40 Of The Greatest Guitarists Whose Iconic Records Rocked Our Worlds

When it comes to musical heroes, it’s often the guitarist who tops the bill. After all, whether you’re into rock, country, blues, jazz or metal, the six-string typically drives the sound. From loud and proud shredders to delicate finger-pickers, here’s a look at 40 of the all-time greats.

40. Buddy Guy

Without Buddy Guy, it’s pretty likely that an entire generation of guitar heroes wouldn’t exist. The legendary musician inspired future greats from Eric Clapton to Jimi Hendrix during his early years with his down and dirty take on the blues. And though he’s now an octogenarian, the magnificent note-bender is still very much going strong.

39. Jonny Greenwood

Jonny Greenwood’s ferocious guitar playing on “Creep” propelled Radiohead into the charts in the early 1990s. But he’s since taken the critical favorites in all kinds of other interesting directions with his innovative play. One of those rare guitar greats who eschews hair-raising solos, Greenwood instead prefers to weave his genius into the group’s melodies.

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38. Ritchie Blackmore

Ritchie Blackmore reinvented how the instrument could be played in not just one but two seminal rock outfits. The iconic guitarist initially blew everyone away with his aggressive riffs and bone-crunching solos as a member of Deep Purple. And next he helped to define Rainbow’s similar heavy metal sound with his ground-breaking approach.

37. Dick Dale

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Every surf-rock guitarist out there owes a debt to Dick Dale. The pioneering musician helped to create one of the signature styles of Southern California back in the 1960s with his thrilling, reverb-laden technique. But you may not know that the West Coast legend drew heavily from the music of his father’s Lebanese homeland, too.

36. Tom Morello

As the musical lynchpin of Rage Against the Machine, Tom Morello proved that rock and hip-hop didn’t have to be mutually exclusive. The guitarist relied on a whole host of inventive effects to complement the band’s politically conscious protest anthems. But the folk-driven work as his alter-ego Nightwatchman showed that Morello could be just as magnetic when he took things back to basics.

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35. Hank Marvin

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You probably wouldn’t expect a man so closely aligned with the squeaky clean U.K. Peter Pan of pop, Cliff Richard, to be hailed as a guitar hero. But as the leader of The Shadows, Hank Marvin was pivotal in transferring the American rock sound across the Atlantic. John Lennon even once hailed the group as a rare pre-Beatles British act that deserved your attention.

34. John Lee Hooker

John Lee Hooker was very much an outlier when it came to the blues music of the post-war era. The legendary musician prided himself on pushing the genre into murkier territory with his “mean, mean licks.” And thanks to timeless tracks such as “Boogie Chillen” and “Crawlin’ King Snake,” he took a whole host of future guitar heroes with him. Remarkably, Hooker enjoyed his biggest commercial success nearly half a century into his career with a series of Grammy-winning albums.

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33. Mark Knopfler

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Mark Knopfler is a very different kind of guitar hero. Whereas most of his peers preferred to turn everything up to 11, the Sultan of Swing showed that sometimes less is more. Knopfler helped Dire Straits become one of the biggest bands of the early MTV era with his clear playing technique. And he’s continued to work his understated magic as a solo artist, too.

32. Muddy Waters

Muddy Waters learned from the best, most notably Delta bluesmen Son House and Charley Patton. But he then put his own spin on things with a rhythmic, visceral style that would test the strings to their limits. Waters’ electrifying style in turn inspired several guitar greats including Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Guy.

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31. Prince

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Prince’s astonishing vocal range and eccentric persona mean that it’s easy to forget just how remarkable he was on the six-string. But the superstar delivered one of the greatest solos of the 1980s on the seminal “Purple Rain.” And his epic display at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2004 even had the rock greats he was sharing the stage with dumbfounded.

30. Carlos Santana

Carlos Santana has been wowing audiences with his passionate fusion of jazz, Latin and rock guitar playing for more than half a century. His performance at the iconic Woodstock was widely regarded as one of the festival’s highlights. And thanks to a whole host of pop-oriented collaborations, his virtuoso techniques also became a radio staple at the start of the 21st century.

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29. Stevie Ray Vaughan

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Combining the blues of his native Texas with the mainstream rock of the time, Stevie Ray Vaughan found fame as the front-man of Double Trouble. His genre-blurring capabilities helped to spearhead a blues revival in the 1980s. But Vaughan’s career was tragically cut short at the dawn of the following decade when he lost his life in a helicopter accident.

28. Billy Gibbons

Sure, the beard that nearly touches the floor is probably the first thing that comes to mind with Billy Gibbons. But the ZZ Top ever-present’s melodic, electrified skills on the six-string are even more impressive than his facial hair. “Spankin’ the plank” is how Gibbons himself refers to the style that helped his trio rack up multiple hits in the 1980s.

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27. Chet Atkins

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Chet Atkins was so revered for his six-string techniques that he was even nicknamed Mr. Guitar. But there was more to the country music man’s talents than the ostentatious flourishes that defined his early career. Atkins would later adopt a more sophisticated and graceful sound in the mid-1960s that would set the blueprint for Nashville artists for years to come.

