The only thing more fun that jamming out on your guitar is arguing with your friends over which guitarist is the best and why. Whether it’s Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, or Steve Vai, everyone has a different opinion on who’s the best. But rather than who’s the best, a more interesting question perhaps is who’s the most underrated?
With thousands of guitar players to choose from, it’s easy to come up with any number of arguments for who you think is the most underrated of all time. Some players are forgotten because their band split or faded away, some were always in the shadows and never made a name for themselves, and others are just incorrectly viewed as average. Whatever the reason, these are the fifteen most underrated guitarists who deserve a reevaluation.
15. Paul McCartney – The Beatles, Wings, Solo
This might be controversial to say, considering Paul McCartney’s reputation as a musician, but he really is an underrated guitarist. McCartney is primarily thought of as a bass player, but he only played bass in The Beatles because no one else would; he was (and still is) a guitar player at heart.
Throughout his time with The Beatles, Wings, and his solo work, McCartney was writing and playing guitar parts in the studio, while seldom performing them live. McCartney often played acoustic guitar live on tracks like “Blackbird” and “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” but these performances fail to convey the full scope of McCartney’s playing ability.
With the Beatles, McCartney played the solos on “Taxman” and “Drive My Car,” most guitar parts on “Helter Skelter,” and the guitar solo on “Good Morning, Good Morning.” He also played the majority of the guitar parts on the legendary Wings album, Band on the Run. McCartney also played all the guitar parts (as well as every other instrument) on his initial 1970 solo album, McCartney. McCartney’s guitar style is simplistic and devoid of many basic techniques due to not ever taking formal lessons. But his guitar playing has been excellent regardless.
Even though McCartney is arguably the greatest rock musician of all time, he is still one of history’s most underrated guitarists.
14. Lindsey Buckingham – Fleetwood Mac
The best part of Fleetwood Mac is that Lindsey is the guy, and Stevie is the girl.
(Hold For Laughs)
But on a more serious note, Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham is a very underrated guitarist and doesn’t get the credit he deserves. First off, the guy never uses a guitar pick, which is very rare for a lead guitar player. He just uses his fingers, giving him more variety in the way that he plays. He can pluck multiple strings at a time and play certain strings harder or softer than others. Second, he uses some of the weirdest tunings that you’ve ever heard. Buckingham has utilized several different open-tunings and even lesser known and very rare tunings to help create a signature sound. This can be seen even more so in his solo work and touring.
Buckingham is a textbook case of the “supporting guitarist.” He doesn’t try to take over the mix with his playing, or be the main attraction of the music. His style is all about supporting the overall sound of the song. This has unfortunately contributed to his underrated status as a guitarist.
While Lindsey Buckingham doesn’t stand center stage and solo for hours on end, his playing is just what Fleetwood Mac’s sound needed. Buckingham isn’t a virtuoso but he’s still an incredible guitarist.
13. Steven Wilson – Porcupine Tree, Solo
Porcupine Tree is one of those bands that if you’re a guitarist, you’ve always had a buddy that keeps telling you to “Just listen to ‘In Absentia,’ it’s unreal!” Well, whether you think Porcupine Tree is “unreal” or not, you can’t say a bad word about Steven Wilson’s guitar playing.
Wilson is kind of grouped into that category of “people don’t realize he’s the lead guitarist, because he’s the singer.” It happens to a lot of lead-singing guitarists, like Prince. For over 20 years, Wilson was the brain of Porcupine Tree, writing the band’s lyrics and most of the music himself. Wilson’s guitar work with Porcupine Tree has included many different styles, depending on the direction that the band was going at any particular time. His earlier work features minimalist, jangly arpeggios and his later work features heavy, overdriven tones. Where Wilson truly shines is his ability to layer guitar tracks to build a sort of “wall of sound” effect, but still keep the listener engaged and enthralled by what each guitar part is doing. A great example of this can be seen on the Porcupine Tree track “Anesthetize.”
Wilson’s guitar work really became prominent in 2002 with the release of the aforementioned album, In Absentia. He embarked upon a heavier tone, utilizing drop-tunings more often and featuring much richer, complex guitar solos. As the singer and sole song-writer in Porcupine Tree, Wilson gets overlooked as a guitarist but truly is one of the most underrated axe-men of the last 25 years.
12. Kim Thayil – Soundgarden
The recent passing of Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell has helped bring Soundgarden’s music back into the mainstream in the form of tributes and eulogies to Cornell’s life. This resurgence has also reminded music fans of Kim Thayil’s guitar work in the band.
