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When it comes to the greatest guitar players in the world, it’s hard to say who is the best. There are many players who have revolutionized the guitar world with their style, technique, and iconic performances. That is why we decided to list 5 of the most appreciated guitar virtuosos and let you make the final choice. Tops made by respected music magazines or voted by people, however, tend to put the same guitarists in the first few places, so here they are.
1. Eddie Van Halen
Born in the Netherlands, Van Halen is considered to be one of the best guitarists in the world and he was voted as the number one in a reader poll published by Guitar World magazine in 2012. He was raised in a family of musicians and that is why he showed talent from a young age.
Surprisingly though, he wasn’t able to read music but played it by ear and often times he improvised a lot. In his early days as a musician he used to play the piano, but he felt that that instrument wasn’t challenging enough for him. He and his brother bought a guitar and a drum kit and they started playing together.
In interviews, he says that Eric Clapton is one of his main influences, but he also sees that his style is similar to that of Jimmy Page. When it comes to his own influence on music, Van Halen is known for his use of two-handed tappings, tremolo picking, vibrato and the use of natural and artificial harmonics.
But even this move was inspired by Jimmy Page, as Van Halen said he probably started improving upon the tapping technique after watching one of his shows.
In terms of equipment, what is best known about Van Halen is the fact that he likes to work with a certain kind of pickups and these include DiMarzios, Gibson PAFs, and Ibanez Super 70s. For the first Val Halen album, he used the 1970s Mighty Mites pickups which were made by Seymour Duncan, especially for the guitarist.
One thing that he achieves using these pickups is the “brown sound” as he calls it. This is a special tone that he likes to create with his guitar, but in essence, the brown sound that he is referring to comes from his brother’s snare drum. When hitting a snare drum it sounds organic, like hitting a log, and thus brown.
2. Keith Richards
Being the guitarist of The Rolling Stones since 1962, Keith Richards is one of rock’s legends. Apart from being listed as the 4th best guitarist in the world by the Rolling Stone magazine in 2011, Richards is also considered the creator of many most iconic riffs. He is also a great composer, being the co-principal songwriter for his band.
He is a talented musician capable of singing too. When he was young his grandfather had a guitar that he always kept out of young Keith’s reach. He was told by his grandfather that when he captures that guitar, he can play it and keep it. So he did, and that’s how with determination he got to be one of the best guitarists still alive today.
His playing style is interesting, as he doesn’t try to be “the fastest gun in the west”, as he says. Richards prefers focusing on chords and rhythms. He is able to perform fast riffs alone but he likes to team up with another guitarist and play along. Sometimes he removes the thickest string of the guitar saying that it gets in the way of his style of play.
Although a very modest person as he is often seen as, he is also a figure that imposes respect and Ian Stewart said that Richards is the actual leader of the Rolling Stones. But he doesn’t want to be associated with that role and instead, he says that he is only the oil that makes the machine work.
The band members often said that they don’t actually follow the drummer when playing, but rather Richards because he is “impossible not to follow”. That is certainly a statement of how good of a guitarist he is.
3. Jimmy Page
Another virtuoso of the rock world, Jimmy Page is known for his work with Led Zeppelin, and he is the band’s founder. Being described as “the pontiff of power riffing”, he was ranked the 3rd best guitarist in the world by the Rolling Stone magazine and the 2nd in Gibson’s list of top guitar players of all time.
He discovered the guitar when he was 12 and although he took a few lessons, he really learned a lot while playing and teaching himself alone. When he was young there weren’t many guitarists around, so he had to learn most of it by himself.
Although he brought a lot to guitar playing styles, he also had a huge influence on sound recording and guitar effects. Because he had a background in music production, he knew how to place microphones and how to produce certain sounds.
In terms of guitars he often prefers a Gibson Les Paul, as most of the albums he recorded were done using this guitar. The amps found on his Les Paul are Marshall. For some time around 1971 and 1972, he used a Harmony Sovereign H-1260 on stage and in the studio for a couple of albums.
The famous song “Stairway to Heaven” was recorded with him using a Fender Telecaster, which was a gift he received from Jeff Beck, another great guitarist.
4. Eric Clapton
Referred to as one of the most important and influential guitar players of all time, Clapton was part of The Yardbirds rock band, along with Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. All three of these guitarists are considered some of the best. Eric Clapton appeared 3 times in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, once as a solo artist and two times as part of a band.
