The 43 greatest guitarists of all time, ranked
There comes a point in everyone’s lives when they get swept up and rocked by the riffs and rhythms of the world’s best guitarists. From blues to rock ‘n’ roll, these masters have been burning six-stringed strokes into our memory, tugging our heartstrings into pure joy. Here’s a trip through the 43 best guitarists, made famous for having listeners moving and shaking over the years.
43. Bo Diddley
Ellas Otha Bates, also known as Bo Diddley, was born in Chicago on Dec. 30, 1928. Perhaps Diddley should be higher on this list because he influenced a lot of the guitarists that follow. He was also a major influence on Elvis Presley and was largely responsible for translating blues into rock ‘n’ roll.
Some of his most popular songs were “Bo Diddley,” “Road Runner” and “Who Do You Love?” Bo Diddley’s songs are said to have “unleashed a West African groove,” and were as easy to follow as they were groovy. Simplicity isn’t a bad thing, especially when it’s applied to a new form, and Diddley’s music went on to inspire Keith Richards and Buddy Holly, among others, to pick up the instrument.
42. Johnny Ramone
John William Cummings, oft-referred to as Johnny Ramone, was born in Queens on Oct. 8, 1948. He’s probably played fewer solos in his career than anyone else on our list, but Ramone is another pioneer nonetheless, epitomized in the way he played his Mosrite guitar.
Henry Rollins once said, “Johnny was the first guitar player I ever saw play like he was really mad. And I was like, ‘That’s cool.’” That’s because the guitar player for the Ramones was one of the first to play powerful, heavy music up-tempo. He rocked it with tracks like “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Judy Is a Punk” and “Rockaway Beach.”
41. Jerry Garcia
Jerome John Garcia, known to Deadheads simply as “Jerry,” was born in San Francisco on Aug. 1, 1942. Garcia is the sum of a fusion of different sounds, as listeners can hear hints of Spanish guitar, bluegrass, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll in his playing.
As figurehead leader of the Grateful Dead, Garcia cast a heavy influence on the cultural scene in San Francisco in the early 1960s, through the “Summer of Love” and up until his untimely passing in 1995. He rocked the world with songs like “Dark Star,” “Sugaree” and “Casey Jones,” and also played at Woodstock in August 1969, where he almost got electrocuted because of rain.
40. Joni Mitchell
Roberta Joan Anderson, better known as Joni Mitchell, was born in Alberta, Canada on Nov. 7, 1943. Rolling Stone magazine placed Mitchel in the No. 75 spot for top guitarists, but she is higher on this list due to her unique style of tuning her guitar to get different sounds out of every chord.
Mitchell was known to write her songs with the same chords but in different tunings, including one song that had 50 different variations. She’s very much known and respected for songs like “I Had a King,” “Nathan La Franeer” and “Night in the City.” She is one hell of a songwriter, too.
39. Buddy Guy
George Guy, better known as Buddy Guy, was born in Louisiana on July 30, 1936. He didn’t stay at home long, as it’s said that his family kicked him promptly due to all the noise. This seemed to follow him in his early career, as record executives found his style to be “just a bunch of noise.”
But eventually, Buddy Guy’s six-stringing broke through, as his blues style became popularized. Some of the greatest (including our No. 1) guitarists on this list were influenced by Guy and songs like “Stone Crazy” and “First Time I Met the Blues” were some of his tried-and-true.
38. Tony Iommi
Anthony Iommi, better known as “Tony,” was born in Birmingham, England on Feb. 19, 1948. Iommi should not have been able to play the guitar, as he lost the tips of two of his fingers in an industrial accident at age 17. But it only contributed to a unique style that Iommi came to call his own.
His days with Black Sabbath are legendary, and the group has been recording albums up to as recently as 2013. While he ushered in the era of heavy metal, he wasn’t afraid to slow the rhythm down to add some style. He’s best known for songs such as “Iron Man,” “Sabbra Cadabra,” “Children of the Grave” and “N.I.B.”
37. Tom Morello
Tom Morello was born in Harlem on May 30, 1964, and made a name for himself as the lead guitarist for Rage Against the Machine. He looks a little sad in this photo, but that’s because he’s leading an “Occupy Wall Street” event in 2011. He has a deep interest in social change, as a graduate from Harvard University.
Morello is known for the different sounds he creates with his guitar, with a major emphasis on the use of effect pedals. That sound was pivotal in Rage’s seemingly hip-hop and heavy metal fusion (Nu Metal). He is most famous for songs like “Guerrilla Radio” and “Killing in the Name.” “And now you do what they told ya.”
36. Angus Young
Angus Young was born in Glasgow, Scotland on March 31, 1955. Perhaps even more memorable than his blues-rock style of playing is his Chuck Berry–influenced rendition of the duck walk and his schoolboy outfits that make him look like Harry Potter. Except he uses a guitar instead of his holly wand.
Doesn’t it look like the guy behind him is bowing to his greatness? Songs like “Back in Black” and “Highway to Hell” inspired a generation of rhythmic, thundering power chord-laden guitarists throughout the music industry. He’s been rocking with AC/DC since he was 18-years-old, totaling 46 years with the rock band.
35. Brian May
Brian May was born in London, England on July 19, 1947. Like Tom Morello, May has quite the head on his shoulders, as he holds a degree in astrophysics. That isn’t so hard to believe since his band Queen has been rocking people out of the atmosphere since 1970.
