Treble’s Top 100 Guitarists

Ritchie Blackmore60. Ritchie Blackmore

The guitar wizard wove his magic best on the four albums that comprised the second era of Deep Purple fronted by vocal powerhouse Ian Gillan. Blackmore joined the band in 1960, but it wasn’t until 1970’s In Rock that he reached his true potential. He left the band to form Rainbow with Ronnie James Dio and inspired masses of metal heads to put down their 20-sided dice and start neo-classically shredding. Yes I’m talking about you, Yngwie. – WL

Air guitar moment: Rainbow’s bluesy proto-metal riffage on “Stargazer.”

kurt-cobain-mtv-unplugged59. Kurt Cobain

As the lead singer and guitarist for Nirvana, Cobain is best remembered for his haunting riffs and melancholic progressions. Growing up in Washington gave Cobain early access to the Pacific Northwest punk scene, and the darkness of Cobain’s songs lies in the content, “Polly” being based on the true story of a 14-year-old female concertgoer’s kidnapping and rape. When performing, Cobain used a Fender Mustang—modified for Cobain to play left handed. – VC

Air guitar moment: The chunky grunge riffs of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

carlos-santana58. Carlos Santana

Although “Smooth” brought Carlos Santana tremendous success, it’s an underwhelming reference point. Past albums prove Santana has much more to offer: The amazing “Soul Sacrifice” helped establish his signature guitar style. His cover of Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va” proved guitar parts were critical to rock songs. “Jungle Strut” showed his band had amazing tenacity to jam effortlessly. Above all, this is evidence his playing harmonizes perfectly with marvelous percussion, rhythmic bass and vocalist Gregg Rolie’s signature Hammond Organ. – GM

Air guitar moment: Searing and soaring in “Soul Sacrifice.”

edgeGW157. The Edge

“Infinite Guitar,” infinite possibilities. From his earliest days pushing U2’s post-punk with earnest staccato to working with effects rigs occupying half of their latest stadium stages, David Howell Evans is the engine that drives Bono’s car. U2 have certainly settled into a distinctive sound across their 40-year career; you can draw direct lines from “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” all the way back to stuff like “Seconds.” But listen to a track like “Gone,” where The Edge manages to fit together soft, loud, and processed electronic guitar work, and you can appreciate the skill that underlies the band’s global appeal. – AB

Air guitar moment: Stadium-filling glory in U2’s “Gone”.

johnny-ramone-thumb56. Johnny Ramone

As the guitarist for the Ramones, Johnny earned his gold stars early on through band’s 1976 debut album Ramones. Mainly a rhythm guitarist, Johnny was known for rapid downstrokes and power chords, influencing a long line of punk guitarists to follow. Throughout his career, Johnny went through nine different Mosrite guitars, as they were best for his continuous stream of barre chords. Johnny was also known for his outspoken political views—ones that sort of contradicted the band’s punk rock ethos—freely expressing his support for not only the Republican party but particularly President George W. Bush. – VC

Air guitar moment: Punk rock is born with The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop.”

Bob Mould55. Bob Mould

If Bob Mould were to be remembered for nothing more than playing punk rock at the most unthinkably reckless pace, he would still have contributed enough to earn his spot on this list. The melodic anchor for St. Paul hardcore icons Hüsker Dü, Mould weaponized melody and found beauty in flesh-ripping shards of nickel-wound shrapnel. Since then, however, he’s found gravity in a broader palette of rock, from his melodic solo records to the grungy drive of Sugar. – JT

Air guitar moment: Driving punk riffs turn to acoustic beauty in Hüsker Dü’s “Celebrated Summer.”

MartyFriedman005754. Marty Friedman/Dave Mustaine

This duo teamed up during the pinnacle of Megadeth’s career. Rust In Peace is a metal classic, while Countdown to Extinction was a more polished stab at the kind of streamlined radio fodder Mustaine’s former bandmates in Metallica dumped onto the Black Album. Mustaine’s best riffs grounded the shred acrobatics of former Cacophony guitarist Friedman. They recorded five albums together before Friedman departed. – WL

Air guitar moment: Thrash metal overdrive on Megadeth’s “Holy Wars…the Punishment Due.”

Kurt Ballou53. Kurt Ballou

The first question to likely arise when hearing Kurt Ballou’s furious guitar performances with Converge is “What the hell was that?” The second: How can a human being’s fingers move that fast? And the third: How can something so loud and intense be so breathtaking? All valid points to ponder, these, but with Ballou, there’s no single approach to playing metallic hardcore. As the chief architect of Converge’s sound, he’s proven himself adept at crust punk riffs, high-on-the-neck shred, low-tuned doom-metal thrum and dense shoegazing elegance, sometimes all in the same track. – JT

Air guitar moment: A gut-wrenching dirge turns heavenly on Converge’s “Jane Doe.”

D'angelo52. D’Angelo

Here’s another show-stopping vocalist who some listeners might not realize also pulls the bulk of instrumental weight on his records. If the world is a just place at all, 2014’s Black Messiah changed that reputation. D’Angelo reaches past the boundaries of neo-soul to craft one of the most meaningful soul and funk records in recent memory, both in socio-political tone and musical performance. – ATB

Air guitar moment: D’angelo channels the soul and fire of Prince on “The Charade”.

Tom Morello51. Tom Morello 

Rage against the Machine were hip-hop wolves in the sheep’s clothing of rock, using the energy and bass-drum-guitar constructs of metal and punk to forward an agenda of street justice and social revolution. While Zack de la Rocha was the rapper, Tom Morello was effectively the DJ, coaxing sounds from guitars like so many needles and crossfaders. His later work with the likes of Audioslave showed he could handle more traditional rock responsibilities, and his acoustic project The Nightwatchman kills fascists, too. – AB

Air guitar moment: Morello scratches out a note-free solo on “Bulls on Parade.”

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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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