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.

Criteria
My criteria for selecting these guitar studs are as follows:

  1. talent/artistic merit: does the dude have the God-given ability to translate art from his head to his fingers?
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.)
  5. 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).
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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)
  9. 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.

The List
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.)

  1. Larry Carlton. From Steely Dan, through his jazz stuff, to his rock and blues, the man makes the guitar sing.
  2. Steve Lukather (Luke live in Paris)
  3. David Gilmour (Comfortably Numb solo live in Poland!)
  4. Stevie Ray Vaughan (Testify live at El Mocambo)
  5. Eric Johnson (watch Eric shred the intro to “Cliffs of Dover”)
  6. Robben Ford (checkout cool solo snippets from 1979)
  7. Eddie Van Halen (prehistoric version of “Eruption”)
  8. Jimi Hendrix. Need I say more?
  9. Slash (the awesome “Sweet Child” solo live)
  10. Dickey Betts (doing one of his signature tunes, “Jessica”)
  11. Jimmy Herring (watch Jimmy smoke with ARU)
  12. Wes Montgomery (mid 60’s clip of Wes tearing it up)
  13. Junior Brown (country, blues, rock, surf – the guy can do it all, although he can get sloppy and is close to violating criteria #2)
  14. Steve Vai (perfect example of the fire and the passion intertwined)
  15. Trey Anastasio (cell phone video of Stash live)
  16. Johnny Hiland (watch Johnny pick it clean!)
  17. Don Felder. I always thought Joe brought the guts, and Don brought the beauty. (Hotel California live 1977)
  18. Tom Morello. He’s effect-heavy (esp. Whammy pedal) but he’s not covering up any lack of technique with it (solo mashup)
  19. Stanley Jordan. A true one-of-a-kind talent. (watch Stanley play “Autumn Leaves”)
  20. Joe Bonamassa. Seriously. What can the dude NOT play?
  21. Les Paul. I changed my mind on Les after I watched the documentary, “Chasing Sound”. He definitely belongs on the list.
  22. Jeff Beck. I went back and re-listened and watched stuff on YouTube. Yep – he belongs.
  23. Charlie Christian. One of the dudes who started it all. A mastery of melody.
  24. 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.)

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Jimmy Paige – a guy who is a riff-master and incredible hook-creator. But as for his soloing? sloppy, sloppy, sloppy.
  4. 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.
  5. Dimebag Darrel – Pantera’s crunchmeister is a powerful player, but his solos lean on a lot of flash, speed, repetition and effects, not musicality.
  6. 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.
  7. Peter Frampton – Great singer/songwriter/guitar player. But not an elite soloist. Not a virtuoso.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. George Benson/Earl Klugh/Norman Brown – great jazz guitarists – but not up to the caliber of Wes Montgomery.
  11. Lee Ritenour/Russ Freeman – see comments section below.
  12. 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.
  13. Randy Rhoads/Ritchie Blackmore/Kirk Hammett/Zakk Wylde/Jerry Cantrell – Sorry. Too one-dimensional.
  14. Billy Gibbons/Carlos Santana/Brian May/Angus Young/Joe Perry/Prince – there’s a few great gems, but simply not enough.
  15. Billy Corgin/Dave Navarro/Mike McCready/Johnny Greenwood – sorry, guys. just not enough of the criteria.
  16. Pete Townshend/Ace Frehly/Neil Young – are you kidding?
  17. Kurt Cobain – I will punch you in the face for each time you mention him as a great guitarist.
  18. 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.
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72 Comments on “The Best Electric Guitar Soloists of All Time”

  1. Kyle Pattison Says:

    Ok – I would definitely agree with your list. I see what you are saying about Joe Satriani, although as a novice guitar player, I still am pretty much in awe. One person I didn’t see on either list:
    Mark Knopfler – I personally would put him in the “Great” category. I also am a big fan of Gary Hoey, but his stuff isn’t super original (Greensleeves, Linus and Lucy, Hocus Pocus). What do you think about Dick Dale? Made the surf- guitar sound famous so I would give him originality.

