100 Greatest Guitarists

Rolling Stone's "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time" for 2011 is much different than their "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time" for 2003.

So, Rolling Stone has rolled out one of those lists designed to spark controversy: “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.” They’ve also done it in the most annoying possible way: Every guitarist on his own page, to artificially inflate pageviews.

The #1 choice, Jimi Hendrix, is pretty much a no brainer. Tom Morello explains:

Jimi Hendrix exploded our idea of what rock music could be: He manipulated the guitar, the whammy bar, the studio and the stage. On songs like “Machine Gun” or “Voodoo Chile,” his instrument is like a divining rod of the turbulent Sixties – you can hear the riots in the streets and napalm bombs dropping in his “Star-Spangled Banner.”

His playing was effortless. There’s not one minute of his recorded career that feels like he’s working hard at it – it feels like it’s all flowing through him. The most beautiful song of the Jimi Hendrix canon is “Little Wing.” It’s just this gorgeous song that, as a guitar player, you can study your whole life and not get down, never get inside it the way that he does. He seamlessly weaves chords and single-note runs together and uses chord voicings that don’t appear in any music book. His riffs were a pre-metal funk bulldozer, and his lead lines were an electric LSD trip down to the crossroads, where he pimp-slapped the devil.

There are arguments about who was the first guitar player to use feedback. It doesn’t really matter, because Hendrix used it better than anyone; he took what was to become Seventies funk and put it through a Marshall stack, in a way that nobody’s done since.

#2 Eric Clapton (by Eddie Van Halen):

Eric Clapton is basically the only guitar player who influenced me – even though I don’t sound like him. There was a basic simplicity to his playing, his style, his vibe and his sound. He took a Gibson guitar and plugged it into a Marshall, and that was it. The basics. The blues. His solos were melodic and memorable – and that’s what guitar solos should be, part of the song. I could hum them to you.

What I really liked was Cream’s live recordings, because you could hear the three guys playing. If you listen to “I’m So Glad,” on Goodbye, you really hear the three guys go – and Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were a couple of jazz guys, pushing Clapton forward. I once read that Clapton said, “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.” He was just trying to keep up with the other two guys!

After Cream, he changed. When he started doing “I Shot the Sheriff” and this and that, and when he hooked up with Delaney and Bonnie, his whole style changed. Or at least his sound. He focused more on singing than playing. I respect him for everything he’s done and is still doing – but what inspired me, what made me pick up a guitar, was his early stuff. I could play some of those solos now – they’re permanently imprinted in my brain. That blues-based sound is still the core of modern rock guitar.

#3 Jimmy Page (by Joe Perry):

Listening to what Jimmy Page does on guitar can transport you. As a lead player, he always plays the right thing for the right spot – he’s got such remarkable taste. The solo on “Heartbreaker” has such incredible immediacy; he’s teetering on the edge of his technique, and it’s still a showstopper. But you can’t look at just his guitar playing on its own. You have to look at what he did with it in the studio and how he used it in the songs he wrote and produced. Jimmy built this incredible catalog of experience on the Yardbirds and doing session work, so when he did the first Led Zeppelin record, he knew exactly what kind of sounds he wanted to get.

#4 Keith Richards (by Nils Lofgren):

I remember being in junior high school, hearing “Satisfaction” and being freaked out by what it did to me. It’s a combination of the riff and the chords moving underneath it. Keith wrote two-and three-note themes that were more powerful than any great solo. He played the vibrato rhythm and the lead guitar in “Gimme Shelter.” I don’t think anyone has ever created a mood that dark and sinister. There is a clarity between those two guitars that leaves this ominous space for Mick Jagger to sing through. Nobody does alternate tunings better than Keith. I remember playing the chorus to “Beast of Burden.” I’m like, “These are the right chords, but they don’t sound anything like Keith.” He had some cool tuning, a beautiful chord so well-tuned that it sings. That is the core of every great guitar part on a Rolling Stones record. Keith finds the tuning that allows the work – the fretting, muting strings – to get out of the way of what he’s feeling.

