Treble’s Top 100 Guitarists

Mastodon90. Brent Hinds/Bill Kelliher

The dynamic duo of Atlanta’s Sludge titans, Mastodon, has combined blues, thrash, and progressive elements into their guitar riffs. Throughout their hefty, storied discography Hinds and Kelliher have displayed massively diverse talent from album to album that keeps every installation refreshing and unique. No two riffs sound alike—see Kelliher’s riff to “Mother Puncher” against the blues rock vibes of Hinds in “Halloween.” Of course, the synergy they display is when Mastodon shines brightest.- CD

Air guitar moment: The progressive excursion of Mastodon’s “Sleeping Giant”.


raitt89. Bonnie Raitt

A roots rocker that has been laying down licks since the ’70s, singer/songwriter Bonnie Raitt found the most success (and a Grammy for Album of the Year) with her 1989 album Nick of Time. While her vocals are melancholic and warm, her slide guitar playing is powerful and carries her ballads right along. When she tours, Raitt plays on a customized Fender Stratocaster—more notable is the fact that Raitt was the first female musician to receive a signature Fender line. – VC

Air guitar moment: Feelgood blues in Bonnie Raitt’s “Something to Talk About.”


IsaacBrock2010071988. Isaac Brock

While the earliest Modest Mouse records felt simultaneously claustrophobic and intimate, This Is A Long Drive… and The Lonesome Crowded West brought to mind images of sprawl and lackadaisical summer days, extreme humidity eventually giving way to existential anxiety. And although the songs on The Moon and Antarctica are, arguably, even better, Brock still hasn’t written a riff quite like the one from “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” (Lonesome). There’s an immediately surreal quality to it, like a masochistically pleasurable fever dream. – BB

Air guitar moment: Nauseous tremolo and atmospheric dirge-dreaming on Modest Mouse’s “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine.”


JK_Flesh_at_Roadburn_festival87. Justin Broadrick

Typing Streetcleaner over and over about 75 times probably would have done the trick here, but to elaborate, Justin Broadrick brings crippling industrial guitars are hypersonic feedback to Godflesh. What Broadrick also achieves is immersive and dreamy tones in his albums as Jesu. The shoegaze yin to his industrial/experimental yang, Broadrick plays both sides of a guitarist’s coin. His most recent works A World Lit Only By Fire (Godflesh) and Everyday I Get Closer to the Light from Which I Came (Jesu) showcase his dynamic range of talent and understanding of how wonderful a guitar truly is. – CD

Air guitar moment: Broadrick’s crushing grind on Godflesh’s “Shut Me Down”.


best guitarists Daniel Ash86. Daniel Ash

There’s an art to guitar effects. Lots of players use them, but only so many fully understand how best to manipulate them. Set against a backdrop as rhythmic and dub-inflected as the dark pulse of Bauhaus (not to mention Tones on Tail and Love and Rockets), Daniel Ash’s pedalboard shriek streaked like Jackson Pollock splatter. Each riff a cacophonous blur of high-on-the-fretboard noise and melody, Ash’s style makes the act of playing guitar less about chords or scales as it is about channeling something abrasively otherworldly. – JT

Air guitar moment: Ash’s escalating squeals on “In the Flat Field.”


800px-Josh_Homme_2007_285. Josh Homme

If Josh Homme went down in history simply as a trash talking motherfucker with a cool haircut, he’d still have left his mark, but those acts are secondary to the accessibly heavy wizardry he pulls off with six strings. Early on in his career he deepened the distortion as Kyuss’ guitarist, but as frontman to Queens of the Stone Age he’s leavened that bong-rattling fuzz with hooks that only look easy to pull off. When the most impressive thing on a rock album isn’t Dave Grohl’s drumming, you’re doing something right. – JT

Air guitar moment: Homme pulls off a series of fretboard aerials in “No One Knows.”


best guitarists John Reis84. John Reis

A pillar of the San Diego music scene, John Reis is known as much for his extracurriculars—running Swami Records, being part owner of a kitschy dive bar, producing bands such as Ceremony and The So So Glos—as he is for performing. That seems a little backward given his versatilty, whether playing crunchy power chords (Rocket from the Crypt), surf licks (The Blind Shake), abrasive post-punk (Hot Snakes) or the tortured post-hardcore of Drive Like Jehu. Under most circumstances, he keeps it simple and clean, but when given the space to run free, Reis delivers nothing less than jagged-edged wizardry. – JT

Air guitar moment: A menacing churn on Drive Like Jehu’s epic “Luau.” – JT


best guitarists Michael Karoli83. Michael Karoli

The krautrock king of the blues scale: Michael Karoli. At the outskirts of Damo Suzuki’s guttural shouts and Jaki Liebezeit’s inimitable, ticky-tack traipse of the hi-hat, often lay his strange and angular hits and punches, waiting to soar above the relative cacophony. His classical training, which informed his approach to guitar on albums such as Tago Mago and Future Days, seems almost antipodal to his loose improvisation and pot-smoke-tinged solo technique. But this internal ambivalence is what makes him so interesting—a constant sense of unpredictability, yet cool control. – JM

Air guitar moment: Karoli’s plume of smoky space funk on Can’s “Halleluwah.”


gill82. Andy Gill

It feels technically accurate to say that Andy Gill is, in fact, a percussionist. The intensity and primal brutality through which he bashes his Stratocaster is like a particularly cathartic therapy session. It’s to the credit of Gang of Four’s rhythm section that his scratchy, deceptively tuneful jabs and jerks actually come across as accessible—even funky. From the beginning, Gang of Four were post-punk’s political provocateurs, so it only makes sense that their guitar slinger treated his instrument with little reverence. – JT

