So the other day my dad and I got into a little argument about who the best guitarist of all time is. Naturally, I said Jimi Hendrix. But, my dad was so dead-set on Eddie Van Halen. Although these two are arguably some of the greats, I’ve decided to settle this debate with 5 other amazing artists to see who’s better, and if one of the two is even the best out there. Of course, there are other guitarists in the world, some that are better than these listed. However, I’m taking popularity into account, because, to be honest, it’s more interesting to see which of our most favorite rock artists outshines the others. To test each artists I will be ranking them in 4 categories that will combine and average for an overall score. I know this is all based on opinion, but it is crucial that I settle this debate between my dad and I once and for all.
DISCLAIMER: I stopped playing guitar frequently after my 2B Guitar 1 class with Mr. Grimshaw sophomore year, so I know close to nothing. But, in my defense, I have been listening to 80s hair bands and classic rock since I came out of the womb. REMEMBER!!! This is all opinion, and I’m trying my very hardest to be unbiased.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from Mr. Grimshaw’s Guitar 1 class, it’s that there’s not quite a specific way you SHOULD play something. But there’s definitely a textbook way and a “do whatever you want to get the sound you want” way. I’m not an all knowing, guitar theory extraordinaire, but I’d say Slash’s work with a guitar and his finger positions are pretty much textbook perfect. Everything sounds clean and perfect. I mean, this kind of comes hand in hand with personal style, because ultimately, technicality is a huge aspect of personal style. But Slash mends to two perfectly, in my humble opinion. Not to mention, he’s self taught, and can play a double neck guitar, which has pretty much been a staple in his style.
Slash was and still is the king of “bending” and vibrato. Basically, on certain strings he moves the string upwards in a slow vibrato and on others he moves them down. I’m going to link a video of a very nice man who explains this WAY better than I ever could. Slash would also mix classical pentatonic scale notes and blues notes that also inspired many modern guitarists. It’s known as a “Slash” scale and it was a pretty defining trait of his style and the general sound of 80s classic rock. Basically, Slash was pretty innovative despite the amount of talented guitar innovators that came decades before him.
Personal Style: 4/5
I’m currently watching Slash play some of his most popular riffs live, and I just have to say his riff on Sweet Child ‘O Mine is one of the most memorable and impressive riffs I’ve ever heard. Even when he’s live he plays the song like it’s nothing. Even in a slower song like November Rain his personal style and abilities shine above Axl’s singing, and that’s what defines a good guitarist to me. Overall, I’d say Slash’s style is one of a kind and memorable, but not at the level of someone like Jerry Garcia or Eddie Van Halen. Tuning his guitar while playing an extended note is a HUGE aspect of his sound, as mentioned above.
Riff/Solo Longevity (both in length and memorability longevity): 3/5
It’s no Eruption by Van Halen, but Slash’s riffs are the star of the show in most Guns N Roses songs. Not only are his riffs memorable, but it’s impressive how long he can go with a repetitive and consistent sounding solo. He doesn’t have the longest riffs or solos, but they’re still impressive nonetheless. If you wanna hear some A1 Slash content, I recommend you listen to Nightrain, You’re Crazy, and November Rain (this one specifically because of the complete vibe switch).
Slash is not only memorable, but extraordinarily talented. I’m not even a huge fan of Guns N Roses (because I don’t care much for Axl Rose), but I can’t deny that Slash isn’t one of the greats. He’s got a unique style, great technical work, and some of the most memorable riffs of all time.
Now we shall see how Jimi compares<3 If he’s not one of the higher ranking of the 5, I might cry a little.
Watching him play is insane. He was noted to play ALL the time, not matter if he was already in town for a show. He practiced all the time just for the fun of it, and with this, his technicality and technique developed. In every live show of his I’ve watched (via YouTube, of course), he’s played all of his songs perfectly. Although he may not be as technically advanced in his own music compared to Slash, I’d still go as far to say his technicality, considering the odd way he would play, was pretty solid. But, this is a high-stakes competition, so I’m giving him the short end of the stick with a 3.5. I have to give him that extra half point for Eric Clapton being his mentor…don’t ask me why Eric Clapton is not on this list.
He would literally would use his teeth to play…and it still sounded good. Like… Tell me that isn’t impressive. He often switched between chords and solo riffs which was an iconic and memorable aspect of his sound that really paved the way for other guitarists at the time, and even for guitarists today. Although today, switching between chords and solos is not a difficult or original thing, when Jimi did it, his sound stuck out like nothing else. He used muting as well which really gave his music that classic Hendrix sound.
