Rock music has undoubtedly been dominated by guitarists. For evidence, see how many rock keyboardists you can name off the top of your head compared to guitarists.
The following guitarists could very well be considered the very best to pick up the instrument. Just keep in mind that this is not in any order based on ranking, as each’s personal styles are different.
Keep an open mind and you might just discover a guitarist you never knew about!
Jimi Hendrix is perhaps the first guitarist that comes to mind when a non-musician considers the guitar. Many have helped shape rock into what it is today, but none had the earthquake effect Hendrix had.
Many words have been used to describe Hendrix’s importance as a guitarist. Rather than repeat what’s been said, it can generally be summed up by stating that Hendrix completely changed rock music.
Saxophonist John Coltrane is often associated with combining spiritual and musical elements together for a transcendent performance. In many ways, Hendrix is the guitar’s version of Coltrane.
Sure, he might not have been an extreme technician, but he poured his entire being into his musical notes. The result is something that transfers an intangible idea into something that is unmistakably apparent and unable to be replicated.
Jerry Garcia might not be on your list of greatest rock guitarists, but that might only be due to exposure. The simple fact is that not everyone has a taste for jam music, and more specifically, the Grateful Dead.
Unfortunately, this means you’re missing out on some masterful guitar work, with plenty of evidence to prove it. Night after night, Garcia led the Grateful Dead into experimental territories and uncharted waters through improvisation.
If you think improvisation is hard, listen to the Dead and you’ll see the entire band is improvising simultaneously. In a way, it creates a musical monster in which no part is greater than the sum of all parts.
Garcia had a unique mixture of bluegrass, jazz, country, and rock in his repertoire of inspirations. Like any great guitarist, you’ll find there are legions of guitarists emulating Garcia’s style to the smallest detail possible.
You might be wondering what gives Keith Richards a spot amongst those considered the best guitarists in rock. Let’s face it, Richards is definitely not a complex technician of any kind.
However, Richards does possess impeccable taste, using simplicity to his advantage. By doing this, Richards has contributed some of the most iconic guitar riffs ever written.
In some ways, Richards laid the foundation for riff rock and what is possible when simplicity is preferred. Plus, being this influential while being extremely under the influence is no small feat of its own.
Unless you’re familiar with rock history, Steve Lukather isn’t a name you’re likely to recognize. When you learn that he plays in Toto, you’re probably perplexed at his inclusion on this list.
However, Lukather is a very accomplished studio musician and has contributed guitar parts to many artists. His most famous contributions can be heard throughout Michael Jackson’s smash hit album, Thriller.
Lukather has had a career decorated with accolades that every guitarist could only dream of. And, more often than not, it’s those in the album liner notes that don’t get the recognition that they deserve.
Have you ever noticed how saturated the internet is with video-based guitar lessons? The whole concept of putting guitar lessons on video started with Arlen Roth.
Back in the 1980s, you could order videos from his Hot Licks lesson series. Advertisements were often found in the back of the guitar magazines of the day.
Aside from teaching, Roth has had an illustrious career, helping out with artists like the Bee Gees and John Prine. He’s also helped out in Hollywood, providing music and actor instruction on the film, Crossroads.
Trey Anastasio is one of the most underrated guitarists in today’s day and age. With a career spanning nearly 40 years in his band, Phish, Anastasio has proved himself to be a guitar king.
Anastasio has an impeccable sense of melody combined with world-class musicianship and extreme technique. He will forever be one of the greatest musical improvisers, though the world is slow to catch on.
Despite his growing age, Anastasio remains consistently active, recording and touring with minimal breaks. The result is a catalog of music that will continue to inspire generations of jam guitarists to come.
Steve Vai was one of the first true freak-of-nature guitar virtuosos to make a name for themselves in rock. He really got his start transcribing and notating the complex compositions of Frank Zappa.
Of course, he kicked off his professional career by holding a guitar position in Zappa’s touring band. From there, Vai established himself as a musician worthy of success based on his own name.
Vai remains one of the guitarists many look to in order to learn virtuosic techniques. Some of his works have truly been superhuman in scope, distorting the boundaries of the impossible.
Frank Zappa is essentially part of his own genre rooted in rock music. Instead, Zappa has instrumentation bordering on animated orchestration and theater, along with some signature rock tropes and long jams.
Zappa was somebody that saw their artistic vision and made every attempt to realize it into existence. He also fought some important battles along the way, ensuring artists have freedom beyond censorship.
Today, the music of Frank Zappa is still highly regarded among serious musicians and those with a sense of humor. His style is the personification of uniqueness.
Some of the greatest guitarists in history all had to learn their instruments, with many learning from a teacher. Joe Satriani was the man behind the knowledge of guitarists such as Steve Vai and Kirk Hammett.
With credentials like that, you know that Satriani’s skills are worth their weight in sonic gold. His album, Surfing With The Alien, remains a classic for those who enjoy virtuosic rock guitar compositions.
