Treble’s Top 100 Guitarists

St._Vincent_201430. Annie Clark

From delicate singer-songwriter to indie-pop weirdo to the likely inheritor of David Byrne’s funk-punk empire, Clark (aka St. Vincent) has a curious knack of of bringing mind blowing guitarmanship to any genre she touches. Hell, she even managed to make guitar a centerpiece of orchestra-pop band Polyphonic Spree’s rather underrated 2007 album The Fragile Army. Even on a record like Strange Mercy, which is often driven by loops and synths, she manages to let her guitar sing. Just let yourself bathe in the solo on the back end of “Surgeon” and try to convince me you aren’t in the presence of an otherworldly talent. – ATB

Air guitar moment: “Surgeon”

carlos1_029. Carlos Alomar

Carlos Alomar’s skill as a guitarist was never contingent on standing out—the guy made a career out of falling gracefully into the background, laying a nuanced foundation for pioneers such as David Bowie and Iggy Pop to take center stage. The funk stabs on a track like “Sister Midnight,” which he penned instrumentally, typify his idiosyncratic approach: a kind of sleazy pentatonic groove, trumpet-like and fluid, yet liable to ascend into harrowing strums of desperation at any moment. But on the occasion that Alomar steps into the metaphorical foreground, he does not disappoint. Take, for example, his cutting lead on “Breaking Glass,” which parallels Bowie’s threadbare vocal neuroses while linking the underlying, cut-up rhythm section together, all without interfering with either of them. The 65-year-old musician was, and remains, an absolute musical chameleon—criminally overlooked, but championed by the few who know his name. – JM

Air guitar moment: Off-kilter melodies and sideways skronk in David Bowie’s “Breaking Glass.”

best guitarists Lou Reed28. Lou Reed

Complemented by John Cale’s droning viola, Lou Reed’s moody riffs helped solidify the Velvet Underground’s evocative, yet gloriously pop-oriented sound, especially on The Velvet Underground & Nico. “Sunday Morning” is all self-conscious nostalgia and carefree romanticism (though “Pale Blue Eyes” from the band’s self-titled album is even better), while “Heroin” is a more ominous advance, with memories of past love in the rearview mirror. However, it’s the surreal “Venus In Furs,” with Reed’s famous “ostrich tuning” (in this case, every string tuned to D) that perfectly captures the brazenly off-putting quality of VU. While Reed would go on to start a highly prolific and successful solo career (“Coney Island Baby” is essential), he would never make anything quite like the first three VU records ever again. – BB

Air guitar moment: Ostrich tuning and avant garde jangle on Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs.”

keithdylan_16101027. Keith Richards

When arguing that technical mastery isn’t an essential signifier of guitar greatness, look no further than Keith Richards. Are the riffs and solos in “Gimme Shelter” particularly complex? No, but you’ve never forgotten them once you’ve heard them. Many of the truly iconic Rolling Stones guitar licks, including “Satisfaction” and “Honky Tonk Women,” are his, despite always working with a second guitarist, be it Brian Jones, Mick Taylor or Ronnie Wood. If you need evidence of his versatility, go right to Beggars Banquet, on which he plays sitar, slide guitar and tanpura in addition to his usual acoustic and electric, and the more subtle, haunted work on ballads like “Sister Morphine” and “Angie” is some of his best. – LG

Air guitar moment: Blues, twang and badassery on “Honky Tonk Women.”

mickronson201212w26. Mick Ronson

A guitarist whose skills are often shadowed by the magnitude of the albums he worked on, Mick Ronson is most noted for his work with David Bowie. He helped write the blueprint for punk rock with his jagged style of playing on the Ziggy Stardust album. He started with Bowie just before they began the sessions for The Man Who Sold the World and later became the centerpiece of Bowie’s Ziggy-era backing band, which he played with until Ziggy’s farewell show. His psychedelic garage rock roots gave sonic strength and raw power to the cosmic sound Bowie was looking to create at the time. His guitar solos had a sense of melody that you can sing every note to. As if playing with Bowie wasn’t enough, he went on to work with other legends such as Bob Dylan, Ian Hunter, Lou Reed, John Cougar Mellencamp and Morrissey. – WL

Air guitar moment:Moonage Daydream” and the solo from Mars.

