Certain guitarists have made their mark on the world of guitar so that any guitarist who comes along after them has a hard time escaping their legacy. Here is a handful of some of the rock guitar greats you should absolutely be listening to and learning from.
B.B. King (1925– )
Although he wasn’t the first electric bluesman, B.B. King is easily the most popular: His swinging, high-voltage guitar style complements charismatic stagemanship and a huge, gospel-fueled voice. Along with his trademark ES-355 guitar, nicknamed “Lucille,” King’s minimalist soloing technique and massive finger vibrato has cemented his place in the annals of guitar history. His signature tunes include “Every Day I Have the Blues” and “The Thrill Is Gone.”
Chuck Berry (1926– )
Perhaps rock’s first real guitar hero, Chuck Berry used fast, rhythmic double-stops to create his signature guitar style. Although some regard him equally for his songwriting and lyric-writing skills, his fire-breathing breaks made his signature tunes “Johnny B. Goode,” “Rockin’ in the U.S.A.,” and “Maybelline” bona fide guitar classics.
Jimi Hendrix (1942–1970)
Considered the greatest rock guitarist of all time, Jimi Hendrix fused R&B, blues, rock, and psychedelia into a mesmerizing sonic soup. His 1967 breakthrough at the Monterey Pop Festival instantly rewrote the rock guitar textbook, especially after he whipped off his Stratocaster and lit it on fire. Young guitarists religiously copy his licks to this day. Hendrix was known for his fiery abandon (even when his guitar wasn’t actually on fire) and innovative work with feedback and the whammy bar. His signature tunes include “Purple Haze” and “Little Wing.”
Jimmy Page (1944– )
Jimmy Page succeeded Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck in the Yardbirds, but he didn’t really find his niche until forming Led Zeppelin, one of the great rock bands of the 1970s — and of all time. Page’s forte was the art of recording guitars, layering track upon track to construct thundering avalanches of electrified tone. Yet he could also play sublime acoustic guitar, regularly employing unusual tunings and global influences. In rock circles, his six-string creativity in the studio is unmatched. His signature tunes include “Stairway to Heaven” and “Whole Lotta Love.”
Eric Clapton (1945– )
In many ways, Eric Clapton is the father of contemporary rock guitar. Before Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page showed up, the Yardbirds-era Clapton was already fusing electric Chicago blues with the fury of rock and roll. He later expanded upon this style in the bands Cream, Blind Faith, and the legendary Derek and the Dominos. Clapton eventually went solo, turning into one of the most popular recording artists of the last 40 years. A true living legend, his signature tunes include “Crossroads” and “Layla.”
Stevie Ray Vaughan (1954–1990)
A Texas-born-and-bred rock and blues virtuoso who declined a gig with David Bowie so he could instead record his first solo album, Stevie Ray Vaughan played Texas blues as a high-energy amalgam of B.B. King, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix. So explosive and pyrotechnic was his playing that people had trouble categorizing him as a blues or a rock player. Vaughan was tragically killed in a helicopter accident leaving from a gig, but every blues guitarist who comes up today has been influenced by him, and his work is the benchmark for modern electric blues playing. His signature tunes include “Pride and Joy,” “Texas Flood,” and “Love Struck, Baby.”
Eddie Van Halen (1955– )
Rock guitar’s equivalent to Jackson Pollock, Eddie Van Halen’s improvisationally inspired splatter-note approach to metal guitar completely reinvented the style starting in the late 1970s. He turned two-handed tapping into a common guitar technique (thanks to his groundbreaking “Eruption”), while pushing the limits of whammy bar and hammer-on expertise. Van Halen is also a master at fusing blues-based rock with modern techniques, and his rhythm playing is one of the best examples of the integrated style (combining low-note riffs with chords and double-stops). A guitar hero in every sense of the term, his signature tunes include “Eruption,” “Spanish Fly,” and “Panama.”