May has many talents, including the fact that the guitar that gave us “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Stone Cold Crazy” was actually built by him and his father. He used firewood to create the Red Special, a.k.a. “the Old Lady.” He’s also an accomplished songwriter, as he wrote songs like “Doing All Right,” which features his work on the piano.
34. Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson was born in Abbot, Texas on April 29, 1933. Nelson has come a long way since his days as a cotton picker and bible salesman, as his music career has spanned over 60 years. In all of that time he’s used the same guitar, “Trigger,” which can be seen in the photograph below.
Trigger has been patched up along the way, but has been the perfect companion for Nelson’s laid back style that has hints of rock, blues, country, and even gypsy jazz. He’s best known for songs such as “Whiskey River” and “Night Life.” Even though he’s 86 years young, he still rocks it to this very day.
33. Robby Krieger
Robby Krieger was born in Los Angeles, California on Jan. 8, 1946. Krieger was a latecomer to the Doors and was the last member permanent member to join the group. It’s a good thing he did because his schooling in jazz and flamenco contributed to a truly unique sound emanating everywhere when the band was on stage.
Krieger had a unique challenge in the Doors, as the band didn’t have a rhythm guitar section, or even a bass player. That meant he had massive voids to fill when it came to the sound. He’s even a good song writer, as he wrote “Light My Fire,” and is also known for songs such as “Riders on the Storm” and “Roadhouse Blues.”
32. The Edge
David Evens, or better known as The Edge, was born in Essex, England on August 8, 1961. It’s been said that The Edge owes his unique sound and style to the fact that he taught himself how to play the guitar.
At a young age he received the nickname “The Edge,” perhaps because he likes to not get involved, but be on the edge of things, or perhaps because of the angular shape of his head. He joined U2 in the late 1970s and is known for how carefully he compliments his sound to the vocals of frontman Bono. He’s best known for songs such as “I Will Follow,” “Pride (In the Name of Love),” and “The Fly.”
31. Elmore James
Elmore James was born in Richland, Mississippi on January 27, 1918. James learned to play with stringed instruments when he was a little boy, and first started with a one-stringed instrument called the “diddley bow” or “jitterbug.” But once he got his first guitar he started rocking.
James’ experience with a one-stringed instrument may have influenced his style with the guitar, as he was famous for his slide. One guitarist once said they practiced James’ music until his fingers bled before he realized James used a slide. He’s best known for songs such as “Dust My Broom” and “The Sky Is Crying,” as another fantastic musician that brought blues to rock.
30. Scotty Moore
Scotty Moore was born in Gadsden, Tennessee on December 27, 1931. Moore was paired with a teenage Elvis Presley in the early 1950s, and with the addition of Bill Black on the bass the trio would go one to change music forever.
The trio didn’t have a drummer, so Moore had a big void to fill. One night when the three were screwing around on a June night in 1954 and came up with the “slapback” echo effect, and the song “That’s All Right.” He also helped Elvis during his comeback in 1968. He’s best known for songs such as, “That’s All Right,” “Mystery Train,” and “Heartbreak Hotel.”
29. Muddy Waters
McKinley Morganfield, better known as “Muddy Waters,” was born in Issaquena County, Mississippi on April 4, 1913. When he was in his mid-20s, he moved to Chicago, where he brought his southern-blues style to the Midwest scene. It would be this blend that came to define the “Chess Records sound.”
The Rolling Stones named themselves after Waters’ 1950 song “Rollin’ Stone.” He played in bands that also included legendary guitarist Buddy Guy, and it’s said that he was a major influence on Jimi Hendrix. Though his popularity faded in the 1960s, he experienced a resurgence in the early 70s that lasted until his death.
28. Tom Petty (shout out to Mike Campbell)
Tom Petty was born in Gainesville, Florida on October 20, 1950. He’s obviously the lead the man of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, but we couldn’t include him on this list without mentioning the lead guitarist of the group, Mike Campbell. Campbell is best known for his simplistic style with the guitar, never using 10 notes if two will suffice.
As for Petty, who embraced heartland, or Southern rock, always did best when he had a great guitarist next to him. When he released his first solo album Full Moon Fever, Cambpell did most of the solos. They’re best known for songs such as “Breakdown” and “You Got Lucky.”
27. Frank Zappa
Frank Zappa was born in Baltimore, Maryland on Dec. 21, 1940. He was a man of many talents, dabbling in different genres of music from jazz to Musique concrète. And he produced every album he was a part of, which total around 60. Zappa did plenty of solo work during his career but is best known for his work with the Mothers of Invention.
Some of their highest-trafficked songs include “Willie the Pimp” and “In-a-Gadda-Stravinsky,” as each featured an iconic Zappa solo. Zappa stretched boundaries of what a guitar can do, and if you ever check out “Shut Up ‘n’ Play Yer Guitar,” a 1981 solo album, you’ll hear it.
26. Billy Gibbons
Billy Gibbons was born in Houston, Texas on December 16, 1949. It’s no wonder that the six-stringed rock ‘n roller of ZZ Top fame became a musician, as his father was a maestro. His parents supported his musical prowess and took him to see Elvis in concert, and BB King in the studio. He even enjoyed a brief friendship with Jimi Hendrix before he passed.
With all that knowledge hardwired into his brain Gibbons he helped form ZZ Top by the time he was 20 years old. You’ll remember songs of his like “Tush,” and “Gimme your Lovin,” and if you’ve ever felt his steady rhythm get slapped and turned on it’s head by Gibbons’ guitar in “La Grange” then you’re probably a fan of ZZ Top.
