Picking the top 10 guitarists of all time is no easy feat ? and it means leaving off hundreds of worthy contenders.
Put simply, playing the guitar is one of the most difficult instruments to play yet, these guitarists make it look like a walk in the park. To regular people, playing the guitar is equivalent to solving a Rubix cube while for these top guitarists, it can be equated to brushing their teeth.
In other words, the level of ease in which they create sounds through a guitar is almost otherworldly.
The Criteria that Allowed these Guitarists to Make this List
To start, it is important to realize that there are so many talented guitarists that will go down in history that, it is almost impossible to not leave someone out when funneling them down to the top 10.
In fact, if we were making a list of the top 50 guitarists of all time, it would still be very difficult not to leave some notable names out of it. Heck, if we were to make a top 100 list, we would still be left with the same predicament because of the number of amazing guitarists there has been in history.
So, to narrow this list down, there was some specific criteria, and technical ability on guitar was not the only factor:
To make this list the guitarist had to be a significant combination of two or more of these factors:
- Great vocal skills that accompanied their guitar ability
- Great swagger and showmanship as a front man
- Influence on their genre
- Influence on guitar sound
- Influence on guitarists and genres that followed them
- Songwriting ability
Now that that is out of the way, we can finally get to the list. So, without further ado, here are the top 10 guitarists of all time.
#10: Trey Anastasio
Without a doubt, Trey Anastasio has a solid argument for being the most well-rounded guitarist on this list. Trey just produced some of, if not the best resonance of guitar in history. You can put him up against anyone in terms of guitar tone usage and, chances are good that Trey comes out sounding better. By combining style, diction, impulse playing and much more, Trey is a name that just cannot be left out of a top 10 guitarists list.
#9: Steve Marriott
Being from the land that brought so many other famous guitarists, England, Steve Marriott separated himself from other English guitarists by his unique mix of guitar playing, lyricism, and frontman characteristics. Known by many for his profound vocals as a rock and roll hero, Steve Marriott was one of the leading guitarists that perfectly mixed vocals with guitar playing. This is why it is no surprise his career spanned well over two decades.
#8: Stevie Ray Vaughan
Despite popular belief that Stevie Ray Vaughan should be excluded from a list such as this because of a relatively short main stream career, his profile would say otherwise. The fact that he still makes this list despite the fact that his career was short-lived should say enough about Stevie’s talent. Regarded by many as one of the significant guitarists of all time, Stevie produced sounds that were transcendent, influential, and years ahead of his time.
#7: Jack White
When it comes to guitarists that change the game in the 21st century, perhaps no one was as meaningful as what Jack White was producing with his skills. Although Jack White was not as technically sound or skillful when compared to other guitarists on this list, Jack’s combination of vocals, songwriting and well-rounded talent were more than enough to make the top ten. The level of emotion he showed when playing was second to none and, some even say he saved blues music.
#6: James Hetfield
If you were to ask a random person on the street if they have ever heard of the rock band Metallica, it’s more than likely that they said yes. One of the main reasons, if not the main reason, for Metallica’s popularity is because of the sounds James Hetfield was easily able to create. In a time where there were numerous distinguished rock bands in the industry, Metallica was able to stand out because of James’s vocal skills, rhythm, leadership and many more qualities.
#5: Dave Mustaine
Dave Mustaine is known as a man of many talents. Apart from being a guitarist, Dave is a vocalist, actor, songwriter, and even author. This is why it is no surprise to see Dave on this list. Known as a founding father when it comes to metal rock music, Dave helped change the game in a way that not many guitarists could say they have.
#4: Kurt Cobain
In the tragic story of Kurt Cobain, Kurt’s death shook the entire world and without a doubt, the rock and music industry. Gone far too soon, Kurt Cobain’s influence was felt in his passing. Known as being the leader of what was Rock Music in the late 80’s and into the mid 90’s, Kurt influenced in some way or another, many of the guitarists that would come after him. Like Jack White, he may not have had the technical ability of other guitarists, what he lacked he made up for in songwriting, performances and the influence he left behind.
#3: Eric Clapton
What isn’t there to say about Eric Clapton. His significance to guitarists that would follow is just one of the reasons he makes this list. Known for his style of blues and rock music, combined with his singing ability and songwriting, Eric Clapton is another name that just could not be left out of this list. When you take a look at his career, one can see how easy it was for him to be honored into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
#2: Carlos Santana
Most guitarists on this list did have a way of combining two or more nationalities together but, perhaps no guitarists were able to do so more profoundly than the way Carlos Santana has been able to unite his Mexican and American backgrounds. Tremendously loved by both nationalities, Carlos Santana provided fans with a unique style of playing that is hard to match. Carlos Santana is one of the easier picks to be on this list for those reasons and much more.
