The Top Ten Best Rock Guitarists of All Time

We haven’t seen a true guitar hero for quite some time. Maybe I’m too old, but it seems like music has been changing since the 1980s, and even the hardest rocking bands don’t give enough credit to their guitarists. After MTV broke onto the scene, bands were suddenly being judged on how they looked rather than their music, and it still going on in today’s market. Sadly, we are having to rely on the past to get our guitar fix, and while the Foo Fighters and Smashing Pumpkins are still guitar-driven, I wouldn’t call Dave Grohl or Billy Corgan guitar heroes.

It was hard to narrow my list down to 10, and while some of you might disagree, note this is only my opinion. True Rock and Roll guitarists can steal the spotlight from frontmen, and each of my picks did just that.

Number Ten: Jeff Beck. Replacing Eric Clapton in the group the Yardbirds, Beck established himself as a guitarist to be reckoned with. Once leaving the band after only 20 months, Beck founded the Jeff Beck Group with Rod Stewart on vocals and Ronnie Wood on rhythm guitar. The band released a set of albums, Truth and Beck-Ola. A ton of blues was featured on the first album including, Willie Dixon’s “You Shook Me” and “I Ain’t Superstitious.” The second disc was comprised of original material and a couple of Elvis tracks, “I’m All Shook Up” and “Jailhouse Rock.” However, there were tensions in the group, and Rod and Ronnie left on bad terms. It would take almost six years before Beck had a hit record. Blow by Blow was released in 1975 to critical praise and established him as a solo artist. The recording was a mix of jazz and rock. Jeff’s second outing, Wired, was again steeped deep in fusion jazz. Although he never topped the two releases, he has appeared with such artists as Mick Jagger, Morrissey, Stanley Clarke and Tina Turner to name a few. In 1992, Beck was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Number Nine: Brian May. Influenced by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, Brian May has possibly the most distinctive sound of all. As a member of Queen, May had to compete for the spotlight with the flamboyant Freddie Mercury on a nightly basis. If you think Eddie Van Halen invented tapping, take a listen to Queen’s “It’s Late” from News of the World. Using a homemade guitar, the Red Special, he was instrumental in the band’s success. The guitar has a distinctive sound and was designed to utilize controlled feedback. Much more than a hired gun, Brian was a formidable songwriter and composer, as he would often lay down multiple guitar riffs for a single song. May still reigns as the “King of Tone” and still works with other artists such as Pink and Lady Gaga (who got her name from the Queen track “Radio Ga Ga”). 

Number Eight: Angus Young. The first time I saw AC/DC was one year from the untimely passing of Bon Scott. At the forefront, there was this little punk in a school uniform. Little did I know, I was experiencing history as the feisty guitar player was all over the stage. Angus Young may not be technically skilled like Jeff Beck or Jimmy Page, but what he lacks in ability, he makes up with energy. He still remains the backbone of the band, and his infectious riffs have given us some memorable moments. “Whole Lotta Rosie,” “Back in Black,” “Highway to Hell” and “T.N.T.” are forever etched in my mind. The Australian rocker formed AC/DC with brother Malcolm in 1973. As a performer, he gave Bon Scott a run for the money and continues to do so with Brian Johnson. His band has sold 200 million albums, and 41 years since their inception, they are still packing arenas worldwide with their gritty take on rock and roll.

Number Seven: Carlos Santana. After watching Santana perform “Soul Sacrifice” in the film Woodstock, I was hooked. The young band had energy, swagger and musical abilities far beyond their years. At the heart of the band was lead guitarist Carlos whose technique is a mix of fusion and Latin flavored rock. He has always surrounded himself with other great musicians such as Neal Shcon and Gregg Rolie (who later were instrumental in forming the supergroup Journey), Buddy Miles from Jimi Hendrix’s project, Band of Gypsys, and in 1999, Carlos teamed up with Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20 and released the monster hit “Smooth.” While on a well deserved break in 1998, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and since, they formed in 1967 having sold 100 million records worldwide. Moreover, they have received ten Grammy awards and three Latin Grammys. He continues to be a force well into the 21st century.

Number Six: Lindsey Buckingham. Possibly one of the most underrated guitarist to ever pick up an ax, LindseyBuckingham first garnered accolades after joining the soon-to-be multi platinum group Fleetwood Mac in 1974. Their 1975 self titled record featured Buckingham’s “Monday Morning” and “World Turning,” neither of which featured Lindsey’s impeccable fingerpicking style. This would change on the band’s second release with Nicks and Buckingham, Rumours, as Lindsey would cut loose on such chart toppers as “Go Your Own Way,” the softer “Never Going Back Again” and a scorching solo on “The Chain,” which cemented him as an innovative guitarist. In 1981, Buckingham released his first solo album, Law and Order. While the disc garnered positive reviews, sales were slow. Subsequent albums were met with similar accolades, but Lindsey never matched his former girlfriend and band mate, Stevie Nicks‘ success. However, hardcore Buckingham fans are always delighted when he releases a new record.

