10 Favourite Guitarists

The guitar was the dominant instrument in popular music from the 1960s to the new millennium. Many acts even had multiple guitarists, so there are a lot of great players to choose from.

The spectrum of genres from blues rock through to hard rock and heavy metal, throws up a lot of acclaimed guitarists, but it’s often not my listening interest, so my list’s a little different from the standard guitar magazine fare.

I couldn’t fit in everyone who I wanted to, and there are a ton of great players who missed the cut: Jimi Hendrix, Mick Taylor and Keith Richards (The Rolling Stones), Tom Morello (Rage Against The Machine), Alex Chilton (Big Star), Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew (King Crimson), Randy California (Spirit), Steve Howe (Yes), Eddie Hazel (Funkadelic), Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead), Duane Allman, Bruce Springsteen, Dave Gregory (XTC), Joe Walsh, Joni Mitchell, and Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth).

Larry Carlton

Larry Carlton came from a jazz-fusion background, but he crossed over into pop music, playing on records by Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan in the 1970s. Steely Dan’s records featured a ton of great guitar moments, but Carlton’s solo on ‘Kid Charlemagne’ is my favourite, and his playing is featured all over 1976’s The Royal Scam. His style is clean and fluid; Mitchell describes his guitar sound as “fly fishing”.

Nels Cline

Nels Cline’s most famous for his work in Wilco, since he joined the band in 2004. But Cline had already enjoyed a long career in a range of genres, dating back to the 1980s, including work in jazz and experimental music. His lead guitar in ‘Impossible Germany’, from 2007’s Sky Blue Sky, is one of my favourite solos.

Richard Lloyd

Lloyd was one of two guitarists in the influential punk-era band Television. While Tom Verlaine’s guitar playing was angular and avant-garde, Lloyd’s was clean and melodic, and the contrast between the two styles was a key part of the band’s alchemy. As well as Television and a solo career, Lloyd also featured on the records of alt-rocker Matthew Sweet, where his creative playing gained a new lease of life. Lloyd also has some great instructional videos online, and you can hire him for private guitar lessons.

Johnny Marr

Marr arrived with the alternative rock movement in the 1980s, where virtuoso soloing was frowned upon. Instead, The Smiths‘ guitarist funnelled his virtuosity into creating layers of textured jangles and arpeggios, setting a gorgeous backdrop for Morrissey’s vocals.

Brian May

Queen‘s lead guitarist is known for the Red Special, the guitar that he and his father crafted by hand over two years in the 1960s. The guitar was designed to interact with the air around it, and May prefers to use a coin as a pick. May names the blues guitarists of the 1960s like Hendrix, Beck, and Clapton as his biggest influences, but his playing in Queen often sounded derived from classical music,

Jimmy Page

As well as joining The Yardbirds, Jimmy Page was a noted 1960s session guitarist, playing on sessions for The Who, The Kinks, Donovan, as well as Shirley Bassey’s Bond Theme ‘Goldfinger’. He’s best known, however, for his work in Led Zeppelin, where leading the 1970s hard rock behemoth. He’s best known for his scorching riffs like ‘Heartbreaker’ and ‘Whole Lotta Love’, but one of my favourite Zeppelin moments is the layered guitars of ‘The Song Remains The Same’.

St. Vincent

Annie Clark is a multi-faceted musician, a contender for the best catalogue of any artist in the 2010s, and it’s easy to overlook that she can totally shred. Guitar influences include Steely Dan and Marc Ribot, and she stated in a 2014 interview that “In some ways I feel very reverent about guitar. I love it so much. But I also don’t care about it being a guitar or sounding like a guitar.”

Andy Summers

Andy Summers was already a 35 year old music industry veteran when he joined Sting and Stewart Copeland in The Police. With the extroverted rhythm section often taking centre-stage, Summers’ playing was often minimalist and the space he left was just as important as what he played – a song like ‘Walking On The Moon’ benefits from all the space that Summers leaves. But when he stepped to the spotlight, he was magical, like the mind-bending riff for ‘Message in a Bottle’ or the beautiful solo on ‘King of Pain’.