Personal Style: 5/5
Jimi Hendrix has one of the most recognizable and iconic style. I’m pretty sure anyone who hears the All Along the Watchtower riff knows it’s Jimi. I feel like you know someone’s a good guitarist when you can recognize any of their riffs as their own while listening. Jimi is definitely one of those artists. He’s got the classic psychedelic rock sound, yet it’s completely his own and sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard before. He didn’t use traditional barred chord finger placements for a reason, and it was to add flare to his sound, and although some chord progressions he covered may have been simple, he added his specific flare and smooth connection
Riff/Solo Longevity: 4.5/5
I’d say Jimi has some of the most memorable and lengthy riffs of the group. The classics like “Purple Haze” and “All Along the Watchtower” have some of the most recognizable riffs in the “classic rock” genre. For what Jimi lacks in “technicality” he makes up for in his clever riffs; he lowkey sacrifices technicality for the sake of his personal style. As I said before, Jimi’s sound is like no other, and his riffs are the shining star of his music. Personally, when I listen to his album, Axis: Bold As Love, I feel like the guitar outshines the lyrics completely. Spanish Castle Magic is SO good. The riff at 1:55 is outstanding and golden. And I’m pretty sure it’s an accurate representation of his songs.
I mean, no one does it like Jimi, and that is the truth. My favorite song of his is Valleys of Neptune or Castles Made of Sand. The riff at the start of Castles Made of Sand is so catchy to me and it perfectly encapsulates his sound. And, it’s easy on the ears. The Jimi Hendrix Experience really scratches my brain without fail.
Eddie Van Halen
Here we go. The moment my father has been waiting for (not really, he thinks he’s right and I can’t convince him otherwise): how does Eddie compare?
I think Eddie is one of the most technical guitar players I’ve ever seen, and my dad would scream this from the rooftops if he could. I’m going to mention Eruption yet again (and probably about 15 more times) because of how impressive it is. It was literally made to show off Eddie’s abilities, and oh boy did Eddie shred. I’m gonna link a video of Eddie playing live at the end of a Van Halen show for 13 minutes to show you how mind blowingly amazing this man is. It’s like he can do this stuff in his sleep…and due to his rockstar lifestyle, he might as well have. And for that, he gets a perfect score.
Van Halen was formed during the sweet spot of classic rock; people like Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia, and Jimmy Page have already set the scene for all types of guitar innovations. But, Eruption’s popularity despite being a lyric-less track gives Eddie some bonus points in this section. I’m going to stop talking about Eruption now…hopefully. I’d say Van Halen’s entire sound can be sourced directly from Eddie’s guitar, and I think Van Halen should be considered the father of all 80s hair bands. With their first album being released in ’78, they quite literally set the scene for bands like Guns N’ Roses sound-wise.
Personal Style: 3.5/5
I’m so sorry Eddie…but where is the flavor in this? The spice? He most definitely had the talent and ability, but I feel like Eddie focused on technique and the “cool” factor than finding his own sound. I still have to give him some points though, because technicality is a huge aspect of personal style. We all know the classic song “Beat it” by Michael Jackson, I’m assuming. Well, fun fact! Eddie Van Halen wrote and recorded the guitar part of the song. I’m pretty sure you didn’t know that. When I found out I verbally said out loud: “Really?”. And that’s where Eddie loses some points. I bet you couldn’t tell it was him playing until I just mentioned it. For a song like Beat it, where the starting riff is arguably the most memorable aspect of the song, you’d think that his sound would shine through, but it really doesn’t. I mean, you could argue that he did a basic, catchy riff for MJ for the cash and didn’t want to be associated with MJ because he was “too pop”, which is true, but you can’t deny that if it was Jimi, Jerry, or Jimmy Page playing, you’d probably be able to know by listening.
Riff/Solo Longevity: 5/5
I think this is obvious…I mean, although his sound isn’t necessarily too memorable, his riffs most definitely are. Excluding synthesizer/keyboard songs like “Jump” from the mix, Eddie’s solos pretty much ran wild and really shined in most Van Halen songs. I mean, the starting riff and the solo in the middle of MJ’s Beat it are some of the most recognizable progressions in the history of rock music. Not to mention songs like Panama, Top Jimmy, and Hot for Teacher off of the 1984 album that define their peak rock era success through Eddie’s catchy riffs that ultimately run the song. Again, I point you to Eruption in the case of solo longevity. And for that, Eddie gets king status.
Now we arrive at Jerry Garcia, the king of live performances and solo longevity in nearly every single Grateful Dead song.
Mean people say he’s not the best technically because he “only plays the pentatonic scale!” or “only plays the same 5 notes!”. Although this may be true, technically (haha get it), he is the king of improvisations. This is most evident in his live performances, of course. He was a genius; I could never imagine being able to know perfect progressions off the top of my head during a live performance…and while on dr*gs. To be fair, almost all of these rockstars were on dr*gs during their heyday, but I think Jerry’s a little different. Instead of being on “autopilot” and playing songs he’d practiced every day the same, he made each live show different and still made it sound good because he knew how to work a guitar. Dead heads absolutely adore Jerry for this, and at the time, you never knew what you were going to get at a Dead concert.
