Okay, lists are subjective, especially ones like "best rock guitarists." We all know that. Nevertheless, the following list of guitar players are usually the ones who get mentioned time and again as rock guitar icons. They make "the list" because of their wide-reaching influence and ground-breaking playing. It's not just a matter of being talented. Of course, every guitarist on this list has mounds of talent. but these players have something more than just skill. They all have, in some way, influenced countless guitarists by their easily-identifiable style and musicality.
Few players have had the influence on rock guitar as has Chuck Berry. Noted perhaps for his raucous private life as much as his guitar playing, Berry has influenced everyone from The Beatles to Jimmy Page to Ted Nugent and beyond. His use of blues-inspired double-stop riffs are required repertoire for all rock guitarists. It's safe to say that Berry often tops the list of best rock guitarists and for good reason.
Eric Clapton was a pivotal figure of rock guitar in the 1960s. A blues guitarist as much as a rock guitarist, Clapton was heavily inspired by players like BB King and Freddie King; however, his Cream-era sound - a Les Paul through a cranked Marshall - was a signature sound of 60s rock. His work with Cream also defined the "power trio" - guitar, bass and drums - that would prove a popular combination in the 60s and beyond.
While perhaps not as influential as Clapton in the 60s, Jeff Beck's talent was just beginning to bloom when he was tapped by the Yardbirds to replace the departing Eric Clapton. Throughout the late 60s and 70s Beck's integration of blues, rock, and jazz clearly proved that he was a world-class guitarist in addition to being one of the best rock guitarists. Not content to rest on his laurels, Beck continues to improve his skills and musicality, even while closing in on his 70th birthday.
Although most rock influential rock players are known for their solo work as well as their rhythm chops, Pete Townsend is the exception to the rule. Ask any rock critic about their favorite Townsend solo, and you'll likely get a blank stare. However, Townsend's rhythm guitar work and songwriting skills make up for any lead guitar deficiencies. Arguably the inventor of the "power chord," Townsend's work with The Who has rightfully made him one of the best rock guitarists and an inspiration to rhythm guitarists everywhere.
Though he never reached his 28th birthday, Johnny Allen "Jimi" Hendrix became one of the most influential rock guitarists in history. Influenced by such blues greats as Muddy Watters and BB King, Hendrix developed a sound all his own. Playing right-handed instruments strung left-handed (notably the Fender Stratocaster), Hendrix was a master of tonal experimentation, taking the guitar to heights never before seen. His use of controlled feedback, experimental effects, and blues-inspired overdriven solos would set the stage for hard rock guitar of the 1970s and beyond.
Along with Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page was one of a small group of British guitar heroes who would forever change the landscape of rock guitar. A popular session guitarist in the mid 60s, Page would eventually become part of a Yardbirds lineup that briefly featured both Jeff Beck and Page. Although this version of the Yardbirds was to be short-lived, Page's desire for an English supergroup would eventually evolve into one of the greatest rock groups of all time, Led Zeppelin. The rest, as they say, is history.
It's safe to say that Eddie Van Halen completely defined the sound of rock guitar when Van Halen's first album was released in 1978. Guitarists everywhere scratched their heads in wonder as they heard the effortless two-handed tapping, squeal harmonics, and whammy bar dive-bombs on Van Halen's epic solo "Eruption." Van Halen is also arguably one of the finest rhythm guitarists in rock and has toured continuously since the band's inception, enduring many lineup changes along the way.
While not as commercially successful as Van Halen and perhaps not quite as influential, Swedish Neo-Classical rocker Yngwie Malmsteen nevertheless inspired an entirely new generation of guitarists to incorporate classical motifs and harmonic minor scales into their rock vocabulary. Inspired by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Ritchie Blackmore, and Nicolo Pagani, Yngwie is one of the most effortless technicians the guitar world has ever known and easily one of the best rock guitarists in history.
If you're talented enough to give Kirk Hammett (Metallica) and Steve Vai guitar lessons, then chances are you're a pretty good player yourself. Such is the case with New York native Joe Satriani. A student himself of jazz guitarist Billy Bauer and demanding jazz pianist Lennie Tristano, Satriani first became known popularly when Steve Vai sang the praises of his former teacher. After the release of "Surfing with the Alien," Satriani became even more well known. The founder of the G3 tour (originally with Vai and Eric Johnson), Satriani plays his own series of Ibanez guitars and Marshall amplifiers.
It's safe to say that Steve Vai is not only one of the best rock guitarists in history, he's easily one of the best guitarists in history, period. A former student of famed guitarist and teacher Joe Satriani, Vai showcased his talents early on, joining Frank Zappa's band at only 20 years old. Zappa's music was well-renowned for its difficulty, yet Vai impressed Zappa with his transcribing and sight-reading ability. Often touted as his "young Italian virtuouso," Vai left Zappa's group, eventually making a name for himself by joining David Lee Roth's band and touring as a solo artist.