Compiling a best guitarists of all time list is clearly an impossible task – music, thankfully, is not like running the 100 metres, in which an exact comparison can be made between athletes present and past – and what makes a great guitarist is purely subjective. What does become apparent when listing the best guitarists of all time is that whilst showmanship, inventiveness and technical ability all play major parts in securing a guitarist’s place amongst the all time greats, it is musicality which is the main factor and the common denominator that links the best guitarists of all time.
(The guitarists below are not ranked in any particular order)
Best Guitarists Of All Time – Jimi Hendrix
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An innovator and a genuine musician – who knows what he would have gone on to achieve had his life not been cut so tragically short (a project with Miles Davis was apparently being considered). Hendrix played with real feel, and a musicality which provided the substance to back up the undeniable style. As with the other guitarists on this list, you only need to hear a few bars of Hendrix’s music to recognise who it is. His bluesy playing was tinged with jazz and he brought distortion, wah-wah and other experimental sounds to the mainstream.
Best Guitarists Of All Time – Django Reinhardt
Most people know about Django Reinhardt – the gypsy guitarist whose fretting hand was so badly burnt in a caravan fire that two of his fretting fingers were virtually paralysed. One would never have known it listening to his playing – most guitarists struggle to play his music with the full use of their hands. Reinhardt plays with an energy and ‘joie de vivre’ that still bursts forth with freshness and eagerness to this day. What is genuinely surprising is that given the amount of people who have since tried to emulate Reinhardt’s style, nearly all fall short. It is testament to Reinhardt’s playing that there still is only one Django!
Best Guitarists Of All Time – Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny has it all – technique, versatility and musicality. A master of being able to express himself though improvisation, Pat Metheny lives and breathes music, jumping from project to project and producing a large body of recorded work. He has played and recorded with many ensembles and line ups, including using a custom-made mechanical orchestra on a recent tour.
Best Guitarists Of All Time – Wes Montgomery
The master of soulful jazz guitar playing, Wes Montgomery can play achingly cool, and blisteringly fast bop. So strong is his legacy that he is still quoted as being a major influence by many jazz guitarists of today. Again, Montgomery proves that it is feel and melodic sense that separates the greats from the merely good players. Unlike most of the other guitarists in this list, Wes Montgomery is mostly unknown to non-guitarists and people who aren’t jazz aficionados, which is a shame for such an influential musician.
Best Guitarists Of All Time – Jimmy Page
After a spell as a session musician, Jimmy Page joined the Yardbirds in 1966, originally as the bass player. The Yardbirds split up in 1968, despite Page’s desire to continue with the band, causing him to form a replacement group. This new band, originally called ‘The New Yardbirds’, eventually became Led Zeppelin. Page’s memorable riffs, virtuoso lead playing and inventive approach to recording have lead him to become one of the guitar greats.
Best Guitarists Of All Time – Steve Vai
Steve Vai first appeared as a member of Frank Zappa’s band, and made his name as Dave Lee Roth’s guitarist. Vai’s advanced technique and ‘shredding’ ability are much admired by his fans, and he has released several highly successful instrumental albums. Vai is also a consummate showman and has developed a kind of ‘mystic’ ‘Zen-like’ image in his album covers, stage shows and signature guitars. Vai’s playing is marked not only by acrobatic shredding ability, but also by intense use of vibrato and pitch-shifting effects.
Best Guitarists Of All Time – Eric Clapton
Perhaps the biggest name in electric blues guitar playing, Clapton made his reputation in the 60’s, playing with influential bands such as The Yardbirds and John Mayall’s bluesbreakers, then forming Cream, the world’s first supergroup. Clapton has also had a great deal of commercial success, and is one of the most well-known guitarists of all time.
Best Guitarists Of All Time – Joe Pass
Joe Pass was a master jazz guitarist, who played with many of the greats, including Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. A versatile player, who became best known for his solo jazz guitar playing, with walking bass lines, comping and lead lines played simultaneously. Like all the best jazz guitarists, Pass possessed phenomenal technique twinned with a high degree of musicality.
Best Guitarists Of All Time – Tommy Emmanuel
Tommy Emmanuel is a virtuoso guitar player, mainly known for his solo acoustic playing. He uses a mixture of playing styles, using fingers, a thumbpick and plectrum in various combinations, as well as using the body of his guitar to create rhythmic sounds. Tommy Emmanuel’s phenomenal guitar playing is twinned with great showmanship, and has to be seen to be believed.
Best Guitarists Of All Time – Andres Segovia
Without Segovia, it is perhaps debatable whether the guitar, in any form, would be as popular an instrument as it is today. Known as the ‘Father Of Classical Guitar’, Segovia, through constant touring and concert-giving, and by requesting and receiving commissions from the foremost composers of the day, played a huge part in raising awareness of the guitar as a serious instrument.
Please do bear in mind that this is a personal list. I imagine some of you will be offended (I hope not overly so) by the absence of Satriani, Malmsteen or Van Halen, or some of the older blues masters, or jazzers like Tal Farlow and Bireli Lagrene. Where the hell are Dave Gilmour or Brian May? Or some of the incredible up and coming jazz and / or speed metal guitarists? You may well be right to be offended! As I say, this list is purely subjective – perhaps your own best guitarists of all time list wouldn’t include any of the above (would you really leave Hendrix out?!) if so, add your own lists below, we’d be very interested in hearing from you, and if overwhelming public feeling deems our own list to be incorrect, then perhaps we’ll change it!
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