26. Gary Moore

Gary Moore isn’t as famous in the States as he is in many other nations. But the late Northern Irishman was undoubtedly one of the most technically gifted guitarists of his generation. Moore got his start playing alongside future Thin Lizzy star Phil Lynott before going on to enjoy solo success with his expressive take on blues rock.

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25. Joe Walsh

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Joe Walsh is 50 percent responsible for one of the most iconic guitar duels in rock history. His Stratocaster play on Eagles’ signature hit “Hotel California” perfectly complemented band-mate Don Felder’s Les Paul. But although it sounds intricate, Walsh told Guitar World the solos were easy to nail. “We didn’t do it over and over, and I think that’s what you hear,” he recalled. “We didn’t beat it into the ground. Those performances were pretty fresh.”

24. Ry Cooder

“Some kind of steam device gone out of control.” That’s how Ry Cooder once described his distinctive fusion of American, Tex-Mex, Afro-Cuban and Hawaiian sounds. Alongside his own dynamic solo work, the musician also enjoyed considerable success with artists as diverse as Captain Beefheart, Eric Clapton and Buena Vista Social Club. And his reputation in the industry was so great that even Bob Dylan once asked him for some tips.

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23. Johnny Ramone

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Most punk guitarists barely knew more than a few chords. That was the whole point, of course. Yet Johnny Ramone was still able to pioneer a whole new style. The cult hero is credited with inventing the primitive fast and furious technique that became known as buzzsaw. The likes of “Rockaway Beach,” “Judy Is a Punk” and “Blitzkrieg Bop” all inspired a generation of outsiders to pick up a guitar for the first time.

22. The Edge

As well as changing his name to the starrier The Edge, Dave Evans also changed how the rock guitar sounded when he joined Ireland’s biggest musical export. The U2 man helped to guide his band-mates to world domination with a now instantly familiar technique that heavily utilizes the delay pedal. It’s formed the backbone of the quartet’s stadium-filling catalog, including on US Hot 100 chart topper “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

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21. Slash

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With his untamed hair, top hat and shades, Slash is undoubtedly one of the most iconic guitar gods. But his work with Guns N’ Roses and Velvet Revolver, as well as his solo career, showed there’s plenty of substance beneath that style. Slash injected a gritty rock sound into the very 1980s Sunset Strip scene. And on the likes of “Paradise City,” “Sweet Child O’Mine” and “November Rain,” he inspired everyone to showcase their best air guitar.

20. Duane Allman

Duane Allman’s untimely death at the age of 24 in 1971 robbed the Southern rock scene of one of its brightest talents. The man nicknamed Skydog brought a graceful sensibility to the slide guitar, whether he was working as a session musician or alongside his sibling Greg in The Allman Brothers. His most notable contribution to the guitar is perhaps that sublime solo on “Layla” by Derek & the Dominos.

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19. Bo Diddley

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Buddy Holly, The Rolling Stones and Johnny Marr are just a handful of the wide-ranging artists that took inspiration from the legendary Bo Diddley. The man who came into the world as Ellas Otha Bates cemented his place in guitar history with the shuffling sound known as the “Bo Diddley beat.” It may have been simple to replicate: The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach once told Rolling Stone, “Anybody who picked up the guitar could do it.” But few others have made such a lasting impression.

18. Pete Townshend

Pete Townshend’s aversion to showboating solos means his name is often missing from the greatest axe-men of all time debate. But his vivid, rhythmic style shook up the 1960s rock scene and is credited with pioneering the now-ubiquitous power chord style. The Who co-founder also paved the way by being the first high-profile player to smash up his instrument live on stage.

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17. Eddie Van Halen

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Van Halen might be best known for the iconic synth riff of “Jump.” But most of their material was defined by its founder’s finger-tapping Frankenstrat. That’s right: during the 1980s the late Eddie Van Halen reinvented rock with his virtuoso skills. And his talents were courted by everyone from Michael Jackson to Queen’s Brian May.

16. George Harrison

George Harrison may have been known as The Beatles’ quiet one. But without his masterful guitar playing, the Fab Four might never have ascended to the same era-defining heights. The Liverpudlian’s spare and emotive style was perhaps best showcased on the iconic Abbey Road LP. And his six-string skills were also allowed to shine even further during his underrated solo career.

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15. Angus Young

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Angus Young may have looked like an overgrown schoolboy during his heyday with AC/DC. But the diminutive axe-man has always played like an absolute giant. His monstrous riffs on the likes of “Highway to Hell” and “Back in Black” helped to position the Aussie group as all-time hard-rock greats. One of the many guitarists he helped to inspire, Slash, told Rolling Stone that Young and sibling Malcolm had “done more with three chords than any other human beings.”

