When I look at other “Best” or “Greatest” guitarists lists, I always see a lot of great players, but I also notice a tendency to play to nostalgia. Some of the most influential bands have some of the greatest guitarists of all time but not always.
One of the things I seek to accomplish with this list is to list the 20 greatest guitarists of all time, whether they got the chance to play sold-out concerts in front of tens of thousands of people or not.
Being in an immensely popular band doesn’t mean you’re one of the best guitarists who ever lived. You might notice a few faces in my list who never became wildly famous, but their skill was, or still is, off the charts. Let’s get started.
#1 Jimi Hendrix
You can study the best guitarists until you’re blue in the face trying to find somebody who played and sounded better than Jimi Hendrix. Good luck! In the end, you’ll always come back to the truth. Jimi Hendrix was the best guitarist who ever lived. All you have to do is listen, and the truth presents itself.
Hendrix was another genius musician who we lost too soon due to barbiturates. The details are not pretty, but he died of asphyxiation at the age of 27. For a man who died so young, the sum total of his impact on music says so much more, considering his life was just getting started.
He was already receiving awards while alive, such as Performer of the Year from Rolling Stone. The awards and honors kept rolling in after his death, too many to count. His legacy is immortal.
#2 Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton first made a name for himself throughout the 1960s by playing with the Yardbirds and forming the band Cream. His career is almost like a book, where another chapter started in 1970 when he embarked on a solo career.
Some people like his early work the best, but Clapton became an international star because of his solo career with hits like Layla and I Shot the Sheriff. He has received 18 Grammy awards and many other accolades.
Eric Clapton has hits spanning six decades, and he even has a planet named after him. He has collaborated with several of the greatest musicians in the world. One of the most interesting aspects of his guitar playing is that he’s not flashy. He’s the kind of guy who walks up to an amp, plugs in his guitar, and goes.
#3 Jimmy Page
If the name Jimmy Page doesn’t ring a bell, the name Led Zeppelin probably does. Page was the founder and lead guitarist for one of the biggest Rock bands ever. If I had to think of one way to describe Page’s guitar playing, I would have to say: Page’s guitar transports you to fantastic places.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted him twice, once for the Yardbirds and once for Led Zeppelin. When you listen to the guitar in Led Zeppelin, you hear a sweet, melodic riff in one song. The next song may turn on you and rip your ears off with wailing distortion.
Jimmy Page taught Rock and Roll how to riff. No greatest guitarists of all time list could be complete without him in the top five.
#4 Roy Clark
Roy Clark was a legendary guitarist. He became famous for hosting the country music-oriented show, Hee Haw. He would often take to the stage and use his guitar to make funny sounds, such as a train, while he made people laugh with his quick wit. However, he also played technical pieces and earned a reputation as a great player from an early age.
Many people didn’t know that Roy Clark was one of the most talented guitarists to ever grace a six-string. Later in his career, after gaining more mainstream popularity, he began to reveal his ability to play technical compositions like Malagueña, one of Ernesto Lecuona’s many masterpieces.
Roy Clark wasn’t just an entertainer anymore. Now he was making jaws drop. By the early 1970s, he was the highest-paid country music star in the United States.
#5 Eddie Van Halen
Most people know the name Eddie Van Halen because he is the explosive lead guitarist of the self-named band, Van Halen. Van Halen was an unstoppable, dominant force in 80s Rock. Without Eddie Van Halen’s writing and masterful guitar work, the band might have achieved some fame with charismatic frontman David Lee Roth but nothing comparable.
Eddie Van Halen manages to get sounds out of the guitar that shouldn’t be possible through a unique combination of tapping and picking. Atypical amongst guitar players, he holds his pick between his thumb and middle finger, leaving his index finger free to tap the strings.
Even decades later, Eddie can walk onto the stage, and everything is electric. The master is in the house, and the guitar is singing.
#6 Stevie Ray Vaughn
Texas, when you’re talking about famous guitarists, how many good things can you say about the state of Texas? Enter Stevie Ray Vaughn, the man who played Voodoo Child as well as the original genius who wrote and played the song, Jimi Hendrix.
