The Best Electric Guitar Soloists of All Time
Many of the major guitar magazines have attempted this, but have fallen way short. One major reason for that is that guitar mags are generally read by teenage and college age boys – and frankly – what the heck do they know at that age? I mean, really? They flood the magazine polls with votes for guitarists who have no business being on the list in the first place.
My criteria for selecting these guitar studs are as follows:
- talent/artistic merit: does the dude have the God-given ability to translate art from his head to his fingers?
- the woodshed: has the player put the work and time in to developing his raw abilities to his maximum potential or is he lazy, resting on raw talent to pull him through? It shows in the playing if someone has “been sheddin it” or not (Keith Richards).
- stylistic and technical diversity: is the player well-rounded, a complete player, a true professional? Or do they get tragic myopia that their genre is the ONLY genre and there’s nothing they could possibly learn from any other styles or players.
- Melodic construction and musical phrasing: 24 straight bars of 32nd notes does not make me think you are a good player. it makes me think you are an insecure, lonely music geek who needs constant attention (Yngwie Malmsteen.)
- Balance of technique and passion: If you are strictly technical and cerebral, you lose my heart and any emotional connection I have with you So if you don’t care enough to put your emotions in your playing, I won’t care too much about you (Mike Stern.) But too much the other way, and I come away unsatisfied – like you’re just coasting through and not giving it your all and staying challenged (B.B. King and Buddy Guy).
- wow factor: does the player offer “jaw-dropping” moments of brilliance? If they are to be considered among the best ever, then there needs to be plenty of wow moments.
- continuity/playing through the changes: it’s fairly easy to rip a cool lick here and there, and fill in some junk in-between. It’s much harder to play through various chord changes, adapting what you’re playing through them, and then connecting it all with a melodic thought process.
- accessibility: I’m sure you jazz cats love your whole tone scales and your weird Chick Corea-inspired soloing exercises, but honestly, the percentage of the general population who can appreciate that kind of playing is infinitesimal. (Pat Metheny, John Scofield)
- longevity: unless cut short by an early death, the player needs to have made significant artistic contributions over the period of at least a few years – not a single miraculous song or album. It’s important to see an artist grow and develop.
In my personal order of preference – because hey, it’s my blog. If you don’t agree – go write you own dang blog!
(Considering varying genres and styles, I basically consider the top six a tie for #1 – it’s hard to pick an absolute best at the neglect of the others. I love them all. But I’m pretty confident that given a cold-audition situation, Larry Carlton could play any style, any genre, any way you want and solo his brains out over top of it in a way that would make you smile. That makes him #1.)
- Larry Carlton. From Steely Dan, through his jazz stuff, to his rock and blues, the man makes the guitar sing.
- Steve Lukather (Luke live in Paris)
- David Gilmour (Comfortably Numb solo live in Poland!)
- Stevie Ray Vaughan (Testify live at El Mocambo)
- Eric Johnson (watch Eric shred the intro to “Cliffs of Dover”)
- Robben Ford (checkout cool solo snippets from 1979)
- Eddie Van Halen (prehistoric version of “Eruption”)
- Jimi Hendrix. Need I say more?
- Slash (the awesome “Sweet Child” solo live)
- Dickey Betts (doing one of his signature tunes, “Jessica”)
- Jimmy Herring (watch Jimmy smoke with ARU)
- Wes Montgomery (mid 60’s clip of Wes tearing it up)
- Junior Brown (country, blues, rock, surf – the guy can do it all, although he can get sloppy and is close to violating criteria #2)
- Steve Vai (perfect example of the fire and the passion intertwined)
- Trey Anastasio (cell phone video of Stash live)
- Johnny Hiland (watch Johnny pick it clean!)
