By the middle of the 20th century, guitarists became viewed as beloved musicians, able to take many songs from 'good' to 'great'. From rock to blues, we've rounded up some of the best guitarists in music history.
65. Rory Gallagher
If someone called Jimi Hendrix the greatest guitarist in history, he'd have to disagree with them. Look no further than his answer to Mike Douglas' question, "What's it like to be the best rock guitarist in the world?"
The legendary artist answered with brutal honesty, saying, "I don't know; you'll have to ask Rory Gallagher." With over 30 million albums sold worldwide, the Irish blues and rock n' roll musician Rory Gallagher (also a singer and producer) was a legend in Hendrix's book!
64. Albert Collins
Albert Collins was long considered an icon amongst popular guitarists, given the nicknames "Ice Man" and "The Master of the Telecaster," due to this incomparable skill and unusual style. Though he's considered one of the greats, a 1981 interview showed some insight into how he personally felt about his career.
"I've been known as a blues player, but I wanna be more like a 'rock-blues,'" he said. "I wanna play a blues where if you feel like dancing, you can dance. If you wanna sit, then sit. If you wanna get bored, get bored." Though we doubt 'boredom' is what his fans felt while listening to his music!
63. John Lennon
"I can make a guitar speak," John Lennon once said about his guitar-playing skills. Though he wasn't technically perfect, he had a special way of playing that set him above the rest. "I'm not technically good, but I can make it ****ing howl and move. I was a rhythm guitarist. It's an important job. I can make a band drive."
And his guitar playing abilities were one of the things that established his band, The Beatles, as one of the most iconic pop groups in music history. That might explain why Rolling Stone magazine named Lennon as one of the greatest guitarists to ever grace the stage.
62. Otis Rush
When someone can name artists like Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and Michael Bloomfield as musicians they’ve personally influenced, we know they’re a certified legend. Such is the case for Otis Rush, a blues guitarist from Mississippi famous for playing with his left hand with the guitar tilted upside down.
"I mostly just picked up the guitar for myself," Rush said when asked about how he got his start. "Around Mississippi, ain't nothin' but trees and a few peoples there. It's lonely. So I'd just pick up the guitar for myself." And what started for himself was soon shared by people across the globe.
61. Johnny Marr
As if being the lead guitarist and co-writer for The Smiths (one of the most influential English bands of the 80s) wasn’t enough, Johnny Mar was so skillful that he was also recruited by other popular bands: The Pretenders, Modest Mouse, Electronic, and The Cribs!
"It does blow my mind, actually," Marr once shared in an interview. "[The guitar is] a constant from my life as a little boy who was only five, and that's amazing." After seeing a guitar in a toy store as a little boy, Marr's life changed forever, and so would the lives of the people who grew up loving his music.
60. Ritchie Blackmore
After founding the influential rock band Deep Purple, Ritchie Blackmore gained mass attention for his guitar solos and classically-influenced style. And ever since, he has been hailed as one of the best guitarists of all time. But when did he know that the instrument was meant for him?
"When I was 11," Blackmore once confessed. "It mostly was my idea - along with my father. He made sure I went along to proper lessons because if I'm gonna have a guitar, I've got to learn it properly." Well, to say he 'learned it properly' might be the biggest understatement on this list!
59. Jonny Greenwood
Most of us remember him as the lead guitarist of Radiohead. But believe it or not, Jonny actually has a deep distaste for one of the things guitarists are most famous for. "I've always hated guitar solos," he confessed to Rolling Stone. That's right.
"There's nothing worse than hearing someone cautiously going up and down the scales of their guitar," he insisted. "You can hear them thinking about what the next note should be, and then out it comes. It's more interesting to write something that doesn't outstay its welcome."
58. Stephen Stills
For fans of 60s bands Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the name Stephen Stills needs no explanation. One of the most lauded guitarists of his time, it might surprise some fans to know that he wasn't "good good" at playing guitar until much later (according to him at least).
"I didn't get good good until I was about 50, and I've just gotten better from there," Stills once said. We doubt that everyone agrees, including his equally legendary bandmate Neil Young who once called Stills a "genius." Stills was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (twice in one night!).
