The guitar is ostensibly the most popular instrument of modern music, and since its creation, many a musician has made the guitar sing with nimble fingers, unbelievable picking patterns, and cool licks. Let’s take a look at some of the best guitarists in history.
Born in 1893, Elizabeth Cotton became a prodigious fixture of early folk and blues. Cotton was left-handed but played a right-handed guitar that wasn’t restrung, which would have been a problem for any lesser musician. But Cotton just turned the instrument upside down. This essentially meant that she played melodies with her thumb and the bass notes with her fingers. And she was completely self-taught! She developed her own style of alternating bass notes that became known as Cotton picking.
Jimi Hendrix could connect chords and notes seamlessly, creating a sound that not even the best musicians of today can recreate. He pushed what the guitar could do and sound like and was one of the first guitarists to use feedback and use it well. And he did it all so effortlessly.
When Reinhardt was 18, a fire burned his home and paralyzed the third and fourth fingers on his left hand, which many assumed would end his guitar playing. Instead, he adjusted and created an amazing new style of play often referred to as hot jazz guitar. Reinhardt was a pioneer of jazz and his modified technique has become a staple of the gypsy swing sound.
When Jack White plays guitar, it sounds raw. It sounds aggressive, and it’s meant to. White attacks every guitar solo, every chord strum, and makes it a battle, man versus music, while staying incredibly minimalistic. Add in plenty of Whammy pedal, a guitar slide, and an artistic mind and you have some of the best guitar sounds today.
Frontman for Sonic Youth, Thurston Moore isn’t a particular master of technique, but he is one of music’s greatest sound smiths. He and fellow Sonic Youth co-founder Lee Ranaldo got attention for using screwdrivers and drumsticks on their guitars. However, Moore has become a guitar legend for his alternate tunings, heavy distortion, and feedback, influencing alt-rockers for years to come.
Clapton is arguably one of the most influential guitarists of all time. His riffs and solos changed the rock and roll and defined new roles for lead guitarists. Clapton has since become the only three-time inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—once for his solo work and separately as a member of The Yardbirds and Cream.
When you first listen to St. Vincent, it’s easy to think there’s not much guitar coming from Annie Clark. Clark is an experienced jazz guitarist, but her work on St. Vincent shows that playing the guitar well doesn’t mean playing it fast. She layers on the effects to create soundscapes that are understated and complex, barely even resembling the ole six-string we’re used to.
Some people look like they’re struggling when they play, but no one can make it look as easy as Kaki King. With alternate tunings, finger-tapping, loop pedals, and experimentation, King can pretty much extract any sound she wants from the guitar.
Marnie Stern’s guitar playing spans a wide range of playing styles, mixing Van Halen’s nimble riffs and tapping with a notable punk rock sentiment. Stern is prone to taking a lot of risks, which can leave some listeners scratching their heads, but she remains one of the most technical guitarists in music today.
Carrie Brownstein’s talents have expanded to television, writing, and journalism, but it all started in music. Whether she’s rocking with Sleater-Kinney or Wild Flag, Brownstein has always brought an amazing amount of energy to the axe. She broke away from the common three-chord structures of punk and riot girl bands for heavy licks, strong riffs, and more subtle, restrained melodies that still pack plenty of punch.