I love rock music, and I love the guitar. But I can’t stand the rock press, particularly the politically debauched relics like Rolling Stone, who wouldn’t know a guitar god if impaled by a flying-V. Every time I come across one of these out-of-touch media outlets ranking musicians, songs, or albums into some nonsensical order, I have a Pavlovian response of reordering the proffered list into its proper sequence.
That habit offers an opportunity to contemplate the ten greatest guitarists of the rock era. Who? What order? And why? This is usually the part where the author will politely state: “there are no right answers here,” “your list might very well look different than mine and be perfectly defendable,” or “ranking these greats is a fools’ errand.” Hogwash: let’s partake in some controversial, judgmental fun and set the list straight!
Here are the ten greatest guitarists in the history of rock, in ascending order. Keep in mind, this a ranking of rock guitarists, not all guitarists. Many jazz guitarists, including Pittsburgh native George Benson, make rock guitar gods sound simply pedestrian.
#10 Tony Iommi
Iommi may not be the fastest or most technically gifted of guitarists. After all, he plays without the ends of two of his fingers, which were lost in a pre-Black Sabbath workplace accident in industrial Birmingham, UK. But what Iommi can claim is the establishment of an entirely new genre of rock: heavy metal. Specifically, the heavy metal sound. Copied and refined by musicians and bands all over the planet for decades, Iommi is the founding father of the sound and the mood of metal: dark, heavy, and relentless.
No Iommi? Then no Judas Priest, no Van Halen, and no Metallica. It is telling that so many guitar icons that came after Black Sabbath pay public homage to the man. Tony Iommi is the base of an entire branch of rock music lineage. Put on the album Paranoid and listen to a new sound when it was being created. The critics laughed then, and Iommi laughs now.
#9 Lindsey Buckingham
If you never saw Buckingham perform live, perhaps his name appearing on this list is a surprise. But to those that are fortunate enough to have seen him live, his name will not be a shock. The man exudes frightening prowess across six strings, much of it while singing lead vocals. From tracks like Fleetwood Mac’s fun “Second Hand News,” to the acoustic gem “Never Going Back Again,” to the boldly explorative “Tusk,” Buckingham’s work presents a wide spectrum of sonic colors.
Famous for his finger-picking technique, Buckingham represents the musical heart of an epic band. His solo work and solo performances offer an opportunity to experience him when he is at his most explorative. And the guy could write a decent lyric, having penned “Go Your Own Way” as the first lines for the historic Rumors sessions.
#8 Billy Gibbons
No one is better at slide guitar than Gibbons. Want proof? Just watch and listen to him with that Gibson and slide on “Just Got Paid Today.” Gibbons is the composer of some of the most iconic riffs in rock history, and he contributed lead vocals on more than a few of them. I love listening to an interview with Billy because the man is a walking archive of rock history. He’s been there and done that.
What is not appreciated by most rock fans is how ZZ Top’s 1983 breakthrough album, Eliminator, represented an avante garde moment for the genre. Most fans are familiar with how the band and the singles from that album helped propel music videos and MTV to greater heights. But Eliminator is first and foremost a progressive blues album; one that jumped from a legacy of classic blues-based rock into a sound that was blues blended with electronic music. When Billy Gibbons says Depeche Mode was an influence on him when making Eliminator, it is not a surprise. You can hear it in the songs from that album.
Great musicians take their cumulative body of art and style, observe to the left and right of them as to what is evolving, and then morph it all into something new and exciting. Billy Gibbons is simultaneously a classic blues guitarist and a rock innovator. That’s a sure-fire sign of greatness.
#7 Eric Clapton
You have to be something special when your early career lineage consists of playing guitar for the Yardbirds, John Mayall, Cream, and Blind Faith. Add to it a solo career that sold 280 million records and throw in Derek and the Dominos in the middle of it all, and you have one of the most impressive resumes in rock, guitarist or otherwise.