57. Link Wray
When someone plays as hard and fast as guitarist Link Wray, they don’t slow down as they get older. Despite rising to fame as a young man playing country music in the 1950s, Wray became a rock n roll legend who was still dominating the stage in his older age.
"Yeah, I'm 68, man, but I still got black hair, and I'm skinny, and I'm playin' my wild guitar," Wray said after a performance in 1997. "And the kids, they don't give a s*** how old I am. Those kids last night were actin' like I was Elvis on stage, and every time I hit a note, they were hollering and screaming."
56. Mark Knopfler
It seems Stephen Stills wasn't the only legendary musician who was skeptical of his own technical skills. "It struck me that I knew sod all about music, so I thought I'd try and figure out a little bit more about it," Mark Knopfler, the iconic guitarist of Dire Straits, once revealed of his post-fame realization.
"So I just sat down and made myself stick at it," he admitted. "It wasn't easy, but then it just started becoming easier and easier, and I realized that even if I couldn't always remember the name of something, then I would recognize the sound." It shows that no matter how much success a person has, they can always strive for more.
55. Hubert Sumlin
When singer and musician Hubert Sumlin first picked up the guitar in Greenwood, Mississippi, he had an inkling he would find his own fame. And he did, as a blues musician in the Chicago music scene. And how did this icon react when he heard about his indomitable influence on the music industry?
"You know I'm glad to hear that," he responded. "I knew at 8 years old what I wanted to do; I figured I'd be the best guitar player." He elaborated about early life before he found fame, saying, "I wanted to be the best at everything I did." Well, he certainly succeeded in that regard!
54. Mike Bloomfield
Blues legend Muddy Waters knew that Mike Bloomfield had something special from the beginning. "When I first heard Michael, I knew he was gonna be a great guitar player," he exclaimed. "I let him play with me all the time, sit in with my band... As a guitar player? One of the greats!"
And the music industry agreed. But in Bloomfield's eyes, he owes part of his success to a very simple invention - the radio. "I was just a product of the radio, and all I wanted to do was imitate radio as fast as I could," he said. Little did he know that he'd played on the radio himself - for decades!
53. Mick Ronson
Though David Bowie is often seen as a solo superstar, it’s hard to ignore the incredible contributions of his guitarist Mick Ronson, who created some of the bounciest riffs in pop history. Without his guitar-playing skills, it’s hard to say if Bowie’s music would have had the same impact. Just ask their producer Ken Scott.
"David or I would start talking about what was required, and Mick would immediately say, 'I know,' and nail it instantly," Scott recalled. "Mick was up there with all of them. The Beatles would spend a lot of time getting everything right. Mick got everything right, but he did it a lot quicker."
52. Steve Cropper
Few things are as satisfying as someone being put on the same pedestal as the people they admire. And that’s exactly what happened to Missouri-born musician Steve Cropper, who moved to Memphis as a child and discovered the guitar. From then on, he idolized players like Chuck Berry, Chet Atkins, and Jimmy Reed.
Perhaps they taught Cropper to develop his connection to his instrument, something he attributes his success to. "I just pick up a guitar, plugin, and if it doesn't work, it doesn't work," he explained. "I do say this to my guitars: 'If you don't perform tonight, you're going to be firewood in the morning.' And it always works!"
51. Mick Taylor
When guitarist Mick Taylor left the Rolling Stones, one of the biggest bands the world had ever seen, it left a noticeable hole behind. And even Mick Jagger had to admit it. "Some people think that's the best version of the band that existed," he said in a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone.
"He was a very fluent, melodic player, which we never had, and we don't have now," Jagger continued on the topic of Taylor's departure. "I obviously can't say if I think Mick Taylor was the best because it sort of trashes the period the band is in now." Personally, we think that says it all.
50. Randy Rhoads
Today Randy Rhoads is best known as Ozzy Osbourne's guitarist, but he didn't start there. Originally, he had founded his own band Quiet Riot and was unsure about auditioning for Ozzy. "I had never looked for auditions or gigs outside of what I was doing. I thought I would hurt my band."
"When I did go down, there were all these guys with Marshall stacks," Rhoads continued. "I brought along a tiny practice amp. I started tuning up, and Ozzy said, 'You've got the gig.' I didn't even get to play! I had the weirdest feeling because I thought, 'He didn't even hear me yet.'"