25. David Gilmour
David Gilmour was born in Cambridge, England on March 6, 1946. He wasn’t the original guitarist for Pink Floyd (that was Syd Barrett), but eventually, he was their lead guitarist and frontman. Gilmour began playing the guitar when he borrowed one from his neighbor, and never returned it.
Gilmour loved to add effects to his music, which was prevalent in the entire “Dark Side of the Moon album.” He’s best known for songs like “Comfortably Numb” and “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” As a young musician, he once went to the hospital for malnutrition, and now he’s worth over $122 million.
24. Joe Perry
Anthony Perry, who goes by his middle name Joe, was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts on September 10, 1950. Perry has the challenge and distinction of playing next to one of the loudest and most awesome voices in rock ‘n roll. With Steven Tyler by his side Perry has to bring it when he rocks with Aerosmith, and he most certainly does.
Rolling Stone magazine once said that his rifts are like “blues-on-steroids.” His is familiar and unique at the same time, as he is said to have been influenced by Jeff Beck, who was a true solo artist and procured sounds from all over the world. Perry and Aerosmith are best known for their songs, “Dream On,” “Walk This Way,” and “Janie’s Got a Gun.”
Saul Hudson, better known as “Slash,” was born in London, England on July 23, 1965. When people think of rock stars—drunken, drug-fueled, and sex-crazed—Slash is one of those people that comes to mind. In reality, however, he actually brought some restraint to the guitar. Although forever associated with Guns N’ Roses, Slash has had a prolific solo career.
Some of his solos are legendary, and a couple that come to mind are “November Rain” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” which he performed with Guns N’ Roses. Slash left Guns N’ Roses for a brief period and joined Velvet Revolver, which included musicians from Stone Temple Pilots and Wasted Youth. Now, he’s back with Axl Rose as Guns N’ Roses continue to rock it to this day.
22. Buddy Holly
Charles Holly, better known as Buddy Holly, was born in Lubbock, Texas on September 7, 1936. If you’ve ever enjoyed songs by the Beatles or Eric Clapton, then you can thank Buddy Holly. He basically invented the rock band as we know it, as his band the crickets featured a bass and drum section while Holly sang vocals and strum the guitar.
Among Holly’s best songs are “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue.” If he had lived just a little longer he would’ve seen an entire generation of bands invented in his image. He mixed blues and country sounds in a rhythmic style that was steady as she goes while rocking the boat at the same time.
21. Neil Young
Neil Young was born in Toronto, Canada on Nov. 12, 1945. Young was a prodigy early on, and even though he was diagnosed with epilepsy during his Buffalo Springfield days, it didn’t seem to faze him. Whether he was in a band or rolling solo, Neil Young is exceptional with every note of music he creates.
Young is known for his songs with Buffalo Springfield, “For What it’s Worth” and “Mr. Soul.” However, his solo song “Down by the River” was described by Trey Anastasio this way: “It’s one note, but it’s so melodic, and it just snarls with attitude and anger. It’s like he desperately wants to connect.”
20. Dick Dale
Richard Monsour, or better known as Dick Dale, was born in Boston, Massachusetts on May 4, 1937. Interesting that the pioneer of “surf rock” was born on the east coast, but his family moved to Southern California when Dale was a teenager, and he began to surf when he was 17 years old.
Dale played the kind of music that would have your parents shouting at you to turn it down and turn it off, as his strumming of the six stringed instrument was as fast as it was loud. He’s best known for songs such as “Misirlou” and “The Peter Gunn Theme.”
19. Freddie King
Freddie King was born in Gilmer, Texas on Sept. 3, 1934. King was known as the “The Texas Cannonball” for his large build, and what has been described as “incendiary” live performances. He produced a unique sound, playing the guitar with metal picks meant for a banjo.
In an interview in 1985, Eric Clapton (who’s high on this list) said that Freddie King’s 1961 “I Love the Woman,” is “what started me on my path.” He’s best known for songs such as “Hide Away,” “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” and “The Stumble,” fusing rock and blues together. He was also one of the first blues performers to feature a multiracial band.
18. Kurt Cobain
Kurt Cobain was born in Aberdeen, Washington on February 20, 1967. When Cobain was 14-years-old, his uncle offered him a bike, or a used guitar for his birthday, and the rest is history (oddly, Elvis was given the same choice, but instead of a bike it was a rifle).
Cobain’s band Nirvana played songs that were as loud as heavy metal, but others that were quiet and melodic until a thunder stroke of the guitar blew the lid off the song. Largely considered the pioneer of grunge — a fusion of punk and rock — he’s best known for songs such as “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “All Apologies,” and “Heart Shaped Box.”
17. John Lennon
John Lennon was born in Liverpool, England on October 9, 1940. Lennon is the first of two Beatles to be included in this list, as we bow to the rhythm guitarist of the band. Lennon could take a simple string of notes and turn it into a hip-shaking beat, or a head bobbing rhythm.
The Beatles are the best-selling band in history with nearly a billion records sold. For the best songs to hear Lennon’s guitar try, “Help!,” “Day Tripper,” and “Yer Blues.” He’s been mostly understated for his prowess with the guitar, as Lennon once said, “They call George the invisible singer. I am the invisible guitar player.”
16. George Harrison
George Harrison was born in Liverpool, England on Feb. 25, 1943. For those living under a rock for the past 50 years, you might remember him from a little-known band called The Beatles. Harrison was largely thought of as the third-best, behind icons Paul McCartney and John Lennon, but when Harrison went solo, he eclipsed them both for a time.
