Listmania: Top 50 Guitarists (#20-11)

Written by Listmania, Music

We made a list of our favorite guitarists of all time, and this week we near the top 10, counting down numbers 20 to 11. Has your favorite made the list?

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 week we break into the top 20, with guitarists representing everything from the blues to arena rock. So the question is: who is missing? Have we completely missed the mark? Many of you have been vocal already, and I have a feeling we’ll hear more as we close in on the top 10.

If you missed the previous weeks’ installments, you can catch up here:

Top 50 Guitarists (50-36)
Top 50 Guitarists (35-21)

20. Billy Gibbons. Never mind the at-times juvenile humor (“Pearl Necklace” and “Tube Snake Boogie”) and outright dumb 1980s synth-mix ZZ Top records, the band was a great blues-rock power trio up to 1979’s Deguello, arguably its finest hour (we’ll entertain counterpoints involving Eliminator).  Gibbons inserts little bleeps and blips and skronks here and there for emphasis in his rhythm and solo playing, but for the most part he keeps his Gibson Les Paul Standard — nicknamed Pearly Gates — on the up-and-up: His bag is simple Texas blues, with a little country twang on the turnarounds and occasional dirty funk junk like in “Cheap Sunglasses.” Addition by subtraction, all cash and no flash. Beautiful. – Mojo Flucke
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19. Neal Schon. Say what you will about the music of Journey, you can’t take away the soul and melodic power that Neal Schon has brought to the group, and rock music, for its entire existence. A guitar prodigy as a young man, Schon was recruited by two of the best guitarists in the early 70’s to join their bands. He chose Santana over Clapton and the music world has never been the same. After some time noodling as the second man in Santana, Schon left the band and formed Journey, a jazz fusion group built around his incredible guitar playing. As fast and intricate as Eddie Van Halen and as soulful and spiritual as Santana, Schon can play any style — rock, blues, jazz, new age, even slick Michael Bolton power ballads. But it’s with his band, Journey, where he became a legend. It’s not just the wailing solo in songs like “Anyway You Want It” and “In Self Defense” (from Generations), it’s also the way he makes the guitar sing in “I’ll Be Alright Without You,” or how he stays out of the way in “Don’t Stop Believing,” and “Only the Lonely”  or the lovely acoustic accompaniment of “Daydream” (from Evolution) or “Patiently” (from Infinity). Schon knows how to use the guitar to make a song better, not just for the obligatory guitar solo (though he’s pretty damn good at that, too). He may never get a plaque in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or receive the praise he deserves from music critics, but ask any rock fan whose willing to pay money for a concert these days what they think of Neal Schon and I’m sure they’ll tell you the same thing: Neal Schon is one of THE fucking best guitarists alive. – Scott Malchus
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18. Carlos Santana. If there ever was a Horatio Alger story about a guitarist, Carlos Santana would be definitely the subject of the story.  Just five years after graduating from high school, and working odd jobs like being a dishwasher, the wonder kid on guitar formed a band and recorded the classic Abraxas in 1970.  It’s not just that Santana can craft a good hook, or that he plays with passion, it’s that he’s a guitarist who makes the instrument sing in a unique voice.  Take any song that he plays on, and from the moment he starts to solo, his sound is unmistakable. Even if you weren’t paying much attention to one of Santana’s songs, I would wager you would know who was playing just from the sound coming out the speakers. Not everything Santana touches turns to gold, but his oeuvre is such that even if you kind of wrote him off during the ‘80s and then started grooving to his comeback albums from 1999-2005, you could forgive him for his blatant commercialism because in between the hits on Supernatural, Shaman, and All That I Am are songs that showcase Santana in top form. Now, some guitarist peak, and then slowly fade from their former glory, but to me Santana is like the proverbial fine wine that gets better with age. – Ted Asregadoo
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17. Mike Campbell. As I write this, a case of heat exhaustion has taken longtime Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell down for the count – and he’s been ordered by doctors to rest for a few days, which serves as official proof that the man is human like the rest of us. For years, as Petty’s right hand man, Campbell has served up some of the most memorable licks in rock and roll. When I spoke with Cracker frontman David Lowery last year, Lowery dubbed Campbell (a contributor to several Cracker albums) “the guy who makes up great riffs.” Often the hook (see: “Runnin’ Down A Dream”), Campbell has a special knack for laying down guitar parts that embed themselves permanently in your musical sub-conscious. Like many of the players on this list, Campbell deserves more accolades than he receives, along with a special award for making it look so damn easy, even when you know it’s not. – Matt Wardlaw
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16. Warren Haynes. When James Brown gave up the ghost on Christmas Day, 2006, Warren Haynes officially became the hardest working man in show business. Whether trading lines with Derek Trucks in the Allman Brothers, Phil Lesh in Phil Lesh & Friends and The Dead, sitting in with numerous acts or fronting his own Gov’t Mule; you can be assured of one thing – it will blow you away. The list of metaphors to describe his tone reads like the descriptions of a favorite lover: warm, sensual, womanly with more soul than you can shake a stick at. His slide work reminiscent of Duane, his phrasing similar to Clapton; all with an extra dose of fire that is unique to Haynes. The scary thing is: if you ask him, he’s just getting started. – Michael Parr
