Ranked: Guitar Legends That Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll

Rock ‘n’ Roll took the world by storm in the 1950s, and before long, the guitar came to be considered its sole symbol of pride. Despite Rock ‘n’ Roll evolving over the years and eventually giving birth to the pop music that we listen to today, the guitar has continued to remain one of the most defining symbols of the genre even as we speak.

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Rock ‘n’ Roll has given us some of the most iconic guitarists of all time, and it becomes difficult to rank them in any list. If you did rank them, who would put them on top? Slash? Kurt Cobain? Or perhaps you were thinking of Prince or Larry Page? Well, read on to find out every guitar legend that has made it onto our list. Make sure to share this list on social media with other music junkies, and let us know if we have missed any big names!

No. 30 – George Harrison

George Harrison was “very in tune when he played, the slide was very precise and just had a beautiful vibrato on it,” according to Tom Petty, Harrison’s bandmate from The Travelling Wilburys, and truer words have never been spoken.

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After 1970, when The Beatles broke up, Harrison reached heights of fame in his solo career as he began incorporating American Blues and Indian Music into his own distinctive style.

No. 29 – Kurt Cobain

The American music landscape was never the same after the 1990s, and Nirvana was largely the reason for this. Kurt Cobain was known for his unique scream style of singing and his deeply introspective lyrics, but his guitar playing propelled his music into popular music consciousness.

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Who will ever forget songs such as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or “Come As You Are”? These songs blended classic Rock, pop, blues, and hardcore punk into one cohesive unit – something which was never done before.

No. 28 – Tom Morello

Tom Morello is a musician who knew his talent with the guitar and decided to make it entirely his own. Thus, he completely changed the way guitars were played in the 1990s, having invented some of his own novel sounds on the instrument.

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“Rage Against the Machine” is one of his most unforgettable performances. Still, Morello’s invention of the replicated turntables scratches in “Bulls of Parade” takes the cake for being his best contribution to music. Or was it the laser blasts in “Killing in the Name”? Or the dive-bomber attack in “Fistful of Steel”? We can’t decide!

No. 27 – Slash

With his top hat, sunglasses, and leather jacket, lead guitarist of the popular band, Guns n’ Roses Slash made sure that fame followed him everywhere he went. Originally born as Saul Hudson, Slash made a name for himself through some of his iconic guitar solo performances in songs such as “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “November Rain.”

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His melodic solos on the guitar really stood out at the time and propelled him to fame. Of course, his infamous tales of alcohol-infused debauchery merely accelerated his race to the top.

No. 26 – Billy Gibbons

In a sea of musicians, Billy Gibbons can be easily spotted because of his iconic beard. However, this brilliant musician is better known for his distinctive sound on the guitar during his time with the band ZZ Top.

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Billy Gibbons also opened for The Jimi Hendrix Experience in the 1960s. It is said that Gibbons’ performance so enraptured Hendrix that he gifted the young artist a pink Stratocaster.

No. 25 – Johnny Ramone

John Cummings, known by his stage name as Johnny Ramon, was not as technically savvy as the other guitarists that have made it onto this list. However, he is known for his innovative guitar style.

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Ramone made use of plenty of downstrokes along with a hefty gain on his amplifiers that ultimately came to define the very genres of alternative and punk. Ramone was the beginning of the long solos and bombast found in Rock ‘n’ Roll in the 1970s mainly because of his rhythmic, heavy, and surprisingly simple sound.

No. 24 – Bo Diddley

Born in Chicago on Dec 30, 1928, as Ellas Otha Bates, Bo Diddley quickly rose to fame with popular songs such as “Bo Diddley,” “Road Runner,” and “Who do you love?”

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Bo Diddley is undoubtedly one of the greatest pioneers of Rock ‘n’ Roll, with an iconic beat named after him, i.e., the “Bo Diddley Beat.” This beat has been used by generations of rock stars to come, including U2, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, Ezra Furman, and George Michael.

No. 23 – Brian May

Do you know the history behind the famous guitar of Brian May, lead guitarist of the world-famous band Queen? The guitar was actually built by him in the 60s along with his father, using wood from his fireplace.

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With a degree in astrophysics, Brian May is easily one of the smartest guitarists on our list. However, May is known for his legendary guitar-riffs that crowds went crazy for with Queen.

