100 Greatest Guitarists
They built their own guitars, stabbed speaker cones with pencils, shattered instruments and eardrums â€” all in search of new ways to make the guitar cry, scream, whisper, shout and moan
20. James Burton
James Burton mainly plays a dark-red ’53 Fender Telecaster that he bought in a Louisiana music store when he was thirteen. He’s performed a lifetime’s worth of hot licks and fluid solos on it, on songs such as Dale Hawkins’ “Susie Q” and Ricky Nelson’s “Hello Mary Lou.” As an in-demand Sixties sessionman, Burton played often-uncredited guitar and Dobro on countless records by artists ranging from Buck Owens and Buffalo Springfield to Frank Sinatra. In the Seventies he anchored the touring bands of Elvis Presley and Emmylou Harris. Burton’s country-rock style combines flatpicking and fingerpicking; he’s also a master of a damped-string, staccato-note “chickin’ pickin’.”
19. Richard Thompson
Richard Thompson is the greatest guitarist in British folk rock ”” and that’s only one of the genres he has mastered. He was eighteen when he co-founded the English folk band Fairport Convention in 1967. By the time he left, in ’71, Thompson had created a seamless world music for acoustic and electric guitar drawn from Celtic minstrelsy, psychedelia, Cajun dance tunes and Arabic scales. He is also one of Britain’s finest singer-songwriters. His records with his former wife Linda, made between 1974 and 1982, are marvels of hair-raising musicianship and emotional candor. Try to see him live, with an electric band: The solos run long and wild.
18. John Frusciante
In 1989, Eighteen-year-old John Frusciante, a bedroom-guitar prodigy from California’s San Fernando Valley who had never played in a group before, auditioned for his favorite band, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He got the job ”” replacing Hillel Slovak, who died of a drug overdose in 1988 ”” and transformed the Peppers’ rascally punk funk into beefy arena pop. On the 1992 multiplatinum album, BloodSugarSexMagik, Frusciante fortified the band’s bone-hard grooves with a mix of Hendrixian force and, in the hit ballad “Under the Bridge,” poignant Beatlesque melody. When Frusciante abruptly quit the Peppers in the middle of a Japanese tour in 1992, he left a big hole in the group’s sound that was only filled with his drug-free return on the Peppers’ 1999 comeback album, Californication.
17. Jack White
White has become the hottest new thing on six strings by celebrating the oldest tricks in the book: distortion, feedback, plantation blues, the 1960s-Michigan riff terrorism of the Stooges and the MC5. Onstage, decked out like a peppermint dandy, he violates classic covers (Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” Bob Dylan’s “Isis”) with fireball chords and primal, bent-string scream. He is also an acute orchestrator in the studio, stirring the scratchy-78s atmosphere of Blind Willie Johnson sides, 1970s punk and Led Zeppelin-style drama into his own howl. Don’t pay attention to the notes; White is not a clean soloist. He’s a blowtorch.
16. Johnny Ramone
Johnny Ramone invented punk-rock guitar out of hatred: He couldn’t stand guitar solos. So the former Johnny Cummings of Queens, New York, played nothing but concrete-block barre chords on twenty-one albums and 2,263 shows with the Ramones. His elementary attack was part of the essential simplicity ”” matching last names, two-minute tunes, a strict uniform of black leather and ripped denim ”” with which the kings of Queens ruled punk rock from the mid-1970s until they called it quits in 1996. But there was more to Johnny’s sound than bricks of distortion. “In sound checks, the band would do a couple of songs without vocals,” recalled the band’s late singer, Joey Ramone, in 1999. “I’d listen to John’s guitar and hear all these harmonics, these instruments like organ and piano that weren’t really there. And he didn’t use any effects.” Johnny now lives in retirement in Southern California.
15. Carlos Santana
The piercingly pure tone of Santana’s guitar is among the most recognizable sounds in popular music. A towering musician who brought Latin rhythms and jazz improvisation to rock, Santana formed the first lineup of his namesake band in 1968. His varied influences ”” from Mike Bloomfield and Peter Green to Miles Davis and John Coltrane ”” resulted in a singularly innovative approach. A fiery, impassioned soloist, Santana articulates fluid passages that culminate in lengthy sustained notes. From Santana’s career-breakthrough performance at Woodstock in 1969 to the 2000 Grammys ”” where he won eight awards for Supernatural, tying Michael Jackson’s record ”” Santana has remained a compelling musician with a devotional spirituality fueling his muse.
14. Jeff Beck
Beck was the second of the Yardbirds’ three star guitarists, leading the group’s swing into R&B- charged psychedelia (“Shapes of Things,” “Over Under Sideways Down”) with his speed and deft manipulation of feedback and sustain. In 1967, Beck formed his own heavier variation on the Yardbirds ”” the Jeff Beck Group, with then-unknown singer Rod Stewart ”” which added heavy-metal pow to British blues and became a major role model for Jimmy Page’s Led Zeppelin. But Beck’s commercial peak came in the mid-1970s, with an idiosyncratic style of jazz fusion (whiplash melodies; artful, roaring distortion; whammy-bar hysterics) that he still plays today with undiminished class and ferocity, when he isn’t in his garage at home in England working under the hoods of vintage cars.
13. Jerry Garcia
Garcia was a folk and blue-grass obsessive who started playing guitar at fifteen. It was those roots, as well as a lifelong love of Chuck Berry, that gave his astral experiments with the Grateful Dead a sense of forward momentum. Garcia could dazzle on slide (“Cosmic Charlie”) or pedal steel (“Dire Wolf”), but his natural home was playing lead onstage, exploring the frontier of psychedelic sound. The piercing lyricism of this tone was all the more remarkable for the fact that he was missing the third finger of his right hand ”” the result of a childhood accident while he and his brother Tiff were chopping wood. He died in 1995 in rehab for his longtime drug habit. But his guitar still shines like a headlight on a northbound train.
12. Kurt Cobain
“Grunge” was always a lousy, limited way to describe the music Kurt Cobain made with Nirvana and, in particular, his discipline and ambition as a guitarist. His cannonballs of fuzz and feedback bonfires on 1991’s Nevermind announced the death of 1980s stadium guitar rock. Cobain also reconciled his multiple obsessions ”” the Beatles, hardcore punk, the fatalist folk blues of Lead Belly ”” into a truly alternative rock that bloomed in the eccentric, gripping hooks and chord changes of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Come as You Are.” Recorded six months before Cobain’s suicide in 1994, MTV Unplugged in New York reveals, in exquisite acoustic terms, the craft and love of melody that illuminated his anguish.
11. Kirk Hammett
On any given night, at least half the parking lots in America have a car with the windows down, the speakers cranked and a couple of dudes sitting on the trunk playing air guitar to Kirk Hammett solos. Hammett is so steeped in metal history that he reportedly paid for his first guitar at fifteen with ten dollars and a copy of Kiss’ Dressed to Kill. Metallica’s dense thrash redefined hard rock more completely than any band since Led Zeppelin. Hammett’s lead guitar is the emotional heart of the music, from acoustic angst (“Fade to Black”) to badass flailing (“Master of Puppets”), and, in “One,” the sound of a guitar tapping out a cry for help in Morse code, over and over, until the parking lot closes down.