30 guitarists on the guitar heroes who changed their life

Guitarists Jimi Hendrix, Ritchie Blackmore, Jimmy Page, David Gilmour and Eddie Van Halen
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Even the greats get inspiration from somewhere. For most guitarists, the seeds were planted early in life, when they first heard the six-string hero who would shape how they played and change their life forever. Over the years, Classic Rock has talked to many of the world’s greatest guitarists about the fellow players who inspired them to pick up the instrument in the first place, from Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash and AC/DC’s Angus Young to the likes of Metallica‘s James Hetfield, ZZ Top‘s Billy Gibbons and fretboard wizard Steve Vai. Here’s what they all had to say.

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Slash (Guns N’ Roses)

Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones had the biggest influence on me without me even knowing it. My favourite Stones records were Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers. Those three were major to me cos I was exposed to those records as a kid when they first came out. Mick Taylor played on a couple of those records and went on for a couple more. As I got older and started playing guitar I always gravitated to his sort of style. People always mention Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck and Angus Young – all the obvious ones – but there’s guys like Mick Taylor and Joe Walsh that were as important. Mick Taylor had this really cool, round-toned bluesy sort of thing that I thought was really effective. Great rock guitar. 

Angus Young (AC/DC)

"Everyone always used to rave about Clapton when I was growing up, saying he was a guitar genius and stuff like that. Well, even on a bad night, Chuck Berry was a lot better than Clapton ever will be. Rock music has been around since the days when Chuck Berry put it all together. He combined the blues and the country and rockabilly and put his own poetry on top, and that became rock’n’roll. And it’s been hanging in there.”

Paul Stanley (Kiss)

Jimmy Page is like Beethoven, a conceptual genius, an orchestrator, and somebody who paints with sound. It was his vision and scope that separated Led Zeppelin from all the other great bands of that time. His playing is so brilliant, always passionate, and he’s never willing to sacrifice that passion for perfection.

James Hetfield (Metallica)

"As far as being a riff and rhythm guy, my favourite guitarist is Tony Iommi, no doubt about that. He seemed like one of those quiet geniuses. At one time he was the frontman of the band and Ozzy was to one side; the riff was more important than the vocals. It was all in minor, it has that feel. He can go from the heaviest doom riff into a happy mode and it would still sound heavy. We can’t do happy, but Tony can pull it off. My favourite track is Into The Void."

Steve Vai

Jimmy Page was my first real guitar hero. To me he’s still an absolute class act when it comes to arrangement, production, his touch on the instrument, his choice of notes, his construction of guitar parts. And his phrasing is so unique – you could play his riffs, but it doesn’t sound like him. But contemporarily there are a lot of great players I go to. I like people who are doing things unconsciously towards their career – they just have a compulsion to do something artistic, and that flows into their work. Yvette Young is a tremendously artistic person and I love watching what she’s doing on guitar these days. It’s not crazy virtuoso stuff, but it’s organic and honest.

Phil Collen (Def Leppard)

"The first gig I ever went to was Deep Purple – during their Machine Head period – at Brixton Sundown, now known as the Academy. They played Highway Star and it blew me away. And that’s when I decided to start playing guitar. Ritchie Blackmore was a huge influence because he was flashy. Even now when you listen back to him you can hear what a great player he is. I love really flashy lead guitar playing, and Blackmore’s technique is great – it’s aggressive. I don’t really care about finger picking, and acoustic doesn’t satisfy me.”

Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top)

My favourite guitarist is BB King. BB’s distinctive, one-note style, his sustain and attack, that kinda call-and-response thing between the vocals and the solos… He was taken for granted, which means he’s underrated. Obviously he was a maestro entertainer, rather than a blues purist, though he could to that too. He was a former cotton-picker but he remained so self-effacing, plus he had a great sense of humour, lyrically and in life. He had class.

Rich Robinson (The Black Crowes)

Obviously there are the greats – Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Peter Green, Jeff Beck. In particular, the first two Jeff Beck records, Truth [’68] and Beck-Ola [’69], are incredible. So I’ve always appreciated people who can play like that, but ultimately songs are my thing.

