And the Winner Is… These are the Greatest Guitarists of All Time

You don’t have to be a guitarist to appreciate awesome guitar playing. But, considering how popular rock and roll is and the sheer amount of guitarists there are (and were) in the industry, there are a lot to choose from when making a “best of” list.

Photo by Steve Joester, Shutterstock / Ray Stevenson, Shutterstock / Ilpo Musto, Shutterstock / Andre Csillag, Shutterstock / Dezo Hoffman, Shutterstock / Andre Csillag, Shutterstock

Of all the amazing guitar players in the history of music, these 50 are the best of the best. Of course, we’re going to need to start at 50 in order to keep the anticipation. Who’s your favorite guitarist?

50. Robert Fripp

Fripp is the founder of the band King Crimson and the man behind musical innovations like Frippertronics, soundscapes, and new standard tuning. Ever since King Crimson‘s first rehearsal in 1969, Fripp has been the band’s distinguishing instrumental voice.

Robert Fripp performing in 1973
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Fripp’s most famous guitar line is the hook in the title track to David Bowie‘s album Heroes. Fripp would “start up without even knowing the chord sequence,” said producer Brian Eno.

49. John McLaughlin

McLaughlin from Doncaster, England, was a key player in developing “fusion” music. He earned the 2018 Grammy for Best Improvised Jazz Solo. In 2010, guitarist Jeff Beck called him the “best guitarist alive.”

John McLaughlin with his guitar
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McLaughlin recorded with Miles Davis when he was in his 20s, co-parenting jazz fusion. He achieved guitar-god status with his Mahavishnu Orchestra. McLaughlin mixed psychedelic rock, R&B, gypsy jazz, flamenco, and Indian raga techniques.

48. Steve Morse

Morse is the founder of the Dixie Dregs and later became the lead guitarist of Deep Purple in the mid-90s. He’s now a part of the supergroup Flying Colors.

Steve Morse performing in 2013
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Steve Howe (of Yes) said of Morse: “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.”

47. Peter Green

Green was born in London, England, and one of the co-founders of Fleetwood Mac. B.B. King said of him: “He has the sweetest tone I ever heard; he was the only one who gave me the cold sweats.”

Peter Green performing in 2009 / Peter Green performing in the ‘60s
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In 1966, Green replaced Eric Clapton in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Mayall said, “He might not be better [than Clapton] now. But you wait… he’s going to be the best.” With Fleetwood Mac, he was Britain’s most progressive blues guitarist.

46. Robin Trower

Trower is an English rock guitarist and vocalist whose guitar playing became huge in the 1960s when he was a member of Procol Harum from 1967 to 1971. He then became the leader of his own power trio known as The Robin Trower Band.

Robin Trower with his guitar circa the 1980s
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Paul Gilbert (of Racer X, Mr. Big) said of him: “Trower is sometimes unfairly dismissed for copying Jimi Hendrix – well, there are worse people to imitate!”

45. Tom Morello

Morello grew up in Libertyville, Illinois, and even went to Harvard University. In the 90s, he met Zack de la Rocha, and together they formed one of the most popular and influential rock acts of the 90s: Rage Against the Machine.

Tom Morello performing in 2007
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Rage against the Machine pushed the envelope and forged their own path. As Morello leaped around the stage, he not only formed the essence of the band’s heavy sound, but he also explored new territory in guitar-playing techniques.

44. Paul Gilbert

Gilbert grew up in Carbondale, Illinois, and is best known for his guitar playing speed and stylistic versatility. He is praised for his staccato picking technique. He combines fast picking with legato techniques at the same, which is quite impressive.

Paul Gilbert holding his guitar up in 2011
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Jim Davies (of The Prodigy, Pitchshifter): “Aside from the fact that he is such an incredible guitarist, I like Paul because he’s a good communicator. Watch his videos, and you can learn things. Though he obviously has bags of inherent talent, he became that good because he practiced, which gives hope to everybody.”

43. Malcolm Young

Young was born in Sydney, Australia, and was the co-founder of AC/DC. Sadly, he passed away at the age of 64. He generally turned to his ’63 Gretsch Jet Firebird, which he customized by removing the middle pickups.

Malcolm Young with his guitar
Source: Twitter

Scott Ian (of Anthrax) said of Young: “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.”

42. George Harrison

Another incredible musician who passed away before his time is George Harrison of the Beatles. He died of throat cancer in 2001 when he was only 58, which he blamed on years of smoking.