Most people just remember Soundgarden as the grunge band with killer vocals and great musicianship. Kim Thayil often went without recognition as an individual because he wasn’t seen as a “guitar hero.” This is just wrong, as Thayil’s sound and playing style were a quintessential part of Soundgarden’s music.
Thayil’s heavy-riffing style helped create the “Seattle Sound” of the early 1990s along with other grunge bands of the time. Thayil’s use of alternate and strange guitar tunings have helped give his a unique sound to his guitar tone and an air of originality.
Soundgarden will always be most remembered for Chris Cornell’s soaring vocals, but Kim Thayil should be given more credit for his contribution to the band’s sound.
11. Graham Coxon – Blur, Solo
I was an Oasis guy, so I grew up hating Blur and never really bothered listening to them. Once I finally stopped being stupid and got some Blur albums, I was immediately drawn to Graham Coxon’s guitar playing and thought “how have I never heard of this guy!?”
Graham Coxon is one of the best guitarists of the 1990s, especially the Britpop era. His minimalist style and simplistic solos were perfect for the style of music that Blur was creating. But Coxon could also take centre-stage with his playing, which can be seen on Blur’s debut album, Leisure. Coxon’s ability to play many different styles is where he truly shines. From the overdriven dance song “Girls and Boys” to the clean arpeggiated playing on “Tender,” Coxon has played it all.
Although Coxon’s guitar playing is not overwhelmingly complex, his playing is almost signature to him. Coxon plays things in a different way than most people would. For example, the solo on “Country House” sounds so weird and out of the ordinary, but it works perfectly for the cocky-swinging track.
Graham Coxon isn’t your classic guitar hero, but he is THE guitar hero of the Britpop era and maybe even 1990s mainstream rock.
10. Richie Sambora – Bon Jovi, Solo
So it might shock you to learn that a lot of people actually don’t realize that Bon Jovi is a band. A fair amount of people think that John Bon Jovi is a solo artist and the rest of the dudes on stage are his supporting band. Nope, they’re an actual band, with actual members, the most talented of which is former lead guitarist, Richie Sambora.
Sambora has been the guitarist behind Bon Jovi’s sound since the early 1980s. Sambora’s playing changed throughout the band’s lifespan, depending on their sonic direction. Sambora’s 1980s sound features soaring, high speed solos, heavy riffs, and extended whammy bar use. Sambora’s later work with Bon Jovi has more of an alternative rock feel, and a lot more acoustic guitar work. Sambora is known for utilizing dozens of different guitars in a single live show, each set to a different output level and with different effects, depending on the song. This has allowed him to cover a wide array of tones throughout his career.
Sambora toured with Bon Jovi for over 25 years but he doesn’t really get the credit he deserves. He is an incredible technical player and has played so many styles. His acoustic work is second-to-none and he’s written some very memorable riffs. Sambora really should get more credit for his guitar playing prowess, as the guy really could play anything if he wanted to. Richie Sambora is definitely one of the most underrated guitarists of all time.
9. John Squire – The Stone Roses
John Squire makes this list and you’ve probably never heard of him, even though he played guitar in one of the most revolutionary bands in music history, The Stone Roses. The Stone Roses were at the forefront of Manchester’s “Madchester” movement of the 1980s and their first album is often listed as on of the greatest debuts of all time, with NME even naming it in the top 10 greatest album of all time.
Squire’s guitar playing is prominent on every Stone Roses track as the driving force behind the music. His chiming melodies and infectious riffs are what make The Stone Roses great. Squire’s use of Chorus and Reverb effects have created a signature for which he’s known. But Squire’s playing is not limited to chiming arpeggios and chordal structures. He also has a wide array of blues-rock solos and heavily distorted slide guitar riffs.
The Stone Roses aren’t well known outside of the UK, but anyone who hears them immediately recognizes the guitar work as the standout part of their sound. As the guitarist for one of the most influential bands of the past 30 years, it’s unfortuante that John Squire is so underrated as a guitarist.
8. Wes Borland – Limp Bizkit
Yes, Limp Bizkit sucks. They’d be on the Mount Rushmore of terrible bands in human history. Their cooky rap-rock style and lyrics about unwarranted teenage angst have helped put them in the upper echelons of god awful music. But to be fair, most of this is due to Fred Durst and his antics. What many people may not realize is that, hidden within Limp Bizkit’s terrible rap-rock tracks, there is actually some great guitar work.
Limp Bizkit’s guitar player, Wes Borland, is actually an incredibly talented musician and if you listen to a few Limp Bizkit tracks, you can actually hear a lot of great riffs. Borland uses several different playing styles and throughout his time in Limp Bizkit, utilized seven-string guitars for an even more innovative sound. Few guitarists in rock at the time would even consider using a seven-string, but Borland embraced it and wrote some of his best riffs with it.
