Today we celebrate some of the world’s most remarkable progressive guitar players and the gear with which they reached the peak. We’ve chosen 10 masters at their craft, listed in no special order, it’s subjective afterall. But first, let’s define ‘progressive rock’. It is “a style of rock music popular especially in the 1970s and characterized by classical influences, the use of keyboard instruments, and lengthy compositions”. Dream Theatre guitarist John Petrucci takes it a bit further, saying that progressive rock is defined by its very lack of stylistic boundaries.
John Petrucci (Dream Theatre)
Considered one of the leading forces behind progressive metal, a hero of tech-prog with his band Dream Theatre, he relies on mostly his Ernie Ball Music Man Majesty signature models with Illuminator pickups and Game Changer technology which gives him access to a library of new sounds and textures. Acoustically his go-to 6-string is a Taylor 916ce, and 12-string is also a Taylor, the 856ce. He zeroes in on technique and complexity rather than speed and power, however, his alternate picking is lightning fast and equally brilliant on songs such as Illumination Theory (2017).
Adrian Belew (King Crimson)
Adrian Belew is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, producer and guitar wizard, who fronted prog-rock mammoths King Crimson for 3 decades. Alongside the more famous Robert Fripp, the two would produce otherworldly sounds, but it was Belew who best exemplified the Crimson signature sounds on his Parker FLY DF842 AB signature model. He explains, “It is simply the best guitar that I’ve ever played. It makes me play better, smoother, more fluidly, faster”. He has also played with such rock Gods as David Bowie, Frank Zappa, Paul Simon, Nine Inch Nails, and Talking Heads. He is an inventor of guitar sounds through complex time signatures, and is a technical guru, which makes him one of the most ‘on demand’ players in the biz. He has recently teamed up with Stewart Copeland, Mark King and Vittorio Cosma in he Supergroup Gizmodrome (2017)
Holdsworth, English composer/guitarist cut 12 studio albums as a solo act in a career that lasted over 40 years. He is considered something of a pioneer in jazz fusion. According to experts and colleagues, his musical IQ was through the roof, and he could arrange diminished, augmented, whole tone, chromatic and altered scales, rendering what was called an ‘outside’ sound. He has worked with several guitar manufacturers over the years, In the 60s and 70s his best fretted friend was a Gibson SG, then he switched to Fender Telecasters with modified humbucker pickups. His first signature guitars were with Ibanez, mainly the AH-10 and AH-20. He has collaborated with stars like John Stevens (Touching On, 1977), Jean-Luc Ponty (The Acatama Experience, 2007), and Stanley Clarke (If This Bass Could Only Talk, 1988), to name just a few. He had an enormous influence on players such as Eddie Van Halen, Shawn Lane and Yngwie Malmsteen among countless others.
Philadelphia native Todd Rundgren was also a multi-instrumentalist, who fronted the band Utopia, and raised eyebrows with his sophisticated ‘outside the lines’ style, and flamboyant stage outfits. He started with the psychedelic group called Nazz in ‘67 and released the American top 40 hit We Gotta Get You Another Woman in 1970. His best hits were Hello It’s Me and I Saw the Light from the LP Something/Anything (1972). He also penned the hit Bang The Drum All Day in ‘83 which was an arena rock favourite and was featured in several commercials and movie trailers. He has also contributed his remarkable talents on bestselling records including the New York Dolls New York Dolls (1973), Bat Out Of Hell by Meatloaf, to name just a fraction. His main guitar was a Gibson SG known as ‘Sunny’ or ‘The Fool’ which was previously owned by Eric Clapton during his Cream years.
Steve Hackett (Genesis)
As lead guitarist for Genesis, behind the more famous Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins, he was a force of excellent guitar dexterity and innovation. His influences arose from blues, jazz and world music, but was also very handy in the classical realm, he scored fabulous renditions of greats from Bach to Satie. After his glorious Genesis run, he hooked up with Steve Howe (Yes) to form the supergroup GTR which were immensely popular in the USA. His main tools of employment were a ‘57 Les Paul Goldtop, a Les Paul Custom, which he described as, “A really fat sounding guitar with a warm tone plus the added facility of mixing the neck and the bridge pickups together - creamy, bitey, nutty, crunchy!”. He also put to work a 70s Fender Strat, a Schecter Strat, a Griffin Custom Electric - “a really clever guitar, for chiming chorus effects”. And his acoustic favourite was a 1973 Yairi Nylon.
