Listmania: Top 50 Guitarists (#10-1)

In pop culture, lists are everything. They lend a sense of order to an otherwise orderless world. From film and literature to music, critics and readers alike love to put things in tidy rows. It is with this in mind that Popdose presents Listmania, a weekly series counting down the staff’s favorite things.

This is it! The top 10 guitarists, according to the Popdose staff. I’m certain that there are at least one or two surprises waiting for you below, alongside a few obvious choices. Next week, we’ll run an epilogue to the list with the guitarists that just missed the list. For now, here’s your top 10.

If you missed the previous week’s installment, you can catch up here:
Top 50 Guitarists (50-36)
Top 50 Guitarists (35-21)
Top 50 Guitarists (20-11)

10. David Gilmour. Our appreciation for David Gilmour can be summed up thusly: he’s arguably the only person on this list one could identify by only hearing a single note (excluding the use of feedback and effects pedals, of course). Gilmour’s playing doesn’t just boast an abundance of personality, though – it has considerable emotional depth and flexibility as well, which is why he can be found on Roger Waters’ songs of alienation, Bryan Ferry’s lustful ballads, Kate Bush’s pleas for reconciliation, and whatever issues Pete Townshend is working through at the time. The true genius of his playing, however, lies in its economy; he treats his solos like vocal performances, creating a hook with a few highly memorable notes rather than gunning down the listener with a smattering of forgettable ones. There literally isn’t another guitarist like him in all of rock. Pity. - David Medsker
9. George Harrison. Sure, he may have been “the quiet Beatle,” but George Harrison’s voice was loud and clear from the earliest Beatles’ recordings, through his work as part of The Travelling Willburys. Harrison was gentle when he needed to be; as heard in his lilting acoustic guitar work on “Till There Was You,” and he knew when not to be; see “I Me Mine.” He could say it all, without a word; imagine “Here Comes the Sun” without the vocal track, can you still clearly hear the words? Perhaps one of his greatest contributions, and the one that cements him in the top 10, is “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Arguably, one of the greatest guitar songs of all time; it has been covered by just about every guitarist on this list in some form, and stands as a tribute to the man himself. - Michael Parr
8. Jimmy Page. When thinking about what makes a great guitarist, the natural thing is to point to examples in certain songs, or how long of a shadow an artist has cast in the culture.  With Jimmy Page, it’s undeniable that he’s one of the greats, and there’s no shortage of guitarists who point to Page’s work as a major influence in their own playing.  But greatness isn’t something that arises out of vacuum; it doesn’t “just happen.”  Yes, one has to have talent, but sometimes it takes years of playing a variety of styles and being a student of music that is broader than the standard rock scale to become sui generis in the rock biz. Jimmy Page’s biography follows that trajectory.  Before joining the Yardbirds, and later forming Led Zeppelin, Page was a session player who developed a talent to quickly learn a song, and generally play it in one or two takes.  Through this musical apprenticeship as a session player, he was able to get his stylistic chops up by playing music that, yes, paid the bills, but also playing a variety of musical styles that built up an arsenal of riffs and a versatility of playing that other rock guitarists lacked. And while it’s easy to classify the mighty Zep as ‘70s cock rock, just listening to the classic riffs in songs like “Heartbreaker,” the acoustic noodling of “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp,” or the progressive rock of “Achilles Last Stand,” it’s clear that Page is an artist who pushed himself in new directions while trying not to rest on his musical laurels. - Ted Asregadoo
7. Jeff Beck. There are a few instances that come to mind when the name Jeff Beck is heard. The first is the lineage of The Yardbirds, where he was between Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page in the guitarist running order. [Ironically, this is also where he sits in our list - Ed.] The second is his version of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” with Rod Stewart on the vocals. The third is his temperament, famously short. What gets lost a lot of the time is his gift with a guitar. Eschewing the older glories, I’d like to point your way to one of the coolest instrumental albums of the 1980’s, Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop. On it, he lets his guitar swing (“Savoy”), cry (“Behind The Veil”) and explode (“Sling Shot”.) He has also added his specific touch to other projects like Roger Waters’ album Amused To Death. Nowhere is it felt more, and felt is a choice word here, than the instrumental bridge between the tracks “It’s A Miracle” and “Amused To Death”. “It’s A Miracle” is a sarcastic take on the folly of man, viewed as the species does all the things it ought to do, peace, justice, that sort of thing. It’s sad and moving because, as we all seem to learn daily, these better aspects never seem to take hold. It is the squeal of Beck’s guitar, backed by a choir of voices, that doesn’t herald the grand occurrence, but mourns for it seems so unlikely. I don’t know if talent and perfectionism warrants bad behavior. Maybe it should; the gossip sites tell us every day about those without talent and professionalism, and how their sense of entitlement makes them look that much more foolish. Beck seems to feel justified in his reactions and a part of me, the part that listens to what he can do with a guitar, can’t blame him. Now if I was his bassist or drummer, I might feel a whole lot differently! - Dw. Dunphy
