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 that left their mark on music as we know it. The fact that we had to leave out some greats in favor of some other was nothing short of heartbreaking.
However, we 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.
We have really tried to make a balanced list for everyone that wants to explore the magical world of modern-day guitar playing.
We made it a priority to include players from every decade and epoch from the 1930s, onwards. We encourage you to research at least one of these guitarists. Watch their videos, hear their music.
Regardless of who you pick, we promise, you’ll be happy you did. All of these legendary players are staples of any young guitar players’ musical vocabulary.
Main superpowers: genius-level scale concepts, MIDI guitar
Well, what can be said about Mr. Holdsworth…
The most important thing to consider, when talking about Allan 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 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.
Preferred axe of choice: Ibanez AH10
Main superpowers: superior technique, innovative playing patterns, and guitar designs
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. He 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 Nigerian-American kid that 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.
His 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, 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.
Preferred axe of choice: J Larada 8
Main superpower: dictionary definition of a “Virtuoso”
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?
He 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.
Preferred axe of choice: Guthrie Govan USA Signature HSH, by Charvel
Main superpowers: emotional impact, mature simplicity
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.
Preferred axe of choice: Fender Stratocaster
Main superpowers: whammy bar mastery, two-hand tapping
Vai is one of the biggest modern-day guitar innovators.
Steve Vai has introduced so 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. His 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!
Preferred axe of choice: Ibanez JEM
Main superpowers: blistering, creative licks
Django Reinhardt was a Belgian guitarist of Romani descent. He is credited for single-handedly creating the genre of gypsy jazz.
Mr. Reinhardt lost the ability to move his pinky and the ring finger of his left hand as a result of 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, the incredible backstory, his witty guitar licks, and his super-cool looks.
The decades in which he was most musically active were the 1930s and 40’s. 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.
Preferred axe of choice: Selmer-Maccaferri
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.
Preferred axe of choice: Gibson Lucille
Main superpowers: top-notch creativity, innovative chords, songwriting
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 powerchords.
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.
Preferred axe of choice: Gibson Les Paul, Gibson two-neck SG, Fender Telecaster, Danelectro 3021
Main superpower: inventing rock guitar as we know it today
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 our list. Well, if we would take the overall impact as the merit, he definitely deserves that place. However, we 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.
Preferred axe of choice: Fender Stratocaster
Eddie Van Halen
Main superpowers: tapping, unique guitar hero appeal
The decision to put EVH at the top of our list has nothing to do with his untimely passing that took place last year. 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 the general persona accentuated his legendary status among guitar players.
He is a rare example in that he is equally adored by the general public and guitar players alike.
Preferred axe of choice: Frankenstrat, EVH Wolfgang signature