From blues to rock 'n' roll, the six-stringed instrument can turn a good song into an ageless hit. But only if the right person is playing it. Take a look at some of music's most legendary guitarists.
40. Jerry Garcia
Jerome John Garcia, better known as Jerry by his fellow Deadheads, was one of the founding members and lead guitarist of the rock band Grateful Dead. He performed with the band from 1965 until 1995 when he sadly passed away. The band was practically always on tour, so Jerry rocked the stage until the very end.
Garcia had a tendency to combine elements from various genres of music that influenced him. He described his playing style as having "descended from barroom rock and roll, country guitar... It's like that blues instrumental stuff that was happening in the late fifties and early sixties, like Freddie King."
39. Joni Mitchell
Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell began performing in small clubs in Canada before moving to America for music. Her 1971 album, Blue, is often regarded as one of the best albums of all time, and according to the New York Times, it represented "turning points and pinnacles in 20th-century popular music."
Her songs frequently reflect social and philosophical ideals and her opinions on romance, womanhood, and other aspects of life. Joni's received quite a few Grammys and earned herself a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Plus, Rolling Stone called her "one of the greatest songwriters ever."
38. Buddy Guy
George Guy, better known as Buddy in the music world, is an American blues guitarist and vocalist. He grew up in Louisiana, and when he wasn't picking cotton, Buddy taught himself to play the acoustic guitar. He started performing with various bands in Baton Rouge during the 50s, hoping for his big break.
He truly thrived during the blues revival of the late 80s. Over the years, Buddy's influenced other noteworthy artists, including Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, and more. He was even ranked number 23 on Rolling Stone's list of 100 greatest guitarists of all time, and he's still performing live today.
37. Tony Iommi
Anthony Iommi defied the odds when he became an expert guitarist after losing two fingertips while working in a factory as a teenager. The accident impacted his playing style, but it didn't stop Tony from thriving as the lead guitarist in the heavy metal band Black Sabbath.
He eventually released his first solo album, titled Iommi, in 2000, followed by a few others over the years, including collaborations with various other artists. Iommi also wrote the song Lonely Planet which was performed by Dorians for Armenia in the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest.
36. Tom Morello
Born in Harlem, New York, and raised in Illinois, Tom Morello discovered his passion for music and politics during high school. He attended Harvard University and later formed the band Race Against the Machine with Zack de la Rocha; Their music became incredibly popular during the 90s.
Morello's known for his unique sound, as he incorporates feedback noise, unconventional picking, tapping, and heavy use of guitar effects. Today, he spends most of his time writing folk music for his solo project, The Nightwatchman, saying it's "my political alter ego." This way, Morello can combine his two passions.
35. Brian May
Before Queen, the English musician formed the band Smile in 1968, alongside Roger Taylor and a few others. Smile eventually broke up, and Brian May went on to form Queen, with Taylor and Freddie Mercury, becoming one of the most legendary rock bands in history.
Since the beginning, May's been using the same guitar, which he built with his father during his younger years. This very guitar, known as "the old lady," has led him to success, playing songs like Bohemian Rhapsody and Stone Cold Crazy. If you ask Brian, "the guitar was my weapon, my shield to hide behind."
34. Willie Nelson
When Willie Nelson released his first record, No Place for Me, back in 1956, it wasn't very successful, but he continued performing in Vancouver clubs whenever possible. Later in his life, Nelson moved to Nashville, hoping a label would sign him; Eventually, he joined Ray Price's band, and the rest was history.
He debuted his solo career during the 60s, and he continued recording country hits for many years to come. His album Shotgun Willie and some of his infamous singles helped Nelson become one of the most recognized country artists in the industry. Today, at age 87, he's still going strong.
33. Robby Krieger
Robby Krieger might've had a late start to the game, but that sure didn't stop him from making some incredible music. Krieger joined the band the Doors in 1965 and was the last permanent member to join the group. After the Doors split in 1973, Robby formed the Butts Band and focused on jazz-fusion music.
He eventually launched a successful solo career but continued to put together various other groups, including the Robby Krieger Organization, during the early 90s. According to Rolling Stone, Krieger's one of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time, as he can play with just about anyone and perform incredibly.