He ranks second in the Rolling Stone magazine’s top of best guitarists and 4th in Gibson’s Top 50 Guitarists of All Time. Receiving 18 Grammy Awards, he also received the CBE, an order of chivalry offered in Britain for outstanding citizens that have a great impact on arts, science, or perpetuate charitable acts.
Because he had issues with alcohol and drugs, after his recovery he founded the Crossroads Center, a medical facility that helps substance abusers. His style is a complex one but the influences come from great blues players such as B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Buddy Guy.
Having great influence on guitar playing techniques, Eric Clapton was also a player that knew how he wanted everything to sound. He was frustrated by technicians that wouldn’t have an idea of what the general sound of a band should be and they just stuck an amplifier in front of a microphone.
He knew that this wouldn’t capture the whole sound and experience of the band. The recordings needed to sound like you were at least 10 feet away from the source, not 3 inches, and thus he proceeded to move the microphones and amplifiers around until the sound was as he imagined. From then on the recordings started to sound really different, and even Roger Waters of Pink Floyd says that this move changed everything in music.
5. Jimi Hendrix
Despite the fact that he had a mainstream career that lasted for only 4 years, Jimi Hendrix can be considered the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock. And that title also means that he is probably the best guitar player the world has ever seen, so the fact that he died aged 27 is a tragic thing for music as well.
Most tops will agree that he is to be placed on the first spot when it comes to guitar skills. In his years of fame, he was the world’s highest-paid performer and he was the headline of the Woodstock festival in 1969.
He used his style and talent to popularize the overdriven amplifiers and the high gain and volume that an electric guitar could provide. Much of the effects that are popular today, including the wah-wah or fuzz tone started with him. He essentially transformed the world of rock with the help of technology, and the feedback and distortion that electric guitars had.
For his unique style, influence and innovative spirit, he can be considered the best guitar player there ever was.
Despite his raw talent, he also had issues with drugs and alcohol. Once he went into a bar with $400 (that was a lot of money back then) which he saved during his time in the army, and he spent it all in one night, handing the bills to anyone who would ask for some money.
He also did a lot of drugs, from cocaine to LSD, cannabis, and many others. Unfortunately, he was also becoming violent when drinking too much or consuming drugs. This abusive consume would eventually lead to his early death.
6. B.B. King
Riley B. King, better known professionally as B.B. King, was an American electric guitarist, blues singer, songwriter, and record producer. He became one of the most famous blues performers and a very important consolidator of blues styles. He made his first recording in 1949 after which he started a 12-year-long association with Kent/RPM/Modern.
The rhythm and blues hits that he recorded during that time include “Woke Up This Morning”, “You Know I Love You,” and “Three O’clock Blues,” the latter which reached the No.1 on the R&B charts and became B.B. King’s first national hit. For the next 30 years, he toured the nightclubs constantly and managed to average more than 300 shows annually.
His style of music became so well-known that it earned him the title of “King of the Blues.” King made many collaborations over the years, including with other famous artists such as Sheryl Crow, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, and Van Morrison. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
In 2008, this legendary singer and guitarist also got his own museum in Indianola, Mississippi which is dedicated to King’s music and the music that influenced him.
In terms of equipment, he used many guitars, and lots of them were characteristic of the time period they were played in. Most of his early recordings feature a Fender Esquire, but he is best known for playing different models of Gibson ES-355.
He also said that the old Fender amplifiers were some of the best ever made, as they provided the good sound and durability that he needed. Indeed, the tunes that he was able to get out of those tube amplifiers was a magnificent one.
7. Stevie Ray Vaughan
Stevie Ray Vaughan was determined to follow in his brother’s footsteps and he began playing on his brother’s guitars at the age of 10. It didn’t take long for his prodigious knack for playing guitar to land him gigs in and around Dallas while his brother pursued his musical career in Austin.
His big break occurred when David Bowie observed Vaughan’s musical abilities and asked him to play on “Let’s Dance” which was Bowie’s upcoming album at that time. This helped Vaughan land a record deal with Epic and the resulting record reached No.38 on the charts.
Stevie Ray Vaughan’s ascension to fame did not stop there and more records followed, namely the live album “Live Alive” and the studio collection “Soul to Soul” which garnered both critical and commercial success.
In 1984, he was recognized by the National Blues Foundation Awards and earned two awards, namely the Blues Instrumentalist of the Year and Entertainer of the Year.
Unfortunately, tragedy struck on August 26th, 1990 and after playing a big show in Wisconsin, Stevie boarded a helicopter headed for Chicago which crashed into a field minutes after take-off due to dense fog.