Beatles songs “Taxman” and “Here Comes the Sun” were written by Harrison, and every album after 1965 featured at least two tracks written by him. Tom Petty once said of Harrison’s playing, “He was very in tune when he played, the slide was very precise, and just had a beautiful vibrato on it.”
15. Albert King
Albert Nelson, better known as Albert King, was born in Indianola, Mississippi on April 25, 1923. King once said in 1968 that he had no influences for his playing style because “Everything I do is wrong.” “The Velvet Bulldozer,” as he was known, for his size and smooth singing, was left-handed but played a right-handed guitar.
He made that setup work because he played it upside down. Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix lauded him for his play, and he even had Hendrix starstruck when he opened for him in 1967. He’s best known for songs such as “Born Under a Bad Sign” and “As the Years Go Passing By.”
14. Joe Walsh
Joe Walsh was born in Wichita, Kansas on November 20, 1947. It’s no wonder he became a guitar player — would you believe that his middle name is Fiddler? Regardless of whether you do or not you’ve probably moved once or twice to his rhythm-and-bass style that combines with a wild side. Walsh had success in multiple bands, including one of the most successful of all time, the Eagles.
Walsh was a late comer to the band but their greatest hit — “Hotel California” — was made in 1975, which was the same year he joined the band, and features one of the best guitar solos of all time. Other than that, he’s best known for songs such as, “Rocky Mountain Way” and “Funk #49.”
Prince Nelson was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota on June 7, 1958. The artist formerly known as… or whatever you call him, was an absolute showman and genius with the guitar. It’s said that he wrote his first song at age seven, and it was titled “Funk Machine.”
Many experts have said they hear the sounds of Jimi Hendrix in his notes, but Prince disagrees, as he once said, “If they really listened to my stuff, they’d hear more of a Santana influence than Jimi Hendrix.” Prince is best known for his songs “Kiss” and “When Doves Cry,” while the solo in “Purple Rain” will live on forever.
12. Pete Townshend
Pete Townshend was born in Middlesex, England on May 19, 1945. Townshend is said to be an intense guy, and according to reports, he was the first guitarist to smash his guitar onstage (though most certainly not the last). Often controversial, Townshend always finds a way to make it on these lists.
Townshend is most widely known for his work with The Who, and although he had a budding solo career later on, during his time with the band, he never had a solo. The Who had a complicated sound that had an emphasis on drums and bass, making his contributions more measured. He’s best known for songs such as “My Generation,” “I Can See for Miles” and the cover of “Summertime Blues.”
11. Stevie Ray Vaughan
Stevie Ray Vaughan (his actual name) was born in Dallas, Texas on Oct. 3, 1954. He may look like he’s sucking on a lemon while playing his guitar behind his back, but there was nothing that sucked about his music.
Vaughan may have integrated a mix of jazz and rockabilly, but he was heavily influenced by Jimi Hendrix, B. B. King, and Eric Clapton. He is best known for his songs “Love Struck Baby,” “Cold Shot” and “Look at Little Sister,” and if it hadn’t been for a tragic helicopter crash in 1990 that resulted in his passing, he would’ve had several more hits to his name.
10. Duane Allman
Duane “Skydog” Allman was born in Nashville, Tennessee on Nov. 20, 1946. Just like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Allman was taken from this world too young, at the age of 24. Robert Randolph once said of Allman’s death, “Duane died young, and it’s just one of those things. You could tell he was going to get 50 times better.”
His style had an emphasis on precision in a way that hadn’t been played before. While all of us are deprived of his untimely death (from a motorcycle crash), he’s best known for his slide guitar work Allman Brothers songs, “Statesboro Blues,” “Whipping Post” and “Blue Sky.”
9. Carlos Santana
Carlos Santana was born in Jalisco, Mexico on July 20, 1947. At an early age, he moved to San Francisco, and by the time the Summer of Love came around, he was well-known in the area. He reached national fame as one of the few not-so-well-known artists to play at Woodstock.
As mentioned previously, Prince said Santana was more of an influence on him than Jimi Hendrix because “Santana played prettier.” Santana is best known for “Black Magic Woman,” “Oye Como Va” and “Soul Sacrifice.” A true product of his surroundings, he attributed LSD for finding his voice, saying, “You cannot take LSD and not find your voice.”
8. B. B. King
Riley B. King, better known as “B. B. King,” was born in Itta Bena, Mississippi on Sept. 26, 1925. Being born as early as he was exposed him to a more pure form of blues, and he was able to showcase feeling through his singing, and his guitar.
King was a true worker and loved to perform, as it’s estimated that he did 342 shows in 1956 alone, and 200 shows a year in the 1970s. He’s best known for songs such as “3 O’Clock Blues,” “The Thrill Is Gone” and “Sweet Little Angel.” Along with Albert and Freddie King, B. B. is considered one of “The Three Kings of Blues Guitar.”
7. Jeff Beck
Jeff Beck was born in Surrey, England on June 24, 1944. Don’t confuse him with Beck, who isn’t even close to being on this list. While he was part of two very successful albums with the Jeff Beck Group, his time with the band was short, and he became something of a journeyman bouncing from band to band.
Beck is best known for his songs “A Day in the Life,” “I Ain’t Superstitious” and “Heart Full of Soul, ” and is a true solo artist. He still rocks it to this day and is touring at the age of 74. Beck has been innovative his whole career, combining sounds from all over the world, from Indian to jazz.
