The 100 greatest guitarists of all time

Early innovators

Photo of Chuck BERRY; Posed studio portrait of Chuck Berry with Gibson guitar

(Image credit: Gilles Petard/Redferns)

1. Chuck Berry

Neither bluesman, entertainer nor country boy, Charles Edward Anderson Berry fused all three personas into a rip-snorting style that formed the very language of rock guitar as we know it today. It’d be easy to see Chuck Berry simply as a flamboyant character from the early rock ’n’ roll days – the duck walk, the chunky boogie rhythm and those signature doublestop introductions. 

But there was much more to it. We often view players from that era in terms of being a ‘beginning’. Without Chuck Berry or Duane Eddy, there could never have been a Jimi Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen, and so on. As it turned out, Chuck was particular about his gear too. Of all the guitars he used in his lifetime, two are predominant: the Gibson ES-350T and ES-335. 

In 1955, coinciding with the release of Chuck’s first single, Maybellene, a thinline version of the 350 – the ES-350T – was born into the new age of rock ’n’ roll (although it’s alleged that the actual guitar used for the recording session was a Gretsch Duo Jet). Chuck has been pictured with both the P-90 and humbucker versions. The release of the ES-335 in 1958 was the same year that Chuck had further hits with Sweet Little Sixteen, Carol and, of course, Johnny B. Goode.

Another thinline model, but this time with a double cutaway, the 335 took full advantage of the nascent humbucking pickups as well as offering added access to the guitar’s upper register with its 19th-fret neck joint. If you’re dead set on authentic Chuck Berry tones, it’s just got to be Gibson!

2. Hank Marvin

As The Shadows’ King Of Twang, Hank Marvin was Britain’s first guitar hero of the electric era, inspiring a generation of players with single-coil tones as springy and lush as a manicured lawn. 

Speaking to Guitarist in 2017, Hank said: “My reference points were the human voice, various jazz sax ballads with a strong melodic content and guitarists like Les Paul. The human voice and saxes usually had a vibrato that I emulated on the Strat, helping the notes to be more expressive.

“My sound and style more or less happened by accident; the combination of the Strat, the AC15 amp, which soon became the AC30, and the echo box sort of pushed me in a direction, and who was I to argue?”

3. Les Paul

Already a star when he invented the solidbody guitar (there’s a reason Gibson wanted his signature), Les was a virtuoso jazz and country performer. By inventing multitrack recording – discovering delay, flanging, and phasing en route – he provided the equipment for everyone following him. His dense layers of harmonised guitars anticipated Brian May. 

Decades before Paul Gilbert and Bumblefoot, Les recognised that fast guitar could be funny, using tape speed for both musical and ludicrous effects. Stars like Zakk Wylde lined up to perform at his infamous New York club nights, only to limp offstage after being schooled by the master.

4. Scotty Moore

Winfield Scott ‘Scotty’ Moore III can lay a very good claim to the title of Most Important Guitarist That Ever Lived. Influenced by the country jazz picking of Merle Travis and Chet Atkins, he conspired with a young truck driver called Elvis Presley to create a new strain of white blues called rockabilly. 

Backing the 'King Of Rock 'n' Roll', Scotty Moore had no shortage of admirers, from Keef to Page, Beck and many, er, more.

5. Buddy Holly 

Rock ’n’ roll was well established in the 1950s – Ike Turner, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard all had hits – but white audiences had largely rejected it. Buddy Holly presented blues, rock ’n’ roll, and country licks in a package the ‘suits’ would put on American television.

Regardless of the questionable values of the marketing machine, Holly and his Stratocaster were immediately popular. Iconic even. His strummed open chords on [1957 single] Peggy Sue were easy to play, embodying the “I can do that!” spirit of early rock ’n’ roll.

And his lasting influence? The Beatles’ name was a deliberate nod to Holly’s band The Crickets, as they and hundreds more sought to imitate him. Holly tragically died only two years later, aged 22, having changed music history in his short time on earth.

Also in the running…

Chet Atkins

Almost his every touch displayed astonishing technique, but if you didn’t try to play his toe-tapping tunes, you’d never know.

Merle Travis

Do you have an entire technique named after you? Country, folk and rockabilly would all be unimaginable without Travis picking.

Carl Perkins

He fused country and blues, wrote Blue Suede Shoes and recorded the definitive version. Rockabilly guitarists still learn all his licks.

Bo Diddley 

The ‘Bo Diddley rhythm’ has been used by Guns n’ Roses, George Michael, the Stones, U2 and hundreds more.

Duane Eddy

When someone asks for a ‘twangy’ guitar sound, they’re (perhaps unknowingly) the latest to be inspired by Eddy’s tone.

Link Wray

Wray – and his knackered speaker – invented distortion. Think about that and be thankful next time you plug in your guitar!

Dick Dale

More than just the Pulp Fiction connection, Dale brought new scales to rock, while his unbelievably physical attack inspired SRV.

James Burton

The Elvis sideman took what Merle Travis and Carl Perkins started, stuffing the King’s songs with tasty guitar licks.

Maybelle Carter

This chord-melody country pioneer was a leading star of the Grand Ole Opry, which inspired every subsequent country star.

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Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to publications including Guitar World, MusicRadar and Total Guitar. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.

With contributions from