The guitar has been ascendant in American music for generations, helping to birth native musical genres such as jazz — one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century. The American “guitar hero” is now a fixture of worldwide musical culture, with more inventive development expected this century.
The modern guitar had spread through America by 1815 but didn’t truly popularize until Les Paul (1915-2009) brought the musical instrument to the masses. Here, we’ll take a look at 13 of America’s most respected guitarists.
1. Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970)
James Marshall Hendrix gained status over just several years as perhaps the greatest instrumentalist in American history, according to the Rock & Roll Music Hall of Fame.
For the past few generations, Hendrix has also been immortalized on posters in college dorms celebrating the pantheon of American musical culture.
The blues and rock-driven guitarist set the world on fire with his over-amped guitar but may forever be remembered for his iconic rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” one morning at Woodstock in 1969.
Amazingly, Hendrix was at that point the world’s highest-paid rock musician.
2. B.B. King (1925-2015)
Riley B. King became the “King of Blues” for introducing a style of blues electric guitar based on fluid picking that influenced a generation of blues, electric guitarists, to come after him.
“B.B. King” was born to sharecroppers on a Mississippi plantation and later traveled to Memphis and Chicago before touring the world as a guitarist.
King was discovered on Beale Street in Memphis in the late 1940s and began his recording career. Decades later, he opened “B.B. King’s Blues Club” in Memphis, which was the first of a string of such clubs across the country.
He later became a fixture of popular culture by appearing in television commercials in the 1990s to early 2010s further cementing his legendary status as one of the greatest blues guitarists of all time.
3. Stevie Ray Vaughan (1954-1990)
Stevie Ray Vaughan, the grandson of sharecroppers, was born and raised in Dallas and served in the U.S. Navy in World War II.
Vaughan joined The Chantones in 1965 soon after getting his first electric guitar.
In 1970, the famous guitarist began his recording career with a band called “Cast of Thousands,” for a compilation album.
By October 1984, Ray Vaughan had played Carnegie Hall with an ensemble and had acquired status as one of America’s leading electric players.
His life was marked by tragedy, however, with a long struggle with drugs and alcohol, his early death came in 1990 in a helicopter crash.
4. Jimmy Page (1944-)
Jimmy Page has been playing electric guitar professionally since the 1960s but is best known as a founding member of the English rock band Led Zeppelin.
After playing guitar for The Yardbirds in the mid-1960s, Page helped found “Zeppelin” and played with the band until 1980.
There, he became one of the world’s preeminent electric guitarists and helped to create the rock & roll style for which the 1970s is remembered today.
A songwriter and record producer, Page used a Gibson Les Paul for most of his recordings.
Page is also remembered for his celebration of recreational drug use — forever a denizen of the 1970s.
5. Chuck Berry (1926-2017)
Chuck Berry was an American guitarist born in St. Louis who helped to build the native musical genre of rock & roll after the development of jazz in the early 20th century.
Berry later became known as the “Father of Rock & Roll” and produced hits during the genre’s early takeoff in the 1950s.
The singer, songwriter, and guitarist captured America’s youth in 1958 with songs like “Johnny B. Good.” That song was included on a phonograph sent on the Voyager Spacecraft in 1977, which this century left the solar system.
Berry later toured with only his Gibson guitar and boasted he could simply hire musicians anywhere who’d already know his work.
6. Nancy Wilson (1954-)
Nancy Lamoureux Wilson is a songwriter and guitarist from Bellevue, Washington, who has sold more than 35 million records with the band Heart.
The American guitarist is known for fusing classical guitar and flamenco with hard rock and became well-known by the early 1980s.
Wilson was named to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame along with her Heart bandmates.
In 2016, she was also named the eight-most influential female guitarists in American history but was also an accomplished vocalist in the band.
Perhaps she’s best known for her 1977 album Queens, which topped charts with “Magic Man” and “Barracuda.”
7. Joe Pass (1929-1994)
Joe Pass was an American jazz guitarist born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, who began performing at the age of 14.
Pass later became famous as a guitarist working with notables such as jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald.
As a teenager, Pass became addicted to heroin and later played guitar in New York City and New Orleans. However, he spent much of the 1950’s cycling through prisons for drug-related offenses.