Number Five: Slash. Slash burst onto the scene with the debut release of Guns N’ RosesAppetite for Destruction. His signature hat and sunglasses have given him an image of a take-no-prisoners badass. But none of that would’ve mattered if it were not for his impact as a lead guitarist. Lead by Axl Rose, GNR rocketed to the top of the charts with such songs as “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” Despite the success of the band, Slash was never content with being a sideman, and therefore, branched out on his own with Slash’s Snakepit in 1993 with a host of seasoned musicians. The supergroup included two members of GNR, Mike Inez from Alice in Chains on bass and Eric Dover from Jellyfish on guitar and vocals. With the first lineup in place, the band debuted with It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere to critical praise. Five years later, with a new lineup, including singer Rod Jackson and two ex Alice Cooper members, guitarist Ryan Roxie and drummer Matt Laug, Slash and company released their sophomore disc, Ain’t Life Grand. The music was hard driving rock, and Slash made every note count. Though it was well received by critics as well as fans, it was to be the final recording. In 2002 Slash formed another supergroup, Velvet Revolver, who Scott Weiland eventually signed on as lead singer. The band enjoyed critical and commercial success with both of their albums, Contraband and Libertad. Again, Slash ripped through original material with ease. He is still enjoying success as a solo artist as his impeccable style on the six string are uniquely his own.

Number Four: Eric Clapton. Though I was never a hardcore fan, I still have respect for Clapton as a guitarist. Eric Clapton came out of the Yardbirds after only two years to join John Mayall & the Blues Breakers. Out of this collaboration came the classic record Bluesbreakers – John Mayall – With Eric Clapton which proved to be an even shorter stint before Clapton walked away. Eric grew up enamored with Chicago blues, and his unique style gave him a reputation as the best blues guitarist in the UK. In 1966, he replaced Peter Green to form the first supergroup, Cream. It was during this time when Clapton began writing and singing. Still rather unknown in the United States, Cream would prove to be his springboard into America with such tracks as “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room.” After the demise of the band, Clapton put together Blind Faith with Steve Winwood. While the band only released a self-titled debut, it was a masterpiece, and Clapton’s masterful licks were legendary. His solo career began with Derek and the Dominos’ release of Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, which featured the hits “Layla” and “Bell Bottom Blues.” His reign as a solo artist gained momentum, and by 1974, he was churning out hits such as the Bob Marley cover “I Shot the Sheriff,” JJ Cale’s “Cocaine” and “Wonderful Tonight.” With the death of his son, Clapton penned “Tears in Heaven,” which proved to be a monster hit as it won 6 Grammy awards. Today, Eric Clapton can do pretty much anything he wants to. Whether it’s reuniting with Steve Winwood, jumping on stage with the Rolling Stones or collaborating with B.B. King on Riding with the King. 

Number Three: Stevie Ray Vaughan. Hailing from Dallas Texas, Stevie Ray Vaughan only had a seven year career before dying in a helicopter accident, but what a career it was, as Vaughan brought the blues back to the mainstream with a vengeance. After forming Double Trouble with drummer Chris Layton and bass player Tommy Shannon, the trio released Texas Flood in 1983. Stevie drew inspiration from English blues rather than American blues. The disc was comprised of original material with a few covers thrown in such as Howlin’ Wolf’s “Tell Me” and Buddy Guy’s “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” The second release, Couldn’t Stand the Weather, found the band growing as they covered the classic Hendrix “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” and Freddie King’s “Hideaway.” But it was the title track that got the most attention, as Vaughan was redefining the blues for the masses. His style of playing was often compared to Jimi, which was fair to compare him to the greatest guitar player in the history of rock. As a live act, Stevie demanded your attention as he slashed through tunes with an unforgiving demeanor. His final studio recording, In Step, was a nod to his new found sobriety. While he still paid his respects to the blues masters, he was writing more introspectively lyrics such as “Tightrope” and “Crossfire.” While he did contribute to Family Style with his brother Jimmie, he wouldn’t see it make the charts. While we lost him too early, he left his mark on blues and rock which inspired other young artists, including Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Jonny Lang and John Mayer, to pick up where he left off.

Number Two: Jimmy Page. The Yardbirds acted as a right of passage as it produced three of our most prominent guitar players, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. While Page started out as a session player, he was bound to do bigger and better things. Upon his departure from the Yardbirds, he struck out on his own to assemble one of the greatest rock bands ever. Originally called the New Yardbirds, Page changed the name. Led Zeppelin formed in 1968 with Robert Plant, a session player John Paul Jones, and John Bonham. Their debut, Led Zeppelin, was embraced by critics and audiences as the band toured around Europe and America four times in the first year. As a live act, they made each show unique as the they would take their songs and add a jam band feel. Page, like many young musicians from the ’60s, was enamored with early American blues, as the bands debut featured such classics as “You Shook Me,” “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” and even reworked the Howlin’ Wolf classic “How Many More Years.”  Jimmy’s song, “Dazed and Confused” featured a solo where Page took a violin bow and ran it over the strings creating an ominous sound. Additionally, Jimmy created some of the most identifiable riffs in the 20th century, and songs like “Whole Lotta Love,” ” The Lemon Song” and “Kashmir” were all Page’s babies. On Led Zeppelin lll, the band took a chance and recorded an almost entirely acoustic album. Fans and critics were confused, but their forth album featured a nice mix of heavy rock and acoustic ballads including their Swan Song, “Stairway to Heaven.” By the time they got to Houses of the Holy, they were the biggest band in the world and while Page battled with a heroin addiction, they toured extensively. Jimmy Page made my number two because he was never afraid of what the critics said as he experimented with new sounds and recording techniques, constantly pushing the boundaries. 

Number One: Jimi Hendrix. You probably already guessed who my number one guitar player is. It would be a sacrilege to put anyone other than Jimi Hendrix in the top spot. What can I say that hasn’t already been said about this amazing guitarist? He took the blues and put his own unique spin on it and is credited for inventing psychedelic rock as he left other guitarist shaking in their boots. His influence can still be heard four decades after his death. He wasn’t afraid to take risks as he shed all of his earlier tricks such as playing with his teeth. He was a musician’s musician, and one can only speculate what he would be doing had he lived.