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 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’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.
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.
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.
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,
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’.
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 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’.
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.
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/