Who are the best guitarists of all time? Here we look at 35 of the greatest guitar players of all time, looking back at artists who not only possessed 6-string virtuosity, but whose legacies have come to define the music as we know it today!
1. Robert Johnson
Is there a more famous or a more mysterious name in rock ‘n’ roll history? Robert Johnson used to show up at house shows put on by legendary bluesman Son House and pick up a guitar when the main act was taking a break. The thing was, nobody thought he was very good at it originally.
Johnson disappeared for hardly over a year and, upon returning, he had mastered a new style of blues picking never heard before. His tune Crossroad Blues gave a pretty clear explanation of what happened – he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his newfound skills. Johnson was only recorded twice, resulting in 29 tracks, but his musical legacy lives on in every blues song played today.
He is also considered one of the first members of the infamous “27 Club” of famous musicians and artists who died at the premature age of 27.
2. Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten
Long before Jimi Hendrix was even born, a young southpaw named Libba Cotten flipped her older brother’s right-handed guitar upside down so she could play it. Elizabeth’s music was prominent during the folk revival of the 1960s after her talents were discovered while she was a housekeeper for the famous Seeger music family. Her picking style – Cotten picking – remains a fundamental guitar technique. Famously, she wrote the iconic “Freight Train Blues” when she was only twelve years old.
3. Sister Rosetta Tharpe
“The Godmother of rock ‘n’ roll”, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was an electric guitar pioneer. Tharpe played gospel tunes with a heavily distorted electric guitar, single-handedly introducing the electric blues genre to the world. As a black, queer woman playing music in the 30s and 40s, Tharpe faced many challenges that many of her musical peers did not. Unfortunately, when the history of rock ‘n’ roll is told, her name is often omitted. However, nearly every rock act that arose in the 50s and 60s, from Elvis Presley to Little Richard, from Johnny Cash to Jimi Hendrix, named Sister Rosetta as one of their primary role models.
4. Lead Belly
Huddie William Ledbetter was the self-proclaimed “king of the twelve-string guitar“. Considered one of the greatest American songsters, Lead Belly was acclaimed for his vast repertoire of blues, folk, and spiritual tunes.
It’s said that Lead Belly, imprisoned for murder, was released early due to his impressive musical prowess. He would later team up with John Lomax, the musicologist, to help with the recording and preserving of traditional blues and folk music. His recording of songs like “Midnight Special” and “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” remain iconic blues tunes, still played frequently by artists today.
Lead Belly’s influence on the history of music cannot be understated – perhaps best exemplified when George Harrison said “no Lead Belly, no Beatles.”
5. Mississippi John Hurt
John Hurt was a fingerpicking bluesman born in Avalon, Mississippi in 1893. While he recorded an album in 1928 with Okeh Records, he lived working the land most of his life. Some young musicians at the start of the 60s folk revival went looking to see if he was still alive, relying on his tune Avalon Blues as a guide. They found the aging Hurt, his fingerpicking skills well intact. He was surprised to learn that people wanted to hear his music and got to spend much of the rest of his life as a touring musician. Learning to fingerpick John Hurt tunes like “Spike Driver Blues” is a rite-of-passage for all aspiring blues pickers.
6. Muddy Waters
McKinley Morganfield would go on to become the father of the Chicago blues and one of the biggest influences on emerging rock ‘n’ rollers of the 1960s. While Waters got his start touring around the Delta as a harmonica player, he arrived in Chicago in 1943 to try to make it as a professional musician. After playing as an opening act for the legendary bluesman Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters went electric and the rest is history.
While the blues was typically a sad and mournful artistic expression, Muddy Waters gave it a pep and drive that took off in the Chicago club scene. With famous tunes like “Hoochie Coochie Man”, Muddy Waters’ music would influence every rock ‘n’ roll guitar player to come after him, including Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones (who named themselves after one of his tunes), and Led Zeppelin.
7. Merle Travis
Merle Travis was a country and western musician, best known for his guitar virtuosity and hit tunes about the plights of coal miners, such as “Dark As A Dungeon.”
