When most people think of game-changing individuals in the music business, they usually consider the frontmen of bands or solo singers. However, what many individuals don’t realize is that quite a few guitarists played a hand in revolutionizing the music industry as well. It was these musicians’ talents and innovation that allowed various genres to evolve and become what they are today. Not to mention, they also helped inspire entire generations of future guitarists.
Here are the top ten influential guitarists you need to know and remember:
10. Eddie Van Halen, Netherlands/USA
At a time when disco and punk ruled the airwaves, Eddie Van Halen made the world fall in love with rock n roll once again. For one thing, Van Halen managed to coax sounds from his guitar that most other people didn’t think were possible. To top it off, he perfected what is known as two-hand tapping. This technique consisted of holding the pick between the thumb and middle finger, allowing him to diddle the strings with his index finger simultaneously.
It was these moves and more that earned him a large following, including Bruce Kulick, Yngwie Malmsteen, Dave Navarro, and Dimebag Darrell to name a few. To this day, you will find novice guitarists struggling to learn the guitar playing techniques of Eddie Van Halen.
9. Eric Clapton, England
What Eric Clapton brought to the party was the soulful union of blues and rock n roll. There were other artists that dabbled in these genres but none of them could pull it off the way that Clapton did – in doing so, he essentially created a new sound. He got the nickname “Slowhand” for his “slow handclap” technique. Perhaps what really set Clapton apart from other guitarists was just how versatile his guitar playing really was. There were times when he could be blindingly fast and powerful which was what earned him a spot on bands like Cream.
On the other hand, he was equally at home playing soft and crooning tunes, leading to the creation of history-making melodies such as the acoustic version of Layla. Listeners and audiences alike couldn’t deny that this man didn’t just have talent, he also had some serious style. These were just a few reasons why some of the most renowned guitarists in the world tried to embody his style of playing –including Eddie Van Halen.
8. Keith Richards, England
Anyone else might have been overshadowed by Mick Jagger’s star power but not Keith Richards. His pioneering playing style and his swagger were just some of the reasons why he continues to be one of the most emulated guitarists today. Like Eric Clapton, Richards was a big fan of the blues which is why he incorporated it so heavily into his playing. He considered the blues to be what was “behind rock and roll”.
Richards did more than just introduce the blues to a whole new generation, however. What he was really known for were his riffs. From Jumpin’ Jack Flash and I Can’t Get No Satisfaction to Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, Richards was responsible for some of the most memorable and familiar riffs of the decade. It was these serious skills that led to several guitarists imitating him, the most notable of these being Joe Perry of Aerosmith.
7. Stevie Ray Vaughan, USA
In the eighties, the blues had to fight to be heard among the resounding sounds of mainstream pop music. Stevie Ray Vaughan almost single-handedly changed that, however, by encouraging its resurgence with his enigmatic playing style. It wasn’t just Vaughan’s skill, however, that had audiences in rapture – it was the dedication to his art and constant striving to create something new. Of course, he was known for more than just his blues-tinged songs. He was also a master of jazz, rock, and country.
Stevie Ray Vaughan was held in high esteem by many notable names including Etta James, Jeff Beck, and Eric Clapton. Even today, he is known for motivating newer musicians such as John Mayer and Gary Clark Jr. While his demise was untimely and sudden, there is no denying that his music will continue to live on forever, and pop up in the melodies of future guitarists to come.
6. Jimmy Page, England
While there are more technical guitarists than Jimmy Page, it cannot be denied that no other guitarist shaped and molded sound quite the way Page did. In fact, much of Led Zeppelin’s famed sound can be attributed to him and the way that he played around with music. Another thing that stood out about Page was how each song was an experiment in rock and roll. Whether you listen to Stairway to Heaven, Whole Lotta Love, or Kashmir, each song is an entirely new experience.
What is especially interesting was the way he managed to balance being an excellent soloist with being a great overall composer. This is why Led Zeppelin’s songs are an equal clash and harmony of guitar sounds. If you were to ask any famous guitarist today, they would be quick to admit that it was Page’s playing that set them on the course of rock n roll. This includes heavy hitters such as the Edge and Jack White.
5. Carlos Santana, Mexico/USA
What sets Carlos Santana apart from many other guitarists today is how flawlessly he was able to blend genres to create a sound that is achingly familiar to anyone who hears it. This was quite impressive considering that he managed to combine categories that most people wouldn’t even dream of merging. However, the sounds of Latin rhythms and rock n roll, tinged with jazz music made Santana a true revolutionary and a household name.
What is just as important about Santana, though, is how he manages to remain relevant so many years later. While he made his true debut at Woodstock way back in 1969, he was still winning numerous awards in the 2000s. In fact, he managed to tie with the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, for the most number of Grammys won.
4. B.B. King, USA
You will be hard-pressed to find a guitarist today who will not tip their hat in respect to B.B. King. In fact, Buddy Guy went so as far as to say that “before B.B., everyone played the (electric) guitar like an acoustic”. Of course, that was because no one really played the guitar quite like B.B, up until then. King was able to blur the lines between blues, jazz, and even gospel. This is how he ended up with a sound that was equal parts soft and tough.
King’s playing style and skill were also what drew the crowds to him. He fondly nicknamed his guitar “Lucille” and when he played, there was no denying that it was raw, human emotion being emitted from the instrument. Many greats such as Eric Clapton were eager to play alongside him and learn from the master.
3. Robert Johnson, USA
So much about Robert Johnson is shrouded in mystery and it can be hard to separate the man from the myth. That being said, Johnson was a true legend in his own right, and this had everything to do with his musical talent – regardless of whether they were bestowed on him by supernatural means or not. Johnson passed away at a young age and left behind just 29 songs for the world to enjoy.
Nonetheless, it would appear that this was all that was needed for the man to create a legacy that would live on long after he was gone. Not only did Johnson flaunt the accepted rules of playing guitar at the time, he also wrote melodies that resonated with pain and intensity. Guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Jack White still use the harmonies they picked up from the great Robert Johnson.
2. Chuck Berry, USA
When the incomparable John Lennon utters the words, “If you had to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry” you will be able to understand this man’s massive influence. Lennon wasn’t his only accolade though, as Keith Richards often spoke of his love for Berry’s style of music as well. Chuck Berry took the Chicago blues and mixed it with a healthy dose of country and spun it into rock n roll. Every song he wrote was an absolute toe-tapper, making him one of the liveliest performers of that era.
It was also clear that Berry had a very different style of playing. In addition to his signature lick, there were moments when you couldn’t really tell his licks from his riffs as he smoothly and imperceptibly switched them around. While Berry may not have been as big a commercial success as some of the other guitarists on this list, he did something far better – he introduced the world to a whole different kind of music.
1. Jimi Hendrix, USA
There are few guitarists who have left as much of a mark on the music world as Jimi Hendrix. Sure, he was a singer and guitarist – the whole package – but he will always be remembered for the way he could make a guitar sing. One of the things that made Hendrix stand out was how he brought the old version of rock n roll and melded it with the new. Best of all, he did it so seamlessly that you couldn’t tell where one began and the other ended.
Another thing Hendrix did was changing the way people saw the electric guitar. For most of its history, the electric guitar had been viewed as something loud and angry. However, when Hendrix got a hold of it, it changed entirely – becoming melodic and exquisite. He also inspired hundreds of artists over the years, including but not limited to Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
This concludes our look into the top 10 guitarists who changed music forever. This brief glimpse into the lives of these artists will help you appreciate just how important they truly were.