It’s a conversation every music aficionado has had innumerable times, and will continue to have so long as the spirit of rock prevails; who is the greatest guitarist of all time? It’s an argument which involves questions of taste, of technical skill and of soul, an argument which will continue to haunt cultural critics and laymen alike for years to come. Here at Goliath, we’ve tried our best to whittle away the superfluous and narrow it down to the 10 greatest rock and roll guitarists of all time.
10. Jack White (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs)
For a while, rock’s reigning king of guitar could do no wrong; The White Stripes, despite their internal differences, were a massive commercial and critical success, with albums like White Blood Cells and Elephant and Icky Thump often credited with saving rock in its most desperate hour (the early 2000’s…shudder). His signature brand of electric blues will melt your face off (see below), and whatever he lacks in technical skill is more than made up for with a heaping dose of swagger. While his recent solo ventures have been less enthusiastically received, there’s no question that when it comes to playing rock and roll guitar in the 21st century, Jack White is the man everyone looks to. He’s eccentric, he’s electric and he’s got the moves to back up whatever trash he’s talking.
9. Keith Richards (The Rolling Stones)
Ahhhh, Keith. You’ve been doing this for almost half a century, and you never disappoint. The man who made rhythm guitar cool, Richards has been writing timeless riffs for longer than most of the population has been alive, and he’s shown no signs of slowing down. Drawing influence from the blues, country and even funk and disco, Richards’ warm, minimal tone is as familiar to a Rolling Stones fan as Mick Jagger’s swaying hips. It’s difficult to comprehend the influence The Rolling Stones have had on contemporary music, and even more difficult to comprehend that all those instantly recognizable riffs came from one man. The definition of a true rock and roller, no list of rock guitarists would be complete without Keith.
8. Eddie Van Halen (Van Halen)
Every so often, a guitarist comes along who changes things forever and for always. They’re rare, but often they feature a sound so recognizable they inspire musicians for decades to come. Eddie Van Halen was one of those guitarists. Often credited with helping bring metal and hard rock to a mainstream audience, Van Halen also popularized several innovative guitar techniques, most importantly “tapping” (a method wherein two hands are used on the neck, rather than one on the neck and one on the body). Known for his outrageous guitar solos and even more outrageous on-stage persona, Eddie Van Halen will almost assuredly go down as one of the best, and most unique, guitarists to ever assault our ears.
7. Prince (Prince and The Revolution)
To the casual music fan, this one might come as a bit of a surprise, but seasoned listeners are well aware that despite his peculiarities, Prince remains one of the best guitarists (hell, one of the best musicians) on the planet at any given moment. He may be small, but his music sure isn’t; the guitar solo in “Purple Rain” (featured below) is one of the most iconic in music history, yet it’s far from the only instance where Prince’s musical prowess has left jaws on the floor. Most every one of his albums features astounding musicianship, a fact often overlooked due to the strange nature of his off-screen persona and the sheer difficulty of accessing his music online (Prince really, really hates YouTube).
6. B.B. King
This year the world witnessed the passing of a legend, as foundational blues guitarist B.B. King passed away at age 89. As respected and influential as musicians can be, King was not a “rock” guitarist so to speak, but you’d be hard pressed to find a musician on this list who wasn’t in some way impacted by the smooth, soulful “King of the Blues.” A man who could do more with one note than most musicians could do with a thousand, King was the anchor around which the blues community was rooted, and his absence will be sorely felt moving forward. A legendary showman who toured well into his late 80s, King was a consummate gentlemen who never fell victim to the trappings of stardom, rather remaining humble while dishing out concert after concert of affective music.
5. David Gilmour (Pink Floyd)
Like B.B. King above, David Gilmour is a guitarist who thrives on doing more with less. While some of the other guitarists on this list may play faster, angrier or louder, it’s Gilmour who plays with the most soul. His soaring guitar solos have defined the psychadelic sound of Pink Floyd since he joined the band in 1967, and the ambient nature of his guitar tone sets him apart from the many rock guitarists who prefer more overdrive and less reverberation. His guitar solo in “Time” (featured below) is consistently cited as one of the greatest of all time, with Guitar Worldvoting it 21st (his solo for “Comfortably Numb” clocked in at #4 on that list).
4. Stevie Ray Vaughan (Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble)
Were it not for his untimely death, there’s little doubt that Stevie Ray Vaughan would be higher on this list. As it stands, we’re left with the mightily impressive work of a prodigy who was never truly afforded the opportunity to blossom. Meshing classic blues techniques with the southern sounds of his native Texas, Vaughan crafted a monumentally influential sound that would go on to inspire a generation of young guitarists, many of whom saw his now legendary performances on Austin City Limits (we’re looking at you, John Mayer). Credited by many as the man who gave new life to the blues rock genre, Vaughan’s career lasted a short seven years, but his legacy will persist for far longer as one of the most important guitarists of all time.
3. Eric Clapton (The Yardbirds, Derek and the Dominos, Cream)
Clapton is God. Not literally, of course, but that’s what the graffiti scrawled on subway walls at the height of his tenure with the Yardbirds, shortly before he left to join the supergroup Cream with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, would lead you to believe. It was at this point in time that most people believed Eric Clapton to be the best guitarist on the planet, a belief that continued until a young man from Seattle rose to prominence (more on him later). Known affectionately to his fans as “Slowhand,” a nickname which arose from his smooth-as-honey hand movements while playing, Clapton has enjoyed a long, successful career on the back of his astounding ability to blend blues methodology with rock and roll sensibilities, resulting in a guitar tone and style he refers to as “The Woman Tone” (a thick, distorted and creamy sound unique to his guitar).
2. Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin)
When it comes to penning recognizable rock and roll riffs, nobody (not even the aforementioned Keith Richards) can top Jimmy Page. It doesn’t hurt that he’s put together some of the most blistering guitar solos of all time as well, like the one in “Whole Lotta Love” (below). Oscillating between overwhelming electric guitar awesome and beautiful, intricate acoustic arrangements (“The Rain Song”), there’s something for everyone in Led Zeppelin’s discography. If all of that isn’t impressive enough, think about this: in a band that features arguably the greatest drummer of all time (Jon Bonham), and one of the greatest vocalists of all time (Roger Plant), it’s Page who gets the most recognition. Listening to his work, there’s little reason to wonder why.
1. Jimi Hendrix (The Jimi Hendrix Experience)
Despite all the jockeying for position on this list, there was never any question as to who would end up at the top. In his brief life, Jimi Hendrix forever changed the way people thought about the electric guitar. In his hands, it became more than an instrument; it was a gateway into the soul, a vessel through which to communicate the inner-workings of a complex man with immeasurable talent. You can listen to most any Hendrix song and come away with a sincere appreciation for not only the music, but also the man. While his catalog is not expansive, his three studio albums and live performances exist as the ultimate experience in rock and roll guitar.