Again, I point you to his improvisations, setting the scene for live performances during the time. Jerry was way ahead of his time, making music for almost everyone. From Casey Jones and Eyes of the World to Shakedown Street, Jerry had a a way of being able to play whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. He really mastered and floated above multiple genres; from bluegrass, country, rock, blues, and even jazz. No one really did it like him. In a time where groups like the Beatles (Sgt. Pepper era), The Rolling Stones, Simon and Garfunkel, Pink Floyd, and Jefferson Airplane reigned supreme, Jerry managed to make his way alongside the greats into the following decade (circa 1967 when their first album dropped). Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72 tour became one of their most famous tours to date, and it’s all because of Jerry’s improv. The late 60s, early 70s was an amazing time for music, and Jerry managed to further guitar innovation during this time. I think that’s pretty impressive.
Personal Style: 5/5
Grateful Dead in general have such a unique sound, one I’ve never heard before, and I think that’s also why they’re so popular (or at least, they were at the time). Each Dead riff you hear is so recognizable as a Dead riff that it’s insane. Like I said before, if Jerry had written and played for MJ’s Beat it, you’d definitely be able to tell it was him. It would actually turn into a completely different song… The somewhat twangy sound and improvisations as a whole created a uniqueness that has yet to be replicated. I’m realizing now that Jerry is sweeping these categories for all of the same reasons, and ultimately, the previous two categories explain why Jerry has such a different sound than the rest. Where some well known guitarists are focused on doing more difficult progressions and attempt to improve technicality, Jerry mostly writes what makes sense. He reminds me of Jimi a little bit; creating riffs and solos for the fun of it and to see what sounded best.
Riff/Solo Longevity: 5/5
Grateful Dead were together for a LONG time, and their music never went sour. I’m not sure you can say that about some other members on this list. Of course, being in a band is a team effort, but Jerry ran the Dead. He sang, wrote, and played. Everyone else did too, but Jerry was ultimately the star of the show. I’m almost certain that everyone knows songs like Touch of Gray, Ripple, Shakedown Street, and Friend of the Devil just based on hearing the first couple seconds of the song, and it’s because of Jerry. Not only were his solo improvs long, but they were memorable. I can go to Maggie Garrigan and play her a song off the Europe ’72 tour recordings and she’d know exactly which song, show location, and date. Shout out to you, miss girl.
Last but (hopefully!) not least: it’s Led Zeppelin time baby!!!
Listening to the recordings, it doesn’t seem like Jimmy’s got the most difficult progressions of the bunch. But once you watch him play, especially Stairway to Heaven, you’ll see he’s playing with a double neck guitar…which we’ll dive into a little bit more in the next category. I mean, I can’t play ONE guitar, let alone two…A double neck guitar is used to switch between a 12 string and a 6 string without having to 1) switch out guitars or 2) have another person playing the part. So, he was basically doing two things at once. Jimmy was really good at capturing his own sound with the double neck, as well as being technical and rhythmically inclined. Overall, Jimmy is an A1 pick in terms of technicality.
Double neck alert! Time to talk about this one aspect of his career that really paved the way for other guitarists! Basically, no one had really tried to rock with a double neck in the way Jimmy did; with Stairway to Heaven being their most popular song of all time, and being a song where the double neck and guitar solo in general shines, the usage of a double neck was popularized. Once people saw Jimmy with a two guitars combined they went wild! And I would’ve too. Not only does it look cool, but it truly adds to the song. Artists like Slash have adapted the double neck, and it can all be sourced to Jimmy’s usage and technique.
Personal Style: 3.5/5
Jimmy has a pretty unique sound and he can pretty much play anything you hand him. I’ve noticed that his playing is undeniably his own and it doesn’t sound similar to any other artist I’ve heard. Maybe it’s just the Zeppelin sound as a whole, but songs like Immigrant Song and Misty Mountain Hop, although very different, have the same guitar sound. I’m not really sure how to put it other than that. But, I’m hesitant to give this anything higher than a this because some songs, like Celebration Day, don’t really sound like what I think of when I hear the name “Jimmy Page”. Don’t get me wrong; Celebration Day is quite literally my most favorite Zeppelin song of all time. Maybe it’s an attempt at genre bending, but the Zeppelin sound is so undeniably rock that I’d feel weird calling it something that it isn’t. The confusion I’m having on what really defines his “sound” is why I docked him some points.
Riff/Solo Longevity: 5/5
I’m pretty sure I’d get attacked if I gave a Page riff less than a 5, but I’m genuinely giving him a 5 because Jimmy’s riffs are SO recognizable and have truly stood the test of time. Black Dog. Immigrant Song. Stairway to Heaven. Zeppelin IV in general. That’s all I really need to say.
Jerry Garcia is our winner! I’d hate to call him the underdog…because he’s really not…but to find out that Jerry is better than everyone else after my ~extensive~ listening process is quite the cherry on top. Here are the final rankings:
Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead)
Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin)
Jimi Hendrix (The J. H. Experience)
Eddie Van Halen (Van Halen)
Slash (Guns N’ Roses)
Looking at the final list, I feel like I will most definitely get attacked for this. But I did my research, and I know my truth.
***Honorable Mentions: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Kurt Cobain, Prince, Eric Clapton, B. B. King, and Joan Jett