#1: Jimi Hendrix
What name on this list is as well-known as that of the great Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix was a guitarist that with ease, combined his guitar talents with singing and lyricism. Regardless of the way that his time in the lime light navigated only four years, he is by and large seen as a champion among the most convincing electric guitarists ever, and a champion among the most commended entertainers of the twentieth century. If Michael Jordan is seen as the greatest to ever do it in basketball, agreed upon by many, Jimi Hendrix has that same distinction when it comes to playing guitar.
Thanks for Reading
That?s my top 10. No doubt there will be some controversial ones in there. And no doubt that hundreds have had to be excluded.
Who would you definitely have on this list?
Who would you definitely take off this list?
Would love to hear your input ? just leave a comment in the comments section below.
That?s an interesting list that is well presented. I like that you have summarised the significance of each guitarist on your list. Your six criteria, three of which I note don?t strictly involve guitar playing, are also helpful in understanding your choices.
As you point out, it would be impossible to include all great guitarists on any such list. Sometimes, I think that top guitarist lists can be more a list of the best remembered or ?coolest? names rather than the best guitarists ever. Every so often you come across a player who was amazingly talented, but largely forgotten. That?s not to detract from the abilities of those who do make the list.
Of course, the musical preference of the list-maker also influences the choice. When I see Kurt Cobain, James Hatfield or Dave Mustaine on someone?s top ten list, I usually don?t expect to see a classical or country guitarist next to them. I?d argue that the latter could probably play metal if they wanted to, but I can?t see the metal heads easily moving the other way on a six string instrument 😉
I?ll add an underrated (maybe for some, unfashionable) guitarist for consideration; Mark Knopfler.
Taking your criteria and applying them to my suggested artist:
Vocal skills: He?s no Aretha Franklin, Elvis, Freddie Mercury, Marvin Gaye, or Roy Orbison, but then again that was not a barrier to inclusion of some on the list. I?d say Knopfler?s vocals were perfect for Brothers in Arms, Sultans of Swing and his other compositions.
Swagger and showmanship: This is a potentially contentious requirement, as some would prefer more guitar and less running and gurning. However, Knopfler did cut a unique figure on stage in his Dire Straits days with the headband and the mesmerisingly precise and melodic guitar runs. Their live shows were as good as any in their prime.
Influence on the genre: When Knopfler? Dire Straits appeared at the end of the 70?s their sound was a stark contrast to the punk at the time. Through the 80?s, when synths became the backbone of many bands, Knopfler?s guitar was still front and centre? and authentic.
Influence on Guitar Sound: There are presets in guitar apps these days that attempt to replicate the early Knopfler Strat sound. Fender sold a Mark Knopfler signature guitar for years. Gibson also. Martin Guitars too. Pensa have their MK series, so do Suhr. That?s a sound that ranges from the single coil Strat, to Les Paul ?58 custom bucker PAF-style pickups, to acoustic.
Influence on Guitarists and Genres that followed them: While Dylan didn?t come after him, Knopfler did have a significant impact on his sound. He played on Dylan?s 1979 album Slow Train Coming, co-produced Infidels in ?83, was co-writer of Blind Willie McTell. Legendary guitar player, Chet Atkins (aka Mr. Guitar), also acknowledged Knopfler?s contribution to guitar playing, even recording a duets albums with him. Eric Clapton also lists Mark Knopfler first as a musician he admires in a Rolling Stones interview. Keith Urban claims to have been deeply inspired by Knopfler?s ?lyrical playing?, to mention a newer artist.
Songwriting ability: 8 Dire Straits studio albums with tens of millions in sales, 8 solo albums (and a new one due this year), 10 movie soundtrack albums, 4 collaborative albums. That?s a lot of songs and a diverse range of musical projects that displays his versatility on acoustic and electric guitar. He?s also produced albums for Bob Dylan, Aztec Camera, Willy DeVille, Randy Newman and others and has written songs for Bob Dylan, Tina Turner, George Jones, Chris Botti, Jimmy Buffet, James Taylor, Tommy Emmanuel and others.
Oh, this post is getting too long? a signal to me that even a guitarist who is occasionally left off top 10?s can warrant a significant write up. 🙂
Thanks for your input!
And a very strong case for Mark Knopfler there for sure. I also agree that any list like this is always going to take someones personal taste into account – especially with a list this small. Classical, jazz, country to name just a few genres produce enough quality guitarists to make there own lists 10 times this long!
Peter Leyenaar says
My top pick would be Clarence White, followed by Billy Strings