Jimi Hendrix, ranked by Rolling Stone as the greatest guitarist of all time, got sounds out of his instrument that no one had ever heard before. Yet he's not the only one. Click through for 25 of the most original and influential musicians who ever picked up a guitar.
Hendrix bought his first guitar for $5 at the age of 15, replacing the broomstick he'd carried with him as perhaps the world's first air guitarist. He backed Little Richard, Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke before forming the Jimi Hendrix Experience, which grabbed national attention when its frontman set his guitar on fire at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, The groundbreaking lefty who played a right-handed Fender Stratocaster upside down died of an overdose in 1970 at age 27. Rolling Stone called him the greatest guitarist of all time.
Killed in a motorcycle accident in 1971 when he was just 24, the co-founder of the Allman Brothers Band had already laid down more great guitar licks than others do in a long lifetime. As a session musician at the famed Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama, Duane Allman backed the likes of Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and Boz Scaggs. You haven't lived if you've missed driving down the highway late at night listening to Allman simply taking over Scaggs' 12-minute-30-second recording of "Loan Me a Dime."
The only non-Beatle ever invited to record a guitar solo with the Fab Four ("While My Guitar Gently Weeps"), Eric Clapton is a three-time inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His signature song "Layla," an ode to George Harrison's (and later Clapton's) wife Pattie Boyd, charted in two different versions. Boyd said of Clapton, "He's able to put his emotions into music in such a way that the audience can feel it instinctively. It goes right through you." A famous bit of '60s graffiti put it more succinctly: "Clapton is God."
Delta bluesman Robert Johnson's short life (he died in 1938 at age 27) is shrouded in mystery, but his searing acoustic guitar licks, captured on just a handful of recordings, have influenced generations of musicians. Legend has it that Johnson's guitar mastery was the result of a meeting with the Devil himself. With a guitar tuned by Satan, Johnson's fingers caught fire; in return, the ill-fated bluesman offered up his soul. Or so the story goes.
Keith Richards would stand tall among guitarists even if the opening three-note riff of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" had been his only contribution to the rock and roll canon. It came to him in a dream. Then Richards woke up, grabbed his cassette recorder, laid the riff down and went back to sleep. "The rest is snoring," he recalls of the tape. Long live Keef!
He was at Memphis' Sun Studios when, on July 5, 1954, an unknown teenage hillbilly singer with the odd name of Elvis Presley was finishing a long and unsuccessful first recording session. The frustrated Presley started cutting up with an old blues number, "That's All Right," and Moore joined in. That's when Sun owner Sam Phillips stuck his head out of the control booth and asked: "What are you doing?" "We don't know," replied Moore. "Well, do it again," said Phillips. Moore went on to back Elvis on most of his pre-Army hits. "Everyone else wanted to be Elvis," Keith Richards said decades later. "I wanted to be Scotty."
Prince's guitar could groove or shred, do the nasty or make you weep. His solo on "Purple Rain" is one of the greatest in rock history. And nobody ever looked hotter slinging a guitar—reason enough to put the "Artist Formerly Known As" into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Rolling Stone called him "the pontiff of power riffing." Yet Page's first musical influence was the now forgotten British musical genre known as Skiffle (traditional folk, blues and jazz played on rudimentary or homemade instruments). Still, it was his marriage of blues and hard rock with Led Zeppelin (and since) that has made Page one of rock's greatest guitar heroes.
Alchemizing R&B and country with guitar solos and showmanship, Chuck Berry laid the foundation for what became known as rock and roll. His licks on "Roll Over Beethoven," "Maybellene" and "Johnny B. Goode" became the ABC's for every would-be guitar slinger. When he toured, Berry rarely used his own backup band, instead choosing pick-up players from whatever town he was in. "If they can't play Chuck Berry," he said, "they can't play nothing."
The creator of rock and roll distortion, Link Wray presaged punk and heavy metal sounds decades before the Sex Pistols or Metallica. His 1958 instrumental hit "Rumble" was banned by radio stations in New York and Boston for fear it would incite teenage gang violence (making it the only instrumental ever banned). Said The Who's Pete Townsend: "If it hadn't been for Link Wray ... I never would have picked up a guitar."
Using what she called "Joni's weird chords," Mitchell's guitar playing was uniquely her own. "Joni had mastered the idea that she could tune the guitar any way she wanted," says her ex, longtime friend and producer David Crosby. "Match her and Bob Dylan up as poets, and they are in the same ballpark. But Joni was a much more sophisticated musician."
The lead guitarist's signature power chords on the Kinks' 1964 single "You Really Got Me" drove it to the top of the charts and influenced every guitar-driven garage band to follow. Ironically, Kinks frontman Ray Davies—Dave's brother—wrote the song on a piano.
