Top 10 best guitarists of all time

22.12.2021 Ben Maloney Guitar

Spanning almost every genre of music, the guitar is played and heard more often than most other instruments. It makes sense that naming the best players of all time is a tough and potentially controversial process. 

Many of us have our favourites and good reasons for picking them - no doubt you do as well. So there’s no point pretending that this countdown will settle anything for good, but hopefully it makes a strong case.

Presenting: ten guitarists that mastered, innovated and immortalised their playing. Ten guitarists that transformed people’s understanding of what the guitar is capable of.

Many of these players were composers too, whose guitar sheet music can be found on the nkoda app. Take a look, do some listening, but remember that however good these players might seem, they were also total beginners once, who fumbled their way through their first few notes on the fretboard.

So if you’re a player, don’t be daunted by their brilliance - get inspired. 
 

Top 10 greatest guitarists of all time
 

  1. Jimi Hendrix
  2. Francisco Tárrega
  3. Robert Johnson
  4. Xuefei Yang
  5. Eric Clapton
  6. John Williams
  7. Chuck Berry
  8. Bonnie Raitt
  9. Joe Pass
  10. Elizabeth Cotten

1. Jimi Hendrix

Yes, selecting the best guitarists of all time can be contentious. But whoever’s picking, Jimi Hendrix is all but certain to feature somewhere. To put it simply, if any one individual is responsible for making the electric guitar the symbol of rock music it is today, it’s him. 

Hendrix transformed what it meant to be a guitarist. At a time when popular music was staking its claim as something to be taken very seriously, Hendrix’s ability, style and showmanship blew the instrument’s horizons wide open. On the one hand he was setting his guitar alight on stage. On the other, he was performing material of unreal complexity. 

One of the hallmark aspects of Hendrix’s playing style is its effortlessness. The idea of an instrument being an extension of the body is a cliché, but it’s the best way to capture the magic of his playing. The music he plays is unbelievably difficult, but he works through it as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.

2. Francisco Tárrega 

Unlike the other guitarists on this list, Francisco Tárrega’s greatness can’t be appreciated directly. There are no confirmed recordings of the Spaniard, who died in 1909 at the age of 57. Yet his legacy lives on in the music he left behind, and in its impact on the world of classical guitar.

Tárrega’s incredible skill as a player enabled him to produce incredible music as a composer. The best testament to his virtuosity, many of his pieces are among the most difficult ever written. Requiring levels of proficiency that were almost unprecedented at the time, they helped to push what was expected of guitarists to new levels. 

All this helped to convince classical sceptics in the 1800s that the guitar was an instrument worthy of concert recitals. His technical innovations changed the way guitarists learned, and his use of folk idioms helped to bring Spanish music to the fore in so much future classical guitar repertoire. A huge figure in the history of guitar-playing.

3. Robert Johnson

People have been accused of selling their soul to the devil since the 16th century. As far as guitar-playing goes, it’s Robert Johnson that gets most frequently charged with the deed, supposedly done at the crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Then he must be a pretty special player, you might be thinking. He was.

The guitarist’s recordings, laid down between 1936 and 1937, exhibited a blues-guitar style that was so rounded and accomplished, people resorted to quoting folk legends to explain it. While accompanying his own singing, he effortlessly handles a wide range of gestures, gliding up and down the neck of his guitar to play them.

Johnson’s work represents at once the pinnacle of the Delta blues tradition, and the musical vocabulary that would set the tone for blues to come. Many of his compositions have become blues standards. Arguably the best known of them is ’Sweet Home Chicago’, which you can find in a number of arrangements on the nkoda app. 

4. Xuefei Yang
 

Xuefei Yang is already widely regarded as one of the finest classical players in the world. Seemingly winning more admirers with each day that passes, there’s a chance that she’ll soon be seen as the greatest guitarist in generations. 

In the 1990s, Yang was the first guitarist to enter a Chinese music school - a feat in itself, but also a sign of things to come. One of her great achievements as an artist is the union of China’s musical heritage, one of the deepest and richest in the world, with the Western classical guitar tradition. The music on her 2020 album Sketches of China says it all.

On top of exploring this entirely untapped potential of her instrument, Yang is a master of the repertoire too. She’s put together recordings of everything from Albéniz to RodrigoBach to Heitor Villa-Lobos. And she’s won a tonne of awards and accolades along the way. Watch her space - she’s only going to get better.

5. Eric Clapton


When pop and rock were really beginning to find their feet in the great decade of change that was the 1960s, Eric Clapton was writing the book on guitar-playing. He was the first real superstar of the instrument, becoming an icon in swinging London when the ‘British Invasion’ was in full flow. 

Clapton was a scholar of the blues, making his name as a lead guitarist in bands influenced heavily by the genre - the Bluesbreakers, Cream, and Derek and the Dominos. His smooth, soulful style of playing earned him the nickname ‘Slowhand’, but in truth he could play as quickly as anyone else.  