SRV could play the Blues or Rock equally well and usually mixed the two. He had fast fingers with a fluid sound and always had perfect control over the heavy distortion that always wanted to explode out of the amps.
Unfortunately, just like the great Hendrix, SRV died way too soon in a helicopter crash in 1990. He was only 35 years old.
SRV rewrote the rules for playing Blues-Rock, and nobody has attempted to play by the same rules again because he’s too hard of an act to follow.
#7 Duane Allman
The Allman Brothers have left a huge footprint on musical history. Many people don’t know Duane Allman only enjoyed the band’s success for two years before dying in a motorcycle accident in 1971. He was only 24 years old.
In those few short years, one of the most memorable things he did was join up with Eric Clapton for the song Layla. Listen to Allman’s incredibly precise and eloquent slide guitar solo in the song.
If you listen to the multitude of examples of Clapton performing Layla since Duane Allman’s passing, you never hear the same slide guitar solo again.
#8 Jeff Beck
Jeff Beck is a bit of an oddball genius guitarist in the music industry. Along with Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, Beck was a member of the Yardbirds. Despite being equally talented, Clapton and Page went on to massive, international success and left Beck behind.
Beck doesn’t see his career in that light. He always wanted a career where he played what he wanted, however, he wanted, and with whoever he wanted. He likes to learn new styles, and experiment with new sounds, and he does.
Beck’s experimental sound may not suit everyone’s tastes, but his command over the craft is undeniable. He’s the sort of guitar player who can go play with anyone whenever he wants.
#9 Chuck Berry
If you want to know who all these musicians were listening to that led to mainstream Rock, look no further than Chuck Berry. He was a musical pioneer and invented the duck walk.
His nickname is the Father of Rock and Roll. Berry is the crossover artist who took the Blues, and the sounds that were becoming Rock, mashed them together, electro-charged them, and invented Rock and Roll music.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, founded in 1986, made sure to induct Chuck Berry as one of the first. The Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977 and had a gold record onboard. Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode was the only Rock song on the record.
#10 Mark Knopfler
Mark Knopfler put together some of the smoothest guitar work ever recorded. He blended everything. Sometimes he barely touched the strings, and the guitar whispered. A minute later he would lay into the fret and produce some of the cleanest sounds ever heard.
He can play the same chords over and over again and mix up his touch and pace, and the repetition sounds interesting. His fast fingers always seem to know where they’re going, and you get the feeling he could be looking elsewhere while having a conversation at the same time.
#11 Tony Iommi
You may be familiar with what many fans consider the best version of Ozzy Osbourne when he was the lead singer for Black Sabbath. Every truly great band needs a lead guitarist who can carry the load and be a pioneer at the same time. For Sabbath, that man was Tony Iommi.
Iommi’s iconic trill-filled guitar work is practically single-handedly responsible for creating Heavy Metal.
No small part of the new sound resulted from a metal working accident that resulted in Iommi losing the tips of two fingers. The disfigurement caused him to tune down his guitar, creating lower string tension, which hurt his fingers less.
The resulting sound was new to Rock music and went on to become a mainstay that defines Heavy Metal, all because of a sheet metal accident.
#12 Billy Gibbons
Does the name ZZ Top ring a bell? If Billy Gibbons wasn’t on your radar, he’s still the lead guitarist and lead vocalist for the band and has been for over five decades. His signature gravelly voice and clean, piercing guitar make the hair on your arms stand up.
With a different band, he opened for Jimi Hendrix a few times, and Hendrix said he was one of the best guitar players he had ever seen. Hendrix gave Gibbons a pink Stratocaster.
If you have never seen ZZ Top’s MTV videos, mainly from the 80s, do yourself a favor and watch some. Every video is iconic and memorable and helped make MTV mainstream.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted ZZ Top in 2004.
#13 Joe Walsh
Joe Walsh became famous as one of the legendary guitarists in the Rock band The Eagles. Playing in the Eagles wasn’t his first taste of success. He also created iconic sounds in the band James Gang. After The Eagles broke up, Walsh embarked on a solo career where he could let his amazing guitar playing truly shine.