Borland is especially renown for his distinct clean and overdriven tones and the way he marries them together. Many of Limp Bizkit’s tracks feature Borland jumping back and forth between exceptionally clean guitar tones and hard-hitting overdriven tones, helping to support Fred Durst’s vocal “themes.”
You can say what we want about Fred Durst and argue Limp Bizkit’s appeal as a band all you want, but you can’t argue that Wes Borland isn’t an exceptional — and very underrated — guitarist.
7. Johnny Marr – The Smiths, Modest Mouse, Solo
Whenever I think of Johnny Marr, I’m reminded of an interview with fellow British rocker, Noel Gallagher, and his quote about Marr. “You can sit round the house and have a strum of Smiths songs, but you can’t actually play them, no one can.” That pretty much sums up Marr’s reputation as a guitarist.
Johnny Marr got his start with The Smiths at the ripe age of 19 and was the driving force behind their short, up-tempo, driving tracks. Marr’s layered and overdubbed guitars never took over the mix, but were the perfect thing to support the singer. Marr isn’t known for being a classic “guitar hero.” Sure, he can solo with the best of them, but not much of his work in The Smiths, Modest Mouse, or his solo stuff features any lengthy guitar solos. Marr is all about supporting the vocalist and not muddying up the mix or taking centre stage with his playing.
Johnny Marr created a whole new way of playing chords, manipulating major and minor chords in his own way, so that they took on a whole new sonic coloring. Utilizing capoed-open chords and unorthodox finger positions allowed Marr to create chord progressions and arpeggios never before heard. His riffs involve so many fast paced notes, few can actually play them correctly. Check out this clip from the 2010 BBC documentary “I’m In A Rock ‘n’ Roll Band,” in which a couple of Marr’s contemporaries talk discuss how learning the riff was considered a badge of honor.
Hiding in the shadows on stage and hiding in the background of the mix has made Johnny Marr one of music’s most prominent underrated guitarists. It’s time we welcome him to center sage and gave him his due.
Prince could honestly be the most talented musician in human history. The guy played every instrument and played nearly all of them on each of his albums. But Prince’s primary instrument was the guitar and he surely doesn’t get enough credit as a guitar player.
First off, go to YouTube and watch his solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” during George Harrison’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. That video says more about Prince’s guitar chops than words ever could. Prince was a guitar virtuoso that nobody really knew about, as he was considered more of a pop star and performer. Prince frequently performed with a guitar, but was often involved in choreographed stage routines and other performance spectacles.
Prince’s best guitar work can be heard in his epic solos, most notably “Purple Rain.” Although a simple solo in technique, it evokes emotion in the listener and is just perfect for the track.
Prince will likely continue to have his guitar work overlooked for the foreseeable future, but he was honestly one of the greatest guitarists of his generation.
5. The Edge – U2
The Edge simply doesn’t get enough credit. Is he an incredible technical guitar player? No. Does he play blistering-fast, ten minute solos? No. But he’s created his own entire style of guitar playing by revolutionizing the way that guitar effects units are used.
Since U2’s first album in 1980, the Edge has been taking delay effects to a whole other level. His use of dotted eight note delay is recognizable immediately. You know when U2 comes on the radio because you can hear the Edge’s distinct style. His continued collecting of rack-mounted effects and midi-control units gives him a constantly changing tone. If you ever tried to be the Edge in a U2 cover band, you’d basically need a completely different guitar rig for every song.
Some people would argue that using a lot of effects is a crutch, or cheating. But that viewpoint is ridiculous. Almost every band you go see has a massive effects rack, regardless of what style of music they play. Effects units are part of being a guitar player in the 21st century. They allow for more creativity and help make a guitar player’s job easier.
But, what really makes the Edge great is that his guitar tone is different on every song. Rather than a guitar player like Noel Gallagher, whose overdriven sound is the same on every track, the Edge creates a new sonic workspace for each song. His use of dozens of different guitars also help lend complexity and variety to his tones.
So no, the Edge isn’t going to win a guitar battle with Jimmy Page. But, I don’t even really consider the Edge a guitar player. Jimmy Page actually said it best himself, The Edge is, in truth, a “sonic architect.”
4. Myles Kennedy – Alter Bridge, Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators
Yeah, Myles Kennedy plays the guitar too. He isn’t just a singer. In fact, Myles Kennedy is an INCREDIBLE guitar player, not just a chord-strumming leader singer in a rock band.