Heavily influenced by "gypsy jazz" great Django Reinhardt, Nelson has for over 40 years created his signature sweet sound on a $750 Martin guitar he calls Trigger, after movie cowboy Roy Rogers' horse. "Trigger's like me," says the now graying Red-Headed Stranger. "Old and beat-up."
Influenced by Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins and Chet Atkins (and later Ravi Shankar), Harrison's playing was always solid, never flashy. But the "quiet" Beatle was the perfect guitarist for the Fab Four, having honed his chops during the band's 10-hour, pre-fame, anything-goes stints at the Hamburg Star-Club. Listen to the Beatles' early BBC radio recordings and you'll hear Harrison successfully mimicking all the previous greats. Then, when it was his turn in the spotlight, he was ready to surpass his mentors.
Mexican-born Carlos Santana was the first to bring Latin-infused rock, jazz, blues, salsa and African rhythms to rock and roll, and he credited LSD with giving him access to his guitar voice. "You want to be like emissaries of light," Santana once said. "When you're up on that stage or when you record, you want to be a tool that light shines through to everybody."
John Lee Hooker
Influencing the likes of Carlos Santana, Keith Richards, ZZ Top and even Bruce Springsteen, Hooker's "Boom Boom" guitar sound was dark, mysterious, primitive in the best sense. "I don't play a lot of fancy guitar," Hooker said. "I don't want to play it. The kind of guitar I want to play is mean, mean licks."
"If there were no Carl Perkins, there would be no Beatles," said Paul McCartney. That's enough to put the rockabilly originator of "Blue Suede Shoes" into the Guitarist Hall of Fame. With his country-fried bag of guitar tricks, Perkins was a musical equivalent of Elvis Presley's hips. Said Tom Petty, "If you want to play '50s rock and roll, you can either play like Chuck Berry or you can play like Carl Perkins." Legions chose Perkins.
Halfway through his famed 1966 Royal Albert Hall concert, Bob Dylan brought onstage his newly electrified backing band. Ignoring the many boos, Dylan turned to lead guitarist Robbie Robertson—later of The Band—and shouted, "PLAY IT F---ING LOUD!!!" Robertson did, forever cementing his place in rock and roll history.
Even with his most extended solo improvisations, Jerry Garcia had a tremendous capacity for expressing lyrical melody. Though he started out as a bluegrass banjo player, it was with his guitar that Garcia nourished multitudes of Deadheads. With thousands of Grateful Dead concerts preserved for the ages, he may be the most recorded guitarist in history.
Few guitarists are instantly recognizable from their sound alone, but the former Dire Straits virtuoso is one of them—perhaps because he's one of the few not to use a pick. "Playing with your fingers," he says, "has something to do with immediacy and soul."
Composed on a $3.75 Sears-brand guitar when she was 11 years old, Elizabeth Cotten's "Freight Train" has been covered by artists ranging from Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia to Peter, Paul and Mary. Cotten's guitar style is less copied, since she favored an instrument strung for a right-handed player, but—like Jimi Hendrix years later—played it upside down because she was left-handed. Cotten's tip for guitarists everywhere: "If you're up there playing, don't ever stop. Even if you make a mistake, keep on goin', cause no one will ever know!"
Dick Dale's surf music wasn't Beach Boy-style fun and sun. Instead, it was like finding yourself hanging 10 on the very top of the biggest, freakiest wave you'd ever ridden, about to, in surfer parlance, "goover the falls." Influenced by Middle Eastern music styles, Dale's guitar reverberated at maximum volume. For surf music, Dale was a shark among guppies.
Ike's reputation will never recover from Laurence Fishburne's wife-beating portrayal of him in the 1993 film "What's Love Got to Do With It," but no one disputes that the man could play guitar. Many consider his first recording, Rocket 88, the first rock and roll song. Attacking his axe with a howling R&B-turned-rock fury, often with his back to the audience, he produced razor-sharp licks that were later sampled by many hip-hop artists, proving Ike's words, "I believe I was ahead of my time."
Almost exclusively a rhythm guitarist, Johnny bought his first guitar when he was 17, but later admitted he never really learned to play it. Consequently, unadorned primitiveness ruled on all the Ramones albums, which perfectly matched the band's back-to-basics punk ethos. "It was a job," Ramone later said of his "hold on to your seats, we're going for a ride" two-minute guitar work. "I was just doing my job."
Daniel Johnston could be the worst guitar player who ever lived, barely able to strum two chords, let alone the basic rocker's three (and forget about rhythm or even keeping time). But that's what made him great! He proves that anyone can pick up a guitar and create beautiful and moving music, even without being a technical virtuoso. Just take a listen to Johnston's "True Love Will Find You in the End." You'll weep. And then you'll get out the guitar that's been collecting dust in your closet and play.
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