Here we have it, the top 20 guitar albums of 2021, as chosen by you, and you didn’t disappoint. You could glue all of these album covers to a whiteboard and it could well be a mood board taken from the editorial prow of the good ship Guitar World.
There are some evergreen choices here, with guitar players who always find themselves in the guitar-playing community’s good graces. But even among them, no two are strictly alike, with blues-rock titans sharing space with grunge trailblazers and pioneers of shred.
But there are some new players, too, those making their presence felt for the first time. Not all here are necessarily technical virtuosos, and many who ration that instinct to cut loose. After all, what makes a great guitar album is no different to what makes a great album.
As the player and songwriter behind your number one choice argued when he spoke with Guitar World earlier in the year, the song has got to come first – no matter how satisfying it is to feel those strings under your fingers, your ear must always have the casting vote.
20. Samantha Fish – Faster
Samantha Fish has been threatening to make an album like Faster for years. Well, not threatening, more like drip-feeding the idea into her sound like a work of subliminal advertising that would have marked her for a successful career on Madison Avenue.
Now that she has taken the plunge and hired the estimable Martin Kierszenbaum (aka Cherry Cherry Boom Boom) as producer, she can turn loose all those pop elements and demonstrate just how resilient an art form blues-rock can be, and how conservative and staid we have been with its housekeeping over the years.
You can hear the influence of Prince, of Lana Del Rey, and of course Lady Gaga, whose name is inextricably linked with Kierszenbaum. But recording Faster at The Village, where Fleetwood Mac tracked Tusk, feels like an act of surreptitious pop engineering, and it takes her guitar playing into new and exciting spaces.
It’s still a guitar record. Kierszenbaum got Fish to dial in a tone, and that was the tone – a Gibson SG into Fender Super Reverb and Deluxe Reverb amps – with less emphasis on the pedalboard. And it’s further proof that she’s one of the best blues-rock players around. But it shows that, given the chance, she could and should cross over. Why not go pop?
19. Jerry Cantrell – Brighten
A master of deploying acoustic guitars alongside electrics to heighten the depth of a mix, Jerry Cantrell this year debuted his first solo album since 2002’s Degradation Trip. It traffics in a gauzy ‘70s feel, the mood effortlessly modulating between downbeat and optimistic, with a three-dimensional production job and compositions anchored by those yowling drones that have become the hallmark of Alice in Chains over the years.
Again, this is another audiophile record, with Cantrell taking the connoisseur approach, plugging his Les Pauls and trusty G&L Rampage into a variety of amp heads – most certainly his signature Friedman heads somewhere – and playing a bunch of Gibson Songwriters alongside Martin and Guild acoustics.
18. The Black Keys – Delta Kream
Delta Kream is a lovingly created work of musical revivalism that finds the Black Keys paying dues to their Hill County blues heroes R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough on an album of blues standards. Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney are joined by the likes of Burnside’s longtime sideman Kenny Brown and others sitting in on album that’s celebratory, poignant, and a reference point for vintage electric guitar tone.
And there is some sorcery in those sounds. Most of us are not from North Mississippi, and yet the area will come alive in our imaginations when we press play. That’s the power of blues storytelling, sure, but also of guitar tone, and its power to sell us the illusion and color in the gaps. Not to get all sentimental or anything, but that is pretty magical.
17. Julian Lage – Squint
Jazz guitar phenom Julian Lage’s Blue Note debut would be way higher on the list if jazz enjoyed the same exposure as pretty much any other style. But as things stand, maybe jazz is just too dangerous for mainstream audiences to get behind. That’s right, Lage might well be a mild-mannered mensch but his playing style, note choices and compositional sensibility are 100 percent danger. He is a musically book-smart Evel Knievel.
Of course, it’s Lage’s name on the cover, but the improvisational brio brought to bear on this stylistically adventurous deep dive into the history of jazz, and how it is contextualized by the blues and rock ’n’ roll artforms that orbit it, is facilitated by the stellar contributions of bass player Jorge Roeder and drummer Dave King. The chemistry within that trio is something we all aspire to.
