Compiling a list of the top ten Classic Rock guitarists in history is an arduous task, but an enjoyable one. The requirements needed to make this countdown are playing ability, impact on the classic rock world, memorable riffs and songwriting. Any ranking of the multitude of brilliant guitarists in the classic rock era is sure to elicit approval and vociferous disagreements, so feel free to voice your opinion by posting a comment.
1-Jimi Hendrix- The “Master of the Stratocaster” revolutionized guitar playing from 1966-1970 with his incendiary, breathtaking rhythm and lead playing. This “comet,” who shone brightly for a short time, left an indelible mark on the rock world that will never be equaled. He burst onto the scene with his monumental “Are You Experienced” (1967) LP with bass player Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell complementing him perfectly. Anyone who listened to this album and/or saw him play was blown away and changed forever, including Pete Townsend and Paul McCartney, who caught his early shows in England. If you want slow blues, just listen to “Red House” (live or studio version). “Third Stone from the Sun” is a psychedelic collage of guitar brilliance while “Fire,” “Manic Depression,” “Purple Haze” and “Hey Joe” are guitar showcases that have heavily influenced every young kid who picked up a Fender Stratocaster or Gibson Les Paul. His mellow moods were impressive (“The Wind Cries Mary” and “Little Wing”) with melodic, lilting and effortless guitar work. Hendrix’s command of the fret board in any guitar style is legendary which extended to his live playing at the Monterey Pop Festival (1967), Woodstock (1969) and the Isle of Wight Festival (1970- one month before his tragic death). He is the standard by which all other rock guitarists are measured. Hendrix’s senseless death at the age of 27 robbed the music world of a musical virtuoso and songwriting genius. We should all be thankful that we have recordings and video documentation of this one of a kind guitar hero.
2- Ritchie Blackmore- Another Stratocaster axe man who plays in a style all his own. His Middle Eastern, classical- rock guitar magic with Deep Purple has influenced every Heavy Metal guitarist on the planet (Yngwie Malmsteen is a disciple). His “Smoke on the Water” riff is an aspiring guitarist’s rite of passage and the Bach inspired solo on “Highway Star” is an example of how rock and roll guitarists can reach new heights in creativity. “Made in Japan” is a live testament to Blackmore’s fluid and virtuosic playing. His tenure in “Rainbow” also contains guitar excellence (“16th Century Greensleeves”) as does his current medieval music project “Blackmore’s Night” with his wife Candice. Underrated, but appreciated by many, Blackmore reinvents himself every time he straps on his guitar.
3- Jimmy Page- This former session player (Tom Jones and Donovan recordings) and “Yardbird” redefined the role of a guitar hero with his formation of the legendary Led Zeppelin. His signature riffs on “Heartbreaker,” “Whole Lotta Love,” “Kashmir, “Black Dog” and “Livin’ Lovin’ Maid” are classic rock gems that will never tarnish with age. His production work on Led Zeppelin albums broke new ground (Mikes on John Bonham’s drums from different areas in the studio) and his live performances took classic songs and made them live and breathe in a unique, startling way. Check out “How the West was won,” a triple CD package (performances from 1972) and the companion double DVD set that both display Led Zeppelin at their best. His blues- soaked solos (“I Can’t Quit You Baby” and “You Shook Me”) along with brilliant acoustic work (“That’s The Way”) make Jimmy Page the most versatile guitarist on the planet. The image of Page playing his double neck Gibson with half moons and stars on his pants while soloing at a breakneck pace is a hallmark of classic rock history.
4- Jeff Beck- This band mate of Jimmy Page’s for a short time in the Yardbirds later formed the Jeff Beck group with Rod Stewart as lead vocalist ( “Truth and Beck-Ola” releases). Beck is a guitar chameleon, as he gave us psychedelic blues as a Yardbird, heavy sludge- rock with the “Jeff Beck Group” and “Beck, Bogert and Appice,” jazz –rock ( “Blow by Blow” and Wired”) and Rockabilly on his tribute to Cliff Gallup, Gene Vincent’s guitarist(“Crazy Legs” CD). His unique playing style (sans pick) creates a one-of-a kind sound that is his alone. Though not part of any super groups in recent years, Beck can be comfortable in any rock or jazz style on recordings while consistently wowing crowds in a live setting.
