It doesn’t matter whether you are talking to hardcore, lifelong musicians or casual friends or family that no next to nothing about the guitar. We at Just Guitar Talk constantly get this question. Who is the best guitar player in the world? It sounds simple enough on the surface, but the truth is that this is an extremely difficult question to answer. We hope you won’t see this article as a cop-out, but let’s analyze this and see what we can come up with.
The Limitation of the Living
When people ask this question, they usually mean the best guitar player ever, not necessarily in the world right now. After all, if you limit the options to the living, you are taking a lot of bad, bad men out of the mix. That automatically disqualifies Jimi Hendrix, an artist that makes almost anyone’s short list for the GOAT. As a matter of fact, Jimi is probably the only guitarist we could bring up that is almost universally recognized as being at least top 5. He’s just one of many, many deceased guitarists that definitely could have made the claim to fame when they were alive. So, first of all, what do you really mean here? Are we talking living or all-time? It makes a big difference.
Styles and Technology Make a Difference
It’s like asking someone what their favorite song is. That’s tough, unless you have a very limited taste in music. It’s probably a little easier to ask someone “What’s your favorite reggae song?” To name just one song that is your overall favorite would be pretty tough for most people. The same is true when trying to crown someone the best guitar player in the world. Think of all the styles out there. Think of primarily rhythm guitarists versus lead players. Yes, most can do both at a comparable level, but we all know that most famous guitar players are known for one or the other predominantly. Those that are recognized equally for both, such as Jimi again, almost deserve extra credit, don’t they? What is the criteria here?
It gets difficult when you start crossing genres and styles. Most people don’t associate country musicians with being unbelievable guitarists, but truthfully, a lot of country guitar solos would blow the socks off of their rock Pentatonic-loving counterparts. See folks like Brad Paisley or Keith Urban for some living examples of this. Then, you have genres like rock and funk where it’s difficult to set your playing apart because everything has been done before. Think rock. You can only play open and power chords so many ways, and you can be a really solid rhythm player, but no one is going to give you credit if most of the songs you jam to are power chord marathons. The same is true for funk. Everyone knows funk when they hear it, but making yourself sound different from the pack is challenging. So, what makes the difference here? Being really good at what you do? Or being multi-faceted in your playing?
Then, on top of all that, there is an equipment barrier. Technology does matter in this discussion. Now, everyone alive now has pretty equal access to technology (if you were including the non-living, this would be much more critical), but there’s still an obvious difference between someone who can make an acoustic sing in its complete natural form and then someone using a ton of effects to get their sound. Not that either is inferior, but if you are judging “the best,” then you have to think about these things.
Overplaying and Showing Out — A Factor?
See Eddie Van Halen if you need more explanation. Eddie doesn’t let a song go by without getting in some fingertapping, stocatto bursts, and unbelievable bends. It’s cool, and everyone knows he’s good. However, there are tons of guitarists out there that don’t get as much respect as Eddie because they just don’t show off that much. Think John Mayer or Richie Sambora, for a couple of active examples. John Mayer can emulate Jimi or Stevie Ray Vaughan at will, but you wouldn’t really know that if you just listen to most of his studio recordings (Continuum excluded… that is a masterpiece, guitar included). Richie has played pretty elementary rock solos with Bon Jovi for decades, but pick up his blues solo work and you will will be wondering if this is the same person.
The bottom line is that overplaying and showing out often makes the general public think you are better than others, but should we also consider doing the right thing at the right time for the song and the band as part of our equation? That really changes the discussion, doesn’t it? So, you can play your licks at 250 beats per minute, but does that matter if you are playing over a ballad? Sure, you can fingertap, but does it work? These are questions that come into play if you are really thinking about who is the best.
Having said that, some showing out is mandatory. At their heart, every guitar player wants to go off a little bit on a solo or whatever they are doing. That’s part of it. But is it all of it?
The Verdict — Eye of the Beholder?
The bottom line to all of this discussion is simple. Crowning a guitar player as the best guitar player in the world is not an easy job, and no one is going to ever be universally recognized. If anyone is even close, it would be Jimi Hendrix for sure, but still, there are those that would find a way to disagree. At the end of the day, the best guitar player is probably going to come down to the eye of the beholder. Different people have different ways of looking at it. Experience level counts big here too. Experienced guitar players are probably going to have a different opinion than the layman that doesn’t know anything about it on a technical level. That’s not saying that anyone’s opinion is invalid. After all, people that don’t know a lot about guitar are still the primary puchasers of music. Their opinion speaks volumes. Still, many an everyday fellow thought a guitar lick was out-of-this-world difficult while a seasoned player is asking “What’s the big deal?”
So our question is who do you think is the best guitar player in the world? We want to hear about it in the comments below. Just be prepared to defend your case. That is all we ask.