EDITOR'S PICK: Wolf Alice - Blue Weekend (opens in new tab)
Are Wolf Alice immune to making a bad album? Blue Weekend would certainly suggest so. The four-piece’s third studio album and first in four years, the 11-track offering is arguably their finest to date, and easily one of the best records of the year. Simply put, it’s an inspirational pick ‘n’ mix of sounds, ranging from the throaty fuzzes of Smile to the serene acoustics of the Fleetwood Mac-esque Safe From Heartbreak. As a guitar album, Blue Weekend is a well-stocked emporium of luscious tones. As a collection of music, it’s a work of art. – Matt Owen
16. Tremonti – Marching in Time
Listening to Mark Tremonti’s latest solo album is a little like following Dwayne 'The Rock’ Johnson on Instagram. You will find yourself all set to embrace a shapeless Sunday, and after some French toast and maple syrup – two rounds, you deserve this – you might have some pentatonic noodling planned from the comfort of your easy chair, maybe a cold one to slake your thirst. “Siri, just where did I leave my Blues Junior?”
But such indolence is brutally punctured by the urge to ‘put in the work and get some gains’. For the fitspo set, that means the gym, grunting and Lycra. For guitar players, that means three to four hours of regimented, structured practice; the gains we’re chasing are the ability to attain a level of insouciant virtuosity, the kind that allows Tremonti to transition from the poignant to the spectacular and back again. Fast and furious, if you will.
15. Billy Strings – Renewal
Billy Strings is a ridiculous player. Again, the virtuosity feels unrehearsed and instinctive – with as communal and celebratory a genre as bluegrass, it has to be. The songwriting is wise beyond his years. Well, we say that, but wisdom and foolishness lies in every demographic, and all it takes for a great songwriter of any age is to be able to scan the horizon and intuit the universal truths that shape and color our all-too-brief time on this planet.
There are many highlights on Renewal. Secrets is as action-packed as the third act of Avengers: Infinity War but is written and composed in such a way as to invoke the Wachowskis’ bullet time, as though the world slows and all that musical information can make a beeline straight for your heart.
High-tempo music from a superhero songwriter can still make you cry. And if it doesn’t, then Love and Regret will. No matter where we are from, who we are or on which slice our bread is buttered, that speaks to us all.
14. Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram – 662
Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram is playing fast and loose with his at-home privacy here, giving away the first three digits of his telephone number – well, the area code. But that is thematically judicious, as the music here and stories told are all rooted in his Mississippi locale.
There were a few things about Kingfish’s playing that identified him as a next-gen bluesman of some repute, but his tone and his vibrato have got to be right up there. Just listen to the spanky scratch of the title track’s rhythm figure, and then that piping hot Strat juice that arrives by way of the lead.
His phrasing is righteous, too, which is only appropriate; for if you are going to hold a note and bend it for the audience to lose their minds to, then it had better be the right note.
13. Spiritbox – Eternal Blue
The Canadian trio’s much-anticipated debut is an exercise in dynamics, tension, atmosphere, and, on occasion, just surrendering all of this to the cleansing nuclear fire of Mike Stringer’s xenomorph guitar.
The explosive shifts in tone are perhaps something learned from the post nu-metal cognoscenti – “My, Mr. Stringer, that verse/chorus shift really does have Stephen Carpenter’s eyes” – but Stringer’s abrasive down-tuned style, made possible by extended-range guitars from the likes of Abasi Concepts and Aristides, is a beast all his own.
Does it feel shallow to admit we’re suckers for a pick slide that sounds like there is a tear in the space/time continuum? For all the big ideas here, it’s often the primal triggers that hot-wire the audience’s critical faculties.
EDITOR'S PICK: The Pretty Reckless – Death by Rock and Roll (opens in new tab)
TPR’s fourth album Death by Rock and Roll is steeped in tragedy, and the subject material contained within is expectedly raw. The untimely passings of Chris Cornell, one of frontwoman Taylor Momsen’s mentors, and the band’s longtime producer and studio guitarist Kato Khandwala threw the band off course, and nearly led them to call it quits entirely. DBRAR shows a band back from the brink, channeling their grief and loss – with help from the likes of Tom Morello and Kim Thayil – and paying a hard-rocking, riff-heavy and heartfelt tribute to their late friends. – Sam Roche
12. Gojira – Fortitude
Gojira’s blockbuster metal has always been underpinned by an arthouse sensibility, and that’s what makes albums such as Fortitude sound so profound and yet fundamentally satisfying in the rock ’n’ roll sense of the word.