Richard Thompson

Thompson emerged as the lead guitarist for Fairport Convention in the late 1960s. While the prevailing ethos for guitarists in England in 1968 was the blues based rock of Cream and The Yardbirds, Thompson came from a folk background. He mimicked a bunch of styles on Fairport Convention’s early albums, but there was barely a trace of blues in his guitar playing. More than fifty years into his career, he’s still a brilliant guitarist, skilled at acoustic finger-picking and at electric shredding on his wiry sounding Fender Stratocaster.

The English folk-rock scene of the late 1960s also produced Nick Drake, whose alternate tunings and finger-picking was beautiful, and John Martyn, whose use of electronics in his genre, such as the EchoPlex, was groundbreaking.

Frank Zappa

Zappa was a man of many talents, and it’s easy to overlook his ability as a virtuoso jazz fusion guitarist. His abilities as a composer and bandleader fed into his guitar vocabulary, allowing him to take his playing in unexpected directions. Zappa released entire albums of on-stage guitar improvisations, and he fostered other famous guitarists in his band, including Steve Vai and Adrian Belew.

Did I leave out your favourites? Who’d make your favourite guitarists list? If you’d like a more blues based list, may I recommend my colleague’s list at https://musicenthusiast.net/2019/06/02/my-top-twenty-guitarists-of-all-time/


Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.


  1. Great to see Zappa in there! Good list, some of them will require my further attention. One hundred people could list their top 10 guitarists and you’ll have 100 totally different lists.

  2. WHAT???? NO JIMI HENDRIX? HAVE YOU COMPLETELY LOST YOUR MIND, MAN? I’m going to assume this was an oversight caused by writing the post quickly. OTHERWISE I DEMAND AND EXPLANATION.

    I would have gone for Tom Verlaine, although Richard Lloyd was the perfect foil for Verlaine’s more demanding style. Good to see the peerless Johnny Marr there. People will insist on Clapton and suggest Peter Green and there could be a huge case made for Mark Knopfler. I would have found room for Graham Coxon of Blur. Listen to Trouble in the Message Centre on Parklife. An absolute masterclass of rhythm guitar, totally in control of his power chords. And I also love Joe Walsh, particularly solo and with the James Gang.

    • Hendrix should be there really, even though I don’t really like his rhythm section in the Experience much. He had a pretty awesome psychedelic blues vibe going, and I’d include him just for the intro of ‘Voodoo Chile’.

      I did list Walsh on my not-quites – I’ve been enjoying his James Gang stuff lately. If it’s any consolation as a Blur fan, Damon Albarn made last month’s list – the 10 Sexiest Men In Music.

  3. Firstly, thanks for the shoutout. Looks like we have some overlap with May, Page, and Zappa. I did a top twenty and so Larry Carlton would be 21 or on another day, he’d be IN the top 20. I know a lot of people like Johnny Marr but neither he nor the Smiths did much for me. Richard Thompson is great as is Andy Summer. I confess the rest I don’t know as well.

    • Richard Lloyd was the other guitar in Television with Tom Verlaine – he’s probably my absolute favourite. I love him on this track – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4dqvX8tVQeI

      I love that St Vincent track – she’s shredding on a dance-pop song, and it’s cool and unexpected.

      I would have assumed you’d know some Wilco? Tweedy himself is a pretty good guitarist – for his birthday once, his wife got him a lesson with Richard Lloyd.

  4. Great list… you have guitar players with feel. Brian May would probably be my favorite of your list.
    One of my favorites is Neil Young because of the way he takes it to the edge and brings it back.

    Frank Zappa could play anything.

    • I like Young a lot, although my favourite guitar moment from his catalogue is probably the one note solo on ‘Down By The River’. I probably prefer Stills as a guitarist though.

