Treble’s Top 100 Guitarists

Chuck Berry best guitarists50. Chuck Berry

Even aliens know Chuck Berry’s importance. On the Voyager I and II spacecraft, Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” is included on the golden records featuring sounds and music from Earth in the event the probes are discovered by intelligent life. It’s fitting; few other songs so succinctly and perfectly epitomize rock music. His relative lack of technical acumen compared to today’s guitar gunslingers is irrelevant, because their whole style wouldn’t exist without Berry, and while he didn’t invent the guitar solo (Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker probably gets that distinction), the joyous picking in “Goode” before the first verse and in every chorus exemplifies what shredding is all about. – LG

Air guitar moment:Johnny B. Goode,” obviously.

jmitchell49. Joni Mitchell 

When Mitchell suffered a bout of polio in her childhood, the weakness that remained in her left hand could have deterred her from pursuing a career playing guitar. On the contrary, it inspired her to conjure innovative and unconventional methods of playing, turning what others may have perceived as a handicap into a uniquely original advantage. She improvised over 50 alternate tunings for her guitars, resulting in what we now think of as the familiar-but-strange Joni Mitchell sound. From the chromatic melodies of her 1960s harmonic work to the jazz fusion of albums such as Hejira, Joni found ways of surprising us and satisfying us in equal measures throughout her guitar-playing career. – MP

Air guitar moment: The jazz-influenced chord changes of “Coyote“.

best guitarists Angus Young48. Angus Young

Precious little about AC/DC is complicated—Angus Young’s schoolboy blazer and tie pretty much wrap up their entire subtext strategy. But at several points in their 40 years they could lay claim to the title of the greatest working rock band in the world, and Angus is their still-burning core. His mastery of backbone riffs likens him to both metal and punk musicians, but his devotion to electric blues and ‘60s power players comes through in his unassuming, octane-generating solos. And he got better as AC/DC’s star ascended: The brute of ‘70s anthems such as “Jailbreak” and “TNT” might never have played the staggering opening notes of “Thunderstruck,” but in hindsight they’re very much cut from the same cloth. – PP

Air guitar moment: Finger tapping his way to greatness on AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.”

glenn-branca47. Glenn Branca

Claustrophobic. Nauseating. Panic-inducing. If these aren’t the first words that come to your mind when listening to Glenn Branca, then…you have a higher tolerance for cacophony than most people? Still, the beauty in Branca’s skill as a guitarist is that he can make such cacophonous noise so engaging. Mind you, nothing he writes is pleasurable, per se… but, then again, isn’t the whole concept of pleasure subjective? It’s hard to imagine him—or anyone—experiencing anything close to bliss in making music so single-minded, obsessive, grating… but listen to “Light Field” from The Ascension and how can you say this dude is not having an absolute blast? – BB

Air guitar moment: Dense no wave repetition and descension in “Light Field“.

j-white46. Jack White

If there is one figure in 21st century music that embodies the classical guitar hero, then it must be Jack White. The eminent rock and blues historian of his generation, he has studied the greats, distilled them back down again, and assembled the bare bones of what it takes to build the primal, timeless guitar part. He can do riifs (“Seven Nation Army”), he can do solos (“Icky Thump”), he can do melody (“Many Shades of Black”). He can turn his hand to a Bond theme, a Beyonce single, a Loretta Lynn album, a Dusty Springfield cover, you name it. For as long as Jack White is playing in bands, the guitar hero is not dead. – MP

Air guitar moment: Riffs gone wild in The White Stripes’ “Icky Thump“.

640px-Billy_c45. Billy Corgan

Sometimes, it’s not merely fretboard gymnastics that make one an unforgettable guitarist; it’s the sound they engineer or pioneer. Billy Corgan combined his love of Black Sabbath, Bauhaus and Pantera and developed a trash/grunge hybrid that masked his formidable virtuosity. You know it’s a Smashing Pumpkins song by the hollow, high-end overdrive. Corgan’s solos for “Cherub Rock,” “Geek U.S.A.” and “Soma” have appeared on Top 100 lists. He is at least partially responsible for the quiet/loud/quiet/loud progressions of the ‘90s, with an understanding that shifting dynamics means more than stomping on a box; it’s about creating and fostering a mood, something Corgan mastered unlike anyone else. – CG

Air guitar moment: Guitar heroism for the grunge era in “Cherub Rock“.

Joey_Santiago_BW44. Joey Santiago

The thunderous performance on “Where Is My Mind?” is enough to solidify Santiago’s spot on any guitarist list. The rest of his talent on early Pixies albums, however, is worth noting: Come On Pilgrim (“I’ve Been Tired”) Doolittle (“Hey”) and Surfer Rosa (“Vamos”) are a testament to his abilities. In later records, he manages to elevate that piercing sound to a higher level, an element the band would later be known for. Shit, even the early Purple Tape album has some of his best featured guitar playing on early versions of future songs. Meshed in with Black Francis’ surreal screeches, Kim Deal’s thumping bass and Dave Lovering’s tight drums, the dynamic of the Pixies would be incomplete without the piercing sounds of Santiago’s guitar. – GM

Air guitar moment: Frantic neck-wringing on The Pixies’ “Vamos.”

sumner-750x56343. Bernard Sumner

Admit it: When you think about music from the New Order/Joy Division spectrum, you make immediate associations with their danceability (whether it’s a morose gothic sway or a technicolor synth pattern) and their wide-open Peter Hook basslines. But something has to fill the spaces in between, and more often than not it’s a Bernard Sumner riff. He and his bandmates manage to transcend the ordinary with wailing melodies from the darkest emotional abyss and with bouncy, substance-enhanced grooves. Even a triggered sample will work, when the noise on the other end is a smart Sumner chord progression. – AB

Air guitar moment: Sunny new wave jangle on New Order’s “Regret”.

King and Hanneman42. Kerry King/Jeff Hanneman

Anyone who has attempted to play “Raining Blood” on Guitar Hero III on any difficulty above medium will understand why King and Hanneman have made the list. The duo of one of thrash metal’s “Big 4” bands crafted some of the genre’s biggest and most daunting rhythms through the ’80s and ’90s through their tremolo picking, erratic scales and perpetual flipping between lead and rhythm sections. Their sound was as disorienting as it was depraved. King and Hanneman’s work have been widely influential in death and black metal genres and many bands, who themselves, have become influential (like Mayhem, Darkthrone and Cannibal Corpse). Reign In Blood, the group’s greatest album, has been touted as the “heaviest record of all time” and an immediate classic. – CD

Air guitar moment: Searing thrash-metal evil on Slayer’s “Angel of Death”.

Fugiplayinglive41. Ian Mackaye/Guy Picciotto

Ian Mackaye and Guy Picciotto have both excelled brilliantly as guitarists on their own, making especially notable marks via The Evens and Rites of Spring, respectively. (Before you take to the comments section, note that Mackaye never played guitar for Minor Threat—Thanks.) But when the two combined forces it was a gritty, loud and beautiful force. Case in point: The band’s earliest recordings only include Picciotto as a vocalist, and there’s a noteworthy improvement in tone and ferocity once the two began interplaying melodies and riffs with one another. Several albums of experimentation later and the duo would master a post-hardcore guitar sound that would-be-punkers have been chasing since. – ATB

Air guitar moment: Grooving and wailing on Fugazi’s “Epic Problem”.

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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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