Joe Duplantier and Christian Andreu’s guitars work in lock-step over the virtuoso time-keeping of Joe’s kid brother and drummer Mario, creating grooves that command a physical reaction from those exposed to them. And yet Duplantier is writing about things that make us consider our position in this world, expanding his arrangements accordingly, subsuming elements of prog, post-metal and electronic music.
From anyone else we might call this ambitious but, for Gojira, this is second nature, instinctual, and they made sure to capture it in every take in the studio by going all-in chasing an inspiring sound and then recording it while the energy was fresh.
11. Paul Gilbert – Werewolves of Portland
How much fun can one grown man have on his own? Werewolves of Portland is like an exercise in solo musicianship that from the outset might seem like a Herculean task akin to swimming the Atlantic, but in Gilbert’s antic and outsized imagination it’s just what you do when the occasion arises.
Yes, Gilbert plays everything here, and it’s a record that reminds us that instrumental rock can be primarily fun. Gilbert’s humor is all over this. Turning idle thoughts of, ‘Should we move away from Portland? Things are a little hectic’ into a bonkers paean to the fifth least populated state in the US, Hello! North Dakota, and creating a battle-shred spectacular advancing the idea that a piece of great pie will bring comity and unity to the world, Argument About Pie.
There are no vocals, but in a sense there are. Gilbert wrote lyrics and expressed them with slide guitar, a process that seems like the most organic way to incorporate one of our more traditional techniques into most spectacular arrangements, making the guitar instrumental not only fun but a singalong experience.
10. Smith/Kotzen – Smith/Kotzen
Smith/Kotzen? That sounds like it could be the name of a delicatessen in downtown Kansas City, but in our timeline it is a project of prodigiously talented guitar players and neighbors Adrian Smith and Richie Kotzen, who turned some downtime into studio time for a hard-rock two-hander.
Remarkable, isn’t it, even more so that former tennis star Pat Cash made the introductions. Here, the Iron Maiden guitarist Smith and former Poison guitarist Kotzen dovetail politely, like two old friends shooting some pool.
With most of his gear in storage, Smith even used Kotzen’s rig, but when he steps up to the table, there’s no denying it’s him. Like on Running, which echoes Maiden classic Moonchild with a Pat Thrall-inspired solo. As for Kotzen, he pulls out all the tricks, goes a bit nuts with the rotary speaker effects, and meets Smith in the middle when the project circles back to blues-driven hard rock.
9. Billy F. Gibbons – Hardware
Billy F. Gibbons only gets cooler the hotter he gets, and out there in the California High Desert, not far from Joshua Tree National Park, where Hardware was tracked, things were mighty hot.
Hardware sees Gibbons joined by guitarist Austin Hanks and drummer Matt Sorum and rocking out. There’s a little more engine grease to these arrangements than on his bluesier releases, with tracks like She’s On Fire making use of Sorum’s power, and West Coast Junkie making full use of whatever gear was already there when Gibbons arrived at the studio.
Just what do you do when you find a vintage Fender Jazzmaster, a ’61 Fender Piggyback amp and Fender Reverb tank idling in the studio? Well, of course you write a track that’s electrified by the antic energy of surf rock. Hardware is testament to what you can get down after spending three months under the sun with only cacti and rattlers for company.
EDITOR'S PICK: Tash Sultana – Terra Firma (opens in new tab)
The staggering, multitasking loop performances were already the stuff of YouTube legend, but 2021 was the year the name Tash Sultana spread through mainstream guitar circles like wildfire. With a debut Fender signature Strat in tow, Sultana dropped Terra Firma, an album that captured their gargantuan live sound on record and demonstrated why they’re one of today’s bona fide guitar heroes, via an awe-inspiring showcase of new-age wigouts, Mayer-infused neo-soul and jagged harmonized leads. – Michael Astley-Brown
8. Mastodon – Hushed And Grim
Hushed And Grim sees Mastodon process the loss of their friend and manager Nick John with one of their most audacious albums of an audacious discography. Guitarists Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher are masters of mining the borderland between melody and dissonance, the savage and the philosophical, and here they shift feel on a dime.
