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Best Ever Lists

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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30. Buddy Guy
A key influence on Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Buddy Guy put the Louisiana hurricane in 1960s electric Chicago blues as a member of Muddy Waters’ band and as a house guitarist at Chess Records. A native of the Baton Rouge area, he combined a blazing modernism with a fierce grip on his roots, playing frantic leads heavy with swampy funk on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” and Koko Taylor’s “Wang Dang Doodle” as well as on his own Chess sides and the fine series of records he made with harp man Junior Wells. One of the last active connections to the golden age of Chess, Guy still plays with his original fire.

29. Ron Asheton
Nobody ever accused Ron Asheton of being a nice guy. “Any guitar player worth his salt is basically a thug,” his lead singer, Iggy Pop, once said. “They test you with that thug mentality. They ride you to the edge.” Asheton was the Detroit punk who made the Stooges’ music reek like a puddle of week-old biker sweat. He favored black leather and German iron crosses onstage, and he never let not really knowing how to play get in the way of a big, ugly feedback solo. This spring, Asheton joined Iggy and the other Stooges for their first gigs in nearly thirty years. He still sounds like a thug.

28. Stephen Stills
“He’s a musical genius,” Neil Young said of Stills in a 2000 interview. He should know. The two have been bandmates and competing lead guitarists on and off since 1966: in Buffalo Springfield, the supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and the short-lived Stills-Young Band. But those groups’ ego-and-drug dramas have obscured Stills’ prowess as a musician ”” he played nearly every instrument on Crosby, Stills and Nash’s 1969 debut ”” and especially as a guitarist. In Springfield and CSNY, Stills challenged and complemented Young’s feral breaks with a country-inflected chime. And a continuing highlight of CSNY shows is Stills’ acoustic picking in “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” ”” a paragon of unplugged beauty.

27. Mark Knopfler
Dire Straits founder and solo artist Mark Knopfler emerged at a time when guitar virtuosos were spurned by punks and New Wavers. Yet from the first stinging notes of “Sultans of Swing,” Knopfler’s roots-based approach and supple, burnished leads found almost universal appeal. A fingerpicker who favors Fender Stratocasters ”” a Knopfler-designed Strat was introduced in July as part of Fender’s “Artist Series” ”” he’s known for his rich tone, sinuous melodicism and rangy, fluid solos. “My sound is fingers on a Strat,” he once said.

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26. Tom Morello
In the early days of Rage Against the Machine, Morello watched local California metal guitarists play “as fast as Yngwie Malmsteen” and realized, “That wasn’t a race I wanted to run.” So he began to experiment with the toggle switch on his guitar to produce an effect like a DJ scratching a record. The result was true rap metal and a redefinition of the guitar’s potential. Morello absorbs hip-hop mixology as a true son of Grandmaster Flash and the Voodoo Child, making his riffs rumble and boom like crosstown turntable traffic.

25. Freddy King
King was born in Texas, but in 1950, when he was sixteen, his family moved to Chicago, where he would sneak into clubs to play with Muddy Waters’ band. His style was a mixture of country and urban blues, and his instrumental sides such as “Hide Away,” “Just Pickin” and “The Stumble,” from the early Sixties, had immense impact on the British blues scene ”” Eric Clapton says King was one of the first guitarists he tried to copy. His playing employed taut, melodic riffs that erupted into frantic, wailing solos on the upper strings. King, who also recorded for the Cotillion, Shelter and RSO labels, died at forty-two of heart failure in 1976.

24. The Edge
Rarely has a guitarist achieved so much by playing so little. Most of what the Edge (real name Dave Evans) played on U2’s early albums, from Boy in 1980 to the ’87 global smash The Joshua Tree, can be described thusly: circular skeletal arpeggios swimming in oceans of reverb; few conventional chords or solos. But the elegant urgency of the Edge’s minimalism on those records perfectly framed and fueled the earnest, flag-waving theatricality of Bono’s voice. With U2’s swerve into apocalyptic dance music on 1991’s Achtung Baby, the Edge coated his riffs in extreme distortion and electronic treatments but without betraying his playing credo: Less is most.

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23. Warren Haynes
Haynes is possibly the hardest-working guitarist on the planet ”” a cornerstone of the Allman Brothers Band, leader of Gov’t Mule, pivotal member of Phil Lesh and Friends. Displaying controlled intensity, he’s a meaty and masterful slide player, as well as a soulful singer and songwriter. Steeped in the uncut blues of Muddy Waters and Elmore James, and especially bitten by the heavy rock-trio sound of Cream and Mountain, Haynes has kept the blues-rock.

22. Mike Bloomfield
Bloomfield’s reputation as the American white-blues guitarist of the 1960s rests on a small, searing body of work: his licks on Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, his two LPs with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and his sublime jamming with Al Kooper on 1968’s Super Session. Born in Chicago, Bloomfield grew up in local blues clubs, where he worked with many black legends. His modal runs and jabbing breaks were executed with pinpoint force in a ringing-bell tone. Bloomfield’s gifts faded as he fell into drug abuse. He died of an overdose in 1981.

21. George Harrison
As the Beatles’ lead guitarist, George Harrison never played an unnecessary note. In his solos and fills, he prized clarity and concision above all things. But every note made history, from the Cavern Club R&B frenzy of his breaks in “I Saw Her Standing There” to the hallucinogenic splendor of his contributions to Revolver and the matured elegance of his work on Abbey Road. John Lennon and Paul McCartney dominated the Beatles’ revolutionary course through 1960s pop, but Harrison defined the musical character of those innovations in his explorations of studio technology, tonal color and Indian scales. At the same time, he never strayed from the terse, earthy qualities of his first love, 1950s rockabilly, and his biggest idol, Sun Records star Carl Perkins. Harrison’s final album, Brainwashed ”” recorded in the years before his death from cancer in 2001 ”” features some of his finest twang.

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