49. John Lee Hooker
"I was the hottest blues singer when I got my foot in the door with Boogie Chillen, In the Mood, Hobo Blues, Crawlin' king Snake," is how John Lee Hooker recalled his rise to fame back in the 1940s. Though the guitarist and singer-songwriter was the son of a sharecropper, he was born to be a musician.
"Everything I did just turned to gold," he confirmed of his early career. "I had this manager, Elmer Barbara, and all these record companies would come to him. They said, 'This kid got something so different.'" And no doubt those differences were what made him shine so brightly in the music industry.
48. Curtis Mayfield
This next musician’s love for his craft started early in life. Despite living in poverty, Curtis Mayfield found ways to develop his musical ability. Before getting his first guitar he was a church singer, and also participated in doo-wop quartets at school. And his passion for music never failed him.
"Everything was a song," the iconic guitarist and singer recalled. "Every conversation, every personal hurt, every observance of people in stress, happiness, and love. If you could feel it, I could feel it. And if I could feel it, I could write a song about it. If you have a good imagination, you can go quite far."
47. Ry Cooder
Up next on our countdown? Yet another self-taught musical genius, Ry Cooder. This iconic guitarist is known for both his skills and originality. "People tried to teach me to read the page and understand theory," Cooder recalled. "I couldn't do it. I couldn't be taught."
"I think there was something about me that resisted being taught anything. I didn't like school; I didn't like the teachers; I didn't like the whole set-up," he continued. "I wanted to do it myself. So I found that I could. The only thing is, it takes longer." It may have taken longer, but the authentic approach paid off.
46. Johnny Ramone
According to Johnny Ramone, the Ramones found success by being true to themselves. "I basically tried to play normal stuff," he said. "We didn't sing about surfing or cars or girls because we didn't surf, didn't have cars, and didn't have girlfriends. So we wrote about sniffing glue and the boredom of suburbia."
And it's the lead guitarist could never have predicted how much he and his band would inspire young musicians everywhere. "I always heard that [other bands were influenced by the Ramones]," Johnny pondered back in 1996. "But I never believed it. Now we see it coming about."
45. Bo Diddley
It’s hard enough to excel in one instrument, let alone two. But that was the case with the renowned rock n roll guitarist Bo Diddley, who first tried his hand at the violin - teaching himself to compose classical music and even arranging two violin concertos. Impressive!
But of course, everything changed when he laid eyes on a guitar. "I saw a guitar, and I wanted it because it had strings on it, and I'd seen that if John Lee Hooker could play guitar, I knew I could learn how," he recalled. And luckily for him, his sister bought him one as a gift when he was 12 years old.
44. Chet Atkins
With a nickname like “Mr. Guitar,” it’s no surprise Chet Atkins has gone down in history as one of the guitar-playing greats! But it wasn’t all easy streets and a meteoric rise for this country star. After his first solo record, it would take almost a decade before he released a real hit.
Thankfully, Mr. Sandman dominated the charts at the time and is still remembered today! From then on, Atkins carved a permanent place for himself in American culture - producing for Elvis, Dolly Parton, and the Everly Brothers, and helping to build the Nashville sound alongside Owen Bradly and Bob Ferguson.
43. James Burton
"I'm self-taught," country guitarist James Burton once declared when asked about his early journey as a musician. "I taught myself to play, and my teacher was God." Well, it looks like God did a very good job, as it didn't take long for the young protege to go pro.
"I went professional when I was 14," the Lousiana-born guitarist confirmed. "I played on Louisiana Hayride when I was 14 in the staff behind all the great, great entertainers, like George Jones and Jonnie and Jack and Billy Walker - a lot of the country entertainers. And that was pretty much how I got my start."
42. Les Paul
"When I got my first guitar, my fingers wouldn't go to the sixth string, so I took off the big E and played with just five strings. I was only six or seven," Les Pauls said of the first year he began playing the guitar. From that point on, his future as a legendary and innovative guitarist and music producer was clear.
"I used my mother's radio as a P.A. system," he continued. "I'd take the telephone, the speaking part, and take those two leads off and lead them into the radio, and the sound would come out of the speaker." It's not hard to see why the famous Les Pauls guitar label would go on to become one of the most beloved in the industry.