Eric Bloom (Blue Oyster Cult)

I’ve total respect for Jimi and his contemporaries, but I’m going with Prince. The guy was a fantastic guitar player but he wasn’t really known for that level of ability. People knew him more as a showman, also for his songwriting and performance, but Prince was an amazing guitar player. It’s a shame that those other attributes overshadowed his musicianship.  

Luke Morley (Thunder)

Gun to the head, Jimmy Page. Not just as a player but as a sonic architect. Everybody I know is still trying to remake Kashmir – but they never will. I was fortunate enough to go out with him on his fiftieth birthday. We went to this grotty old boozer in Notting Hill. Jimmy’s a great guitar player, but he’s the most shit darts player I’ve ever seen in my life.

Steven Van Zandt

In the long run it has to be Jeff Beck. I see him at least once a year and he’s always got something up his sleeve. He’s amazing. I’ve never seen anybody change the tone of a guitar using just his fingers. My favourite era is when pop met rock in the mid-sixties. You’d have The Yardbirds having hit singles, with a fucking fantastic fifteen-second guitar solo in the middle of a two-minute-and-fifty song. 

Lzzy Hale (Halestorm)

Tom Keifer from Cinderella. When I was about sixteen one of my parents’ friends gave me this VHS tape of all of their videos off Night Songs. I was on a keytar then. We’d just lost our first guitar player, so I picked up the instrument and tried to mimic what Tom was playing – or at least the way he looked while he was holding the guitar. I don’t think I was intentionally trying to soak in that style, but now, every now and again my bandmates will be like: “Oh look, you got that Tom Keifer thing going on!” 

Steven Wilson

Robert Fripp and King Crimson are probably the biggest influence of all for me. He’s also one of the most extraordinarily unique guitar players. Most guitar players have a basis in the blues, and you play those scales, but for whatever reason Robert has never had that and there’s no one else quite like him. Not only that, but he’s an auteur. He had a vision for a whole sound, a whole ideology around his band, and that’s been very inspirational to me. Those kinds of artists have been important to me, rather than just the pure musicians.

Scott Ian (Anthrax)

"When I first started to listen to AC/DC it was Angus who caught my attention. He was the lead guitarist and got all the glory. But in about 1979, when I began to get into guitar playing in a serious way, I gravitated towards Malcolm Young. I was listening to what he did, because he was the guy writing the music. I now appreciate just how incredible he was. He was a songwriter, not a shredder. But without him what would AC/DC sound like? 

George Thorogood

Brian Jones [Rolling Stones]. That was the first time I ever heard or saw anybody play slide guitar, which really fascinated me. Matter of fact, it’s said that Brian Jones was the first person Mick Jagger and Keith Richards ever saw playing slide guitar. So I was in good company there. When I heard the first two Stones albums, when they were doing mostly covers of blues standards, rhythm and blues, I kind of got it into my mind what I was going to do for a living, someday.

Steve Rothery (Marillion)

Of the players who’ve influenced me and whose work I love, Steve Hackett and David Gilmour stand out. It’s down to playing what the song requires and no more, basically. If somebody’s playing fast for a reason, that’s great, but mindless shredding has never really done much for me.  

Melissa Etheridge

My guitar heroes are a little different than most, because I came at it from a rhythm point of view. I think what Richie Havens did with the acoustic guitar had so much influence on me, but also I don’t think anybody can do what he did. And the other one is Keith Richards. His approach is very blues rhythm-based. 

Michael Åkerfeldt (Opeth)

Ritchie Blackmore in Rainbow. He’s my guiding light in terms of all the great music that he’s done over the years, his stubbornness, his fearlessness, his humour, his dress code… I admire that guy to the point where it’s just below homosexuality. 

Joe Satriani

There are several! A lot of them are my friends, and there’s an unwritten rule you don’t mention them, so it’s Jimi Hendrix. He excelled in so many categories: the natural musical ability, the originality, the complete surrendering to their art. He was in the analogue world – razors and tape, no digital – and he just got it done. 

