My Top Twenty Guitarists of All Time

Yes, yes, children. It is time for that most anticipated and yet largely unloved thing – the “favorite guitarist” list. Now before you dive in and say, “How the fuck could you leave Alex Lifeson (or Eddie Van Halen, Dimebag Darrell, Yngvie Malmsteen, etc.) off the list? know this:

This is a subjective list of my own favorite guitarists, not an objective list of “these guys are the best ever.” Although I enjoy reading those lists, who really can say and what are those criteria anyway? Most innovative? Most influential? Sweetest tone?

How my list may differ from yours is that I have been playing guitar for a long time and these are the guys who I not only have enjoyed listening to most but who I have also ripped off, er, lovingly paid tribute to the most. It’s also heavily freighted towards blues players. If there had never been a genre called blues, I would probably never have taken up the guitar. I’m less about the flash, more about the feel. Period. Full stop.

They’re all guys. Alas, while I enjoy players like Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchell and Nancy Wilson, I just haven’t gotten enough inspiration – that’s the word – from them to honestly list them. That’s changing with more female guitarists like Samantha Fish and Ana Popovic.

I was originally going to list these randomly but then I thought, fuck it. Take a stand. Despite the fact that every list you see starts by putting Hendrix #1 and saying “Ok, let’s see who’s left,” that doesn’t do it for me. Most influential rock player ever? Sure. One of my favorites? Beyond any shadow of a doubt. My favorite? Nope.

Here we go. There is, of course, a Spotify list but I added in a few tunes randomly along the way. Even if you don’t agree with my choices, I think you’ll find it to be an hour and a half well spent. And at the very least, listen to perhaps the greatest segue in the history of playlists after “Every Day I Have the Blues.”

20 – Leo Kottke – I wanted to have at least one great acoustic player on here and Kottke is not only that but I have also seen him live and (sort of) half-learned some of his stuff. Here is the beautiful “Three Quarter North.”

Spotify link

19 – Buddy Guy – One of the last of the great generation of Southern bluesmen. Still going strong at 82 years of age and we last saw him a couple years back. “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues,” will give you a taste of his singing and playing style that influenced Clapton and everybody.

18 – Peter Green. He first replaced (temporarily) Eric Clapton in Mayall’s Bluesbreakers then founded the mighty, mighty Fleetwood Mac, at the time a straight-up Chicago-style blues band. BB King said, “He has the sweetest tone I ever heard; he was the only one who gave me the cold sweats.” Here on “Drifting,” you get some hot smokin’ angry blues.

17. Prince. In addition to all the other shit he could do, just a killer, killer guitarist. I’ll be doing a Prince six-pack soon so watch for more on this dude. The solo on “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” is one of my absolute favorites of his. He has the ballsy audacity to just play a straight scale in the middle of his solo. Love it.

Spotify link

16. Mark Knopfler – Dire Straits showed up on US shores in 1978 with a unique style and sound. Doesn’t use a pick (pretty rare in electric guitarists) and gets a sweet, country-influenced tone. Signature tune – “Down to the Waterline.”

15. Steve Howe – Yes is my favorite prog-rock band and Howe my favorite guitarist of that genre. He can play it all from fast, jazzy riffs to classical tunes to outer space music. From The Yes Album is the “Starship Trooper” suite. I especially dig his take on the final piece, “Würm” where he effectively trades licks with himself.

14. Frank Zappa – So good that he has three albums called “Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar.” Incredible tone, jazzy playing. Bluesy when he wanted to be but generally speaking, not so much. Frank did some straight-up, no comedy, fusion-oriented stuff. He gets going about halfway through “Eat That Question,” from 1972s The Grand Wazoo.

13. Robin Trower – Trower was the guitarist in Procol Harum where until about 1970 or so his talents were largely wasted. He broke out in the Seventies and was – with his Hendrix-inspired sound –  one of the key blues-rock players. I saw him a few years back and he sounds as good as ever. From his classic Bridge of Sighs album, I offer “Little Bit of Sympathy.”

Spotify link

12 – Dickey Betts – There were (and are) guitar duos and guitar duos but I will tell you that there has never been a better one than Duane and Dickey. But Dickey stands on his own and even Duane would say “I’m the famous one, Dickey’s the good one.” Here’s a tune, “Pegasus” that you may not know from a late 70’s reformation of the band including second guitarist. the late Dan Toler.