41. Derek Trucks
When someone has a long and storied career like Derek Trucks, it’s only sensible to give advice to young musicians who want to follow in their steps. After playing in the Allman Brothers Band and founding two of his own successful bands, it’s safe to say this guitarist is a winner. But what does he suggest to guitar aficionados?
"The first few years I was playing was like hearing your voice on a recording," Derek shared candidly. "I found that listening back helped in a lot of ways. I always imagine in my head how something is coming across, and it's not necessarily doing that when I listen back."
40. Jerry Garcia
When Jerome John Garcia (also known as Jerry) passed away in 1995, fans of his band, the Grateful Dead, were devastated. Garcia had played in the band for three decades, garnering the love and attention of millions of fans around the world. Today, he is still regarded as one of the best guitarists in rock history.
And it wasn't just due to his longevity but also his eclectic way of blending several genres together. He himself described his style as something that "descended from barroom rock and roll, country guitar… It's like that blues instrumental stuff that was happening in the late fifties and early sixties, like Freddie King."
39. Joni Mitchell
When Joni Mitchell released her 1971 album Blue, her career would never be the same. The album launched the singer-songwriter into the pantheon of guitar-playing legends, and the singer-songwriter's work would go on to represent "turning points and pinnacles in 20th-century popular music," as written by the New York Times.
After moving from Canada to America to expand her career, she became known as an important musician whose work reflected some of the more pressing social issues of the time. Today she's known as one of the best guitarists in the industry and was even named "one of the greatest songwriters ever" by Rolling Stone.
38. Buddy Guy
Born in Lousiana as George Guy, later changing it to Buddy, this groundbreaking guitarist got his start as a self-taught acoustic player who practiced in between picking cotton. As his skills improved, he began picking up gigs around Baton Rouge, where he first gained attention as an artist.
And that attention would eventually spread across America, and then internationally. Recently he was placed at #23 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time and is known for his influence on fellow greats like Jimi Hendrix and Keith Richards.
37. Tony Iommi
If anyone needs proof that they can achieve anything with enough tenacity, Tony Iommi is that proof. While working in a factory in his younger years, the lead guitarist of Black Sabbath actually lost the tips of two of his fingers. But in spite of this setback, he went on to master the instrument as an adult.
If that wasn’t enough, he eventually went on to record his own self-titled album Iommi in 2000 and continued to find success with various collaborations - even a stint writing for the hugely popular Eurovision Song Contest in 2013! Today, he is known as one of pop culture’s most beloved guitar players.
36. Tom Morello
Most 90s kids will recognize the name Tom Morello, and if not, they’ll know the sound of his guitar. In the early 90s, the Harlem-born musician formed the band Rage Against the Machine with friend Zack de la Rocha, which went on to become one of the most iconic US bands of the decade.
But Morello was more than just an out-and-out rocker - he was also known for his unusual recording techniques, including heavy guitar effects, feedback noise, and more. And nowadays, he is more at home in the folk genre, referring to The Nightwatchmen (his solo project) as "my political alter ego."
35. Brian May
For some guitarists, their instrument is a tool, a friend, a key to unlocking their inner passions and emotions. But for Brian May, "the guitar was my weapon, my shield to hide behind." It proved to be a very effective weapon, and he played his guitar named "the old lady" for most of his career.
The iconic guitarist started off with his guitar in the 60s band Smile before teaming up with Roger Taylor and Freddie Mercury to form the band Queen. It was “the old lady” that helped contribute epic riffs to classic hits like Bohemian Rhapsody and Stone Cold Crazy.
34. Willie Nelson
Considering the success he’s found throughout his career, it might be hard to believe that when Willie Nelson released No Place for Me in 1956, his first record, he gained very little attention. Living in Vancouver at the time, the country guitarist made the move to Nashville, where he teamed up with Ray Price.
And the rest is history! After a few years of success with Price, Nelson kickstarted his solo career and began releasing hit after hit. These days Nelson is widely regarded as one of the most popular country artists in America and one of the greatest country guitarists in modern music.
33. Robby Krieger
He may have been the last member to join the Doors, but Robby Krieger certainly left an indelible mark on the legendary band. He played with the group from 1965 until they broke up in 1973, before pursuing an independent career playing jazz-fusion in the Butt’s Band.
