Treble’s Top 100 Guitarists

Dire_Straits_1983_Zagreb_340. Mark Knopfler

Wearer of many hats, Knopfler is not only a guitarist, but also a record producer, film score composer, singer and songwriter. An impressive performer on his own, he has also joined the stage with artists including Elton John, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, and Sting. Known best as lead guitarist for Dire Straits, Knopfler’s solos are so impressive and intricate that listening to them can leave the listener a bit exhausted themselves. With four Grammys under his belt, and three (!) honorary doctorate degrees in music, it’s safe to say that Knopfler is pretty well rounded, not just as a guitarist but a musician. – VC

Air guitar moment: Knopfler’s nimble neckwork on Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing.”

best guitarists Dick Dale39. Dick Dale

Oh how he can pluck a string/Oh how he makes you sing/Listen, listen to the king,” implores the all-female chorus on 1963’s “King of the Surf Guitar.” There’s no muddled history in the surf rock genre; Dick Dale is truly the king. Unparalleled by imitators and rip-offs alike, he was responsible for pioneering an entirely unique genre in rock music during the early 1960s. Shredding through licks of crunched, ear-splitting breaks of staccato distortion, Dale’s proto-punk aptitude introduced widespread audiences to inescapable hooks and a heralding musical style. A harbinger of many of the guitarists on this list, Dick Dale’s realm of influence is bafflingly extensive, as the king’s successors are indebted to his pivotal experimentation with performance technique, electric amplification, and melodic framework. – PPilch

Air guitar moment: The pipeline riffs stretching into space on “Riders in the Sky.”

kirk-hammett38. Kirk Hammett

Even when Metallica has produced outright awful material—looking at you, Load, Reload and most of St. Anger—the axe work of Kirk Hammett has never been less than stellar. His arrangements contain multitudes, melodies and harmonics at war with one another, riffs corrosive enough to cut through glass stacked 10 miles high. The solo freakouts on everything from “For Whom The Bell Tolls” (*goes on endless fucking list*) to instrumental nightmares like “The Call of Ktulu” and underrated oddities like their cover of Nick Cave’s “Loverman” are what drag us in, for sure. But it’s his mastery of song construction and dynamics—especially soft-loud, which we often act as if the Pixies and Nirvana invented—that gives Metallica’s best work its backbone. – LG

Air guitar moment: Thrash metal riff mastery on Metallica’s “Master of Puppets.”

guthrie_12221037. Robin Guthrie

Scotland’s Cocteau Twins took their name from a Simple Minds song, the name not any specific reference to anyone in the band. It’s easy to make that mistake, though, considering their signature sound is a combination of Elizabeth Fraser’s otherworldly vocals alongside the gorgeous layers of Robin Guthrie’s guitars. In their darker goth-rock years, Guthrie relied more on ominously noisy effects, treating highlights like “Wax and Wane” with a more confrontational cacophony. As Cocteau Twins evolved into the dream pop grandeur of later albums such as 1990’s Heaven or Las Vegas, however, so did the expanse of Guthrie’s fretboard, emanating a swirl of joy and melancholy that seemed too beautiful to be human, and too delicate to be so powerful. – JT

Air guitar moment: The cascade of shimmering chords in Cocteau Twins’ “Cherry Coloured Funk.”

eric-clapton_beano36. Eric Clapton

To twist and focus that Makepeace quote you remember from The Crow, Eric Clapton is the name for God in the lips and hearts of other guitarists. The man has spent more than 50 years repping for jammy psychedelia, fluid AOR, traditional blues and world-weary singer-songwriter pop. We can get some measure of Slowhand’s influence through his partnerships—a member of The Yardbirds, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, and Derek and the Dominoes; an album collaborator with J.J. Cale and B.B. King; a live foil for Jimmy Page; a secret weapon for The Beatles—even before we look at his own score’s worth of albums. – AB

Air guitar moment: The immortal riff of Derek and the Dominoes’ “Layla”.