  2. Kyle Pattison Says:

    Sidebar: EJ took Cliffs of Dover at like 5 million miles an hour in that austin city limits video.

  3. jermtech Says:

    lol…ya know, I really wrestled with Knopfler. He’s a fine musician, don’t get me wrong. But I wondered if he really met my criteria? Would he be considered a virtuoso?

    I must admit, I’m not very familiar with Dick Dale. I’ll have to study up. I did consider The Ventures – they certainly had a large catalog of guitar solos. I’m still on the fence with them, too.

    Now Merle Travis and Jerry Reed are two country pickers that I’ve probably neglected. I’ll probably have to rectify that.

  4. jermtech Says:

    Dangit! Can’t believe I left off Junior Brown.

  5. David Bottomley Says:

    Tommy Emmanuel – strongly influenced by Atkins but then went on from here, I believe solving your reservations you had about Chet.


  6. You have paid attention to those moments when the music connected your ear to your heart instead of your brain. Good Job! I appreciate that my favorite, Lukather (remember?) was in the top six. I have to listen to more Carlton, but what I’ve heard is just plain flawless. The only bones I have to “pick” are these:
    –Steve Vai’s heart is not really in it a lot of the time. He stands on stage going, “look what my fingers can do!” So he’s off my list. Yes, jaw-dropping technique with innovation, but lack of heart EVER on stage = fail. (See Kenny G. – please, someone, stop him.)
    –Duane Allman beside Dickey Betts on The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East is the only secular concert recording that ever made me cry. (See Stormy Monday) Please add Duane. Thanks, Jerm. Rock on.

    • Mike Pavlik Says:

      Absolutely spot on about Dickey/Duane. That’s an egregious oversight. I love the list on a whole but I’ve never heard of anyone that thinks Dickey is better than Duane….


  7. I’ve got to throw in a vote for Clapton, too. Huge integrity points, (similar to #2 on your criteria list) from Crossroads Guitar Fest 2007.

    Gotta love Billy Gibbons, too. Nobody can do more with one note! OK I’m done for now.

  8. John Carlson Says:

    Between his jazz and rock chops, I’d have to put in a vote for one of my favorites, Mike Stern. I generally think he would and could have more mainstream appeal except for the more less mainstream hardcore jazz/fusion circles he plays in. But I find his playing pretty accessible in any style.

  9. John Carlson Says:

    Oh . . . . Les Paul – ????

  10. jermtech Says:

    John, I mentioned Stern in Criteria #5. My opinion, anyway.

    Jerry – give the clip of Vai I posted a chance – you’ll see his passion. Billy Gibbons is an old blueshound. good stuff – but not mastery in my opinion.

    David – Tommy Emmanuel is an acoustic player – and so does not meet the guidelines of the list.

  11. jermtech Says:

    I’ve added Junior Brown to the list.

    I’m going to add Les Paul.

    I’m still on the fence with Knopfler.

  12. Jon Keller Says:

    Although, I disagree with your criteria on what makes a good guitar soloist, i do agree on all of the guys on the list… except for Van Halen. and Vai. I just can’t stand them.

    I would definitely put James Burton on mine.

    Jimmy Herring. I always forget about him for some reason. I saw him playing with the Dead a few years ago. unbelievable.

    Also, despite being one of the messiest guitarists ever… Neil Young will always have my heart.

  13. David Bottomley Says:

    Oops – I read right through the “electric” in the blog title, my bad.

  14. C Dub Says:

    What ?? No Rit

  15. Tony Says:

    This list is a sham, how is Kurt Cobain not on it?!?

  16. jermtech Says:

    Tony – he’s mentioned in the “not” list – and I owe you a punch in the face now.

  17. Tony Says:

    I’d like to see you try…I mean, if you can’t see that Kurt Cobain is the greatest guitarist ever, you probably can’t see to punch me in the face.

