The 50 Best Guitarists Of All Time

Best Guitarists Ever

To celebrate the world's best guitarists, we're celebrating the fret-wranglers who made rock'n'roll history by publishing the definitive, 100% infallible list of the 50 Greatest Guitarists Ever. 

Of course, we know that isn't true. Any feature like this is a rock'n'roll bunfight, and we've inevitably included musicians some readers would never have chosen, and ignored others they believe worthy of a place near the top. 

But this list wasn't compiled by a bunch of tired hacks sitting in a room rolling out the same old names. It was voted for by you. 70,000 votes were cast, and sure, there's some predictable results... but there's also some surprises. 

And for each entry another musician of note (plus an astronomer, and a comedy writer) has chimed in with their thoughts, so you can read what Scott Ian thought about Malcolm Young, or what Dweezil Zappa leant from his dad.

So thanks for taking part, one and all. You made this.

50. Robert Fripp

Steven Wilson: "He’s probably the biggest influence of all for me. I grew up in the 80s, and it was a pretty bad decade for music. There were some interesting things developing, but everyone I knew wanted to be in Level 42, Simple Minds or U2. I wasn’t interested in any of that, so I found solace in the 60s and 70s music that my parents were listening to. 

"And I began to discover this wonderful era, what you’d call the great album era, from 1967 to 1977, from Sgt Pepper through to punk. Wonderful records in every genre, whether it was Donna Summer making great disco records, Marvin Gaye making great soul records or King Crimson and Pink Floyd making these great art rock albums. So I fell in love with the idea of the album as a musical journey. 

He had a vision for a whole sound, a whole ideology around his band, and that’s been very inspirational to me.

Steven Wilson

"King Crimson and Robert Fripp were the most fascinating of all for me. Fripp’s the ultimate evolving musician. This is a guy who, whenever King Crimson threatened to become successful, would break them up and go off and play with Blondie or go into retreat or disband the group and form a completely different band under the same name. That, for me, makes their whole catalogue fascinating. 

"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."

49. John McLaughlin

Chris Goss (Producer/Masters Of Reality): "I’ll never forget the day I discovered John McLaughlin’s music. I was just a 13-year-old kid at an outdoor show at Syracuse University in 1972. The audience sat in the sun on a grassy hill while Ravi Shankar played – which was mindblowing. But what McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra came out and did next – the sound, the visual element and especially the music – damaged me for life. 

"This short-haired guy played his guitar like he was possessed. In my mind, what he was playing was a strange new take on rock‘n’roll. The notes and rhythms he and his band performed, not to mention the sheer attack of it all, constituted something I had never considered could have a place in the genre. 

"There’s footage of that show on YouTube (see below). I was terrified to look at it in case I could see myself as some awkward teenager on Billy Cobham’s side of the stage. Luckily I’m not visible. But I wish everybody could have rock’n’roll laid out for them the way it was for me on that particular day. 

The Mahavishnu Orchestra came out... and the music damaged me for life

Chris Goss

"I know for a fact that the Mahavishnu Orchestra inspired Yes. And in later years McLaughlin was to exert a strong influence on the development of rock music, not by becoming a household name but because the few he touched went on, in turn, to touch millions. I guess you could say that his paintings launched a thousand ships. 

"And he still has the magic. I just bought Floating Point, one of his most recent records, which inspired me to write a song called Johnny’s Dream as a nod to McLaughlin on the new Masters Of Reality album."

48. Steve Morse

Steve Howe (Yes): "During the 1980s I stumbled across an instrumental album called What If by the band Dixie Dregs. Unlike so many over-produced and fake-sounding records from that decade, [producer/engineer] Ken Scott had given it a beautiful, organic sound that just blew me away. On that album their drummer, Rod Morgenstein, almost revolutionised his instrument, but of course guitarist Steve Morse also stood out. 

He later told me that I was an influence of his, which was immensely flattering

Steve Howe

"Steve had been voted Best Overall Guitarist in Guitar Player magazine for five consecutive years – immediately after the same thing happened to me. He later told me that I was an influence of his, which was immensely flattering. What I like about Steve’s playing is that he’s not one of those guys that thinks that Jimmy Page was the first electric guitarist. He has a historical approach. Like I do, Steve understands the development of the instrument. So it was fitting that we would become good friends.

"That happened after I played on Dixie Dregs’ Industry Standard album [1982], and then played with him in 1983 at a gig called My Father’s Place in New York. I had taken a night off from the second Asia tour, by which point the band was having troubles. Playing with Steve was so unforgettable."