11 – Ritchie Blackmore – I was unaware of him until Deep Purple but well aware of him after that. A classically trained guitarist, he didn’t wing his solos but rather worked them out in advance. He claims the solo to “Highway Star” was Bach-inspired. I’ll take his word for it.

10. – Brian May. Is this guy great or what? I learned his first solo in “Bohemian Rhapsody” and it is totally unique, totally unlike anything any of these other guys would play. But I also dig his playing in “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” which is straight-up rockabilly.

9. B.B. King – BB. Fuck. The Man. The guy all of these guys learned something from. I called up my friend Bill one day and told him that I think B.B was the quintessential bluesman. He agreed wholeheartedly. That tone, that vibrato. From the classic Live at the Regal, “Every Day I Have the Blues.”

Spotify link

8 Stevie Ray Vaughan – In the early ’80s, just when we thought blues was fading away as a popular mainstream genre, SRV blasts out of the gate, seemingly out of nowhere to remind us how it’s done. “Cold Shot” is a super cool tune.

7. David Gilmour – Gilmour has gone way, way up in my estimation the more I play guitar. I’ve learned his “Another Brick” and “Time” solos and can “Comfortably Numb” be far behind? The master of tone, taste and melodic invention. “Numb,” of course, is from The Wall. The lyrics “were inspired by Waters’s experience of being injected with tranquilizers for stomach cramps before a Pink Floyd show in Philadelphia.” (Was it the cramps or Philadelphia that caused him grief one wonders – ME).

6. Jimi Hendrix  – Does anybody need me to explain? He took blues, R&B, and dreamy psychedelia and spun it all on its head. Unquestionably the most influential electric guitarist who ever lived. “Little Wing” is a beautiful tune, covered by everybody.

5. Jimmy Page – I just can’t get enough of Pagey’s playing. I can’t. Much of it was blues-based but later on, quite a bit of it wasn’t. Always tasty, always lyrical. I didn’t post “Lemon Song” as part of my Zep-o-stravaganza. Now I will. “Squeeze my lemons, till we get lemonade.”

4. Carlos Santana – Boy, I love Carlos. I’m actually taking an online video “Master Class” from him. How many notes to you have to hear from him to know it’s him playing? Carlos rips it up on “Jingo” from the first album, setting the blueprint.

Spotify link

3. Jeff Beck – I don’t know of any rock player on this list or elsewhere who has dabbled in so many genres. Neither of his direct Yardbirds peers – Clapton or Page – came anywhere near doing jazz like Beck did. Not even close. From his follow-up to Blow By Blow, Wired, I give you “Head for Backstage Pass.”

2. Eric Clapton – EC didn’t invent electric blues guitar playing but he might as well have. You can divide electric blues playing to before and after the Blues Breakers “Beano” album. His health has been dodgy lately but he can still play rings around most other blues players. From 1981’s Another Ticket is the nasty done-him-wrong tune, “Rita Mae.”

1. Duane Allman – Along with Jimmy Page, the only other studio musician on this list who escaped that environment. But playing with people like Aretha and Wilson Pickett honed his sharp R&B skills and growing up in Tennessee and Florida provided a rich blues environment. I know of few other players who had his tone and could play with his charging, exciting, passionate fluidity. Eric says that Duane’s solo on “Hey Jude” was the greatest rock playing he’d heard on an R&B song. But I’m going with Boz Scagg’s masterful “Loan Me a Dime.”

Spotify link

Feel free to advise me of exactly where I got this wrong. 🙂

 

86 thoughts on “My Top Twenty Guitarists of All Time

  1. Hey MC, Tubularsock loved your list. You pretty much covered it in Tubularsock’s estimation. Tubularsock played guitar or maybe more honestly fucked around with a guitar for some time in a Folk Trio way back when but moved on to a standing base.

    Had a hell of a lot of fun for about three years there but finally settled on the fact that the “stereo” was easier to play and I didn’t have to move it around.

    Been enjoying your posts.

