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Columns > Dan Greenhaus

Published: 2005/08/08
by Dan Greenhaus

My Top Ten Rock Guitar Players of All Time

Yes, this list has been made a hundred million times, and yes most people who are reading this are going to know everything I’m going to say, and yes you are going to disagree with three, five or all of the picks. But at the same time, this is among my favorite topics to discuss, both as a musician myself, and as a fan. We’ve all had this conversation as many times as the list, or some variation of it, has been printed, and yet it’s always fun and engaging. Why? Because there is nothing better in this world that talking about music and what’s better than ranking?
To clarify here at the outset, what went into this list was a combination of factors. Originality, for me, is always of importance, but so is the right balance of skill and "feel," the ever-elusive aspect of a musician’s playing that separates the true virtuosos from the imitators and wannabes. Technical ability is also important, as too often, I feel it gets overlooked too dramatically in place of the aforementioned feel, as evidenced by BB King being placed on these lists. BB King was a phenomenal singer, a tremendous player and innovator all the way through. Was he a top ten guitar player of all time? Not a chance.
As a note, I limited the list to rock guitarists, as a general list, which would surely include the likes of Al DiMeola, Pat Methany, John McLaughlin and the myriad other players of similar styles, was just too difficult to undertake, especially since its not out of the realm of possibility that McLaughlin is the single greatest player of all time.
And with in mind, I present to you, my top ten rock guitar players of all time.
10. Eddie Van Halen Few guitar players in history are as overrated, in my opinion, as EVH, but one cannot deny both his talent and approach. His mastery of the two handed tapping technique, which would eventually become standard fare in the 80s, was an inspiration to more guitar players than one can possibly name. I once heard that Eddie, in his younger days, was so protective of what he knew was his clear mastery of the instrument that he would play with his back to the crowd so people wouldn’t be able to steal his tricks. True or not, the story underscores the obvious appreciation people have for his playing. I mean, if the second song on your band’s debut album is a 1:42 guitar solo entitled "Eruption," you must be pretty fuckin’ good and/or you’ve got balls of steel.
9. Carlos Santana Ignoring the fact that he seems to have sold out about as badly as anyone, Carlos still belongs on everyone’s top ten list, if only for the work he amassed while recording Santana’s first three albums. With Greg Rolie ably balancing out the band, the original incarnation of Santana was nothing short of a tour de force, with Carlos in the lead. Few players in history had the ability to wrench more feeling out of the guitar than he, with instantly recognizable rock riffs and a rhythm style to match his lead. One part rock, one part jazz, one part fusion and all psychedelic, the younger Santana reached heights few have even come close to, with songs such as "Incident at Neshabur," "Samba Pa Ti," "Europa" and "Soul Sacrifice," the latter of which has provided us with one of the greatest live versions of any song ever. If you have any doubt as to Santana’s place on this list, find yourself a video copy of the band performing an acid laced version of "Soul Sacrifice" at Woodstock. Sit back and enjoy.
8. Randy Rhodes A man who too often gets left off these lists, Randy Rhodes’ work will forever remain incomplete, however what he left us with more than justifies his presence in the pantheon of all time great players. His guitar riffs and solos in songs such as "Crazy Train," "Mr. Crowley," and "Over the Mountain" are basically a study in guitar technique. Rhodes’ unparalleled musicianship perfectly showcased his knowledge of the guitar without sacrificing "feel," something that plagued virtually all metal guitar players that came in his wake. Ignoring his skill at writing memorable riffs, his blistering and mesmerizing lead work alone is justification for inclusion on this list.
7. Jerry Garcia – It seems as though no matter where a top ten list gets printed, in virtually all cases, Jerry gets left off, unless a Deadhead or someone of similar ilk is involved. Never fully appreciated by the general public, Jerry’s rank among the greatest guitar players of all time is a lock and I will argue until I’m blue in the face with anyone who thinks otherwise. Simply put, no one who has ever walked the earth can touch Jerry’s ability to get more out of less, although Santana and David Gilmour might have something to say about that. When he played the guitar, it was magic. It was the kind of magic that can’t be taught at Berklee and can’t be obtained through practice. It’s the kind you are born with and Jerry had enough magic for two hundred men. His skill on the electric guitar is well documented, but his mastery of the acoustic often goes overlooked. I’m sure you’ve heard it, but I will never get enough of "Thrill is Gone" off of 1991’s "Grisman & Garcia." Millions of guitar players go their entire lives without making one person cry from the sheer power of their playing. Garcia did it to thousands almost every night.
6. Joe Satriani Well, a case can be made for Jeff Beck, as can one for both Eric Johnson and Steve Vai. I’ve always felt that Satch was in a whole other class than Johnson and Vai, so their inclusion on this list was essentially never a question. Beck…I’ve just never got it, even if "Led Boots" is a jaw-droppingly good song. But Satch moved to another level with the release of "The Extremist." He has perhaps never topped the guitar solo in "War," a solo that I honestly believe is one of the 10 greatest guitar solos of all time. However, the defining moment for Satch came with the release of "Crystal Planet," the album that saw him move well beyond the dreaded "shredder" label, into a whole other realm. His stunning ability to craft songs reached its azimuth on this album, as did his ability to reign in his light speed solos, but it is his now legendary composition by way of "Raspberry Jam Delta-V" that puts him over the top. One simply cannot hear this song and deny his talent, skill and guitar mastery. He is arguably one of the most technically proficient guitar players on the planet and his placement on this list, as far as I’m concerned, is assured. His body of work speaks for itself.
