The 5 Best Guitarists of All Time – and What Makes Them Unique
The Tunelark Team
Published: September 24, 2022
Last updated: Sep 26, 2022
Guitarists are a dime a dozen. Innovative guitarists are not. What separates the greats from the rest of the pack? Creativity.
While there are too many great guitarists to fit on any short list, we’re highlighting our favorites, widely regarded as some of the best guitarists of all time.
Having a favorite artist is a great way to gain motivation for becoming a better guitar player. Inspiration – and imitation – is often the beginning of finding your own style and voice as a guitarist.
Here at Tunelark, we love studying the work of legendary guitarists and the way they brought a unique mastery to the versatile, six-stringed instrument. The following talented musicians made major contributions to the world of guitar playing in technique or style.
1. B.B. King
For nearly 70 years, Mississippi native B.B. King – accompanied by his beloved guitar Lucille – delighted crowds across the world with his one-of-a-kind sound. His influence on the blues genre is still felt today. It can be difficult to stand out in the crowded arena of blues musicians seeking to make their mark in a genre so rooted in tradition. Blues is soulful and personal, and simplicity is the key to baring your heart in front of an audience.
King’s peculiar vibrato technique is what made him stand out. He created a tremble effect on a note by bending it slightly out of tune in an artful way. Unlike other guitarists, B.B. King didn’t grip the neck of his guitar while fretting. Instead, he only used his fingers to shake or hold specific chords.
Gospel music was King’s first influence, and he became a disc jockey before he became a renowned guitarist. As a blues guitarist, King communicated through Lucille as well as his voice when he sang classics such as “The Thrill is Gone.”
The “King of Blues” inspired many musicians that followed including Santana, Eric Clapton, U2, the Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix.
2. Jimmy Page
Only Jimmy Page could play the guitar with a cello bow and make it look cool. Thanks to his ingenuity and emotive playing style, Page is one of the most influential guitar players to ever pick up the instrument.
As a young English musician, Page was influenced by Scotty Moore, James Burton, Elmore James and B.B. King. At age 13, Page formed a band. At age 18, he made his commercial recording debut on “The Road to Love” single with Neil Christian and the Crusaders.
In his prime, as lead guitarist and founder of Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Page was regarded as one of the world’s biggest rock stars for his iconic riffs and ability to move an audience.
His style – from Eastern scales and melodies to bombastic heavy riffs that predated heavy metal – influenced countless guitarists, including Jack White of The White Stripes. Page set himself apart from other guitarists by constantly experimenting and pushing the boundaries of guitar playing in his era.
3. Joe Satriani
Joe Satriani is an American instrumental rock guitarist and multi-instrumentalist who grew up in New York. At 14, after the death of Jimi Hendrix, Satriani says he decided to dedicate his life to playing the guitar.
Early in his career, Satriani worked as a guitar instructor, with many of his former students going on to achieve fame, including David Bryson from Counting Crows, Rick Hunolt from Exodus, Kirk Hammett from Metallica, and Andy Timmons from Danger Danger. Satriani went on to have a successful solo music career himself.
Satriani is a highly technical guitarist, mastering many moves on electric guitar, including volume swells, legato, harmonics, two-handed tapping and arpeggio tapping, and exaggerated whammy bar effects.
Satriani often leans into a legato technique (mostly using hammer-ons and pull-offs) during fast sections of music to create extensive runs (or spontaneous embellishments of the melody). He is a master of speed techniques like rapid alternate picking and sweep picking.
Satriani is a 15-time Grammy Award nominee and has sold over 10 million albums, making him the biggest-selling instrumental rock guitarist of all time.
4. Eric Clapton
“Clapton is God.” This was the famous graffiti spray-painted on a wall in London in the mid-1960s, in reference to the brash, young bloke fresh on the scene after forming Cream in 1966.
Cream took Britain’s love of the blues and helped usher in an era of edgier, heavier, and more psychedelic sounds.
The band served as a vehicle for a new genre, and this helped make Eric Clapton a real-life guitar hero. How do we know? Clapton is the only guitarist ever to be inducted into the prestigious Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times!
His style embraced many techniques. Clapton would often play at warp speed with picks, but was also fast with finger picking. He famously mastered many techniques including slides, legato, vibrato, and bends.
There’s no denying how influential Eric Clapton is, even to this day. His elegance and creativity continue to influence generations of young guitarists including artists like Brian May of Queen, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, Eddie Van Halen, and Lenny Kravitz.
5. Jimi Hendrix
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame describes Hendrix as “arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music,” and we 100% agree.
American rock guitarist, singer, and songwriter Jimi Hendrix is widely regarded as one of the most influential electric guitarists in the history of popular music, and one of the most celebrated musicians of the 20th century.
Hendrix’s use of heavy feedback, distortion, the wah pedal, and even playing with his teeth (see minute 1:30 of the video below) were unprecedented when he exploded on the British scene in the 60’s.
Hendrix was known to turn all the amplifier dials to their maximum settings, which became known as the “Hendrix setting.” He made impossible or previously undesirable sounds possible and popular, while his charisma as a performer and wild outfits of printed silk, waistcoats, and embroidered velvet put him squarely in center stage.
Although Hendrix’s mainstream career lasted only four years before his early death at age 27, his musical style continues to be widely imitated and adapted by rock-and-roll, funk, post-punk, and hip-hop artists including Prince, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, and many others.
The Legacies Live On
Each of these legendary guitarists was inspired by musicians that preceded them. They became the best guitarists of all time by not only mastering performance techniques but also defining their own distinct styles and honing them over years.
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