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    1. I’ve seen your name crop now and again Tubes. Good to hear from you. I would be completely lost in a folk trio but bass might be fun to play. As to guitar, if you’re like me, there isn’t much moving around. I’m mostly on my couch or over a buddy’s house jamming. It fits my leisurely lifestyle. Glad you’re digging the posts. Check in any time.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hey Jim, seriously, how could you! 🙂

    It’s a great list and many of these guitarists would be on my top 20 as well. One addition definitely would be Bonnie Raitt. I’ve really come to dig her and will admit I may have a little bit of a crush on her. Apart from being a great slide guitarist, I feel she’s very genuine artist and a true heart and soul musician.

    Another guitarist who probably would end up being on my list is the guy who was a major influence for Clapton and Mark Knopfler: J.J. Cale

    I think I’m also with Hanspostcard regarding Rory Gallagher, another full breed guitarist who approached every show as if it was his last and truly left it all on stage.

    While I dig Jimmy Page, I view him more as a great riff guy than an outstanding solo guitarist. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with great riffs, so Jimmy would be on my list as well.

    I was a bit surprised not to see Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin on your list, but I fully realize picking and choosing is hard with just 20 spots. Kottke is a great pick. I haven’t listened to him in like 20 years, so thanks for reminding me!

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    1. DiMeola and McLaughlin were tough no-gos. I had McLaughlin on the list initially. But then I realized i needed Steve Howe on there. So as I thought about it it really became, for me,, who are the 20 I’ve gotten the most from overall in listening and playing. And so these guys are it.

      I think if you listen to Page and try to copy him, he’s both a great riff AND solo guitarist. Hell, the “Stairway” solo alone is worth the price of admission.

      As to Bonnie, she’s really good but not, for me, Top Twenty. Cale, for me, is good but not really inspirational.

      But if I had any grief about this list, it was having to leave guys like McLaughlin, DiMeola and Pat Metheny off. I think one day I’ll do a “favorite jazz guitarist” list.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. Sure, understood. Just saying maybe rethink that. Page has a got a lot of great solos too. He’s #3 on Rolling Stone’s list for a reason. I always loved his over-the-top-I’m-about-to-explode style. And BTW, I’m kicking myself for leaving Larry Carlton off.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Right. Check out their album credits. He’s integral to their sound. He also played with the Crusaders early in his career. He’s know as Mr. 335 as that’s what he plays. He’s got the purest tone combined with the jazziest playing.

          Liked by 1 person

        3. Wow, I can see why you like this guy! I’m randomly listening into one of his solo albums (Sleepwalk, 1981) – very smooth and beautiful tone!

          Looks like in addition to multiple guest appearances/collaborations with some of the best artists on the planet, he’s released a ton of solo albums.

          I got some listening to do!😀

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        4. Right. Check out his Crusaders stuff. I featured the song “Spiral” a while back. Great solo which I have the tab for.

          BTW, back to that discussion about riffers vs. soloists. Note that I called the post “My Favorite Guitarists” so it didn’t necessarily indicate that they had to be soloists per se. That’s just my preference ‘coz that’s what I like to hear

          I see Page as a great all-round (soloist, arrange, rhythm, and yes, riffer) player. But I also see guys like Chuck Berry, Keith Richards and Pete Townshend as great players. But by their own admission, none of them could really pull off a Clapton or Hendrix-type solo. And then some people like “soundscape” guys like The Edge or Johnny Marr.

          Liked by 1 person

        5. All great points. I think The Edge has a cool signature sound, but I don’t think he’d be in my top 25 list. At the end of the day, this is a pretty subjective exercise, though it’s still fun.

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  3. I’d redefine “20” as “21” and have acoustic player extraordinaire Isaac Guillory very high up – I have always suspected he had more fingers than us mere mortals. Excellent list!

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  4. Oh man, I’ve been drafting up a ten favourite guitarist post for tomorrow…. Looks like there’ll be a bit of crossover and some of your list might help me decide the last couple of contested slots.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. All good fun, Jim. Lovely to see Leo Kottke scrape in!
    I’ve never done a guitarist list and appreciated your comments on the jazz-rock / jazz category.