EddieHazel_feature25. Eddie Hazel

George Clinton will forever be known as the leader of Parliament-Funkadelic and the godfather of funk, but Eddie Hazel helped give his music the extra power. As a result of working in the shadow of Clinton, a lot of Hazel’s contributions are overlooked. All of Maggot Brain has his name written all over it. Not surprisingly, the guitar parts are better on that album: From the awesome shredding on the title track to the fucked up solos on “Hit It and Quit It.” His contributions to Parliament’s Chocolate City likewise have outstanding merits. Unfortunately, Hazel’s membership was short-lived as he parted ways with both groups due to a falling out with Clinton over royalty payments. Simply put, without Eddie Hazel there would be no funk. – GM

Air guitar moment:Maggot Brain.” Goddamn.

img-nile-rodgers-4_1743318708724. Nile Rodgers

The story of Nile Rodgers’ guitar, “The Hitmaker,” is akin to the origin story of Roy Hobbs’ “wonderboy” in The Natural. Rodgers assigns to it almost supernatural powers, the 1960 Fender Stratocaster sounding like no other guitar in the world, according to his autobiography Le Freak, An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny. He’s maybe on to something there: When you hear Rodgers’ smooth glide and funky scratch, you identify it immediately, be it on any of Chic’s disco classics, David Bowie’s Let’s Dance or Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. Inspired by the likes of both Roxy Music and onetime producer Luther Vandross, Rodgers’ style is as much about carving out a memorable hook as it is about being in the pocket. The sound might come directly from “The Hitmaker,” but the style is born of The Hitmaker within. – JT

Air guitar moment: Disco funk utopia on Chic’s “Le Freak.”

Robert_Smith_of_The_Cure_live_in_Singapore_1_August_200723. Robert Smith

The Cure have always been about creating a particular world with their sound—a world of curious cats and spidermen feasting for dinner, of disintegrating forests and funeral parties. It’s not necessarily surprising then that so much of The Cure’s darkly intoxicating music is about layers, rather than furiously performed showpieces. Robert Smith, the sole permanent member of the band throughout the years, is the one whose riffs and chords have always shaped that sound-world, evolving from the rhythmic post-punk chugs of early singles like “Primary” to the later alt-rock epics like “From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea.” Robert Smith is less a guitar hero than a hero who plays guitar: a reluctant goth-rock godfather subliminally tearing it up at the heart of even a somber dirge. – JT

Air guitar moment: The gothic rock exploration of The Cure’s “A Forest.”

105558f9aba3400a86df53a38a795bcd22. BB King

The man who wielded the Gibson named Lucille used the instrument to speak with greater clarity and emotionality than his voice. Live albums such as the unearthed bootleg Live/Fillmore East or the much-celebrated Live at the Regal are the best showcases of his power, and throughout them he often eschews singing and lets his acrobatic picking do the heavy lifting for long stretches. The solo was another melodic tool for him, not an exercise in wankery (OK, maybe a bit of the latter), but his songwriting chops shouldn’t be dismissed—songs like “Please Love Me” are worthy of recognition as blues standards. – LG

Air guitar moment: If you want to hear him shred mercilessly, “Worry, Worry, Worry” is essential.

django121. Django Reinhardt

On the strength of his perseverance alone—losing three fingers in a fire, nervously co-existing with Nazi occupiers in France—the gypsy jazz guitarist would merit mention in almost any list of important pre-rock musicians. But Django Reinhardt’s aptitude, range and impulsive grace make him the most important European jazz musician in the idiom’s history. In developing “hot jazz” guitar playing, Reinhardt worked off the Dixieland song form and brought it to a smaller space where his more rhythmic instrument could stand out. Within that sphere Reinhardt’s deft, quick and sweetly-toned solos play out in full form. Even in recordings over 75 years old you can hear the complexity of Reinhardt’s attack and the crying bend of his strings. His full-fledged rhythm runs in transition—furious bursts of flamenco strumming, patched with unexpected notes and comic danger—survive in contemporary rock players. Reinhardt even produces chills when he’s just comping behind other soloists. He was as complete a jazz man as his era ever produced. – PP

Air guitar moment: Gypsy jazz licks on St. Louis Blues” 

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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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