You don’t have to take me on my word alone. In interviews, huge names in music like Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and Pete Townshend have sung his praises. Clapton even admitted that he doesn’t listen to many albums, but he listens to Joe Walsh.
#14 Angus Young
When you want to talk about amazing bands with incredible lead guitarists that only played sell-out concerts to oceans of fans, look no further than Angus Young and AC/DC. The original members formed the most famous Rock band to ever come out of Australia.
Angus Young, where to start, his schoolboy outfit, running, duck walking, spinning in circles on stage while playing, or his face melting riffs shooting off fast fingers? Angus Young also has the honor of partnering with Gibson to make a guitar, the Angus Young SG.
Some of the pop songs that brought Prince fame didn’t contain his best guitar solos, which he primarily reserved for his energetic and intimate live performances. Make no mistake, nobody wanted to do a guitar duel with this guy.
In the above video, Prince is playing at the Hall of Fame with other Hall of Famers, and he delivers the most face-melting, soulful guitar solo you will ever hear in your life. Prince was a guitar god.
And, oh yeah, he had impeccable style.
#16 B.B. King
B.B. King, also known as The King of the Blues, started exploring music early in life while at church deep in rural Mississippi. He sang in the choir, and his pastor’s guitar playing so interested him that he learned his first chords at church.
King’s career spans from 1949 to 2014 and can fill volumes of books. He revolutionized guitar playing by bringing in string bends in a way nobody had ever heard before. He had a powerful, booming voice matched by bent guitar tones and notes flowing over each other in trills and vibratos.
#17 Gary Moore
Gary Moore doesn’t have the name recognition anyone probably expects on a list of the 20 greatest guitarists of all time. He didn’t even play in a truly great band as most people would expect. Moore is simply a phenomenal guitarist whose talent makes him a common addition to such lists.
Just like too many names here, Moore has unfortunately passed. Moore’s primary fame came in 1970 when he launched his solo career. Other artists describe him as a virtuoso who influenced many other great musicians.
#18 Carlos Santana
If you like fantastic, melodic guitar playing, Santana may be your guy. Santana comes from an interesting background which led to his role in forming Rock music from the 1960s onward. Born in Mexico, his father was a Mariachi player who taught him music at a young age. The family moved to America some years later.
In America, Santana learned to blend his Latin-jazz-influenced experience with the Blues and Rock. He formed a unique sound, distinctly Rock and Roll yet distinctly Latin at the same time. Santana has an immortal place in music history and is still commercially successful to this day.
#19 Les Paul
If you know a little bit about guitars, you may hear Les Paul and ask, ‘isn’t that a guitar?’ Yes, but Les Paul helped Gibson design the guitar that would carry his name. There are a lot of people who don’t know that the namesake of the guitar was also an extremely talented guitar player and guitar builder in his own right.
On top of the mind-blowing skill, precision, and technicality of his guitar work, Les Paul wrote, played, and produced his music. Les Paul designed a type of recording called Multitrack where he layered sounds on top of each other. The effect made one guitar sound like more for a richer, fuller sound.
When Gibson courts you to help design an iconic guitar that they name after you, your legacy is secure.
Slash has enjoyed a massively successful career both as the lead guitarist for Guns N’ Roses, and a solo career where he has played with many other contemporary greats. Back in his GNR days, fans admired him just as much for his drunken bad boy image as for his lightning-in-a-bottle guitar riffs.
Believe it or not, in 2016 Slash returned to Guns N’ Roses to headline at Coachella. The band then went on the Not in This Lifetime tour which was massively successful. Born in 1965, Slash is still young enough that there should still be many great performances ahead of him.
I know this writer hopes to catch a live performance one day.
The Wrap Up
One of the hardest things about creating a 20 greatest guitarists of all time list is that you have to ax several dozen amazing artists who all deserve a slot.
In the end, a player’s ability and impact on music tip the scales in order to decide who goes where one picky paper cut at a time.