This is it, folks, the big one. As end-of-year polls go, this is the one that really matters. Of course, we love the greatest solos, reprising the past 365 days in lead guitar and drilling down to Top 10 that offer clues as to where technique is going and what that means for the musical ideas we want to share with the world. Or riffs, the building blocks of musical life as we know it.
The albums, however, are definitive statements. They contain multitudes. And even in the digital era, streaming scrambling what was so carefully sequenced by the artist’s life, albums still matter.
This year’s greatest guitar albums of 2022, as voted for by you, pull from all kinds of different styles, featuring players who approach the instrument from wholly different perspectives. The list speaks for itself.
Perhaps we should give a shout out to notable omissions from the popular vote, such as Buddy Guy’s The Blues Don't Lie, or Julian Lage’s sophomore album for Blue Note, A View With a Room, and it is worth asking where the maggots were at for Slipknot to miss out on the Top 20? Maybe they voted for Lage and split the vote. Democracy is complicated.
So, too, is making an album. Kudos to anyone nuts enough to make one. Here are your favorites of the year…
20. Wet Leg – Wet Leg
Featuring some of the catchiest hooks of 2022, in songs written with a sense of humor attuned to 33 per cent wry and the rest surrealist, Wet Leg’s debut album is indie rock leavened by helium and the eccentricity of Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers.
The guitar grounds their sound with fuzzy, organic heat – a scratchy tone that resembles the sound of an electric approaching its place in the mix from a jaunty angle. Maybe crafting infectious indie-pop is all about the angles. Their choice of electric guitars – Chambers typically on a vintage Hofner Galaxie, Teasdale on a Surf Green Jazzmaster or Noventa Telecaster – would bear that theory out.
19. Eric Gales – Crown
Even before Eric Gales had entered the studio with the powerhouse blues-rock production duo Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith there was a consensus building that the Memphis, TN guitarist was coronation material.
His profile had suffered offer the years, as he had. With substance abuse issues and jail time in the rearview mirror, there was a clear path to redemption, a low thrum of excitement from people – including Bonamassa – that blues-rock’s most exciting talent was going to be fully realized on record, on the stage, where he belongs.
To watch Gales play is to have one’s mind blown, a player jockeying his S-style Magneto signature guitar as if on a crossfader between SRV and Hendrix, but introducing some classical, some jazz, some whatever because wowsers this man can play. This time he captured that magic on tape for the world to hear.
18. Edgar Winter – Brother Johnny
A loving tribute to the late Texan blues maverick Johnny Winter from his brother Edgar, who selected these choice cuts and corralled an all-star team of six-string talents into the studio to perform them, with a few original cuts for good measure, Brother Johnny is an incredible document of where blues guitar is at in 2022.
It’s poignant, not least for Taylor Hawkins’ performance alongside Doug Rappoport on Johnny Winter’s Guess I’ll Go Away – the Foo Fighters drummer’s first posthumous release after his death in March – but for hearing Winter’s playing refracted through his acolytes, and some of the greatest players on the planet.
You’ve got Joe Bonamassa on Mean Town Blues, Derek Trucks and Billy Gibbons on I’m Yours and I’m Hers, David Grissom and Joe Walsh tearing through Johnny B. Goode, Walsh providing one of many highlights with his playing on Stranger. Keb’ Mo’ and Edgar Winter’s two-hander Lone Star Blues is similarly not to be missed.
17. Muse – Will of the People
To stick a metaphor through the Kaoss Pad, Will of the People is the sort of album that is so big it could be seen from space. Seriously, it’s like pop-culture as an observable phenomenon in natural sciences, with Matt Bellamy’s ginormo-brain tapping into sociopolitical discomfort, gonzo sci-fi, technology, all the stuff that makes Muse Muse, for an album that pushes their sound into new extremes.
Death growls, double-kicks, progressive rock guitar written and performed in the key of Children of Men, falsetto, Will of the People is a an event record, the thrill and the production of the Muse live show – coming soon to a stadium near you – condensed into 37 minutes and 40 seconds.