    In the rock arena, persons of interest to Vinyl Connection would also include Richard Thompson and Robert Fripp,

    Liked by 1 person

      1. What about a few tracks?
        Bowie – “Heroes”
        King Crimson – Fracture
        Fripp & Eno – Swastika girls
        King Crimson – Indiscipline
        King Crimson – Larks’ tongues in aspic part two (from Live In Vienna)
        Get back to me if you want more punishment.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Well, actually you’ll be fascinated to know that there is no (or virtually no) Crimson studio stuff on either Spotify or YouTube. So, should I listen to the entirety of Live in Vienna?

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Ah. Mr Fripp has what could only be described as a fractious relationship with the music industry.
          The recent ‘Live in Vienna’ is a great intro to the music of KC, but as it is a seven piece it comes on like a rhinoceros with 200 helium balloons attached.
          Over time, try and access ‘Starless and Bible Black’, ‘Red’ and ‘Discipline’ (in any order, really).

          Liked by 1 person

        3. Actually it’s not an intro for me. I’m ancient enough that I recall when their first album came out. I liked it but really lost touch with them. I had a half-in, half-out relationship with prog-rock. So I am trying to go back and hear not only Fripp’s guitar playing but also to see if I am interested in the band’s music. As to those albums, I’ve probably heard parts of them. But if I hear them they are going to have to be in ‘live’ versions ‘coz I’m not gonna buy the studio versions to find out if I like them.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Darn good list, Jim. My own comes pretty close. Mine would definitely exclude Prince, but if you can direct me to a good solo by him, I’ll give him another chance. Great to see Trower as one of your faves, as he’s one of mine, too, and very underrated.

    Since you place Duane at No. 1, are you familiar with the playing of Lowell George (Little Feat), another great electric slide specialist? And Elmore James is maybe the godfather (though I think he’s a bit overrated, known mainly for one or two songs). Johnny Winter and Billy Gibbons are also great blues slide axemen.

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    1. The song I listed in the post – “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad” – is great and is one of my favorite solos on this list. It comes in near the end of the song and it is just phenomenal.

      As to Lowell George, sure, of course. I’ve written about Little Feat a couple of times. Great player for sure. Love that band. I know Elmore James as when I tried somewhat ineffectively to be a slide player I studied him. And Johnny Winter was on the list then he was off the list. 😦 But he’s in the next batch of five, Gibbons probably too had I noted Honorable Mention.

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      1. OK, I stomached the Prince song to get to the solo. Some flurried fingering, but just not my cup of java. I prefer the earthier stuff.

        Per Iago’s comment above, I don’t know Marc Ribot either, but you might like Robert Quine, who backed up Uncle Lou, post Hunter/Wagner.

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        1. Interesting. I remember when I did my Pop, Glorious Pop post you were a big fan of bands like Raspberries. Nothing earthy about them.

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        2. I do like the Raspberries, and a lot of Power Pop. By “earthy” I was referring to the guitar solo. Too glitzy for me, and lacks soul (not Soul, but soul). I prefer the more soulful playing of people like Clapton.

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        3. Wow, ok. I guess we disagree on that one. In fact I’m in the middle of (re) learning that solo. But to each they own I suppose.

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        4. I guess enjoyment of learning/playing a song and enjoyment of listening to a song can converge. They can also diverge. In my garage-band days it was lots of fun ripping through the (simple) chords of the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant,” though I don’t rank it highly as a listening experience in greenpete’s sonic library!

          (Uh-oh, I just referred to myself in the third person, like CB. That’s scary.)

          Liked by 1 person

        5. Well, actually one leads to the other for me. If I enjoy listening to a solo, then – unless it’s extraordinarily complex – I HAVE to learn it. So if it sucks or if it doesn’t move me I don’t bother. Sometimes I just learn them by ear and then other times – like on the Prince tune -some thoughtful dude has put an instruction video up.