Kennedy is primarily known for being a very gifted singer, but his first job in music was actually as a guitar instructor. In fact, he played lead guitar in several bands before emerging as a frontman with Alter Bridge. He first began playing rhythm guitar in Alter Bridge to support lead guitarist Mark Tremonti’s playing, but Kennedy’s guitar playing has increased more and more since. His guitar skills are often highlighted during Alter Bridge shows when he and Tremonti will have a pseudo-guitar duel, swapping solos back and forth. Kennedy’s ability to play complex riffs while also singing is second-to-none; I honestly don’t know how he pulls it off.
As much as he’s known for his voice, Myles Kennedy should be known for his guitar chops. You could argue part of why he’s underrated is that he just doesn’t look for the spotlight with his playing. He even tried to hide his playing from Mark Tremonti when he first joined Alter Bridge so he didn’t step on Tremonti’s toes a lead player. But it’s time we give Kennedy the credit he deserves.
3. Mike McCready – Pearl Jam
To me, Mike McCready will always be the Jimi Hendrix of the 1990s. If you don’t believe me, go listen to the B-side “Yellow Ledbetter.” Hendrix could have written that song; in fact, I thought it was Hendrix the first time I heard it…until Eddie Vedder starting singing.
Mike McCready might be the best guitar player of the 1990s, even though he’s gone somewhat unnoticed. His blue-inspired style is signature to him alone. Not many guitarists on this list have had to share the spotlight with another guitarist, but McCready doesn’t lose any points for it. His back and forth playing with fellow Pearl Jam guitarist, Stone Gossard, is instantly recognizable. Even with another competing guitar, McCready found his own sonic space and you can tell right away which guitar is his. But what makes McCready truly unique is his dedication to simplicity. He employs were few effects pedals and stomp boxes, preferring to use just the tone of the guitar and amp, and lightly color it with other effects.
Pearl Jam is one of the most successful bands of the 1990s and it’s time their lead guitarist got some love. Mike McCready’s career has gone mostly unnoticed, making him one of the most underrated guitarists of all time.
2. Alex Lifeson – Rush
If you’re a rock guitar player and don’t know how to play at least one Rush riff, shame on you. Rush is one of the hardest rocking bands of all time. Alex Lifeson wrote some of the best riffs you’ll ever hear and they’re absolutely infectious and addictive. Yes, Rush sang about weird topics and the lyrics didn’t make a lot of sense, but who care? The music always brought the house down.
Alex Lifeson is one of the most underrated guitarists of all time and a lot of that has to do with the style of music that Rush plays. Progressive rock doesn’t exactly get a boatload of airplay on mainstream rock stations. But regardless of the genre, Lifeson’s playing is some of the best in rock history. Just listen to Rush’s “La Villa Stangiato” and tell me that’s not absolutely mind-bogglingly good. His ability to bounce back and forth from different complex time signatures without missing a beat is unbelievable. Lifeson’s complex riffs and solos are duplicated in Rush’s live shows to complete perfection. His playing is out-of-this-world-level incredible.
Unfortunately, being in a band comprised entirely of virtuoso musicians has left Lifeson somewhat overshadowed, with bassist Geddy Lee and drummer Neil Peart often getting all the attention. It’s time Alex Lifeson got his due. During his time with Rush, his playing spanned several genres, featured increasing levels of complexity, and his chops were always razor sharp. Lifeson is easily a top five members of the “Underrated Guitarists Club.”
1. Nick McCabe – The Verve
First off, if you haven’t sat down and listened to the Verve’s Urban Hymns album, you haven’t lived. Nick McCabe’s guitar work on that album is so incredible, you almost don’t realize it’s happening. McCabe revolutionized what I would call “atmospheric guitar playing.” He added so much to songs by adding so little. But the little he played was always absolutely perfect. Take the Urban Hymns song “Lucky Man,” for example. There are dozens of layered guitar parts going on that help to accent Richard Ashcroft’s acoustic guitar strumming. These parts are just enough for you to notice they’re there, but they don’t take over the song. Even McCabe’s solo on the track seems like a bridge, rather than a solo break. It all helps to make the song flow.
McCabe’s role in The Verve has always been as a side man, rather than a lead guitar player. Yes, he is the lead guitar player, but his playing helps to support the singer, rather than take over the track. His use of simplistic arpeggios and echo effects are exclusive to his tone. To this day, I have yet to hear another guitar player play the same thing that McCabe would play. McCabe is also known for being very meticulous about crafting guitar parts in the studio. So meticulous in fact, that several producers have claimed that he’s nearly impossible to work with; he never plays the same riff in the same way twice.
Due to the Verve’s relative (and completely unwarranted) status as a one hit wonder, McCabe’s contribution to music has gone almost unnoticed to the general listener. But if you really sit down and listen to the music, you’ll see that Nick McCabe is arguably the world’s most underrated guitarist.