And now, the thrilling conclusion to Gibson.com’s Top 50 Guitarists of All Time – the vaunted Top 10. So far this week, we’ve climbed the ranks from #50-41, then #40-31, then #30-21 and #20-11.
See if your favorites are on the list (or didn’t make the cut), and then join the debate in the comments section below.
10. Pete Townshend (The Who)
The guitar, as an instrument, has never sounded as angry as when played by Pete Townshend. Listen to “Young Man Blues” on Live at Leeds or “The Real Me” on Quadrophenia, and you will hear the sound of a man on the edge, abusing his instrument as the only means of expressing his repressed rage. Punk was born from this. Heavy metal. Hard rock, in all its various forms, can be traced back to the London kid with the big nose windmilling like his life depended on it. The genius of Townshend, though, is that this is just one facet of his playing. I dare you to find a more sincere, emotional solo than the one Pete takes in “Love Reigns O’er Me.” Or hillbilly glee to match “Squeeze Box.” Too iconoclastic to conform to the Mods, too musical to be a true punk, Pete Townshend stands in a category all his own. – Michael Wright
9. Robert Johnson
No guitarist has had a greater impact on modern blues and rock guitar than Robert Johnson. Over the course of just 29 original songs, the “King of the Delta Blues” laid the groundwork for styles further shaped and developed by Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Duane Allman and countless others. A haunted figure, Johnson led a life shrouded in mystery, with some insisting only a pact with the Devil could account for the seemingly sudden burst of guitar skills that took hold in him in his early 20s. In truth, as those who knew him have said, Johnson worked diligently to perfect the craft that yielded such classics as “Love in Vain,” “Crossroad Blues” and “Sweet Home Chicago.” Keith Richards once described Johnson’s guitar playing as sounding “like Bach.” Clapton calls Johnson’s music “the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice.” – Russell Hall
8. Chet Atkins
One of the founding members and architects of the Nashville Sound, Chet Atkins was unquestionably the greatest and most renowned guitarist country music has ever known. Over the years, Chet released hundreds of remarkable solo recordings displaying his undeniable talent, but it was his work as a session guitarist that may ultimately be the part of his legacy that shines the brightest. Mr. Guitar was one of the most prolific session players in history, and his stunning work can be heard on many of the biggest records of all time, including on countless classics by Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, the Everly Brothers and dozens upon dozens of A-list artists. Chet’s groundbreaking fusion of jazz and country-picking would go on to influence such legendary guitarists as George Harrison, Mark Knopfler, Glen Campbell, Jerry Reed, Duane Eddy and countless other big-time artists. Check out the DVD Chet Atkins: Certified Guitar Player to witness to Atkins’ undeniable greatness. – Sean Dooley
7. Eddie Van Halen (Van Halen)
For countless guitarists around the world, history can easily be divided into two distinct eras: pre-Van Halen and post-Van Halen. And it all started with an explosive instrumental track that clocked in at a brisk 1:42. The blistering pyrotechnics on display in “Eruption,” from the group’s debut album Van Halen, proved an epiphany for millions of aspiring – and accomplished – rock guitarists everywhere. That track alone signaled a seismic shift in the way the instrument would forever be played. Eddie’s performance on “Eruption” is nothing short of mesmerizing. No guitar had ever sounded like that – it was almost hard to believe that it was just one man, one instrument, one take and no overdubs. Eddie’s patented double-handed finger-tapping on the fretboard created an almost symphonic cacophony the likes of which had never been heard before, and rock music would never be the same. Simply put, Eddie Van Halen is easily the most influential (and poorly imitated) guitarist of the last 30 years. – Sean Dooley
6. Jeff Beck (The Yardbirds, The Jeff Beck Group)
Only the rarest of musicians are capable of celebrating a milestone like a 65th birthday by making one of the their best albums and, sure enough, Beck’s beautifully orchestrated 2010 release Emotion & Commotion recalls the passion and scope of his pivotal 1970s masterpieces, Blow By Blow and Wired. On those albums, with his 1954 Oxblood Les Paul and limitless imagination, Beck ducked his early history as part of the original Holy Trinity of British blues to prove his artistry has no boundaries. Even as a bluesman, Beck was unique. His post-Yardbirds playing with The Jeff Beck Group on their 1968 debut Truth has passages of noisy expressionism that would fit modern discs by Sonic Youth or Muse, despite his gargantuan strength as a melodist. Whether playing as a sideman, headlining small clubs like Ronnie Scott’s or flooring a horde of fellow six-string virtuosos and their fans at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festival, Beck is an absolute master — perhaps the absolute master — of modern electric guitar. – Ted Drozdowski