  18. jermtech Says:

    hmmmm Lee Ritenour…what comes to mind…

    Milk.
    Soap.
    Cotton Balls.
    Snow.
    Wonder Bread.
    Leave It To Beaver.
    Kenny G.

    Yes – that’s right. THINGS THAT ARE WHITE. Need Proof?

    and

    http://www.vervemusicgroup.com/artist/releases/default.aspx?pid=9273&aid=2700

    You can throw Russ Freeman in that camp, too.

  19. jermtech Says:

    LOL…for a big treat watch time index 1:50 on that Ritneour clip…open mic hilarity ensues…

  20. C Dub Says:

    Okay Jerm ,,,What about Stanley Jordan,,,No cotton balls there

  21. jermtech Says:

    ooooh…good one CDub…I think you got me on that one.He’s definitely getting added to the list.

  22. jermtech Says:

    Here’s an old Les Paul Trio clip. What do you guys think? Should he be on the list?

  23. jermtech Says:

    I’ve been studying up on Dick Dale…I’m saying it’s a no. The King of the Surf Guitar is good, but not good enough.

  24. jermtech Says:

    Merle Travis is awesome, too – but he falls in the same camp as Chet.

  25. C Dub Says:

    Hey Jerm ,, be sure and drop me an email when you start “The Best Piano / Keyboard Soloists of All Time” page. I really wanna hear your thoughts on that one.

  26. jermtech Says:

    CW – I’m not sure if I’ll do that one. I’ve never really studied up on that before – I’ve always gravitated to the rhythm section (bass, gtr, drums).

    Why don’t you do it? You have lots of thoughts about stuff – where is YOUR blog, man?

  27. C Dub Says:

    I doubt if I have time to create and maintain blogsite. Besides it’s more fun (and easier) to just comment on yours. Oh, and by the way, the “Piano Soloist” list starts and ends with Art Tatum. Fats Waller- “Tonight, God is in the House”

  28. BWagoner Says:

    Hey Jerm, it’s Brayden. I can definitely agree with your opinion on Kurt Cobain. What do you think about musicians that play tap guitar? I’ve been listening to some Andy McKee he does instrumentals but they sound amazing to me that is. Check him out on Youtube or something and let me know

  29. jermtech Says:

    Chris – I LOVE Art Tatum. Have always been a big fan.

  30. jermtech Says:

    Brayden – Sorry its taken so long to get back to you. I HAVE seen Andy McKee’s stuff all over the net – he’s terrific. He reminds me a lot of a local guy named Michael Kelsey from Lafayette. Check out this little clip of him: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QuaPTbSVFyE

  31. Jermrag Says:

    John Petrucci? I kind of thought he was rather good…especially on the “A Night With John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess” cd…

    Just a thought.

  32. Emily Says:

    What? Peter Green? Duane Allman? Keith Richards?
    Stairway to Heaven is synonymous with a guitar solo.
    Jimmy Page is greatest and most influential and most innovative (Studio) guitarist of all time.

  33. jermtech Says:

    Oh man, Emily! You nailed me on Peter Green. He was awesome in his prime. Re: Duane, I personally think Betts was the better guitarist in the Allmans. Jimmy Page is what you said – influential and innovative – but that doesn’t make him a great soloist according to my criteria outlined in the first section. Thanks for visiting and commenting.

  34. ari Says:

    i agree, mark knopfler should have been there

  35. Landon Says:

    No Lifeson or Schenker? horrible

  36. Andrew Says:

    Not even a mention of Jerry Garcia? Based on your criteria, he has to at least be mentioned with the rest of those guys. And don’t just look at what he did with the GD, look at the body of work.