14. Frank Zappa

As one of rock’s most idiosyncratic figures, Frank Zappa’s talents on the six-string have frequently been overlooked. But the musical maverick was such a gifted guitarist that he once made a watching Jimi Hendrix drop his jaw in awe. Zappa was able to combine everything from classical and jazz to blues and doo-wop into a free-wheeling style that few others could match.

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13. Les Paul

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Think of the name Les Paul and the guitar brand he helped to create is probably the first thing that springs to mind. But there’s a reason why his name adorns the iconic instrument. That’s right: Paul revolutionized the six-string in the post-war era with his graceful and clear style that Richie Sambora once remarked “sounded like it came from outer space.”

12. Neil Young

Neil Young’s effortless ability to flit between plucked acoustics and feedback-drenched electric guitars has crossed both genres and generations. The alt-country movement and the grunge scene, in particular, have borrowed heavily from the Canadian. But it’s fair to say that nobody has been able to truly replicate his uncompromising, rugged sound.

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11. David Gilmour

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Although he’s more famed for producing ethereal, atmospheric soundscapes, David Gilmour can still fire off solos like the best of them. The Pink Floyd guitarist’s versatility, improvisational skills and ear for a tune were all vital to the prog-rock giants’ run of success in the 1970s. He also adopted troubled ex-guitarist Syd Barrett’s love of effects.

10. Jimmy Page

“He had this vision of how to transcend the stereotypes of what the guitar can do.” That’s how Aerosmith’s Joe Perry described his own six-string hero Jimmy Page to Rolling Stone. And it’s hard to disagree. The British icon gained his musical education first as a session man and then as a member of bluesmen The Yardbirds. He later built on what he’d learned with the multi-layered riffs and solos that would propel Led Zeppelin to classic rock status.

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9. BB King

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BB King journeyed from the fields of Mississippi to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame thanks to an innovative guitar technique that revolutionized the blues. The legend’s inspired use of vibrato and tendency to bend strings saw him hailed as the king of the genre. King’s dry wit and engaging stage presence also made him a must-see live act. He was still gigging 200 or so times annually well into his 80s.

8. Brian May

Brian May’s layered walls of sound were just as pivotal to Queen’s monumental success as Freddie Mercury’s theatrics. The big-haired guitarist, who famously has an astrophysics degree, raised the roof with his solos on the likes of “Killer Queen” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” And May did so with an instrument nicknamed the Red Special that he built with his own bare hands.

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7. Mike Campbell

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Mike Campbell once told Rolling Stone, “It’s a challenge to make your statement in a short amount of time, but I prefer that challenge as opposed to just stretching out.” And Tom Petty’s guitarist of more than four decades was certainly up to the task. Campbell’s clean, uncluttered riffs and solos perfectly complemented the front-man’s timeless rock sound, particularly on the likes of “You Got Lucky” and “Breakdown.”

6. Eric Clapton

Eric Clapton’s expressive guitar style defined the sound of no fewer than three seminal bands: Blind Faith, Derek & the Dominos and Cream. It was while playing with the latter that he also invented his very own sweet solo technique that’d be labeled “Woman Tone.” But the British legend proved to be just as influential when he sometimes stripped things back a little for his solo career.

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5. Tony Iommi

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Without the blistering sound of Tony Iommi, the heavy metal scene would no doubt be drastically different. The Black Sabbath guitarist practically invented the quiet/loud formula with his tendency to slow things down before pummeling listeners into submission. And he was just as committed to breaking new ground on the stage as he was in the studio.

4. Jeff Beck

Diana Ross, Morrissey and Jon Bon Jovi are just a few of the eclectic artists who’ve utilized Jeff Beck’s talents on the six-string over the years. The virtuoso built his reputation as a member of British blues rock outfit The Yardbirds, following in the footsteps of Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton. And he more than held his own against those two icons with his fearsome style.

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3. Keith Richards

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One of the rock and roll scene’s most notorious hell-raisers, Keith Richards certainly took full advantage of the perks his talents brought his way. But you perhaps can’t blame him, as he’s penned and performed some of the most famous riffs in chart history. “Gimme Shelter,” “Ruby Tuesday” and “Paint It Black” are just a few of the rock classics that have been elevated by Richards’ percussive style.

2. Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry is widely credited with inventing rock and roll during his six-string introduction to “Maybelline.” And the iconic musician didn’t stop pushing boundaries there. Over the next half-century, Berry would continually fuse together elements of blues, jazz and rock for a sound that inspired too many guitarists to mention. One of them, Keith Richards, admits that he learned how to master his instrument of choice by listening to “every lick” Berry recorded.

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1. Jimi Hendrix

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There’s a reason why Jimi Hendrix always tops the greatest guitarist ever polls. The virtuoso tore up the six-string blueprint when he embarked on a solo career in the mid-1960s. His electrifying style produced thunderous yet awe-inspiring walls of noise that you couldn’t quite believe were made by just one man and his guitar. Hendrix was also the ultimate showman, often playing his instrument of choice with his teeth, behind his back and even with it on fire!

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