Every rock fan, let alone guitar players around the world, have this argument at least once a month, and that's "who are the best guitarists of all time?" The problem is everybody has preferences and different definitions as to which skills are the best to have.
Some people like shredding while others like slower and more melodic playing. Some want to see the fundamentals mastered while others others think if you aren't using jazz music theory you aren't even in the same playing field as the greats.
What matters is all of this in the right context, which signals maturity. Nobody likes the player that bumps up his volume knob and tries to shred non-stop. Nobody wants to be bombarded with 32nd notes during a ballad.
The following are without a doubt the top guitarists to have ever picked a string. We also include a few runners up that are very close to taking a top spot and may already have in your mind. And of course at the end we give honorable mentions to the other greats (plus some shoutouts).
Interestingly, only one of these fine players is one of the richest guitarists in the world. That lets you know how much the general populous cares about skill. Without further ado, let's jump into the list of the top 10 best guitarists of all time...
Brent Mason has played on over 1,000 albums for all of the top country stars and in other genres. He's a renowned studio musician discovered by Chet Atkins (also on this list). He's won countless "guitarist of the year" awards as well as "musician of the year." Pretty much any hit country song had Mason playing on it.
Mason is recognized for his heavy reliance on a thumbpick and acrylic nails to have an unbelievably consistent and even tone with a precise and fast attack on the strings. To boil his skills down to just that would be a travesty, though. He's an accomplished songwriter, guitar teacher, and has his own signature guitar models and effects pedals.
Trivia Facts: As a member of the National Thumbpickers Hall of Fame, Brent Mason almost ended his career after riveting a hole through his thumb. He's credited with basically reinventing the country guitar style in the 1990's. He started learning how to play guitar at age 5.
Stevie Ray Vaughan is one of the most influential guitarists in blues music, leading the revival of blues rock in the 1980's. Any list of best guitarists will undoubtedly feature this great within their top 10, or they're wrong. He credits much of his style as coming from Lonnie Mack. It's said that regardless of genre, his style is so completely unique that no other guitarist has ever sounded like him.
His style is rooted in rock, blues, and jazz. Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top gifted him one of his custom guitars nicknamed "Main." He was known for using a custom set of extra heavy guitar strings tuned half a step down. He also preferred an asymmetrical neck. He's a master of the blues scale and Albert King's protege.
Trivia Facts: Stevie Ray Vaughan started playing guitar at age 7 and dropped out of high school to pursue it professionally. He's headlined Madison Square Garden in 1989. His untimely passing cut his time in the mainstream short, lasting only 7 years, but that didn't stop him becoming a guitar icon.
David Gilmour is the voice and guitar of the prog rock kings Pink Floyd. Like everyone on this list, he's won all the awards. He's known for his simple but huge riffs and ambient chords, full of blues phrasing, note bends, and plenty of sustain. He doesn't get a lot of credit for it, but he can play many other instruments just as well.
Though many have tried to emulate his sound and copy his exact equipment, you can't replicate his fingers and his choice of notes and usage of effects. He does it just right in context, which is what lands him on all of the top lists, though not always in the top 10. He's the undisputed master of lyrical guitar soloing.
Trivia Facts: Unlike others, Gilmour didn't even receive his first guitar until his 21st birthday. In 1970, all of Pink Floyd's gear was stolen, including Gilmour's iconic guitar The Black Strat in New Orleans, leading to the cancellation of the tour.
Eddie Van Halen often lands at number one in these lists. He's that good. He credits Eric Clapton as his main influence but says he's closer to Jimmy Page in style. He's the kind of player that has been tapped by other top acts like Michael Jackson to play backing tracks for them.
One of his standout tactics is tapping, where he uses both hands on the guitar neck to rapid fire off notes. Many consider one of his solos as the greatest ever, if not second greatest, due to this technique. He says he got this skill from watching Steve Hackett of Genesis and Jimmy Page.
Trivia Facts: Eddie Van Halen never learned to read music. He's also an inventor, holding several patents including one for a device that allows the guitar to be played like a piano. Eddie and his brother Alex started the insanely successful band Van Halen, featuring the singer David Lee Roth.
In just four years of mainstream success before his untimely passing, Jimi Hendrix changed the guitar world entirely. He was one of the first to bring effects and the whammy bar to the guitar world, like fuzz distortion and wah-wah. A huge part of the Fender Stratocaster's continued success is due to his usage of it.
