Let’s assume Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eddie Van Halen, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Duane Allman are in the discussion for best guitarists, however you would rank them.
Let’s look at some other innovative and versatile guitarists. These players are responsible for defining the sound of their bands, or their own trademark sound, and versatile in handling rhythm and lead work. Speed and flashy technique is not part of my criteria.
Martin Barre – From the second Jethro Tull album to the early 2000s, Barre was the guitar voice of the band. Rarely, did he receive songwriting credit, but his riffs and solos took those songs gave them deep texture and commercial significance. Take everything on Aqualung as an example. Combining jazz, blues, folk and classic elements, Tull had a unique blend of hard, progressive rock, and ethereal minstrel characters.
The Edge – One of the first guitarists to bring a distinctive sound (other than simply feedback or distortion) to a band. U2 did not sound like any other band and it did not take The Edge long to colorize his sound. He uses a variety of effects and uses his playing tempo as another instrument. His sound changes from album to album and even song to song. One might think he uses this technical magic as a crutch, but he’s an innovative player with little or no sonic enhancements.
Robin Trower – Originally with Procol Harum before striking out on his own. Trower is really in a league with Page and Hendrix, his jazz chords met British blues doesn’t shed the guitar, it melts the guitar. “Bridge of Sighs” put him on the map, those dark, echoing chords are haunting. More than atmosphere, Trower’s fingers danced across the fretboard. He never got the credit for long-term influence for heavy rock.
Steve Howe – The master of progressive-rock, but he’s incredible with other styles. He has a fingerpicking style and that blends with his rich, full chords and jazz-like solos. He’s known to alternate between guitars mid-song as he moves between slide and bending notes in solos. He’s dazzling to watch in concert.
Mick Taylor – Known as more of a lead and slide player. His five years in The Rolling Stones were their best. Taylor never got credit for his additions to songs or arrangements. He brought a fresher, harder guitar to the Stones. His technique is amazing to watch.
Joe Walsh – He had a very successful career before joining the Eagles. A versatile player, he can play anything, but often had others play the showy solos with the Eagles. His most creative and best known guitar work happened before the Eagles.
Neil Young – What can you say about this guy. A consummate guitar player, equally good on acoustic or electric guitar. He makes it look simple.
Terry Kath – Chicago was a different band in early 1970s, before they beached on the soft rocks, Kath could shred like Hendrix and sing with soul like Joe Cocker. He wasn’t just energetic and a string-bender, he blended blues, R&B and hard rock into his playing. He’s missed.
Larry Carlton – Is he a jazz or a rock guy? He’s a jazz composer and player on his own albums. As a session player, he plays anything, but he’s well-known for work with Steely Dan. His playing on The Royal Scam is otherworldly in originality and impact. Those solos on “Kid Charlemagne” and “Don’t Take Me Alive”are simply the best.
David Gilmour – This bloke is so good he belongs with the group I listed at the top. As a member of Pink Floyd, he is thought of by many as just a player of trippy, psychedelic-soaked solos. That’s a shame because he is a talented songwriter and arranger. Listen to The Division Bell or his solo albums for proof. Yes, Gilmour could play those heavily processed solos like no other, slow and aching, very bluesy soundscapes. Yet, if you look beyond that, his guitar playing was integral to the song construction and sonic experimentation.
Mark Knopfler – Dire Straits was closer to Steely Dan than The Police. Textured, complex, soulful folksy songs. Knopfler is a fingerpicker who uses a broad range of musical style and influences. He’s done film scores, roots music, country and traditional Scottish flavored songs. Knopfler has produced others including Bob Dylan. As the main guitarist in Dire Straits, he played most everything, though later on incorporated keyboard players to broaden the sound. Knopfler’s guitar was the key to songs’ dynamics.
Jamie West-Oram – The one on this list you’ve probably never heard of. The guitar player in The Fixx. His guitar in the 1980s was as influential as The Edge, Pat Metheny, Eddie Van Halen or Peter Buck. He created many riffs for “One Thing Leads to Another” and “Are We Ourselves” and added ringing textures to such songs as “Saved By Zero” and “Stand or Fall.” A truly creative player that does not get enough credit.
Robby Krieger – The Doors signature sound owes much to Krieger’s quirky guitar sound. His style came from his interest in blues and then jazz. He was a fingerstyle player which blended well with Ray Manzarek’s keyboards. You didn’t hear a lot of traditional rock riffs, Krieger used the entire fretboard. “Love Me Two Times” and “Peace Frog” are riffy, but his songs have more adventurous fretwork.
Mike Campbell – His work with Tom Petty, the Heartbreakers, Stevie Nicks and Don Henley are well-known. He’s both a riffy guy and a superb soloist. The textures and fills he added to songs is amazing.
Peter Buck – R.E.M.’s guitar player. They started as a folk-rock band on overdrive. Initially, the sound was mostly hard-edge acoustic, but had an extra gear for electric guitars. Buck gave the band a unique, eclectic sound. It was at times jangly, with a mid-1960s pop vibe.
Prince – I don’t know how to describe Prince’s mastery or use of his creativity in creating music. He was a musical chef, blending different styles. If you want to see his brilliant playing, just watch his solos on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
Carlos Santana – He has mixed a variety of styles into his music. Originality, Latin-rock was the label stuck on him, but he wondered into jazz-fusion, R&B, World Music, arena rock and funk. His solos on “Black Magic Woman”, “Europa” and “Dance Sister Dance” are soaring and soulful.
Robert Fripp – Fripp and King Crimson are synonymous with jazzed-fuel progressive rock. Fripp is not only a technician of the fret, he’s a magician with feedback, tape loops and the soundscape beyond the realm.
Pat Metheny – My one Jazz entry on the list. Metheny defies categorization. He has more Grammies than I have pairs of socks. He started with a warm, hollow body guitar sound. He branched into different effects and synthesizer devices to totally change his sound. I’m more a fan of his early work although I respect his musical evolution.
Other deserving guitar pickers: Pete Townshend, Keith Richard, Lindsey Buckingham, Ritchie Blackmore, Steve Lukather, Mick Robson, Johnny Marr, Andy Summers, Joni Mitchell, Brian May.