Top 20 most influential guitarists

My personal list of the top 20 guitarist ever (in reverse order)

Updated 2015:

Frank Evans 1930-2007

The legendary Frank Evans 1930-2007

After revisiting my list, I realized that there were some glaring omissions.  It is a list of popular guitarist that influenced or inspired my playing.  Missing was the late Frank Evans 1930-2007.  I was never one of his students, but I would hear him often at his residencies around Bristol when Dad would dep for his regular bass player. On a number of occasions he came around the house to rehearse for a BBC up coming broadcast.  I remember wondering at the time why he was not better known, but I later found out that he did not like the London scene and refused to fly, cutting off a huge audience in the US.

I was lucky enough to sit in with Frank on a number of occasions and he is sadly missed by myself and his fans who keep a tribute page going for him on Facebook.  I would dearly love to hear him again, but a trawl of Youtube brought nothing.  I remember him playing a battered old blonde es175 with the scratch guard removed because his hands were too large to play it comfortably.  He left behind many arrangements.  I recall seeing him playing Nuages on the Spanish guitar.  The sound was sweet and melancholy and the memory of it still makes me feel tearful.  R.I.P.  Frank.

Another omission from the original list was Pat Metheny.  I have received so much mail about this, but in truth, I never really liked his playing.  I don’t know why.  He seemed to press the right notes but I just felt unable to connect with the music emotionally.  On the other hand Pat Martino truly did make me want to hear more.  I don’t know why he was not included.  Probably because I did not start listening to him until much later.  However, he is someone who by any measure shows truly remarkable talent.

There is also the talent of Howard Roberts.  I remember wondering what he must sound like, when I was a student, as I had one of his books that illustrated near impossible scales and harmonic constructions.  At the time the most expensive guitar in the Gibson Catalogue was a Howard Roberts Special.  I later discovered some tracks by Howard on Youtube.  Fascinating…

I have not mentioned my instructors in this list.  For the most part, the are not well known, but they deserve more success than they are credited with.   They include my great friend Mike Britton as well as Jack Toodood, Mike Watson and Dave Godden.  I am deeply appreciative of the time they spent trying to teach me to play better than I did.

The final omission from the original list was the  fact that no women were included.  It is true that the world of guitar is dominated by men, but there are talented ladies also. Here is an attempt to redress the balance.

Best female jazz guitarist:

Emily RemlerEmily Remler I still feel a little sad when I think of what could have been had Emily not died of a heart attack aged 32.  She is loved and remembered by her fan club who still keep a torch burning for her on the web.  Photo, courtesy of Here she is playing one of my favourite tunes

My all time top 20 most influential guitarists:

