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Striking a Chord: Rock Music’s Real Guitar Heroes

Baron Wolman/Iconic Images/Getty Images

Thanks to the success of video games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, most people today think they’re virtual rock stars. But a plastic axe and a virtual avatar do not a Guitar Hero make. The real-life guitar legends who are alive and kicking today—from U2’s the Edge to Audioslave’s Tom Morello—are true musicians who continue to push boundaries with their riffs. But who are their heroes? Let’s look at eight guitar gods, both new and old, who have inspired greatness in others. 

Jimi Hendrix
A legend gone before his time, Hendrix has been called the greatest guitarist in history by the likes of Rolling Stone magazine and a slew of major axe-slingers. Guitarist Pete Townshend of the Who told Rolling Stone that Hendrix “made the electric guitar beautiful,” recalling that he was so overwhelmed with emotion at one of Jimi’s concerts that he found himself holding hands with fellow guitar king Eric Clapton. Other guitar stars who list Hendrix as an influence include Prince, Carlos Santana, and most other musicians worth their Fender. 

Robert Johnson
If Hendrix was known as the ultimate rock guitarist, Johnson is easily one of the premier blues guitarists. Urban legend has it that Johnson gained his renowned skills by making a deal with the devil at a crossroads, a tale he fueled through songs like “Hellhound on My Trail,” “Me and the Devil Blues,” and “Crossroads.” Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Robert Lockwood Jr., and other great bluesmen credit Johnson as an influence, as do Eric Clapton and Keith Richards. Richards famously said that when he first heard one of Johnson’s recordings, he asked, “Yeah, but who’s the other guy playing with him?” 

Nancy Wilson
Female guitarists rarely pop up on great-guitarist lists, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Wilson, the lead guitarist and one-half of the band Heart, made her mark with rock jams like “Crazy on You,” “Barracuda,” and “Magic Man.” Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell has cited Wilson as a big inspiration, and now that some of Heart’s hits are featured on the wildly popular Guitar Hero, Wilson is attracting a whole new fan base. As she told Reuters this year, “Those songs are actually still ticking, which is amazing to think about.” 

Johnny Marr
Alternative rock bands like the Stone Roses, Oasis, Blur, and Radiohead all credit Smiths guitarist Marr as one of their idols, as do Jane’s Addiction shredder Dave Navarro and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ own John Frusciante. Guitar World magazine wrote that “Marr’s incredible gift lay in his ability to find just the right guitar textures, chordal patterns, and countermelodies to complement Morrissey’s lonely outsider lyrics. Together they created a vision of shimmering, fragile beauty amid the grit and grime of mundane existence.” Noel Gallagher of Oasis put it more simply, calling Marr “a fucking wizard.” Since his days with the Smiths, Marr has collaborated with other greats like Bernard Sumner (Joy Division/New Order/Electronic), the Pretenders, Beck, and Modest Mouse. 

 

Joan Jett and Lita Ford
These two female rippers share a slot because they shared a band. As members of late-1970s all-girl punk group the Runaways, these two women blazed onto the scene with their edgy guitar skills and no-holds-barred attitudes. Their fortitude inspired the upcoming film, The Runaways, in which Kristen Stewart will play Jett. Need more proof of their appeal? Jett was one of two women (the other was Joni Mitchell) to make the 2003 Rolling Stone list of the greatest guitarists in rock history. 

Jimmy Page
Page’s influence has reverberated throughout the rock world and beyond for decades. The Led Zeppelin guitarist—recently featured in the documentary It Might Get Loud, along with the Edge and Jack White—is considered a living icon for his contribution to music history. You’d be hard pressed to find a guitarist who doesn’t name Page as an inspiration. No wonder he’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice—as a member of both the Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin. 

Chet Atkins
The name Chet Atkins is synonymous with the “Nashville sound,” which introduced country music (à la Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves) into the mainstream back in the 1950s. Atkins was also a multitasker, creating his own line of electric guitars and working as a producer for the likes of Elvis Presley and Waylon Jennings, among many others. But it was his unique guitar style that earned the admiration of country guitarists who followed. He created his signature sound by picking his guitar with the first three fingers of his right hand, with his thumb on bass. As he once said, “Years from now, after I’m gone, someone will listen to what I’ve done and know I was here. They may not know or care who I was, but they’ll hear my guitars speaking for me.” Atkins died in 2001. 

Randy Rhoads
Rhoads rocked hard for only a short time, but his contributions to metal rock are discernible in everything from Van Halen to Metallica. Trained in classical guitar, Rhoads used that background to bring a whole new level of metal madness to his sets. Following his days with his first band, Quiet Riot, Rhoads hooked up with Ozzy Osbourne, who once described Rhoads’ guitar playing as “God entering my life.” As Rolling Stone put it, “Were it not for his 1982 demise in a plane crash, his already enormous influence on metal-guitar playing would have increased a hundredfold.” 

Eddie Van Halen, Eric Clapton, Prince, Bonnie Raitt—one amazing guitarist usually begets another, which makes it hard to wrap up a list like this. So let this be just a sampling of the many greats, past and present, who truly deserve that coveted Guitar Hero status.

Photos: Baron Wolman/Iconic Images/Getty Images and Chris Walter/WireImage

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