Alex Lifeson (Rush)
Canadian guitar shredder Alex Lifeson (born Alexandar Zivojinovich) was part of the rock trio Rush along with Neil Peart/drums and Geddy Lee/vocals/bass, who carved a groove into progressive blues/metal/rock, that still resonates and is recognised as some of the cleanest, yet rawest sounds ever put to vinyl. They were a heavy influence on acts like, Foo Fighters, Alice in Chains, Pixies, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Dream Theatre just to mention a few. His weapons of choice during the early Rush years were a Gibson ES-335, mostly, plugged into a Hiwatt amp. His acoustic pick was usually a PRS signature model and had a signature model made by Gibson called the Alex Lifeson R40 Les Paul Axcess. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.
David Gilmour (Pink Floyd)
Rock God David Gilmour forged the sound of Pink Floyd with his deft touch for melodic embroidery guitar work on epics like Dark Side of the Moon, The Wall, Wish You Were Here, and Animals. He says his influences on his style came from Hank Marvin and The Shadows, a style coloured with expressive bending and sustain, “My fingers make a distinctive sound...they aren’t very fast, but I think I am instantly recognisable”. His armoury of instruments include the Black Strat, the 0001 Fender Stratocaster, a Gibson Les Paul Goldtop fitted with P-90 pickups, and as far as steel guitars, he loved his Jedsons, and then the Fender 1000 pedal steel. His acoustic friends were a Gibson Chet Atkins and a J-200 Celebrity. So, with the above tools, and his innate musical creativity, talent, and true emotion, he is what he is, one of the greatest progressive rock guitar players of all time.
Martin Barre (Jethro Tull)
English prog-rocker famous for strangling remarkable solos in his work on Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, Cross Eyed Mary, and Locomotive Breath. He blended his solos with a classical virtuosity as on Minstrel in the Gallery, with a 4-minute opening solo. His solo on Aqualung was voted by readers of Guitar Player magazine as “one of the top rock solos of all time”. Some of his disciples include Joe Bonamassa, Steve Vai, Eric Johnson, and Joe Satriani. His guitar choices were mostly Hamers in the beginning, the Hamer Sunburst or Chaparral. Now he uses a PRS 513, a McCarty semi-solid, a Quatro, and a PRS Acoustic/Electric single cut.
Robert Fripp (King Crimson)
The aforementioned Robert Fripp, King Crimson’s headliner, had a tone-deaf ear when he started playing at age 11, which has served him well, for he is famous for his cross-picking, with roots in avant-garde jazz and classical veins. He has amassed over 700 releases over 40 years, including contributions on classic rock albums such as David Bowie’s Heroes and Scary Monsters, as well as being on Rolling Stones Magazine’s list of the Top 100 Greatest Guitarists of all times. He was a Gibson Les Paul man, especially the ‘57 which had 3 humbucker pickups, built with a ‘deep set neck tenon’ rather than the standard issue. He has collaborated with the cream of the crop: Peter Gabriel, Blondie, the Talking Heads, the Roches, Daryl Hall, and John Wetton, and we’re just getting started...He was and is a giant among progressive rock artists.
Steve Howe (Yes)
There are not many guitarists who have covered as many styles as Steve Howe, who was an avid follower of players from Django Reinhardt and Les Paul & Mary Ford, to Barney Kessel and flamenco legend Carlos Montoya. He was lead guitarist for Yes with his faithful ‘59 Gibson ES-175, and went on to form supergroups Asia with Geoff Downes (Yes), John Wetton (King Crimson) and Carl Palmer (Emerson Lake and Palmer), and another called GTR with Steve Hackett (Genesis). They say rock is all about ‘ego’, and progressive rock pushes that even further, call it ‘orchestral ego’, where players see themselves as ‘composers’, something more sophisticated than mere showmen, hence the classic and jazz bits that were hallmarks of the day, and they were Gods. Steve Howe’s hand in creating this was integral. His musical IQ was off the charts. For some prime examples of his masterful touch, check out his fingerwork on solos such as Yours Is No Disgrace (The Yes Album), where his tidy arpeggio licks break open with drenched wah wahs, sliding off into psychedelic territory, then a mix of country/ragtime on Clap (same album), and Machine Messiah (Drama-1980), where he shreds solo runs into mesmerizing tremolo fingering and a howling whammy bar strangled to perfection.
We hope you enjoyed our selection of great progressive rock guitarists. It sure was fun putting it together. Cheers!