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.

Our inaugural list was inspired by the recent LA Times piece “50 Greatest Guitarists Ever,” which spawned hours of conversation around the office water cooler, and seemed like a perfect first subject. The criteria was simply “list your 50 favorite guitarists.” That’s it. The ballots were gathered over a few weeks, and the list was formed via the frequency of appearance. Here are the first 15 honorees …

50. Wes Montgomery. The first thing you notice when hearing Wes Montgomery play is the smoothness of his tone — a combination of his equipment (his trademark Gibson L-5) and his plectrum of choice, which happened to be his thumb. Whether he was comping behind another player or soloing up front, Montgomery’s tone was distinctive, a voice all his own. The second thing you notice over the breadth of his work is his versatility. The early Riverside sides (including the essential The Incredible Jazz Guitar record) were mostly small-group affairs with marvelous players like Percy Heath and Tommy Flanagan. His jump to Verve put him in more commercial settings, like the brass blasts of Movin’ Wes — which featured my favorite of his songs, a smokin’ take on Ellington’s “Caravan” — or playing hits of the day, like “Goin’ Out of My Head” or “California Dreamin’.” He was also capable of standing toe to toe with a virtuoso like organist Jimmy Smith, both in recordings and on the live stage. Ultimately, though, his total command of his instrument is what you recall after an encounter with Montgomery’s music. It’s cliché to say a guitar player makes his instrument talk, but such was the case with Wes Montgomery, and he had quite a lot to say. – Rob Smith
.
49. Joe Satriani. Guitar gods have always been idolized, but mostly so with a charismatic (or flat out nuts) frontman to sing their part in tandem. And if there was no other singer, the guitarist had to do it himself, but there was always some sort of vocalist because instrumental music just seemed a dull idea. It wasn’t until Joe Satriani’s Surfing With The Alien broke free of guitar magazine geekdom and instrumental recording’s staid demeanor, and subsequently landed right on rock radio, that whole new worlds opened for celebrity axe-slingers. – Dw. Dunphy
.
48. Peter Buck. REM bassist Mike Mills is fond of saying his bandmate Peter Buck has “the best right hand in the business.”  He ain’t kiddin’. Almost every REM song worth talking about (as well as several that aren’t) is built on the foundation of Buck’s arpeggios — those single-note trips up, down, and/or around a chord or riff.  Think of the intro to “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” or the eight-note figure that starts “Begin the Begin,” or the beautiful riff that flows through “Flowers of Guatemala” or the ghostly acoustic picking that leads us into “Drive” (and, thus, into Automatic for the People). Buck isn’t much of a soloist, but he doesn’t need to be; his sound is predicated on the specific needs of each song—a novel musical concept in this or any age.  The payoff?  That sound is arguably the most recognizable of any “alternative” rock guitarist, even today. – RS
.
47. Johnny Marr. For most rock guitarists, accompaniment is a rough-hewn affair. Chords and a beat: it’s an art of bold strokes and sketches. Johnny Marr’s accompaniments, though, are compositions in themselves, built from the ground up on a staggering array of tones, effects and techniques. His CV reads like a Who’s Who of modern rock (stints with the Smiths, the The, and Modest Mouse; sideman work with Talking Heads, Kirsty MacColl, Billy Bragg, Bryan Ferry, and dozens more), a testament to his genius for creating tunescapes so vivid and painterly as to make the vocal melody almost redundant, even as they frame and support it. – Jack Feerick
.
46. Charlie Hunter. Kind of like a stanky Stanley Jordan, Charlie Hunter doesn’t see any point in settling for plain old lead guitar when he can bust out a custom-built axe and use it to blow your goddamn mind. But it isn’t just Hunter’s virtuosity that makes him so special — it’s the way he puts it to such thoroughly funky good use. He’s impossibly prolific — he’s released 17 albums since 1993 — and part of what keeps those albums coming so quickly is Hunter’s refusal to fuss with his performances; his recordings are all about feel. Eric Johnson could learn a thing or two from him. And besides, how can you not love a guy who titled an album Gentlemen, I Neglected to Inform You You Will Not Be Getting Paid? – Jeff Giles
.
45. Vernon Reid. The measure of a guitarist is often their ability to capture the attention of the listener in just a few bars; Vernon Reid managed to capture the world with six notes. The opening riff of “Cult of Personality” was like a buzz saw ripping through lumber, and taking down with it the stigma of African-Americans in Heavy Metal. Earning not only critical praise, but the Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance in 1989; Living Colour mixed the musical complexity of jazz, the rhythms of funk and the bombast of metal into a bag that was all their own. In the years since the disbanding — and inevitable reunion – of the band, Reid has never stopped creating and innovating; working with everyone from Gil Evans and Mick Jagger to The Roots, bringing his unique sensibility to each. – Michael Parr
.
44. Keith Richards. If you need me to tell you why this guy is on the list, you’re simply not paying attention. If you look up “rock and roll” in the dictionary, there’s a picture of him there. – Ken Shane
.