6. Eddie Van Halen
Eddie Van Halen was born in Amsterdam, the Netherlands on Jan. 26, 1955. During some of his riffs, Van Halen employs a unique style to the way he holds a pick. By gripping it in his middle finger and thumb, he’s able to drag his fingers across the strings, and some artists have said it’s like he’s added another instrument.
Van Halen is best known for tracks such as “Eruption,” “Ain’t Talking ‘Bout Love” and “Hot for Teacher.” Mike McCready of Pearl Jam once said of Van Halen’s style, “You can play the things he’s written, but there’s an ‘X-factor’ that you can’t get.”
5. Keith Richards
Now, it’s down to the top five greatest guitarists of all time, and to open things up, starting with the Rolling Stones legend, Keith Richards. Richards was born in Kent, England on Dec. 18, 1943. Richards is an enigma because he’s the band’s leading guitarist, and also their rhythm guitarist, often in the same song.
According to Nils Lofgren of the E. Street Band, one of the keys to Richards’ unique style is the way he tunes his guitar. Just like Van Halen, one can play his music but it just won’t sound the same. Richards is best known for his songs “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Gimme Shelter” and “Paint it Black.”
4. Chuck Berry
Charles Berry, better known as Chuck, “was born in St. Louis, Missouri on Oct. 18, 1926. Berry was a blues-style guitarist that kept to his roots but rocked it so well that he influenced some of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll guitarists of all time.
Berry is best known for songs such as “Maybellene” and “Roll Over Beethoven.” His song “Johnny B. Goode” is considered to have one of the greatest guitar solos of all time. It was his and several others rocking of the blues that basically created rock ‘n’ roll, so the rest of the members on this list can thank Chuck Berry.
3. Jimmy Page
Jimmy Page was born in Middlesex, England on Jan. 9, 1944. If you look closely at Page below, you can see a man with two guitars and one arm. Of course, he did have two arms, and the way he swung that double-necked Gibson guitar created rhythm and some heavy solos. An undeniably dark, yet folkloric sound, Page’s guitar captivates multiple generations of fans.
As the lead guitarist for Led Zeppelin, Page wrote music, and in the recording studio, he was known to be a true workhorse, always fine-tuning his guitar to produce the right sound. He’s best known for his work in songs such as “Dazed and Confused,” “Heartbreaker” and “Kashmir.”
2. Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton was born in Surrey, England on March 30, 1945. Clapton used simple notes and smooth, basic sounds to produce unforgettable melodies. The greatest guitar players either trained in blues, or adopted blues style to rock ‘n’ roll, and Clapton is a perfect fusion of both.
In his early days with Cream, he was paired with two amazing musicians, and later said he was, “just trying to keep up.” He produced a groundbreaking sound, and it was only the beginning of his odyssey with the guitar. He’s best known for his songs “Bell Bottom Blues,” “Crossroads” and “White Room.”
1. Jimi Hendrix
We’ve arrived at our No. 1 guitar player of all time, and this man, Jimi Hendrix, tops all lists of greatest guitar players ever. Hendrix was born in Seattle, Washington on Nov. 27, 1942. One thing to note is the fact that Hendrix is hands down the god of the guitar, and had the shortest career of anyone else on this list.
His sound was out of this world, as the first to perfect feedback, and he produced combinations of notes and chords that took an alien madman to create. But he was hardly mad, as he was about as smooth as they come—seemingly effortless in creating original sounds. He’s best known for songs such as “Purple Haze,” “Foxy Lady” and his rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
NEXT: What’s more iconic than the lead guitarist of your favorite band? THE LEAD SINGER! Here’s our list of Rock and Roll’s most electric lead singers…
Led Zeppelin had all the makings to become one of the most famous rock bands of all time. They understood that it wasn’t just your sound that made you memorable, but your performance, as well as and your image, are just as important. That being said, Robert Plant had it all. He had a cosmic range, electrifying stage presence, and (not to mention) a noteworthy ‘do.
Yet, the man with such fascinating stunts humbly credits his unique grooves to other famous icons. He says, “It’s not some great work of beauty and love to be a rock and roll singer. I got a few moves from Elvis, one or two from Sonny Boy Williamson II, and Howlin’ Wolf and just threw them all together.”
Arguments often erupt when the topic of establishing who the real frontman of the Beatles was, but John Lennon’s talent and quirky stage presence set him apart. An example of Lennon’s real artistry is epitomized on their debut LP, Please Please Me.
Picture this: It’s February 1963, and the band had been working on recording the album for 12 hours straight. By the end of the day, Lennon’s voice had grown raw and raspy, but he decided to push through with recording the vocals on “Twist and Shout.” He did the song in one take, which is the growling version heard today. Lennon was innovative in the recording industry, and one of the funnier instances tell of him recording upside down to add a unique sound to his voice.
Arguably one of the most recognizable mouths in rock and roll, Mick Jagger is genuinely the human embodiment of the genre. The Rolling Stones’ lead singer is known for his eccentric moves that are impossible to replicate. (There’s a reason why there was a hit song called ‘Moves Like Jagger,’ right?) Known for his bold and adventurous attitude, Jagger has authored some of the greatest rock and roll songs for more than 60 years.
Lenny Kravitz once said of him, “His vocals are stunning, flawless in their own kind of perfection. There are certain songs where he just becomes a different person. Take ‘Angie.’ I’ve never heard that tone from him since, and it wasn’t there before.” The man is a force in the music industry, and his stage presence oozes sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
If there is something to be said about Springsteen, it’s that he knew how to draw in a crowd and keep people dancing for several hours on end.
