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The 13 greatest guitarists of all time

Developing a list of the greatest guitarists ever is a pretty daunting task. Over the last 100 years, there were so many stellar guitar players who left their mark on music as we know it. The fact that I had to leave out some greats in favor of some others was nothing short of heartbreaking.

However, I have seen a great deal of utility in writing such a list. Maybe the next Robert Johnson, Yngwie Malmsteen, or Ritchie Blackmore is out there reading this article in hopes of getting inspired.

I have really tried to make a balanced list for everyone who wants to explore the magical world of guitar playing. I made it a priority to include guitarists from every decade and epoch from the 1930s, onwards.

I encourage you to research at least one of these guitarists. Watch their videos, and hear their music. Regardless of who you pick, I promise, you’ll be happy you did. All of these legendary players are staples of any young guitar player’s musical vocabulary.

Without any further ado, let’s jump right in!

About me

Ever since I picked up the guitar at the tender age of six, I was infatuated with guitar heroes and guitar-based composers.

Djordje Lukovic author

Over the last 25 years, my intrinsic curiosity as well as love for all things guitar-related made me dig deep into all eras of guitar-driven music.

In turn, I have become a disciple of the teachings of the widest possible scope of guitar giants from all eras.

How I chose

Let me tell you this – this was one hard list to make! Making a list implies leaving out some tremendously good guitar players, which is painstakingly difficult and hardly does justice to some players who were left out.

However, the top list format requires exactly that, so let me explain my reasoning and picking parameters.

I tried to represent the greatest players of each epoch. By greatest I mean not only the most popular but also players whose influence and innovativeness far exceeded their own musical output and kept on influencing the output of other musicians down the line.

The innovation in this case isn’t only reserved for the technical side of things, but the compositional side as well.

Last but not least, I tried to represent the players that were most technically advanced in their own respective eras of influence.

13. Yngwie Malmsteen

Main superpowers: Virtuoso-level guitar translation of violin playing techniques, unmistakable signature guitar sound.

Yngwie Malmsteen
Photo: Christie Goodwin

The best way to portray his work verbally is by using his own song title – “Baroque and Roll!” To better understand the genesis of his style, we should take a deeper dive into his formative years.

Namely, Malmsteen was enmeshed in music since his early childhood. The key moment that jumpstarted his musical journey was seeing Jimi Hendrix light a guitar on fire on TV. Once he saw the aforementioned ritual take place, in his mind there was no doubt anymore – he wanted to become a guitar hero!

And boy did he achieve that… Feeling that most guitar players were too narrow-minded in their usage of the pentatonic scale, he embarked on a journey back in time to find his melodic expression in baroque-styled scales and sequences.

Although he rarely admits it publicly, the blueprint for his playing style, stage presence, and guitar choice came directly from Ritchie Blackmore. Blackmore’s baroque style influenced licks made young Yngwie want to dive even deeper into the works of Bach, Vivaldi, and most importantly, Paganini.

Most of his technical and guitar lick vocabulary came from translating the works of the aforementioned classical music giants on guitar.

His technique is somewhat hard to describe in words. To the untrained eye, he might look like a sweep-picking and alternate-picking master. However, the reality is that he uses a mixture of these techniques (as well as economy-picking) to play both fast runs and arpeggios.

If you are not familiar with Maestro Malmsteen’s work, I highly recommend checking out the debut Rising Force album, which can be viewed as a bible of neoclassical shred guitar.

Preferred axe of choice: Signature Fender Stratocaster

YJM primer: “Far Beyond the Sun”

I have a philosophy: More is more, less is less. The idea that less is more is illogical.Yngwie Malmsteen

12. Tony Iommi

Main superpowers: Incredibly unique guitar sound, surreal innovativeness, one of the ultimate riff-lords.

Tony Iommi - guitarist with missing fingertips
Photo: Marek Krajcer

Iommi’s guitar-playing journey is an awe-inspiring saga of pure innovation, and overcoming obstacles mixed with a creation of an idiosyncratic guitar-playing style. A definite hero’s journey type of story here!

When you have a creation of a whole new genre credited to your name, you would not be expecting it to be a result of nearly losing the ability to play music altogether, right?

Namely, Tony went for his last day of work in a steel-cutting factory and incidentally chopped off the tips of his fretting hand fingers. After going through a bout of deep depression, he figured out a way to continue playing the guitar.

The solution was – previously unheard of levels of down tuning, very light string-gauge, and the plastic bottle caps melted over his fingertips.

The aforementioned circumstances led to an inevitably unique guitar sound, which in turn made for an idiosyncratic compositional style. Inspired by blues and jazz, his odd note choices accompanied by his signature guitar sound helped create a whole new genre of music we now know as heavy metal.

