches En Regalia and Son Of Mr Green Genes, because that song is just so idiosyncratic. It’s my dad, doing what he does, and you’re not gonna top it.
“For others, like Willie The Pimp, I chose to learn a lot of the phrases but fill in the spaces between those guideposts with my own playing so I can also be free in my improvisation. But even when I’m playing freely, I’m still filtering what I play through his vocabulary. I know a lot of things that my dad would favour, the things that would be something he’d play.
“I didn’t want to take a big left-turn and suddenly think, ‘Oh, we’re in a totally different space’. “One thing you hear him do a lot is mix up different versions of triplets. He’s got these really groovy pentatonic-bluesy runs where he’s squeezing triplets in places that most people wouldn’t think to do.
“And it’s because he started as a drummer. It’s almost like he’s got little rudiment-type articulations. It’s like sticking exercises or something – that have been attached to notes.”
20. George Harrison
A somewhat unusual ‘signature’ E7 b9 chord from I Want To Tell You
“That’s an E7 with an F on top played on the piano. I’m really proud of that, because I literally invented that chord. The song I Want To Tell You was about the frustration we all feel about trying to communicate certain things with just words.
“I realised the chords I knew at the time just didn’t capture that feeling. So after I got the guitar riff, I experimented until I came up with this dissonant chord that echoed that sense of frustration. John later borrowed it on Abbey Road.
“If you listen to I Want You (She’s So Heavy) it’s right after John sings, ‘You’re driving me mad!’, DAT , DAT , DAT – that bit. To my knowledge, there’s only been one other song where somebody has copied that chord, and that is Back In The Chain Gang by The Pretenders.”
21. Pete Townshend
Who’s who? Pete Townshend on band dynamics
“We eventually realised that the band had swapped roles, and our formula was very special as a result. Effectively, I was the drummer, John was the lead guitarist and Keith was the 100-piece symphony orchestra – then we were okay! I became the metronome of the group.
“Even when I played solos what you heard was me pumping solos rhythmically. It was very rare for me to just hold a note, because if I did that for more than four bars the whole rhythm fell apart. Keith could play rhythm well, but he just didn’t have to do it most of the time, so he abandoned it.
“He would always be doing decorative stuff. If you slow down certain Who recordings and listen to what he’s doing it’s incredibly decorative, complex, lyrical and ambitious – and it doesn’t always come off. At the time it just felt very powerful, a bit like riding a horse; and one that’s not always under control but going very fast.”
22. Lindsey Buckingham
Fleetwood Mac’s six-stringed lucky charm
Eight years, nine albums and four guitarists down in their career, Fleetwood Mac would hook up with a player who would accompany the group from the brink of major worldwide success to multi-platinum domination.
The band’s first release with Buckingham – their ‘White Album’ – would be their first number one, in the USA at least, and the follow up, 1977’s Rumours, hit the stratosphere all round the planet.
Favouring fingerstyle over picking, and citing Scotty Moore and Chet Atkins as heroes, Buckingham would steer Mac in a broader musical direction, from pop and rock to folk and more avant garde offerings.
23. Steve Howe
Steve explains how a bit of TLC helped him make the most of the guitar that became his main ally
“Other guys were playing a Tele or a 335 and I come out with a 175 – people thought, ‘This isn’t gonna work...’, but I made it work. [It] might be just about where you set your bass level on your amp, because if you’ve got that too high this guitar is going to give you all the trouble it’s known for.
“The L-5 fed back on the Tales From Topographic Oceans rehearsals far too much even with the bass off. So I became very possessive, I always looked after it myself, I didn’t let other people do it. It was only years later when Yes were massive and we were doing huge shows with Roger Dean stages that, for a while, I let my tech do it.
“I used to do my own guitars, even right through the 70s I’d restring them and tune them; I’d have 10 guitars and I’d do that every day. The 175 was always restrung, every day. So, basically, I was a bit of a lunatic! I’ve created a certain aura around it which I continue – if you love something, you should nurture it.”
24. Peter Frampton
The “comedic” effect that became Frampton’s signature sound
“I occasionally have to listen to it [Frampton Comes Alive], because it’s on the radio, and there’s some good playing on there. Why did my trademark talkbox never become a mainstream effect? Well, it’s a one-trick pony.
“A little goes a long way. It’s not something you want to overdo. It was a fad, but when I use it today I still get the same effect from the people. It’s funny, it’s comedic. It’s not meant to be serious!”
25. Joe Perry
No ordinary Joe. No ordinary rig. No ordinary player...
The popular perception is that Joe Perry is the proto-Slash of the early 70s: shirtless, legless and elegantly wasted, requiring only a Les Paul and Marshall for his blues-box sleaze. In fact, there are many toys in Perry’s attic.
In 2008, he estimated his guitar collection at 600, citing his workhorse back then as the one-off ‘Billie’ Lucille semi-hollow, while other treasures include 50s Supro Ozarks for slide, BC Rich Biches and Dan Armstrong Plexis, and the Guild T-250 that was all over Aerosmith’s late-80s comeback albums.
“For me, a lot of how I write a song or riff comes from the particular guitar sound,” Perry explains.
Joe uses an open E-tuned Chandler lap steel guitar for songs such as Rag Doll, but assuming you don’t have one of those, here’s a slide lick you can play in standard tuning.
AC/DC copied the Free legend’s frenetic vibrato and muscular riff writing, and All Right Now remains a masterclass in building excitement.
“Taylor was a very fluent, melodic player,” said Mick Jagger. With wah and slide, he create impressively vocal sounds.
Tapping before Eddie and sweeping before Yngwie, the Genesis wizard was also an early adopter of the guitar synth.
His easy groove, wild bends and fluid runs made Toto’s guitarist the first call session player of the 80s.
Scott Gorham & Brian Robertson
Thin Lizzy drove the Les Paul and Marshall combination harder than anyone had before, defining the sound and licks of heavy rock guitar.
Second only to EVH for defining 80s rock guitar tone, the Boston man invented the gear behind hundreds of hits.
He wrote Cocaine, originated the Tulsa sound and counted Clapton, Knopfler and Neil Young among his disciples.
The Police’s songs would have sounded generic without Andy’s innovative add9 voicings and his EHX Electric Mistress flanger pedal.
By using delay as an instrument of its own, with U2 he found an entirely new way to orchestrate guitars.
Guitar’s premier mad scientist, Fripp has defied convention and influenced every subsequent progger.
Wayne Kramer & Fred 'Sonic' Smith
The MC5’s garage rock kicked out the jams, predated punk by a decade and sounded angry as hell.
Jeff 'Skunk' Baxter
He played on more records than some people own, most notably adding inspiration to Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers.
Created the arrangements for Bowie’s best material. Find any guitarist in makeup and Ronson is probably the reason they started playing.
Dick Wagner & Steve Hunter
They shook the sound of rock first with Lou Reed, then again with Alice Cooper. Hunter played uncredited for Aerosmith.
When rock became a speed competition, Schon made solos you could sing. Journey are still on the radio as a result.
An undisputed slide master, Cooder’s smoking licks even vanquished Steve Vai in Crossroads. His feel and vibrato are unrivalled.
Andy Powell/Ted Turner
Wishbone Ash did more than anyone to introduce harmony guitars to metal. Their twin guitars gave Iron Maiden their cue.
Garcia idiosyncratically borrowed banjo techniques, leaving behind 22,000 hours of recorded music with the Grateful Dead.