The 32 greatest Texas guitarists of all time

Dimebag, SRV and St. Vincent
(Image credit: Lisa Lake/Getty Images; Paul Natkin/Getty Images; Rune Hellestad- Corbis/ Corbis via Getty Images)

In terms of actual geographical size, Texas is pretty much a pipsqueak compared to, say, Alaska. (For those keeping score, Alaska accounts for 665,384 square miles versus Texas’ total area of 268,596 square miles.) 

But if we’re measuring Texas’ mark on American culture, specifically through music, it’s hard to make an argument that any other territory comes close to the Lone Star State’s impact. 

From cowboy prairie songs to Tejano and conjunto music, from Western swing to the blues, from early rock ’n’ roll to hip-hop, and dozens of genres and sub-genres along the way, the sounds of Texas have enthralled and inspired listeners in ways that are almost incalculable.

The state also boasts bragging rights when it comes to the number of influential guitarists who have called it their home. Which begs the question: just what is it about Texas, and why has it been such a fertile breeding ground for guitarists? 

The oft-used phrase “There must be something in the water,” comes to mind, though no doubt Billy Gibbons would make a strong case for tequila. But perhaps there’s something about the state’s sheer magnitude, its rich history and renegade spirit that inspires guitarists to dream big and channel those ideas into their music unbound by restrictions. Or maybe it’s simply what choreographer (and Texas native) Tommy Tune once said: “I think Texans have more fun than the rest of the world.”

When we crafted the following list of Texas guitarists, we had to consider what actually constituted a “Texas guitarist”, and our criteria was based on anyone born there, raised there or who made their greatest impact there. There were, however, certain qualifiers that could be seen as subjective. 

For example, Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio was born in Fort Worth, but since he moved to New Jersey when he was three and then relocated to Vermont – where he’s famously lived ever since – it would be a gigantic stretch of the imagination to call him a “Texas guitarist”. (Should we ever publish an issue celebrating guitarists from the Northeast, Anastasio will be there.)

Be advised: after reading about the 30 guitarists we’ve highlighted here (which are not presented in any sort of numerical “order”), you might find yourself playing guitar with a new sense of swagger. In which case, don’t thank us – thank them. 

1. Stevie Ray Vaughan

Stevie Ray Vaughan

(Image credit: Larry Marano/Getty Images)

“I’m really just another Texas blues guitarist, but I think I’ve got something special to say with my music,” Stevie Ray Vaughan told us back in 1988. Then, prophetically, he added, “But I have to keep these things in perspective, because they’re gifts. It’s all a gift, and I have to give it back all the time or it goes away.”

More than any other guitarist, Vaughan embodied and celebrated Texas. Its grandeur ran through his spectacularly untamed sound that erupted with the force of an oil gusher. Its sense of danger inhabited a vibrato that could hiss like a rattlesnake. 

With his colorful scarves, silver rings and his trademark Plateau hat, he looked like a badass outlaw. And yet, he comported himself like a modest country gentleman. Referring to the bluesmen he studied – people like Albert Collins, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin, along with B.B., Albert and Earl King – he said, “Those guys are the ones who really ought to have the recognition. They’re the pioneers and the innovators.”

So much of Vaughan’s tale now reads like legend: how he came up following — and eventually equaling – his older guitar-playing brother, Jimmie; his rise through the Austin club scene and his smash appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival, where he was tapped by David Bowie for Let’s Dance; his signing to Epic by John Hammond (who also snagged Dylan and Springsteen). 

When he released his major-label debut, Texas Flood (boasting treasures like Love Struck Baby, Pride and Joy and the righteous title cut, a masterpiece of hellacious, over-the-top bends), it hit like a hurricane.

Others had been called the heir apparent to Hendrix, but Vaughan’s virtuosity and the fullness of feeling he brought to his playing made the claim manifest

Others had been called the heir apparent to Hendrix, but Vaughan’s virtuosity and the fullness of feeling he brought to his playing made the claim manifest. His studio cover of  Voodoo Child (Slight Return) refined some of Hendrix’s caterwauling madness, but with his supreme musicality – those artfully applied wah squawks and slinky turnarounds – he made it his own.