  5. I was getting here for my regular visit but Music Enthusiast sped me up. Like his take yours is the personal touch. Way more interesting for CB. I’ll comment on a few starting with Larry Carlton. All I’ll say is he played a big part on why ;’Royal Scam’ is fantastic recording. Man does that Nels work sound good or what?. Helps that it is a cool song. Love that sound. Man I could strap into that Richard Thompson all night. Do those guys ever get to it on that cut.
    I always think of you as a pop guy with leanings to others styles. That is going to stop after this take. You end with Zappa who’s guitar work gets over looked because of his detours into other regions. Great list Aphoristical!
    (I left a small list on ME’s take on some of the players I dig on top of a few of the choices you guys came up with)

    • I had a few of yours on my longer list – like Zappa, Springsteen’s another person who’s not primarily thought of as a guitarist, but has excellent guitar skills. Fripp obviously rules – one song I love with him is Blondie’s ‘Fade Away and Radiate’. I’m always confused with these lists when to include jazz players or not, but I like McLaughlin a lot too.

      • Now you have me reaching for the Blondie song. I listened the the FZ cut you posted and forgot how beautiful that playing is. Bruce is just emotion and a couple of those things ME said. I really like his fret work. He loves to play.
        John Mac is on another level and never disappoints.
        I would guess that from your John Mac/Frank leanings you would eat up the jazz guys. John Scofield’s funky ‘A Go Go’ and ‘Steady Groovin’ are ones I’ve been listening to lately. Plus check out Charlie Hunter. I turned ME onto a cover he did of’ Come As You Are’. You might dig it
        (I’ll get to your Nick take later)

        • ‘Adam Raised A Cain’ is one of my favourite guitar solos too – it’s so dramatic and cathartic.

          Just checking out the Scofield now – it’s tasty.

          • Like I said to ME. I’m getting to a take on Springsteen and ‘Darkness’. I’ll let you in on a little of it. I seen him in concert the year he released it and the song you just mentioned was probably one of the loudest, most passionate solos I’ve ever seen or heard.
            “Tasty” I like that.

  6. Terrific list. Really enjoyed seeing Nels Cline make the cut. Some of his albums are pretty challenging but he’s never boring!
    Never heard of St Vincent but will have a listen later.

      • Nels has collaborated and guested with dozens and dozens of artists and has his own extensive catalogue. That’s a disclaimer, as I have but four of his albums. They are characterised by a determined experimentalism that sometimes seems aimed at confounding listeners. At other times, there’s an edgy melodicism that’s quite accessible (as long as there’s a bit of jazz literacy about). I love the way he demands the listener’s attention and his ‘I’ll do what I friggin’ like’ attitude, but am not always in the mood for his brand of post-modern jazz (in the way I’m not always in the mood for Zappa or Magma).

      • Nels’ solo stuff is excellent. If you get a chance to see one of his solo projects you should definitely go. Most recently he’s been playing with the Nels Cline 4 which features another magical guitarists, Julian Lage. They released a fantastic album last year.

        His playing with Wilco is amazing but its really just a small taste. His pre-Wilco career with Carla Bozulich and Mike Watt is great too. Nels really shines on Carla’s remake of the Willie Nelson album Red Headed Stranger, and the Watt album Contemplating the Engine Room.

      • I will mention one whose name I have seen being dropped in the comments: Neil Young.

        When it comes to the electric guitar, he certainly doesn’t have the sheer skill of many of the people mentioned here, but he makes up for it with style (those huge noisy outbursts) and feeling (like he does in Cortez the Killer, which might as well have my favorite guitar solo of all time).

        When it comes to the acoustic guitar, though, I will argue he has a lot of skill. Perhaps not in the technical or showy sense, but his strum is always a thing of beauty, which weirdly and nicely contrasts with his rough electric playing.

        Oh, and I liked that you mentioned Springsteen. He gets so much attention as a songwriter and showman that his excellent guitar-playing is often neglected by many.

        • I like Young as a guitarist a lot -he probably a suffers a bit from being my favourite artist ever in my late teens, and burning out on him. That one note solo in ‘Down By The River’ is genius too – all the guitar epics he did in the late 1960s and 1970s, like ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’, ‘Like A Hurricane’, ‘Cortez’, ‘Powderfinger’ are genius.