George Harrison with his guitar circa 1963
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In 1992, he became the first recipient of the Billboard Century Award, which marked Harrison’s “critical role in laying the groundwork for the modern concept of world music.”

41. Michael Schenker

Schenker was born in West Germany. The rock guitarist played in UFO and then moved on to lead the Michael Schenker Group. He was also an early member of the band the Scorpions, co-founded by his elder brother Rudolf Schenker.

Michael Schenker performing in 2016
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He’s been called “a legendary figure in the history of metal guitar.” Mike McReady (of Pearl Jam) said of him: “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.”

40. Duane Allman

Allman was the founder and leader of the Allman Brothers Band. He died in a motorcycle when he was only 24 years old. He was praised for his expressive slide guitar playing and improvisational skills.

Duane Allman performing circa 1971
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Having played all the slide and Gibson tones on Eric Clapton’s Derek and the Dominos’ album, Allman played on tracks by soul stars like Aretha Franklin and Percy Sledge.

39. Paul Kossoff

Kossoff was an English blues-rock guitarist most known for being a member of the band Free. He was ranked 51st on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.

Paul Kossoff performing circa 1974
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Kossoff was in high demand as a guitarist. He started using drugs when he was 15, though, and on March 19, 1976, he died on a flight from LA to New York, from a pulmonary embolism. He was only 25 years old.

38. Keith Richards

Richards is the co-founder of the Rolling Stones. In 2011, Rolling Stone named him as the creator of “rock’s greatest single body of riffs” on guitar.

Keith Richards with an acoustic guitar circa 1964
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Richards is known for writing two and three-note tracks. Just listen to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” again to hear the combination of riffs and chords layered within. Richards also mastered alternate and open tunings, becoming a legend of his own.

37. Billy Gibbons

Gibbons is the lead guitarist and singer of ZZ Top, just in case, his beard didn’t give it away. The guitar master founded The Moving Sidewalks early on in his career and opened for The Jimi Hendrix Experience.

Billy Gibbons holding a guitar on the red carpet in 2016
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He and Hendrix were good friends. Keith Nelson (of Buckcherry) said of Gibbons: “Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top has the tone and the taste, and his playing always has this tenacity. He’s really just one of the last examples, in our lifetime, of someone who has a true connection to the old blues players.”

36. Joe Bonamassa

Bonamassa opened for B.B. King when he was just 12 years old. He’s now in his 40s, and he’s already played with Stephen Stills, Eric Clapton, Blondie Chaplin, Wizbit, Foreigner, Buddy Guy, Steve Winwood, Journey, Solomon Hicks, and Derek Trucks.

Joe Bonamassa with his guitar during a rehearsal in 2014
Photo by Joby Sessions / Future / Shutterstock

Playing the blues isn’t enough for him; he blends his sound with country, which results in a style that bleeds Americana.

35. Mick Taylor

Taylor was part of The Rolling Stones until 1974. According to Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash, Taylor had the biggest influence on him as a musician.

Mick Taylor performing in the ‘60s
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“People always mention Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck and Angus Young – all the obvious ones – but there are 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,” said Slash.

34. Dave Mustaine

Mustaine was the original lead guitarist of Metallica, but in 1983, he was fired from the band because of his alcoholism, drug abuse, and fights with founding members James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich.

Dave Mustaine performing in 2016
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Still, Mustaine went on to see great success when he formed his own band Megadeth. Some say, however, that he never really got over being fired from Metallica.

33. James Hetfield

Hetfield gave us Metallica, which became a gold standard of 80s metal. “I wonder if James Hetfield knows how to play the drums,” Dave Grohl (of Nirvana) once said. “Because basically, he’s taking care of the percussion and melody of Metallica’s songs with his guitar. And it’s great.”

James Hetfield performing in 2004
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Hetfield is from Downey, CA. He went to rehab for alcohol abuse in 2001 and has been clean ever since.

32. Pete Townshend

Townshend is a co-founder of The Who, which became one of the most influential rock bands ever. He grew up in London after the end of World War II, saying, “I wasn’t trying to play beautiful music. I was confronting my audience with the awful, visceral sound of what we all knew was the single absolute of our frail existence—one day, an airplane would carry the bomb that would destroy us all in a flash. It could happen at any time.”

Pete Townshend performing in 2013
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Townshend commanded attention through his performances. He was known for his windmill arm as he struck chords, his wild jumps in the air, and his tendency to smash most of his instruments after shows.