His picking style, characterized by using the thumb to play bass notes and fingers to play melodies, is now referred to as “Travis picking“. It is a fundamental guitar technique employed in country, folk, blues, bluegrass, and rock music. Of note, he also pioneered blending fingerpicking with bluegrass style flatpicking by grabbing hold of his thumb like a flat pick. While Chet Atkins was the most famous disciple of Merle Travis, every day new guitar players start their journey by learning how to “Travis pick”, making him one of the most influential guitar players of all time.
8. Django Reinhardt
When a young Django Reinhardt severely burned the ring and pinky fingers on his left hand, it seemed to spell an end to his promising musical career. He would not only relearn to play, but would go on to become one of the most influential jazz musicians of all time.
Jeff Beck called Reinhardt “the most astonishing guitar player” and “quite superhuman”. Reinhardt employed complex rhythm and lead guitar techniques and could seemingly do anything with six strings at top speed. Jerry Garcia (of the Grateful Dead) and Tommy Ionni (of Black Sabbath), both of whom lost fingers, also cited Reinhardt as inspiring them to overcome their injuries and master the guitar.
9. T-Bone Walker
Aaron “T-Bone” Walker is credited for introducing the world to the solo lead guitar. Before Walker, it was the singer that took center stage, but Walker could make the electric guitar sing, laying the groundwork for all lead guitarists that would come to follow him. BB King once said about T-Bone Walker that “Jesus Himself had returned to Earth playing electric guitar.” Jimi Hendrix, a fan of Walker’s, picked up the famous technique of plucking strings with his teeth from T-Bone.
10. Chuck Berry
Chuck Berry was coined the “father of Rock ‘n’ Roll” by many. Employing a hard-driving electric blues sound, Berry not only displayed prodigious talent as a lead guitarist but also laid the blueprint for the rock’n’roll showman of the next decades. With tunes like “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Johnny B. Goode”, Chuck Berry was the first true rock ‘n’ roll act. He would continue to play music all the way until his death in 2017 and has influenced countless rock ‘n’ rollers, including Elvis, The Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix. His songs have been covered by just about every rock ‘n’ roll band.
11. BB King
B.B. King was the “King of the Blues”. His virtuosity as a blues lead guitarist has rightfully placed him atop the pantheon of blues and rock ‘n’ roll. King came up in the Memphis blues scene of the 1950s, garnering hit blues songs over and over again. The rise of rock ‘n’ roll in the 60s opened up his music to brand new audiences, exemplified by when he opened for The Rolling Stones during their 1969 tour of the United States. From Jimi Hendrix to Eric Clapton to Santana to just about anybody who has ever dreamed of getting on stage to play a guitar solo, B.B. King has been named a primary influence.
12. Freddie King
Freddie King was not related to B.B., but he was also a pioneer of the blues-rock sound we know today. Freddie fused together the sounds of Chicago and Texas blues, playing with a melodic ferocity that would inspire blues greats from Eric Clapton to Stevie Ray Vaughan. Freddie played the guitar with the showmanship of a frontman, laying the framework for all guitar gods to follow him. Few have ever played the guitar as ferociously as Freddie King and few have left such a powerful mark on the blues genre.
13. Jimi Hendrix
While naming the greatest guitarist of all time is no easy task, Jimi Hendrix may have the best claim to the title. The rock ‘n’ roll legend took the guitar to places never before imagined. Not only were his guitar solos legendary, but he also was one of the first prominent guitar players to introduce modulation to his tone (with overdrive, wah-wah, and other effects) and to use feedback for musical effect. Not only does he remain one of the most popular and top-selling musical performers of all time, but he has influenced just about every genre of guitar-driven music, from hard rock to metal to funk. Sadly, he too joined Robert Johnson in the “27 Club”.
14. Keith Richards
The Rolling Stones’ lead guitarist Keith Richards was never the flashiest picker, but his ability to interweave rhythm and lead came to define The Rolling Stones’ signature sound. Pulling from Chuck Berry and Chicago blues, Richards would interweave iconic lead lines with Mick Jagger’s singing.
Famously, Richards was fond of playing in Open G tuning with only five strings, which he used to iconic effect on tunes like “Honky Tonk Woman” and “Start Me Up” – he claimed to have discovered this tuning from common banjo tuning. Few guitar players have laid down more iconic riffs than Richards.