Backed by his ace rhythm section Double Trouble (drummer Chris Layton, bassist Tommy Shannon and – a bit later on – keyboardist Reese Wynans) and invariably armed with his Number One Strat, Vaughan recorded an encyclopedia of guitar gems like Couldn’t Stand the Weather, Scuttle Buttin’ and Cold Shot, and after beating alcohol and drugs, he released In Step, which featured Crossfire and Tightrope

His death in a helicopter crash, in August 1990 at age 35, was mourned by music fans across the globe. Posthumously, his album with brother Jimmie, Family Style, was issued a month later. 

2. Dimebag Darrell

“I grew up a heavy metal kid and we are a heavy metal band,” Dimebag Darrell told us in 1994. “I know it’s not fashionable, but I’m proud to say that’s what we are and that’s what we do.”

Dimebag Darrell Abbott loved heavy metal so much that he helped reshape and reinvent it. With his band Pantera (which included his drummer brother, Vinnie Paul Abbott), he took what had become toothless and predictable and made it raw and ferocious again – and suddenly it all sounded disarmingly new.

Harmonic screams are my way of ‘singing out,’ using my guitar instead of my throat

Dimebag Darrell

Darrell called the band’s relentless attack a “power groove,” and countless groups tried to emulate its blunt force, but as is often the case, you just can’t improve on an original.

It was obvious from the start that Darrell (born Darrell Lance Abbott in Ennis, Texas, in 1966) had it in him. The son of a musician and recording studio owner, he took to the guitar as a kid and jammed religiously to his favorites (Kiss, Van Halen and Black Sabbath were the biggies). At age 14, he dusted all comers at a local guitar contest (the prize was a Dean guitar), and within a couple of years he was banned from such competitions – he was that good.

Pantera – and Darrell, who for a time went by “Diamond Darrell” – took a few beats to find their footing. Dispensing with a brief glam metal period, they arrived in full with 1990’s Cowboys from Hell, which set the blueprint for the band – there were elements of thrash and traces of the emerging hardcore aesthetic. 

As “Dimebag Darrell”, the guitarist cranked the mosh-pit heat to extreme levels on Vulgar Display of Power and Far Beyond Driven, perfecting his deployment of face-frying solos, drop tunings, unorthodox modes and what he called “harmonic screams” (check out the end of This Love for a stunning example). In his Guitar World column, he wrote, “Harmonic screams are my way of ‘singing out,’ using my guitar instead of my throat.”

Following 2000’s Reinventing the Steel, tensions mounted in Pantera, and in 2003 the Abbott brothers ended the group and formed a new outfit, Damageplan. Supporting their debut album, New Found Power, the band toured throughout 2004, and on the night of December 8 of that year, in Columbus, Ohio, Darrell was shot to death on stage in an attack that left three others dead. At Darrell’s funeral, Eddie Van Halen placed his famous Charvel “bumblebee” guitar inside the casket.

3. Eric Johnson

There are guitarists with an identifiable sound – and then there’s Eric Johnson. With his exquisitely crafted mix of clean and overdriven tones, and his inimitable, sweeping, violin-like solos, his sound is as unique as a fingerprint. 

As he told us, “It’s one thing to become a good player and write songs that people like. But to have a sound where people can pick you out and they know it’s you, that’s pretty cool.”

As it turns out, the Austin native is one hell of a songwriter, too. His 13 solo albums (two this past year) showcase a guitarist steeped in Brill Building songcraft (one of his first gigs was backing up Carole King). 

For an example of Johnson’s compositional genius, there’s 1990’s Cliffs of Dover, a remarkable piece of ear candy full of incandescent, almost free-form soloing that, astonishingly, Johnson wrote in all of five minutes. Or as he puts it, “It was like a gift from the universe.” 

4. Freddie King

Freddie King is the third of “Three Kings of Blues Guitar” (the other two being Albert and B.B.), and his influence on guitarists across the globe can’t be overstated. British players such as Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor, Peter Green and Jeff Beck count him as a major inspiration, and in his homeland he’s been heralded by the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lonnie Mack and Joe Bonamassa, among others.

Born in Gilmer, Texas, King started playing guitar at age six, but after moving with his family to Chicago when he was 15, he came under the spell of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, T-Bone Walker and Elmore James, all of whom he sat in with when sneaking into the city’s nightclubs. 

Rejected by Chess Records (the label thought he sounded too much like B.B. King), he signed with Chicago’s Federal Records in 1960 and released Have You Ever Loved a Woman, which brilliantly showcased his spitfire single-note phrasing and piercing sound (he used both a plastic thumb pick and a metal index finger pick). His 1961 hit Hide Away is considered the gold standard in blues. 