I suppose if music fans were spray painting “Clapton is God” on London walls in the 1960s, he has to find his way on this list. Yet although I like Clapton, I don’t love him as much or rank him as high as most guitarist aficionados would. The primary reason ties to the passage of time. His best work was Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs when he was with Derek and the Dominoes, and most of those songs were cowritten with others or covers. That album was released over 50 years ago.
Clapton’s solo career after Derek and the Dominoes was full of radio hits and sales successes. But the past 50 years have not produced much in the category of ground-breaking or awe inspiring. Strangely, the more successful Clapton has become over the long haul, the less he seems to stand out. But based on what he did up through 1970 alone would place him on this list.
#6 Alex Lifeson
Canadian Lifeson is the most underrated guitarist in rock. He’s complex in the studio and he’s inspiring live. There are a dozen Rush singles that have more variety and moving parts than entire albums for other acts, and the band’s guitarist is a big reason why. “Spirit of the Radio” off Permanent Waves is probably the best exemplar of Lifeson’s approach: sharp, rich, complex, diverse, and unforgettable. There’s four different songs meshed into that one single.
The beauty of Rush and Lifeson is that they offer something for everyone. You like progressive rock? 2112 is your album. You like the arena anthems? Blast “Tom Sawyer” in the car. You want introspective lyrics? Listen to “The Trees” and how it resonates today more than ever. You enjoy musical sophistication? Stream “La Villa Strangiato” through headphones and try to figure out how he plays those guitar parts. Care for some synth-rock? Give Power Windows a spin on the turntable.
Rush is such an insanely talented band that most people consider Alex Lifeson to be the least accomplished of the power trio. That’s what happens when your fellow band mates are Neal Peart on drums (and lyrics) and Geddy Lee on bass (and vocals), probably the best at their instruments in all of rock. With the passing of Peart, one of the most prolific and varied acts in rock history is likely at an end. But at least we still have that massive and impressive catalogue to fall back on.
#5 Jimmy Page
Jimmy Page sports the most accomplished resume you will find for a rock guitarist: successful session musician, Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin, and host of later supergroup bands and collaborations including The Firm. His resume of riffs forms an endless loop and includes a foundation of “Heartbreaker,” “Whole Lotta Love,” “Black Dog,” “Communication Breakdown,” and “Rock and Roll.” Couple to all the substantive accomplishments his unique stage performances (using a cello bow to play guitar and playing a 12-string double neck guitar) and his offstage interests (including his obsession with mysticism and buying occultist Aleister Crowley’s home in Scotland), and you have the complete guitar god.
If you want a tour de force live concert performance that projects the talents of Jimmy Page, give a listen to him playing with the Black Crowes at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. From the Led Zeppelin songs to the classic blues covers, this album is Page at his absolute live best.
He wrote the music for “Stairway to Heaven,” what most consider to be the greatest rock song of all time. He was steeped in folk music and the blues. Books have been written about his exploits, the best being Hammer of the Gods. And his peers worship him, from Eddie to Edge. Jimmy Page took a talent and turned it into the complete professional career package.
#4 Brian May
May is the smartest individual on this list of musical geniuses. He earned a degree in physics from the Imperial College London in 1968 and was then awarded a doctorate in astrophysics from the same esteemed institution in 2007. In between his physics and astrophysics diplomas, Brian May set the world ablaze with his guitar in Queen.
There are bands that do classic rock extremely well; but there is only so far one can take it before it becomes repetitive and depleted. There are other bands that do experimental and progressive rock very well; but the complexity appeals to only a small portion of the wider listening audience. Mixing the two together is typically untenable for most musicians and acts and will spell commercial disaster.
What was special about May and Queen was their ability to take the eccentric and innovative and wrap it within a hard rock package so that it appealed to the masses. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is Queen’s masterpiece on Night at the Opera and is rightly considered one of the greatest songs of the rock era. Yet the song breaks every rule of a hit rock record: it’s long, it’s operatic, it tells a strange story, and it shape shifts from piano ballad to power chord anthem. It takes uber talent to pull off the magic of composing and producing such a composition in a way where it achieves universal enjoyment. Freddie Mercury wrote and created most of it, but Brian May built and structured most of it so that it worked. What a dynamic duo.