Besides being a tasteful soloist, along with Ritchie Blackmore and James Hetfield, he stands as one of the most prolific riff writers of all time. His influence on many genres of rock music is all-encompassing, even to this day!

To get the full scope of his guitar playing and compositional abilities, I highly suggest you check out Black Sabbath’s third offering, Master of Reality.

Preferred axe of choice: Gibson SG

Tony Iommi primer: “Symptom of the Universe”

Tony Iommi is the most influential metal guitarist of all time.Slash

11. Eric Johnson

Main superpowers: Legendary string-skipping abilities, incredible sense of melody.

guitarist Eric Johnson
Photo: Max Crace

As a non-shredder (in a traditional sense, at least) Eric Johnson managed to become one of the most iconic guitar players ever in a time when “shredding” was almost the only thing considered cool.

Having said that, he is a shredder in his own way. His fluent cascades of trans-octave string-skipping melodic waterfalls are a truly amazing treat to any music lover’s ears.

Eric Johnson is a self-proclaimed guitar sound perfectionist. He is said to be remembering the exact settings of not only his guitar amps but also trying to replicate the same positioning of his guitar cable as it travels from his Strat to his amp. Needless to say, his guitar sound is a real ear-candy deserving of your attention.

I highly suggest you check out his second album, Ah Via Musicom, if you are just getting into the magical world of Johnson’s discography.

Preferred axe of choice: Signature Fender Stratocaster

EJ primer: “Cliffs of Dover”

I think the way that you develop your own sound is you go through a process by which you imitate people sometimes very closely. With me, I would mimic people to the note. And then I think you form a collage of all these different players that you imitate, that you learn, and you form your own recipe. I think anybody that has an originality to them, it came from a pool of taking stuff from their predecessors.Eric Johnson

10. Allan Holdsworth

Main superpowers: Genius-level scale concepts, MIDI guitar.

Allan Holdsworth
Photo: Chris Parks

Well, what can be said about Allan Holdsworth… The most important thing to consider, when talking about Holdsworth, is his early inclination toward the saxophone. As a kid, his burning desire was to play the aforementioned instrument, with Charlie Parker and John Coltrane as his main influences.

Since his parents couldn’t afford one, ‘little Al’ took up the guitar and started trying to emulate the sound of the saxophone on his guitar. The result was his signature slick legato playing that influenced an enormous amount of players that were to follow.

Another key ingredient of his distinct style was his fingerpicked chords. He would embellish them with a wide array of effects such as delay, chorus, and reverb. That resulted in a gorgeous soundscape that was made even more special by his advanced scale and chord work. He is the most famous musician to use the legendary guitar synthesizer – SynthAxe.

His music could be best described as instrumental jazz/fusion/rock, but you really need to hear it to believe it. If you are not familiar with his work, I suggest you check out his seminal album I.O.U. as a starting point.

Preferred axe of choice: Ibanez AH10

AW primer: “Looking Glass”

Don’t let your hands dictate what you think you can do. Look at fingerboard charts and imagine your eyes dancing on the notes you want to play and forget about whether your hands can do it or not. Just try it.Allan Holdsworth

9. Tosin Abasi

Main superpowers: Superior technique, innovative playing patterns, and guitar designs.

Tosin Abasi
Photo: Stefan Bollmann

Abasi was born in Washington, USA. However, his parents are Nigerian immigrants who were very supportive of his creative endeavors. The first time he ever picked up the guitar was at a friend’s place. The legend has it that he immediately started making up some basic guitar licks.

Abasi played clarinet as a child, so that could explain his musical skill. However, it does not account for his impressive technical adeptness as a total beginner. His technical prowess continued to be one of his most recognizable characteristics throughout his career.

His journey from a little kid who picked up a guitar and started making sense of it immediately, to an Atlanta Institute of Music and Media graduate was mediated by his religious guitar practice routine. He was famously inspired by the 80s hair metal guitar instruction videos.

Abasi’s project Animals as Leaders is what made him one of the spearheaders of the new school of guitar playing. His use of 7 and 8-string guitars had been proven to be hugely influential to a whole new generation of guitar players. His innovative playing patterns, such as 7-string arpeggios and lightning-fast double-picking assaults stand out as some of his most recognizable feats.

After he ended his tenure with Ibanez guitars, he founded Abasi Concepts. The guitars are masterbuilt, and ergonomically designed with a unique combination of tonewoods and a set of his signature Fishman pickups. The Abasi Concept models are available in 6, 7, and 8-string variations.

If you are not familiar with his work, I suggest you check out the Animals as Leaders’ breakthrough self-titled album as a starting point.

Preferred axe of choice: J Larada 8

TA primer: “CAFO”

The tightrope is validating the musical complexity with something that doesn’t just feel masturbatory.Tosin Abasi

8. Guthrie Govan

Main superpower: The dictionary definition of a virtuoso.