An irresistible good-time shuffle, full of spikey and spunky turnaround licks, its famous mash-up of Jimmy McCracklin The Walk and The Peter Gunn Theme made it all the more memorable. King died of pancreatitis in 1976 at age 42.

5. Albert Collins

He was crowned “The Master of the Telecaster” for the guitar that never left his hands, but he was also nicknamed “The Ice Man” and “The Razor Blade,” references to his stinging yet piquant phrasing and tone. Whatever you called him, one thing was clear: Albert Collins was a true original and a giant among Texas guitarists.

Hailing from Leona, Texas, Collins (born Albert Gene Drewery) was taught guitar by his cousin, Lightnin’ Hopkins. From another cousin, Willow Young, he was introduced to the open F minor tuning (F C F Ab C F) that he would employ throughout his career. 

After moving to Houston, Collins began performing in clubs alongside the likes of John Lee Hooker and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. To complement his unorthodox tuning, Collins incorporated a capo and dispensed with a guitar pick – and his sound was complete. A natural showman, he also favored a 100-foot guitar cable that allowed him to stroll around venues and get close to his fans.

With his shivers-inducing tone (he dialed back the bass on his cranked-to-
the-max amp), Collins made his mark on aptly titled cuts such as Frosty, Cold, Cold Feeling, The Freeze and Thaw Out (later adapted by Jimi Hendrix on Drivin’ South). Among his standout albums is one of his personal favorites, 1986’s Cold Snap, which earned him a Grammy nomination. Collins passed away in 1993 at age 61.

6. Lightnin’ Hopkins

He’s one of the most prolific blues guitarists in history (some 85 albums and 200 singles), and he’s certainly one of the most influential. Recognized for bringing the blues from the back porches of the country to rural and city stages, Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins did more than simply play music; he let you in on a feeling – pain tempered with joy.

Born in Centerville, Texas, in 1912, Hopkins made his first guitar out of a cigar box after watching Blind Lemon Jefferson play. In time, Jefferson befriended Hopkins and allowed him to accompany him during church gathering performances – a rare distinction, as Jefferson never let anybody play alongside him. 

Already, Hopkins had developed his distinctive style of acoustic playing, a deceptively simple approach involving plucking bass-note rhythms and melodies (with a thumb pick) while fingerpicking two- and three-note chords on higher strings.

At first, Hopkins was paired with singer and pianist Wilson Smith (the pair were dubbed “Thunder and Lightnin’”), but with Katie Mae Blues in 1946, Hopkins began his own recording career as a guitarist and singer, and in a short period he churned out a treasure trove of material, including T-Model Blues, Coffee Blues and Baby Please Don’t Go

After falling out of favor in the ’50s, Hopkins was rediscovered by blues fans, folkies and rockers in the ’60s. He continued to record and tour until his death in 1982 at age 69. 

7. Willie Nelson

By the end of the ’60s, Willie Nelson (born in Abbott, Texas, in 1933), had already written a slew of standards, most significantly Patsy Cline’s jukebox smash Crazy, and had established himself as a Grand Ole Opry staple. Still, true stardom eluded him. 

Then, in 1969, he bought a Martin N-20 classical guitar that he outfitted with a Baldwin “Prismatone” pickup, and its dulcet tone perfectly complemented his plaintive singing voice. He nicknamed the guitar Trigger, and it became his constant companion on breakthrough albums like Red Headed Stranger and Stardust that brought him international success. 

A virtuoso player, heavily influenced by gypsy jazz pioneer Django Reinhardt, Nelson is noted for his ferocious strumming style (his flat pick has gouged sizable holes in Trigger) and his syncopated yet melodic soloing – On the Road Again is a masterpiece of inventive phrasing. At age 89, he’s still recording and touring.

8. Charlie Christian 

One of the true pioneers of jazz and swing, and perhaps the leading figure in establishing the electric guitar as a lead instrument in a band, Charlie Christian was born in Bonham, Texas, in 1916. 

A musician since his childhood, he played guitar in various jazz outfits through the South and Midwest, and in 1937 he purchased his famous Gibson ES-150 electric hollowbody (which sported a bar-style pickup later called the “Charlie Christian pickup”), on which he perfected his unique, horn-like approach to soloing.