31. Kirk Hammett

Hammett is also part of Metallica. It’s clear they know how to pick their guitarists! Hammett formed his first band when he was 16 and has been a respected musician ever since.

Kirk Hammett performing in 2009
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Hammett joined Metallica after Mustaine was fired. He wowed people with his blistering solos and thunderous chords. He’s responsible for some of the most recognizable riffs in the metal genre.

30. Chuck Berry

Berry, born in 1926, was the pioneer of Rock and Roll. Berry paved his own path with classic tunes “Johnny B. Goode” and “Roll Over Beethoven.” He added his own twist on the Chicago blues.

Chuck Berry with a guitar
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This innovative artist was a trailblazer, producing guitar riffs like no one before. His songs were commercially successful without being in the pop genre. He died at the age of 90 in 2017.

29. Steve Howe

Howe is the guitarist for the progressive rock band Yes. He also had a successful solo career and was inducted into the Rock and Roll of Fame in 2017.

Steve Howe surrounded by guitars circa 1995
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Howe’s dexterity and imagination is what makes him the epitome of progressive rock, from his wah-wah outbursts on “Yours is No Disgrace” to his country picking on “Clap.”

28. Rory Gallagher

Gallagher was a blues and rock guitarist who was born in Ireland. His albums sold more than 30 million copies across the globe. He became a legend for his nonstop-touring ethic and explosive craft.

Rory Gallagher performing 1978
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Gallagher electrified Chicago and Delta styles. He tragically died on June 14, 1995, at the age of 47, from the effects of a failing liver due to alcohol, drugs, and an MRSA infection.

27. Zakk Wylde

Wylde had a long career as the lead guitarist of Ozzy Osbourne. He’s also the founder and frontman of the heavy metal band Black Label Society.

Zakk Wylde with his guitar
Photo by Jesse Wild / Future / Shutterstock

With his distinctive use of harmonic vibrato, when you hear his playing, you know it’s him. He had an immense effect on rock music.

26. Frank Zappa

Zappa, who died in 1993, was the best at nonconforming free-form improvising. He was prolific, having released over 60 albums with his own band, Mothers of Invention, and as a solo artist.

Frank Zappa with his guitar at home in 1974
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Zappa was self-taught, which means it’s all the more impressive that he came to be known as one of the most influential guitarists of the modern era.

25. Yngwie Malmsteen

Malmsteen was born in 1963 and became popular in the 80s with his neo-classical style of playing metal. With 20 studio albums, he continues to be one of the most prolific guitarists working today.

Yngwie Malmsteen performing 2017
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In 2018, he signed a deal with Mascot Records, which means he doesn’t seem to be showing any signs of slowing down!

24. John Petrucci

Petrucci, born in 1967, is best known for his work with the band Dream Theater – a group in which he was a founding member. Petrucci’s always comes up in the “Top Guitarist” lists.

John Petrucci performing 2014
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Petrucci proved to be one of the most imaginative virtuoso guitarists of the modern era. His technique is unique, in which he often uses a seven-string guitar to intensify the heaviness of his sound.

23. Prince

You might not think of the late musician as a shredder, but Prince’s guitar skills were jaw-dropping. The artist was well-known for mastering several musical styles, including funk, rock, R&B, new wave, soul, pop, and psychedelia.

Prince performing in 1995
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Prince is one of the best-selling musicians of all time, with over 130 million records bought by his fans.

22. Synyster Gates

Gates is the lead guitarist of Avenged Sevenfold. In 2016 and 2017, he was voted Best Metal Guitarist in the World by Total Guitar. His brother-in-law, M. Shadow, is the lead singer of his band.

Synyster Gates performing in 2018
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Conor Marshall (of Conjuror) said, “Gates is a guitar hero to me because he changed the way I see music. Avenged Sevenfold and Metallica are the bands that got me into metal, and Syn’s guitar playing is an absolutely huge part of it.”

21. Carlos Santana

Carlos Santana was born in Jalisco, Mexico. His band Santana rose to fame in the 60s and 70s and were responsible for pioneering a blend of rock and roll and Latin American jazz. He won a Grammy, a Billboard Century Award, and many others.

Carlos Santana performing 1985
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He has been named one of the most influential guitarists of the last 50 years. One of his high points was his groundbreaking Woodstock set, his matchless 70s streak, and his “Smooth” revival.

20. Angus Young

Angus, Malcolm’s brother, is another member of AC/DC and also on this list, albeit further down (which is actually higher up). Angus is known for his energetic performances, his notorious schoolboy-uniform, and his take on the Chuck Berry duck walk.