In the decades to come, he would put together multiple groups as well as collaborate with other musicians and release his own solo work. Eventually, Krieger would be recognized by Rolling Stone as one of their top 100 greatest guitarists of all time due to his successful track record, collaborative abilities, and adaptability.
32. The Edge
Here we have another brilliant self-taught artist, proving that he didn’t need to be a good student to become a professional musician. Such was the case of David Evans, who helped to form the band that would eventually become U2 while he was still just a schoolboy in Ireland.
Over time Evans took on the pseudonym “The Edge,” due to his preference for staying out on the ‘edge’ rather than getting involved in physical altercations with other young men. Throughout his career, he’s been lauded for his skills as a guitarist and keyboardist, as well as his ongoing involvement in charity work.
31. Elmore James
Today most of us won’t recognize the “diddley bow” and “jitterbug,” but for Elmore James, they were the first instruments he ever played. And because of these blues instruments, he was a perfect natural when he picked up a guitar for the very first time.
Within a few decades, James had become known as the “King of the Slide Guitar," and was celebrated in the blues genre for his excellence as a guitarist, as well as his iconic booming voice. As an acknowledgment of his musical prowess, the guitarist was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.
30. Scotty Moore
While many of us tend to think of Elvis Presley as a one-man act, the truth is there was more to the King of Rock n Roll’s reputation than that. And as many fans of 1950s music will know, Presley’s guitarist Scotty contributed greatly to his success.
Just ask Keith Richards! "When I heard Heartbreak Hotel, I knew what I wanted to do in life. It was as plain as day," the Rolling Stone's guitarist admitted. "All I wanted to do in the world was to be able to play and sound like that. Everyone else wanted to be Elvis; I wanted to be Scotty."
29. Muddy Waters
When legendary blues musician Muddy Waters first electrified his guitar, the landscape of popular music changed forever. It has been argued that many great musicians owe their careers to these innovative artists, from the Rolling Stones to Eric Clapton.
Water's daughter has gone on record saying that he downplayed his role in the movement. "I think he said once that, 'The blues had a baby, and they named it rock 'n' roll,' but he was just this really humble guy," she said. "I don't think he thought he started a rock 'n' roll revolution, even though history has shown that he did."
28. Tom Petty
"Tom Petty came in one day, gosh, he must've been 12 or 13... He wanted to play guitar," is how Don Felder, guitarist of the Eagles, recalls meeting Tom Petty for the first time. Years before founding his band Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and garnering millions of fans, he asked Felder to teach him how to play.
And so began a friendship that would launch one of the most fruitful musical careers of the 80s and 90s. "Tom was just absolutely fearless onstage," Felder recalled. "I remember standing in the audience at one of his early shows when he was about 14, and there were these girls going, 'Oh my god, he's so great!"
27. Frank Zappa
Many of the guitarists on this list got their hands on the instrument before they even hit their teens. But for the enigmatic artist Frank Zappa - who wowed audiences across the globe with his unusual fusions of rock, jazz, pop, and orchestral music - that came a little later. He first picked up a guitar at just 18 years old.
"I went out collecting R&B guitar records," Zappa said. "The [guitar] solos were never long enough - they only gave them one chorus, and I figured the only way I was going to get to hear enough of what I wanted to hear was to get an instrument and play it myself."
26. Billy Gibbons
"When I was five years old, my mom took myself and my little sister out to see Elvis Presley live. I said, 'Man, that's what I wanna do!'" That's how Billy Gibbons, guitarist, and vocalist of ZZ Top, remembered his first realization that he belonged on the stage.
In the same 2019 interview, Gibbons recalls being taken to watch a studio session for the first time not long after. "It turned out to be a B.B. King's recording session," he gushed. "So between seeing Elvis Presley and B.B. King, I thought, 'Man, this is it. This is for me!'" And there's no doubt that he made his dreams come true.
25. David Gilmour
Guitarists have very different philosophies about their instruments and how they use them. And that couldn’t be any more clear when in 2019, David Gilmour, guitarist and co-vocalist of the beloved rock band Pink Floyd, chose to put 120 of his own guitars up for a charity auction.
