Treble’s Top 100 Guitarists

robert_johnson270. Robert Johnson

The best-known Robert Johnson songs—“Stop Breakin’ Down Blues,” “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” “Sweet Home Chicago”—have been so thoroughly absorbed into the blues and rock canons that it’s not always easy to recognize their innovation. But check out “Broom,” or “Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped The Devil)” and bow to a true master (unrecognized in his lifetime, murdered by poison at 29). In these songs, Johnson creates complex arrangements that don’t sound possible on a single guitar in 1936, but are quite real: expressive, melodic and often fearsome. – LG

Air guitar moment: The Delta blues soloing on “Kind Hearted Woman Blues.”

rowland230514w69. Rowland S. Howard

Playing sideman to Nick Cave is a unique challenge in and of itself, yet in The Birthday Party, however, each member was part of an elegantly fucked-up battle royale. Cave howled, Tracy Pew’s bass a rhythmic pummel, Phil Calvert’s drums a merciless thwack, leaving the squealing, screeching, scraping high end for menacing yet weirdly cool axeman Rowland S. Howard. Howard’s style was heavy on reverb and feedback, and his riffs as much piercing assault as melodic anchor. A band that fucked up needs a suitably twisted guitarist—a role that Howard filled nicely. – JT

Air guitar moment: Blues, booze, sturm und drang on The Birthday Party’s “Junkyard.”

Bo Diddley68. Bo Diddley

The rock and roll pioneer had his own rhythm, literally: The “Bo Diddley beat” is primal rock’s signature calling card. Diddley’s guitar was just subservient enough to that beat to unify his sound, but there’s still no mistaking it for any other player’s. Diddley’s riffs were hard-charging, loaded with tremolo and spacious enough for him to punctuate the air with sudden jabs. The most remarkable thing about Diddley’s playing was its constant motion: Once he started, he wasn’t stopping until long after the fade-out. – PP

Air guitar moment: The primitive rock ‘n’ roll groove of “Bo Diddley“.

Built2spill67. Doug Martsch

Known for his distinct guitar style in indie rockers Built to Spill, Martsch has been on a guitar-hero long list since about 1992 (after his time with his first band, Treepeople). Martsch’s guitar style smoothly blends pop, blues, rock and folk influences, often drawing comparisons to Neil Young and Jimi Hendrix. But after more than two decades we’ve seen the power of his signature guitar style, as Martsch’s playing strongly influenced the indie-rockers that would follow, including Death Cab for Cutie and Modest Mouse. – VC

Air guitar moment: Dreamy ascension in Built to Spill’s “Carry the Zero.”

Guest_thompson66. Richard Thompson

The most versatile axeman on this list, Thompson has spent 50 years straddling the boundary between acoustic and electric, and it’s impossible to decide which style he’s best at. He creates entire atmospheres with one, un-overdubbed Lowden acoustic. He slashes through rock solos that create tension through attack and unsuspected melodies. He channels the entire history of popular music (literally) through whatever six-strings happen to be lying around. Hearing his guitar for the first time is like discovering fire. – PP

Air guitar moment: The finger-picking magic of “1952 Vincent Black Lightning“.

jerry-greek-82-2-25065. Jerry Garcia

Although Jerry Garcia was best known as the lead guitarist of the Grateful Dead, he began his career in bluegrass, performing old-time and folk music on guitar and banjo. Noted for extended guitar improvisations, Garcia toured constantly during his life. Throughout his career, Garcia used almost 25 different guitars. But how could we talk up Jerry without waxing poetic about his (almost) namesake Ben & Jerry’s flavor, Cherry Garcia? Now that’s success. – VC

Air guitar moment: Laid-back grooves in the Grateful Dead’s “He’s Gone.”

omar-rodriquez-lopez-group64. Omar Rodriguez-Lopez

Between At the Drive-In and The Mars Volta, the output of Omar Rodriguez-Lopez is both diverse and extreme. Lately, his playing in Bosnian Rainbows and Antemasque has been simpler, but still unconventional, while his solo albums give a glimpse into why he’s one of the best modern rock guitarists. At times, his playing can be polarizing among guitarist circles due to his heavy dependence on effects pedals, and Rodriguez has said in interviews that he isn’t the best guitarist. Funny—his live performances and solo compositions prove otherwise. – GM

Air guitar moment: The cosmic aggression of The Mars Volta’s “Roulette Dares.”

best guitarists Graham Coxon63. Graham Coxon

Graham Coxon’s mind-over-matter ability to channel great emotion and power through his guitar while standing seemingly entirely disinterested on stage is one of life’s mysteries. From his jangly, primary-colored jauntiness during Blur’s pop singles (“Country House,” “For Tomorrow”) to the heartfelt, introspective expression that runs through their later, greater albums (Blur, 13), he always had the perfect counterpoint to Damon Albarn’s melodic melancholy. All the while, his eclectic solo career continues to show off a curious, experimental bent that Blur only hinted at. – MP

Air guitar moment: The psychedelic swirl of Blur’s “Caramel.”

best guitarists andy summers62. Andy Summers

In the 1980s, The Police became one of the most successful rock bands of all time on the strength of their air-tight pop songwriting ability. It doesn’t hurt, however, that their personnel comprises three instrumental ringers. Pivoting from their earlier punk-oriented singles, Andy Summers deviated from straightforward power-chord riffs by delving into atmospheric, dub-inspired performances, deceptively complex yet subtle chord progressions and finger-lengthening riffs. He makes it look easy but, man, it sure isn’t. – JT

Air guitar moment: The heightening tension and climax of “Synchronicity II.”

Pajopitchfork61. David Pajo

It’s Pajo’s work with Slint that probably landed him on this list—his noisy yet restrained playing helping to almost single-handedly construct the guitar tone for what critics would dub “post-rock.” But let’s not forget how Pajo’s style also played a heavy hand in two records by Tortoise, on albums by Will Oldham and several other staples throughout the realm of indie-rock. While he might not be a household name to most, any rock player without knowledge of his work is missing a major piece of the puzzle. – ATB

Air guitar moment: Slint’s abrasive haunting on “Nosferatu Man”.

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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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