The 10 bands with the best guitarists in history

By Sergio Ariza

Guitars Exchange would like to make a brief review of bands that have had the most and best guitarists. For that purpose we have made a few small rules, with bands that had a minimum of three guitarists, who were permanent members, and who were not only guests or session musicians.    

10. Steely Dan

We start with Steely Dan, a band that is not usually the first that comes to mind when you think about guitarists but, if you look closely, you will see that they have some of the best solos of the 1970s. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s band started its journey after someone suggested to these two strange geniuses that if they wanted their complicated compositions to be better heard, the best thing they could do was to form a band. So they recruited two great guitarists in Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter and Denny Dias and together they recorded three great albums, Can’t buy a thrill, Countdown to ecstasy and Pretzel logic; in the latter Becker himself was adding marvelous solos, as can be heard on the title track. However Fagen and Brecker made it clear that they were not going to play live and they were going to sustain themselves with session musicians. The great Baxter, author of the incredible solos on My old school and Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, abandoned the project but Dias, responsible for Do it again, continued contributing from outside the band until the fabulous Aja. It is clear that some of the most legendary solos came via their contracted gunslingers like Elliott Randall on Reelin' In the Years (Jimmy Page’s favourite solo), Rick Derringer on Show Biz Kids, Larry Carlton on Kid Charlemagne and Jay Graydon who contributed the solo on Peg, achieving the approval of both Fagen and Brecker after the rejection of another six guitarists.

9. E Street Band

The E Street Band has been one of the best live bands in the last 40 years. One of their great weapons has been their guitarists, captained by the ‘Boss’ himself and his mythical Telecaster. Usually the person responsible for accompanying him on the six string has been the trusty Steve Van Zandt with his Stratocaster. Despite not being a great technician, Little Stevie played superbly and was an ideal complement for
Springsteen. In 1985, on the Born in the USA tour, he left the band on good terms to pursue his solo career and was replaced by a top sidekick, Nils Lofgren, a veteran who had played with Neil Young and who had an interesting career of his own. Possible he was the most gifted of them all and often shines when he is given space on tracks such as War and Because the night. After distancing himself from the band at the end of the 1980s, Springsteen returned to the E Street Band at the end of the 90s and, since that time, the three have shared albums and the stage. A few years ago, when Van Zandt took some time out again, Springsteen brought in Tom Morello from Rage Against The Machine for his explosive rock and roll parties.

8. Eagles  

When one speaks of the Eagles and guitarists the first that comes to mind is Don Felder, with his double-necked Gibson EDS-1275, and
Joe Walsh, with his Telecaster, exchanging solos and harmonies on Hotel California, but few among the general public are aware that neither of them were the original guitarists in the band; as they were Bernie Leadon and Glen Frey. These latter two played on the first three albums, trading interesting solos on Already gone. But when they decided to distance themselves from their country roots and search for a more rock sound Leadon recommended Felder, who won the position with his slide guitar on Good day in hell. The last to arrive was Walsh, substituting Leadon; and on songs like Life in the Fast Lane he left it clear that he was the most talented of all.


7. Thin Lizzy  

The first formation known as Thin Lizzy was a ‘power trio’ with Phil Lynott on voice and bass, Brian Downey on drums and Eric Bell on guitar; they put out three albums together and gave the band their first hit with Whisky in the jar, with that ‘riff’ that is one of the great contributions of Bell to the band (although his best moment arrived co-writing and playing the powerful The Rocker). Bell left the band at the end of 1973 and was replaced by
Gary Moore who finished the tour they were on and recorded the legendary Still in love with you before abandoning the ship. It was at that time when Lynott decided to add two guitarists who were going to give the group their mythical ‘twin guitar’ sound, Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson. With them came the great classics of the band like Jailbreak, Live and Dangerous and Bad reputation, besides songs like The boys are back in town. But the disagreements between Robertson and Lynott led to his exit at the band’s best moment. It didn’t matter much because at that time their biggest guitarist - Moore – ‘was back in town’ and recorded one of their best albums, Black Rose. But Moore’s homecoming was brief and when he left, the band had their best moments behind them.

6. Fleetwood Mac

Fleetwood Mac
began with one of the best guitarists in history and finished achieving world fame with another totally different guitarist, and along the way had various other ‘names’ who also contributed their grain of sand to the band. Peter Green founded Fleetwood Mac in 1967 and decided to name them after his preferred drummer and bassist, tired of all the pomp that surrounded the ‘guitar hero’. Jeremy Spencer was soon added to the line up, playing slide guitar, so as not to have all the focus on Green. He specialized on Elmore James tunes and his best moment with the band arrived with Shake your money maker. We have already spoken extensively of Green, who is one of the best guitarists of all time, as can be seen on Need your love so bad, Black Magic Woman, Oh Well and The Green Manalishi. Danny Kirwan joined when he was 18, to help Green with his compositions and little by little eclipsed Spencer as second best guitarist; his work can be appreciated on Albatross and Dragonfly, now with Green outside of the band. The curse of Fleetwood Mac’s guitarists continued when Spencer also left the group in strange circumstances and Kirwan fell into a spiral of alcoholism that led to his expulsion. But at that time Bob Welch was already in the band and they then added Bob Weston. But it was not until 1975 when Mick Fleetwood found the guitarist who would convert them into one of the most famous groups in history, Lindsey Buckingham, who together with Stevie Nicks led the band who would record the outstanding Rumours, in a style that was completely different to the rock of Green.