43. John Frusciante. Whether you appreciate John Frusciante’s contributions to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ oeuvre depends on what you think of the band’s so-called “California trilogy.” Through four records’ worth of music (Stadium Arcadium was, of course, a double album), the Chilis mixed the one-trick funk of their early work with increasingly complex instrumental and vocal arrangements, all given to wonderfully serious and goofy songs about drugs, sex, and name-checking all fifty-nifty United States.  Frusciante’s contributions as guitarist and songwriter were essential to the band’s growth and artistry, whether throwing down the quirky slam of “Hump de Bump,” breaking out the all-over riffage of “By the Way,” picking the peaceful melody of “Scar Tissue,” or contributing to any of the other numerous high points of those records (not to mention those of ’91’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik and Mother’s Milk from ’89).  His solo work likewise takes him all over the place; some of it is worth the listen (2001’s To Record Only Water for Ten Days, 2004’s Shadows Collide with People); some of it, not so much (Niandra Lades and Usually Just a T-Shirt from ’94).  In total, though, Frusciante’s work showcases one of the most interesting minds and talents in the last 20 years of rock and roll. – RS
.
42. Chet Atkins. It is by no accident that Chet Atkins was known as “Mr. Guitar.” From his radio work in the early ’40s, through his work with collaborative work with Tommy Emmanuel, his very voice was defined by the velvety tone that emanated from his fingers. His work as both a producer and guitarist is part of the DNA of early rock and roll, working with Elvis Presley and eventually heading up RCA’s Nashville division. His vocabulary spoke to jazz, western swing, and flamenco; adding a worldly spice to his country based recordings. Cited as an influence by a fair share of the other guitarists on this list, his legacy remains heartily in tact in the hands of those that let the guitar talk for them. – MP
.
41. Nancy Wilson. In the ’70s and ’80s, Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson made the list of many male music fans (you know the list I’m talking about), but as a guitar player, it’s arguable that Wilson hasn’t gotten a quarter of the acclaim that she deserves. For nearly four decades, Wilson has been the secret weapon of the band – contributing masterful guitar parts (both rhythm and lead), particularly when she’s armed with an acoustic. Combine that with the legendary powerhouse vocals of sister Ann Wilson, and there is no question why Heart are still considered one of the greatest live bands on the classic rock circuit – and thankfully, they show no signs of slowing down. – Matt Wardlaw
.
40. Eddie Hazel. Plenty of other guitarists are better known. Plenty have amassed bigger (and arguably more impressive) discographies. But for proof that Eddie Hazel was perhaps the baddest motherfucker ever to strap on a six-string, one need listen no further than the epic solo he recorded for the title track of Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain. To hear it is to rewire your understanding of the emotive possibilities of the instrument; it’s the kind of performance that makes even the most glowing superlatives seem puny, and if he never came close to repeating it, that’s okay — no one else has, either. – JG
.
39. Richard Thompson. The subject of more “The Greatest Guitarist You’ve Heard” stories than probably anybody, Richard Thompson will show off with the flash of a country bluesman at a cutting contest, but only when it suits the song. Thompson adds such diverse genres as bagpipes, jazz, and polka to an already-devastating rock technique to create a style that shouldn’t work, but does. From his early records with the pioneering British folk group Fairport Convention through his work with his ex-wife Linda to his solo career, Thompson has continued to find new ways to express himself throughout his 43 years in the music business. Whether it’s the poignant Celtic picking on “Beeswing,” the Cajun stomp of “Tear-Stained Letter,” or the sonic assault of “Shoot Out The Lights,” he never repeats himself. – Dave Lifton
.
38. Les Paul. Simply put, without Les Paul, this list might not exist. His love of the instrument combined with his innovation resulted in the guitar that is favored by many of the players on this list. His genius wasn’t exclusively relegated to instruments, though. He pioneered the multi-track recording process, layering take after take to create sounds that — at the time — were literally unheard of. Playing live until his final days, Les never let anything stand in the way of his desire to bring his love of music to the masses. – MP
.
37. John Mayer. John Mayer is like a painter who pours his heart and guts into his best work, then hides it away from all but a smattering. His stock-in-trade is portraits of dogs playing poker. It is almost as if he’s unwilling to unleash the full extent of what he can do to purposefully keep expectations of him lowered, that way he never has to exceed his “older, best work” and when he hits his decline, would never have to hear, “Well John Mayer just can’t do it like he used to.” – DW
.
36. Neil Young. The closing of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics showed Neil Young in all his glory. He stood there, dressed like an old-timey preacher, with an acoustic guitar and harmonica. He did not lip sync, he did not use a backing track, he trusted his 64-year-old voice to carry him through “Long May You Run.” It should have been the perfect ending to the games, but someone ruined it with a disco extravaganza featuring giant inflatable beavers. Neil Young would never share the stage with a giant inflatable beaver. Neil Young loves the spotlight because it blots out the crowd. If you want your guitar gods to wear tight pants, have big shiny hair, and play long loopy electric solos while smiling at you all the while, look elsewhere on this list. With Neil Young, you’re lucky if he wears a clean t-shirt. He does not care what you think about him, as long as you understand the stories he tells. Although he’s often considered to be singer-songwriter, Young’s voice has never been his strength. Instead, he uses his guitar to punctuate the lyrics. Give him any instrument, any style, electric or acoustic, rock or country, and he’ll make you love it. – Ann Logue
Enhanced by Zemanta