The 5 Greatest Guitarists in Rock History

Mixing different musical styles is where the magic happens. Rock ‘n’ roll came from that. Southern rock came from that. Hip-hop came from that. Mixing musical styles is also where some of the worst music comes from. But you have to take the good with the bad. These five guitarists combined different elements in a new way to move rock forward.

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1. Scotty Moore

The Big Bang. Elvis Presley walked into the little studio at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee, and changed the world. Of course, Rock ‘n’ roll didn’t start with Elvis, but it wasn’t defined yet. Scotty was a member of the Starlite Ramblers, a country band that played Memphis clubs, and Sam Phillips asked him and bass player Bill Black to get together with this young singer to see if they could come up with something.

Generations since have studied those licks, which are the building blocks for what was to follow. Scotty Moore always downplayed his involvement. He said that all he did was add some Merle Travis-style thumb-picking to the proceedings. Check out the Elvis Presley Sun Sessions to judge for yourself.

2. Jeff Beck

Replacing Eric Clapton in The Yardbirds was the first big break for Jeff Beck. As a child, he heard Gene Vincent & The Blue Caps and was drawn to the guitar prowess of Cliff Gallup. The mixture of different styles in those records inspired Beck to forge his own path as he learned the instrument.

[RELATED: Former Bandmates Jimmy Page, Ronnie Wood, Rod Stewart, and Many More in Music Mourn Jeff Beck]

The Yardbirds were deeply rooted in the blues, but during his tenure Beck also explored country, jazz, and rockabilly elements. After leaving the band, he started The Jeff Beck Group and continued pushing the boundaries of rock music. After several lineup changes, Beck steered his focus toward instrumental music, always mixing different genres and styles. Blues, rock, jazz, and electronica were all covered by Beck, who passed away at 78 in early 2023.

3. Jimi Hendrix

Hendrix wasn’t the first to experiment with feedback and fuzz on the electric guitar, but he was one of the most inventive and successful. He started with the blues when he first became enamored with the instrument. Then he discovered the power of harnessing the feedback and pure noise that could be created with the electronics inside the guitar.

Critics would often dismiss the musicianship of the Seattle native, as they couldn’t quite wrap their heads around the wild, chaotic, rumbling, squealing sounds emanating from Hendrix’s loud Marshall amps. But listening to the recordings today reveals a truly musical, magical talent. Songs like “Little Wing” and “Angel” are beautiful performances that don’t rely on studio tricks or outlandish guitar sounds, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s first single release, their version of “Hey Joe,” was a bit subdued compared to the rest of their debut album, Are You Experienced. “Purple Haze,” however, burst onto the scene with brute force; it certainly stood out from the rest of the pop music radio fare of its day.

4. Edward Van Halen

Born in Holland, Eddie Van Halen moved to America in 1962. His musical journey started on the piano at the age of six. He got a drum set but passed it on to his older brother Alex when he saw how naturally Alex played along to the song “Wipeout” by The Surfaris. Inspired by the rock music of the day, teenage Eddie got an electric guitar and formed a band with his brother.

A few years later, the brothers joined forces with consummate frontman David Lee Roth, and (at Roth’s insistence) the band’s name was changed to Van Halen. They played around Los Angeles and quickly started turning heads. Eddie started mastering the guitar technique known as two-handed tapping, which would go on to define the ’80s pop metal movement. Warner Brothers signed the band, and their first album became one of rock’s most successful debuts. When Eddie was asked to add a guitar solo to “Beat It” by Michael Jackson, it was ironically the success of Thriller that pushed Van Halen’s album 1984 out of the top spot on the Billboard albums chart.

5. Frank Zappa

As a teenager, Zappa was influenced by rhythm & blues and doo-wop, as well as classical composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Edgard Varèse. The young musician was first drawn to percussion and was interested in experimental music of all styles. In high school, Zappa befriended Don Glen Vliet, who later adopted the stage name Captain Beefheart. Their common love of R&B would influence both of their careers.

In 1957, Frank Zappa got his first guitar. He soon wrote, arranged, and conducted avant-garde performance pieces for his school orchestra. Zappa would continue composing as he joined a band called the Soul Giants. They would go on to change their name to the Mothers and then to the Mothers of Invention.

Always looking for new sounds and new musicians to work with, Zappa recorded solo albums and shifted more of his attention to his guitar playing. Pulling influences from pop, jazz, R&B, European, experimental, satire, classical, Egyptian, and rock, Zappa constantly evolved through the 62 albums he released in his lifetime. The Zappa Family Trust has continued to release albums since Zappa’s passing in 1993; the total as of this writing in 2023, bringing the total to 126.

Photo by Doug McKenzie/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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