Lists of greatest guitarists generally focus on performers in the blues-rock tradition. And there are lots of extraordinary blues-rock guitarists!
However, the guitar is an amazingly versatile instrument, and any discussion of it should recognize that it's not confined to only one style. So in chronological order, here are the best guitarists of all time in blues and rock, jazz, funk, metal, country, gospel, experimental, and more.
1. Agustín Barrios (1885-1944)
Classical guitarist and composer Agustín Barrios recorded in his day, but his music was mostly forgotten for 30 years after his death. Now, though, he's widely celebrated for his virtuoso compositions, which often incorporate South American folk melodies. This early recording gives as a sense of his celebrated technique and his exquisite sense of timing.
2. Mississippi John Hurt (1893-1966)
John Hurt taught himself a unique fingerpicking style with intense syncopation. As you can hear on his classic “Candy Man Blues,” he sounds like he's playing two acoustic guitars at once—one carrying a gentle, rolling melody and the other stabbing out stinging single-note solos.
3. Blind Willie Johnson (1897-1945)
Robert Johnson is widely lauded as the greatest early bluesman. But Blind Willie Johnson's eerie, soulful slide guitar work is just as influential and even more intense. Check out the wordless “Dark Was the Night Cold Was the Ground,” where the starkly haunting sustained notes seem to be calling out from the grave.
4. Carlos Montoya (1903-1993)
Before Carlos Montoya, flamenco was mainly meant for dance accompaniment. He turned it into virtuoso solo music by speeding up the tempo and being jaw-droppingly brilliant, as on the amazing 1950 number “Tango,” in which the fluid runs on the nylon strings are accompanied by rhythmic taps on the wood of the guitar. You'd think he had at least three hands.
5. Maybelle Carter (1909-1978)
The hugely influential country music trio the Carter Family played many traditional folk tunes. But guitarist Mother Maybelle was an innovator, playing the melody with her thumb on the bass strings and he index finger for rhythm. Her style is instantly recognizable, as in “Single Girl, Married Girl.”
6. Django Reinhardt (1910-1953)
French Romani guitarist Djano Reinhardt transformed jazz guitar. Despite the fact that two of the fingers on his left-hand were badly burned, he played with unsurpassed technical mastery, using fleet arpeggio runs, tremolo chords, and innovative, dissonant improvisations. You can hear many of his techniques, and his effortless swing, on his classic composition Djangology.
7. Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1919-1973)
Sister Rosetta Tharpe sang sanctified gospel music, but the filthy, insinuatingly rhythmic bump and grind of her electric guitar influenced Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and a generation of secular performers. Her raucous 1944 hit “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” featuring boogie-woogie piano, is sometimes cited as the first rock and roll record
8. Joe Maphis (1921-1986)
There were a lot of hot flashy country guitarists in the 50s and 60s, but no one was hotter and flashier than Joe Maphis. He played a custom-made double-neck Mosrite guitar at speeds fast enough to melt the strings—as on his stunning duets with the young Larry Collins.
9. Bo Diddley (1928-2008)
Bo Diddley is the grandfather of grunge. On tracks like the classic “Who Do You Love?” his distorted guitar growls and writhes beneath the rhythmic pound like some sort of funky sewer-dwelling serpent.
10. Odetta (1930-2008)
Folk-singer Odetta's distinctive guitar style, strumming in open D and picking out simple chords, influenced Bob Dylan and generations of back-to-basics folkies. Her style was much imitated, but no one captures the soulful grace she brought to songs like “Pastures of Plenty.”
11. Jimmy Nolen (1934-1983)
Jimmy Nolen is known for pioneering the “chicken scratch” sound, produced by pressing the strings lightly against the fretboard and releasing them quickly while rapidly strumming the other hand. His tightly wound percussive playing, featured on James Brown hits like “Papa's Got a Brand New Bag”, became the foundation of funk guitar.
13. Sonny Sharrock (1940-1994)
Sharrock wanted to be a saxophone player like John Coltrane, but his asthma kept him away from wind instruments. Instead, he became a completely unique electric guitarist, whose attack fused jazz, rock, and experimental traditions into a glorious howl of noise. His masterpiece is generally considered to be the 1991 album Ask the Ages.
14. Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970)
What can you say about Jimi Hendrix? He's Jimi Hendrix.
15. Jorge Ben (1942- )
Brazilian legend Jorge Ben's guitar style starts in samba and boss nova and struts right on to tropicalia and funk. You can hear his technical virtuosity and inexhaustible rhythmic brilliance on his wonderful duets with Gilberto Gil.
16. Jimmy Page (1944- )
Brilliant studio session musician turned brilliant rock god, Page started with blues and folk, threw in distortion and weird tunings, and created a new brontosaur footprint of heavy. The first solo, the first track, on the first Led Zeppelin album comes out of the gate declaring, “I'm Jimmy Page, and I will crush you.”
17. Eddie Van Halen (1955-2020)
There didn't seem like were many places for rock guitar to go after Hendrix and Page. But then Eddie Van Halen showed up with an electrifying barrage of hammer-ons and pull-offs. The intro to “Mean Streets” sounds like a barrage of bombs detonating in a tornado.
18. Prince (1958-2016)
Prince's guitar fused Jimmy Noonan, George Harrison, Hendrix, and Santana into hard-hitting New Wave psychedelic funk. “I Could Never Take The Place of Your Man” is one stellar example of how he could make his instrument squall and sing simultaneously.
19. Thurston Moore (1958- )
In the band Sonic Youth, Moore and Lee Ranaldo welded the psychedelic exploration of rock to experimental noise. Then they hammered the clatter of punk to the squall and crash of New York's avant-garde. Moore used alternate tunings, dissonance, and distortion as his guitar vibrated and howled its way out of rock songs like “Total Trash.”
20. Johnny Marr (1963- )
Marr's guitar work with The Smiths doesn't blow you away with virtuosity. But on songs like “Ask,” his chiming tone and gently fractured melodic sense create one of the most sublime sounds in pop.
21. Scott Cortez (1969- )
Shoegaze turned guitar playing and production into a single oceanic whole, and no one merged the two more rapturously than Scott Cortez of the semi-forgotten lovesliescrushing. On tracks like “youreyesimmaculate,” guitar feedback becomes gorgeous, huge, and delicate layers of ambient shimmer.
22. Stephen O'Malley (1974- )
Great guitarists are often celebrated for their speed. Stephen O'Malley, though, has made a career of sloooow. With bands like Sun O))) and Khanate, he's fashioned an ultra-ponderous doom metal, in which the genre's giant, distorted riffs are dragged on and on until they become abstract echoing slabs of feedback and hate. Black Sabbath and Sonic Youth are obvious influences, but nothing on earth is quite as heavy as the heaviness of “songs” like “No Joy.”
23. Muhammed Suiçmez (1975- )
Turkish-German Muhammed Suiçmez is the one-entity twisted genius behind Necrophagist. This monstrous German technical metal band leaves other monstrous German technical metal bands gasping in its foetid wake. Compositions like “Intestinal Incubation” are clotted prog abominations—Bach mutated by the barrel full of amphetamines
24. Kaki King (1979- )
Kaki King's fingerstyle playing incorporates jazz, folk, experimental, noise, and New Age. She often uses the guitar as a percussive instrument, slapping and scraping, and loops tracks and sounds. You can practically hear the guitar's breath and pulse on her ambitious performance piece “The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body,” you can almost hear the guitar's breath and pulse.
25. Mdou Moctar (1986- )
One of the most exciting contemporary guitar styles is North African Tuareg, a sound that combines electric blues guitar and the traditional music of the Berber people of the Sahel. Mdou Moctar is also influenced by classic rock, Hendrix, and Prince, which he combines into his own ecstatic driving style. Tracks like “Afrique Victime” rain down sheets of notes like unremitting fire.
Others who were almost on the list include classical prodigy Ana Vidović, soul guitarist Teenie Hodges, contemporary blues-rock guitarist Samantha Fish, Jeff Hanneman, and Kerry King of Slayer… Go listen to them all immediately!
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Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.