No. 22 – Tony Iommi

Tony Iommi, a founding member of the heavy metal band Black Sabbath, is most famous for his heavy guitar riffs, especially in songs such as “War Pigs,” “Paranoid,” and “Iron Man.”

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Iommi’s iconic sound, however, has a tragic history behind it. The only reason he was able to create a “heavy” sound is that he had to slacken the strings of his guitar to accommodate an injury to his fingertips. This injury was a life-long regret of Iommi’s despite having created a distinctive sound in Rock ‘n’ Roll because of it.

No. 21 – Angus Young

Who could ever forget the iconic guitar riffs of “Highway to Hell”? As a part of the legendary Australian band AC/DC, Young is most well-known for his music and his singular schoolboy costume.

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AC/DC had its beginnings in simple guitar sessions that Young and Malcolm would engage in after Little Richard’s inspiration. Angus Young was one of the founding members of AC/DC and carried it forward in its 45 years of success, as it went on to sell album after album and massive tours around the world.

No. 20 – Buddy Guy

“He was for me what Elvis was probably like for other people,” said Eric Clapton about Buddy Guy’s influence on him. Guy proved to be an inspiration for some of the most legendary guitarists of all time with his distinctive fretwork, including Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix.

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Guy’s highest achievement came when he was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2005. Eric Clapton went on to say about him, “My course was set, and he was my pilot.”

No. 19 – Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa’s 1981 collection was full of blistering and intricate solos and was much admired by musicians worldwide. Zappa was known for pushing those boundaries with the guitar that other guitarists barely even knew of. He examined almost every avenue of the guitar in ways that no one had heard of before.

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Speaking on the 1981 collection released by Zappa, Phish’s Trey Anastasio says that he was “obsessed with that album,” especially when he was learning how to play the instrument.

No. 18 – Carlos Santana

Carlos Santana and his self-titled band were among the most popular bands to have ever existed in the 1960s and the 70s. The band’s famous songs, “Oye Como Va” and “Black Magic Woman,” featured Santana’s legendary Latin-influenced guitar style.

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The band fell through in the 80s but made one of the greatest comebacks ever, with the hit single, “Smooth,” featuring Matchbox Twenty’s Rob Thomas. The album “Supernatural” turned out to be the single most successful album of Santana’s career.

No. 17 – Les Paul

Les Paul is perhaps known better for the famous solid-body electric guitar that he invented, which quickly became one of the most well-loved instruments of early rock and pop genres of the era. The Gibson Les Paul remains much loved and admired by musicians even today.

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However, we must make mention of Les Paul’s brilliant skills as a musician as well. He was an outstanding guitarist that inspired generations of guitarists to come.

No. 16 – Neil Young

Neil Young made a name for himself with the bands’ Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, two household names in the Rock ‘n’ Roll era. However, Young also had a long-running solo career that was just as successful.

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It is no secret that Young was never the most technical musician out there. Instead, what propelled him to fame was his guitar playing’s raw emotional appeal that captured the audience’s hearts. Phish’s Trey Anastasio even says that Neil’s playing was like “an open tube from his heart right to the audience.”

No. 15 – Freddy King

Freddy King was undoubtedly one of the most well-loved guitarists of his time. Eric Clapton has even admitted that King was one of his most significant musical influences.

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Nicknamed as “The Texas Cannonball,” King stayed true to his last name and nickname by providing audiences with larger-than-life and unforgettable performances. King had a unique guitar attack that showcased his ability to bend notes in a manner that no other musician of his time could.

No. 14 – David Gilmour

David Gilmour has been the principal driving force of the iconic band Pink Floyd ever since 1968 when he first joined the band. Under the creative influences of Gilmour and the band’s bassist, Roger Waters, Pink Floyd reached incredible heights with the release of ultra-successful albums such as “The Dark Side of The Moon,” “The Wall,” and “Animals” that fans went crazy for in the 70s.

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Waters and Gilmour, however, went their separate ways due to creative differences. Still, Pink Floyd continued to have a successful career with Gilmour at the helm until it finally disbanded in 2014.

No. 13 – John Mayer

While John Mayer is not your regular classic rock musician, he is still one of the modern era’s greatest guitarists.

