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
50. Wayne Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith (MC5)
Much has been made of the inspiration Kramer and his MC5 co-guitarist Fred Smith took from Sun Ra’s left-field astral-jazz soundscapes. But MC5’s best riffs are down to earth, with Kramer and Smith channeling the urban decay of their Detroit home base through a proto-punk roar that’s as much about drive and forward momentum as it is about traveling the spaceways.
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.
49. Zoot Horn Rollo (the Magic Band)
As the focal point of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, Zoot Horn Rollo melded cubist single-note lines and hot-potato rhythms into a style since copped by arty no-wavers and faux-primitive bluesmen. Lest one think the Captain was the driving force behind that arty-earthy admixture, consider that he floundered for a half-decade after Zoot quit backing him in 1974.
Most Heroic Moment: When, on 1972’s “Big Eyed Beans From Venus,” Beefheart asks for a “long lunar note.” Rollo delivers. D.M.
48. Bob Mould
Mould broke free of the hardcore mold by embracing all manner of guitar squall, stuffing Hüsker Dü’s staggering mid ’80s run with so much psychedelic energy that many of those songs feel like they’re coming apart at the seams. In the process, the Minnesota native developed a signature stream of thick, creamy, kaleidoscopic distortion that’s been embraced most recently by young bucks like No Age and Japandroids. Whether he was exploring club culture or pure pop songwriting, Mould’s restless, freewheeling spirit ends up finding its way to his fretboard.
Most Heroic Moment:Zen Arcade’s 14-minute closer, “Reoccurring Dreams.” D.B.
47. Marc Ribot
Ribot is a restless downtown spirit whose music always sounds just as fidgety. One minute he’ll be backing Marianne Faithfull on Letterman, and the next minute squeaking balloons against his pickups in the Knitting Factory & Tom Waits once called him “the Lon Chaney of the guitar,” not only for his many faces but also for his uniquely shadowy sound. He’s best known for the sharp, erratic squawks and quacks on countless Tom Waits records and the contorted, atonal noise-soul in his various guerrilla improv pieces with John Zorn; but his acoustic solo pieces and mysterious cloudbanks alongside Los Cubanos Postizos showcase a beauty that’s just as unpredictable. Most Heroic Moment: The farty, rusty, no-wave, carnival-ride noises powering Waits’ 2004 deliriously broken “Top of the Hill.” C.W.
46. Dimebag Darrell (Pantera)
After years fruitlessly shredding in best-forgotten hair-metal and Judas Priest–worshipping incarnations of metal giants Pantera, Dimebag Darrell invented a new, hard-edged groove for the group on 1990’s Cowboys From Hell, then perfected it on the benchmark follow-up Vulgar Display of Power. His elastic riffs (the iconic “Walk” intro requires touching just one fret) and imaginative solos still resound in chart-topping metal groups like Avenged Sevenfold and Lamb of God, but his music has also been covered by the likes of the Breeders’ Kelley Deal and prog-rockers Dream Theater.
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.
45. Rhys Chatham
A downtown minimalist composer who studied with La Monte Young and Tony Conrad, native New Yorker Chatham didn’t discover rock’n’roll until an epiphanous Ramones gig at CBGB. Chatham then began to compose for electric guitar, writing dramatic interlocking parts that harnessed punk’s simple rhythmic drive. Influencing the scores of legends who passed through his ensembles — including sometimes-nemesis composer Glenn Branca and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore — by the end of the ’80s, Chatham was working with 100-guitar orchestras, chugging out bright, monumental waterfalls of transcendent sound.
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.
44. John McLaughlin
After proving himself a uniquely “far-in” guitarist on landmark Miles Davis explorations such as Bitches Brew, the British-born McLaughlin adopted Sri Chinmoy as his spiritual master and altered the course of jazz-rock fusion with the fiery India-influenced electric music he made with Mahavishnu Orchestra. Mahavishnu John was as devastating an acoustic player as an electric one, and his subsequent career seems to have been a long, slow, increasingly peaceful deceleration from the dizzying volume and velocity of the early ’70s.
Most Heroic Moment: “Meeting of the Spirits” from Mahavishnu’s 1971 debut, The Inner Mounting Flame. R.G.
43. Nels Cline
An utterly fearless musical adventurer, Nels Cline has appeared on more than 150 jazz, alt-rock, pop, punk, country, and experimental albums during his four-decade career — and not just because he can play anything you throw at him. Cline is the kind of artist who can wring unexpected beauty from any material he touches. Since joining Wilco in 2004, Cline has been the band’s MVP, consistently keeping Jeff Tweedy & Co.’s music from veering into “brunch rock” territory with his seemingly limitless arsenal of arresting solos.
Most Heroic Moment: The solo on Wilco’s somnambulant, chiming 2007 track “Impossible Germany” (2007). D.E.
42. King Sunny Ade
As longtime leader of a wildly influential Nigerian juju band that has included up to a dozen percussive guitarists and melodic drummers onstage at once, Ade is first and foremost a canny communicator uniting multiple musical conversations into single symphonic grooves (outside of West Africa, you also can hear his spirit on Talking Heads and Phish albums). And although Western audiences have missed out on many of his better African releases, Ade’s more recent stripped-down, born-again sound still has much to recommend.
Most Heroic Moment: “365 Is My Number” from his American breakthrough, 1982’s Juju MusicR.G.
41. Nile Rodgers (Chic)
In the early ’70s, a young jazzbo swapped his hollow-bodied Gibson Barney Kessel for a solid-body Fender Strat, picked up a strumming style called “chucking” (playing 16 notes to the bar while accenting the main part of the rhythm) from pal Bernard Edwards, pared his chords and licks down to the bone, and went on to become disco’s only guitar hero. Chic hits like “Le Freak” and “Good Times” acquired much of their Studio 54 sheen from Rodgers’ effortlessly lucid approach.
Most Heroic Moment: David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.” R.G.