Air guitar moment: Delay, squeak and scratch on the dancefloor in “At Home He’s a Tourist.”


best guitarists Steve Albini81. Steve Albini

Over the years, Steve Albini’s guitar style has come a long way without veering too far from its roots. Always a rhythmic player, the Big Black and Shellac frontman’s evolution didn’t focus so much on scales or arpeggios. Instead, Albini mastered the art of grinding out complicated, repetitive rhythms with stunning precision and learning exactly when to give his songs more gravitas. For these reasons, we’ll always be able to recognize an Albini riff, regardless of project or era. – ATB

Air guitar moment: Shards of scrape on Big Black’s “Passing Complexion”.

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View Comments (26)
  • I was a little worried about the list from the initial commentary. Still, a fine list none the less, though I wonder about ranking. (Of course an almost impossible endeavor.) I would suggest possible add-ons to explore such as Danny Gatton, Eric ET Tingstad, and such blues legends as Steve Cropper and Muddy Waters, as givens. And yes from the disclosure of speed guitar slingers being omitted, it is a shame that Joe Satriani was not on this list, for he taught many of these 80’s guitar slingers their craft.

  • Johnny Ramone has been the new Yngwie for a decade now, and I don’t get it. But hey, at least people listen to the Ramones? I was never under the impression that people actually bought records from the Yngwie-Satriani-SRV crowd.

  • I just knew you’d forget about Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze. He’s technically better than half of this list.

  • I am just crying … did I miss Jeff Beck who to me is the dean of all great British mid-1960s guitarists? And people like Chuck Berry and Les Paul so far down on the list (Les Paul was a guitar innovator). While I know that Prince would not be given the number one mantle if he hadn’t recently die, I am shocked that Johnny Ramone was rated so high. And another giant rhythm guitarist, Keith Richards, was rated relatively low. And another innovator such as Richard Thompson is far too low on the list. And why is Bo Diddley so far down … another trend-setter and innovator. It is apparent that this is a young person’s list (why would Johnny Marr be top ten?) and I can accept that. But when journeyman guitar players are 20 or 30 positions higher than actual innovators and creative guitar players that established a new sound, this is simply sad. How can Jeff Beck be left off such a list? I hope I simply failed to see his name. And while I love Bob Dylan, his guitar playing has always been mediocre at best. That’s not his true talent.
    I wish more thought had gone into this list. Any top guitar player list that does not list Chuck Berry in the top ten is simply committing a grievous error. Such a crushing oversight …

  • So what is it with Americans not giving Josh Pearson credit where credit is due? The guy is a master of two completely different playing styles (shoegaze and folk/country). The Lift to Experience reunion shows have been fantastic thus far. Maybe when the remix/reissue of Lift’s album comes out in the fall, this country’s music writers will get with the program.

    • Pearson is great, but I think part of it is that the album was marketed really poorly when it was released, and there was only one of them. So while Lift had some following in the UK and their home of Texas, to this day they’re still relatively unknown everywhere else. Doesn’t mean he/they are not awesome, of course.

  • I appreciate all the great blues artists that were rightfully put on the list, but outside of Django there are no jazz guitarists. Wes Montgomery and Grant Green definitely deserve mention.

  • u guys got it wrong in several there are several guitarist on the list that shouldn’t be and you missed several thay should be joe bonamassa for one and where was muddy waters?

  • Generally reasonable choices here, though there are a couple I would replace, but the order here is absurd. Prince above Django Reinhardt? Prince was a phenomenal player, but I think not.

  • I love the Beatles and especially George Harrison, but if you’re going to rank him this high for his contributions to that band, then you have to give just about as much credit to Don Felder of the Eagles. Or did Henley and Frey command you to leave Felder off?

  • Nice piece on Michael Karoli sadly the picture that goes with it is wrong. That is the unknown guitarist who filled in on the TOTP lip sync performance of “I want More”. Michael was out of contact on holiday in Africa at the time.

  • You left out so many great and influential guitarists and put some random indie guitarists… You clearly don’t know what you’re talking about.

    • Or maybe different people have different perspectives on what makes a guitarist great. And that’s more interesting than repeating the same list of Guitar World cover stars over and over.

  • Look, I love D’Angelo, but the simple fact that he is on the list goes to show that this was made by people who know nothing about the instrument. If that’s the case, a simple Top 10 would suffice.

  • Look, Prince has had some undeniably epic guitar moments over the years, but his genius is far more as the composer, arranger, performer and multi-instrumental talent than as a guitar hero. You could make a pretty good argument that he doesn’t really belong on this list at all—and thats not an insult given his prolific output in other areas these pure guitarists never touched.

    But by far the most egregious omission here is Jeff Beck. How on earth you think Prince was more influential and a better guitarist than Jeff Beck is laughable at best—but not only did you say that by putting Prince #1, you LEFT Beck off the list entirely.

    Or Cobain—he wasn’t even the best guitar player in his own band when they played live—the relatively ‘complex’ stuff was left to Pat Smear or one of the other earlier touring guitarists. That is an absolutely laughable pick at others’ expense.

    Its sad because there are some edgy picks here that I applaud you taking over some more established names, but this oversight is so bad that it makes what could have been a great list completely tainted.

    I guess it could be worse—you could have put Munky and Head on here in lieu of Jeff.

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