EDITOR’S PICK: Machine Gun Kelly – Mainstream Sellout
Machine Gun Kelly is one of the most divisive and conversation-provoking figures in guitar music today – exactly as an artist of his stature should be. After metamorphosing from prolific hip-hop artist to Schecter-toting punk rocker with his 2020 full-length, Tickets to My Downfall, the Cleveland, Ohio superstar threw his hat into the six-string ring once again this year with the sprawling and self-aware Mainstream Sellout. The album sees MGK recruit some big-name artists – not least blackbear, Willow and Bring Me the Horizon – but it’s hard to focus on the star turns when the palm-muted, powerchord laden riffs and hooks contained within and written by the man himself are this damn catchy. – Sam Roche
16. Porcupine Tree – Closure/Continuation
Steven Wilson has had no trouble in filling the days since Porcupine Tree was placed into a state of hibernation, so there was no rush in pulling him away from his solo work, high-profile mixing and production jobs, and extracting drummer Gavin Harrison from King Crimson to simply answer the demand for one of prog’s most captivating projects to reanimate itself once more. This was always going to take time.
When it arrived with the playful/knowing title, it was unmistakably sculpted by Wilson’s sleight of hand, and it had been the product of time. Speaking to Total Guitar, Wilson revealed that he and Harrison had been writing since 2012, when the bear bones of Harridan came together with Wilson on bass guitar, kicking off a slow evolutionary process that would result in one of the most profound releases of the year – a masterwork of light and shade, heaviness recontextualized, and of depths that may yet take another year to fathom.
15. Slash featuring Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators – 4
Myles Kennedy’s first of two albums in this year’s Top 20 found him and the Guns N’ Roses guitarist and bona-fide rock icon Slash ensconced within the magic acoustics of RCA Studio A in Nashville to track a rock album without a safety net. That is, they tracked this thing live, sticking Kennedy in a booth and amps on 10, with the audio production nous of Dave Cobb on hand to steer traffic and let it bleed when it needed to.
The result is something of an anachronism in 2022; it’s a rock album that actually sounds a little dangerous – a rewilding of the art form – that has an energy about it that juices some of Slash’s best playing since publishing the blueprint for sleazy, shambolic, grandiose rock ’n’ roll with 1987’s Appetite for Destruction.
14. Animals As Leaders – Parrhesia
It is a measure of Tosin Abasi and Javier Reyes’ future-forward iconoclasm that one of the most radical stories to come out of the studio when tracking Parrhesia was that they used what a younger cohort of GW readers might refer to as a ‘boomer bend machine’ on this one. That’s right, a Gibson Les Paul. Shock, horror. It was as though they had confessed to taking their morning commute on a Penny Farthing.
But this only served to highlight the pragmatism in their approach; leave the dogma to those making less interesting music. This is about finding the tones to make their riffs as dynamic as can be, to make them pop, and Parrhesia pops – metal as written by contortionists, the double-jointed wired to a clock of many rhythms.
13. Jack White – Fear of the Dawn
Fear of the Dawn is a dizzying cornucopia of gourmet fuzz tones, riffs administered from Jack White’s carousel of custom-built Fender guitars, onboard pitch-shifting and bespoke hardware to allow the instrument to transcend its boundaries, and all this is as daring and iconoclastic as Animals as Leaders, and yet White’s aesthetic is vintage – a vintage sound that never existed in the first place.
White’s internal logic is what holds this imagined state of being in equilibrium, a lock that ensures the garage rock steampunk fever remains unbroken. There’s blues, there’s rock ’n’ roll; you know how it goes. But Fear of the Dawn could have come from no-one else. The opening trifecta of tracks find White engage the riff, but throughout he is pushing it.
“There are places I’ve never gone before, and there’s new techniques I thought I wasn’t capable of doing,” he said, speaking to GW in June. “I think I was finally able to tap into 30 years of experimenting and failing, trying to get a certain tone and not really getting there.”