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15. Bonnie Raitt. Though the general public is much more familiar with the Bonnie Raitt of Nick of Time (1989) and subsequent hit albums, the Bonnie Raitt who earned induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 played her ass off for twenty years before going platinum. Emerging in Boston’s late ‘60s music scene, she somehow channeled her show business heritage (Dad was a Broadway leading man), progressive Quaker upbringing, and Radcliffe education into a career as possibly the most unlikely blueswoman of all time. Her sweet slide guitar technique gave her immediate street cred among the musicians whose tradition she sought to join, and she played with many, from Howlin’ Wolf to Junior Wells to John Lee Hooker. Raitt could probably have ditched the guitar altogether and made a nice living as a (damn good) singer; fortunately, she continues to make those strings wail, elevating what might be undistinguished pop fare with her simple but oh-so-sexy riffs. Not bad for a white girl from Burbank. – Robin Monica Alexander
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14. Lindsey Buckingham. Lindsey Buckingham started playing guitar when he was a child, first on a plastic, four-string and eventually on a three-quarter size Harmony acoustic. He never took guitar lessons and never bothered to learn to read music. He doesn’t use a pick, instead preferring to use his fingers and fingernails, playing the guitar like one might play a banjo. He joined his first band as a senior in high school, which is where he met Stevie Nicks, who became his girlfriend and bandmate. After hearing a track from Buckingham Nicks, the ill-fated album Buckingham and Nicks released as a duo, and admiring the guitar work, Mick Fleetwood expressed interest in having Buckingham join his band, Fleetwood Mac, which was in need of a new guitarist. Buckingham agreed — but only if Nicks could join as well. Buckingham proved to be a valuable addition to the group, not only as a guitar player, but as a songwriter and producer and the group’s most successful albums, including 1977’s monster hit, Rumours, came during his tenure with them.  Buckingham also has enjoyed a successful solo career, releasing five studio albums and a live record, as well as contributing to various movie soundtracks. But some of his best material always seems to end up with the Mac – five songs on the band’s 1987 hit album, Tango in the Night, were intended for his third solo album and seven songs from the band’s last studio album, Say You Will, were originally recorded for another solo record, Gift of Screws. But with the success of his last two solo albums, and subsequent tours, Buckinhgam has reminded the world that he is a force to be reckoned with all on his own. – Kelly Stitzel
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13. John Lee Hooker. As biologically impossible as it might be, I believe John Lee Hooker was born wearing shades, a sharp suit, and a fedora — and before he left the delivery room, he got his tiny baby hands on a guitar and started kicking ass. A prolific recording artist during a time of heavily institutionalized racism, a rock-solid songwriter despite his illiteracy, and one of the most influential blues players of all time, Hooker is one of the cornerstones of the instrument, despite the fact that a sizable chunk of the modern audience hasn’t listened to most, or any, of his recordings. If you’re one of those people, get your hands on a John Lee Hooker album immediately. Doesn’t really matter which one — he remained fiery and vital until his death. – Jeff Giles
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12. Mark Knopfler. To those who say that Mr. K has lost his fire with the passing years, make no mistake; Dire Straits were purveyors of the fine laid-back boogie from the get-go. But Knopfler was never only interested in rockin’ out, excelling rather in atmospheres. It’s guitar gone widescreen. “Telegraph Road” riding out in a hailstorm of apocalyptic Americana, overdriven chicken-pickin’ and snaky blue moans, the sad Spanish spyjazz of “Private Investigations” into the six-string pukefest of “Industrial Disease,” gorgeous, melancholy blends of acoustic and electric — and that’s just one album, one high point in a career filled with high points. Cinematic Stratocaster, making movies on location. – Jack Feerick
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11. Duane Allman. In a relatively short span of time, Duane Allman — along with his brother Gregg, and Allman Brothers Band — defined the sound of Southern rock; meanwhile, outside the group, Duane laid the groundwork for guys like Doyle Bramhall II, Derek Trucks and Jimmy Herring. A session guy at heart, Duane added his guitar work to hits by Aretha Franklin, Boz Scaggs, Wilson Pickett, and countless others; his work with Pickett drew the attention of Clapton, and planted the seed that would result in the duo pairing up for one of the greatest guitar songs of all time. It’s Allman’s guitar work on the cadenza to the Derek and the Dominoes track “Layla” that cemented his expressive and unique slide voice in the hearts and memories of generations of fans. Classic rock radio aside, as long as Martin Scorsese continues to make movies, I’m sure new generations will continue to discover Skydog’s voice. – MP
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