6. Eric Clapton. He had to end up in the top ten. We’re not shocked, but we are a little disappointed; after all, he winds up number one on virtually all “Best Guitarist” lists. Disappointment may be harsh, but Clapton is just as well known for squandering his gifts as he is presenting them. “Wonderful Tonight”? “Change The World”? Where’s the passion on those songs? Fortunately for him, and for us, he still has a lot of discography entries that confirm Slowhand’s immortality. He’ll never leave us, or the top ten of Guitarist lists, but next time out, E.C., it had better be awesome. - DW
5. Prince. Ain’t no one bad like Prince. From the crescendo that closes “Let’s Go Crazy” to the jangle of “Raspberry Beret,” Prince has always put the guitar front and center in his mix. Even when experimenting outside of his wheelhouse, the guitar is never far. Sure, since finding Jehovah and losing the cuss words and any form of sexual innuendo from his music, he’s lost some of his fire. But it seems that he has chosen to drive that pent up energy into his guitar work; channeling ferocious riff work into tracks such as “Fury,” and the aptly titled “Guitar.” Live, he has taken his guitar work of hits past and cranked them up to 11. Look for a version of the Parade sleeper “Anotherloverholenyohead” from his 21 night residency at London’s O2 and just stand back when the riff kicks in. Hell, just revisit his Super Bowl performance from a few years back and watch him slay his signature lead from “Purple Rain.” His brilliance on six-strings knows no bounds; he’ll out-funk, out-rock, out-shred everyone — he’ll do it without breaking a sweat, ’cause he’s bad like that. - MP
4. Steve Cropper. As the guitarist for Booker T. & The MGs, Steve Cropper’s stinging Telecaster defined Southern soul guitar on dozens of classics on Stax Records. The ultimate rhythm guitar player, Cropper’s specialty is filling in the spaces, never overplaying, all in service to the groove and, most importantly, the song. Think of the arpeggios in Otis Redding’s ballads, the use of sixths on “Soul Man” by Sam & Dave, the metronomic chinka-chink on Eddie Floyd’s “Knock On Wood” and you’ll hear a versatility that is often overlooked. But it’s his solo on “Something,” from McLemore Avenue, where he boils down George Harrison’s beautifully fluid original to its most essential notes, that defines Cropper’s approach to his instrument. - David Lifton
3. Stevie Ray Vaughan. On August 27th, it will have been 20 years since Stevie Ray Vaughan left this earth. In those 20 years, the legend of the hard playin’ Texan has eclipsed his fame while alive. In guitar circles, he’s revered for the ferocity with which he played; one need only look at his “Number One” to see the passion he threw into his performance. Wrestling the tone from his guitar and amp, pushing both to the extreme limits — all in search of the sound in his head. To Stevie, it was all part of the role; “I don’t consider myself a guitar hero,” he said “I just have fun playing the guitar.” Spoken like a true hero, Stevie. - MP
2. Eddie Van Halen. Yes, he turned the guitar world on its ear with his singular technique — like baby boomers who know exactly where they were when JFK was shot, there isn’t a guitar fanatic alive who doesn’t vividly remember the first time he heard “Eruption” — but in the post-shredder era, it’s easier to hear what really made Eddie Van Halen special: his ear for melody. He could, and did, run around the fretboard with high-volume abandon, but he also knew how to write the kinds of hooks that radio couldn’t resist — and the kinds of AOR anthems that never fall out of style. During the hazy ’70s, synth-frosted ’80s, and grungy ’90s, Van Halen never stopped being cool precisely because of the brilliant way they wedded hard rock crunch with a delicious, candy-coated pop sheen. Of course, things went downhill pretty quickly after that, but isn’t there a part of you that still believes Eddie has another great album in him? - Jeff Giles
1. Jimi Hendrix. It’s the obvious choice, isn’t it? It’s the Rolling Stone choice, kinda like picking “Stairway” as the greatest song of all time on your local rock station’s Labor Day weekend countdown.  We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that James Marshall Hendrix was the greatest guitarist who ever lived. It also happens to be the right choice. Look at the rest of the top five—aside from Steve Cropper, whose sound help create southern soul music in the Sixties—and tell me where Van Halen, Vaughan, and Prince would be without having heard “Purple Haze,” “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return),” or “Red House.”  The rest of the top ten were Hendrix’s contemporaries, and Brits at that, who expressed wonderment (and perhaps some jealousy) at this wild-ass black American who coaxed heretofore unheard sounds out of his Strat, and did so with about as much soul as one could imagine existing in one man. As proof of his greatness, we have his recorded legacy —undeniably brief (though reissued countless times), undeniably awe-inspiring.  There is no artist today with the tools or talent to create a string of records as imaginative or skillful as Hendrix’s output from Are You Experienced in 1967, through Band of Gypsies in 1970; only Stevie Wonder’s run from Music of My Mind through Songs in the Key of Life could come close.  “Manic Depression,” “Fire,” “Crosstown Traffic,” “Little Wing,” “Up from the Skies,” “Little Miss Lover,” “Come On,” “Machine Gun,” “Burning of the Midnight Lamp,” “I Don’t Live Today”—mindblowers, all of them, and that’s just a taste. He was an eccentric record maker, given to oddball psychedelic flourishes that filled the space around his tasteful melodies and exploding solos.  He helped expand what it meant to record rock music, just as he had expanded what it meant to play rock guitar. Yet, to drive home what he had and what we lost when he died, you have to listen to the First Rays of the New Rising Sun collection, because it provides an idea of where he was going. These are powerful songs we previously heard spread out on posthumous compilations, but combined in one album, we have a clearer picture of where his cosmic blues exploration was taking him, and where we might have followed him to, had he just stuck around long enough to lay it all on us. - Rob Smith