"Guitars are special in what they give you, but I'm not overly sentimental about the qualities that some people think become imbued in one particular instrument itself," Gilmour recalled when asked about the decision. He clearly puts the music first, which might be why Pink Floyd is one of the most popular rock bands of all time.
24. Joe Perry
Joe Perry is another example of how differently a guitarist views their relationship with a guitar. While performing with his band Aerosmith, Perry spent 40 years delivering top-notch performances. But he also followed a simple if unorthodox rule while touring.
"I use the same guitar, with the same tuning, that I recorded it with... or something as close to it as I can get," Perry explained in a 2004 interview. At one point, he was traveling with as many as 40 or 50 guitars at a time, eventually reducing the number to a more manageable 20.
No list of guitarists would be complete without Slash, the top hat-touting lead guitarist of Guns N' Roses. But it may surprise people that he has his own insecurities as an artist. "My go-to guitar writing is just a non-amplified Les Paul because I don't like anyone to hear what I'm working on - I'm very self-conscious that way,"
He elaborated further, saying, "The electric guitar played acoustic is great if you don't want people to pay attention to what you're working on. I haven't really grown out of that. I'm still a very self-conscious and insecure guitar player." It goes to show that anyone can be unsure of themselves, no matter how skilled they are!
22. Buddy Holly
As a young child, Buddy Holly was encouraged to take up an instrument by his music-loving father. Throughout his early life, he switched from instrument to instrument, starting with the violin and moving on to piano before settling on the guitar - first steel and then acoustic.
Holly was a natural with the six-stringed instrument, and in 1955 he was asked to open for Elvis Presley at just 19 years old. From that point on, he shot to fame, becoming one of the figureheads of American music of the 1950s before his untimely passing in 1959.
21. Neil Young
With an armful of Grammy statuettes and two inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, there’s no way Neil Young wouldn’t be on the all-time great’s list. But he never tied himself to money and awards despite these successes and proved it when responding to questions about his low-selling 1973 album Time Fades Away.
"I'm not sorry I put it out. I didn't need the money; I didn't need the fame. You gotta keep changing," he said. "I don't [care] if my audience is a hundred or a hundred million… I'm convinced that what sells and what I do are two completely different things. If they meet, it's coincidence."
20. Dick Dale
Back in the 1960s, Dick Dale dominated the charts with his bouncy surf-inspired riffs, inspiring the likes of The Beach Boys and The Trashmen. Though the guitarist's star waned over the years, his career was revived when the song Misirlou appeared in Quentin Tarantino's pop culture classic Pulp Fiction.
Today, he is still held in high regard, but Dale doesn't pay much attention to the hype. "It's just Dick Dale music. Some people called me 'King of the Surf Guitar,' historians named me 'the father of heavy metal,' but I don't care much about stuff like that. It's just Dick Dale music," he proclaimed in 2004.
19. Freddie King
When Freddie King came onto the scene in the 1950s, it wasn't long before he became one of the most exciting blues guitarists in America. In 1961, when King was 27 years old, he reached number five on the R&B chart with his songs Have You Ever Loved a Woman and Hide Away.
His incredible skills and equally electrifying voice went on to inspire a generation of musicians, including prolific artists like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Carlos Santana. Today, he is known as one of “The Three Kings” - three legendary blues musicians, including B.B. King and Albert King.
18. Kurt Cobain
"We play so hard that we can't tune our guitars fast enough," Kurt Cobain said in 1992, in the last of several interviews with Guitar World. "People can relate to that." But as the frontman for Nirvana and one of the fathers of the grunge genre, we think young people in the 90s related to more than just their intensive style.
But it's true that his "violent" guitar playing contributed greatly to his image and his lasting reputation as one of the greats. He even had to use "heavy-duty [guitar] strings" to lessen the damage his playing caused. "I keep blowing up amplifiers, so I use whatever I can find at junk shops - junk is always best."
17. Angus Young
Angus Young may be remembered as one of the best of the best in the rock world, but in his own words, the AC/DC lead guitarist was an “illiterate” player. Rather than formally learning the instrument, he simply watched his older brother play. Even well into a successful career, he was still performing solos by “feel.”
"I remember one of the first gigs I played with [an] amp was at a local church," Angus confessed. "I… started playing, and everybody started yelling 'Turn it down!'" Considering the bumpy start, he might be surprised to learn that he's on this list today!