Then, Pass made a comeback in the 1960s, releasing a series of albums. His greatest moments would come later in the 1970s and 1980s when he released a half-dozen albums with Fitzgerald.
8. Frank Zappa (1940-1993)
Frank Zappa was an American guitarist also known as a singer and songwriter who produced 60 albums as a solo artist and with his band “Mothers of Invention.”
As a creative auto-didact, Zappa transcended genre to compose rock, pop, jazz, jazz fusion, and orchestral-type albums of music while also directing films and music videos.
The Baltimore-born guitarist became a cultural gadfly as the “godfather of comedy rock,” criticizing the establishment on social and political issues and fiercely defending the right to free speech.
Zappa’s voice dropped considerably after an attack in 1972 in Switzerland that crushed his larynx, among other dramatic setbacks at the time.
Yet, Zappa would continue as a soloist to deliver his most important work by the late 1970s.
9. Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973)
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a singer and songwriter guitarist whose electric style helped to form the early bedrock of rock & roll.
This soulful American guitarist was born in Cotton Plant, AK, and not much is known about her early life other than that her father may have been a singer.
“The Godmother of Rock & Roll” brought gospel music to wider audiences enthralled with rock, rhythm, and blues.
Tharpe’s 1944 “Down By the Riverside” is perhaps her best-known contribution to the development of 20th-century American musical genres. Tharpe influenced such icons as Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.
10. Eddie Van Halen (1955-2020)
Although rock guitar legend Eddie Van Halen was born in The Netherlands, his family settled in Pasadena, CA. when he was six years old.
Van Halen accomplished himself early as a pianist but bucked his parents’ wishes to pursue a career in rock & roll.
Together with his brother Alex Van Halen, they formed the band “Van Halen” in the early 1970s and became popular on the West Coast. They attracted the patronage of KISS and by 1978 dropped their keyboard-heavy classic “Jump.”
Van Halen at the time was respected as a good hard rock and heavy metal. That song alone may have inspired quite a few keyboardists in 1980’s rock and roll.
11. Wes Montgomery (1923-1968)
Wes Montgomery accidentally became one of America’s greatest electric guitarists.
Born in Indianapolis, Montgomery found work at age 20 as a welder but bought a six-string guitar one day on a whim and taught himself to play over the next year.
In the early years of his 21-year career, he worked days as a welder to support his wife and seven children, playing in clubs at night.
Montgomery even invented a new strumming technique, picking the guitar strings at night with the fleshy part of his thumb — to stay quiet for his neighbors.
Montgomery won two Grammy Awards, including one in 1968 for “Eleanor Rigby” and “Down Here on the Ground.”
12. Robert Johnson (1911-1938)
Robert Johnson made his contribution as an American guitarist in the 1930’s before an early death.
Although he was one of the great blues guitar players, he didn’t see commercial success during his lifetime, playing on street corners and weekend clubs.
Johnson primarily traveled in Memphis, Mississippi, and Arkansas, but made it to Chicago, New York City, and up into Canada.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Johnson’s life was his early demise, which remains the subject of speculation.
No official autopsy was ever performed but some speculated that he died of syphilis, while others recounted stories that he was murdered by a jealous man.
Biographers cannot even say where Johnson is buried, although Sony placed a marker on one of the suspected sites.
13. Chet Atkins (1924-2001)
Chet Burton Atkins, born in Lutrell, TN, earned the nicknames “Mr. Guitar” and “The Country Gentleman.”
Interestingly, Atkins’s half-brother Jim also earned success as a guitarist, playing with the Les Paul Trio in New York City.
Growing up poor in Depression America, Atkins had to travel for miles to plug in his electric guitar. The guitarist practiced in his high school’s bathroom which offered the best acoustics of any room in the building.
He later dropped out of school and pronounced himself a “Certified Guitar Player,” playing fiddle and guitar for an AM radio station.
By the late 1950’s, Atkins’ won crossover appeal as a country musician playing for rock audiences. Atkins later produced records in the 1960s and 1970s.
He eschewed the designation of “country guitarist,” preferring instead to be known simply as a guitarist.
Summing up our List of the Greatest American Guitarists
This list of America’s best guitar players recognizes some of the best-known contributors to 20th-century blues, jazz and rock.
The guitar continues in the 21st century to be the center of American musical genres.