SPIN’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time
SPIN doesn't worship "guitar gods" — we like our axe-wielders to be flawed, resourceful, egalitarian, and human
To celebrate the new generation of shredders profiled in our May/June “Loud Issue,” the SPIN staff decided to find some wheedle in a haystack, taking on the impossible task of ranking our favorite guitar players of all time. Traditionally, the “greatest guitarist” timeline begins with Robert Johnson magically conjuring the blues, nears perfection with Eric Clapton mutating it beatifically, and then ultimately reaches a boomer-baiting Rock and Roll Hall of Fame apotheosis with the free-spirited Jimi Hendrix shooting it into space like feedback-laden fireworks. For this list, we veer toward the alternative canon that kicks in with the Velvet Underground trying to erase that form entirely, making guitar solos gauche and using instruments as sadomasochistic tools for hammering out sheets of white heat.
As you will see, our list embraces outsiders, trailblazers, outliers, and Eugene Chadbourne playing a rake. We don’t worship “guitar gods,” but prefer our axe-wielders to be resourceful, egalitarian, flawed, and human. We’re not drawn to Olympic feats of fleet-fingered athletics, unless they’re used for unique and exploratory ends. We see the mewling histrionics of Jeff Beck as tyranny instead of catharsis. The name Derek Trucks is practically alien to us.
But maybe we’re overthinking all this. Shut up ‘n play yer guitar! CHRISTOPHER R. WEINGARTEN
Most Heroic Moment: Korn’s “Get Up,” even if Munky technically plucked the strings. CHRISTOPHER R. WEINGARTEN
Most Heroic Moment: Two minutes into “Butterflies and Boners,” when a thick haze of distortion lifts and the cascading finger-tapped section begins. DAVID MARCHESE
Most Heroic Moment: The blast of white-hot lava that passes for a riff on 2010’s “Saccharine Traps.” C.W.
Most Heroic Moment: The deep-fuzz freak-out of 1997’s “Deeper Into Movies,” contained (but not really) by a glorious three-part vocal arrangement. JESSE JARNOW
Most Heroic Moment: The disorienting harmonics and seismic shifts of “Breadcrumb Trail” from 1991’s Spiderland. DAVID BEVAN
Most Heroic Moment: The frenzied riffing, bluesy solos, and general hookiness of the song “Heartwork,” showing off Steer’s melodic acumen in the first two solos. KORY GROW
Most Heroic Moment: “Assouf” from their 2007 breakthrough Aman Iman: Water Is Life. RICHARD GEHR
Most Heroic Moment: Performed live, the spidery “Your Lips Are Red” from her 2007 debut, Marry Me, pulses provocatively until it explodes into a thrilling mid-song distorto splatter breakdown. D.M.
Most Heroic Moment: The magnificently vivid 12-string ripple behind 2007’s “Running to the Ghost.” J.J.
Most Heroic Moment: 1979’s “Typical Girls.” DANIEL EPSTEIN
Most Heroic Moment: The whammy damage and jaw-dropping speed of his solo on “Vengeance Is Mine,” from 1993’s Covenant. K.G.
Most Heroic Moment: “Bang” — the first slightly out-of-tune note Zinner whanged on the band’s self-titled 2002 debut EP was the New York rock scene’s real wake-up call. CARYN GANZ
Most Heroic Moment: Earth 2‘s closing half-hour, a suffocating blast of gauzy, gazy amplifier worship. C.W.
Most Heroic Moment: The gloriously wheedly “Vibrational Match” from 2007. D.E.
Most Heroic Moment: The opening chords to 1991’s shoulda-been-a-single “Breath.” D.B.
Most Heroic Moment: All 39 seconds of police-siren squall on Teenage Jesus’ “Red Alert” from 1978’s No New York. J.J.
Most Heroic Moment: His hits would get bigger and his star would rise higher, but Homme’s opening riffs would never get more indelible than the snarling intro to “If Only” from Queens’ 1998 self-titled debut. STEVE KANDELL
Most Heroic Moment: 1995’s “Shimmer” makes it easy to forget Hersh handles all the guitar work in the Muses herself, shifting effortlessly from lead to rhythm and back like an Indy 500 star. C.G.
Most Heroic Moment: The untitled third track on Fushitusha’s 1989 Double Live swelling from silence to silver tone-cloud without losing a bit of tenderness. J.J.
Most Heroic Moment: The funked-up, wah-heavy solo on 1990’s “Been Caught Stealing.” K.G.
Most Heroic Moment: Jesus Lizard’s 1991 tantrum “Mouth Breather.” D.E.
Most Heroic Moment: The second solo in Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality,” surely the first free-jazz guitar break to make it into regular rotation on MTV. D.E.