In a way, it’s Satriani’s personal influence that helped shape the guitar-heavy genres of the 1980s. Most of his influences (such as Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix) are fairly common among guitarists.
Steve Kimock is another severely underrated guitarist compared to the likes of guitarists in this article. While he is a Jerry Garcia musical disciple, Kimock has a style of his own that is worthy of exploration.
Kimock definitely has a penchant for exploration, with a mastery over both lead and textural lines. He’s also a very competent slide guitarist, of which he is equally explorative.
Throughout the years, Kimock has made a name for himself when performing with various Grateful Dead-related outfits. His solo career is also full of golden takes that any guitarist will find tasteful.
During the 1960s, calling someone “god” during a time of staunch religiosity was not something to take lightly. Clapton surely set the world on fire with his blues-influenced guitar lines.
Today, there isn’t anything overtly complex about Clapton’s playing, as much of it is fairly basic. But the real magic is in his expression and intent over every note played in a simple line.
Clapton has had a stellar career in almost every decade of his life as a professional musician. He certainly helped to make the guitar the cultural icon that it is today.
Jeff Beck possesses a mastery over the Stratocaster that is downright scary enough to keep you up at night. Though he has roots in the blues, Beck has not been constrained by the boundaries of genre.
As a guitarist, Beck is extremely progressive in finding new techniques and exploitations of the guitar. He can create diverse and otherworldly sounds just by manipulating certain aspects of a guitar’s construction.
Beck might not have had widespread mainstream commercial success, but he has the associated respect. It’s guitarists like this who push the boundaries of the instrument itself.
Larry Carlton is another name that might be unfamiliar to casual music fans. Any serious rock guitarist knows of Larry Carlton and his massive influence on the industry.
For starters, Carlton has an immensely long list of albums to which he provided session work contributions. The most notable of this list is Steely Dan, who is considered one of the elite studio bands in history.
Let’s not also forget the fact that Carlton has defeated the odds as a person. He overcame paralysis in his arm after being shot in the throat during the late 1980s.
Nels Cline might not be the most accessible guitarist for mainstream music fans. In a way, Cline is the guitarist’s guitarist, providing a way of playing that takes an educated ear to appreciate.
When playing, Cline has a way of being obtuse, while also commanding energy in a number of ways. He has translated this especially well in his role in the rock band, Wilco.
Along with Wilco, Nels Cline is a frequent collaborator with the jazz guitar phenom, Julian Lage. The Cline/Lage collaboration has produced pieces of work that are truly capable of bending musical expectations.
Stevie Ray Vaughan
Like Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan is one of the most talked-about guitarists in the history of rock. In many ways, he is the physical embodiment of Hendrix, playing Texas blues rather than 60s psychedelic rock.
Vaughan is responsible for the resurgence of mainstream respect toward the blues during the 80s. He had a way of playing that commanded the attention of worldwide audiences.
Part of what made him so great is his “Coltrane” trance, pouring his soul into the music with ferocious intensity. Along with that, his technique was precise and his playing and note selection was expertly accurate.
Stevie Ray’s older brother, Jimmie, is an accomplished guitarist in his own respect. In many ways, Jimmie is overshadowed by the colossal achievements of his younger brother.
During the 80s, Jimmie Vaughan was an extremely respectable guitarist who opted to uphold blues traditions. All of the old-time greats who played in Texas at the time have said Jimmie was one of the best.
Jimmie definitely had a way of keeping tradition while respecting those who came before. However, he was also able to add his own musical identity without breaking his rigid traditionalist artistic viewpoint.
Speaking of Texas blues guitarists, props must be given to Billy Gibbons, the long-bearded master of blues rock. With ZZ Top, Gibbons would use the blues influence to craft a unique rock sound of their own.
As a guitarist, Gibbons is extremely casual and inhumanly smooth with his approach. The lines he plays have a finesse that people spend lifetimes trying to get near to in sound.
He also has his own identity, which is important in the context of rock music. Anyone can recognize Billy by his signature long beard and sunglasses.
Jimmy Page is undoubtedly one of the greatest, even if he was a bit sloppy during live performances. Page essentially created riff rock, with Led Zeppelin’s music forever being acclaimed as some of the best.
Jimmy is often one of the first guitarists many beginner guitarists look up to when starting out on the guitar. With some of the guitar parts he’s created, it’s certainly easy to see why!
What’s often overlooked is Page’s production skills, which are evident in the layering used throughout each recording. Many Zeppelin songs come to life because of the orchestral layering of epic guitar riffs.
In terms of melody, Carlos Santana is one of the greatest to play the guitar. Many of his guitar parts are extremely memorable, and just about anyone can recite them vocally.
Like Clapton, Santana might be a bit simplistic compared to the towering techniques of others. But it’s the intention behind his playing that makes Santana’s musical personality come alive with presence.
Santana is also responsible for infusing Latin rhythms into the context of rock music. This worldly element helped to broaden the horizons of mainstream music throughout the 1970s.
Though he was young when he died, Randy Rhoads was an extremely accomplished guitarist. After helping to form Quiet Riot, Rhoads changed the world by playing in Ozzy Osbourne’s band.