  • Jack Feerick

    Perhaps one of his greatest contributions, and the one that cements [George Harrison] in the top 10, is “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”

    George Harrison was indeed a massively underrated and influential player; “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is an undeniably great song; but Harrison didn't play the solos on it—Eric Clapton did.

  • Rentstrike

    George Harrison a better, more influential, or more innovative guitarist than Carlos Santana, who came in only at 18? Seriously? Seriously?!?

  • Michael Parr

    True, but he did write the song. To be fair, I don't think it was Harrison's solos that were his strength; rather, it was his songwriting – and the use of guitar in that context – that sealed it.

  • jbacardi

    PLEASE tell me I've just overlooked Robert Fripp. There are NOT 50 guitarists better than him in the fucking world.

  • Thierry Côté

    George Harrison never recorded a cover of “Fortunate Son” with Scott Stapp, and that has to be worth at least 8-9 spots.

  • Michael Parr

    Even as lazy and disappointing as Clapton has been in the last 20-odd years he has never pandered like Santana. As far as being innovative, I'd love to discuss this point and hear your views on where he has furthered the craft of guitar.

  • David_E

    Obviously, I missed the part where you really meant to include Trey Anastasio.

  • Ray

    Your number-one pick stole many of his signature moves from Buddy Guy (well not stole I guess – he openly admitted the influence), yet Guy didn't make it into the top 50? Talk about someone who changed the instrument.

  • facebook-1429927928

    Nice list overall, although the lack of Fripp is pretty grievous. I'll allow that you chose not to include Ace Frehley as he isn't as talented as most of this bunch, but there's no denying his influence on a generation of guitarists.

    Concerning Eddie VH – if it's possible to use the term 'underrated' with him, it's that I almost never read about what a fantastic rhythm player he was. It's easy to focus on the effortless innovation and ridiculous runs, but his rhythm parts laid the foundation of VH as much as Alex's drumming or Michael's bass playing.

  • grayflannelsuit

    Stupid Disqus, didn't log me in correctly.

  • EightE1

    Nicely put.

  • Tony S

    It's a nice list, but I don't think George Harrison should be on here at all, much less ranked this high. Not only did he not play the solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” but he also didn't play several of the most interesting leads on Beatles songs, Paul McCartney did. These include the leads on “Taxman,” “Good Morning Good Morning,” the “Sgt. Pepper” title cut (redone by Paul) and “Ticket to Ride.” How about George for best rock sitarist instead?