#5 Jeff Beck (by Mike Campbell):

Jeff Beck has the combination of brilliant technique with personality. It’s like he’s saying, “I’m Jeff Beck. I’m right here. And you can’t ignore me.” Even in the Yardbirds, he had a tone that was melodic but in-your-face – bright, urgent and edgy, but sweet at the same time. You could tell he was a serious player, and he was going for it. He was not holding back.

There is a real artistry to playing with and around a vocalist, answering and pushing him. That’s the beauty of those two records he made with Rod Stewart, 1968’s Truth and 1969’s Beck-Ola. Jeff is not getting in the way, but he’s holding his own. And he stretched the boundaries of the blues. “Beck’s Bolero,” on Truth, is un-bluesy, but still blues-based. One of my favorite tracks is the cover of Howlin’ Wolf‘s “I Ain’t Superstitious,” on Truth. There is a sense of humor – that wah-wah growl. I don’t know if Clapton plays with the same sense of humor, as great as he is. Jeff’s definitely got that.

When he got into his fusion phase, the cover of Stevie Wonder‘s “‘Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers,” on Blow by Blow, got me immediately. The tone was so pure and delicate. It’s like there was a vocalist singing, but there was a guitarist making all of the notes. I saw him last year at a casino in San Diego, and the guitar was the voice. You didn’t miss the singer, because the guitar was so lyrical. There is a spirituality and confidence in him, a commitment to being great. After I saw that show, I went home and started practicing. Maybe that’s what I took from him: If you want to be Jeff Beck, do your homework.

There are 95 more, and I won’t include more of them here. The list is already pretty controversial just at 5.

Not to mention meaningless. The magazine’s 2003 list was radically different. Hendrix topped it but the remaining order is wildly different.

1. Jimi Hendrix
2. Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band
3. B.B. King
4 Eric Clapton
5 Robert Johnson
6 Chuck Berry
7 Stevie Ray Vaughan
8 Ry Cooder
9 Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin
10 Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones
11 Kirk Hammett of Metallica
12 Kurt Cobain of Nirvana
13 Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead
14 Jeff Beck
15 Carlos Santana
16 Johnny Ramone of the Ramones
17 Jack White of the White Stripes
18 John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers
19 Richard Thompson
20 James Burton
21 George Harrison
22 Mike Bloomfield
23 Warren Haynes
24 The Edge of U2
25 Freddy King
26 Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave
27 Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits
28 Stephen Stills
29 Ron Asheton of the Stooges
30 Buddy Guy
31 Dick Dale
32 John Cipollina of Quicksilver Messenger Service
33 & 34 Lee Ranaldo, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth
35 John Fahey
36 Steve Cropper of Booker T. and the MG’s
37 Bo Diddley
38 Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac
39 Brian May of Queen
40 John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival
41 Clarence White of the Byrds
42 Robert Fripp of King Crimson
43 Eddie Hazel of Funkadelic
44 Scotty Moore
45 Frank Zappa
46 Les Paul
47 T-Bone Walker
48 Joe Perry of Aerosmith
49 John McLaughlin
50 Pete Townsend
51 Paul Kossoff of Free
52 Lou Reed
53 Mickey Baker
54 Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane
55 Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple
56 Tom Verlaine of Television
57 Roy Buchanan
58 Dickey Betts
59 & 60 Jonny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien of Radiohead
61 Ike Turner
62 Zoot Horn Rollo of the Magic Band
63 Danny Gatton
64 Mick Ronson
65 Hubert Sumlin
66 Vernon Reid of Living Colour
67 Link Wray
68 Jerry Miller of Moby Grape
69 Steve Howe of Yes
70 Eddie Van Halen
71 Lightnin’ Hopkins
72 Joni Mitchell
73 Trey Anastasio of Phish
74 Johnny Winter
75 Adam Jones of Tool
76 Ali Farka Toure
77 Henry Vestine of Canned Heat
78 Robbie Robertson of the Band
79 Cliff Gallup of the Blue Caps (1997)
80 Robert Quine of the Voidoids
81 Derek Trucks
82 David Gilmour of Pink Floyd
83 Neil Young
84 Eddie Cochran
85 Randy Rhoads
86 Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath
87 Joan Jett
88 Dave Davies of the Kinks
89 D. Boon of the Minutemen
90 Glen Buxton of Alice Cooper
91 Robby Krieger of the Doors
92 & 93 Fred “Sonic” Smith, Wayne Kramer of the MC5
94 Bert Jansch
95 Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine
96 Angus Young of AC/DC
97 Robert Randolph
98 Leigh Stephens of Blue Cheer
99 Greg Ginn of Black Flag
100 Kim Thayil of Soundgarden