Hired by bandleader Benny Goodman, who was intrigued by the sound of the electric guitar, Christian became a star player in the Benny Goodman Orchestra. The guitarist’s lively, single-note soloing dominated cuts like Honeysuckle Rose and Solo Flight, and he would soon join Goodman in a new group, the Benny Goodman Sextet. Sadly, Christian never recorded his own music as a bandleader. He died of tuberculosis in 1942 at age 25.

9. Trini Lopez

Just as Bob Dylan was bringing folk to the mainstream, Trini Lopez exploded on the scene in 1963 with his exuberant cover of Pete Seeger’s If I Had a Hammer (played on an electric guitar, no less). The Dallas-born performer became a major star in the ’60s with other briskly strummed hits like Lemon Tree and I’m Comin’ Home, Cindy.

So huge was his fame that he played a major role in the Steve McQueen blockbuster The Dirty Dozen. Lopez was also asked by Gibson to design a signature guitar, and he came up with two: the Trini Lopez Standard and the Lopez Deluxe. Dave Grohl prizes his 1967 original Trini Lopez Standard, and a reissue of the 1964 model is available now. Lopez died from Covid complications in 2020.

10. Johnny Winter

For virtuoso guitarist Johnny Winter, spreading the gospel of the blues was his mission in life, and one could make a strong case that the music was always there to save him. 

Born in Beaumont, Texas, in 1944, he was afflicted with albinism (a condition shared with his younger brother, multi-instrumentalist Edgar) and was legally blind. Taunted by classmates, he sought solace with the records by bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf (he would often joke that they, too, had problems because of skin color).

Winter’s guitar skills stood out early (almost from the start he used a thumb pick), and by age 15 he cut a Chuck Berryesque single, School Day Blues, with his band, Johnny and the Jammers (which included Edgar on saxophone). 

By the late ’60s, he had developed his high-velocity pinky-finger slide playing to a dangerous degree, and he cut the indie album The Progressive Blues Experiment. After an appearance with Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper in New York City, Winter signed with Columbia and released his eponymous major-label debut, which signaled to the world that a new voice in blues had arrived.

Career highs (producing mid-’70s albums for Muddy Waters) and lows (heroin addiction, unscrupulous management) followed, and after a brief dalliance with rock, Winter recorded the classic 1977 album Nothin’ But the Blues, on which he recommitted himself to his true calling. 

Rarely without his 1963 Gibson Firebird V, he recorded and performed until his death in 2014, aged 70.

11. Billy Gibbons

With his carefully cultivated image – shades, hats and an unruly beard that would grow to mid-chest level over the years – Billy Gibbons looks as if he walked off the set of an imaginary Western. 

But perhaps more iconic than the guitarist’s easily recognizable appearance is his distinctive guitar sound – growling, greasy, expressive, outrageous, beautifully expressive and big as the Lone Star State itself. Since 1969, it’s been the backbone of ZZ Top’s mighty roar – “that little ol’ band from Texas” as they modestly called themselves – and it’s thrilled and influenced fellow players across the globe. 

As a young guitarist, Gibbons was enthralled by blues legends such as Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed and Lightnin’ Hopkins. His biggest influence, however, was B.B. King, whom he would meet early on in ZZ Top’s career.

“I was in the dressing room and B.B. said to me, ‘Can I play your guitar?’” Gibbons told us. “I said, ‘Sure man.’ He strummed it a few times and said, ‘Why you working so hard?’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Those strings. You got real heavy, heavy strings.’ I said, ‘Well, isn’t that how to get the heavy, heavy sound?’ He said, ‘No! Don’t be working so hard!’”

Ever since then, Gibbons’ guitars, particularly his trusty “Pearly Gates” 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard, have featured super-light strings, which he used to maximum effect on ZZ Top’s early hits such as Tush and La Grange and on through multi-platinum smashes from Eliminator (Gimme All Your Lovin’, Sharp Dressed Man, Legs) and beyond. 

On boogie-based groovers or modern synth-laden cuts, Gibbons’ economic guitar style is a rich mélange of his influences. Key to his approach is his crafty application of “squealing” pinch harmonics (“it’s meat on metal on wood”), tapped bend licks and hybrid picking, as well as sweet and soulful legato finger slides that he employs in many of his solos. 

None of it came easily, however. As he told us, “Learning to play that agonizing F chord was miserable. In fact, I would encourage anybody just starting out to be sure to take time to, as the old adage goes, ‘practice, practice, practice,’ and then practice some more.” 