  • jhallCORE

    I know it's a list of “favorites” but the exclusion of Buddy Guy is downright shameful. Clapton, Beck and yes, Hendrix, all were influenced and borrowed heavily from Guy.

    I'm not saying Guy hasn't had his share of creative miscues over the years but I would recommend that PopDosers give another listen to his work with the late Junior Wells as well as the absolutely stunning Sweet Tea album from 2001 and even Blues Singer from 2003.

  • jhallCORE

    In addition to the omission of Buddy Guy from the list, the late Luther Allison also should have gotten some play here. Look no further than the two-disc Live In Chicago on Alligator Records for confirmation.

  • The Man I Used To Be

    So what you are tell me with this list, is that there is no such thing as a modern guitar player. Everyone in the top 20 of this list is over 50, and a majority of them have their AARP card. Has the instrument peaked? Is the electric guitar dead? I am being serious. John Mayer is the only person on the list 30 something. What does this say of the state of the instrument, the blues and rock?

  • mc3

    Glad to see Gilmour, Page, and Stevie Ray in the top 10. IMHO – Prince, Van Halen & George Harrison are stretches for top 10. Missing from the top 50 are Terry Kath (Chicago), Peter Frampton (talk about under-rated), and Dick Dale.

  • mc3

    Good point… but I look at this as a Hall of Fame type of thing. Perhaps it takes a larger body of work before consideration? I'm with those who felt it was a mistake to include John Mayer. He's an intriguing case: he's got serious chops, trapped inside a wussie songwriter's body. We all need another 20 years to judge his place in history.

  • Matt

    George is one of those players that you can identify by tone alone, and that is certainly one point that buys him a space on this list in my book. While he had some interesting moments in the Beatles (to put it mildly), he really secured his legacy with his own records and collaborations that came after the Beatles.

  • Matt

    George is one of those players that you can identify by tone alone, and that is certainly one point that buys him a space on this list in my book. While he had some interesting moments in the Beatles (to put it mildly), he really secured his legacy with his own records and collaborations that came after the Beatles.

  • Matt

    How can you not go top 10 with EVH? Just interested to hear your thoughts. I think that with this type of list, it's hard to narrow it down to 50 players and cover everyone. There are certainly many more that would be on my list – the mentioned Buddy Guy (I can't remember if he was on my list of picks, but dammit, he should have been), Terry Kath, Peter Frampton are all very valid. You can toss quite a few guys that aren't as well known like Eric Gales on my list as well.

  • mc3

    I certainly wouldn't bury Van Halen at the bottom of the list, either. I give him props for breaking ground and developing his own distinct sound in the late '70's and early '80's. There's just a lot of competition for top 10, though. I downgrade EVH out of the top 10 based on the over all body of work. Whether it is laziness, his difficult personality, personal issues… whatever… he's given us practically nothing for 20 years. When I think about him, I feel disappointed.

  • DwDunphy

    It appears that a lot of the criticism over the list is that certain guitarists weren't cited. In fact, the actual “raw data” spanned many generations, but those who leaned metal didn't jibe with those who leaned blues. Trey Anastasio was mentioned, but not by enough. The list came strictly through the amount of votes the individual players got.

    In other words, even though Buddy Guy is hugely influential and undeniably a great guitarist, his work is familiar only to a sector of the staff while the choices that made the list were known to most, if not all. It might not seem fair to those pulling for certain artists, but in terms of mathematical gathering, it was completely on the up-and-up.

  • DwDunphy

    I don't know about it peaking, but I do know that the highest profiled players really aren't. The pop charts are filled with 30-and-under artists, youth culture being what it is, but how many of them play the guitar? How many play an instrument at all? Guitarists like Annie Clark (St. Vincent), Kaki King, Marnie Stern and Orianthi are moving up in stature but they're not at the point where you can name one of their songs right off the top of your head.

    The Jonas Bros. play guitar but, really, is that what they're known for?

