I like to consider myself somewhat of a rock historian, but I’ll preface this by saying many out there know more than me. With that said, I think I know more than the average Joe about the progression of music, specifically rock n roll. For starters, Rock n Roll, and really all modern music, owes its existence to black musicians and the genres they cultivated in the early part of the 20th century. We’re talking Jazz, Blues, and gospel music all transitioning into rock n roll over time. Moving forward, the most important album in modern music history was the Beatles “Revolver”. In my opinion, there is music before Revolver, and then there music after it. After Revolver, there comes massive shifts in music that cant be boxed into one genre: glam rock, punk rock, synth-pop, progressive rock, alternative rock, indie rock, ska, rap-rock, funk rock, math rock, post-rock and Psychedelic. What’s my point? Rock is a huge umbrella with a lot of branches under it, so ranking any groups or people against each other is always going to be subjective. I’ll try and give a quick justification for each of my picks, but if you think I got it wrong, let me know below.
Honorable mention: Eddie Van Halen
One of the most energetic guitarists of all time, Eddie embodied the idea of the process. Many would agree that Van Halen’s best guitar playing can be seen in the song “Eruption”. Eddie originally recorded the solo for the song in 6 different styles. He would then take his favorite parts of each solo and cut them together, and would then teach himself how to play the new solo. Just a super high degree of difficulty made easy by one of the best players from the 80s.
Honorable mention: Chuck Berry
Chuck Berry is odd in the sense that his early guitar work was influential but he remained highly relevant for many years. You could argue Chuck was really the first true Rock guitarist as well, but I’ll save that for another day. Berry’s legacy can be seen in his influence, operating as a huge inspiration for the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin.
Honorable mention: BB King
One of the three best Blues players of all time, Rock N roll wouldn’t be what it is without the King. We don’t often hear his hits today the way we might for Halen, but you hear King in every rock song today.
Honorable mention: Jerry Garcia
I really like Garcia’s sound and you could argue he was the heart and soul of the Grateful Dead. He had a perfect combination of skill and feel in his music, and his ability to improvise is matched by few.
Honorable mention: Carlos Santana
Just listen to Santana’s live set at Woodstock 69′ and tell me he isn’t one of the best guitarists ever. Creativity at a peak.
Honorable mention: Keith Richards
The lead guitarist of the Stones, Richards is one of the most influential rockers of all time. Richards probably embodied the rock movement in the late 60s as well as anyone.
5. George Harrison
This is probably the hottest take I’ll have here, but I’m ready to defend it.
Harrison was the best guitarist in the best band the world has ever seen. What made Harrison great is kind of the opposite of what made a guy like Hendrix great, that is, Harrison’s ability to compliment the song. Ringo Starr was also great at this, but you got to understand that McCartney and Lennon came up with the foundation for almost every Beatles song. Harrison would then have to add the right riffs into the song, and he nailed it every time. Being a great guitarist isn’t always about playing the most insane solo’s ever, sometimes you have to serve the song first. No one in the world ever did that as well as Harrison did, and for that reason, he takes my fifth all-time spot.
4. Stevie Ray Vaughan
The King of the Texas Blues is the most underrated guitarist of all time. If SRV played in the ’60s rather than the ’80s, we would think of him as the best guitar player ever. But SRV played in a time when music was moving away from the old, and it can be argued that he wasn’t appreciated enough in his time. What’s my best argument for SRV as a top 5 guitarist of all time? He’s the only guitarist I’ve ever heard cover a Hendrix song and play it better. Don’t believe me? Listen to each version of “Voodoo Child” and tell me I’m wrong.
3. Eric Clapton
No guitarist was ever as good for as long as Clapton was (is). He’s the only person to be inducted into the Rock n Roll hall of fame in three separate groups. He joins Billy Preston as the only person to ever go onto a Beatles song and make it better (Clapton plays lead guitar on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”). Clapton’s list of extensive hits is only matched by Page, who also had the rest of Zeppelin to support him. Music is subjective, but Clapton is objectively a top-five guitarist of all time.
2. Jimmy Page
The sound of Led Zeppelin was so unique that even nontraditional rock fans had to give it a listen. I think 1/4 of that is on John Bonham, and 1/4 is on John Paul Jones, but the majority of it is due to Page. Page, better than any other guitar play ever, could shread as well as he could be sensitive with the guitar. I feel like he knew the guitar way better than anyone else, and only Hendrix was more talented. Put it this way, Page plays 1/3 of the 20 most famous riffs in rock history.
What’s the best argument for Hendrix as the GOAT? How about “I can do this and you can’t”? My favorite Hendrix story is about when he was playing clubs for the first time in London. Hendrix was still unknown in Britain, which was the music capital of the world in the mid-’60s. In one performance, the Beatles had released their Sergeant Peppers album just a week before, and Hendrix had taught himself how to play it by ear in just a few days. Then, Hendrix improvised on it and made it better in a live show. The Beatles saw it and were in awe of what he had done. Another story is that Clapton saw Hendrix at one of these shows, heard him play and started to cry, saying “I’ll never be that good”. The second one might be legend, but nonetheless the meaning is still true.