Most Heroic Moment: “Doom 84″ off the just-released Ugly. D.E.
Most Heroic Moment: The churning, moody “Shadowplay” from Joy Division’s 1979 debut, Unknown Pleasures. D.E.
Most Heroic Moment: The crushingly mortal “Needle of Death,” a 1965 classic that rivals Neil Young and Lou Reed in the smack-folk canon. J.J.
Most Heroic Moment: The fantastic lead riff of 1978’s “Rock N Roll Nigger.” AARON BURGESS
Most Heroic Moment: The first, untitled, track on Orthrelm’s 2005 split with Touchdown, a completely nauseous thrillride of brain-melting start-stop motion and cheetah-velocity fretwork. C.W.
Most Heroic Moment: The two-minute skronk-shiver of “Lionel,” one of DNA’s contributions to 1978’s No New York compilation. R.G.
Most Heroic Moment: “The Great Curve” from Rome Concert 1980, the Italian Talking Heads documentary filmed during Belew’s two-year tour of duty in their live band. R.G.
Most Heroic Moment: The agitated fever-funk riff of 1977’s “New Feeling” D.B.
Most Heroic Moment: Shockabilly’s 1983 cover of the Doors’ “People Are Strange,” where the track keeps wiping out into finger-shredding piles of barbed wire. C.W.
Most Heroic Moment: The syncopated glory and dizzying jazz breakdowns of Dillinger’s 1999 classic “43% Burnt.” K.G.
Most Heroic Moment: 1989’s “Hands All Over” prefigures every Pearl Jam riff ever in one soaring song. A.B.
Most Heroic Moment: The meandering, lounge-y chords and noisy squelches that dueling with Cave’s howling vocals on 1982’s “She’s Hit.” K.G.
Most Heroic Moment: Ronson’s playing on “Suffragette City” was so good in concert that a be-mulleted Bowie once fell to his knees and simulated fellatio on Ronson’s instrument. K.G.
Most Heroic Moment: The transition from blues-wailing lead lines to stuttering funk to Beelzebub boogie on the Obsessed’s 1991 beast “Bardo” — all of which happens in the span of about ten seconds. D.M.
Most Heroic Moment: Exactly 3:10 into “Cherub Rock” when you’re ejected from the womblike wall of guitars into a squealing, transcendent solo. A.B.
Most Heroic Moment: “You Got the Love,” the impossibly funky opening groove from the 1985 live album Stompin’ at the Savoy. R.G.
Most Heroic Moment: The kaleidoscopic outro to 1971’s “Strawberry Letter 23.” D.M.
Most Heroic Moment: The propulsive riffing and discordant soloing on 1988’s “Pull the Plug.” K.G.
Most Heroic Moment: 1984’s “Split Myself in Two,” the solo which aims to feel as high as Kirkwood probably was when he wrote it. A.B.
Most Heroic Moment: Any one of those sky-shattering, 15-minute bootleg versions of “Interstellar Overdrive” from ’67. J.J.
Most Heroic Moment: Built to Spill’s cover of Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” on 2000’s Live is like a 20-minute dissertation presentation on rock’s rockingness. C.G.
Most Heroic Moment: Kelley handled the bruising lead line on Last Splash‘s “Saints,” a song so arena-ready the rest of the band takes a breather. C.G.
Most Heroic Moment: All of Frith’s schools of guitar playing melt to unadorned tenderness in the solo volume swells of 2002’s “Fooled Again.” J.J.
Most Heroic Moment: The brittle caterwauls of “The Freezing Moon,” as heard on Mayhem’s 1990 concert recording, Live in Leipzig. K.G.
Most Heroic Moment: The knee-buckling noise of Youth of America‘s 14-minute title cut. D.B.
Most Heroic Moment: 1977’s “Born to Lose,” the spirit of ’50s rockabilly channeled through a wave of desperation and the kerchunng! of Thunders’ axe. A.B.
Most Heroic Moment: Spotting Eastern mysticism in cloudbanks drifting above the Great Plains on 1971’s “A North American Raga.” J.J.
Most Heroic Moment: “Kick Out the Jams” may be the MC5’s rallying cry, but 1969 B-side “I Just Don’t Know” is the harder-kicking jam, motherfuckers. A.B.
Most Heroic Moment: When, on 1972’s “Big Eyed Beans From Venus,” Beefheart asks for a “long lunar note.” Rollo delivers. D.M.
Most Heroic Moment: Zen Arcade‘s 14-minute closer, “Reoccurring Dreams.” D.B.
Most Heroic Moment: From the intro’s squeaky pick scrape to the head-nodding main riff to the unhinged solo: 1992’s “A New Level” is a tour de force. K.G.
