Inspired by the 39th recording anniversary of one of rock’s foundational tracks, Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze, eniGma magazine has decided to compile a top ten list of the best rock guitarists of all time. This admittedly subjective exercise aims to honor the greatest melody-makers of one of music’s most loved genres.
Before delving into the rankings, it is imperative for us to lay down the ground rules first. The guitarists in this list have been ranked based on their style, innovation and signature sounds. Actual guitar skill, while a highly valuable guitarist trait, has been largely ignored; we believe that a memorably melodic sound is considerably more important than the performance’s difficulty. In addition, due to the difficulty of comparing between excellent guitar sounds from different genres, we’ve decided to limit this list solely to rock guitarists. In that scope, and given the often blurred lines in genre distinctions, we’ve decided to include both metal and grunge under the general umbrella of rock. Conversely, we’ve had to exclude both blues and jazz from this list due to the impossibility of comparing their guitarists to rock ones. As such, undeniably excellent guitarists such as Chuck Berry, B.B. King and Prince have been excluded.
Due to the enormous amount of signature sounds that we’ve heard throughout the years, it was inevitable for us to have to leave some big, worthy names off of our top ten list. Grunge guitarists, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, Mike McCready of Pearl Jam and Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains have all missed out despite their highly unique and memorable sounds. Similarly, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ John Frusciante and Muse’s Matthew Bellamy miss out despite their soulful and eminently catchy playing styles. Metal pioneers, Dave Murray of Iron Maiden and Dave Mustane of Megadeath also have no place in our ranking despite their unquestioned mastery of the guitar.
Despite being a vital part of two of the biggest bands of all time, The Beatles’ George Harrison and Queen’s Brian May didn’t make it to our top ten because of their smart, back-seated role in the two musical behemoths. Pete Townshend is also snubbed for his similar, albeit significantly larger, role with The Who. Our toughest omissions in creating this list, however, were Santana, Jeff Beck and Duane Allman. These three legends suffered not only from their nomadic, solo-based careers, but also from the sheer number of signature performers that have played the guitar more uniquely, some even less skillfully. Onto eniGma’s list of rock’s top ten guitarists of all time.
10) Eddie Van Halen:
A picking master, Eddie Van Halen utilized a highly unique guitar technique that involved him placing the pick between his middle fingers, thus providing him with room to produce harmonic tunes that sounded much more than just one guitar. Eddie was not only a member of one of the genre’s most popular bands, Van Halen, but also played a distinctly memorable role in one of the biggest hits of all time, Michael Jackson’s Beat It.
Main associated act(s): Van Halen; Signature track(s): Hot for Teacher, Beat It.
9) Randy Rhoads:
One of the biggest musical tragedies of his generation, Randy Rhoads tragically passed away at the somber age of 25 after his plane crashed while on tour with Ozzy Osbourne in 1982. Nevertheless, during his brief career, Rhoads was responsible for the guitar parts in most of Ozzy’s signature tracks including Crazy Train, Bark at the Moon and Mr. Crowley.
Main associated act(s): Ozzy Osbourne; Signature track(s): Crazy Train, Mr. Crowley.
8) Tom Morello:
Most modern guitarists have often referred to older guitar playing techniques in their musical compositions. Tom Morello, however, is not like most guitarists. With his instantly recognizable use of special guitar effects, Morello cofounded one of the 1990s most popular rock bands, Rage against the Machine. With Morello at the forefront, Rage crystallized Generation X’s dismay of society with their anti-governmental lyrics and compositions.
Main associated act(s): Rage against the Machine, Audioslave; Signature track(s): Bulls on Parade.
The ultimate guitar icon, Slash’s sheer charisma often clouded his undeniable musical talents. His unmistakable sense for melody was among the biggest reasons behind Gunz N’ Roses status as the most popular band in the world in the 80s. For proof, one only needs to look at the deteriorating quality in the band’s music ever since his departure in 96.
Main associated act(s): Gunz N’ Roses, Velvet Revolver; Signature track(s): Sweet Child O’ Mine.
6) Eric Clapton:
Eric Clapton is the rare musician who has found success wherever he went. His superior musical ear and masterfully simple playing technique has made him one of the most influential musicians of all time. In fact, Clapton is the only artist in history to be inducted thrice into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, once with The Yardbirds, once with Cream, and once as a solo artist.
Main associated act(s): The Yardbirds, Cream; Signature track(s): Sunshine of your Love.
5) David Gilmour:
The lead guitarist of one of the most popular bands of all time, Pink Floyd, David Gilmour’s guitar has been the spokesperson for several, different generations. With a bluesy feel to most of his solos, Gilmour guitar playing technique could be considered the most emotionally moving in rock’s history.
Main associated act(s): Pink Floyd; Signature track(s): Comfortably Numb, Hey You.
4) Kirk Hammett:
One of the most skillful performers of any instrument in the history of music, Metallica’s Kirk Hammett is one of the most copied guitarists of our times. With his masterful blend of skill and melody, Hammett is one of the first names that pop to our minds whenever a guitar solo is mentioned. Despite Metallica’s popularization of the Thrash Metal sub-genre, Hammett often shines brightest when placed in a calmer setting, as seen in Fade to Black and …And Justice for All.
Main Associated act(s): Metallica; Signature track(s): Master of Puppets, One.
3) Keith Richards:
This Rolling Stones legend is among the main pioneers for Alternative Rock and all that comes with it. An embodiment of what it is to be cool, Keith Richards’ guitar technique often focused on highly distinct guitar tunings that often veered towards the darkest, yet most enchanting, of feelings.
Main associated act(s): The Rolling Stones; Signature track(s): Satisfaction, Paint it Black.
2) Jimmy Page:
The greatest guitar player in rock’s 1970s heyday, Jimmy Page always knew how to take the listener on a journey with his guitar, with Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven the most famous example. Page’s playing technique, one that prioritized substance over style, often transcended the barriers of what a guitar can do. Further, his guitar solos never seemed forced or showboating, as he understood that the guitar is best used as a complementary part of a song’s full picture, rather than an occasionally overbearing presence in it.
Main associated act(s): Led Zeppelin; Signature track(s): The Song Remains the Same, Dazed and Confused.
1) Jimi Hendrix:
Jimi Hendrix is the most skilled and innovative guitar player of all time, and it’s not particularly close. His effortless dedication to guitar perfection meant that Hendrix was not only the first popular guitarist to extensively use effects as part of his music, but also the rare musical talent whose one-skill mastery carried an entire band. His tragic death at 27 of asphyxiation truly robbed the world of an all-time great.
Main associated act(s): The Jimi Hendrix Experience; Signature Track(s): Purple Haze, Voodoo Child.