The greatest guitarists pre-1980 revealed

Jimi Hendrix
(Image credit: David Redfern/Redferns)

Our GOAT Hunt is underway and we have asked for your help in putting together the ultimate fantasy band line-up – a supergroup of supergroups comprising musicians who the Greatest of All Time in their field. 

The list of guitarists who can lay claim to be the Greatest of All Time is long and distinguished, we asked you, the people, to have your say, and vote for the best of the best.

Splitting the field, we asked you to vote for your top five pre-1980 guitar players, with the poll for the post-1980 guitar players going live later this week (where the modern era players will all be, err, picking up the Batten and Vai-ing for pole position). You voted, and said votes have been counted. It could not have been easy. This is, after all, the era of the big beasts of classic rock, the first generation to take over the world with an electric guitar, the trailblazers.

There was a clear winner. However, it should be noted that "Other" charted highly in the voting, with special mention for Chicago's perennially underrated Terry Kath who won the write-in vote but missed the final Top 10. But, without further ado, it's time to reveal your greatest pre-1980 guitar players...

1. Jimi Hendrix

Watching Jimi Hendrix perform with his Fender Stratocaster upside down is the perfect metaphor for his impact on the instrument. Drawing from blues, RnB, soul, rock and perhaps some cosmic energy from the outer limits, he turned everything on its head. 

In his hands, the electric guitar was a tool of transcendence, augmented by the raw power of his Marshall Super Lead heads and an adventurous approach to sound that saw him emerge as a pioneer of effects pedals, taking us through the psych-rock wormhole with fuzz, wah and Uni-Vibe.

Hendrix famously didn’t think much of his singing voice but his baked-and-dazed vocal delivery was perfect for his sound, suggesting that he similarly knew he was dealing with a sound not of this Earth.

2. Eddie Van Halen

Eddie Van Halen was the most exciting hard-rock guitar player of all time. He was the maverick, the ultimate in box-office electric guitar. A pioneer of technical excellence with a MacGyver-esque ability for trailblazing gear modification, Van Halen paired his ridiculous chops with an epicurean ear for tone. 

His ‘brown sound’ remains the holy grail for rock guitar players and it was a DIY discovery, using a Variac variable transformer to bring the voltage down on his Marshall to access a hitherto untapped level of overdriven juice. His chops? Well, it was not just the super-smooth, hyper-speed two-hand tapping but how he integrated that sense of the spectacular with feel.

3. Jimmy Page

A prolific session player long before he hooked up with Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and your pre-1980 GOAT drummer John Bonham, Page brought off-the-rails flair and galaxy-brained vision to guitar playing. 

Master riffer, a blazing lead player, he also had the taste and temperament for wide-screen songwriting, broadening Led Zeppelin’s horizons with epic folk, a sense of mysticism, and a production nous that was way ahead of his time.

Also in taking a violin bow to his Telecaster, pressing the double-neck Gibson EDS-1275 into service for Stairway To Heaven, Page had a gift for the iconic potential of rock imagery.

4. Jeff Beck

The guitar hero’s guitar hero, Jeff Beck can do anything with a guitar. You can picture him at home, slicing cucumbers on his high E string, pioneering a whammy bar technique that can open a tin of beans in under three seconds. Another Yardbird alumni, another player who extended what was possible with the guitar, Beck’s influence can be heard across instrumental guitar, in blues, rock, jazz, metal, whatever. Well, we might be able to hear the influence, but no one gets near him. 

5. David Gilmour

Pink Floyd was the perfect vehicle for David Gilmour to bend space and time with the electric guitar. Whether it was with his Binson Echorec units or rackmounted MXR M-113 digital delay, Gilmour would always give the impression that he was building towards the infinity with his guitar sound. 

His solos hang in the air, melodies interminably suspended in fuzz and delay. No player has Gilmour’s mastery of sustain, feel, tone and melody, and that stateliness that elevated Pink Floyd from the musically adventurous to the profound.

6. Eric Clapton

The third Yardbird in your top 10, and the only one with a definitive claim on divinity. After all, that was the word on the streets of London – “Clapton is God” – when he took curator’s eye to old blues and powered it up through Marshall amplifiers. The sound defined the era. 

With the Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, and then Derek and the Dominos, and one of the greatest guitar albums of all time, Layla, Clapton had enough in the bank to justify the claims made by that mid-60s Islington graffiti artist. “In a way I thought, ‘Yes, I am God; quite right!’” he said in this classic Guitarist interview from 1994.

7. Django Reinhardt

Django Reinhardt's guitar journey is the story of a once-in-generation talent unrestrained by physical injury. The fire that robbed him of the full use of his fretting hand couldn't stop him. Nothing could. 

A gypsy jazz virtuoso, Reinhardt was a rhythm machine, as though his heart beat in time with a swing beat. His two-fingered chord technique was a workaround at first but it opened up new musical possibilities, and a vocabulary of motifs and phrasing that was unmistakably Django, and would go on to help establish guitar as a lead instrument in jazz. 

That influence can still be heard in jazz, but some years down the line, another young guitarist was coming to terms with his own devastating fretting hand injury. Inspired by Django, he persisted, inventing heavy metal along the way.

8. Brian May

The man with the curly hair and the curly guitar lead is a rock guitar player to his bones, but nonetheless, in his larger-than-life compositions with Queen, Brian May took the art form out of its comfort zone and made a one-man opera out of it.

May sounded an early warning that his creativity was not going to stay within the lines, building his own electric guitar – the Red Special – with his father and pairing it with a wall of Vox amplifiers, a six-pence for a pick, tape echo and a phaser for one of the most instantly recognisable sounds in popular music. Epic, playful, genius, awe-inspiring.

9. Ritchie Blackmore

The Man in Black was borne of the blues but was high-minded enough to affect an air of the classical iconoclast, drawing from the great composers to flesh out his gift for penning hard rock anthems with a grandeur more befitting symphony hall.

Blackmore drew up the template for metal with Deep Purple's physical presence before going through the gears and the personnel in Rainbow, where he could really take his playing off road on albums such as 1976's Rising and let that wild genius of his go full-on free range.

10. BB King

Keeper of the blues box and the man of the sweetest clean guitar tones of all time, BB King was a giant amongst bluesmen whose phrasing allowed him to say it all without hardly saying a thing. He played with an economy. No need to get busy, just so long as he landed on the right now at the right time and bent it with the love it deserved. 

His bending and vibrato was a language unto its own, and ever the master showman it was as though he had the audience on the end of a string, too, waiting for the King of the Blues to tell them the next part of the story and chase their own blues away.


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