Later in his career, he branched out stylistically. He tried his hand at soft as well as hard rock, and showed what he could do acoustically on his landmark 1992 album Unplugged. He’s certainly one of the most rounded players out there.

6. John Williams
 

It isn’t too controversial to suggest that John Williams is the great classical guitar virtuoso of the twentieth century. Since his professional concert debut in the late 1950s, he has been definitively performing and recording the finest works in the repertoire - ensemble pieces as well as solo guitar compositions.

In the process, he’s opened up in the process a world of music to countless listeners across several generations. Also active on TV and radio and as a teacher, few have done more than Williams to raise awareness about classical guitar. No doubt that when many of them think of the guitar as a classical instrument, Williams comes to mind.

But he wouldn’t appreciate being pigeon-holed as a classical player. He’s been active outside the genre too, most notably through the progressive-rock band Sky, active in the late 1970s and early 80s. Whatever style of music he’s playing though, in terms of raw technical ability, he’s right up at the very, very top.
 

7. Chuck Berry

More so than any other individual, Chuck Berry helped to establish the guitar as the foremost instrument in popular music in the 1950s. Berry’s legacy as a player will always be tied to this - being at the helm at this turning point in the history of his instrument. It made him the greatest player of the rock-and-roll era.

Berry helped to pioneer this style that would change music forever. He did this by mastering and then reworking the rhythm-and-blues patterns prevalent at the time into something wholly new. He did all this on the guitar, which he played phenomenally well. In doing so, the instrument became the foundation and focus of the new genre. 

As well as being an innovator, Berry was technically gifted. One minute he’s on rhythm guitar, playing these chord figurations that formed the building blocks of rock-and-roll, the next he’s spinning a winding melody, foreshadowing the solos later typical of rock music. Discover some of his groundbreaking work on nkoda.

8. Bonnie Raitt


Bonnie Raitt burst onto the scene in the 1970s with a string of albums showcasing a unique fusion of blues, rock and country music. Her songwriting caught a lot of attention, as did her singing. But her guitar work was no less remarkable. 

Reflecting the particular combination of genres that marked her music, Raitt absorbed a range of influences to develop a trademark playing style. Favouring an acoustic guitar in these early years, she employed blues riffs, played with the chops and energy typical of rock, and mastered that technique so symbolic of country music - slide guitar. 

Like all great musicians, Raitt didn’t stand still, developing her art over time. But her music had such an effect at the beginning of her career, when there weren’t many women players moving in the higher circles of pop and rock music. Visibly standing toe-to-toe with the best players in the world, Raitt helped to change all that.

9. Joe Pass

There’s another important playing tradition that hasn’t been touched on here, and that’s jazz guitar. Hardly anybody would deny that Joe Pass is one of its best representatives. Many would claim that there are none better. 

The American was doing the rounds on the jazz circuit in the 1940s, when he was just a teenager. But he really rose to prominence in the 60s, recording a series of acclaimed albums as a leader, and performing regularly with names as big as Ella Fitzgerald. By the 1970s, he’d cemented his reputation as one of the finest players around - in any genre.

Jazz custom dictates that guitarists have to play with a clean electric tone, meaning there’s no distortion to hide behind. Play anything less than perfectly, and it sounds sloppy. But exactly this exposes the strengths of Pass’ playing - fluidity and precision. He performs with a crispness that is rarely if ever seen in music as complex as his.

10. Elizabeth Cotten


Few guitarists blaze a trail in guitar technique itself. Even fewer are honoured by having their innovations named after them. Elizabeth Cotten is a member of that elite club. Her trademark approach saw her picking the guitar’s lower strings with her fingers and the upper ones with her thumb. 

Cotten played the way she did partly because she was a left-handed player playing right-handed guitars, and partly because she was self-taught. But no matter the reason, her instantly recognisable technique became the foundation of her music, which remains one of the most distinctive bodies of work for the guitar in music history.

Like her playing, Cotten’s story is far from typical. Although in her youth she was an able player of traditional blues, she more or less gave up the guitar until she was in her sixties. Her music was later discovered, recorded and released on the 1958 album Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar, one of the great folk recordings of all time.

Your next steps for guitar music


If the story of any of these ten artists resonates with you, seek out their music and hear for yourself why they earned a place on this list. No amount of writing can replicate your own musical experience. Keep the momentum, nurture your inspiration.

Better yet, if you feel like playing their tunes, or just understanding how they’re put together, you’ll find plenty on nkoda. Links above will take you right to the sheet music.

If you’re in a rush to read more about guitar music, that’s covered too. Try out these articles on the hardest guitar songs and best guitar songs. If you’re going to be a great guitar-player, then you ought to get familiar with great guitar repertoire. 

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