What, precisely, did Eric Clapton do over the last eight years to move ahead of B.B. King and Duane Allman? More importantly, what did King and Allman do to get bumped out of the top 5 by artists whose best work was long behind them by 2003? What did Jimmy Page and Keith Richards do to move up 6 spots each? Or Jeff Beck 9 spots?

For that matter, how is that that the greatest guitarists of all time emerged on the scene somewhere between 1964 and 1967?

FILED UNDER: Popular Culture, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Neil Hudelson says:

    The list sounds like “The Most Well-Known Guitarists in Pop Culture, ranked by popularity.”

  2. Franklin says:

    Agreed, Neil. In fact, the top ten of the 2003 list actually looks way better than the “updated” list.

  3. Bah, Eddie Van Halen deserved a higher ranking. But Hendrix is a no brainer. Dude single handedly-an left handedly I might add–changed the way rock guitar was played.

  4. G.A.Phillips says:

    Not one virtuoso from Maiden, lol….C’mon dudes…..http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v0Ki06FA7sU&feature=related

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    For that matter, how is that that the greatest guitarists of all time emerged on the scene somewhere between 1964 and 1967?

    I love it that guitarists 1-4 all channeled their inner Robert Johnson’s, (As per an NPR segment on NPR last eve)(what self respecting blues/rock guitarist hasn’t?) yet he does not appear on the list until 71… That alone says this is a joke. It is said that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil for his skills. 2 yrs after his first recording he was, sadly, dead.

    This is proof positive that Rolling Stone has sold their soul (actually a long time ago). Too bad they won’t be dead in 2 years as well.

  6. At least David Gilmour made the list this year.

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Not having looked at every page(just the not to clear pics at the top), I can only say, “What? No Doc Watson? No Andres Segovia? No Paco De Lucia? No Leo Kottke? Oh, wait a minute, none of them ever sold a million records… Got it.

  8. Hello World! says:

    Leo Kottke should be in the top five! That guy is amazing….but to have Eddie VH higher ranked better than Brian May makes no sense at all given that Brian May inspired and invented what EVH immitated.

  9. RGardner says:

    Somehow Eddie Van Halen went from #70 to #8 in 5 years, despite doing little other than getting a divorce and going into rehab. Meanwhile Jerry Miller of Moby Grape, two ahead of him on the old list at #68 has disappeared entirely (still around, he played on Monday).

    Agree on Segovia. Lots of argue about here, as in any similar list.

  10. pcbedamned says:

    A top 100 Greatest Guitarists list without Yngwie Malmsteen and listing Randy Rhodes at #36 is a joke. Just saying…

  11. Derrick says:

    I remembered seeing that list in 2003 and being astounded that Prince didn’t crack it. I’m glad that they at least placed him even though he should be around the 40-50’s. And I agree that EVH doesn’t deserve to be that high.

  12. Joel says:

    No Nick Drake? He only made three albums, but he might have been the most talented acoustic guitarist in the history of popular (ie, not jazz or classical) music.

  13. OzarkHillbilly says:


    Yngwie Malmsteen


    No Nick Drake?

    thanx for the tips guys, always looking for new talent. Check out Eric Mongrain…. click on “Air-tap”... you won’t be sorry.