  • cleek

    i've been trying to learn a couple of VH songs this past week, and what really strikes me about Eddie is that, beside the sheer technical mastery, his playing is nearly giddy, whimsical. it sounds like he's always having the most fun ever doing it. people like to dismiss him as all tricks and tapping, but his rhythm work is really astounding (and is helped by the massiveness of his tone), and there's a ton of swagger in there – it's not metronomic speed-metal, it's just fast rock. and a lot of those little harmonic squeals that he adds everywhere are things that other bands would do with a horn or keyboard fill – but he can handle that role, too. he gets better and better, the closer you listen. and check out the remastered version of their first record; his guitar is WAAYY up front.

    no Roger McGuinn ? you don't get George Harrison or Peter Buck or Johnny Marr without McGuinn.

    and no Belew or Fripp ? it's sad that other people's tastes don't match mine ! :)

  • stereo dictator

    Keith at 44? No Joe Perry, Angus Young, Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Alvin Lee, or Mick Ronson? If John Mayer makes it (ackkk), then where is Randy Rhoads? If we're talking longtime technical virtuosity, how about Brian Setzer, Steve Miller, Jimmie Vaughn, Joe Walsh, Johnny Winter?
    I guess I'll go make my own list…

  • stereo dictator

    His output from 1985-94 certainly qualifies as pandering I felt sad watching him lose his fire and turn into an artist that no longer demanded attention. His sales during that period may have showed otherwise or could be reinforcing my point, depending on your perspective.

  • Ray

    Wait, you write about Clapton: “he winds up number one on virtually all “Best Guitarist” lists.” I don't think I have EVER seen a list where he's number one. Any list that put him them there would be ridiculous.

  • EightE1

    Sweet Tea and Blues Singer are excellent records. I'm sure many of us Popdosers are aware of them. Inclusion was all in the math, though, as we've explained before. I love that people have responded so passionately to the artists we missed, though.

  • Jack Feerick

    And Carlos Santana never played for, y'know, the MOTHERFUCKING BEATLES.

    Endy fookin story.

  • DavidMedsker

    As far as I'm concerned, George makes the list for the guitar work on “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window” alone. Beautiful stuff, that.

  • Thierry Côté

    Agreed – while I find most of his output from the “Pastel Suit Years” boring, at least he was getting himself clean. Also, let's keep in mind that the Unplugged thing didn't become a sign of pandering until AFTER his own Unplugged (and the album that followed) became immensely popular. While I don't find his recent releases particularly interesting, you have to admire his desire and willingness to shun the spotlight and record what amounts to session guitar work on albums by B.B. King and J.J. Cale, as well as adding his name on the cover to give those records by his idols greater exposure – a reverse Santana, if you will.

  • bb

    What he said. Harrison?

  • autodidact

    I'm a little confused. Since Wes Montgomery edged onto the list, it seems like you're opening the door to jazz, but apart from Les Paul, just about everyone else is rock or blues. Anyway, I nominate Charlie Byrd and Pat Metheny to replace some of the lesser axemen. I'm a modest Metheny fan, and a lot of his work has a crossover appeal similar to Wes Montgomery.

    Clapton… I like some of his work, especially his collaborations. His playing doesn't move me, generally. Maybe there's something wrong with me.

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  • Michael – Guest

    5 Names:

    Allan Holdsworth

    John McLaughlin

    Bill Nelson

    Larry Carlton

    Lee Ritenour

    Sorry but, this list is a sham..
    At least you got Hendrix right..

    Was Johnny Winter on this list ? ?

  • Michael – Guest

    Oh and,you missed:

    Eric Johnson, Steve Morse

    among others..

  • Michael – Guest

    He has been fighting Cancer for one thing..

  • Michael – Guest


    Buddy Guy & Robert Fripp, I forgot..
    But,I'm not publishing a list..

    *Sorry,hit like by mistake..

  • cleek

    as longas we're just naming good guitar players…

    there's a whole host of country/bluegrass guitarists that could mop the floor with most of the people on this list, too.

    Tony Rice
    Doc Watson
    Norman Blake
    Roy Clark
    Chet Atkins

  • eddievapor

    You missed Jerry Garcia

    I miss Jerry, too.

  • Beau

    I do think the electric guitar is dead, replaced by Guitar Hero.

    Seriously — a “Best Guitarist Under 40″ list could be interesting and would surely expose us to people we don't know. But what bands these days have serious guitar work?

    Check out the top 100 tabs at UltimateGuitar:

    And you'll see mostly older stuff aside from the odd Train or Plain White T's song some kids are checking out in the hopes of getting laid without learning anything too complicated.

  • Mike Royer

    George Michael appears as though he may go down (lol!) because of driving around stoned. Hey, is this a promise or a threat? It’d be like shutting in most men with a harem! Lol!

  • Kik

    Hendrix once told Chicago saxophonist Walter Parazaider “Your guitar player is better than me.”