32. The Edge
Long before he jammed out with U2, David Evans taught himself how to play guitar, and evidently, he did a great job! He formed a band with his classmates in Ireland, which would eventually evolve into the iconic band U2. As the lead guitarist, keyboardist, and backup vocalist of the band, The Edge has certainly made his mark.
He first adopted the name, 'The Edge" at a young age because he typically refrained from getting involved in the action; He preferred to stay on the edge of things, so it just seemed fitting. Evans is also extremely philanthropic and started a charity to support musicians impacted by Hurricane Katrina.
31. Elmore James
Elmore James learned to play stringed instruments as a child. The first instrument he played was called the "diddley bow" or "jitterbug," but it was only a matter of time before he got his hands on a guitar. He was incredibly skilled from the start, which might've been thanks to his experience with the "diddley bow."
James became an iconic blues guitarist and was known as the "King of the Slide Guitar" during his career. His loud amplification and unique voice set him apart from the rest. In 1992, Elmore was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and although he's no longer with us, his legacy will live on forever.
30. Scotty Moore
When people think of 1950s rock 'n' roll, Elvis Presley often comes to mind. But for some guitar fanatics, it's the man who stood behind him that stands out most: Scotty Moore, Presley's lead guitarist.
"When I heard Heartbreak Hotel, I knew what I wanted to do in life. It was as plain as day," Keith Richards once said. "All I wanted to do in the world was to be able to play and sound like that. Everyone else wanted to be Elvis; I wanted to be Scotty."
29. Muddy Waters
Muddy Waters was one of the leading figures in the rock 'n' roll wave of the mid-50s; Waters changed music history when he electrified his guitar. Some argue that we wouldn't have certain legendary bands like the Rolling Stones without this talented guitarist.
But according to his daughter, Muddy saw things differently. "I think he said once that, 'The blues had a baby and they named it rock 'n' roll,' but he was just this really humble guy," she said. "I don't think he thought he started a rock 'n' roll revolution, even though history has shown that he did."
28. Tom Petty
This famous musician was the lead vocalist and guitarist of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and recorded many hit singles. As a teen, he learned how to play guitar from none other than Don Felder, the Eagles' guitarist. "Tom Petty came in one day, gosh, he must've been 12 or 13... He wanted to play guitar," Felder recalled.
So he taught and supported Petty in his earliest musical performances. "Tom was just absolutely fearless onstage," Don described. "I remember standing in the audience at one of his early shows when he was about 14, and there were these girls going, 'Oh my god, he's so great!"
27. Frank Zappa
Frank Zappa, pictured below performing in the Netherlands in 1982, had a career that spanned more than 30 years and composed rock, pop, jazz, jazz fusion, and orchestral works. Surprisingly, the skillful guitarist didn't start playing the string instrument until he was 18 years old!
"I went out collecting R&B guitar records," Zappa shared. "The [guitar] solos were never long enough - they only gave them one chorus, and I figured the only way I was going to get to hear enough of what I wanted to hear was to get an instrument and play it myself."
26. Billy Gibbons
Billy Gibbons rose to fame as the guitarist and lead vocalist of ZZ Top. In a 2019 interview, the celebrated musician described his first musical inspirations. "When I was five years old, my mom took myself and my little sister out to see Elvis Presley live. I said, 'Man, that's what I wanna do!'" he shared.
The next crucial point in Billy's early aspirations was when his dad, who was in the entertainment business, took him to the recording studio to watch a special someone. "It turned out to be a B.B. King's recording session," Gibbons said. "So between seeing Elvis Presley and B.B. King, I thought, 'Man, this is it. This is for me!'"
25. David Gilmour
David Gilmour made music history as the guitarist and co-lead vocalist for Pink Floyd and has also released four solo studio albums. In what some viewed as a surprising move, Gilmour decided to auction off 120 of his iconic guitars to charity in 2019.
"Guitars are special in what they give you, but I'm not overly sentimental about the qualities that some people think become imbued in one particular instrument itself," David explained when asked how he was able to part ways with the precious pieces.