15. Jimmy Page
Led Zeppelin lead guitarist Jimmy Page has given us some of the most iconic guitar riffs and solos in rock history. Essentially defining the hard rock genre, Led Zeppelin is one of the most popular and successful bands in the history of modern music. This success was, in part, thanks to Page’s virtuosity and musical arrangements. Learning Jimmy Page’s most iconic riffs and solos is a rite of passage for aspiring rock guitarists, making him one of the most influential guitar players of all time.
16. Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton is one of the greatest blues guitarists of all time. He has been a guitarist in several iconic rock bands, including The Yardbirds, Cream, and Derek and the Dominoes, and has had a prolific solo career as a guitarist and songwriter. Clapton pulled inspiration from blues greats like Robert Johnson, B.B. King, and Muddy Waters and has, himself, inspired countless aspiring blues guitarists to take up the craft.
17. Jeff Beck
Jeff Beck was recruited as Clapton’s replacement in The Yardbirds. While many from this era found greater commercial success, Beck turned his focus to innovative instrumentals on the guitar. He has bridged countless genres, from hard rock to jazz to electronica, and incorporated world music into his sounds. His virtuosity has earned him countless praise and acclaim over the years, making him a fitting addition to this list.
18. George Harrison
George Harrison was often seen as the third wheel to the powerhouse writing duo of McCartney and Lennon, so it is often easy to overlook his musical contributions. There are good reasons The Beatles were a four-piece band, not a duo – one of those was Harrison’s ability to always find the perfect guitar part for each of the band’s iconic tracks. His own songwriting and solo career make clear that, while he may have been “the quiet one”, he was no second fiddle.
19. Ritchie Blackmore
Deep Purple and Rainbow lead guitarist Ritchie Blackmore is considered the father of shredding. He is considered one of the greatest rock soloists of all time, blending classical training with a hard rock sound. He also graced us with the iconic “Ritchie Blackmore incident” of 1974 in which he destroyed a TV camera with his guitar, tossed the mangled guitar into the audience, grabbed a new guitar, and then proceeded to literally blow up his amp stack while playing with his feet.
20. Buddy Guy
Buddy Guy got his start as a session musician with Muddy Waters and has been a primary influence for guitar legends like Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan. His playing, informed by Chicago blues, is virtuosic. While he often flew under the radar throughout the 60s and 70s, he returned to some prominence during the blues revival of the 80s. Not only has Buddy Guy played with old school legends like Howlin’ Wolf, but he has continued to play music at an astonishing rate – as of 2019, he still reportedly played at least 130 shows a year.
21. Doc Watson
Doc Watson was one of the greatest bluegrass, folk, and country guitarists to ever hold a guitar. Blind from early childhood, Doc was a talented flatpicker and fingerpicker who came to prominence during the 60s folk revival. Not only has Doc inspired countless aspiring bluegrass and country musicians, but his deep knowledge of songs endeared him as an Americana legend.
22. Ry Cooder
While Cooder may not be a household name, he has (and continues to) leave his mark as an extraordinary picker. Known for his slide guitar playing, he came to prominence as a teenage prodigy playing with Taj Mahal and Captain Beefheart. He has recorded with just about everyone, including Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, and Neil Young. He has also undertaken many projects with traditional musicians from various countries, including the famous Cuban collaboration “Buena Vista Social Club”.
23. Tommy Iommi
When 17-year-old Tommy Iommi lost the tips of his middle and ring finger on his fretting hand in a factory accident, he was told he would never play again. Inspired by Django Reinhardt, Tommy Iommi would go on to co-found Black Sabbath and is today considered one of the greatest guitar players of all time. He is considered by many to be the father of heavy metal. The king of dark riffs has inspired countless acts across genres, including grunge, Goth, industrial, metal, and stoner rock.
24. Randy Rhoads
The Quiet Riot lead guitarist, Randy Rhoads, is best known for his guitar work with Ozzy Osbourne. After being kicked out of Black Sabbath, Osbourne looked to put a new band together. Just about every person knows his iconic riff to Crazy Train and his hyper-speed shredding established him as one of the best metal guitarists ever. Sadly, he died all too young at 25 in an avoidable plane accident while on tour.