- Don Felder. I always thought Joe brought the guts, and Don brought the beauty. (Hotel California live 1977)
- Tom Morello. He’s effect-heavy (esp. Whammy pedal) but he’s not covering up any lack of technique with it (solo mashup)
- Stanley Jordan. A true one-of-a-kind talent. (watch Stanley play “Autumn Leaves”)
- Joe Bonamassa. Seriously. What can the dude NOT play?
- Les Paul. I changed my mind on Les after I watched the documentary, “Chasing Sound”. He definitely belongs on the list.
- Jeff Beck. I went back and re-listened and watched stuff on YouTube. Yep – he belongs.
- Charlie Christian. One of the dudes who started it all. A mastery of melody.
- Django Reinhardt. In addition to a great sense of melody, he brings a sense of flash and style that predicted the future of the electric guitar.
Great Guitarists Who Don’t Appear On The List:
The following artists are well-known guitarists who, for various reasons, didn’t make the cut on my list. I’ve listed them with a short explanation of why they’re not on the list. (I have not repeated the ones I mentioned in the Criteria section.)
- Chet Atkins – an outstanding guitarist whose thumbpicking walking-bass style, while impressive, does not meet the criteria for “soloist”. Chet’s solos always seemed like variations and arpeggiations of the chords of the song, not a distinct and seperate statement.
- Eric Clapton – a very popular and likeable guy, whose main accomplishments are in the area of writing and arranging great songs, and the ability to make the most out of a simple blues-based soloing style. He’s good at what he does, but he’s not a great soloist.
- Jimmy Paige – a guy who is a riff-master and incredible hook-creator. But as for his soloing? sloppy, sloppy, sloppy.
- Chuck Berry – the godfather of rock-n-roll guitar – he’s an absolute legend. He’s an innovator. Trendsetter. Originator. but good soloist? uh…not so much. They simply do not stand the test of time and sound rather one-trick-pony-ish today.
- Dimebag Darrel – Pantera’s crunchmeister is a powerful player, but his solos lean on a lot of flash, speed, repetition and effects, not musicality.
- Joe Satriani – This one is going to get me villified, but really, I always thought his stuff lacked heart. It doesn’t move me or inspire me. Sure, there’s some “wow” moments, but it’s just an appreciation for his technical mastery – and that’s all.
- Peter Frampton – Great singer/songwriter/guitar player. But not an elite soloist. Not a virtuoso.
- Brian Setzer. He’s hip. He’s cool. I like him. He brings energy and retro vibe. But there are tons of better rock and jazz guitarists.
- The guitarists of Lynyrd Skynyrd – I absolutely love their music, but unfortunately, you can’t really point to a single person here and say, “He’s the guitar god”. LS has seen a lot of players come through there and has cumulatively made an extremely nice group effort.
- George Benson/Earl Klugh/Norman Brown – great jazz guitarists – but not up to the caliber of Wes Montgomery.
- Lee Ritenour/Russ Freeman – see comments section below.
- Steve Wariner/Vince Gill/Ricky Skaggs/Brent Mason/Brad Paisley/Albert Lee – these “New Nashville Cats” (and old cat Lee) are extremely impressive, and can chicken-pick their faces off, but I think Johnny Hiland and Junior Brown are simply a cut above.
- Randy Rhoads/Ritchie Blackmore/Kirk Hammett/Zakk Wylde/Jerry Cantrell – Sorry. Too one-dimensional.
- Billy Gibbons/Carlos Santana/Brian May/Angus Young/Joe Perry/Prince – there’s a few great gems, but simply not enough.
- Billy Corgin/Dave Navarro/Mike McCready/Johnny Greenwood – sorry, guys. just not enough of the criteria.
- Pete Townshend/Ace Frehly/Neil Young – are you kidding?
- Kurt Cobain – I will punch you in the face for each time you mention him as a great guitarist.
- John Frusciante, John Mayer, Derek Trucks, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Nels Cline – now THESE guys all actually have potential to make it on the list. Give it some time to build up some catalog and some life experience. I give them probational acceptance.