Musicians of every generation are always influenced by players that came before them. Some guitarists have managed to have quite the impact on music, forever changing what would come after.
It is these guitarists that deserve a special nod of recognition. Today, we salute some of the best electric guitar players to ever pick up the instrument.
These guitarists are not placed in any specific order. To rank guitarists who are wholly unique means that every player’s contributions are relatively equal.
Table of Contents
You might not readily assume that country music would be stocked up with world-class guitarists. This genre often gets overlooked by many people due to their perception of what the music is.
However, they’d miss out on finding the complete jaw-dropping skills of guitarists like Danny Gatton. In his prime, there was nobody else like Gatton and his unbelievable virtuosity.
Gatton had speed, precision, and very tasteful phrasing. He is one of those rare guitar players that truly possessed it all.
You don’t earn the nickname of The Humbler for nothing. If you feel like you’re a great guitarist, you really need to check out Danny Gatton.
Seeing and hearing him play will settle the score and you’ll likely be headed to the practice room shortly after. Gatton will forever be one of the famous masters of the Telecaster.
At a time when rock music was becoming increasingly theatrical, there was still some serious music being made. The 1970s was truly one of the most open-minded eras when it came to music.
This era also saw one of the most diverse populations of excellent guitarists, each with their own unique sound. Though not as well-known as many of the others at the time, Roy Buchanan remains one of the best.
Buchanan was another master of the Telecaster. His mastery is evident in his highly expressive playing and very calm physical demeanor.
Roy possessed a touch that many guitarists couldn’t even come close to replicating. His volume swells, bends, and cutting lines remain just as effective for today’s listener discovering Buchanan for the first time.
The 1970s also saw jazz move into more experimental forms, often incorporating funk and progressive rock elements. Mahavishnu Orchestra was a band from this time period incorporating Indian musicality with avant-garde, funk, progressive, rock, and jazz.
At the forefront of this group was the virtuosic guitarist, John McLaughlin. Much of his playing was actually very much influenced by Indian music, such as ragas played on the sitar.
McLaughlin certainly has a legendary status in the jazz world. He’s appeared on a massive number of records, including quite a few by Miles Davis.
Since his prime, there hasn’t really been another fusion guitarist quite like McLaughlin. For that reason, he definitely earns the distinction of being one of the best of all time.
The late 1960s eventually saw some musicians experimenting with improvisation outside of the traditional jazz context. One band, The Grateful Dead, really paved the way for how improvisation could work for a rock band.
In fact, the band centered their performance around it, making each show unique, eventually amassing a massive following. Jerry Garcia was the group’s lead guitarist who helped guide the group effort through spontaneous musical landscapes.
Garcia’s musical background was rooted in folk and bluegrass, though he had an interest in all forms of music. His open-minded listening helped play a role in his highly inventive lines, made up on the spot.
Jerry is one of those guitarists that has a religion based on his playing. Many people have certainly found spiritual meaning because of his playing.
John Mayer is one of the most recent guitarists to have really left an impression on the world. We are very fortunate to be living at a time to be witnessing the enduring pinnacle of his career.
That has been Mayer’s story. He sets the bar high, and somehow, continually manages to raise the bar even higher.
Mayer may have become famous through pop music, but opinions shouldn’t be based on that. John has continually proved his value, even being invited to play with members of The Grateful Dead.
Love him, or hate him, Mayer’s influence cannot be understated. The next generation of guitarists has had Mayer’s DNA imprinted into their musical vocabularies.
In today’s day and age, it’s not uncommon to see videos of child prodigy guitar players. Unfortunately, we don’t often hear about what those kids grow up to be.
Derek Trucks, on the other hand, is definitely an exception to this. By the time he was a teenager, he had already played with Buddy Guy.
Trucks displayed a truly rare gift for musical prowess, donning a slide guitar and an SG just like Duane Allman. Of course, when your uncle is the drummer for the Allman’s, it’d make sense that you’d have a musical gift.
Perhaps being surrounded by a family of world-class musicians helped to play a part in Derek’s musicality. Regardless, the world is better off because of his musical contributions.
As far as rock music today goes, Jimi Hendrix is the most influential guitar player ever to play. Before he came along, there was nothing quite like his music being played on the radio.
Hendrix’s story is a mixture of somebody who was in the right place at the right time. Had he been any earlier, his playing style might not have been given the proper appreciation.
His music was truly electric and nobody was making the kinds of sounds that Hendrix was creating from a guitar. It was as if the guitar was a conduit for his soul to freely express itself without inhibition.
Stevie Ray Vaughan
Mix Texas blues with the musicality of Jimi Hendrix, and what do you get? The answer to that would undoubtedly be Stevie Ray Vaughan.
At a time when blues music had fallen out of the mainstream spotlight, Stevie put it back on the map. Of course, at the same time, he changed blues music completely, pushing the envelope for what was possible.
