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
60.Chuck Schuldiner (Death)
Back when Twisted Sister ruled the airwaves and Metallica controlled the underground, Schuldiner was perfecting his own metal style that set new standards for extreme. Built around chunky, downtuned guitar riffs that bled into guttural screams, the genre his band Death helped create — death metal — sounded wholly primordial. Schuldiner constantly expanded his vocabulary, becoming more technical with elements of prog, inspiring Opeth, Nile, and legions of black-clad Guitar Center employees the world over.
Most Heroic Moment: The propulsive riffing and discordant soloing on 1988’s “Pull the Plug.” K.G.
59. Curt Kirkwood (Meat Puppets)
Once the Meat Puppets hit their stride you could count the number of seminal punk-rock bands in Phoenix, Arizona, on one finger. Thank Curt Kirkwood’s desert-brewed guitar style fusing country, psychedelia, and early hardcore into one glorious morass — imagine Jerry Garcia in an SST food processor. Kirkwood’s swirl’n’twang is a formative influence on Kurt Cobain and Animal Collective, but no one has really sounded like him since.
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.
58. Syd Barrett
The Pink Floyd founder’s prodigious guitar skills are often overshadowed by his oddball songwriting, kaleidoscopic production, and the whole brain-melted rock-archetype, crazy-diamond thing. But Barrett’s tape-echoed, time-bending solos — often aided by Zippos and ball bearings on the fretboard — might have been the most outside thing about his music, pushing his ornate songs from mere psychedelic gnome-battling nuggets into truly box-destroying music.
Most Heroic Moment: Any one of those sky-shattering, 15-minute bootleg versions of “Interstellar Overdrive” from ’67. J.J.
57. Doug Martsch (Built to Spill)
He can noodle you into submission, but chops aren’t what make Doug Martsch’s playing so charming. It’s the doodly little riffs he pairs with his endearing whine like a fine wine — bloopy nuggets of melody wound around his voice that you find yourself humming long after the final chorus fades. Attend a BTS show and prepare to hear a lot of dudes singing guitar solos in your face.
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.
56. Kim and Kelley Deal (the Breeders)
Kim played bass in Pixies because Joey Santiago had dibs on guitar, but a year after Frank Black killed the band via fax, she was ripping one of the most beloved guitar riffs of the ’90s onstage at Lollapalooza with her own quartet. Like the bong in the reggae song, the Deals’ twin guitar work is totally chill yet completely precise, zonked but in the zone.
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.
55. Fred Frith
Jumping with an infectious playfulness from free-form improvisation to intensely metrical charts to art-pop glee, British guitarist Fred Frith is a vital link between the Canterbury art-proggers of the late ’60s and the downtown New York avant-jazz circles of the early ’80s. A founding member of dadaistic prog-punks Henry Cow — members of the U.K.’s Rock-in-Opposition movement — Fred Frith may not have killed fascists with his guitar the way Woody Guthrie did, but he surely made them blink uneasily with his dense note-clusters, chains-on-fretboard scrapes, and sudden turns of unexpected beauty.
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.
54. Euronymous (Mayhem)
In the early ’90s while Metallica were finding their groove and death metal’s leading names were playing stiffly, Mayhem mainman Euronymous was in the basement of his Oslo record shop, applying corpse-paint makeup and pushing the limits of murk and melody — essentially inventing the way an entire generation plays black-metal guitar. Known for eschewing the chugga-chugga technique known as palm-muting, the axeman moved toward harsh, aggressive melodies that have more in common with Mahler than Megadeth. In the process, every chilly, agoraphobic black metaller from Watain down to Liturgy (not to mention dabblers like Sonic Youth and the Microphones) owes him a debt of gratitude.
Most Heroic Moment: The brittle caterwauls of “The Freezing Moon,” as heard on Mayhem’s 1990 concert recording, Live in Leipzig. K.G.
53. Greg Sage (Wipers)
His father having worked in the broadcast industry, Sage grew up in a home with a lathe for cutting records. That freedom to write and record and cut records on his own made for some of the most singularly electrifying guitar music of the ’80s with the Wipers, a blown-out mix of punk energy and transportive longform soloing, the perect blend of Pink Floyd and Pink Flag. Sage’s experiments rarely repeated themselves, except in the work of his many admirers, including Kurt Cobain.
Most Heroic Moment: The knee-buckling noise of Youth of America’s 14-minute title cut. D.B.
52. Johnny Thunders
As renowned for his imbibing as for his raw, rootsy chops, Thunders was punk’s answer to Keith Richards — sadly, minus Keith’s nine lives. In his brief time on Earth, this ex–New York Doll set the tone for every future punk strapping on a Les Paul. He balanced his sublimely sloppy power chords with graceful, sensitive licks (see “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory”) — a turn not lost on Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong.
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.
51. Robbie Basho
College pals with John Fahey, Baltimore native Daniel Robinson Jr. dubbed himself Robbie Basho following a mountaintop peyote trip, and after discovering Ravi Shankar’s music when the Beatles were still mugging in black and white. Bringing ragas to the acoustic guitar while recording for John Fahey’s Takoma label in the ’60s, Basho’s open-tuned meditations laid the groundwork for New Age, rescued after his untimely death in 1986 by a new generation of cosmonauts, ultimately spawning contemporary art-drone.
Most Heroic Moment: Spotting Eastern mysticism in cloudbanks drifting above the Great Plains on 1971’s “A North American Raga.” J.J.