  37. Sam Sprague Says:

    Interesting list. Agree with quite a few. Many I am not too familiar with (yet). Have to disagree on Clapton. Lots of great solos throughout his career both live and recorded. Very passionate, definitely puts his heart into it. Derick and the Dominoes is particularly good stuff. Same goes for Page, but I think even more so since you are talking about solos. To me, his collection of recorded solos especially with Zep is unparalled, especially in the 3-6 category. Sometimes gets a bit sloppy (live), but what he gives back far outweighs that. Disc one of How the West Was Won is incredible stuff. Interesting Blog. Thanks

  38. Ev Says:

    Synyster Gates

  39. Ahmad Faris Says:

    I’m just surprised that Joe Satriani is not on the list.I know i’m novice a guitar player and i would say Steve Vai does have more feel in his music than Satriani but he’s great too. By the way, where’s John Petrucci??Eric Clapton??Yngwie J. Malmsteen??Slash way too overrated.. I think this is a bit biased..

  40. Ben Says:

    Slash goes on the list, but Kirk can’t? Huh?

  41. mick Says:

    Billy corgan is perhaps the best soloist Iv heard, each one is unique and often mind blowing. He can combine a bit of all these attributes into something that deceptively has no roots, pure imagination that captures his abstract content. I strongly suggest you listen to Meloncholy and Infinite Sadness and siamese dream especially. Off the top of my head now – Soma – pure magic. Brian May of Queenn is another.

  42. Craig Says:

    Your don;t consider John Petrucci (Dream Theater) to be a “Virtuoso”?

  43. Very good Says:

    Ah yes good list, glad to see Gilmour at 3. I would have put him at 1, no one puts more heart and soul into their solos. Every single solo he has ever made has proven to be a work of art. Now a few objections. First of all, why has no one even mentioned the guitar legend Jeff Beck? Absoloutely no mention? Seriously, check this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JDgjBl86vq8.

    Secondly, Ritchie Blackmore. This guy is amazing. I find him to be much better than Jimmy Page really I mean sure Jimmy Page has better riffs (by a bit) but Ritchie has some awesome solos. Plus hes not sloppy as hell live. Anyways some cool solos of his are lazy, highway star (live from the made in japan album or studio), wasted sunsets and stargazer with rainbow. But by far his most amazing solo is the studio version of child in time. A solo so amazing that no one at all can pull it off like it is. Not anyone on youtube, not their new guitarist Steve Morse hell even Ritchie himself doesn’t do that same solo live. I’m guessing it just came to him in some crazy inspiration. Take a listen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PfAWReBmxEs.

    But otherwise very good list. Nice work.

  44. wtf Says:

    Ah yes good list, glad to see Gilmour at 3. I would have put him at 1, no one puts more heart and soul into their solos. Every single solo he has ever made has proven to be a work of art. Now a few objections. First of all, why has no one even mentioned the guitar legend Jeff Beck? Absoloutely no mention? Seriously, check this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JDgjBl86vq8.

    Secondly, Ritchie Blackmore. This guy is amazing. I find him to be much better than Jimmy Page really I mean sure Jimmy Page has better riffs (by a bit) but Ritchie has some awesome solos. Plus hes not sloppy as hell live. Anyways some cool solos of his are lazy, highway star (live from the made in japan album or studio), wasted sunsets and stargazer with rainbow. But by far his most amazing solo is the studio version of child in time. A solo so amazing that no one at all can pull it off like it is. Not anyone on youtube, not their new guitarist Steve Morse hell even Ritchie himself doesn’t do that same solo live. I’m guessing it just came to him in some crazy inspiration. Take a listen, skip to about 3:30 for the solo:

    But otherwise very good list. Nice work.

  45. Me Says:

    Ah yes good list, glad to see Gilmour at 3. I would have put him at 1, no one puts more heart and soul into their solos. Every single solo he has ever made has proven to be a work of art. Now a few objections. First of all, why has no one even mentioned the guitar legend Jeff Beck? Absoloutely no mention? Seriously, check this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JDgjBl86vq8.