Although many fans know the New Jersey native as a solo performer, he got his start as the frontman for the E Street Band. Since the band’s formation back in 1972, Springsteen has become a massive star that has transcended generations.
In 2018, to celebrate his Springsteen on Broadway run, he played a three-hour show in front of a crowd that housed the likes of Oprah Winfrey and company. The tickets sold for as high as $40,000 on secondary market sites and contributed to 236 sold-out performances of his play. And there are no signs of him slowing down anytime soon.
Even though Jim Morrison spent a few years fronting The Doors before his untimely death, his influence on the industry has reached across generations and genres. Known for his charisma and wild antics on stage, audiences seemed to gravitate towards “The Lizard King’s” ethereal presence.
His distinct and poetic lyrics touched on difficult subjects such as love, death, and war, which resonated with his audiences. The Doors’ psychedelic sound reached new heights, and proverbially opened new doors within the rock and roll genre with hits like “Light my Fire,” and “Hello, I Love You.” His legacy still stands as one of the greatest (and most tragic) in rock history.
When you think of Seattle, the grunge scene, and alternative rock genre as a whole, this venerable frontman probably comes to mind. Often described as an outcast and ostracized, Cobain used his lyricism to call attention to the angst and anxiety that was felt by the generation.
Cobain’s raw emotion on stage is different from many of the other frontmen mentioned on this list, and this was because Cobain shaped a new mold for his generation’s rock star. Although Cobain’s performances weren’t as showy and grandiose as the others, they were still powerful and vital to the music scene. Unfortunately, Cobain died in 1994, but Nirvana still remains as one of the most recognized bands in music.
It’s rumored that this witchy woman had an incredible career with Fleetwood Mac followed by a chart-topping solo career. The woman is an enigma, and it’s this mysterious presence that has intrigued audiences for decades. Her scarf-twirling and mystic energy put her at No. 1 on a list of the “25 Best Frontwomen of All-Time” by Paste Magazine.
Fleetwood Mac’s most famous album was Rumours, which was impressive seeing as the band made the album while not even on speaking terms with each other. On performing live, Nicks said: “You know, when I walk out on the stage it’s like that’s when I’m really me…People say to me there’s never a look on your face like there is the look that is on your face when you’re on that stage.”
The enduring power of her presence and music speaks for itself.
The ’70s were filled with flamboyant frontmen, but no one can hold a candle to Tyler’s eccentricity. It seems that there were very few artists who fully adhered to the sex, drugs, and rock and roll thing, but Tyler was undoubtedly one of them. Known for fronting the band Aerosmith, Tyler is famous for his outrageous escapades and vocal talent which was often described as other-worldly. His showmanship is superior, and he was given the nickname the “Demon of Screamin’” for a reason.
Screaming at an uncomfortably high pitch is a signature of his performance, and although many experts claim that doing this for years is bound to change one’s vocal cords, Tyler’s been doing it since the ’70s and still sounds eerily the same.
Would Blondie be Blondie if they didn’t have their visually-striking blonde frontwoman with her enthusiastic facial expressions and quirky persona? Most likely not. Although Harry liked to remind fans that Blondie was, in fact, the band’s name and not hers, fans didn’t really care to make the distinction.
The band’s hits “Heart of Glass,” “Call Me,” and “One Way or Another” are still promised to blow the roof off of establishments holding groups of people. Debbie Harry solidified a new kind of frontwoman with Marilyn Monroe-esque looks, but a punk and chic attitude that hasn’t changed since. Back in 2017, she performed in a dress that read, “Stop f***ing up the planet,” proving she’s no less punk than she was in the ’70s.
Bono makes the list for his strong beliefs and powerful stance on making a change. U2 holds an exceptional place in rock history, as does frontman, Bono. Hell-bent against pigeonholing himself as solely a musician, Bono has used this platform to speak out against the horrors of war and has raised money for necessary causes, all while delivering a powerful performance on stage.
Bono’s voice transcends across multiple platforms, including opera, gospel, blues, and even country. Billie Joe Armstrong once raved in Rolling Stone that “He gets lost in the melodic moment. He goes to a place outside himself, especially in front of an audience, when he hits those high notes. That’s where his real power comes from – the pure, unadulterated Bono.”
Although his counterpart, John Lennon, is also on this list, Paul McCartney’s frontman style is still noteworthy. McCartney has since gained notoriety for marathoning through prolonged concerts, which is no easy feat (especially in your 70s). McCartney has succeeded in effortlessly playing Beatles, Wings, and other solo compositions at his concerts without skipping a beat or lacking in energy.
When Beatles drummer, Ringo Starr, quit the band during The White Album years, McCartney lent his talents to the album, playing numerous instruments. He played drums on several tracks while Starr was out of the lineup, and continued to do so on his first solo album (and a multitude of Wings albums). When he wasn’t sitting in on the drums, he was formulating melodies on the piano, as well as the keyboard, mellotron, and synthesizer. When not behind a keyboard, you could find him ripping up a performance behind on guitar or howling on the mic.
It was hard to look away from Bob Marley when he performed. Being in his presence was enough to feel the positive energy that radiated from every pore of his being. He inspired and hypnotized audiences with his songs of peace, love, and understanding. Marley sang with a notorious moral authority that forced viewers to look at the greed and injustice going on in their communities.
One of the more essential messages he stood behind was getting others to realize the commonalities of the human race, and uniting people. He fought against oppression using his pen, and his stardom took the message across the music industry and the globe. To this day, he is a symbol of freedom and peace.