5. Lynyrd Skynyrd

When Al Kooper discovered
Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1972 and decided to record an album, the band only had two guitarists, Allen Collins and Gary Rossington. However, while they were recording their bass player, Leon Wilkeson, left and the group decided to invite Ed King, the guitarist of Strawberry Alarm Clock, to take up his place. He did, but when Wilkeson returned to the fold, after the recording of their debut, King moved to guitar and Lynyrd Skynyrd became a triple mortal threat. Collins was responsible for one of the best solos in history, that of Freebird, and Rossington became the principal guitarist on most of the album, on tracks like Tuesday's Gone and Gimme Three Steps. King then pulled out of his sleeve one of the best known riffs in history and put lead guitar on the song that is most associated with the band, Sweet Home Alabama. Few groups in history have been able to boast three guitarists like this on a stage, but in 1975 King decided to leave. The sound of the band was so associated with three guitarists that they opened auditions immediately, with names like Leslie West on the table, but the perfect replacement was a lot closer home, with Steve Gaines, the younger brother of Cassie, one of the group’s backing singers. His Stratocaster is at the height of - but not above - the other three of Skynyrd, one of the great guitar bands of all time. The worst is that the second trio of aces could only be together for a year and a half before a plane accident killed both Gaines and Ronnie Van Zandt, the band’s singer.

4. Rolling Stones

Keith Richards
is the man behind the ‘Stone’ sound, besides being the best rhythm guitarist in history, author of the most incredible ‘riffs’ and of memorable solos like Sympathy for the devil and Gimme shelter, but at the moment of choosing who has been his best colleague, things are not so clear. Brian Jones could be the most important, and not only because he created the band, but because his musical contributions as a multi-instrumentalist are significant. In the mix is also the guitarist, Mick Taylor who barely has a rival, as he played some of the best solos (Sway, Can't You Hear Me Knocking and Rocks off) and participated on the best albums. Lastly, Ronnie Wood could also be considered the perfect bandmate for Richards, both on and off the stage.

3. John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers

John Mayall
called his band Bluesbreakers when he joined with ‘God’ in 1965. Eric Clapton had left the Yardbirds with the ‘belief of a purist’ that they were distancing themselves from the blues. Together they recorded the most important album in the history of British blues music - and made thousands of boys buy a Gibson Les Paul - Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton. When he left to form Cream Peter Green substituted him, which is like God substituting Allah, or something similar, and when he left to found Fleetwood Mac, Mayall found Mick Taylor at 18, who when he left two years later did not found any mythical group, but became a Rolling Stone. Perhaps Mayall is not Muddy Waters but the man knows how to find a guitarist. Not for nothing, despite the fact that he stopped using the Bluesbreakers moniker after Taylor left the band, people like Harvey Mandel, Walter Trout or Coco Montoya continued to pass through his band.

2. The Allman Brothers

The Allman Brothers were built on the legendary figure of Duane Allman, one of the two or three best guitarists in history, who had at his side the great Dickey Betts, to complement his SG with the devilish Les Paul of the older Allman. Marvels like Whipping Post and Blue sky are the stone on which the southern rock was built and showed how this pair understood each other telepathically. After the tragic death of Duane in 1973, the band continued with Betts as the only guitarist; and in 1978 he joined with Dan Toler but could not repeat the magic of the early period. After a period apart they came together again in 1989, this time with Warren Haynes on the other guitar. Haynes came from Betts’ band and they understood each other to perfection as can be seen on their first album together, Seven Turns. Following another break, in 2000 Haynes was substituted by the young Derek Trucks, the drummer’s nephew, but the fights between Betts and Gregg Allman arrived at the point of no return and the second original guitarist left the band. Few cared for them but after a brief spell with Jimmy Herring, Haynes returned to the flock and his connection with Trucks gave the band a second youth. It is only necessary to remember that when in 2003 the magazine Rolling Stone made its ranking of the 100 best guitarists, all four - Duane, Betts, Haynes and Trucks – were on the list.


But this list can only end with one band in first place, the Yardbirds. Here was where Clapton built the figure of the ‘guitar hero’,
Jeff Beck took the guitar to places it had never been before and finally, it served as inspiration for Jimmy Page to found the definitive rock band. Little more can be said of a group that has had three of the greatest guitarists of all times in its ranks. Certainly if we examine the various periods of the Yardbirds, the period of Beck is the most fertile and creative, as he pioneered the psychedelia and hard rock that Page would then perfect in Led Zeppelin. Even though the three never coincided, Beck and Page were together for a few months in which they recorded a few songs like the great Happenings Ten Years Time Ago.

Video Selections