Despite his sudden death, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s legacy has only grown, and fans have been treated with numerous posthumous albums and tribute specials.
His style of play comes from his childhood. Admiring his brother, he always tried different instruments and he even played the drums and the saxophone. After he received his first guitar at a young age, he started to learn by ear, which was a sign that he was a prodigy.
That was also the period when he started to develop his taste in music, as he learned many things listening and playing along with favorite artists like Otis Rush, Albert King, and Muddy Waters. Of course, he also listened to Jimi Hendrix, who was popular at that time.
8. Brian May
As a teen, Brian May loved music and with the help of his father he built his very own homemade guitar that he named “The Red Special.” This instrument would later feature prominently in his musical career and be present on every Queen album and live show.
In 1971, he decided to quit completing his Ph.D. and instead hit the road with his small band at the time, Queen – a name that would soon become synonymous with rock ‘n’ roll. Brian May performed as a vocalist, lead guitarist and as an occasional songwriter.
In 1973, Queen released their debut album which won them fans in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Queen’s first No 1. Record in America followed in 1975 with “A Night at the Opera,” an album that featured two of May’s ballads – “The Prophet’s Song” and “39.”
May’s career was not just about rock ‘n’ roll since he also performed and composed for the theater, namely the London Riverside Studios production of Macbeth. With Queen, he also scored the Flash Gordon movie and collaborated on soundtracks for other movies such as Spider-man II and Mission Impossible II.
Brain May is also a devoted animal welfare activist and in 2012 he was appointed the vice president of Britain’s RSPCA.
The recent movie “Bohemian Rhapsody” that depicts the life of band colleague Freddy Mercury shows May as a fatherlike figure in the band, the glue that always kept the band intact and the boys going strong, and that is certainly another one of his most important feats in life.
Furthermore, he is also an astrophysicist, so you can’t say that he isn’t a smart guy. It’s possible his knowledge spread in different domains also helped Queen when they recorded all those wild albums, although it’s clear that the flair of Freddy Mercury also had an impact on that.
Prince took an interest in music early on and by the age of 7 he was already playing the piano and he had mastered the guitar and drums by the time he joined his first band at the age of 14. His hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota had very few African American residents which made it an unlikely place for a black musician.
Just like Stevie Wonder, he was also a composer and he could perform on all the instruments he required, and that helps explain why many of his recordings feature him in all the performing roles.
While his career began with soul and funk marketed to a black audience, his later records incorporated a wide range of influences such as jazz, hip-hop, heavy metal, punk, and the Beatles.
1978 marked the year when “For You”, which was his debut album, was released. His first album was quickly followed by “Prince” the following year. On both albums, he played all of the instruments, and that garnered him the reputation of being one of the best instrumentalists of his time and a guitar virtuoso.
His career spanned four decades during which he worked as a singer, musician, songwriter, record producer, actor, dancer, and filmmaker.
Although often associated with pop, Prince could be considered as one of the most versatile artists ever, not only because he was capable of playing many instruments, but also due to the fact that his style of composing music took some small bits from many music genres.
With each album he released, he was always able to come up with new genres, sounds, and different textures. He was also a stepping stone for the new era of androgynous musicians, being an example for many around the world.
10. Curtis Mayfield
Curtis Mayfield is one of the world’s greatest soul music artists and his songs touched topics such as the racial and political upheaval of the 1960s. His songs remain just as powerful and topical today as they were half a century ago.
His love for music began in his teenage years when he started to teach himself guitar. Because he lacked a teacher, he tuned the strings of his guitar to the notes of his mother’s piano.
This mistake turned out to be a blessing in disguise since it led his songwriting down to unique paths that would influence future generations of guitarists that perform not only soul music but other genres as well such as blues, rock, and country.
Mayfield’s innovative lyrical sound made many other guitarists try to imitate his playing, and many soul records made in his hometown ended up being influenced by his style. In 1961 he was among the first African Americans to found a music publishing company.
In interviews, Curtis Mayfield was very proud of being a self-taught artist since it helped him find and nurture his own style that was very hard to replicate by other artists. Furthermore, he was a big influence for many other guitar playing artists such as Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley.
He had the unique capability of combining the fight for social justice with tones and lyrics that gave hopefulness to listeners of all kinds. His music always inspired for a better future. With his songs he managed to capture the ghetto life like no others could see it.
Mayfield also criticized the glorifying of the glamorous lifestyles, letting young people know that the world is not all about money and fame and that life should be lived fully. As a result of all the things he did, the “message music” he promoted was really appreciated during the ‘60s and ‘70s.
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