Guthrie Govan

In terms of technical ability, Guthrie Govan might just be the most gifted player on this list. Not only is his array of techniques awe-inspiring, but his ability to use them in different ways to accommodate various songs is beyond legendary.

The most successful band that he has been in is Asia, but the fact that he was chosen to be a lead guitarist in the Hans Zimmer Live band is not that bad either, right?

Guthrie cites Hendrix, Clapton, Vai, and Malmsteen as his main influences. Although certain fragments of the aforementioned guitar players can be heard in his playing, he definitely went on to develop his own distinct style.

His entire life is dedicated to the guitar and playing. Outside of performing and recording, he spends most of his time doing clinics and masterclasses around the world.

If you are not familiar with his work, I suggest you check out his highly influential solo album Erotic Cakes as a starting point.

Preferred axe of choice: Signature Charvel HSH Flame Maple

GG primer: “Waves”

Speed is a byproduct of good, slow practice.Guthrie Govan

7. David Gilmour

Main superpowers: Emotional impact, mature simplicity.

David Gilmour
Photo: Jimmy Baikovicius

There is no one like David Gilmour. The guy can literally paint the inner state of his soul using his guitar.

Although he has had a very successful solo career, we have grown to adore him and love him for his work with Pink Floyd. His incredibly fresh-sounding usage of minor blues pentatonic scales is probably his main forte.

Now, you probably haven’t seen fresh and blues in the same sentence since the 1970s, but, in his case, it is more than appropriate. David Gilmour manages to use the simple blues scale to evoke the deepest emotions as he takes us on an interstellar journey.

His usage of unique bending techniques, hauntingly beautiful; unusual chords, and a wide variety of different effects, is what makes his playing such a vast palette of sonic textures.

If for some strange reason, you are not familiar with his work, I suggest you check out Pink Floyd’s album The Division Bell, just for starters.

Preferred axe of choice: Fender Stratocaster

DG primer: “Comfortably Numb”, “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”

I think I could walk into any music shop anywhere and with a guitar off the rack, a couple of basic pedals and an amp I could sound just like me. There’s no devices, customized or otherwise, that give me my sound.David Gilmour

6. Steve Vai

Main superpowers: Whammy bar mastery, two-hand tapping.

Steve Vai

Vai is one of the biggest modern-day guitar innovators. He has introduced many new and creative ways of playing guitar to the general public. His whammy bar techniques revolutionized the way people look at the guitar and the possibilities you can achieve with this age-old instrument.

Among the rich plethora of his innovative techniques, you will also find the circular vibrato and the two-handed tapping.

He is famous for his solo career, full of incredible albums and songs that allow you to hear the wonderful sounds he can produce. Playing with greats like Frank Zappa, Alcatrazz, David Lee Roth band, and Whitesnake, only served to make his guitar vocabulary even richer.

Like Kirk Hammett and many other famous guitar players, he was also a student of the legendary Joe Satriani. The religiously strict practice regimes he used to implement at that time saw him play for at least 10 hours a day! Now, that’s the sure way to get on this list, kids!

If you are for some reason not familiar with Mr. Vai’s work, make sure to check out his legendary album Passion and Warfare, just to get started.

Preferred axe of choice: Signature Ibanez JEM

SV primer: “For the Love of God”

Play slow and perfect – that’s the way to becoming a virtuoso.Steve Vai

5. Django Reinhardt

Main superpowers: Blistering, creative licks.

Django Reinhardt - guitarist with paralyzed fingers
Photo: William P. Gottlieb

Django Reinhardt was a Belgian guitarist of Roma descent. He is credited for single-handedly creating the genre of gypsy jazz.

Reinhardt lost the ability to move his pinky and the ring finger of his left hand as a result of the severe burns he endured. Despite all of that, he managed to become one of the most technically proficient guitar players of all time.

His blisteringly fast licks had a certain dose of light-heartedness and humor to them. The main attraction points of Django were his playing, his incredible backstory, his witty guitar licks, and his super-cool looks.

The decades in which he was most musically active were the 1930s and 40s. During that time he created some of the most influential jazz guitar standards. He inspired Wes Montgomery, The Rosenberg Trio, and many other guitar giants to come.

The best way to get yourself familiar with Django’s work is through a decent compilation album. Therefore, I recommend the Django compilation, available on vinyl.

Preferred axe of choice: Selmer-Maccaferri

DR primer: “Minor Swing”

Jazz attracted me because in it I found a formal perfection and instrumental precision that I admire in classical music, but which popular music doesn’t have.Django Reinhardt

4. B.B. King

guitarist B.B. King
Photo: Heinrich Klaffs

The King himself is the epitome of a blues guitar great. Hailing from Mississippi, he was old enough to remember the field hollers and cornerstone blues greats such as Robert Johnson and many others.