    Secondly, Ritchie Blackmore. This guy is amazing. I find him to be much better than Jimmy Page really I mean sure Jimmy Page has better riffs (by a bit) but Ritchie has some awesome solos. Plus hes not sloppy as hell live. Anyways some cool solos of his are lazy, highway star (live from the made in japan album or studio), wasted sunsets and stargazer with rainbow. But by far his most amazing solo is the studio version of child in time. A solo so amazing that no one at all can pull it off like it is. Not anyone on youtube, not their new guitarist Steve Morse hell even Ritchie himself doesn’t do that same solo live. I’m guessing it just came to him in some crazy inspiration. Take a listen, skip to about 3:30 for the solo:

    But otherwise very good list. Nice work.

  46. Me Says:

    Crap sorry about the double posting, for some reason the wrong details were entered


  47. I understand your sentiments on Malmsteen; in your eyes he’s probably something like an orchestra kid who perfected the technicalities of playing violin concertos and then took that style to the electric guitar. I know that he may not have much soul or even any kind of incredibly discernable edge, but that’s actually what I like about him.

    I like various guitarists for different reasons, I don’t hold them all accountable to be outstanding in all criteria.


  48. Oh and also, what do you think about Brian May?

  49. andrew Says:

    personally i think john frusciante should be at least in the top 10 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z0AXjUy1_gY


  50. This will be a excellent web site, could you be interested in doing an interview regarding just how you created it? If so e-mail me!

  51. viny Says:

    i don’t understand why nobody ever includes Buckethead in there lists the guy has been shredding for ages.. i just dont know why pepole don’t acknowledge him??

  52. Dan Says:

    You need to check out Phil Keaggy, particularly the albums Beyond Nature, Master and Musician, Phantasmagorical, and Acoustic Sketches….he gets overlooked a lot because he’s an evangelical Christian. Regardless, he’s a great guitarist.

  53. Bud Says:

    Uhhhh did I miss something?

    Michael Angelo Batio?
    Best sweeper around
    Melodically amazing and fast… that’s hard to find
    He harmonizes with him self by playing his double guitar.
    He defiantly has passion about music as well.

    Number 1 in my book

  54. izaiah Says:

    Zakk Wylde deserves to be on any soloist list along with Hammet, Angus Young, Carlos Santana. If not its just your opinion of who should and who shouldn’t be on the list and no what the fans say which is worst then those people who listen to Black Veil Brides and are suddenly music specialist.

  55. wolverine Says:

    your the most idiot critic in music

  56. Dov Jacobs Says:

    Add David Gilmore . The guitarist from Camel , hes just amazing listen to ”ice” and ”for today”.

  57. notyourbusiness Says:

    al di meola? no?

  58. Hayden Says:

    I like your list but… Jimmy Page should replace Slash at number 9. Jimmy Page should at least be on the list somewhere.

  59. KC Birdeno Says:

    Dude…. Buckethead…. Dude…. Buckethead…. Dude…. Seriously…. Buckethead needs to be somewhere on this list. You can’t just ignore someone who is labelled “a robot on the guitar”
    He is like Tom Morello on crack and acid… Seriously… c’mon


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  61. udenk Says:

    i’m sure this list be wrote by a drum kid who dont know anything about UCR (Ultimate Classic Rock)

  62. udenk Says:

    rate this.!

  63. FuckThisList Says:

    Bruh jimmy page sloppy at soloing. No slash. This list us a joke

  64. Mike Pavlik Says:

    Love the list! The criteria are great and you’ve obviously heard a ton of music. Not much I could argue with including the explanations for some omissions (Paige, BB king, Buddy Guy). The only two things that jumped out to me were:
    1. Dickey betts was great but not even the best soloist in his band.
    2. No Zappa! I’m never surprised anymore because he’s so damn underrated and overlooked, but he’s the absolute man.

  65. Mike Pavlik Says:

    I see I’m a little late to this party but I would love to know your thoughts on Zappa if you’re familiar with his work.


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