12. Jimmie Vaughan

Perhaps unfairly, many refer to Jimmie Vaughan as Stevie Ray’s big brother, but as Stevie told us back in 1984, “I think he’s the better player – so there!” Vaughan grew up playing the music of Magic Sam, Buddy Guy, Lonnie Mack, Jimmy Reed and, of course, the Three Kings. 

By the early ’70s, when he formed the Fabulous Thunderbirds, he was considered one of Austin’s top guitarists – soulful yet refined, his every note impeccably placed but rendered with a cutting tone (treble rolled all the way up, bridge pickup raised) that commanded your attention. 

After years of commercial disappointments, the T-Birds crashed the charts in 1986 with the good-time cut Tuff Enuff. By the start of the new decade, music fans who longed to hear the two Strat giants together got their wish as Jimmie and Stevie Vaughan finally recorded a duet album, Family Style

Tragically, Stevie Ray passed away a month before the record’s release. For a time, Vaughan shied away from the spotlight, but gradually he returned to making music. On his most recent album, 2019’s Baby, Please Come Home, he dusted off rare blues gems.

13. Brad Davis

If you’re going to nickname yourself “The Shredder,” you had better possess some mad skills. Brad Davis has crazy-mad skills – and then some. With his lightning-fast flatpicking chops, the Commerce, Texas, native proves that country guitarists can blaze just as hard as metalheads. 

Davis first came to prominence during his nine-year stint in Marty Stuart’s band. In addition, he’s worked with Warren Zevon, John Jorgenson, Willie Nelson, Dwight Yokum, David Lee Roth and Billy Bob Thornton, among others. 

Inspired by Eddie Van Halen’s two-handed tapping, Davis came up with his own method of playing similar rolling patterns with a flatpick called the “double-down up” technique. Over the years, it’s bewitched and bedeviled players worldwide.

14. T-Bone Walker

He’s been called the “Father of the Electric Blues Guitar,” and when you consider the guitarists T-Bone Walker influenced – Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, the three Kings (B.B., Freddie and Albert), and many others – the title is deserved. 

Born Albert Thibeaux Walker in Linden, Texas, Walker played a variety of instruments, including guitar, and by 15 he was performing professionally under the tutelage of family friend Blind Lemon Jefferson. Billed as “Oak Cliff T-Bone” (the moniker was soon shortened), he made his recording debut with “Wichita Falls Blues” in 1929. 

Unlike other bluesmen, Walker incorporated swing and jazz elements into his playing – his smooth tone and artful phrasing made 1942’s I Got a Break Baby one of his first hits. His signature song, 1947’s Call It Stormy Monday is a masterpiece of chordal composition and innovative double-time soloing. Walker continued recording right until his death in 1974 at age 64.

15. Doyle Bramhall II

Some guitarists just have it in their DNA. Such is the case with Dallas’ own Doyle Bramhall II, son of Doyle Bramhall Sr., who played drums for Lightnin’ Hopkins, Freddie King and the Vaughan brothers. 

On his own, Bramhall toured with the Fabulous Thunderbirds and formed the Arc Angels with Charlie Sexton. He’s cut four solo albums that show off his emotive singing and crisp, piquant blues-rock guitar playing. But as a sideman, collaborator and producer, Bramhall has led what he calls a “charmed life,” working with everybody from Sheryl Crow to Elton John.

Among his most high-profile gigs was playing guitar for Roger Waters’ In the Flesh tour and his extensive affiliation (as touring guitarist and producer) with Eric Clapton. In 2000, Bramhall played with both Clapton and B.B. King on their album Riding with the King.

16. Polyphia: Two in one!

Polyphia guitar virtuosos Tim Henson and Scott LePage don’t sound like they’re from Texas, but the truth is, they don’t sound like they’re from anywhere on this planet. 

Inspired by players such as Steve Vai, Guthrie Govan, Joe Satriani, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix, they’re also equally enamored with pop, deathcore, hip-hop and EDM, all of which they pack into their gloriously adventurous brand of progressive music. 

On releases like Renaissance (2016) and New Levels New Devils, they mixed sophisticated guitar wizardry with funk and electronic grooves, and their newest release, Remember That You Will Die, sees them going even deeper, mixing nylon-string flamenco-flavored cuts into their thrilling yet uncategorizable musical stew. 

17. Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown

Revered by blues artists, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown always bristled at being pigeonholed. He called his sound – a potent mix of jazz, country, rock ’n’ roll, folk, Cajun music and, yes, blues – “American music/Texas life.” 

Born in Vinton, Louisiana, and raised in Orange, Texas, Brown, who earned his nickname when someone said he had a “voice like a gate,” was a natural multi-instrumentalist, but it was on the guitar where he truly excelled. Inspired by T-Bone Walker, he first came to prominence with the wildcat, swing-inspired track “Boogie Uproar” and the sparky, horn-laden gem “Gatemouth Boogie.” 

Known for his aggressive, punchy single-note style of picking (thumb and fingers), he could also lay it down soft and smooth, as he did on his signature cut, 1954’s Okie Dokie Stomp, during which he stops his rhythm section cold for a series of buttery slides and sinuous bends. Brown continued his genre-bending ways right up to 2004’s Timeless, released a year before his death.

18. Gary Clark Jr.

Being called “the next big thing” can often backfire, but Gary Clark Jr. lived up to the hype and then some. The Austin guitarist got his schooling at Antone’s (Jimmie Vaughan was a big booster) before scoring with The Bright Lights EP. 

On subsequent albums like Blak and Blu and This Land, his hot-blooded mix of blues, rock, pop, soul, hip-hop and funk (with even a splash of stoner rock) established him as the real deal – oh, and we can throw in some Grammys, too. 

Although Clark is steeped in tradition (Curtis Mayfield, Elmore James, the Three Kings), he bristles at purists and revels in throwing left curves into his guitar playing, often going outside pentatonic shapes by adding 9ths and ringing open strings in his solos. He’s used various guitars on stage and on record, but he’s partial to Epiphone Casinos and Gibson SGs – in recent years he’s designed signature models of both.

19. Blind Lemon Jefferson

The Father of Texas Blues, Lemon Henry Jefferson was called Blind Lemon Jefferson as he was born blind – or partially blind – in 1893 (though it could be in 1894) in Coutchman, Texas. 

Originally a street musician, he was one of the first fingerstyle blues guitarists – he even taught T-Bone Walker blues rudiments. Along with his distinctive playing style that mimicked a ragtime piano and a crying, high-pitched singing voice, he began recording sides for Paramount Records in the early 1920s. Among his most popular recordings for the label were Long Lonesome Blues and Booster Blues

Moving to Okeh Records, he scored hits with Black Snake Moan and See That My Grave Is Kept Clean. Arguably his most famous song is 1927’s Matchbox Blues, which was covered as a rockabilly number by Carl Perkins and later by the Beatles. Jefferson died of a heart attack at age 36 way back in 1929.

20. Steve Miller

With hits such as The Joker, Fly Like an Eagle, Take the Money and Run, Swingtown and Jungle Love, Steve Miller dominated AM and FM radio during the ’70s. As a child in Wisconsin, he received his first guitar pointers from none other than family friend – and his godfather – Les Paul. 

After moving to Dallas, he immersed himself in the blues. One of his first hits, the 1968 car-driving anthem Living in the U.S.A, is steeped in blues tradition. Soon, his songs took on more of a pop-rock sensibility, and in each one he wove economical guitar licks that were as crucial as the chorus. 

Rock’n Me features a standout barre chord and hammer-on riff that’s pure gold. And Jet Airliner takes flight with a turbo-charged, blues-boogie intro that mixes simplicity with rock-star flash.

21. Johnny “Guitar” Watson

Houston son John Watson Jr. got his first guitar from his grandfather provided he didn’t play “that devil’s music,” which was precisely what the young Watson went on to play. By his early teens, he was jamming alongside Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland, and after his mother took her with him to Los Angeles, he turned heads in clubs with his flamboyant stage presence and unbridled approach to the guitar. 

Billing himself Johnny “Guitar” Watson, in 1954 he released his first single, Space Guitar, an out-there instrumental that proved revolutionary in terms of reverb. His jarring, scattershot playing on 1956’s Three Hours Past Midnight inspired Frank Zappa to play the guitar, and through the years he influenced others such as Jimi Hendrix and the Vaughan brothers. 

He scored hits in the ’70s with Real Mother for Ya and Gangster of Love (a re-recording of his 1957 song). In 1996, he collapsed and died on stage while performing in Japan.

22. Paul Leary

Thanks to his scorching, throbbing, growling and strangely beautiful guitar tone, Texas native Paul Leary, co-founder of the Butthole Surfers, has become one of the most distinctive and emulated guitarists in punk and alternative rock history. 