One moment might find them in a holding pattern around a vocal harmony, the next they are referencing the riff firestorms of earlier releases Remission and Leviathan, which harnessed the apocalyptic influence of Neurosis and the weight of the Melvins to spectacular effect.
Quite where they go from here is hard to say. This is a double album that leaves nothing on the floor. Tracks such as Pain with an Anchor weave tangled roots of guitar textures, in which you could get lost for days. Skeleton of Splendor has a fairytale airiness to it.
More Than I Could Chew, meanwhile, is like the band’s career in just under seven minutes: the inordinate spectacle of the riff, Brann Dailor’s lead drumming exploding like popcorn in the microwave, then a reach for the sky prog middle-eight and outro solo.
7. Mammoth WVH – Mammoth WVH
For a guitar community still processing the loss of one of its most brilliant elders, Mammoth WVH’s debut is right there with you, with Wolfgang Van Halen paying tribute to his father’s work on tracks such as Mr. Ed, and indeed his life, on Distance.
We might all know what Distance is explicitly about, but it’s a song that speaks to anyone who has lost a loved one. Although we might recognize some of Eddie Van Halen’s hard-rock grammar here, the language and dialect is all Wolfgang’s, on a hard-rock sound that is very much his own, perhaps augmented and shaped by the influence of Soundgarden and Tool, which makes 21st-century hard rock a very different – and more knowing – beast than its ‘80s counterparts. But then, these are very different times.
6. Greta Van Fleet – The Battle at Garden’s Gate
Greta Van Fleet were born too late but are not alone in their predicament, and they have duly created a sound offering succour and enlightenment to those who continue mourn the aesthetic largesse of classic rock’s big beasts.
Most of which, if not all, are artistically extinct, but their lifeblood courses through the veins of Jake Kiszka and company, and GVF have the imagination and ability to reinterpret this sound for the digital age. If there’s a sense of melancholy under the triumph of their bold arrangements, perhaps it’s from the recognition that popular culture is convulsing in the information age.
Kiszka talks about The Battle at Garden’s Gate being cinematic, and it is; this is Peter Jackson’s Deep Purple, Spielberg’s Zeppelin, with Kiszka cast as a Fitzcarraldo figure hauling the GVF steamship over the hill. But cinema as we know it is being killed, too. Maybe all that’s left is grand gestures of defiance such as this.
5. Dream Theater – A View From the Top of the World
Few bands have been more aptly named than Dream Theater. The creative horizons imagined by John Petrucci appear beyond the limits of the conscious mind. He might dress in black, dig metal, and have a rig that could be seen and heard from space, but there’s something of an 18th-century composer’s sensibility to how Petrucci arranges his songs.
Take the title track. To call it epic feels a little redundant; it’s 20 minutes long, but even after six we get the feeling we’ve left Earth behind, as though the atmosphere itself has changed. Petrucci’s playing is, of course, redoubtable, inspired and peerless, and it makes for a great study piece for guitar players with designs on expanding their repertoire and musical vocabulary.
But that’s not what Petrucci has in mind for Dream Theater, at least we don’t think so. It’s all about the gift of surprise. Progressive music is not easy. It can be a stultifying torture if the ideas don’t match the ambition.
But with Dream Theater, the ideas just keep coming at you, with Petrucci generous in lacing his songwriting with the gift of surprise, because he knows that long-form musical entertainment is not meant to be a chore. And if that means getting his friends at Ernie Ball Music Man to design him an eight-string Majesty so he can rethink the instrument anew and write a hulk jam such as Awaken the Master, then so be it. Now, that’s entertainment.
EDITOR'S PICK: Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime (opens in new tab)
Mdou Moctar’s Afrique Victime is a wondrous thing – a record whose songs of heartbreak, political upheaval and the evils of the Scramble for Africa crackle with life. Powering it all is Moctar’s guitar playing – a breathtaking, wholly original mix of the hypnotic, pulsating drones of the assouf (“desert blues”) he grew up with, the emotive, piercing cries of American blues, the boundary-shattering spirit of Hendrix, and the lightspeed eruptions of Van Halen. – Jackson Maxwell
4. Joe Bonamassa – Time Clocks
The world’s highest-grossing bluesman doesn’t get enough credit for his off-menu musical choices. Sure, he’s a blues-rock player to his bones, but he’s a blues-rock player who is often at his best when taking the genre off the beaten path. Time Clocks is a prime example.