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John Mayer has had one of the most successful careers as a guitarist, collaborating with other famous musicians, including Eric Clapton, Billy Joel, B. B King, and long-running collaboration with Dead & Company. Mayer’s ability to master several genres on the guitar, namely blues, pop, rock, and jazz, is why he rise to fame.

No. 12 – Stevie Ray Vaughan

Every single blues guitarist that came after Stevie Ray Vaughan will admit that Vaughan was one of their major influences. Vaughan’s playing was big and bold, and his overwhelming passion flowed through his music.

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Gary Clark Jr. once commented on Stevie Vaughan, saying, “Stevie was one of the reasons I wanted to be a Stratocaster… If you listen to his records and watch his videos, you can tell he’s just giving you everything he had.”

No. 11 – Joe Walsh

Although Joe Walsh is best known as a guitarist for the legendary band, The Eagles, he had already carved a distinctive name for himself for his furious, technical, and blues guitar playing style.

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Walsh’s career peaked in “Funk #49”, an iconic song that has since been played in dozens of Hollywood movies.

No. 10 – Pete Townshend

Pete Townshend was one of the first successful guitarists to “destroy” his instrument after every performance.

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As a band member of The Who, Townshend played an array of musical instruments, but he is most well-known for his guitar. Townshend was the one who popularized the “windmill” move on stage, a move where he would dramatically move his arms to emphasize each note he played on the guitar.

No. 9 – Duane Allman

Duane Allman is known for his unique ability with the guitar –imitating human voice with the instrument. As such, he found his calling in the extended guitar solos that occurred after the vocal section ended, elevating the vocals to a whole new level.

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One of his most notable performances occurs in Eric Clapton’s “Layla,” where the guitar beautifully slides over the melody. This style shines explicitly through in the outro of the song.

No. 8 – Eddie Van Halen

Eddie Van Halen was a musical genius ever since he was a child, and he is best known for perfecting the “two-hand tapping” technique, which became his signature guitar sound. He went on to form a self-titled band and released the mega-hit self-titled album.

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Van Halen revolutionized rock music with his iconic opening one-two punch of “Runnin’ with the Devil” as well as with the instrumental “Eruption.”

No. 7 – Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry, who made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 1986, was inducted for “having laid the groundwork for not only a rock ‘n’ roll sound but a rock ‘n’ roll stance.”

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Berry’s rise to fame in rock music occurred with his songs, “Rock and Roll Music,” “Maybellene,” his magnum opus, “Johnny B. Goode,” and well as his only #1 hit, his cover of “My Ding-a-Ling.”

No. 6 – B. B King

B. B King is a musical legend and has made it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame, and the Official Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame.

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His famous song, “Lucille,” was written in honor of his guitar, which was accidentally set on fire at a nightclub venue. His series of custom guitars, all named “Lucille,” gained him popularity throughout his career.

No. 5 – Keith Richards

Keith Richards was known for being the lead guitarist for The Rolling Stones and as being one of the most definitive musicians to have ever lived.

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Richards was known for his swagger, his looks, his charm, his persona, and of course, his iconic clothes that all shaped his career in music.

No. 4 – Prince

Prince has often been compared to Jimi Hendrix, especially for playing the guitar in songs such as “Purple Rain.”

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Some of his best performances were the Superbowl XLI halftime show and his blazing cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in the Concert for George (a film made as a tribute to the death of George Harrison).

No. 3 – Jimmy Page

Jimmy Page is best known for his reconfiguration of Eric Clapton’s The Yardbirds into the New Yardbirds and the legendary band Led Zeppelin.

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Led Zeppelin produced one of the most famous blues-influenced songs of all time, “Stairway to Heaven,” which features a heavy and iconic solo by Page.

No. 2 – Eric Clapton

“Clapton is God” read the graffiti that spread across London in the 1960s, and we have to agree. Clapton’s career with the Yardbirds, Derek and the Dominos, and as a solo artist has cemented him as one of the most excellent musicians of all time.

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Some of his biggest hits include “Layla,” “Sunshine of Your Love,” “I Shot the Sheriff,” and “Tears in Heaven.”

No. 1 – Jimi Hendrix

This list would be incomplete without the most significant rock legend in history – Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix’s mixture of rock and electric blues was wildly popular in the 60s, and soon he became the highest-paid performer of the era.

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The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame calls Jimi Hendrix “arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music.”