His guitar playing was horrifyingly precise and played with an emotional intensity that can’t be matched. Many have tried to emulate his style, but Stevie Ray Vaughan is truly in a class of his own.
Since the early 1980s, Nels Cline has been creating a truly massive catalog of very diverse music. Despite this, Cline’s playing often goes unnoticed by the larger community of guitar players.
Perhaps best known for his membership in Wilco, Cline has contributed guitar parts spanning many musical genres. In fact, Cline’s experimental nature is one of the most notable aspects of his playing.
He is able to transcend genres and he has a rare knack for not being afraid to try new things. For that, Nels deserves to have the distinction of being one of the best.
When it comes to modern jazz guitar, no conversation would be complete without the mention of Pat Metheny. He helped to revolutionize jazz fusion in the 1970s, creating a colorful career riddled with professional accolades.
Since the 1980s, Pat Metheny has won 20 Grammy Awards in 10 categories. In fact, this is a feat that no other artist has managed to achieve.
Pat has truly displayed his penchant for exploration, both in his musicality and in his personal gear. He has never been afraid to try the latest technology available, being the first to use a guitar synthesizer.
Blues music is home to many guitarists of supreme skill. It is not uncommon to find guitarists in this genre who possess a truly vocal playing style.
Everybody knows that B.B. King is the true king of blues music. He is one of the most influential blues guitarists to ever walk the Earth.
What makes his playing so great? Part of it has to be, by far, his delicate touch and his expressive vibrato.
You only need to hear a few notes of a solo to know that it’s B.B. King playing the guitar. He will always remain one of the greatest electric guitar players of all time.
British audiences were responsible for blues music becoming so popular in the 1960s. In fact, a whole music scene dedicated to the blues spawned many of the guitarists we regard as today’s greatest.
Eric Clapton is one of these guitarists to emerge from that unlikely British music scene. His playing was unlike any other person in the region, which is why he was referred to as God.
In fact, for a short period of time, it seemed as if everything Clapton touched turned to gold. While the 1970s saw the pinnacle of his career, the 90s saw his career being revitalized.
Some of his playing might be considered basic by today’s standards. However, his playing has influenced countless guitarists, with his vocabulary being integrated into the modern lexicon.
Another guitarist that emerged from the British blues scene was Jeff Beck. He actually replaced Clapton’s guitar role in The Yardbirds.
Despite this, you shouldn’t assume that Beck’s playing is similar to Eric Clapton’s. While they share some similarities, Beck has his own unique set of skills that sets him apart from any other.
In fact, there really hasn’t been another guitarist who has displayed such a mastery over the Stratocaster. He knows that guitar model like a machinist who has been working on the same machine for a lifetime.
Jeff Beck has shown that he is not afraid to try new things. His inventiveness has played a critical role in developing his musical persona.
While blues music was the foundation for rock, Chuck Berry served as a bridge between the two. Before Chuck, the guitar really wasn’t being played in such a manner.
Chuck’s playing helped to usher in a new sound that would help to define the 1950s. He is, after all, credited for having created rock and roll.
The world truly had a cultural phenomenon in its hands when Chuck unleashed his playing on the public. Guitar playing was forever changed in a matter of minutes.
If it wasn’t for Chuck Berry, much of the music we know of today simply wouldn’t exist. These types of players don’t come around very often, so it’s important to recognize them when they do.
Pink Floyd had a sound that was completely unique compared to other music of their time. They managed to blend rock elements with a serious psychedelic edge that continues to be emulated today.
David Gilmour’s guitar playing is one primary reason why Pink Floyd had such a distinct sound. His playing was incredibly melodic and pitched with emotion, constantly elevating the band’s songs.
Many of his solos have ranked as some of the best to have ever been recorded. These passages still manage to evoke an emotional response for today’s listeners, who happen to be of all ages.
He didn’t employ excessive flash with his solos. Rather, he made musical statements filled with intention that hit the listener like a massive wrecking ball.
Eddie Van Halen
There are guitarists that are great at what’s been established, and others who change the guitar completely. Eddie Van Halen is one of those guitarists that completely changed how the guitar would be played.
When Van Halen was at its height, the guitar was a very popular instrument for people to learn. At the time, Eddie Van Halen was employing techniques that completely baffled listeners.
The tapping technique, in particular, was one that Eddie Van Halen was responsible for introducing. This would become a standard, mainstay technique in the guitarist’s toolkit from the 1980s and beyond.
Some songs, such as Eruption, remain those that guitarists always aspire to learn. These tracks display levels of virtuosity that completely shook the world at its core.
Out of all of the guitarists on this list, few are as odd as Frank Zappa. His music was a blend of complex compositions, zany theatrics, crude humor, and improvisation.
Zappa might not have become a radio staple like many other musicians, but his underground following is immense. Few musicians have been able to match the contributions that Zappa has provided.
One of these contributions is his fight against artistic censorship. Without Zappa, artists might not be able to freely express themselves, both visually or lyrically, the way they can today.