16. George Harrison
When The Beatle's music arrived on American soil in 1964, the world of pop music would never be the same. They were the world's biggest band in five years, with tracks like Come Together and While My Guitar Gently Weeps dominating the charts. The music world also took notice of a promising new guitarist - George Harrison.
And once the band officially went their separate ways in 1970, Harrison thrived in his solo career. He became renowned for his impressive guitar-playing, and award-winning songwriting abilities with albums like All Things Must Pass and Dark Horse, amongst others.
15. Albert King
Following the trend of musicians who didn't go down the traditional route of learning an instrument, we have blues guitarist Albert King. When he was asked who taught him to play, he told critic John Landau, "Nobody. Everything I do is wrong." While he did have a non-traditional playing style, it never took away from his music.
Even though he primarily used his thumb and played a V-shaped Gibson, no one could deny that his music was good. And that might be in part due to the "singing guitar." He explained, "I play the singing guitar; that's what I've always called it. I also sing along with my notes. It's how I think about where I'm going."
14. Joe Walsh
The Eagles, James Gang, and Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band: three of the famous groups that guitarist Joe Walsh was a part of throughout his illustrious five-decade career. Along with Don Felder, Walsh gifted us the track Hotel California, which probably would have been enough to place him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
"Guitar was the only thing that I didn't have to practice," Walsh said of his teenage relationship with the instrument in a 1981 interview. "Guitar was the one thing that nobody made me practice. That was just something that I decided I wanted to play, so I kind of taught myself. I really did."
Joe Walsh wasn't the only one who had a deep connection to his instrument. Just listen to Prince's 2007 song Guitar, about his life-long passion for the art of guitar playing: "I love you baby, but not like I love my guitar." Despite being best known as a singer, the guitar was his true love.
In 2004 when Rolling Stone failed to mention him in their list of 100 Greatest Guitarists, Prince was reportedly hurt by the snub. "I always wanted to be thought of as a guitarist," he told Guitar World. "But you have a hit, and you know what happens..." Thankfully, he was included some years later when the article was updated.
12. Pete Townshend
When The Who found international fame in the 70s, guitarist Pete Townshend found it difficult to deal with. "Immediately, I started to realize it wasn't a job that I like," he said in a Rolling Stone interview. "I didn't like the traveling. I didn't like being on stage."
But that didn't last for long, meaning the world got to see more of one of the greatest living guitarists. What changed? "It may have been around the time we first started to work in the United States playing places like the Fillmore and the Electric Factory…" he said. "Where we were allowed to stretch out and explore."
11. Stevie Ray Vaughan
"I took music theory for one year in high school and flunked all but one six-week period," Stevie Ray Vaughan once said. "That's because I couldn't read music." And to this day, he never went back to music theory, preferring to lean on his natural ear for music.
And it never stunted his extraordinary career. "A lot of the songs I write now - I don't even know what key they're in," he told one interviewer in 1984. "I have to ask somebody to find out. I can play it; I just can't name it. Jazz changes and all. But I don't know the names of what it is I'm doing."
10. Duane Allman
Despite his tragic passing at only 24 years old, Duane Allman is someone who lived on in memories and music far beyond his own life. At 14 years old, he began studying guitar and found fame with his band, The Allman Brothers. Years later, Eric Clapton would refer to Allman as “the best.”
The guitarist had an earth-shattering effect on Clapton. "I remember hearing Hey Jude by Wilson Pickett and calling either Ahmet Ertegun or Tom Dowd and saying, 'Who's that guitar player?'" he continued. "To this day, I've never heard better rock guitar playing on an R&B record. It's the best."
9. Carlos Santana
"I used to look at my guitar like it was building blocks," Carlos Santana once said about his early career as a musician. From the thriving music scene in 1960s San Francisco, he set out on a 50-year career with 10 Grammy wins to complement it. But as with many great artists, his approach changed over time.
"I don't look at it like that anymore," he explained further. "I look at it more like drinking water. Water is going to go into your system, and then you're gonna sweat it out. Again it comes back to trust. You trust your fingers; you trust your heart, and... you trust that you're going to say something soulful and significant."