Most Heroic Moment: “Guitar Trio,” arguably the center of the modern guitar canon, boils punk and minimalism into a perfect three-piece arrangement. J.J.
Most Heroic Moment: “Meeting of the Spirits” from Mahavishnu’s 1971 debut, The Inner Mounting Flame. R.G.
Most Heroic Moment: The solo on Wilco’s somnambulant, chiming 2007 track “Impossible Germany” (2007). D.E.
Most Heroic Moment: “365 Is My Number” from his American breakthrough, 1982’s Juju Music R.G.
Most Heroic Moment: David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.” R.G.
Most Heroic Moment: The solo 2:10 into RATM’s 1999 wrecker “Mic Check,” at which point Morello’s guitar pretty much fully morphs into a DJ booth. A.B.
Most Heroic Moment: S-K’s 2005 album The Woods was all Brownstein bluster and beautiful squall. C.G.
Most Heroic Moment: The way the repeating patterns on the “Witch Mountain Bridge” solo from 2003’s Pig Lib keep mutating like badass amoebas. D.M.
Most Heroic Moment: Savane, recorded in 2004 while Touré suffered from cancer. R.G.
Most Heroic Moment: “Revealing,” the labyrinthine closing track of 1978’s Tales of Captain Black. R.G.
Most Heroic Moment: 1982’s “Sailin’ On” — two minutes of pure rage that tear by so fast, you take the blistering solo for granted. A.B.
Most Heroic Moment: The barely controlled feedback caterwauls of Godflesh’s 1991 Sub Pop single “Slateman.” K.G.
Most Heroic Moment: Every crispy second of 2003’s “Ball and Biscuit.” D.B.
Most Heroic Moment: Quine’s solo on Lou Reed’s 1982 paranoia-scape “Waves of Fear” (1982). D.E.
Most Heroic Moment: Jamming sublimely with a rumbling storm outside on 1996’s “Rain Dance.” J.J.
Most Heroic Moment: The gloriously bent funhouse mirror riff of “Boris,” which essentially spawned the band of the same name. C.W.
Most Heroic Moment: The sidewinding movements of 1997’s “Paranoid Android,” where the guitar lines seem capable of telling the song’s story completely on their own. D.B.
Most Heroic Moment: The build from whisper to thunder during the second movement of 1987’s Symphony No. 6 (Devil Choirs at the Gates of Heaven). J.J.
Most Heroic Moment: The seething, inescapable crescendo that is 1993’s “Rid of Me.” D.B.
Most Heroic Moment: While “This Charming Man” is emblematic of Marr’s penchant for building entire songs around dizzying runs and the flanged effects of “How Soon Is Now?” are his most memorable, 1985’s “What She Said” is as good an example as any of how effortlessly and heavily Marr could rock, no qualifiers needed. S.K.
Most Heroic Moment: King Crimson’s dizzying “Frame by Frame,” played in 7/4 and featuring Fripp crisply playing about ten notes per second. K.G.
Most Heroic Moment: The jangly, metal-on-metal intro riff to Big Black’s 1986 churner “Kerosene.” K.G.
Most Heroic Moment: The swirling, dense, onionlike backdrop for Cocteau Twins’ 1990 album opener “Cherry-Coloured Funk.” K.G.
Most Heroic Moment: The controlled frenetics in the bottom half of “I Feel All Right” from Brown’s 1968 Live at the Apollo, Volume II. R.G.
Most Heroic Moment: The majestic dive from delicacy into devastation halfway through Ask the Ages‘ “Who Does She Hope to Be?” D.M.
Most Heroic Moment: The graceful, arcing lines that open the second solo on 1979’s “Powderfinger.” D.M.
Most Heroic Moment: The Ayler-like solos in 1984’s “Shit From an Old Notebook.” C.W.
Most Heroic Moment: Iommi’s palm-muted bridge on 1973’s “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” still sounds impossibly heavy today. D.M.
Most Heroic Moment: The discordant squall that 1967’s “Heroin” feels more harrowing and disruptive and endless than any narcotic addiction. Presumably. S.K.
Most Heroic Moment: “Debra Kadabra.” D.M.
Most Heroic Moment: The out-of-control riffing and ear-shattering feedback whinny of 1981’s “Thirsty and Miserable.” K.G.
Most Heroic Moment: All 29 glorious minutes of Slayer’s warp-speed thrash masterpiece, 1986’s Reign in Blood. K.G.
Most Heroic Moment: Every note of 1980’s Boy feels like an argument about how guitars in rock music are supposed to sound, but the record’s most famous riff is so for a reason: “I Will Follow” made a meal out of the high part of the fretboard and changed the very definition of “power chord.” S.K.
Most Heroic Moment: The lyrical noise-echos of 1979’s “At Home He’s a Tourist.” J.J.