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  7. Ok Doc. You know me and lists but when you said “your” picks that’s a note of a different color. The old personal connection . I like that. I’m on the same page (obviously) with a lot of your choices because we listen to a lot of the same stuff. No brainers throughout. Like VC said it was cool that you included Kottke. Great choice in my opinion. Also Zappa. You mentioned on you last post what a great guitarist he was and how that gets over looked. Not by old CB it doesn’t. Where did you go wrong? I’ll tell ya. No place. It’s your list so fuck it.
    You know I have a big listening habit so I will throw down a few that are staple in my music pile. These are guitarists that I’ve heard hours of their playing. John McLaughlin, Fripp, Fogerty, Townsend, Davies, Robbie Robertson, Bruce Springsteen, John Scofield, Charlie Hunter, Dave Gonzales. Dave Alvin, Ronnie Earle..the list goes on
    I’ll be revisiting some of your choices and catching those vibes that caught you(me)

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    1. I’m down with McLaughlin, Fogerty, Townshend, Bruce, Scofield, Ronnie Earle. I may do a jazz and jazz/rock guitarists list down the road. Aphoristical just did a list and J is contemplating it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I could mouth of about just about all your choices. Totally on the same page with Santana.
        I think you being a musician your ear gets drawn to certain work (May, Prince) that because the music of the artist isn’t my bag (previous talk about the guitar solos on ‘Hotel Cali’) I would never hear. I’ll check out Aphoristical’s take.

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        1. He has May but not Prince on his list. I love both Queen and Prince so it’s easy-peasy. Prince’s solo on the song I posted here may be my favorite of the entire list. I learned it, forgot it, need to learn it again. He was a tremendous artist. Saw him once years ago. Just a great, great show.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. I’ll have to listen to the solo like I did on the Walsh/Felder cut. That’s pretty high praise considering all the heavyweights on your list.
          I’m going to change things up in a while. I have a take on Bruce and i go into how much I like his guitar work on ‘Darkness’

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        3. The whole ‘Kitty” vibe is a killer. Yes and his guitar sounds so good. As I’ve mention before I can guess or kinda know if a guy has those special chops, Allman/Clapton/Page/Beck but Bruces sound has always got me. I’ll save more detail for my take. How would you describe his playing?
          Also Doc when the band comes in with the “Here she comes, here she comes” vocals, what a celebration that is.

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        4. Bruce has a very muscular sound with a not-real-warm tone. It sounds to me like he’s wrenching sounds out of the guitar. He and Van Zandt solo together on, I think, “Prove it All Night.” Check out any live version of that on YouTube and even if it’s just Bruce it’ll set your hair on fire.

          Liked by 1 person

        5. I like your “muscular”, “wrenching” terms. I always think of that Floyd lyric “You bought a guitar to punish your ma” when Springsteen cuts loose.
          I’ll save this convo for when i do my take. You are on the exact same page on the ‘All Night’ cut. Good stuff fella.

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        6. Just listened to it Doc. I have to say the song isn’t my style at all but the solo is. I would have never got to. You know who it reminded me of? We just talked about it a while back. Dickie Betts and his solo on ‘Ramblin Man’.

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  8. That’s quite the list, Jim. Lots of players I’m not really familiar with in there, too, so there’s some stuff for me to go investigate.

    If I was to do my own list, I reckon a bunch of the 90’s alternative rockers in there. In fact, you might just have inspired me to do a favourite guitarist post.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. STONKING list, sir. Easily six or seven of these would make my Top Ten let alone Twenty and some great selections too.
    Did you know the ‘Knopfler sound’ was born from the pick-up on his Strat’ getting stuck between settings?

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    1. You lot have quite a few good words. Stonking. I’ll have to remember that. As to Knopfler, no I didn’t know that. I thought he just developed that sound over time. But a big part of it of course is his fingerstyle playing which precious few electric players use .(Your mate J. Beck stopped using a plectrum.)

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      1. I ditched the plectrum some time ago though more as a way of trying to keep the arthritis at bay and keep the fingers nimble. Knopfler has a very distinctive use of his thumb for the bass notes and rhythm that’s so unique – not to mention his tone on the Pensa and Gibson.

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      2. Yeah, Jeff’ll often pick up the old six-string when he’s over and pick out a tune or two. Never “Silver Lining” no matter how much I heckle for it, the stroppy bugger

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  10. Not gonna bore ya with who I would have picked but it’s a pretty good list you have there. There’s plenty of talent on display at both ends. Buddy guy might have been higher up on my list.

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    1. But I think I know you well enough to exclaim some of your favorite guitarists: Johnny Marr, all Springsteen guitarists, Angus and Malcolm Young, Nick Cave, Colin Hay, Neil Finn. You’re welcome.

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