With singer Gibby Hayes, he formed the band in 1981, and on albums like Hairway to Steven (1988) and 1996’s Electriclarryland (which included the hit single “Pepper”), Leary mixed the energy of garage rock with the smarts of art rock while spinning lines of psychedelic madness into his solos. 

Over the years, Leary has produced records for Sublime and the Meat Puppets, among others, and with the Buttholes on hiatus, he released his second solo album, Born Stupid, in 2021.

23. Omar Rodríguez-López

“I’ve never considered myself a guitarist, and I’ve never liked the guitar,” Omar Rodríguez-López once told us. Nonetheless, the Puerto Rican-born musician (who grew up in El Paso, Texas) made peace with the instrument by abusing its sound with effects, first in the critically acclaimed post-hardcore act At the Drive-In and then with the commercial successful experimental band the Mars Volta. 

On the latter band’s gonzo cut Cicatriz ESP (from the album Deloused in the Comatorium) he and guest John Frusciante go bonkers on a hallucinogenic guitar jam. Over the years, the avant-garde axeman has released over 20 solo albums and has ventured into film composing, collaborating with Hans Zimmer for the movie The Burning Plain.

24. Stephen Stills

When Dallas-born aspiring folkie Stephen Stills settled into the Laurel Canyon neighborhood of L.A. in the mid ’60s, he was on the cusp of a musical revolution that rivaled Liverpool. His is a career that can be measured in milestones: As a member of seminal folk-rock band Buffalo Springfield, he wrote and sang the enduring anti-war anthem For What It’s Worth

With the enormously popular supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash (and sometimes Young), he contributed classics like Suite: Judy Blue Eyes. Along the way, he recorded the historic Super Session with Mike Bloomfield and Al Cooper, worked with Hendrix and Clapton, formed another supergroup (Manassas), and continued a thriving solo career that would keep most musicians busy. 

As a guitarist, his astonishing versatility spans elegant yet sophisticated folk patterns, scorching shred improvs, deep Delta blues and anything else his muse dictates.

25. David Grissom

In the pantheon of journeymen guitarists, few have had a career as rich and varied as David Grissom. After moving to Austin (from his native Louisville, Kentucky) in 1983, Grissom joined Joe Ely’s band for a six-year stint, after which he became a member of John Mellencamp’s group from 1991 through 1994. 

From there, he went on to tour or record with the Allman Brothers, the Dixie Chicks, Robben Ford, Chris Isaak, Buddy Guy, Bob Dylan and John McMurtry, among others. 

Along the way, he recorded four solo albums and was part of the band Storyville, which included Tommy Shannon and Chris Layton from Double Trouble. Schooled in blues, jazz, rock and country, Grissom is one of music’s true chameleons, able to tailor his own distinctive sound to suit the song and artist.

26. Charlie Sexton

Young Charlie Sexton could have folded when his much-hyped major-label debut, 1985’s Pictures for Pleasure, failed to make him the next Billy Idol. But the Texas-born guitarist was built for better things, and blues ran through his blood. By his mid-teens, he was already a prodigy who could hold his own with the Vaughan brothers and other Austin greats at that city’s famed nightclub, Antone’s.

In 1992, he rebounded mightily with his band, the Arc Angles, which included Doyle Bramhall II and the Double Trouble rhythm section, before beginning a long tenure as Bob Dylan’s lead guitarist. Able to switch from fiery Hendrixian leads to swampy delta blues to even Celtic-tinged folk rock, he’s become an in-demand sideman and producer. Recently, he reunited the Arc Angels for a string of shows in Texas.
St. Vincent

27. St. Vincent

Just when the world needed a new postmodern guitar hero, along came Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent), who turned things upside-down with an inventive approach that mixes metal-tinged two-handed tapping with dynamic, effects-drenched soundscapes on deeply personal songs that veer from jazz-pop to electronica to sophisticated indie rock. 

Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she grew up in Dallas, Texas, and started playing guitar at age 12. After studying at Berklee College of Music, she released her daring debut, Marry Me, and never looked back. 

She’s issued five more provocative albums (her latest is 2021’s Daddy’s Home), and in 2014 she fronted Nirvana for the band’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. Since 2016, she’s collaborated with Ernie Ball Music Man on her own signature guitars.