8. B.B. King
He may have been one of the "Three Kings," but B.B King eventually took the title of "The King of the Blues" due to his extraordinary prowess and influence in the genre. He once explained his thought process during a performance to Rolling Stone. "Sometimes I forget who I am," he said.
"I'm thinking about trying to tell this story that I want you to understand," King explained. "It's like now, just talking with you, it makes me feel good if I can make you understand what I'm trying to tell you. Even if I don't have all the words, I'm doing my best. That's the same way I think about the music."
7. Jeff Beck
Jeff Beck may be ostentatious, but with his track record? He deserves to be. With a career of collaborations with the likes of Mick Jagger, Tina Turner, and Rod Stewart, this guitarist has spent decades playing everything from hard rock to jazz fusion. And in one revealing interview, he admitted he also plays with every finger!
"Oh, yeah, every single one. Even the little finger on my hand right," he laughed. "That's more like a style of bravado, you know - I do it when I know there's a video camera on me - I just make sure that everyone sees me use it! I wouldn't like to have it cut off; let's put it like that."
6. Eddie Van Halen
Despite his reputation, Eddie Van Halen insists that there is much more to his guitar-playing prowess than looking "freaky and jumping around." After decades of being one of the top names in the hard rock industry, Eddie knows that skill and, most importantly, passion are the real keys.
"If you want to be a rock guitarist, you have to enjoy what you are doing," he said in a 1978 interview with Guitar Player. "You can't pick up a guitar and say, 'I want to be a rock star' just because you want to be one. You have to enjoy playing guitar. If you don't enjoy it, then it's useless."
5. Keith Richards
A lead member of the Rolling Stones, one of the longest-running rock bands in music history, Keith Richards has been one of the world’s greatest guitarists for decades. But even today, he still thinks about the men who influenced him, shown in this 2020 interview with Rolling Stone magazine.
"When I started, all I wanted to do was play like Chuck [Berry]. I thought if I could do that, I'd be the happiest man in the world," he recalled. "I'd dream of playing with Muddy Waters, but the only way I'd imagine it happening would be if I make it to heaven - and he makes it there - then we can play together."
4. Chuck Berry
Speaking of Keith Richards influences… next up, we have the history-making guitarist Chuck Berry, one of the few musicians that many believe created the rock n roll genre. Known for his riffs on the electric guitar, his love for performing was undeniable. His son Charles even spoke with Guitar.com about his father's passion.
"There were three loves in my dad's life - my mother, who he was married to for almost 68 years, his children, and playing that music," he said. "Now I ranked it like that... but the music might have come before us kids, I don't know! But he lived to play music. It was his absolute joy - that and making my mum happy."
3. Jimmy Page
Though Jimmy Page is often considered a god amongst guitar players, even he can’t do everything. And that includes playing the timeless classic Stairway To Heaven with an average guitar. For their most popular track, he has to use a Gibson double-neck specifically.
"In actual fact, the song dictated the guitar," Page said when asked about his unusual signature piece. "I couldn't have done it on anything else. Now you see a double-neck, and you think, 'Oh, it's Jimmy Page. I know. Or is it someone else?' But it probably is Jimmy Page if it's a red one."
2. Eric Clapton
Sure, getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice is very impressive. But Eric Clapton takes it to the next level, as the first and only musician to be inducted three times! While playing rock and blues, this guitarist has made an impressive name for himself as one of the greatest guitarists of all time.
It all started in the late 50s when Clapton begged his grandma to buy a guitar, according to a 1990 interview with Radio 1. "When I did finally get the guitar, it didn't seem that difficult to me, to be able to make a good noise out of it," he recalled. "I used to sit on the top of the stairs... and got a good sound out of it."
1. Jimi Hendrix
It should come as a surprise to no one that Jimi Hendrix is our number one placeholder for the greatest guitarist of all time. For decades he’s been held up as a hero and an icon to guitar players the world over. But what may be surprising, is that Hendrix’s music wasn’t inspired by his instrument, as he told Rolling Stone.
"The music I hear I can't get on the guitar. It's a thing of laying around daydreaming or something," he said. "If you pick up your guitar and just try to play, it spoils the whole thing. I can't play the guitar that well to get all this music together, so I lay around. I wish I could have learned how to write for instruments."