  14. OzarkHillbilly says:

    There are some amazing guitarists out there…

    Hubris? Thy name is “Rolling Stone”….

  15. jibber jabba says:

    Jimi Hendrix number 1

  16. JohnnyDell says:

    They’re right about Hendrix being number one. But Jimmy Hendrix once said his favorite guitarist was Terry Kath of Chicago. He should have been named no.2. Especially for his work on the first CTA alblum.

  17. G.A.Phillips says:

    There are some amazing guitarists out there…

    Exactly, some of the real metal bands from the 80’s have two, two that are pure bloody genius! See Judas Priest for example.King diamond and Bruce Dickinson’s pick up bands had pickers that are freaking supernatural!!!

  18. Jazz Man says:

    This list is very rock oriented. What about Wes Montgomery, Larry Carlton, Pat Metheny, Grant Green, …?

  19. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @jibber jabba:

    Maybe, but I have seen Doc Watson (more than once). Not saying Doc is better than the rest, just saying the rest ain’t better than him.

  20. OzarkHillbilly says:
  21. OzarkHillbilly says:

    as with all truly great guitarists, Doc was as blind as a bat… Git your ass to N Carolina soon. He ain’t gitten’ any younger.

  22. OzarkHillbilly says:
  23. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Yeah, I’m partial to Doc’….

  24. OzarkHillbilly says:
  25. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Ok, I am done channeling Doc for one night.

  26. Moosebreath says:

    Ozark Hillbilly,

    “Not having looked at every page(just the not to clear pics at the top), I can only say, “What? No Doc Watson? No Andres Segovia? No Paco De Lucia? No Leo Kottke? Oh, wait a minute, none of them ever sold a million records… Got it. ”

    Years ago, I remember seeing my newspaper’s music critic’s reaction to a local radio station’s list of the 1000 Greatest Songs of All Time. He titled his analysis “Mozart misses out again”.

  27. Hello World! says:

    @Joel: Nick Drake is way more than an awesome acoustic guitarist. His lyrics put him right up there with the greatest poets of all time, and I’m including Shakespeare, Byron, and Frost in there.

  28. anjin-san says:

    No Charlie Christian? Please.

    No Chet Atkins??

    I am pretty sure that a single track by Les Paul is far more significant than Kurt Cobain’s or Kirk Hammett’s entire career output.

  29. anjin-san says:

    John Fahey’s amazing cover of Layla


  30. anjin-san says:

    Thinking that Steve Howe is both a better and more significant guitarist than a lot of folks on that list.

    Also that Phil Keaggy deserves some consideration:


    And maybe Michael Hedges as well.


  31. pcbedamned says:


    WoW. That was phenomenal. Will definitely have to check out more!!! {and share that around to a few slingers I know}

    Also, check out the group http://tinyurl.com/apocalypticayoutubepage

    Rather than guitar, all is done by cello. Amazing and then some!!! One of my fave groups to listen to, well, anytime 🙂

  32. MarkedMan says:

    Only guitar player that fits into the Hendrix category: Django Rheinhart. But acoustic vs electric, decades earlier, and hot jazz vs rock.

  33. Neil Hudelson says:


    I’m not a fan of much of that type of music, but no one can argue that their guitarists aren’t virtuosos in their own right.

  34. Terry says:

    I agree with others that Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Howe should be on the list. Also amazed that Tom Scholtz of Boston didn’t make either list. Certainly there are more talented players, but he did create a very unique sound.

  35. Linton says:

    Clapton needs to plug in and rock out more. The Cream reunion was beautiful. I know Unplugged won him tons of Grammys but I think he single-handedly created “dad rock” with that album.

  36. Linton says:

    Not to mention that I never want to hear that song he did with Babyface again.

  37. Eric Florack says:

    This sounds like a multi-blog discussion we had some years ago.

  38. big gob says:

    no roy buchanan,andy powell,kim simmonds,alvin lee,danny gatton,dave mason? rory gallagher belongs in the top 10.and ya still have kurt cobain,ramone and a few others who do not belong on the list! also terry kath!