Angus Young performing circa 1988
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His guitar style was influenced by blues, power chords, and Scottish folk music. The man can even play one-handed arpeggios.

19. Dimebag Darrell

Darrell of Damageplan never had any formal guitar lessons, but his playing style became iconic. He made great use of the major third in his riffs, creating a dissonance to his minor key tonalities.

Dimebag Darrell performing with his face painted
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On December 8, 2004, during a concert at the Alrosa nightclub in Ohio, a fan rushed onto the stage during the first song of the set and shot Darrell multiple times. He was pronounced dead at the scene at 38 years old.

18. B.B. King

B.B. King, born in 1925, created a sophisticated guitar solo where he would use string bending and vibrato, which pioneered new electric blues techniques. King died in 2015 at the age of 89.

B.B. King performing circa the early 1960s
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King was half of the greatest vocal duo in blues history, with the other half being his guitar, Lucille, who’s elegant tone said everything words couldn’t express.

17. Mark Knopfler

Knopfler, along with his little brother, David, is the co-founder of the rock band Dire Straits. Mark has been described as a virtuoso on the guitar. He is a fingerstyle guitarist as well as a four-time Grammy winner, who earned three honorary doctorate degrees in music.

Mark Knopfler performing circa 1979
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On the first two Dire Straits albums, in particular, Knopfler’s soloing is clean, economical and effortless. His solo work downplays lead guitar, but it’s still there.

16. Randy Rhoads

Rhoads was a major influence on neo-classical metal. He played with both Quiet Riot and Ozzy Osbourne. Many respected guitarists cite Rhoads as an influence.

Randy Rhoads with his guitar in front of an empty concert hall
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He died at the age of 25 in 1982, while he was on tour with Ozzy Osbourne. A few band members were taking a single-engine plane for a ride when they clipped the top of their tour bus, spiraling out of control and killing everyone inside the aircraft.

15. Gary Moore

Moore has been described as a virtuoso who saw success with multiple bands and as a solo artist. He had 11 Top 40 single releases in the UK alone as a solo artist. He died of a heart attack at the age of 58 in 2011.

Gary Moore with his guitar backstage circa 1979
Photo by Richard Young / Shutterstock

“People think they have to just pick up a guitar and play three chords, and that’s the blues. It’s a lot more than that – constantly refining, taking away stuff you don’t need until all that’s left is the bare bones and what’s totally necessary,” Moore said.

14. Tony Iommi

Iommi was one of the founding members of Black Sabbath. His style happened to be impacted by an accident that occurred in a factory he worked in as a teenager.

Tony Iommi performing in 2009
Photo by Kevin Nixon / Classic Rock Magazine / Shutterstock

He lost the tips of both his middle and ring fingers on his right hand. Still, he went on to become one of the best rock guitarists of all time.

13. Joe Satriani

Satriani is a 15-time Grammy nominee who sold over 10 million albums, cementing him the best-selling rock guitarist of all time.

Joe Satriani holding a guitar in 2009
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Chris Impellitteri said his favorite of Satriani’s will always be “Satch Boogie” because of the intro riff. “It’s filled with energy, emotion, and is simply addictive. Ultimately, Satriani has influenced me in a similar manner to Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, Al Di Meola, and Uli Jon Roth.”

12. Jeff Beck

Jeff Beck of the Yardbirds has work that spans across genres such as blues rock, hard rock, and electronica. Beck pushed the boundaries of contemporary electric guitar playing. He’s often cited as the guitar hero’s guitar hero.

Jeff Beck backstage with a guitar
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While Clapton brought passion to The Yardbirds, Beck brought aggressive firepower. Not only was he awarded a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance six different times, but he was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice.

11. Steve Vai

Vai was born in Carls Place, New York, in 1960. His music career started when he was 18 years old when he was a transcriptionist for Frank Zappa. Another teacher of his was Joe Satriani.

Steve Vai performing in 2001
Photo by Chris McKay / Shutterstock

The sounds he coaxed out of his guitar were wildly unpredictable, constantly surprising his audiences. He’s renowned for his specially designed guitars with 24 frets, allowing him a diverse range of sounds, and emotions, to be conveyed.

10. Ritchie Blackmore

Blackmore is a co-founder of Deep Purple, lauded for his riffs and classically influenced solos. The English guitarist and songwriter helped define what it really means to play heavy metal guitar. Just listen to “Smoke on the Water.”