25. David Gilmour
David Gilmour exemplified the power of a simple guitar solo. As the lead guitarist for Pink Floyd, Gilmour would cut through the psychedelic dream with bright, clear lines that were at once huge and mesmerizing. Gilmour pulled from a wide range of inspirations, including folk artists like Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, and John Fahey, as well as rock legends like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimi Hendrix.
26. Duane Allman
A founding member of The Allman Brothers, Duane Allman was one of the most technically proficient and precise pickers to ever play the guitar. His slide guitar work has laid a foundation for a modern Southern rock sound. His guitar playing propelled The Allman Brothers to notoriety and he also was a critical contributor to the iconic Derek and the Dominoes album “Layla & Assorted Love Songs”. Another one lost too soon, Duane died in a motorcycle accident at the age of 24 – if only we could have heard the music he was destined to make.
27. Stevie Ray Vaughan
Dallas-born Stevie Ray Vaughan is considered one of the greatest blues-rock guitarists of all time. Picking up the torch that Hendrix lit before him, SRV played with an aggressive virtuosity that propelled him into the limelight. Vaughan laid down the template for all blues guitarists that followed him. Like too many others on this list, Stevie Ray Vaughan passed too early as well, dying at 35 in a helicopter accident.
28. Eddie Van Halen
Eddie Van Halen was the master of riffs. Not only could he absolutely shred, but he also employed a variety of complex sounds, such as harmonics, to create innovative sounds. He was most famous for his tapping technique, best displayed in the song “Eruption”. This song remains the quintessential tapping song and a rite-of-passage for all guitarists desiring to emulate his signature sound.
Prince pioneered the Minneapolis Sound, a merging of funk and rock. While he is best known as a flamboyant frontman with a pristine falsetto, Prince was also a ferocious and talented guitar player. Not only were his Cloud Guitars iconic, but he could seemingly do everything and anything with a guitar in his hands. The era of YouTube has also served to reinforce Prince’s musical virtuosity – Prince lays down a two-minute solo in a performance of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” that has over 100-million views.
30. Carlos Santana
Carlos Santana came into adulthood in San Francisco during the psychedelic rock movement of the 60s. His exploratory guitar playing merged together rock and Latin jazz. His distinct tone and sound are readily identifiable with just one note. Famously, Prince once compared Santana to Jimi Hendrix, simply saying “Santana played prettier.”
31. Derek Trucks
Derek Trucks displayed prodigious talent as a young child, sharing a stage with Buddy Guy at just 13 years of age. Inspired by Duane Allman and Elmore James, Derek Trucks is considered one of the best slide guitar players ever. Not only has he established his position as one of the best to pick, but he even got to fill the shoes of Duane Allman and play guitar for The Allman Brothers.
32. Yngwie Malmsteem
The Swedish shredder, Yngwie Malmsteem, is in a class all his own. A prolific virtuoso, Malmsteem began playing guitar after watching a TV special eulogizing the late Jimi Hendrix. He has single-handedly elevated the genre of neo-classical rock music to global prominence and continues to test the boundaries of where the electric guitar can go.
33. Jack White
Jack White takes the blues back to the basics. Across White’s many projects – including The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and the Dead Weather – he seems to merge anything and everything from the blues to punk to country to create his signature sound. From soft fingerpicking to face-melting solos, White seems to do it all with six strings.
34. Christone “Kingfish” Ingram
If anyone is carrying the legacy of blues guitar into the future, it’s Christone “Kingfish” Ingram. The Mississippi-born bluesman is still early in his career, but he has already notched a Grammy for best contemporary blues album. Ingram’s guitar playing seems to sing as he carries forward the legacy of the blues greats that have come before him.
35. Billy Strings
Billy Strings is just beginning to carve out his place in music history. What’s clear is that the flatpicker is one of the most talented guitar players alive today. He is drawing arena-sized crowds and does not appear to be slowing down. The sky is the limit and Billy Strings is here to stay!
As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
Liam’s lifelong love for music makes his role at Music Grotto such a rewarding one. He loves researching, writing and editing music content for Music Grotto.