Iggy Pop was punk before it was on anyone’s radar. Just look up “Iggy Pop Onstage” and hundreds of articles and videos will prove he is one of a kind. There’s extreme, and then there’s Iggy Pop. During the late ’70s and early ’80s, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, and Lou Reed could be found mixing it up in Berlin.
Self-mutilation and violence were only some of the extremes that reared their heads in Iggy’s on-stage performance. There was one rumor that began circulating in the early ’70s, that suggested Iggy was asking a New York promoter for a million dollar fee to commit suicide at Madison Square Garden during a show. His insanity knew no bounds, so much so that the most absurd rumors about him seemed credible. There was a frightened excitement going to his shows, as fans never knew what he would do next.
Although Hendrix spent the early years of his career as a sideman for Little Richard, it was pretty evident that he had the energy and the workings of an iconic frontman. When he was fired by Little Richard’s manager, he concocted his own trio that would go on to make history.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience assisted in bringing psychedelic rock to the forefront of the rock genre and launched Hendrix to icon status. Hendrix had an undeniable charisma, and a voice audiences hadn’t heard before, which solidifies him a place on this list. Released in 1967, Are You Experienced is considered to be one of the greatest debut albums in rock and roll history.
Osbourne’s violent on-stage behavior is what earns him a reputable spot in rock and roll history. He unleashed heavy metal upon listening ears as the vocalist of Black Sabbath, and he released solo hits during the 1980s and 1990s. With a career filled with highs and lows, it’s amazing that Ozzy is still performing to this day.
Deemed “The Prince of Darkness,” there’s a good reason behind this nickname, and the reason is dark indeed. You’ve probably heard of his bat-biting incident, which has loomed in rock and roll archives for decades. In 1982, Osbourne bit the head off of a bat during a concert, claiming that he “thought it was a toy.” To be honest, does this seem unlikely for a man who did the same to a dove during a meeting with a record company?
When Patti Smith released her debut album, Horses, in 1975, she brought an artistic perspective to the punk-rock scene that hadn’t existed prior. Her lyrics channeled the Beat Generation and the poets she surrounded herself with. Hailed in the same class as versifier Jim Morrison, Smith gave rock a raw edge with her garage-band aesthetic.
Smith had a distinct history as a writer during her time in New York in 1967, where she lived as a poet and hung around in the art scene. She has since said that her intention in adding a poetic flair to the dirty rock and roll scene was to save it. “My design was to shake things up, to motivate people and bring a different type of work ethic back to rock and roll,” Smith once said.
Bowie was a vision when he stepped up on the stage, and he took extra steps to satisfy all of his audience’s senses. His audience was full of obscure kids who he took extra care in assuring they weren’t alone. Half human, half alien, Bowie was on a different wavelength than the other performers of his time. He was a chameleon man, changing and shedding his skin to reveal a new figure that somehow, perfectly fit the times.
When Bowie appeared on the scene, he was the only one of his kind. He was bold and unapologetic, and assumed a gender-bending persona, ultimately rewriting the guidelines for what a rock star should look and act like. His legacy has stood the test of time and has played an integral part in the music industry for decades to come.
If there’s one thing to be said about Joplin, it’s that she pulled back her skin to bare her soul to her audiences. Like Hendrix, Joplin was a co-contributor to the psychedelic rock era. Growing up with blues artists like Bessie Smith and Lead Belly, Janis incorporated these roots into her own songs and became a frontwoman for “hippie culture.”
To this day, there has yet to be a talent comparable to that of Joplin’s. Her scratchy growls and raw sound left audiences unable to look away and unable to break the spell she kept them under. Unfortunately, Joplin earned a spot in the “27 Club,” when she passed due to an accidental heroin overdose.
Joan Jett is one of the original rock and roll icons. She got her start with The Runaways, an all-girl rock and roll band that lasted up until the late ’70s. The girl band rejected the typical female stereotype and embraced sexuality and controversy.
Jett is known for her f*** you attitude, raspy vocals, and for letting go on stage. Unafraid of being deemed as unlady-like, the Godmother of Punk is the “bad girl” that’s done more good than bad. Jett has become a cultural icon and a significant figure in the feminist movement. Nearing 60 years old, she’s still the bada** that parents want their kids to look up to.
Oh, you thought The King would be left off this list? The music world was changed forever when he took the stage and swung his hips for the first time to the delight of thousands of teeny boppers. He filled the stage with a fusion of blues, country, and bluegrass tunes that created a unique sound.
It’s pretty safe to say that Presley was Rock ‘n’ Rolls’ first colossal star, as teens everywhere were entranced by the raven-haired king and adults were absolutely horrified. Presley challenged the people’s good Christian values with his hypnotic stage presence, forging the rock and roll style that would be copied for decades to come.
There’s no doubting that Pat Benatar had some incredible mega-hits. Almost everyone is familiar with “Hit Me With your Best Shot” and “Love is a Battlefield.” Benatar has had quite an extensive career, and holds the honor of being the second music video aired on MTV, after the Buggles song “Video Killed the Radio Star.”
During her career, Benatar has released two multi-platinum albums, five platinum albums, and three additional gold albums in the United States. As if that isn’t impressive enough, Benatar is the holder of 17 top 40 singles and four top 10 hits. Benatar is a solid female pop-rock artist with a handful of wins under her belt. So, the question that stands is, why hasn’t this illustrious lady been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame yet?