24. Joe Perry
This guitarist rocked the stage for over 40 years alongside his Aerosmith band members. In a 2004 interview, Perry said the key to his incredible live performances - other than his natural talent and hard work - is using the same guitar to perform a song as he did to record it.
"I use the same guitar, with the same tuning, that I recorded it with... or something as close to it as I can get," Joe explained. At the time, Perry said he took about 20 guitars on tour, a big drop from the previous 40 or 50 the musician carried at one point in his epic career.
Slash is considered one of the greatest guitarists in rock history, so some were surprised when he revealed a surprising detail about his creative process. "My go-to guitar writing is just a non-amplified Les Paul, because I don't like anyone to hear what I'm working on - I'm very self-conscious that way," Slash explained.
"The electric guitar played acoustic is great if you don't want people to pay attention to what you're working on," he continued. "I haven't really grown out of that. I'm still a very self-conscious and insecure guitar player." It's hard to believe that even Grammy-nominated artists have their insecurities!
22. Buddy Holly
Buddy Holly initially got into music because of his father. Unable to carry a tune himself but still a lover of the arts, Buddy's dad wanted his kids to play an instrument. A young Holly started on the violin, switched to the piano, followed by the steel guitar, and then a standard acoustic model.
By 1955, at about 19 years old, Buddy was the opening act for Elvis Presley and had decided to pursue a music career. He ultimately became one of the iconic figures of mid-50s rock and roll. Above, he is pictured performing on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1958.
21. Neil Young
Young has twice been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and holds several Grammys. When asked if he was disappointed in the comparatively low sales of his 1973 album Time Fades Away, the then 28-year-old made his priorities as a musician clear. "I'm not sorry I put it out," Neil said.
"I didn't need the money; I didn't need the fame. You gotta keep changing," he continued. "I don't [care] if my audience is a hundred or a hundred million... I'm convinced that what sells and what I do are two completely different things. If they meet, it's coincidence."
20. Dick Dale
"It's just Dick Dale music. Some people called me 'King of the Surf Guitar,' historians named me 'the father of heavy metal,' but I don't care much about stuff like that. It's just Dick Dale music," the famed guitarist said of his renowned work in a 2004 interview.
Dale was one of the most prominent guitarists of the 1960s, influencing The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, and The Trashmen. After his rise during the flower power era, Dick made a comeback in the 90s when Quentin Tarantino used his recording of Misirlou in Pulp Fiction. Lucky for us, four albums and world tours followed.
19. Freddie King
Freddie King is considered by many as one of the most influential electric blues guitarists ever. He is often referred to as one of "The Three Kings," alongside legendary blues artists B.B. King and Albert King. Freddie was skilled on the strings and he had an unforgettable voice.
By 1961, at the age of 27, King's single Have You Ever Loved a Woman and his instrumental Hide Away reached number five on Billboard's rhythm and blues chart. The timeless musician inspired the likes of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Carlos Santana, as they've said themselves.
18. Kurt Cobain
The late Kurt Cobain was the primary songwriter for Nirvana and went down in history as one of the greatest guitarists ever. "We play so hard that we can't tune our guitars fast enough," the artist said in his final interview with Guitar World in 1992. "People can relate to that."
The musician was known for his "violent" guitar playing techniques. In the same interview, Cobain confirmed that he used "heavy-duty [guitar] strings" to withstand the aggression. "I keep blowing up amplifiers, so I use whatever I can find at junk shops - junk is always best," he added.
17. Angus Young
The co-founder and lead guitarist of the hard rock band AC/DC is, in his words, a guitar "illiterate." Angus Young learned to play mainly by observing his older brother Malcolm and said that most of his solos are performed by "feel" rather than much planning.
Young takes the number 17 spot on this list, something the artist likely would have never imagined when he first began playing. "I remember one of the first gigs I played with [an] amp was at a local church," Angus shared. "I... started playing, and everybody started yelling 'Turn it down!'"
16. George Harrison
During the early 1960s, The Beatles began taking Europe by storm. Then they made their American debut in 1964, and well, the rest is history. The renowned group brought us timeless hits like Come Together and While My Guitar Gently Weeps. It also introduced one of the greatest guitarists - George Harrison.