EDITOR’S PICK: Willow – Coping Mechanism
There’s no two ways about it: Willow Smith is one of today’s fastest-rising guitar stars, and though her initial defection to the ranks of six-strings stirred skepticism from naysayers and haters, the 22-year-old has well and truly silenced the doubters in quite spectacular style. Coping Mechanism is the latest rung on a ladder that leads straight to the top for Willow, who channels her biggest inspirations – think Deftones, Smashing Pumpkins and Lamb of God – while also introducing her own guitar-heavy flair. The riffs are savage, the solos are superb and the overall package is top-notch. With Willow recently voicing her desire to further improve her guitar skills à la St Vincent and Yvette Young, we can rest easy knowing her guitar era is just getting started. – Matt Owen
12. Marcus King – Young Blood
This is a guitar title, ma’am, but please indulge us for a minute as we give it up for Marcus King’s voice. Of course, his gifts on the guitar are abundant but his voice is his true blessing.
Young Blood could be looked at as another redemption record. On Blues Worse Than I Have Ever Had he revisits a dark night of the soul. “At the time, I’d changed medications when I was trying to process the death of family members,” he explained. “I was coasting through life like a zombie. When I’d get off them, I’d feel things that happened six months ago for the first time and crash down.”
On Rescue Me, he mines the emotional range of soul and RnB in search of spiritual uplift. Over the course of 10 tracks, each recorded in the company of Dan Auerbach, we hope he found some. He surely found a sense of renewal for his audience, who can take solace in his lyrics and luxuriate in those guitar tones.
11. Ghost – Impera
The 21st century has too rational a mindset for a band such as Ghost to exist and to flourish. And yet, here we are, the Nameless Ghouls summoned to Tobias Forge’s unholy decree for a blasphemous opera of candied histrionic rock – the closest metal has got to becoming Abba without becoming Abba.
It is hard to escape the theater on Impera. As under the proscenium, the movements here are exaggerated so everyone can see. The riffs are bigger, the melodies, too. The eighth notes pump like there’s an internal pop-rock combustion engine. At sufficient volumes, the falsetto vocals might explode the crystal glassware on the shelf. A risk you will be willing to take for this operatic Rocky Horror Picture Show to spirit you away to Halloween on any given day of the calendar year.
10. Tedeschi Trucks Band – I Am the Moon
The Tedeschi Trucks Band’s finest hour is also this year’s grandest design, a quadruple album and multi-media project that has a scale and ambition that would seem bold even in the ‘70s. Released in four chapters, each with an accompanying video released to YouTube, I Am the Moon speaks to something fundamental, even elemental, in the human condition and yet does so in all accents of TTB’s polyglot sound.
At its heart you have Susan Tedeschi on vocals and guitar, Derek Trucks on his Gibson SG, southern rock as a launchpad for soul, blues, with RnB and jazz stretching the canvas, Gabe Dixon’s keys giving those guitars more room to run into, Mike Mattison’s vocals heightening the emotional cadence on songs that are at once a journey outwards, through our world, the history of the music that inspired TTB, and also inwards in search of something else. Something more intimate. It is inspired by Nizami’s Layla and Majnun, written from Layla’s POV, but speaks to everyone because things such as this are universal.
9. Ozzy Osbourne – Patient Number 9
Throughout a career spanning over five decades, Ozzy Osbourne has proved himself time after time to be the world’s most effective lightning rod for guitar talent. His age and his health issues ask the question of how much longer he can keep bringing that wonderful yowl to the microphone. His enthusiasm and charisma respond in kind. Patient Number 9 is a classic Ozzy album – big choruses, a little macabre, heavy on the theater, introspective on the sly, and stacked with top guitar players.
There’s producer Andrew Watt, then you have a returning Zakk Wylde, with guest spots from Mike McCready, Tony Iommi, Jeff Beck, and Eric Clapton because why not, right? Sadly, they couldn’t get Jimmy Page but there’s always next time. You can’t kill rock and roll. You can’t stop Ozzy.