5. Chuck Berry
What’s the old cliché? Before Jimi went to the moon, Chuck built the rocket. Well, that’s why Berry is in the pantheon of great guitarists. His brilliant synthesis of blues and hillbilly guitar created the language of rock and roll. He set the template firmly in place, then duckwalked all over it. There’s no rock act that doesn’t owe a debt (direct or indirect) to Chuck Berry, but there’s more to be said for the St. Louis native than just his influence. His technique was sharp, his tone was stunning, and that woozy, back-and-forth bend on “Carol” says more than any super-shredding solo in history. On those early Chess Records sides, whether he was working in blues, country, rock, rhythm or jazz, Chuck demanded your attention in a way that every artist has tried to imitate, but none have fully replicated. He’ll always be one of the greats. Tell Tchaikovsky the news. – Bryan Wawzenek
4. Eric Clapton (Cream, Derek and the Dominos)
Forget about his far-reaching solo work for a minute. Forget Cream. Forget the Yardbirds. Forget Derek and the Dominos. Forget the beer commercial and “Tears in Heaven.” Forget everything. The main reason kids should still be spray painting “Clapton is God” on city walls is because of that solo on The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” All that came after that was just gravy. The musician nicknamed Slowhand has always had a strong sense of melody and even his dense, improvisational solos never fade without offering substance. He has spent his career swinging between experimentation and tradition while collecting Grammys. He can play deep and soulful. He can play loud and searing. He has been a prolific champion of the blues, paying tribute to idols like B.B. King and Robert Johnson at every opportunity. And after all this time, his spot-on playing still manages to dazzle. – Aidin Vaziri
3. Keith Richards (The Rolling Stones)
The undisputed musical leader of The Rolling Stones, Richards is the best rhythm guitarist in history. He’s the rajah of the riff, the overlord of opening tuning and the sultan of “Satisfaction.” Taking cues from Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed, Richards’ genius lies in simplifying a guitar phrase until it’s down to the absolute essentials. His riffs are unfettered. By using an economy of language, they remain unforgettable. Peter Frampton might have made his axe “talk,” but Keef had already been holding conversations with listeners for years. And what’s a better ice-breaker than the opening riff to “Brown Sugar” or “Start Me Up”? Richards also deserves credit for playing well with others. Working in the Stones with Brian Jones, Mick Taylor and Ronnie Wood, Richards has employed “the ancient art of weaving,” bringing together the lead and rhythm guitar parts via methods learned from his heroes. And when the Stones tour, Keef’s still up there working his butt off – forever in service of band and song. – Bryan Wawzenek
2. Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin)
Rock’s sorcerer supreme, Jimmy Page took the blues, rockabilly and folk and fired it out of a cannon with the release of Led Zeppelin’s eponymous debut in 1969. Years of teeth-cutting in London studios and a short, but eventful, tenure in the Yardbirds only served to sharpen Page’s incomparable skills. Not content to rest on an already winning formula, Page took quantum leaps forward in songwriting, producing and playing on every Zeppelin album. After an initial period of silence following the band’s split, Page re-entered the rock scene as Guitar God Emeritus with The Firm, on solo albums and in collaborations with The Black Crowes, David Coverdale and his old partner in crime, Robert Plant. Page remains one of the most influential and revered guitarists of all time. For case in point, watch The Edge and Jack White, in the film It Might Get Loud, turn into fawning schoolboys when the master launches into the opening chords of “Whole Lotta Love.” – Michael Wright
1. Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix revolutionized guitar playing and rock music – building a rainbow bridge between blues, rock and roll and the psychedelic experiments of the mid-’60s. Never has a guitar player appeared so “at one” with his instrument – his live shows were more out-of-body experiences than performances. His tragically short recording career saw only three studio albums, Are You Experienced? (1967), Axis: Bold as Love (also 1967), and Electric Ladyland (1968). Hendrix’s performance at Woodstock remains a genuine iconic moment in rock and roll history. Jimi Hendrix was only 27 when he died in a London flat. Neil Young said it best when he inducted Jimi into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, “Hendrix threw a Molotov cocktail onto rock and roll.” – Andrew Vaughan
Votes for the Top 50 Guitarists of All Time were included from Michael Wright, Bryan Wawzenek, Andrew Vaughan, Sean Dooley, Arlen Roth, Aidin Vaziri, Russell Hall, Ted Drozdowski, Paolo Bassotti, Dave Hunter, Jeff Cease (Black Crowes), James Williamson (Iggy & The Stooges), Steve Mazur (Our Lady Peace), Martin Belmont (Graham Parker & The Rumour) and the Gibson.com Readers Poll.