Jon Bon Jovi
Very few can bring down the arena like Bon Jovi. The animated rocker still manages to sell-out concerts without even trying. Bon Jovi has gathered quite a number of accomplishments over the course of his fulfilling career. In 2009, Jon Bon Jovi was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and in 2012, he was ranked No. 50 on the list of Billboard Magazine’s “Power 100,” which ranked “The Most Powerful and Influential People In The Music Business.”
Jon Bon Jovi has had a mostly quiet life in the limelight, but that doesn’t diminish his star quality. Eventually, Bon Jovi hit the silver screen, channeling his talents to a different outlet. Perhaps it’s his acting chops that make him so enthusiastic and believable on stage? Regardless, his talent cannot be denied. “Livin’ On a Prayer”? More like living the dream!
Axl Rose was a force on and off the stage. Fans went crazy for him when he stepped up in front of them, and he seemed to have a never-ending flow of energy. The formation of Guns ‘N’ Roses launched the Indiana native to glory. Even more impressive, (for you big rock and roll fans, you probably already knew this), Rose went on to front not only Guns ‘N’ Roses but AC/DC in 2016.
His seemingly-impossible vocals and theatrical performance on stage have given him the title of one of the greatest performers of all time. With the controversy that surrounded Rose’s personal life, fans were obsessed with the man whose life was speckled with the classic bad-boy antics that plagued many rockstars at the time.
Joni Mitchell may not have been a rock star defined by usual standards, but she was certainly an important figure in the music industry. Mitchell was a singer-songwriter during a time when women were not recognized as strong songwriters. Hailing from a small, Canadian town, Mitchell opened the floodgates for people of her caliber.
Mitchell’s poetic lyricism and involvement of folk and orchestral arrangements into pop music show a different kind of artistry. She didn’t feed into the music machine and has continued to reject the stereotypes that come with being a big star. When she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, she decided to skip out on the ceremony. She has long coined the phrase, “outside looking in,” and has created a lasting legacy.
David Lee Roth
David Lee Roth is described as a must-see performer, and there’s no denying he puts on one hell of a show. With his hectic on-stage high jinks and his famous karate kicks, fans always knew that they would be in for a fantastic time, (and probably leave feeling dizzy).
The band’s music was loud and flamboyant, just like they were, and once you were sucked into their sound, you stayed there. Unfortunately, after a successful career with the band, David Lee Roth shocked rock fans everywhere when he announced he was leaving Van Halen to go solo. David Lee Roth found success going solo, (which is rare), and he found his peak at the height of music’s glam/hard rock era.
Bob Dylan, a tremendous figure on the folk scene was known by the media as the “spokesman of a generation.” When he performed, it was a simple stage filled with Dylan, his harmonica, and his guitar. However, during the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Dylan decided to give into his electric desires and fans were not happy.
As Dylan played away, ringing electric notes throughout the venue, many fans cheered, and many fans booed. One fan, in particular, shouted “Judas!” at the musical artist. Dylan then proceeded with what a real frontman would do. He paused, and then shouted back, “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar!” He then hollered to the Hawks (The Band) playing behind him, “Play it f***ing loud!” What followed was an electric and hard-hitting version of Dylan’s famous “Like a Rolling Stone.”
The Man in Black, Johnny Cash was one of the most legendary performers of all time. Cash not only left a legacy in music, but he left a lasting impact on social justice as the time, using his platform to bring awareness to the various issues that were harboring society.
Controversy was not new to Cash, and he embraced it with open arms. His famous prison tour caused a media hell-storm as he performed for inmates all over the United States, for free. One of his more famous politically-charged songs was “Bitter Tears.” Riding on the fame of “Ring of Fire,” Cash decided to use his fame to bring awareness to Native American rights. Dennis Banks, co-founder of the American Indian Movement said of Cash’s album, “It’s the earliest and most significant statement on behalf of Native people and our issues.”
In the wake of Kurt Cobain’s death, Grohl decided to make a decision that would put him at the top of the music charts. When Grohl first appeared on the scene, he was a grungy, heavy-hitting drummer alongside the quiet and cardigan-wearing Cobain.
Forced to recreate himself, Grohl decided to stand front and center, creating a legacy himself. Starting the Foo Fighters turned out to be the best career move Grohl could make, and it was one made out of desperation. He’s since become a torch holder for the original rock and roll values, a true lover of things fast and loud. The Foo Fighters and Grohl have sold tens of millions of records, and have won 13 Grammy Awards.
Sting, the spiky-haired Brit that managed to make a haunting song like “Every Breath You Take” sound like a sweet love song. His career has lasted over 30 decades and his impeccable work has earned him 17 Grammy Awards. Factor in his health regiment, and it’s no surprise that he’s still rocking live shows on the regular.
He gifted us with memorable songs like “Roxanne,” and “Message in a Bottle.” Of course, he has taken some odd career turns, such as leaving the Police after they achieved their greatest commercial success. In his 2007 book Lyrics, he explained that he believed, “that the momentum of the band had been such that people would at least be curious about what I was up too.” And curious they were.
When watching performances of Freddie, it is obvious to see that it’s the audience’s energy surging through him that powers his electrifying performances.
Freddie was a performer of a different caliber, and even other big-name artists were aware of that. Kurt Cobain mentioned Freddie’s talents in his last written testament before his death.
Cobain’s suicide letter read,, “When we’re backstage, and the lights go out, and the manic roar of the crowds begins it doesn’t affect me the way in which it did for Freddie Mercury. [He] seemed to love, relish in the love and adoration from the crowd, which is something I totally admire and envy.”
Surely, Freddie’s talent and vigor was a one-of-a-kind occurrence.