His rock and roll influences were early artists like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Elvis Presley. He created a lot of "firsts" such as the usage of certain effects, the rejection of the barre chord and fretting with his thumb instead. His style is a synthesis of blues, British rock, American folk music, jazz, and rock. He was a master of soloing inside of chords.
Trivia Facts: Jimi Hendrix began playing guitar at 15 years old. There was a time when he was the world's highest-paid performer around the time he headlined Woodstock in 1969. Hendrix played right-handed guitars turned upside down and restrung for left-hand playing.
You may have heard of Derek Trucks from The Derek Trucks Band and now The Allman Brothers Band, as well as touring with Eric Clapton. You know you're good if you get brought into operations like that. His style is a mixture of genres like jam band, jazz, Southern rock, and even qawwali and other world music genres.
He plays his guitars in an open E tuning and prefers a Dunlop Blues Bottle slide. His success could be partially due to studying in ways others haven't, like learning various world instruments like sarod and sitar. He's climbing the lists fasts and is considered one of the "new guitar gods." His exploration of Indian microtonal playing sets him apart.
Trivia Facts: Even B.B. King has said that Derek Truck's guitar work is "as good as I've ever heard it." He's had the honor of playing at the White House, and has won nearly every music award possible. His family members are all in bands, such as Widespread Panic. Even his uncle was an MLB pitcher.
Steve Vai's illustrious career with Frank Zappa, Alcatraz, and the David Lee Roth band led to his mastery, growing even deeper in his current solo work with has matured immensely. He's the king of the whammy bar, which helps too. Many would argue that he's the best by far, and they could be right.
He's the co-designer, with Ibanez, of the JEM guitar that changed how guitars are designed ever since. He's a part of the G3 concert live-only tours with Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson. His guitar techniques include two-handed tapping, legato, sweep picking, alternate picking, acrobatics, circular vibrato, whammy bar, and other advanced methods that set him far apart technically.
Trivia Facts: He bought his first guitar at age 13 and started taking lessons from legend Joe Satriani. His practice routines early on included 10 to 15 hour days. He treated it like a career and made it so.
Tommy Emmanuel is the king of finger style solo guitar. He's a true one-man band, even beating his guitar to create percussive effects. He was given his first guitar at age 4 and by 6 heard Chet Atkins playing with the Travis picking style and the rest was history.
He draws from many genres like bluegrass, folk, and jazz, but country fingerpicking is the core of his style. He uses a thumbpick, a plectrum (a flat pick), and his fingers, which is known as hybrid picking. He uses all types of tuning and various string gauges to smooth out his unique tone.
Trivia Facts: When Tommy was 6 years old, his dad formed a family band, sold their house, and they hit the road. He became a pro at 6! When his dad passed, Australian country music star Buddy Williams took the brothers on tour to help them make an income.
Few young listeners know about Pat Metheny, but you're looking at a world class musician working in the jazz fusion genre, touring the globe constantly (and making god knows how much money). His knowledge of music theory and the application of it are nearly unmatched.
Listeners love his unique voicings and phrasing, and especially when he uses MIDI guitar to emulate the sounds of other instruments and even synthesizers. You won't find a more disciplined and professional player other than maybe Steve Vai. We're a huge fan of his impeccable picking and not being shy about heavy compression.
Trivia Facts: Pat Metheny is the only person ever to win Grammys in 10 categories. His brother is the famous jazz flugelhornist Mike Metheny. He plays a custom 42 string Pikasso guitar at times. He's one of the first to use a guitar synthesizer. He lost some of his masters (thankfully digitized) in the 2008 Universal Studios fire.
Guthrie Govan is the best guitarist, period. As amazing as others are, this guy edges them out by not only having the topmost technical ability but can use it in any genre. There are no limits to Govan's abilities. He shares the love, spending much of his time as a guitar clinician, teaching in masterclasses around the world.
Among the bands he's played with, the most successful is Asia, but he was even the lead guitarist in the Hans Zimmer Live band. He says his influences are Hendrix and Clapton, though he says he has the imagination of Steve Vai and passion of Yngwie Malmsteem. His mind is not like ours, and he can visualize entire complex songs before playing or writing them down.
Trivia Facts: Guthrie Govan says he's "wary" of the 1980's shredding, which is a sign of maturity as far as I'm concerned, though he can do it. He thinks of the guitar as a typewriter for getting out a musical message.