47. Peter Green

Rich Robinson (The Black Crowes, The Magpie Salute): "Growing up in America, you couldn’t help but hear the Rumours and the Fleetwood Mac albums on the radio all the time. And it was through getting into these records that I started to explore the Peter Green legacy. Obviously, he’d left Fleetwood Mac long before these were done, but I was influenced enough by them to want to know more about what the band had done before – and that’s when I discovered the amazing talent of the man. 

"His playing is just so moving. Listen to what he achieves on Oh Well or Rattlesnake Shake, and it is stunning. What he does is so interesting, because he doesn’t overplay. Green understands that simplicity could hold the key to the blues. It makes him so authentic. This is also expressed in the way he uses the guitar to complement his vocals and vice versa. 

"To my mind, Peter Green is the finest white man I’ve ever heard playing blues guitar. That’s a bold statement when you consider some of the other greats, but I genuinely believe this to be true, His playing has the soul and passion of the blues. And yet he never seems to get the recognition enjoyed by people like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page. Perhaps that’s because he’s so understated. 

To my mind, Peter Green is the finest white man I’ve ever heard playing blues guitar

Rich Robinson

"If you check out something like I Need Your Love So Bad, then what you hear is a guitarist prepared to submerge his own ego for the sake of the song. He gets the mood exactly right. He was never flamboyant like the others I just mentioned, and is therefore so often overlooked in the list of guitar greats. 

"He also has such an incredible range. You can’t ever claim that one particular song defined him, in the way that you can possibly do with Hendrix, for instance. Green could be a blues guitarist, or a rock one, or even play pop. The versatility of the man is remarkable. Thank goodness for YouTube, because it gives all of us a chance to appreciate his talents. 

"When the Black Crowes recorded and toured with Jimmy Page, he told us so many Peter Green stories. It was clear that Jimmy loves the man’s talent. And if he’s good enough for a giant like Jimmy to acclaim, then it reinforces my adoration."

46. Robin Trower

Paul Gilbert (Racer X, 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. I was already in a band and we began playing Day Of The Eagle and the same album’s Too Rolling Stoned

"Although I also had the Bridge Of Sighs, Robin Tower Live and Victims Of The Fury records, all of which were stunning, I didn’t get to see him in concert till the 1980s. I don’t quite know why. 

"My most overriding memory of back then is covering those songs and, more importantly, trying to play them like Robin. As anyone who’s attempted to perform it will know, the ending of Too Rolling Stoned is just a single bass note with Trower soloing over the top. Day Of The Eagle also has a great, unusual conclusion. 

Trower is sometimes unfairly dismissed for copying Jimi Hendrix – well, there are worse people to imitate!

Paul Gilbert

"Like so many of Robin’s songs, they’re excellent vehicles for a guitarist. Not too long ago I was lucky enough to be asked to interview Robin. During my research I found that he seems unwilling to admit ever practising. I found that frustrating and hard to believe. He also denied it during my interview, though he did concede that he was in a band for 14 years before recording his first album, so his practising took place on a stage. 

"Of course, I stayed around to watch Robin’s show, which was stunning. I found that very reassuring, as he’s now into his 60s. I hope I can do likewise. 

"Trower is 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."

45. Tom Morello

Wayne Kramer (MC5): "In the world of cutting-edge modern electric guitarists, Tom Morello ranks foremost. I have played with him on recording sessions and dozens of live performances, and what my experience has shown me is that he is among the most original and creative players in the game. 

"Guitarists now are like saxophonists were in the 1950s – a few original voices and thousands of imitators. It’s the same syndrome with guitarists today. Morello is so far ahead of the pack it will take years for folks to catch up. Even then, he’ll be on to new sounds and new techniques. He is relentlessly creative. 

"Morello’s approach is rooted in his love of metal. When he was a kid, that’s the music he learned on. As he developed, and hip-hop emerged, he identified with what the MCs and DJs were doing. As a result, he has embraced the entire range of cultural influences. This shows up not only in his electric work, but in his acoustic guitar playing as well. He’s the only guitarist I know of who regularly devises new and wholly unorthodox textures and noises, always remaining in complete control. He is both inventive and musical, and he is a beautiful collaborator." 

Morello is so far ahead of the pack it will take years for folks to catch up.

Wayne Kramer

"The real secret to his musicality, though, is that under the hard-rock-distorted-Marshall-effect-stomp-box-wizardry lays a true funk player. If you listen close to his phrasing, his sophisticated sense of timing, you’ll discover that it’s pure funk. In another life he’d be the guitarist in the Ohio Players. 

"There can be no substitute for originality. It’s the most important dimension in art. And it appropriately reinforces Tom’s activism in the best sense of Chairman Mao’s admonition that “bad art is bad for the revolution”. 

"I don’t use the term ‘revolutionary’ lightly, so, ladies and gentlemen, based on this metric, The Revolution is in good hands." 