EDITOR’S PICK: Momma – Household Name
The new wave of ’90s-inspired Gen Z alt-rock really picked up steam this year, but nobody tapped into the revival quite like Momma. Etta Friedman and Allegra Weingarten may carry themselves with a slacker aesthetic, but their songs are loaded with the kind of precision-engineered hooks that would have propelled them to the top of the Billboard charts in ’93. Third album Household Name is the ultimate distillation of the duo’s sound – an explosive combo of contagious riffs, Smashing Pumpkins guitar tones and bubblegum pop melodies that’s among the most addictive sonic formulas to be cooked up this year. – Michael Astley-Brown
8. Envy of None – Envy of None
What do you do when you have spent decades at the summit of Prog Mountain and have made your descent back to base camp in search of something new? This is where Alex Lifeson found himself after the the dissolution of Rush, precipitated by the death of drummer and chief lyricist Neil Peart. And in Envy of None, Lifeson found the answer, playing a style that was a 90-degree turn, more textures than the explicitly melodic riffs and motifs that stitched together Rush’s widescreen prog canvas, leaning more on synthesized arrangements.
“I feel like I’ve fully explored the whole area of soloing,” Lifeson told Guitar World. “I think I have a particular style and character to my solos, [and] there’s lots of variation in my soloing, but I think at this point in my life it’s more about servicing the song. Not being too distracting, or shining a light on any particular thing. It’s just getting into the groove, tapping your foot and feeling connected with the song itself.”
And, ultimately, feeling connected to your art again. Welcome back, sir.
7. Joe Satriani – The Elephants of Mars
Because Joe Satriani has been in the six-string mind expansion game for some time now, there is a danger that we take him for granted, as though it is normal for anyone born of flesh and blood to be that right-on with their intonation, to have such command of the whammy bar, to be able to call upon such a cosmic imagination each year when it comes time to write an album.
Satch himself says he wanted this to be a definitive statement of where he was at as a musician. Where its predecessor, Shapeshifting, offered a whirlwind tour of Satriani’s musical turn-ons, from the iridescent spectaculars of Eddie Van Halen to Ali Farka Touré and Dick Dale, The Elephants of Mars is full-on immersion in Satriani’s style. As such, it is both grand and audacious, small and intimate.
Some of the sounds you’ll hear on this album are genuine WTF, stop-and-rewind moments, rationed sensibly because Satriani would very much like you to stick with the program and join him on this musical journey. His tone is ridiculous here, all the more remarkable that it largely came from a SansAmp plugin, the usual complement of Marshall guitar amps sitting this one out.
6. Andy Timmons – Electric Truth
Hitting play on GW columnist Andy Timmons’ Electric Truth is to be confronted with the loose-steppin’ funk groove of E.W.F. As irresistible as a perfectly seasoned cashew, this track’s casually manipulative rhythm greases up the hips like it was a cod liver oil injection, and places you at real risk of adopting what could only be described as an exaggerated strut. The perambulatory quality of E.W.F. is testament to Timmons’ command of his brief, and just how deep he can take you with the guitar.
It’s not all sashaying. Timmons has a chameleon sensibility with his instrument, moseying on over into blues-rock, with Mr Josh Smith overseeing production and joining in the fun on the blues guitar shoot out of Johnnie T, and leaning in on the instrumental rock virtuoso vibe on Shuggie without every being in danger of over-playing.
5. Red Hot Chili Peppers – Return of the Dream Canteen
You wait 16 years for a Red Hot Chili Peppers album with John Frusciante and then two come along at once. Well, not at once, but Return of the Dream Canteen was recorded in the same sessions as Unlimited Love, which when you lay them both out nose-to-tail makes you realize just how different these albums are, and just how crazy intense that time spent with Rick Rubin was to get so much music out of it.
Sure, Rubin presides over things with that irenic disposition of his, sitting stock still, filtering the air like a giant clam waiting for the music to nourish him – the Chilis? Well, John Frusciante and Flea will have face-off jam challenges, taking the quasi-gladiatorial approach to songwriting. It works.
Return of the Dream Canteen could have sounded like off-cuts, or be considered as such because the audience can smell that sort of thing, but the cooking is on point, the funk and the rock are in balance, and as guitar highlights go, Frusciante’s tribute to EVH on Eddie is right up there.