Frank Hannon (Tesla)

"I was always a big fan of Randy Rhoads. In 1980 when [Ozzy’s] Blizzard Of Ozz came out, some friends of mine went to see them in Oakland and came back raving, saying: 'Man, we saw this guitarist today and he was better than Eddie Van Halen!'  Randy took it a step further. His discipline probably came from his mother who taught him at her music school. When I was a kid I would read the guitar magazines and he would always mention that his mother was a big influence. 

Charlie Starr (Blackberry Smoke)

It’s a two-way tie between Jimmy Page and Billy Gibbons. They were such creative forces, and definitely an influence on me. They play very differently, but come from a similar place: electrified blues. Both such great composers and songwriters too.

Ace Frehley (ex-Kiss)

I copied guys like Clapton, Hendrix and Jeff Beck. I used to slow down the records so I could figure out the solos. But the biggest influence on me was Jimmy Page. The way Jimmy played was unorthodox. And my style is unorthodox because I never took guitar lessons; I play differently to how a schooled musician would. If it sounds good, do it. That’s always been my motto. That’s rock’n’roll.

Paul Gilbert (Mr Big)

My interest in Robin Trower began through hearing Day Of The Eagle, from Bridge Of Sighs [1974], on the radio at the age of 14. My most overriding memory of back then is covering those songs and, more importantly, trying to play them like Robin. He’s sometimes unfairly dismissed for copying Jimi Hendrix – well, there are worse people to imitate! That’s like calling me an Yngwie impersonator. Like Malmsteen and I, Jimi and Robin came out at the same time and had had the same set of influences. But all of us do our own thing

Kenny Wanye Shepherd

Stevie Ray Vaughan changed my life. He was the spark that lit the flame in me to want to play guitar with that kind of passion and intensity that he played with. But the greatest of all time was Hendrix. That guy was doing things back then that have yet to be outdone today. And what he accomplished in such a short amount of time… 

Danko Jones

Billy Gibbons is my favourite guitar player. His playing on Sheik is just so tasteful. And it’s flashy without being deliberately flashy, whereas someone like Yngwie Malmsteen was pretty wild but it was like everything and the kitchen sink. We first met Billy at SXSW. This guy walks into the restaurant and we’re like: “That’s fucking Billy Gibbons.” And he’s got a woman on either side of him at the bar.

Steve Hackett

I’ve chosen Hendrix. Jimi wasn’t just a guitarist, it was also the way that he played the instrument and moved with it. I like the fact that he seemed like he and the guitar were one. Jimi was an improviser and he took chances. He didn’t worry about hitting a wrong ’un or fluffing a note. I’m not knocking him for that, he was doing in public what others chose to do in private. That was very laudable.

Kip Moore

When I think ‘guitar hero’, I think of who was the person that made me wanna pick up a guitar, and that was Eddie Van Halen. I can’t think of anyone that inspired a generation more than that guy. The way he played, the way he dressed, everything about him. I remember seeing the video for Panama for the first time and it just, y’know, there was just so much energy screaming out of that track. And Mark Knopfler was another one that had such a distinct style. Mark was probably more the style that I gravitated towards. 

Andy Powell (Wishbone Ash)

I’m known for being a big Peter Green fan, but I’m going to go with Clapton. I was at Cream’s first gig, at the National Jazz & Blues Festival in Windsor in 1966. Eric had the guitar sound that all players wanted. He was everybody’s mentor because he opened up a whole new world. Eric led the way in music and fashion, everything, really.

Fantastic Negrito

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, because you just don’t see her coming. This church lady is bringing the fire. She’s an architect. And everything that people are going to learn – Chuck Berry, everybody – is based on Sister Rosetta Tharpe and her amazing contribution to popular music. I like the people that built it. What she was doing at that time, and with that confidence and grace and power.

Satchel (Steel Panther)

Ritchie Blackmore had so many great songs and his solos were ridiculous. Man On The Silver Mountain. Since You Been Gone. Pictures Of Home. Even the ones you hear all the time, like Highway Star. Everybody covers that one, but it’s still awesome.

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