Many musicians can play guitar, but very few really know to make the instrument sing. From jazz to classical to metal, these top 10 guitarists are absolute legends in their genre. They’re icons every aspiring guitarist—or every guitarist, period—should study.
Best Guitarists of All Time
- Wes Borland
- Colin Marston
- Mick Thomson/Jim Root
- Alexi Laiho
- Robert Fripp/Adrian Belew
- Carlo Domeniconi
- Leo Brouwer
Arguably, Wes Borland is the most controversial guitarist out there.
He’s best known as the guitarist for undisputed nu-metal kings Limp Bizkit. Undoubtedly, he earns a spot as one of the top guitarists of all time.
His work carries an impeccable energy. It drives Limp Bizkit’s music forward while they weave in and out of the oddest corners of hip-hop and metal.
From the wonky funk-driven guitar line in “Nookie,” to the abrasive, jaw-punching riffs in “Counterfeit,” Borland’s work transcends every last boundary of music with his undeniable creativity and innovation.
A trained jazz guitarist from a young age, Borland used his John Zorn-inspired influence to create one of the most sonically experimental sounds in nu-metal.
Colin Marston is one of the most profound musicians of this generation. Cutting his teeth in the avant-garde art scene of New York City, this Pennsylvania native quickly made a name for himself with his relentless work ethic, as well as his endless innovation.
Graduating from New York University with a Bachelor of Arts in music technology, Marston has taken lead on a multitude of avant-garde/black metal/experimental projects.
He also opened up the successful Menegroth, the Thousand Caves studio in Queens, NY. There, he makes a living working on some of the most profound and musically intricate works you will ever hear.
Drawing influence from the darkest corners of classical (he even has a tattoo in tribute to Krzysztof Penderecki), Marston brings those to life with his terrifyingly jarring guitar work in Krallice and other projects.
Not to mention, he is one of the few guitarists in the world to incorporate the Warr guitar into their music.
Mick Thomson/Jim Root
This unrelenting duo is a major reason Slipknot has evolved from a group of misunderstood misfits, into the revered leaders of the metal world they are today.
From their punchy, downtuned riffs on “(sic),” to the grooves on “People = Shit”—and even the melancholic sadness on “Vermilion, Pt. 2”—both Thomson and Root create some of the most dynamic and evocative guitar lines in history.
Thomson’s strong grasp on keeping tight rhythms is crucial to Slipknot’s very regimented sound.
And how can we forget about Root’s impeccable shredding chops?
2008’s All Hope is Gone really allowed for Root’s true colors to be shown, especially on “Psychosocial.”
As the late, great leader of the highly influential melodic death metal band Children of Bodom, Alexi Laiho left behind a tremendous legacy.
He blazed a trail many wish to follow, but few can. Laiho’s ear and intricate chops have inspired many guitarists around the world to pick up the axe and learn the power of the gods — gods among which Laiho now stands.
Learning violin from an early age, Laiho’s contributions to Children of Bodom undoubtedly exhibit strong classical influence.
Take, for example, 1999’s “Downfall,” in which his guitar solo climaxes with a wailing motif. Meanwhile, the rhythm pounds out what could easily be a classical composition made by the greats of the past.
Laiho’s work also manages to synthesize beautifully interweaving melodies over icy piano tracks.
Ultimately, this ushered in a new era of melodic death metal, previously unforeseen by the trailblazers in the 1990s Gothenburg metal scene.
Robert Fripp/Adrian Belew
When you talk about rock bands that have broken down sonic barriers, shifted cultures, and influenced generations far beyond them, chances are you’ll probably discuss King Crimson.
That’s owed to none other than King Crimson. They led the charge on progressive elements (odd time signatures, unusual rhythm changes, complex song structures, etc.).
Bandleader Robert Fripp and cohort Adrian Belew helped present these new elements to a mainstream audience, worldwide.
Drawing influence from jazz, classical and experimental music, Fripp, Belew, and the rest of the King Crimson gang developed a new sound never before heard. It also influenced well-known musicians today, from Metallica’s Kirk Hammett to Tool’s Adam Jones.
As the most underrated and most under-appreciated guitarist of all-time, Domeniconi isn’t just a well-traveled devotee to his craft. He also works to meld together different cultures with nothing but six simple strings— and that’s putting it lightly.
There are multicultural elements of Brazilian, Turkish, and Indian music in his brilliant compositions, just to name a few.
A crucial component to any classical guitarist’s repertoire, Domeniconi’s work truly tests a player’s technique and stamina.
The Norwegian black metal scene exploded with the emotionally charged works of Mayhem and Burzum in the 1990s.
Emerging from the evil culture were the progressive works of Emperor: a band led by multi-instrumentalist, Ihsahn.
Still retaining the poor recording sound quality, tremolo-picked riffs, and devilish shrieks of black metal, Ihsahn also incorporated synths and symphonic elements.
These pushed Emperor up the ranks quickly, as their orchestral and classical twist on the genre gained well-deserved attention.
Eventually, Ihsahn branched off into his own solo project. It’s more directly progressive and heavy metal. Think bands like Iron Maiden, King Diamond, Pink Floyd, etc.
His solo work proves that he made black metal not for its trendiness, but for the love of his instrument—and an undying passion for the craft of music.
“In the Nightside Eclipse” is a highly recommended listen for any metal buff.
Leo Brouwer’s Cuban-based compositions have inspired virtuoso musicians and orchestras worldwide.
Bringing musical elements of his native Cuba to the forefront, his classic guitar compositions soon exposed players and listeners alike to new rhythms, intervals, and techniques.
This innovation then led to widespread success, as evidenced in his conducting of prominent symphony orchestras like the Philharmonic Orchestra of Berlin, and the BBC Concert Orchestra.
He embraces atonal (like Domeniconi) and aleatoric music, as well as traditional classical.
Brouwer’s contributions to the musical world have made him a valuable treasure. No guitarist should never take it for granted.
Seasoned guitarists and students of the instrument alike make a grave mistake if they only study the masters of their favored genre. These top guitarists of all time showcase incredible technical precision, innovation, and dedication to the craft every guitarist out there should hope—and strive—to emulate.
While these few amongst the many are the best to study, never limit your study. Some other great guitarists can be found in the best classic rock bands, some great pop-punk albums, and even back in the day from albums in the 60s with artists like Bob Dylan. Best of all, you’ll be able to study the different nuances between the genres and styles.