His compositions are incredible masterpieces that require world-class technical abilities. Zappa will forever be a cultural icon and a juxtaposition to what people regard as normal.
Speaking of bizarre, how could one not make mention of Buckethead? Not every day do you see a wizard guitarist wearing a mask with a KFC bucket on their head.
Many people’s first introduction to Buckethead was from the original Guitar Hero game. This prompted an investigation, which helped to bring Buckethead’s career to the limelight.
And rightfully so, because there are not many guitarists that have the same work ethic that Buckethead possesses.
Seeing him in concert will guarantee a jaw-dropping performance, be it from his guitar work or his nunchuck skills. The fact that he is anonymous is one of the greatest enduring mysteries of modern music.
Where Jerry Garcia created the trail for rock improvisation, Trey Anastasio made it into a highway. His band Phish has proved that there is no other band that can improvise quite the way that they can.
Of course, tracks like You Enjoy Myself show that Anastasio is capable of composing songs that rival classical compositions. Add in a never-ending exploration of bluegrass, jazz, world, and funk, and you’d touch on the surface of Phish’s sound.
Few guitarists have the ability to improvise at the level Anastasio does on a consistent basis. He employs massive techniques while creating melodic lines that are instantly memorable.
Before Duane Allman, slide guitar was more common in blues music, often heard on acoustic guitars. Thanks to Duane’s experimentation, the world was blessed with one of the best slide players to ever play guitar.
In fact, that iconic Southern rock sound has a lot to do with those classic slide sounds employed by Duane. He had a very distinct style and sound, which is partly what helped the Allman Brothers to be so successful.
Duane had quite a few iconic performances in his short career. His playing on the song Layla, as well as the Allman Brothers Live At Fillmore East remain top choices.
When Ozzy left Black Sabbath, he knew that he would be able to be successful on his own. But, to really capture audiences, he would need to have a band consisting of the very best.
He certainly found that in Randy Rhoads, who was in his early 20s at the time. Rhoads was previously successful in the band Quiet Riot, which he helped to form when he was 16 years old.
It’s safe to say that Randy Rhoads has had a massive influence on guitarists. He incorporated classical musical elements into his playing to create unique phrases that were groundbreaking at the time.
Steve Vai is one of those guitarists that is responsible for truly pushing the boundaries of the guitar itself. He is widely regarded, today, as one of the best to ever play the instrument.
Before he started to change the world, Vai had served in Frank Zappa’s musical outfit. It’s likely a safe bet that Vai was influenced directly by Zappa’s unique and complex compositions.
With his solo career, he showed the world that there were still new things to be discovered on the guitar. His skills were so frightening that he actually played in the film Crossroads as a sort of evil guitar player.
He might not be an alien, but you might think so with his bald head, sunglasses, and crazy skills. Are we sure that this isn’t just an alien in disguise?
As far as musical contributions go, Satriani has been one of the best-selling instrumentalists of all time. He holds a well-deserved status as a virtuosic guitarist consistently pushing the guitar’s boundaries.
Satriani is one of those guitarists that flawlessly employs skills and techniques most guitarists spend a lifetime learning to integrate.
Jimmy Page is one of the most important guitarists of the late 1960s and 1970s. His involvement with Led Zeppelin resulted in some of the most famous music to ever be recorded.
While Stairway To Heaven might be banned in music shops, other Led Zeppelin songs are standard fare for learning guitarists. The group helped to establish the guitar’s role within rock music, ranging from riffs to epic solos.
Led Zeppelin was one of those bands that had a serious following and Page’s role was instrumental in this. It helped to propel them into being one of the largest rock bands in all of musical history.
Page’s playing often features highly melodic passages and blazing-fast runs. However, his production on Zeppelin’s albums is what really provides evidence of his musicianship.
What list of greatest players would be complete without mentioning the name of Les Paul. Most guitarists are pretty familiar with this name, largely due to the Gibson guitar model.
Unfortunately, many guitarists do not take the initiative to investigate and discover Les Paul’s catalog for themselves. There is a reason why he had his own guitar model from Gibson: he wasn’t good, he was exceptionally good!
Of course, the electric guitar itself wouldn’t really be what it is without Les Paul’s contributions. So, not only was he virtuosic, but he was inventive and driven by a curious nature.
Les Paul was one of those rare guitarists who could play masterfully and incorporate humor into his performances. He’d manage to do all of this while playing effortlessly the entire time.
As guitarists, we owe thanks to Les Paul for a fairly long list of things. Pay your respects by listening to his performances and understanding just how good he really was.
Top Electric Guitar Players Ever, Final Thoughts
The electric guitar has been around a few decades shy of an entire century. Despite being a simple instrument, it seems as if people are still discovering new things about it.
Whenever you’re feeling uninspired, studying the greats of years past can help reignite the flame of your passion. These greats have found their own path, creating a musical identity that cannot be mistaken for anyone else.
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