This, he once told us, was to be the ‘NY subway album’, which he made sound like it was to be almost improvisational, recorded with a minimum of fuss and using the 24/7 rhythms of the Big Apple to inform the jams.
But once he unloaded some choice picks from Nerdville – a 1959 Les Paul Standard here, a ’68 Thinline Tele with an all original Parsons/White B-Bender there – the songs decided otherwise, with Bonamassa bringing all his Chris Squire, prog influences to bear to the fore.
Yes, he can shift to bar room melancholy if and when the song requires it, but the compositions on Time Clocks are often too elegiac to shake themselves into a 12/8 shuffle. That was not the rhythm of New York City in the winter months of February 2021.
3. Iron Maiden – Senjutsu
Iron Maiden have always been one of the more ambitious bands to arise out of the NWOBHM cohort but back in 1981, few could have looked into the tea leaves, seen Eddie’s face staring back at them, and forecast an album like Senjutsu.
Senjutsu is built on the maxim ‘more is more’. Perhaps it is written this way by happenstance, by virtue of Iron Maiden’s unorthodox approach of showing up at a studio with a bunch of songs written before writing in situ until an album presents itself.
If their antic debut and the midnight thrills of Killers offered the gratification of a cheeseburger and cold lager, Senjutsu offers a 12-course tasting menu with wine pairings, and it leans fully into the three-guitar dynamic for maximum effect.
In Janick Gers, Dave Murray and Adrian Smith, Maiden have myriad options and exploit them throughout, weaving guitar harmonies in and out, doubling parts and lending the gamed-out expanse of Senjutsu’s more progressive tracks a sense of theater.
2. Gus G – Quantum Leap
Gus G is the Willy Wonka of mainstream metal shred guitar. Every now and then, somebody has his ear exclusively, and taps into his electrifying style for their own gratification. In the recent past, Ozzy Osbourne was Charlie with his golden ticket, maintaining his unerring reputation for always securing the services of a top-tier guitar player before doing anything.
But on Quantum Leap, Gus G is getting high on his own supply of everlasting gobstoppers and working an almighty sugar rush on his signature Jackson Star. Quantum Leap does not shy away from the noble business of fretboard fire-raising, but throughout Mr G keeps that melody front and center.
There’s a Japanese video game sensibility to how he builds the solos on this. Big Friedman-esque gestures will resolve themselves in tricksy diminished scale runs, before riding off into the sunset atop a burnished steel power metal riff.
And if the riff doesn’t get you, then a flagon of fizzy lifting drink will. Carbonated, highly sugared, delicious. And, okay, serious point, we could also look at Quantum Leap and call it a work of shred postmodernism, with the G man referencing the leading lights of the Satch generation and putting his own imprint on it.
1. John Mayer – Sob Rock
The idea for Sob Rock could have come from a therapist. Here we are in the frantic present, and if you have been keeping up with affairs, you might notice things are a little topsy-turvy. Perhaps recognizing the scale of our present-day funk, John Mayer – arch entertainer and master guitar player – takes evasive action through the medium of soft rock, executing a Toto 180 and planting us back under the protective shoulder pads of a late ‘80s aesthetic.
And what do you know, even those too young to be familiar with the candied scent of Harmony hairspray were all in, too. This time capsule of Mayer’s construction has everything we need; there’s some beautifully manicured guitar tones here, with that carefully worked quality that suited the era’s production styles.
As Mayer explained to Guitar World, much of it was inspired by his fantasy of having a song of his turn up on Eric Clapton’s Journeyman. “I loved him so much that I’m not afraid to go, ‘I just want to feel what that’s like…’ Like, the experience of plugging a Strat with noiseless pickups into a Soldano with a chorus pedal. And to hear that back on your own song is funny, poignant, touching, exciting, titillating.”
That in essence, is Sob Rock. It is an album of fantasy. It has guitar solos all over it, each delivered in conversational style – a little like how Mayer speaks, right? – with meticulous chops. But they are grounded in reality. They know the song is the boss. And Mayer knows it’s not 1988, which is why it was important to sound like it is.