EDITOR’S PICK: The Smile – A Light for Attracting Attention
Trading their compadres in Radiohead for Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner, Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood this year delivered a collection of songs that are twistier, knottier and a bit more obtuse than usual, but with the same vital heart. Contained within are some of the best riffs – the punk fury of Yorke’s You Will Never Work in Television Again and Greenwood’s hypnotically math-y Les Paul figure on Thin Thing in particular – either have written in a long, long time. – Jackson Maxwell
4. Megadeth – The Sick, the Dying... and the Dead!
The Sick, the Dying... and the Dead! has everything you could want from a Megadeth record. The writing and recording of the album is a triumph in and of itself, with frontman and guitarist Dave Mustaine receiving chemotherapy and radiotherapy to treat tongue cancer while trying to make the record. There was also the departure of longstanding bassist David Ellefson to contend with. Nevertheless, Mustaine trucked on, and sublimated that mortal and administrative panic into an album of precision targeted aggression.
You’ll find Megadeth at their fastest here. Night Stalkers, featuring Ice-T, clocks in at 190BPM, a mechano-thrasher inspired by a top-secret helicopter division of the military. The title track coincidentally references the plague and thus is right on message for the time it was recorded in. There are tracks about irradiated canines, about addiction, about reality TV, and throughout, the partnership of Mustaine and Kiko Loureiro has never sounded better, approaching Mustaine/Friedman levels of technical ecstasy and rubber-stamping Megadeth’s cred as a state-of-the-art metal band.
3. Steve Vai – Inviolate
To have both Joe Satriani and his former student and now great friend Steve Vai release albums that perfectly articulate their essence as musicians in the same year is a double blessing. Just as Satch’s Elephants of Mars could not be any more Satch, Inviolate is 100 percent Vai, which is to say guitar playing informed by an imagination that daren’t recognize any physical limitations at all.
Injured? Had some shoulder surgery? Oh, okay, just write a song one-handed – you can do that, Steve. Oh, you did, Knappsack, a song that could be the end-of-level boss in a legato videogame. Then there are the new techniques, such as joint-shifting, which gives the single-coil spank of Candle Power an almost mechanised quality, like a quantum computer reimagining of Brent Mason. Steve Vai? There’s algorithms in those fingers!
And, of course, there is the Hydra, the triple-necked custom Ibanez electric guitar that sat on a stand and hissed at Vai until he summoned the courage to learn to play it, and then wrote and recorded Teeth of the Hydra, a steampunk instrumental that positions Vai as guitar’s frontiersman-in-chief.
2. Alter Bridge – Pawns & Kings
Myles Kennedy and Mark Tremonti have already got the best riff of 2022 trophy gathering dust on the mantelpiece, and now they have a podium finish for an album that reaffirms Alter Bridge as platinum card-carrying members of rock and metal’s elite. They might have stripped things back, a cautionary production approach to guard against engineering the life out of the material, but the record still sounds huge.
The riffs thrum with energy. The ideas coming out of the Kennedy/Tremonti Vulcan mind-meld are written in thick felt marker, with all the subtlety, the detail, and the light and shade drawn in afterwards. There’s a directness to Pawns & Kings. Kennedy’s arrangements on This Is War serve to ameliorate an internal struggle against self-doubt. His ideas for the title track set the table for what was to follow.
1. Polyphia – Remember That You Will Die
Instrumental rock guitar has a long and storied history, but to connect the dots between Hank Marvin and the Shadows and what Polyphia’s Tim Henson and Scott LePage are doing on the existentially titled Remember That You Will Die will require the use of a wormhole. This is guitar music performed and recorded at the edge of its practitioners’ abilities, augmented by technology, and patched together in the edit for maximum audacity straight through your ear canal.
There’s even a song titled The Audacity. They’re not even hiding it anymore. But wait, they never were, and that’s what makes Polyphia’s knowing relationship with virtuosity as a concept so much fun. There’s humor in this. There’s awe. There’s a solo from Steve Vai. There is the use of nylon-string acoustic-electric guitars to extend the aesthetic outer limits of the record with their plink-plonk attack and precision. There are collaborations to extend those parameters further.
But to bring it back to the Shadows and the Ventures, what would it sound like if they were presented with a Quad Cortex, a stacked Rolodex, and the capability to track at their own studio? We might need Doug Castro to engineer us a fully operational wormhole to find out. And if does build it, we’re sending Henson and LePage on through – like a Bill and Ted who scored 180-plus on their IQ test – to see what comes back. Maybe we just heard it.