Rhoads possessed a terrifying prowess of technique, often infusing classical music elements into his playing. This aspect of the lead guitar is something that would be copied and emulated time and again.
The 1980s were an extremely progressive time for guitarists. Randy Rhoads was one of the leading pioneers, whom many looked up to as a musical idol.
Eddie Van Halen
Let’s face it, Hendrix changed the world in the 60s, but the 70s and 80s belonged to Eddie Van Halen. This was a guy who was extremely obsessed with the guitar, and it paid off in dividends.
The obsession resulted in the pioneering of new techniques as well as a level of skill that became highly desired. And while his lead techniques steal the show, his rhythm skills are also quite amazing.
Sure, Van Halen had all of the techniques and flash, but he knew when to properly employ them. Other than that, he held down rhythm duties in inventive an fashion to accompany a vocalist.
Slash has become a bit of an enigma as far as rock music is concerned. The guitarist for Guns N’ Roses has a personality that has transcended rock music altogether.
In fact, just about anyone can identify Slash through the imagery of a tall top hat and long curly hair. So many guitarists tried to create a unique identity in the 80s but failed in comparison to Slash.
Slash’s personality came across as much more natural, without the flashy spandex suits worn at the time. There’s a reason why Gibson has continued to consider Slash as a flagship artist for over 30 years.
Tom Morello is definitely one of the most unique guitarists to grace the instrument. And while he might not be the greatest technician, he’s certainly one of the most inventive.
No other guitarist has gone the lengths Morello has to figure out effects pedal combinations. This experimentation helped to provide signature sounds in the hybrid rap-rock group, Rage Against The Machine.
Morello has stated that he began his exploration in college, keeping detailed journals over pedal settings. The man probably has a library of journals considering the sheer number of pedals available today.
Mark Knopfler is an extremely accomplished guitarist that has managed to fly a bit under the radar. He’s continually praised as one of the best, but casual rock fans might not know of him offhand.
Knopfler was the primary creative guitar force behind the band, Dire Straits. He’s known for having a unique fingerstyle technique, proving you don’t need a pick for modern lead concepts.
In fact, Knopfler’s work is often choice material for guitarists looking to break out of a rut. He manages to be incredibly inventive and melodic with his lines, even if they are only a few seconds long.
Tony Iommi will always be considered one of the best, even if his early work is fairly rudimentary. That’s not a diss on Tony, but rather, an honest admittance that any beginner can play some of his material.
What makes Iommi so spectacular is that his guitar’s sound helped to invent the metal genre. Music was already being called heavy metal, but Iommi’s guitar in Black Sabbath was noticeably heavier.
Plus, Tony is the embodiment of somebody that made delicious lemonade out of lemons. He lost his fingertips at a young age, eventually playing the guitar with the help of prosthetics.
Buckethead is one of the greatest modern musical marvels of our time. The mystery of Buckethead’s identity is only one small part of the equation of why Buckethead is so great.
From a technique standpoint, Buckethead is nearly unparalleled in skill and execution. He’s also extremely prolific, with hundreds of releases of original music that push the boundaries of expectation.
Perhaps Buckethead is the equivalent of the Blue Man Group for guitar. The shrouded identity has allowed Buckethead to play in multiple locations worldwide simultaneously.
Chuck Berry will forever be considered one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time. He practically invented the genre on his own, eventually being copied time and time again.
If it wasn’t for Berry, it’s hard to say how the history of modern music would have unfolded. He certainly played a pivotal role in the acceptance of black musicians within mainstream music.
Berry laid down the musical foundation that would be built upon for over half of a century. That’s an astonishing feat in itself, and one that will never be forgotten.
The concept of the slide guitar has likely been around since the early 1900s. However, it was Duane Allman that really brought it into the context of rock music.
Allman was not only a great guitarist for the Allman Brothers Band but an accomplished studio musician, too. He had a definite skill for leading the band into deep, improvisational waters during live performances.
Though his life was cut short, Allman left behind a legacy that has lived far beyond his time on Earth. That legacy is the essence of southern rock itself.
David Gilmour is undoubtedly one of the masters of the instrument, and will always be looked upon with admiration. His solos in Pink Floyd are truly meteoric, many of which have an extremely memorable quality to them.
Gilmour has the perfect combination of carefully-crafted melody and intense emotional release. It’s his guitar that makes Pink Floyd’s music bubble over like lava from a churning volcano.
There’s a reason why so many guitarists look up to David Gilmour as an example to follow. He possesses tasteful musicianship that few have been able to copy verbatim in their own works.
Top Rock Guitarists, Final Thoughts
Everybody has their own opinions as to who the best rock guitarists are. Rock itself is a very wide-ranging genre, but some of the best guitarists never played a rock song.
It’s for that reason that you didn’t see the biggest names in blues, country, or jazz on this list. Nevertheless, you are encouraged to explore outside of rock, as you might gain a newfound appreciation for different genres.