The shot above pictures Harrison performing with The Beatles on the ABC Television show Thank Your Lucky Stars in 1965. After the band broke up in 1970, George continued rocking radio waves with his solo work and incredible guitar skills in All Things Must Pass, Dark Horse, and more.
15. Albert King
When music critic John Landau asked Albert King who he had learned how to play the guitar from, the musician answered, "Nobody. Everything I do is wrong." King was technically right - he used his thumb, had a low and untraditional tuning, and played a Vshaped Gibson - all unusual for guitarists.
And yet, many would agree everything about King's sound felt right. Albert once said he thought of the instrument as a "second voice." "I play the singing guitar; that's what I've always called it," the legend explained. "I also sing along with my notes. It's how I think about where I'm going."
14. Joe Walsh
Joe Walsh's career spans more than 50 years. The acclaimed musician has been a member of three famous rock bands: James Gang, Eagles, and Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band. One of his most celebrated tracks is Hotel California, where he and Don Felder both played their guitars.
In a 1981 interview, Walsh discussed how he started to play the string instrument at 17 years old. "Guitar was the only thing that I didn't have to practice," Joe said. "Guitar was the one thing that nobody made me practice. That was just something that I decided I wanted to play, so I kind of taught myself. I really did."
"I love you baby, but not like I love my guitar," Prince sang in his 2007 hit Guitar. The iconic artist had a deep relationship with the instrument and was reportedly offended when Rolling Stone omitted him from their 2004 list of 100 Greatest Guitarists.
A few days after the article was published, Prince performed an epic guitar solo at his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. Seven years later, he was included in an updated ranking. "I always wanted to be thought of as a guitarist," Prince told Guitar World. "But you have a hit, and you know what happens..."
12. Pete Townshend
Looking at the below photo of Pete Townshend rocking out with The Who in 1976, it might be hard to believe the famed guitarist initially wanted to quit the band. "Immediately, I started to realize it wasn't a job that I like. I didn't like the traveling. I didn't like being on stage," he told Rolling Stone.
Thankfully, touring in the U.S. changed his mind. "It may have been around the time we first started to work in the United States playing places like the Fillmore and the Electric Factory... where we were allowed to stretch out and explore," Townshend said. We can't imagine a world without Pete's songwriting and guitar playing!
11. Stevie Ray Vaughan
Some things just can't be taught, and Stevie Ray Vaughan might be the epitome of natural talent. The celebrated guitarist relied solely on his ears and innate abilities. "I took music theory for one year in high school and flunked all but one six-week period," he said. "That's because I couldn't read music."
And Stevie never learned to. "A lot of the songs I write now - I don't even know what key they're in," he said in a 1984 interview. "I have to ask somebody to find out. I can play it; I just can't name it. Jazz changes and all. But I don't know the names of what it is I'm doing."
10. Duane Allman
This guitarist began playing at 14 years old and rose to fame with The Allman Brothers Band. Duane sadly passed at the young age of 24, but his music lives on. Perhaps a testament to a musician's talent is when other legends compliment them. Such is the case with the late Allman, whose work Eric Clapton once called "the best."
"I remember hearing Hey Jude by Wilson Pickett and calling either Ahmet Ertegun or Tom Dowd and saying, 'Who's that guitar player?'" Clapton said. Duane Allman was the 22-year-old guitarist on the track. Eric added, "To this day, I've never heard better rock guitar playing on an R&B record. It's the best."
9. Carlos Santana
Mexican-born Carlos Santana was in San Francisco when the city's music scene exploded in the mid-60s. Over five decades later, the guitarist has won a whopping 10 Grammy Awards. "I used to look at my guitar like it was building blocks," Santana said of how his relationship with the instrument changed over time.
"I don't look at it like that anymore," he continued. "I look at it more like drinking water. Water is going to go into your system, and then you're gonna sweat it out. Again it comes back to trust. You trust your fingers; you trust your heart, and... you trust that you're going to say something soulful and significant."