5-Stevie Ray Vaughn- This Texas born disciple of Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Guy put blues back on the map in the 1980’s. Vaughn was discovered by the Rolling Stones in a small bar. He later added his guitar brilliance to David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.” His solos are a how-to in blues playing. Most guitarists have to take a “breath” while playing lead breaks, but not Vaughn. His seamless runs up and down the fret board are breathtaking to behold (“Live at Montreaux” and “Live in Austin”). His versions of Hendrix’s “Manic Depression,” “Voodoo Chile” and “Third Stone from the Sun” are masterful and fresh sounding. His own compositions like “Couldn’t Stand the Weather” and “Crossfire” took blues to another dimension. Vaughn used heavy gauge strings to get a full, meaty sound on both his rhythm and lead playing. His premature death in a helicopter crash while on tour in August 1990 robbed the world of a blues-rock virtuoso.
6-Eric Clapton- Speaking of blues, this English “God” is a walking blues history lesson. A Robert Johnson devotee, Clapton took the acoustic blues that he pioneered and shone as a lead electric guitar specialist in The Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith( see my Clapton- Winwood CD review on this site) and Derek and the Dominoes. His guitar excellence has spanned the course of generations and he is still going strong. His devotion to the blues has never waned. Whether playing “Crossroads” (A Robert Johnson composition) with Cream or a solo album track like “After Midnight,” “Slowhand’s” earthy, emotional tone and breakneck runs up and down the guitar neck are awe-inspiring. He will go down in history as guitar player who appreciated the musical contributions of African American bluesman who never got their just due in terms of financial remuneration or public appreciation and took blues to a new level and wider audience. Robert Johnson is smiling in blues heaven.
7- Carlos Santana- This self-taught Mexican-born guitarist took Latin music and fused it with late 1960’s style rock and shook the music world with his band, Santana. His “singing”, soulful solos are alternately heart wrenching and uplifting. Santana (originally called the Santana Blues Band) and a 22-year-old Santana played Woodstock and stole the show with their scintillating version of “Soul Sacrifice,” before their debut was released. His live playing defies description. The “Santana” and “Abraxas” releases alone justify his legendary guitar-icon status. Congas, timbales, Santana’s screaming guitar solos and Greg Rolie’s expert keyboard work featured on these albums are rock and roll perfection.
8- Eddie Van Halen- His influence on guitar players in the late 1970’s and 1980’s is a testament to his brilliance. Every future shredder, including Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, owe a debt of gratitude to this Amsterdam-born virtuoso. His finger tapping technique and lightning fast solos revolutionized guitar playing in 1978 as Jimi Hendrix and Chuck Berry did earlier on. With his brother Alex on drums, Michael Anthony on bass and lead vocalist David Lee Roth on board, “Van Halen” (Originally named Mammoth) rewrote rock and roll history with their guitar driven, carnal rock and roll. From the opening strains of “Runnin’ with the Devil” to “1984’s” “Hot for Teacher,” Van Halen’s guitar is front and center driving each song along. He is undoubtedly one of the most influential and talented musicians in rock and roll history. The recent Van Halen reunion, minus Michael Anthony, is a welcome sight in arenas and stadiums, as Eddie Van Halen’s guitar wizardry still amazes audiences. He is a true original.
9- Michael Schenker- This German “Paganini of the guitar” burst onto the scene as a 17-year-old wunderkind on the “Scorpions” debut album, “Lonesome Crow.” His mature technique belied his age and his legend grew. He left the Scorpions and joined UK greats UFO after they heard him playing a sound check. His guitar playing on their “Force it’ (1975), “No Heavy Petting (1976) and “Lights Out” (1977) albums cemented his brilliance. Check out “Mother Mary,” “Let it Roll,” “Natural Thing,” and “Love to Love” from the aforementioned classic UFO albums. He later formed the Michael Schenker Group and played on The “Scorpions” 1979 release “Love Drive.” Schenker, playing a Gibson Flying V and giving audiences awe -inspiring blues based electric rock is a remarkable sight. Once you see or hear him play, you will be a convert and will wonder why he is so underrated and under appreciated.
10-Johnny Winter- This Mississippi-born, Albino, Southern-blues rock and roll guitar wonder is a forerunner to Stevie Ray Vaughn. His Delta-soaked Southern boogie and straight blues playing is fluid, speedy and full of dynamics. Winter’s slide playing is legendary (“Highway 61 Revisited” and “Leland Mississippi Blues”).He played a nine song set at Woodstock and overcame Heroin addiction which is chronicled in “Still Alive and Well” a song written by Rick Derringer. I just heard a BBC concert of his from 1978. His sixteen-minute version of “Hey Joe” rivals Jimi Hendrix’s with a slow blues section that eventually reaches a rollicking blues crescendo that does not let up. A forgotten great, Johnny Winter deserves adulation and reverence by every blues and rock guitarist.
Honorable mention- Angus Young, Brian May, Slash, Frank Marino and Duane Allman.