For a hidden gem of guitar history, check out Brian May’s Star Fleet Project, an early 1980s mini-album he collaborated with Eddie Van Halen on. Would’ve loved to have been in the room or studio when that was being made.
#3 Stevie Ray Vaughn
There are those who will say SRV is technically a blues guitarist and thus should not be ranked in a rock list. Although Stevie’s roots were clearly the blues, his body of work doesn’t just fit well in the rock genre, it redefined it. Look no further than how he reset David Bowie’s image during the 1980s with the riffs on “Modern Love” and “Let’s Dance.” The greats have the ability to redefine other greats.
You don’t listen to SRV, you feel him. Give “Couldn’t Stand the Weather” a listen and you will certainly feel him. Maybe that’s the result of a kid who started playing when he was seven and who’s older brother Jimmy had a bit of musical talent of his own. Something was in the water down there in Dallas, Texas.
The most impactful aspect of Vaughn’s art was how he meshed his voice and his guitar into a singular sound; the voice and the guitar spring from the same source and share a common DNA, one a natural extension of the other. A raw, unbridled talent that has not seen its equal since his untimely death in 1990. A career of seven short years leaves one wondering what might have been had he lived longer.
#2 Jimi Hendrix
Johnny Allen Hendrix would’ve boasted an impressive resume before his solo career, backing the Isley Brothers and Little Richard on guitar. But in four short years of a solo career that spawned three classic studio albums, Jimmy Hendrix established a standard that remains non-replicable to this day.
This innovator was the definition of unconventional. He played a right-handed guitar upside down (Hendrix was ambidextrous, playing guitar and throwing baseballs left-handed but writing right-handed). Hendrix amazed in the studio. He awed audiences live with his playing and with his showmanship, from flaming guitars to the “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. Nuisances and problems to mortal guitarists became creative tools for Hendrix to master, with the best example being his harnessing of amplifier feedback.
Hendrix arrived in England in 1966 and immediately scared Eric Clapton off the stage when Hendrix joined Cream on stage and blew Slowhand away. He then shocked the rest of British rock royalty that included McCartney, Richards, Jagger, Beck, and Townsend, when Hendrix played his own London shows a bit later. Every guitarist loves Hendrix, yet no one can play like Hendrix. Just ask Clapton.
#1 Eddie Van Halen
There is no other plausible choice for numero uno. Edward Ludwig Van Halen put signature into signature sound. Every rock guitarist, from the professional global star to the basement amateur, measures the timeline of the rock guitar with BE and AE: Before Eddie and After Eddie. You can identify a Van Halen tune within three notes.
Van Halen was a technician, building and wiring his guitars, with the most iconic being his red, white, and black striped Frankenstrat. He was an innovator, stylistically and sonically, from finger tapping to “Eruption” to “Mean Streets” to power drills. Yet the guitar and all his innovations were not enough to allow his artistic expression to freely flow, and thus his move to keyboards in the 1980s brought an entirely new dimension to the EVH sound.
His home studio in the Hollywood Hills, 5150, had floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with tapes of his recordings. One can only hope that someone (Wolfgang, are you reading this?) takes the time to inventory and release those time capsules to a world hungry for anything that announces itself as Eddie Van Halen.
Like many talented performers, Eddie suffered from bouts of substance abuse and health issues. But one thing rang clear in sound and sight: when Eddie Van Halen held a guitar in his hands, he was the happiest man alive. I miss that guy.
The Next Ten
There you have it. With only ten spots, more than a few truly great musicians didn’t make the cut. The next ten in no particular order are: Chuck Berry for creating the art form, Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple and Rainbow, Carlos Santana and his emotion, George Harrison and his beautiful ballads, Gary Moore with his Corridors of Power masterpiece, Edge with his sonic layering, Joe Perry and his classic riffs, Randy Rhoads as the second coming of Eddie Van Halen, Duane Allman for creating the jam band and southern rock, and Jeff Beck because he is Jeff Beck.