Rolling Stone’s Top 250 Guitarists

I read through it so you don’t have to.
Rolling Stones Top 250 Guitarists

In 2011, Rolling Stone Magazine published a ranking of the top 100 rock guitarists of all time. This list was compiled by people who actually played guitar. For the most part, it was pretty accurate, and no one seemed too far out of place.

Back in October of 2023, the editors and writers of the magazine released a new, expanded version of the list that went up to 250 guitarists and did not limit itself to rock. Key words there: “editors and writers,” not, you know, “guitarists.” This one I do have some problems with.

Firstly, I am not on the list. What gives?

Hubris aside, let’s check this out. The writers of this list claim that it favored “heaviness over tastiness, feel over polish, invention over refinement, risk-takers and originators more than technicians.”

So, of course, a list like this will be subjective. It’s hard to weigh one person’s feel against another. But there is still room for error, and there are several guitarists this list got wrong.

First is Rory Gallagher, who is ranked at 175. When asked how it felt to be the greatest guitarist in the world, Jimi Hendrix said to go ask Rory Gallagher. This list ranks Hendrix at number 1, so you would think they respect his opinion. Gallagher is a lesser-known name these days, but he was a very well-known artist in the 1970s.

Gallagher at 175 is also an injustice because Paul McCartney comes right after him at 173. McCartney did write “Blackbird,” which is an incredible song, but his guitar chops are nowhere near the style and groove of Gallagher. You could liken Gallagher’s style to Peter Frampton, who, somehow, did not make this list.

I understand this list was not going for virtuosity and skill alone, but those must be factors. For example, ranking on pure skill, Pat Metheny, a jazz virtuoso, ranked 157, should have been much higher. At least they gave Wes Montgomery, also a jazz virtuoso, a more reasonable spot at 82.

Also in the skill realm of things, they rank Chet Atkins at 39. This is a fair ranking, in my opinion; he is definitely up there. He had a distinct style of walking bass played with his thumb, using the rest of his fingers to play rhythm and melody. Any guitarist knows that it is a very hard system to get right. It baffles me that Tommy Emmanuel did not make this list. He was a kind of protégé of Atkins (not the diet), and I dare say he perfected his “one-man band” style of playing. Emmanuel is one of only four people Atkins ever classified as a “Certified Guitar Player.” If the list honors Atkins, why not honor his opinion and include Emmanuel in the list?

To be fair, I bring quite a bit of bias because Tommy Emmanuel is my favorite guitarist. But just listen to any of his arrangements or original compositions, and it is clear that leaving him out is a wild omission. For example, take a listen to his arrangement of “Amazing Grace,” “Classical Gas,” or “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” After that, you have to admit Tommy belongs on this list. Ask yourself, is he better than Paul McCartney? Paul Simon? John Fogerty (the only person on this list to be sued for sounding like himself)? Then he belongs on this list. Is he better than Chuck Berry? I dare to think so. Chuck Berry was solid in the primitive styles of bluesy rock and roll, which is not a diss on Chuck Berry; it’s just that what Tommy Emmanuel does is harder than what he did. Ask Tommy Emmanuel to play that, and he could easily do it. Ask Chuck Berry to play “Classical Gas,” and he’ll have trouble. But that puts us in a difficult position because Chuck Berry is ranked at number 2 on the list, so that would have to mean Emmanuel is better than all 248 other guitar players on this list, save for Jimi Hendrix. And I’m fine with that. Actually, Tommy should replace Hendrix at the number one spot.

Now that I’ve made enemies of any die-hard Jimi Hendrix fan, I have one more bone to pick with this list. In their original ranking of the top 100 rock guitarists, Keith Richards came in at number four, while in this list, Keith is ranked 15. To be fair, the original list ranked only rock guitarists, while the recent list is genre-spanning. However, the top five guitarists in this new list are still rock guitarists. Does this mean that Keith got worse at guitar? Is he losing relevance? Or, do the writers of this list have an anti-The Rolling Stones agenda and are trying not to be biased towards a band with the same name as their magazine? Keith may not be the most technically gifted guitarist in the world, but his feel is off the charts. And remember, this list supposedly values feel over polish. Keith was all about the roll, not the rock. No one can play one of his songs exactly like him because he never played them the same exact way, with the same strumming patterns – it was all feel, all the time.

Overall, the most recent tier ranking of guitarists by Rolling Stone Magazine is not wildly incorrect, and it is a very hard task to compile a list of this size. It is also a challenge to differentiate guitar greatness across all genres. That being said, I have highlighted the main mis-rankings of this list, although there are others, and I am not pleased with Rolling Stone right now. My approval rating of this magazine is like a stone: rolling down a hill . . .


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  • B

    Brian WelchJun 19, 2024 at 5:23 pm

    I think you’re right about Tommy Emmanuel. I would rank him number 1. Without getting into classical/flamenco player, two other names should be in the top ten: Tony Rice and Leo Kottke

  • J

    Jeff GrifaFeb 17, 2024 at 8:58 am

    Great article, Charles. That list is incredibly subjective and I have issue with SEVERAL of the rankings. Anyway, keep on rockin’!

  • C

    Coach Dan BatesFeb 9, 2024 at 2:29 pm

    Love your writing and music Charles!

  • M

    Mr. ClarFeb 9, 2024 at 2:28 pm

    Thanks for this, Charles.

    So I do agree that the omission of Tommy Emmanuel is huge ‘miss’. (No way, however, would I rank him as #1 in any genre … and I’m a big fan as well.)

    Additionally, if Charlie Byrd (Jazz) did not make the list, I’d consider that a glaring omission as well.