Call it what you want: prog rock, art rock, or orchestral rock. Whatever terminology you choose, the genre has produced some of the most innovative guitarists of our times. The punk movement dealt prog a near-death blow in the late ‘70s, but today the music lives on in the form of such groups as Dream Theater and Porcupine Tree. Below are 10 of the very best guitar players in the history of the genre.
Steve Howe (Yes)
Few guitarists have incorporated as many styles as Steve Howe has. Drawing upon influences that range from Django Reinhart to Barney Kessel to flamenco legend Carlos Montoya, the Yes guitarist used his trusty ES-175 to propel such classics as “Your is No Disgrace” and “Heart of the Sunrise.” His solo composition, “Mood for a Day,” from the Fragile album, showed that classical music could be cool.
Robert Fripp (King Crimson)
Jagged, angular, and sonically adventurous, Robert Fripp’s playing sets a high standard with such early King Crimson classics as “21st Century Schizoid Man” and the two-part opus “Larks Tongue in Aspic.” His work with David Bowie, especially on “Heroes” and Scary Monsters, laid the bedrock for some of the latter’s finest albums.
Martin Barre (Jethro Tull)
Ian Anderson may be the face of Jethro Tull, but the band’s Celtic-inspired folk rock gets most of its energy from Martin Barre’s aggressive six-string work. On songs such as “Bungle in the Jungle” and “Aqualung,” Barre showed a sense of economy and melody that sometimes eluded his prog-rock peers. His solo in “Aqualung” is often cited as one of rock guitar's greatest moments.
Alex Lifeson (Rush)
Much of the texture and color that characterizes Rush’s best work can be traced to the versatility of Alex Lifeson. A melodic soloist, Lifeson is also capable of subtle rhythm playing that elegantly serves the song at-hand. In the group’s early years, he often used a 1976 ES-355 to craft the band’s ambitious soundscapes.
Greg Lake (Emerson, Lake & Palmer)
Though he’s better known for his songwriting and bass skills, Greg Lake used his superb fingerpicking talents to provide ELP with some of its best moments. Acoustic pieces such as “From the Beginning” and “Still …You Turn Me On” have become standards in the prog pantheon. The lesser-known piece “Daddy,” from ELP’s overlooked 1994 album, In the Hot Seat, is nearly as good.
Peter Banks (Yes, Flash)
Before there was Steve Howe, there was Peter Banks. Artistic differences between Banks and singer Jon Anderson prompted Banks’s departure from Yes in 1970, but in his little-known ‘70s band, Flash, Banks used an ES-335 to create several should-have-been prog rock classics. “Lifetime,” from Flash’s In the Can album, is his tour-de-force.
Jan Akkerman (Focus)
Had he done nothing more than serve as the driving force on the 1973 hit “Hocus Pocus,” Jan Akkerman’s place in progressive guitar history would be assured. Following his departure from Focus in the mid ‘70s, the Dutch guitarist went on to release several acclaimed solo albums. Readers of Britain’s Melody Maker magazine voted him “Best Guitarist in the World” in 1973.
John Petrucci (Dream Theater)
Prog-metal greats Dream Theater would hardly be the same without the virtuosic six-string work of John Petrucci. Counting Steve Vai, Alex Lifeson, and Steve Howe among his influences, Petrucci is one of prog’s most technically gifted artists. Through the years he’s added emotive qualities to his soaring talents as a shredder.
David Gilmour (Pink Floyd)
In addition to bringing an overt blues influence to the genre, David Gilmour is one of progressive rock’s most melodic lead players. While his solos often build to operatic proportions, he’s always kept Pink Floyd’s spaciest excursions tethered to earthbound traditions.
Steve Hackett (Genesis)
Steve Hackett’s work in Genesis tended to fly under the radar. During his ‘70s tenure with the band, however, his subtle six-string work helped shape the group’s art-rock sound. In addition to being a pioneer of two-handed tapping, Hackett was among the first rock artists to view the guitar as an ensemble, symphonic instrument.