44. Paul Gilbert

Jim Davies (The Prodigy, Pitchshifter): "As a guitarist with The Prodigy and Pitchshifter, I guess I might be considered an unlikely fan of Paul Gilbert. I work in an area of music that’s electronic-based, but I started off as one of those guys that was into nothing but rock. When I began to learn my instrument, I was massively into Iron Maiden, Pantera and the likes of Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. I often had arguments with kids that were into Prodigy; things I considered computerised dance rubbish. 

"I got into Paul Gilbert through the school’s resident shred-master. Back in those days I would stay afterwards and practise and practise. There was a guy in the sixth form who everyone treated as a god for owning a bright yellow Ibanez guitar. One day there was a beautiful moment in which he announced: “I’m going to give you the Paul Gilbert tuition video,” almost like it was a passing of the baton of shred. So I took this thing home. And it taught me so much. 

Paul is human. You can relate to him.

Jim Davies

"Aside from the fact that he is such an incredible guitarist, I like Paul because he’s a good communicator. For instance, Steve Via is an alien from another world; there’s absolutely no point aspiring to be like him because he’s from a different planet. But Paul is human, you can relate to him. Watch his videos and you can learn things. Though he obviously has bags of inherent talent, he became that good because he practised, which gives hope to everybody. 

"When I finally got to make my own album, Electronic Guitar, I knew that I also wanted it to be accessible to those who don’t play the guitar, just like Paul’s own solo albums." 

43. Malcolm Young

Scott Ian (Anthrax): "Malcolm Young has gotta be the most unsung, underrated guitar hero of all time. He was the backbone of AC/DC, the greatest rock band ever, and wrote some of the most amazing riffs you’ll hear. This is the man responsible for more great rock moments than any other guitarist you can name. Was Malcolm Young the greatest rhythm guitarist in the world? No contest! 

"I recall being given one of his guitar picks after a gig on the band’s current tour, and it was half worn down. But you know what’s astonishing? Apparently that pick was used on just one song during the band’s set that night! Malcolm got through a pick for every song, because he hit the strings so hard. It’s amazing. The man is truly a one-off. 

Malcolm got through a pick for every song, because he hit the strings so hard. It’s amazing.

Scott Ian

"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. 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? 

"If you’ve never heard him play – and can there be anyone on the planet who hasn’t heard Malcolm Young? – then go and listen to the opening chords of Back In Black. If that doesn’t move you, then you’ve no soul. The other songs I’d strongly recommend are Riff Raff and Beating Around The Bush. The way he took straight blues riffs and siphoned them though the AC/DC sensibility is a lesson to all guitarists."

42. George Harrison

Elliot Easton (The Cars): "To me, George Harrison is the one. A lot of the guys in my generation that saw Harrison play, that’s how we learned how to be a lead guitarist in a band. To us, that’s what that job looks like – that’s what you do when you play lead. I was 10 years old when the Beatles played the Ed Sullivan Show and I was already playing a little guitar. To have that guy there, standing to the side, looking down at his guitar while he played his licks like that, to my impressionable mind it set in stone the definition of a lead guitar. 

"I knew, right then, that that was what I wanted to do with my life. In particular, I wanted to be like the guy in the middle, the guy looking down at his guitar and playing all the little fills and solos. What Harrison did, he taught me about short solos and hooks, and what a hook is. All those mid-60s Beatle tracks, whether it was Day Tripper or Ticket To Ride or whatever, they all start with a guitar lick that you wait to come around again in the chorus. That’s where I leaned to do that."

41. Michael Schenker

Mike McReady (Pearl Jam): "It’s really hard to pick just one guitarist. It would have to be… early on, I’d say Ace Frehley and Paul Stanley. Kiss was the reason I started playing music. I was a cub scout and then I was in a band. And probably Joe Perry… I still love these guys. And I always loved Michael Schenker. Actually I have a UFO tribute band called Flight To Mars, we do a [charity] show every year, and we do shows up around Seattle, and we do most of the Strangers In The Night record. 

"That record was a huge influence because it’s so cool. Michael’s a melodic and technical player but he didn’t sound technical, it sounded full of feeling. He was 16 years old in The Scorpions. And on Strangers In The Night, which I think you guys (Classic Rock) put as your second best live album of all time, he was pretty incredible. So I thought the idea of a UFO tribute would be fun. We needed another band for this charity night back six or seven years ago, and I hadn’t really heard anyone do UFO before, so it seemed original. 

"Doing like the Rock Bottom solo or something, I feel like I’m 16 years old again and I’m emulating my heroes. I grew up with that music. I got into a lot of other players as I got older, but Schenker was one of the first for me." 


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