8. B.B. King
It's hard to know what the world of blues would look like without this legendary guitarist nicknamed "The King of the Blues." In an interview with Rolling Stone in 2008, the then 82-year-old musician discussed where his head goes as he performs a solo. "Sometimes I forget who I am," B.B. explained.
"I'm thinking about trying to tell this story that I want you to understand," he continued. "It's like now, just talking with you, it makes me feel good if I can make you understand what I'm trying to tell you. Even if I don't have all the words, I'm doing my best. That's the same way I think about the music."
7. Jeff Beck
Jeff Beck's talent spans several genres. The famous guitarist's works have ranged from blues-rock to hard rock and jazz fusion. Jeff has collaborated with Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger, and Tina Turner, to name a few. When asked if he uses all his fingers to play the guitar, Beck unsurprisingly said yes.
"Oh, yeah, every single one. Even the little finger on my hand right," he answered. "That's more like a style of bravado, you know - I do it when I know there's a video camera on me - I just make sure that everyone sees me use it! I wouldn't like to have it cut off; let's put it like that."
6. Eddie Van Halen
The late Eddie Van Halen and his band dominated the hard rock scene in the 1970s and 1980s. While the musician was known for his shaggy long hair and rockstar looks, he said it took much more than looking "freaky and jumping around" to be a good guitarist.
"If you want to be a rock guitarist, you have to enjoy what you are doing," Eddie told Guitar Player in 1978. "You can't pick up a guitar and say, 'I want to be a rock star' just because you want to be one. You have to enjoy playing guitar. If you don't enjoy it, then it's useless."
5. Keith Richards
Keith Richards changed the face of music when he and the rest of The Rolling Stones shot to fame in the sixties. And the guitarist is not slowing down; below, he is pictured performing in Havana, Cuba, in 2016. In a 2020 interview with Guitar, Richards discussed who influenced his musical awakening.
"When I started, all I wanted to do was play like Chuck [Berry]. I thought if I could do that, I'd be the happiest man in the world," Keith said. "I'd dream of playing with Muddy Waters, but the only way I'd imagine it happening would be if I make it to heaven - and he makes it there - then we can play together."
4. Chuck Berry
Chuck Berry is considered one of the most influential figures of the first decade of rock 'n' roll. The shot below captured him in a signature split move while playing his Gibson hollow body electric guitar in 1968. After the icon's passing, his son, Charles, spoke to Guitar.com about Berry's love for performing.
"There were three loves in my dad's life - my mother, who he was married to for almost 68 years, his children, and playing that music," he said. "Now I ranked it like that... but the music might have come before us kids, I don't know! But he lived to play music. It was his absolute joy - that and making my mum happy."
3. Jimmy Page
Some might look at this picture of Jimmy Page and already know what he was playing: an instrumental version of Stairway To Heaven on a Gibson double-neck guitar. The model was the only way Page could manage to perform the epic song live, as the recorded track involved four different guitars.
"In actual fact, the song dictated the guitar," Jimmy said of choosing the instrument model. "I couldn't have done it on anything else. Now you see a double-neck, and you think, 'Oh, it's Jimmy Page. I know. Or is it someone else?' But it probably is Jimmy Page if it's a red one."
2. Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton is the only person to have been inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times. Known worldwide for his rock and blues guitar style, Clapton was initially inspired by the likes of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee.
In a 1990 interview with Radio 1, Eric explained that he convinced his grandma to get him a guitar in the late fifties. "When I did finally get the guitar, it didn't seem that difficult to me, to be able to make a good noise out of it," Clapton said. "I used to sit on the top of the stairs... and got a good sound out of it."
1. Jimi Hendrix
It's hardly surprising that Jimi Hendrix tops this list of legendary guitarists. When Rolling Stone asked if his songwriting process involved sitting down with his guitar and strumming away, Hendrix said a hard no. "The music I might hear I can't get on the guitar," he answered.
"It's a thing of just laying around daydreaming or something," Jimi added. "If you pick up your guitar and just try to play, it spoils the whole thing. I can't play the guitar that well to get all this music together, so I just lay around. I wish I could have learned how to write for instruments."