Most Heroic Moment: 1970’s “Down on the Street,” a slab of echo and overdrive made euphoric by production that brings to mind a concrete sweatbox. A.B.
Most Heroic Moment: The B-boy bouillabaisse of “It’s Tricky,” turning the leaden riff from “My Sharona” into a funky duck and weave. C.W.
Most Heroic Moment: The entire spectrum of human emotion can be heard in “Maggot Brain,” Hazel’s ten-minute solo showcase from 1971. D.E.
Most Heroic Moment: The first ten seconds of “Judy Is a Punk,” the most giddily abrasive chainsaw massacre of their 1976 debut. C.W.
Most Heroic Moment: Nine seconds into 1977’s “Marquee Moon” — the moment when Verlaine and Lloyd start dueling. A.B.
Most Heroic Moment: “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.” D.M.
Most Heroic Moment: The goosebump-inducing outro solo to 2007 reunion album cut “Pick Me Up.” D.B.
Most Heroic Moment: Nearly three minutes into Nirvana’s nationally televised cover of Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” on Unplugged, Cobain’s solo found a sour note. If he could fuck up that solo just like we would practicing on our beds at home, then there was something more to rock’n’roll than getting it right. D.B.
Most Heroic Moment: The solemn panoramas of “Charles A. Lee: In Memoriam” from 1968’s The Yellow Princess. J.J.
Most Heroic Moment: While MBV’s shows were notorious for the 20-minute ear-bleeding “apocalypse section” of the otherwise agreeable single “You Made Me Realise,” no Shields song packed front-to-back wallop like Isn’t Anything‘s churning, colon-tickling “Feed Me With Your Kiss” from 1988. S.K.
Thurston and Lee got their start in Glenn Branca’s drone orchestra; early SY practices — pre-Lee — were Thurston and Kim dicking around with a guitar borrowed from Branca, strung entirely with high E strings. Thurston came up on anxious, primal stomp, galvanized by The Stooges’ Fun House (his first album) and Suicide (his first show). He moved to New York City in love with Patti and Television, only to find those rarefied rippers had been supplanted at CBs by the nihilist bleat of no wave. Moore’s autodidactic riffs have never been nostalgic; he’s merely dovetailed from that downtown cacophony. He took that strum und klang, made it epic (“Secret Girl”), and worked dark languor into that scree.
Lee was a teenage Deadhead who whiled the Long Island evenings away noodling along to Europe ’72. Soon enough, punk’s visceral nature would lure him away from the tie-dye, and he’d make his way to the Lower East Side and come under the spell of Branca. From Sonic Youth’s earliest moments/albums, when much of their sound was built on the un-playing — coaxing feedback from a whine to a roar, the buzz of a cable in a loose jack, testing the temper of strings by jamming them with drumsticks& #8212; you can still hear that learned classicism in his playing (see the arpeggiation on “Hey Joni”). Ranaldo grew up on the White Album and Neil Young, he writes all of his songs for SY on an acoustic, which speaks for his putting craft ahead of spectacular damage. Sonic Youth’s sound was, in many ways, destroying and sublimating all of rock’n’roll’s conventions, and in that regard, Ranaldo’s playing — fingers that could never fully forget that perfect major-chord pop — was essential; first you have to learn the rules in order to best know how to break them.
The two were the perfect complement to each other: Ranaldo’s harmony and precision pitched against the nullity and oblivion of Moore’s playing. The two combining and verging on the edge of control is what made for SY’s greatest glories: the 59-second noise blast/”solo” on “Silver Rocket,” the cool lassitude of “Expressway To Yr. Skull,” Goo‘s album-closing blitzkrieg “Scooter and Jinx.”
While Daydream Nation is still unquestionably the quintessential SY album, it’s so because it’s such an ensemble piece, everyone flawless and powerful at once. But 1987’s Sister is where Ranaldo and Moore most clearly lay out their guitar thesis — it’s an album length flirtation between their two styles. The songs have all the efficiency and uplift of the pop form, via Ranaldo; all with Moore working to deform them with mountains of distortion pedals and sharp, gorgeously wrong notes. Sonic Youth’s guitar frenzy freed us from punk’s inelegance, gave us something exact and un-nameable, gave us some sweltering sensation of life and at the same time, removed us from it. They put soul into our noise.
Most Heroic Moment: Sister album opener “Schizophrenia.” Pitting a slowly resolving mistuned jangle against slurring, distant distortion until the “chorus” (it’s in the ear of the beholder), when they wind-up, sway, Lee does a little pointillist solo, and then the goad each other, chugging, building the tension until it gives way into a furious freak-out, carnal and electric. In that moment you can hear it all — melancholy, death, lust, possibility. JESSICA HOPPER