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
40. Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine)
Before the ’90s devolved into a frenzy of slack-jawed, down-tuned Korn klones, Rage rose above the rap-metal riff-raff with a freakazoid guitar style that actually sounded like two turntables and a mixer going haywire. Morello cites Led Zeppelin as an inspiration for his unconventional style — which makes sense if you only consider the extended live version of “Dazed and Confused.” — but he is just as quick to shout out Public Enemy’s siren-crazed production team the Bomb Squad
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.
39. Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney, Wild Flag)
Carrie Brownstein has spent the last 12 years of her life playing in bands with no bassist, using the bonus space to weave searing lead lines and wily counterpoints around her bandmates. She started out in Sleater-Kinney as a punky player with clever riffs and ended a bona fide shredder, peeling off psychedelic solos worthy of her Townshend-style windmills. In Wild Flag, she’s found a fascinating foil in Mary Timony’s off-kilter style. Insert high kick here.
Most Heroic Moment: S-K’s 2005 album The Woods was all Brownstein bluster and beautiful squall. C.G.
38. Stephen Malkmus (Pavement, the Jicks)
For a time, a CD reissue of ’70s Oz rockers Coloured Balls’ Ball Power carried a sticker endorsement from Stephen Malkmus. (I asked the ex-Pavement frontman about it once, and he had no idea.) That a shout-out from an indie-rock icon could be a selling point for an obscure loutish hard-rock band proves Malkmus’ standing among guitar heads. His noisily catchy work with Pavement defined a future generation of shruggy, ill-tuned artists perfecting their imperfections, while the proggy jamming on his solo albums harks back to the past with passion and smarts.
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.
37. Ali Farka Touré
Born in the Tombouctou region of Northern Mali, this flowing, hypnotic player is invariably compared to John Lee Hooker, whose electric boogie blues uncannily mirrored the West African’s acoustic trance music while lacking any direct connection to it. Touré’s sources, on the other hand, include the deeper wellsprings of Islamic tradition, indigenous one- and three-stringed hunting guitars, a large multilingual repertoire of source material, and an intimate relationship with West African spiritual practices. If only during this marvelous minimalist’s lifetime, the source of Delta blues had a GPS location.
Most Heroic Moment:Savane, recorded in 2004 while Touré suffered from cancer. R.G.
36. James Blood Ulmer
Raised in South Carolina, Ulmer cut his teeth playing soul-jazz with Big John Patton and others. In 1972, he moved in with Ornette Coleman to study the saxophonist’s unified field theory of jazz, dreaming one night of a guitar tuning based on a single note shared by all six open strings. Newly inspired, country blues, funk, jazz, and free improvisation began to blend in Ulmer’s chopping, distracted rhythms and crossed-wire harmonic pyrotechnics. You can hear his strange “harmolodic” brew bubble up in Living Colour’s Vernon Reid, Fantômas and TV on the Radio.
Most Heroic Moment: “Revealing,” the labyrinthine closing track of 1978’s Tales of Captain Black.R.G.
35. Dr. Know (Bad Brains)
When Bad Brains formed in 1977, hardcore wasn’t even a word and the Ramones were the fastest band on Earth. But this herb-(!) and Rasta-(!!)fueled crew of jazz geeks(!!!) from Washington, D.C., soon established the new land-speed record. Gary “Dr. Know” Miller raised the bar for all hardcore guitarists to come — not just raging at quadruple speed, but also inexplicably hitting every note.
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.
34. Justin Broadrick (Napalm Death, Godflesh, Jesu)
Few guitarists have played as many styles as Broadrick (Napalm Death’s grindcore, Godflesh’s industrial-metal, Jesu’s shoegaze) and even fewer could sound as miraculously good doing it. But maybe that’s because they don’t have Broadrick’s unique ear for cacophony — scraping metal picks on down-tuned strings, buzzsaw-like chords layered hip-hop–style on top of each other, or just letting his instrument feed back in sunny shimmers. Whatever the secret, he’s found fans in bands ranging from Metallica to Isis to Atari Teenage Riot.
Most Heroic Moment: The barely controlled feedback caterwauls of Godflesh’s 1991 Sub Pop single “Slateman.” K.G.
33. Jack White
While White has lent his considerable production and vocal talents to a lengthy list of projects over the past decade, he’s at his finest (and most terrifying) when wrestling with his guitar. During the maligned guitar-nerd documentary It Might Get Loud, he described his relationship with his instrument as one of herculean strife. Judging by the immeasurable success he’s had at breaking down and juicing up the blues — and also the sheer physicality he brings to that fight — you get the impression he’s winning.
Most Heroic Moment: Every crispy second of 2003’s “Ball and Biscuit.” D.B.
32. Robert Quine
The first guitarist to connect the dots between Chuck Berry, the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, and Miles Davis, Quine played with a fascinating combination of studied beatnik cool and gleefully abrasive anarchy. His penchant for truly ugly sounds made him a natural collaborator for no-wavers Material and Lydia Lunch, but — much like his hero, rockabilly pioneer James Burton — Quine was really at his best when he was cramming spectacularly “out there” solos into straightforward rock’n’roll songs, as he did with Richard Hell’s Voidoids, Lou Reed, and Matthew Sweet.
Most Heroic Moment: Quine’s solo on Lou Reed’s 1982 paranoia-scape “Waves of Fear” (1982). D.E.
31. Derek Bailey
Beginning in the 1950s, British avant-guitar forefather Derek Bailey remained committed to total spontaneity outside the bounds of scales and song-forms, even going so far as to refusing to work with the same groups too regularly, lest they fall into comfortable patterns. Perhaps the most cerebral guitarist of all-time, Derek Bailey rethought nearly every aspect of the instrument, from attack to amplification, literally writing the book on improvisation: Improvisation, published in 1980. The result was a stuttering, often atonal, note-splattered code that — along with free jazz and the theories of John Cage — formed the basic dialect for American improvisers like John Zorn, Marc Ribot, and Nels Cline, and their eggheaded kin on both sides of the Atlantic.
Most Heroic Moment: Jamming sublimely with a rumbling storm outside on 1996’s “Rain Dance.” J.J.