Choosing only ten to represent the best guitarists of all time is tricky, so we've made room for four runners up. These guys may be in your top 10, but they didn't quite make it to ours though we recognize their extreme levels of talent and skill.
George Benson is a top-tier guitar player known for his rest-stroke picking style used by others like Django Reinhardt and other gypsy jazz players. His first solo record in 1976, Breezin' went triple-platinum and took home a couple Grammys, thanks to help from songwriters like Bobby Womack and Leon Russell.
What other guitarists enjoy about Benson's work is his mastery of the blues while layering that over complicated jazz structures. It makes for a unique and rich composition. His vulnerable and smooth vocals made him feel very personable as well. You can't argue with the people!
Trivia Facts: George Benson had his first on-going gig at an unlicensed nightclub at the age of 8. Benson was featured on the Gorillaz song "Humility" in 2018. He even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Psychologists now consider him to have been a child prodigy.
Everybody knows Eric Clapton. Some consider him the number-one or two top player ever, and he's the only person to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times. Even if you don't like Clapton, you like his bands such as The Yardbirds, Cream, Blind Faith, Derek and the Dominos, etc.
At one point, Clapton was going to join The Beatles and the question was actually posed about who had more clout at that time. What matters about Clapton besides his skill is that nearly everyone loves him. And if you can touch that many hearts then you must have a level of mastery that few others have attained.
Trivia Facts: Eric Clapton considers artists like Robert Johnson, Buddy Holly, Muddy Waters, and Freddie King to some of his influences. Music historians credit Clapton as the figure that led to the mythology and cult of personality surrounding the lead guitarist.
Lots of people on this list have been given titles and nicknames, but Chet Atkins has two: "Mr. Guitar" and "The Country Gentleman." He's one of few that are credited for creating the Nashville Sound of country music. Not only was he a master guitar player but also a master record producer responsible for countless records at RCA Victor.
He's received more awards than most on this list for his vast influence. He introduced most of America to classical guitar, and his smooth jazz recordings still get played on the airwaves today while other songs of his are used in television commercials. His use of Travis picking made him a solo guitar beast.
Trivia Facts: Born in 1924 in Luttrell, Tennessee, Chet Atkins grew up poor, isolated, and without electricity, so much so that nobody in the area even knew the Great Depression had happened. Growing up with asthma led to him falling asleep on a straight-backed chair with a guitar in hand, which he continued to do all his life.
Allan Holdsworth was known for his work in British jazz fusion and progressive rock where he applied his advanced skills in music theory, largely around scales and chords. Most of the guitar greats cite him as an influence, with most agreeing that he's the most interesting player ever. Most of his solo work was instrumental, highlighting his talent.
Holdsworth resisted acoustic guitar as he developed his legato style of playing to mimic the saxophone on a guitar. His fingerpicked chords washed out with delay, chorus, and reverb are among his signature sounds as well as his intriguing phrasing and advanced scale use.
Trivia Facts: Allan Holdsworth wanted to play the saxophone but couldn't afford one so he settled for the guitar. John Coltrane and Charlie Parker were among his influences, both saxophonists. He was the main act associated with the guitar synthesizer the SynthAxe.
Even being limited to a few runners up is hard, so lets quickly reel off some honorable mentions. If we missed one of your favorites, they're undoubtedly here. If not, then definitely they made it into the shoutouts further down.
This is so hard. There's so many guitarists that deserve at minimum a shout out. So at the minimum, let me show respect to the guitar gods by at least reeling off their names:
Shout Outs: Zakk Wylde, Yngwie Malmsteen, John Petrucci, Joni Mitchell, Brian May, Tony Iommi, Frank Zappa, Carlos Santana, George Harrison, Pete Townshend, Duane Allman, Chuck Berry, B.B. King, Jeff Beck, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, Curtis Mayfield, Prince, Jerry Garcia, Angus Young, Julian Lage, Les Paul, Tony Rice, Django Reinhardt, Roy Clark, Al Di Meola, and so many more...
And that's all she wrote. We included every type of technique, music theory, pure enjoyability, and maturity when we populated this list. Things can change fast as musicians evolve or newcomers break onto the scene, so keep an eye out on this list in the future. Also, you'd probably enjoy checking out our Top 10 Richest Rock Stars in the World list too. A couple of these guys make another appearance...