He is one of the most identifiable guitar players of all time. His tasteful phrasing is usually delivered in short bursts with a hefty break in between two licks. The cleanliness of his playing and the catchiness of his licks made him one of the first guitar soloists to have true hits as far as the general public was concerned.

What young up-and-coming guitar players need to understand is that most of the standard licks that are now the mandatory part of any guitar player’s lick arsenal have a history. One of the main contributors to that pantheon of modern-day guitar licks is none other than the King himself.

As far as recommending an album to discover B.B. King’s lengthy discography, I have to go with the live one. Live at the Regal perfectly captures the raw electricity this man was able to portray in his live shows.

Preferred axe of choice: Gibson Lucille

B.B. King primer: “The Thrill Is Gone”

And as long as people have problems, the blues can never die.B.B. King

3. Jimmy Page

Main superpowers: Top-notch creativity, innovative chords, songwriting.

Jimmy Page
Photo: Dana Wullenwaber

Page started his studio musician career pretty early on; in his teen years. After that, he became a member of the legendary Yardbirds. However, we know him best as the leader, chief composer, and guitar hero of Led Zeppelin.

Jimmy Page expanded the vocabulary of your standard rock guitar player in every possible sense. The chords he would use in his songs were much more advanced than your standard power chords.

He is also famous for introducing a vast plethora of different guitar tunings such as DADGAD and different open tunings to the standard rock ‘n roll format. His use of 12-string guitars and mandolins only furthered his status as rock guitars’ mad scientist.

His transcendental guitar layering techniques and tasteful songwriting have made him one of the biggest and most mysterious figures in rock history.

As far as I am concerned, the best album to discover Mr. Page’s plethora of different playing and compositional quirks would be Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti.

Preferred axe of choice: Gibson Les Paul, Gibson two-neck SG, Fender Telecaster, Danelectro 3021.

JP primer: “Stairway to Heaven”, “The Rain Song”, “Whole Lotta Love”.

I don’t deal in technique. I deal in emotions.Jimmy Page

2. Jimi Hendrix

Main superpower: Inventing rock guitar as we know it today.

Jimi Hendrix
Photo: Hannu Lindroos

What can be said of this man? Let’s take the time to address the big elephant in the room. Many of you are probably furious that JH isn’t number one on my list. Well, if we would take the overall impact as the merit, he definitely deserves that place.

However, I have decided to write this article in a way that would be most appealing to a new up-and-coming guitar player. With all of the technical advances in the past decades, it takes some time and context for a young mind to fully grasp the greatness of the legendary Jimi Hendrix.

Jimi Hendrix is the pioneer of using different guitar effects such as fuzz, wah-wah, and many others. It is somewhat hard to wrap your head around that, but in his time of the mid to late 60s, those kinds of sound processing devices were very rare and therefore scarcely used.

His unique sound did not only come from the effects he used. He was a left-handed guitar player that took the right-handed Fender Stratocaster and turned it upside down and played it, without changing the string order. And boy did he play it!

His soloing within the chords was another important hallmark of his style. Remember, his band was a trio after all and he had to work within that framework. The way he made the sound full was that he soloed while playing a chord underneath, and more often than not using his thumb to play the root note.

Album-wise, the best place to start with Jimi the GOAT would be his debut album Are You Experienced. In my opinion, at least.

Preferred axe of choice: Fender Stratocaster

JH primer: “Voodoo Child”, “Little Wing”.

I just hate to be in one corner. I hate to be put as only a guitar player, or either only as a songwriter, or only as a tap dancer. I like to move around.Jimi Hendrix

1. Eddie Van Halen

Main superpowers: Tapping, unique guitar hero appeal.

Eddie Van Halen
Photo: Abby Gillardi

The decision to put Eddie Van Halen at the top of the list has nothing to do with his untimely passing that took place four years ago. There was no bias in that sense.

When you think of the ultimate guitar hero, the first person that comes to mind is Eddie himself. His guitar playing sits right in the middle of the ways of old and other more modern guitar tendencies.

His incredible use of tapping and whammy bar acrobatics made his playing highly recognizable and unique. His unique guitar designs and his signature amps made him all that much more original. His onstage antics and general persona accentuated his legendary status among guitar players.

Eddie Van Halen is a rare example in that he is equally adored by the general public and guitar players alike.

As far as getting yourself familiar with EVH’s work, there’s no better place than the debut Van Halen record.

Preferred axe of choice: Frankenstrat, EVH Wolfgang Signature

EVH primer: “Eruption”“Beat It”

To hell with the rules. If it sounds right, then it is.Eddie Van Halen