  7. Pleased to see Nils Cline on here and I’m with you all the way – his contributions to Sky Blue Sky keep me going back to it when I’d maybe give up (Impossible Germany is exceptional).

    As I was never a fan of The Smiths, I really only paid attention to Marr when I saw him play with Modest Mouse. He made it look so effortless.

    I still need to listen to St. Vincent and you got me more interested by mentioning the influence of Marc Ribot. He’s easily appear on my own list, I reckon.

    • I got to like Sky Blue Sky eventually, even though at first my reaction was that it was tepid and boring.

      I only really know Ribot from Tom Waits records, but he’s pretty cool there.

      • Aye, I’d agree with that. I appreciate the mellower vibe, though at the time I was underwhelmed. I think the guitars are so warm and inviting… I guess there’s a lot to be said for the comfort they create.

        You should check out Ribot’s work with Joe Henry too. He’s got a style that’s identifiable.

          • Yes, a true original that guy. First heard him on Tom Wait’s live album big time and ended up with a few of his albums. Some of his later albums got too weird for me but he has a style all of his own

  8. Interesting offbeat list. I’m an oldster, so I’m unfamiliar with a few names. I do agree that Zappa is overlooked as a guitarist due to his diverse other talents. (Jerry Garcia is another one.) Nice to see mention of John Martyn, a phenomenal folk and jazz-influenced player, who many Americans don’t even know of. My favorite of all those English folk-styled guitarists is Bert Jansch, who was also a talented writer and charismatic singer.

      • Rosemary Lane and his debut are my favorite Jansch solo LPs. The double LP Sweet Child might be Pentangle’s high-water mark. All four Pentanglers have a turn in the spotlight, but Jansch has the lion’s share.

  9. Some great players on your list for sure. Nels is one of my faves and Zappa is probably the greatest ever. I would include Duane Allman and Django Reinhardt. And maybe a couple country country pickers like Marty Stuart and Chet Atkins – opening the box of great country guys is daunting. Lists are tough.

    • I don’t really know the country pickers or classical guitarists at all – music’s a huge world, the more you know, the more you learn you don’t know. Allman is great as well.

  10. Argh! So many guitarists, lots of your other commentators have mentioned my faves. I’d make a case for anyone who played with the early Steely Dan as well as John McLaughlin whose work with the mahavishnu orchestra was technical and dynamic and as a wild card Steve Hillage who is a unique voice.

  11. I see / hear many wonderful guitarists these days, but some I feel are well over-rated in comparison to those ‘back in the day.’ (I know, I’m old. Please excuse me. 😉 )
    For me, it has to be RORY GALLAGHER. Fender strat, steel, acoustic. Rockin hard, blues or folk tinged – he could turn his hand to anything.
    (Just resurrected my own music site at LOUD HORIZON & will soon be running a wee feature.)

    • Top 10 Rock Guitarists (in no particular order)

      Dickie Betts (Allman Brothers Band)
      Jimi Hendrix
      Jimmy Page
      Elliot Easton (The Cars)
      Duane Allman
      Dean Wareham (Luna, Galaxie 500)
      Mick Ronson (David Bowie)
      Mark Knopfler
      Joe Walsh
      Carlos Alomar (David Bowie)

      And these ones who are other types of guitarists

      Chet Atkins
      Nile Rodgers (Chic)
      Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs
      Joni Mitchell
      James Taylor

      • I keep meaning to come back and fix this list – I need to add in Hendrix and Allman. Ronson is a great call too – he seems a bit forgotten now. You could make a pretty good list of 10 best Bowie guitarists.

  12. One of the Best lead guitar and base guitar duos of all time:

    Rob Baker. (Lead)

    Gord Sinclair (base)

    They were boyhood neighbors who played in garages from the age of 4 together. Then they formed a band. It’s a pretty cool story.

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