blog_television-marquee-moon35. Tom Verlaine/Richard Lloyd

Another one of New York’s dynamic duos, Verlaine and Lloyd interwove melodic crunch like cogs in an industrious machine. If one were to play without the other, the complexity of a song like “See No Evil” would collapse under its own weight, as an unsound tower of Jenga blocks might disastrously tumble to the ground. One of their lasting achievements is still their attention to off-kilter juxtaposition and alternating rhythms; an aesthetic that bands such as Blondie or The Ramones had jettisoned in favor of more straightforward power chord punch. The dynamic of their playing, matched by chime-like clarity and bluesy confrontation, cyclically swells and ebbs in a way that few guitarists have been able to match since. But, then again, how could they? – JM

Air guitar moment: The graceful post-punk guitar ballet of Television’s “Marquee Moon.”

Brian_May+SG_guitar_2_461x64034. Brian May

If you are in a band with Freddie Mercury chances are you won’t get your fair share of the spotlight. This is why May, who pound for pound holds his own against or even surpasses the likes of Page, Iommi and Gilmour, is shamefully underrated as a guitarist. He holds a masterful guitar tone that is recognizable on the first note. Not only can he shred, but does so against the wide range of stylistic shifts his band took. Queen layered their songs with lush vocal harmonies and piano parts. May was skilled at not crowding, yet could fill an arena with a single note. Most guitarists who don’t have the chops to play an arpeggio are quick to call guitar solos a masturbatory excess, but May was the shining example of having the skill and knowing when to temper it with taste. He could burn a fretboard as well as any guitar legend, but served their songs first. – WL

Air guitar moment: The playful glam ‘n’ camp of “Killer Queen

Pete_Townshend_in_Hamburg33. Pete Townshend

Rock and roll’s most ardent philosopher king has to play guitar, but contrary to expectations the Who’s fulcrum shied away from solos. In his earliest work Pete Townshend used power chords as set charges to play the landmines youth culture were stumbling over. As his narrative ambitions extended so did the depth of those chords: They paired with the morass of Keith Moon’s drums and demanded to have their questions answered. When they weren’t, you could sense their deflation in Townshend’s sad, afterthought picking. It was a telling blend of blue-collar effort and complicated stabs at transcendence. As a result Townshend was able to say strictly through rhythm-playing what a million wordy lead players could not. – PP

Air guitar moment: Minimalism meets heroism in The Who’s “Baba O’Riley“.

Les_Paul,_ca._Jan._1947_(William_P._Gottlieb_07001)32. Les Paul

Audio recording and engineering, even that of today, still wear the stamp of Les Paul’s nearly countless innovations in the studio: Overdubbing, delay and echo, vari-speed recording and mastering were just some of the practices he impacted. Though he built prototypes of the Gibson guitar that still bears his name, it’s easy to forget the dude could also play. The line between Paul’s natural chops and tape-deck enhancements may blur —the rapid, high-pitched plucks on “Tico Tico,” for example, were recorded at half-speed—but Paul was upfront about his yen to invent and never sought to deceive. And no amount of control-room trickery could disguise Paul’s keen instincts for complex jazz harmonies, perfect note placement, and the level of sophistication he brought when his playing crossed over to country, vocal pop and early rock. – PP

Air guitar moment: Paul’s exotic twang on “Caravan.”

Nick_Drake_(1971)31. Nick Drake

There are hardly any pictures of Nick Drake. Eyewitnesses report the gentle virtuoso to have stood around seven feet tall; a slumped spire of a man, picking at an intricately down-tuned six-string. The artist’s voluntary isolation and struggles with mental illness during his musical career cordoned him off from the world, resulting in underwhelming critical reception during his short lifetime. Drake’s reclusiveness is highly reflective of the tone of his melancholic folk and brooding melodies across his three studio albums. The consistencies of his isolation and depression are perhaps most concentrated on “Parasite,” off of 1972’s Pink Moon, but “Road” contains the quintessential acoustic movement found within Drake’s finest material. – PPilch

Air guitar moment: Drake plucks subdued yet sophisticated finger-picking sequences on “Road.”

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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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