Ritchie Blackmore performing circa the 1970s
Photo by Ian Dickson / Shutterstock

Blackmore combined classical style with raw blues to deliver some of the best hard rock jams. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

9. Slash

Slash was the lead guitarist of Guns N’ Roses and has been praised for his guitar playing since his career began in 1981. Slash, whose birth name is Saul Hudson, made a name for himself as one of the best electric guitar soloists.

Slash performing in 1995
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“Sweet Child of Mine” is all Slash. The British-American guitarist helped give the iconic rock band its signature sound. From his top hat, sunglasses, and orange Gibson guitar, his music wasn’t the only thing that grabbed the attention of rock fans around the world.

8. Alex Lifeson

The Canadian-born guitarist of the band Rush plays electric and acoustic guitars, the mandola, the mandolin, and the bouzouki. In 2013, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Alex Lifeson performing in 2013
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Lifeson filled out Rush’s power-trio sound with a mix of arpeggios and rock crunch that made it sound like at least two players were playing at once. “The guitar just had to make a broader statement,” he once said.

7. Brian May

Queen’s Brian May still plays for the iconic band. He’s proof that brainiacs do belong in rock ’n’ roll. He’s the only musician on this list who has a degree in astrophysics. The guitarist had the ability to layer multiple guitar parts to create unforgettable sounds.

Brian May performing in 1979
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May used his talent to create his own guitar, the Red Special, aka The Old Lady, which he played with a coin instead of a regular guitar pick. May and his father built the guitar out of wood from a few different places, including his own fireplace!

6. Stevie Ray Vaughan

Vaughan was a key player in the revival of blues during the 80s. He died in a helicopter crash at the age of 35 in 1990, though. The virtuoso started playing the guitar when he was only seven years old.

Stevie Ray Vaughan performing in 1985
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Vaughan was known for being a blues guitarist, with a sense of swing, reminiscent of B.B. King and Eric Clapton. He earned six Grammy Awards and 10 Austin Music Awards, along with a Blues Hall of Fame spot.

5. Eric Clapton

Clapton is the only three-time inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He won 18 Grammy Awards and sold over 100 million records worldwide. He went through a range of hit bands, including The Yardbirds, Cream, and Derek & The Dominos, before going solo.

Eric Clapton with his guitar 1975
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It’s no wonder his work is well recognized. He perfected his blues style rock by putting his own twist on smooth and simple background notes as well as playing memorable solos in his own style.

4. David Gilmour

Gilmour was a member of Pink Floyd. While he wasn’t the original guitarist for the band, his natural abilities left a lasting mark on the band and created its signature sound. Gilmour pioneered the use of echo and other signature effects that Pink Floyd is known for.

David Gilmour performing in 1977
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Known for his prowess on improvisational guitar, Gilmour’s first love happened to be blues music. Gilmour isn’t the fastest guitar player ever, but his guitar’s dreamy, ambient texture gave him an instantly recognizable sound.

3. Eddie Van Halen

The founder of Van Halen is a beast on the guitar. He was voted number one in Guitar World’s list of the greatest guitarists of all time back in 2012. Van Halen, along with his brother Alex, took his last name and made turned it into one of the biggest names in rock music.

Eddie Van Halen performing
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Van Halen is known as a master of riffs (listen to “Unchained,” “Eruption,” and “Take Your Whiskey Home”). He was also a genius with harmonies and textures within his music. Sadly, he recently passed away, on October 6, 2020, at the age of 65.

2. Jimmy Page

Page, the founder of Led Zeppelin, was also in The Yardbirds. He was one of the biggest guitarists in Britain as a 20-year-old in the 60s. Page was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame twice. Page could range from playing gentle English folk music to delivering shrieking guitar solos.

Jimmy Page performing circa the 1970s
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Page wasn’t much of a stage performer in terms of jumping and leaping. Instead, he stayed still as he sent the audiences’ heads reeling. He used props like two-necked guitars to create unearthly sounds out of his guitar, even using a violin bow on songs like “Dazed and Confused.”

1. Jimi Hendrix

In his 27 years on earth, Hendrix became the most unique and critically-acclaimed musician in history. His hands would fly up and down the neck of a guitar at an insane speed. He could play the guitar behind his head and even with his teeth.

Jimi Hendrix with his guitar in the ‘60s
Photo by Bruce Fleming / Shutterstock

His iconic performance at Woodstock with his rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner established his place at number one. During that performance, his guitar literally screamed out the sound of bombs and became one of the best-known rock performances of all time.