An authoritative list of the 10 best guitarists of all time
19 November 2015, 14:17
So many top guitarist lists focus on the same old faces. We’ve selected our favourites based on influence, originality, musicality and rifftageousness. Obviously.
You might not know this, but the English composer John Dowland was the original guitar hero. Well, a lute hero. Countless Downland songs have, by default, influenced pretty much every guitarist since his 16th century heyday, and his morose disposition also makes him something of a Renaissance Morrissey. The fact that top flight guitarists are still discovering, covering and reinterpreting his works makes him far more indispensable than his peers and many of those that he influenced. Oh, and Sting also did a whole album of Dowland covers, but maybe we should forget about that.
Anyone who thinks the main qualifier for being a great jazz guitarist is technique needs to take a look at Django Reinhardt’s left hand. His fourth and fifth fingers were paralysed in an accident early in his life (see also: Sabbath’s Tony Iommi), which forced him to adopt a truly unique playing style that resulted in some of the barmiest progressions on record.
Prince Rodgers Nelson, the reclusive, eccentric genius behind some of the filthiest music ever recorded, also happens to be one of the world’s most influential guitarists. Normally we try to be analytical with this sort of thing, but Prince is like weird anomaly, a guitar goblin who exists only to rip solos. We can’t really explain what’s so good about him. He just is. Discussing Prince these days must be like discussing Mozart in the 18th century - it's impossible to pinpoint how or why he became so naturally gifted. Legend has it that in an interview Prince was asked, ‘What do you smoke to stay looking so young?’ His answer: ‘Other guitar players.’
Formerly of alt rock legends Sonic Youth, Thurston Moore is the king of guitar noise. A serial experimenter, a fuzz extraordinaire, a purveyor of obscure tunings and a floppy-haired firebrand. He is noted in indie circles for inspiring a generation of teenagers to start hacking at their guitars with screwdrivers, but unlike many of his imitators, Moore can actually play beautifully, melodically and sensitively when the time is right. Of course, the time is rarely right, and he usually prefers to do stuff like this:
We know what you’re thinking. Yes, Paganini was better known as a violinist. But the flame-haired Italian virtuoso was also a mean shredder of both the mandolin and the guitar, composing multiple works for both. More than this, though, Paganini was the very first heroic virthuosi, the very paradigm of a modern rock legend. He was the first musician to be celebrated in the way that we now worship the likes of Jimi Hendrix, James Hetfield and Slash - hard-living, hard-playing legends that have become synonymous with their instrument. Perhaps the best proof of Paganini's influence on modern guitarists is that time in the ‘80s when Steve Vai decided he pretty much WAS Paganini, going on to inspire a deluge of YouTube covers:
There’s a tendency among showy, flashy, widdly guitarists to be completely naff at songwriting itself. Brian May is a notable exception, having penned some of Queen’s finest songs, but it’s still true to say that his main contribution was to the fretboard. Baroque-influenced, unafraid of delirious harmony and effects, May is surely the most thoughtful and inventive guitarist to have topped the charts. The solo on 'Brighton Rock'' is simultaneously the most bizarre but logical statement May ever made:
He had his critics, notably his former pupil John Williams, but Spanish legend Andrés Segovia remains to the classical guitar what San Miguel is to the beer industry: omnipresent, well-loved and… err… delicious. Segovia was steeped in the classics, the absolute bones of the instrument, and did not take kindly to wild innovation. Not the most progressive of musicians, maybe, but undoubtedly one of the most naturally gifted - and his role as an educator and influencer has made his inclusion on this list essential. If you know anyone who plays classical guitar and doesn’t get laughed at, it’s because of Segovia.
If we could sum up Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page in one word, it would be ‘riffs’. Seemingly incapable of composing anything other than monumentally satisfying head-nodders, Page’s technique shares as much in common with the great minimalists like Philip Glass and John Cage than with the blues standards he grew up with. Just listen to the guitar solo in ‘Stairway To Heaven’ - after much melodic widdling and blues scale rifferama, it finally succumbs to powerfully hypnotic, devastating repetition. *raises horns*
More commonly known as St. Vincent, Clark is part of a huge and growing pool of modern guitarists that absolutely flout the rules of traditional guitar playing. What’s most pleasing about her idiosyncratic style is that she views the instrument not just as a riff machine or a widdle board - to her, it’s an orchestra played with two hands. Dense textures, layers, loops, harmonies and melodies all emanate with ease and regularity, but it’s all governed by one thing: how it serves the song. A true wizard.
He’s now known widely as a composer of difficult but somehow-still-accessible contemporary classical music, but it’s always remembering the instrument that made Jonny Greenwood’s name. As guitarist in Radiohead, he took the prevailing alt rock template (see Thurston Moore above) and flooded it with technology, squelchy noises and bonkers vibrato. And he looked like a lady art teacher while he was doing it. Is there a more musically thoughtful guitarist working in pop today? Probably not.