5. David Gilmour There is an old adage in guitar player land that goes something like "As a guitar player, you spend the first five years trying to play as fast as possible, and then you spend the rest of your life trying to slow down." Well, no one slowed down better than Gilmour. His guitar solos are legendary, as few players have ever been to equal his tasteful and restrained approach. The feel he pours into the funky guitar solo of "Atom Heart Mother" boggles my mind to this very day, as do the obvious solos such as "Money," "Time" and "Comfortably Numb." His tone is among the most sought after, and he made the Telecaster sound as good, and as big, as anyone ever has. If his 70’s work, such as "Dogs" wasn’t enough (it is), Gilmour never lost a beat on later tracks, and songs such as "On The Turning Away," "Sorrow" and "What Do You Want From Me?" contain searing solos from one of the greatest ever.
4. Jimmy Page I’ll tell you what’s amazing about Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin; Sure, everyone knows how amazing "Stairway," "Black Dog," "Kashmir," "Ramble On" and all the other "greatest hits" are, but what makes this guy so amazing is the quality of the rest the material. The list of songs is as long as the amount of material they’ve put out. Even if Page’s work in the live setting wasn’t always as good as one would hope for, his work on the albums is unmatched, and the sheer volume of guitar riffs he dreamed up every time he picked up the guitar is enough to make someone else put it down. What’s even more incredible is that he recorded himself like two or three times on so many tracks, and even the SECONDARY parts are phenomenal (see: "Celebration Day"). His work within Led Zeppelin, and the band as a whole, gave life to so many other bands that it would take another list entitled "Top Ten Bands that Would Not Exist Were It Not For Blatantly Robbing Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin." And to top it all off, is there a more underrated, under-discussed and under-appreciated song than "Achilles Last Stand?"
3. Eric Clapton His work within Cream is the stuff legends are made of and not surprisingly, it’s the reason he is a legend. He plugged a Strat into a Marshall stack and managed to take the blues pentatonic scale to the outer limits of possibility via a wicked combination of blues and jazz. The result? Earth shattering licks and riffs that live on till this very day. He places higher than Jimmy Page, barely, because his live work was every bit as phenomenal as his studio work, while taking more risks, musically, than Page. His skills were light years ahead of his time, even if he was still nervous about his singing and people flocked from all around to hear him play. While Cream’s list of "famous" songs is somewhat smaller than the bands of other guitar players on this list, fans that are familiar with those songs speak just as highly. "N.S.U." "Strange Brew," "SWLABR" and "Sweet Wine" are just a few of the songs that the band regularly tore apart in the live setting. Clapton’s tone at the time was deep, dark and bluesy and shook audiences to the core. And all this happened before "Layla" and the "Journeyman" days. Say what you will about his modern day work, but the Cream-era Clapton was as good as anyone has ever been or ever will be.
2. Stevie Ray Vaughn When you get to the top five, personal tastes move musicians all around the list, but I find it hard to argue with putting SRV in this slot. For starters, he was, and always will be, the most ferocious guitar player the earth has ever seen. Whenever he stepped on the stage, regardless of who else was there, SRV was the star. The audience knew it and the other musicians knew it. A famous story has Eric Clapton himself driving down the road, and pulling over when SRV came on the radio, because he was so amazed at what he heard. His guitar playing stands unmatched to this very day, and should anyone question that, they need only seek out and listen to the two guitar solos in "Tightrope," and that takes place AFTER he kicked drugs. What he was doing while he was still on the drugs was among the greatest guitar playing the earth has ever witnessed. He took both blues music, and the music of Jimi Hendrix to indescribable places. I challenge anyone to watch video of him from the early 80s and not be absolutely floored by the music this man creates. Furthermore, his appearance on MTV’s "Unplugged" is among his finest work, lest there be any belief that the electric guitar covered up…..something that wasn’t perfect. "Texas Flood" and "Pride and Joy" alone should suffice to back up his heroics, but should further evidence be needed, please see his takes on "Voodoo Child" or "Little Wing." Madness. Absolute unadulterated madness. No one will ever do that. Ever.
1. Jimi Hendrix This spot will never ever be taken up by someone else. His guitar playing will never be matched. Not surprisingly, as will many others on this list, it’s not necessarily his technical skill per se that will never be matched, because others have topped him in that regard. It was both his "feel" and his "approach" that will never be matched. One simply cannot argue with Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Paul McCartney and Jeff Beck (among others) who went to see Hendrix live and all left in awe. "Machine Gun" is still one of the most powerful songs anyone has ever written, and while the Woodstock appearance as a whole wasn’t his finest moment, his now legendary take on "The Star Spangled Banner" stands as one of the greatest live moments in music history. Add into the equation that he wrote dozens of incredible songs including "Purple Haze," "Foxy Lady" and "Stone Free" and you’ve got more than enough to justify his placement.

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