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100 Greatest Guitarists

They built their own guitars, stabbed speaker cones with pencils, shattered instruments and eardrums — all in search of new ways to make the guitar cry, scream, whisper, shout and moan

Rolling Stone May 17, 2011
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40. John Fogerty
In the late 1960s, at the height of psychedelic excess, John Fogerty wrote, sang and played guitar with Creedence Clearwater Revival like a man from another decade: the 1950s. His impassioned vocals and plainspoken workingman’s politics were a big part of CCR’s crossover appeal on underground-FM and Top Forty radio. But Fogerty’s taut riffing, built on the country and rockabilly innovations of Scotty Moore and James Burton, was the dynamite in CCR hits such as “Born on the Bayou” and “Green River.” Fogerty can also be a lethal jammer: See his extended break in CCR’s ’68 cover of Dale Hawkins’ “Susie Q.”

39. Brian May
When the lead singer of your band is Freddie Mercury, you’re lucky if anybody notices your guitar playing at all. But Brian May was every bit as flamboyant as his frontman in terms of getting attention, and he defined the sound of Queen with his upper-register guitar shrieks. May juiced the treble all the way for a clear and piercing tone, playing solos with grandeur and campy feather-boa humor. From “Killer Queen” to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” May offered counterpoint to Mercury’s operatic falsetto, pushing glitter rock over the top until the sound was sheer heart attack. He will, he will rock you.

38. Peter Green
Many six-string devotees ”” including fellows named Carlos and B.B. ”” insist that Britain’s greatest blues guitarist isn’t Clapton or Beck, it’s Peter Green. In the Sixties, first with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, then as the original frontman for Fleetwood Mac (long before Stevie Nicks entered the picture), Green played with a fire and fluidity that’s rarely been matched. But in 1970, with the Mac on the verge of super-stardom, Green quit the band, saying he needed to escape the evils of fame. It was the beginning of a long, drug-fueled breakdown that would include stints in mental institutions and on the street. Miraculously, Green recovered and took up guitar again in the mid-Nineties; though his leads aren’t as authoritative now, the spirit of a true survivor is in every note.

37. Bo Diddley
Diddley’s beat was as simple as a diddley bow, the one-stringed African instrument that inspired his nickname. But in songs such as “Mona,” “I’m a Man” and “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover,” his tremolo-laden guitar argued that rhythm was as important as melody, maybe more so. Born in Mississippi, he grew up as Ellas McDaniel in Chicago, where he studied violin and learned how to make both violins and guitars. His late-1950s singles on Checker could be both terrifying (“Who Do You Love”) and hilarious (“Crackin Up”). The sounds he coaxed out of his homemade guitar were groundbreaking, influencing just about everyone in the British Invasion.

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36. Steve Cropper
As a member of the stax records house band Booker T. and the MG’s, Steve Cropper, a white guy from Willow Springs, Missouri, was a prime inventor of black Southern-funk guitar ”” trebly, chicken-peck licks fired with stinging, dynamic efficiency. If Cropper had never played on another record after 1962’s “Green Onions,” his stabbing-dagger lines would have ensured him a place on this list. But he also played on ”” and often co-wrote and arranged ”” many of the biggest Stax hits of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Four decades after “Green Onions,” he continues to perform and record with his seminal, down-home touch.

35. John Fahey
John Fahey created a new, enduring vocabulary for acoustic solo guitar ”” connecting the roots and branches of folk and blues to Indian raga and the advanced harmonies of modern composers such as Charles Ives and Béla Bartók ”” on an extraordinary run of albums in the 1960s, released on his own Takoma label. Fahey knew American pioneer song in academic detail; he wrote his UCLA master’s thesis on blues-man Charley Patton. Fahey was also a precise fingerpicker addicted to the mystery of the blues as well as the music, a passion reflected in apocryphal album titles such as The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death, from 1967. Fahey endured illness and poverty in the 1990s, but re-emerged to a new wave of acclaim from bands such as Sonic Youth. He continued touring and recording ”” often on electric guitar ”” until his death in 2001.

34. Thurston Moore
When Sonic Youth burst onto New York’s downtown scene in the early Eighties, guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo got plenty of attention for attacking their axes with drumsticks and screwdrivers. But their real legacy can’t be bought in a hardware store; it’s the way they’ve opened rock guitar up to the world of alternate tunings. On the band’s masterpiece, 1988’s Daydream Nation, Sonic Youth created their own language of strange and blissful guitar noise. Neither Moore nor Ranaldo is a master of technique, but they’re both virtuoso soundsmiths, and a generation of alt-rockers ”” from Nirvana to Dashboard Confessional ”” owes them big.

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33. Lee Ranaldo
When Sonic Youth burst onto New York’s downtown scene in the early Eighties, guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo got plenty of attention for attacking their axes with drumsticks and screwdrivers. But their real legacy can’t be bought in a hardware store; it’s the way they’ve opened rock guitar up to the world of alternate tunings. On the band’s masterpiece, 1988’s Daydream Nation, Sonic Youth created their own language of strange and blissful guitar noise. Neither Moore nor Ranaldo is a master of technique, but they’re both virtuoso soundsmiths, and a generation of alt-rockers ”” from Nirvana to Dashboard Confessional ”” owes them big.

32. John Cipollina
Cipollina was half of the twin-guitar team ”” with Gary Duncan ”” that drove San Francisco’s Quicksilver Messenger Service, the best acid-rock dance band of the 1960s. Cipollina’s spires of tremolo, enriched with the erotica of flamenco, in “The Fool,” from the band’s 1968 debut, and his ravishing improvisations in Bo Diddley’s “Mona” and “Who Do You Love” on ’69’s Happy Trails, are supreme psychedelia, authentic evidence of what it was like to be at the Fillmore in the Summer of Love. The classic quartet lineup of 1967-69 made only two albums, though Quicksilver re-formed with various players over the years. Cipollina, who suffered from severe emphysema, died in 1989.

31. Dick Dale
Dick Dale reigns across the decades as the undisputed king of the surf guitar. In Dale’s own words, “Real surfing music is instrumental, characterized by heavy staccato picking on a Fender Stratocaster guitar.” Moreover, it’s best played through a Fender Showman Amp ”” a model built to spec for Dale by Leo Fender himself. Igniting California’s surfing cult with such regional hits as “Let’s Go Trip-pin’,” “Surf Beat” and “Miserlou,” Dale made waves with his fat, edgy sound and aggressive, proto-metal attack. “Miserlou,” released in 1962, marked the first use of a Fender reverb unit ”” creating an underwater sound with lots of echo ”” on a popular record. Fittingly, it sparked a surf-music revival when director Quentin Tarantino used it in the opening scene of Pulp Fiction.

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