28. Buddy Holly

A towering figure in rock ’n’ roll, Buddy Holly had an immeasurable impact on young musicians in the late ’50s and early ’60s, most notably John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who were inspired by Holly to write their own material. Among his many innovations, Holly created the template for the now-standard rock lineup of two guitars, bass and drums.

Born Charles Hardin Holley in Lubbock, Texas, Holly (who later dropped the “e” from his surname) played guitar to country and western, blues and gospel in his early years, and by the age of 16 he went pro. Backed by his band the Crickets, he issued a string of magical singles – among them Peggy Sue, That’ll Be the Day, Not Fade Away, Maybe Baby and It’s So Easy

As a guitarist, he popularized the Fender Stratocaster, and his energetic, twangy playing style – emphasizing downstrokes on the top three strings – seamlessly mixed rhythm and lead. Tragically, he died in 1959 at age 22 in a plane crash that also took the lives of Richie Valens and the Big Bopper.

29. Larry Coryell

Galveston-born jazz guitarist Larry Coryell was called the “godfather of fusion,” and with good reason – his mid-to-late ’60s recordings with the pioneering jazz-rock band the Free Spirits, followed by his work with the Gary Burton Quartet – ushered in a revolution in which players mixed straight jazz with rock, as well as Latin and eastern music. 

Among his many solo albums, his 1971 record Barefoot Boy is cited as a game changer that proved how jazz could be as edgy and exciting as rock. During his career, Coryell formed the fusion ensemble the Eleventh House, and with John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucia, he was one-third of the Guitar Trio.

Following two performances at New York City’s Iridium Jazz Club, he passed away from heart failure in February 2017.

30. Herb Ellis

Born in 1921 and raised near Dallas, jazz guitarist Herb Ellis rose to fame in 1940s and ’50s, first with the Jimmy Dorsey band and then, more prominently, as part of the Oscar Peterson Trio. Performing with his staple guitar, a 1953 Gibson ES-175, Ellis was revered for his fluid, beautifully phrased single-note lines in which he combined elements of bebop and blues. 

During his career, he recorded with Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, among others, and with Barney Kessel, Charlie Byrd and Tal Farlow, he created a supergroup called the Great Guitars. 

On his own, he released dozens of albums, including the classics Ellis in Wonderland (1956) and Two for the Road (with Joe Pass, 1974). Ellis passed away in 2010.  

31. Junior Brown

Although he was born in Arizona and raised in Indiana, Jamieson “Junior” Brown is considered a true Texan to his legion of fans in the Lone Star State, particularly among the citizens of Austin, where the guitarist relocated in the early ‘90s. 

A musician since childhood, Brown became a hot commodity among the country circuit during the ‘60s and ‘70s, thanks to his virtuoso skills on guitar and lap steel. After performing with groups such as the Last Mile Ramblers, Asleep at the Wheel, and Rank and File, Brown started performing with his own outfit. 

At the same time, he created (with help from luthier Michael Brown) the “guit-steel”, a double neck instrument that combined an electric guitar and a lap steel, allowing him to switch effortlessly between the two during the same song. As a solo artist, Brown has released over a dozen albums, including his classic 1996 Western swing set, Semi-Crazy

His most recent album was 2021’s His & Hers, recorded with his longtime musical partner and wife, “the lovely Tanya Rae”.

32. Ty Tabor

King’s X guitarist Ty Tabor is another honorary Texan. Born in Pearl, Mississippi, he moved to Springfield, Missouri, where he met bassist-singer Doug Pinnick and drummer Jerry Gaskill. 

After a series of name changes, the trio settled on King’s X and relocated to Houston to be closer to their manager (and eventual producer), Sam Taylor. 

Tabor’s diverse influences – everyone from the Beatles to Allan Holdsworth, with heaping helpings of bluegrass as well – contributed to his unique approach to songwriting, but it’s in the area of tone where he’s a true trailblazer. 

One of the first guitarists to use the drop D tuning on record, he’s been referred to by fellow players as one of the pioneers of grunge – despite the fact that King’s X music has traditionally been labeled progressive rock. 

Tabor has recorded 13 albums with King’s X (including 1989’s groundbreaking classic Gretchen Goes to Nebraska), and he’s been a member of popular rock-fusion supergroups such as Platypus and the Jelly Jam. In addition, he’s released 15 solo albums – his latest, Shades, was issued this year.

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Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar World, Guitar Player, MusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.