20 Paco de LuciaPaco de Lucia 1947 – 2014, Winner of the prestigious 2004 Prince of Asturias award for the arts and sorely missed by music lovers the world over.  Loved by me for his recording of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, for which he had to learn to read music.  Unloved by Spanish guitarist Narciso Yepes, who called it “terrible” and “lacking technique“.   Not so,  the performance is brilliant and in the spirit of the original composition, as confirmed by Rodrigo, who was in the audience at the time.  See if you agree
19 Guitarist Bill ConnorsBill Connors, Pictured here playing an L5!!!  The first rock guitarist that really turned me on to Jazz.  I heard Bill in 1974 with Chick Corea’s Return to Forever band.  If your nerves can take it, check out this recording of Layla, stick with it to hear some lunatic guitar work at the end.  Definitely not the ‘Slow Hand’ Eric Clapton version!
18 Martin TaylorMartin Taylor, “One of the most awsome solo guitarists in the history of the instrument”. (says Pat Metheny).  By the way, sorry you did not make it to my list Pat, another legend, but not an influence on me.  You can see from the diary, Martin likes to keep busy (when does he find time to practice?) Stomping at the Savoy …
17 Kenny BurrellKenny Burrell, playing it cool for years, a distinct style, I especially like the nylon string guitar recordings as featured on Moon & Sand from 1979 for 32 Jazz.
16 John PizzarelliJohn Pizzarelli, This guy sings as well as he plays guitar. I hate him for it.  🙁  IMHO an utterly brilliant guitarist and son of the infamous Bucky Pizzarelli who is also no slouch.Check out this live version of  I Got Rhtythm Holy crapppp!!!
15 Django ReinhardtDjango Reinhardt, arguably the most influential guitarist of all time. Famous for the Hot Club of France gypsy style of jazz with violinist Stephane Grappelli.  Notice the tweed jacket.  Did John Pizzarelli (pictured above) inherit it?  Django overcame a crippling hand injury to become the most famous guitarist of a generation.
14 Jim MullenJim Mullen, the most beloved British Fusion Jazz Guitarist. Playing with his thumb instead of a pic and at amazing speed.  I especially love his early recordings with Dick Morrisey as well as the Organ Trio. He just keeps getting better and better.  Check the fluid and confident phrasing, as he plays on   If you read music, follow the score here
13 Andres SegoviaaAndres Segovia, the master.  I was lucky enough to hear him play in my home town when I was 14.  Heiter Villa Lobos dedicated his famous 12 etudes after the 1928 US tour.  Early recordings of his Bach transcriptions were inspirational for me.  Whilst there are many fine Spanish guitarists playing today.  The most evocative sounds ever made on the guitar remain those of this gentle genius.
12 Tal FarlowTal Farlow, I was lucky enough to hear Tal playing in Cardiff on his last tour of UK.  My father was on Bass and he was accompanied by Mike Britton. Tal Played some very strange sounding lines, but it was great to see and hear this icon of the Jazz guitar playing live.  Sadly he died in 1998 🙁
11 Baden PowellBaden Powell de Aquino, not the Scout Master, just one of the great Brazilian guitarist.  Once you have heard this, there is no going back.I love his rhythmic vibrant style, which is hard to imitate.  The world is a poorer place without him.
10 Johnny SmithJohnny Smith, Harmonic genius of the Cool School and one of my all time heroes!  You need fingers two feet long to imitate the closed-position chord voicings which characterize his playing. Best known for his critically acclaimed 1952 Moon Light in Vermont album featuring Stan Getz.  The Johnny Smith sound, inimitable…
9 Yamandu CostaYamandu Costa, right now arguably the finest guitarist in Brazil today.  Brutally fast, melodic, accurate and a true prodigy.  He plays a 7 string guitar and exploits the extended range with technical brilliance to produce a distinctly Brazilian sound. Hearing Yamandu changed the whole way I think about guitar.  Check out his version of Disparada
8 Louis StewartLouis Stewart, pictured here with Bobby Wellins. Some have said that he is one of the finest bebop guitarist alive. Don’t take my word for it, check this out
7 Charlie ChristianCharlie Christian without doubt the most influential jazz guitarist to ever have lived. Died aged only 25 . A swing guitarist of the Benny Goodman era, energetic and inspiring.  I never get tired of listing to Swing to the Bop from the jam sessions recorded at Minton’s Playhouse NYC 1941.
6 Jim HallJim Hall makes playing the guitar sound easy. It’s not. I love his sensitive and thought provoking style of playing.  Its deep!  The recordings with Paul Desmond are my favourite.  Here he is playing with the awesome pianist Petrucciani, who is sadly no longer with us.  Beautiful Love
5 Herb Ellis 2006 image courtesy of Vernon HydeHerb Ellis, a seriously influential guitarist for me.   I especially liked the recordings with Joe Pass.  I recall he was difficult to work with when I engineered sound at a Bristol concert years back. Probably jet-lag. The session included an arrangement of Georgia, which I still play 😉  Image thanks to Vernon Hyde  . Here is the cantankerous old bugger strutting his stuff
4 Wes MontgomeryWes Montgomery if you have never heard of him, what planet have you been living on?  Played with his thumb instead of a plectrum, giving a smooth rounded sound.  My favourite album is the 1960 Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery as quartet with Tommy Flanagan on piano.  Here he is playing Round Midnight
3 Barney KesselBarney Kessel, the guitarist who most influenced me on plectrum guitar. A great session musician who recorded for the Beachboys as well as The Monkeys.  My favourite Kessel album is the 1957 Poll Winners with Shelly Manne and Ray Brown.  Here he is on an old video playing Autumn Leaves voicing some of the bass notes in the left hand with his thumb.  True five fingered playing… (Emily Remler did not approve of this style, saying that it was “playing like Jimmy Hendrix”)!
2 George BensonGeorge Benson funky and brilliant, can sing a bit 😉   When I heard him at the Birmingham NEC a few years back, a woman next to me said “I did not know he could play guitar “. Hell yes!!!   I learned later that he spent a day playing with local hero Frank Evans after playing a concert at the Colston Hall.  I would have loved to have heard that!  For me, his greatest album remains Weekend in La, I especially love his rendition of Broadway.
1 Joe PassJoe Pass the most influential and for me personally, the greatest guitarist of all time. Others have imitated his style, but he was the first and still is the best IMHO. Immaculate, precise pick work and finger-style jazz guitar. I saw him play at Ronnie Scott’s in 1985.  At the time there were notices in Ronnie’s asking guests to keep their voice down during the performance.A couple in front (who had no interest in the music were loudly quaffing Champagne.  Joe played for a while and then calmly stood up whilst continuing to play.  He glided towards the noisy couples table genially playing the ballad, Here Comes That Rainy Day .   Everyone in the room held their breath, as it was known that Joe could have a bit of a temper.

The couple continued with their banter failing to notice a towering balding guitarist, who at this stage was  menacingly leaning over their table.  All of a sudden Joe thrust the neck of the guitar between them and hammered out a sequence of deafening flamenco  chords.  The couple sprang apart as if a bucket of iced water had been thrown over them.  The whole audience erupted into a chorus of cat calls, cheering and wild applause.  Joe returned to his chair still playing and said nothing…  Here he is playing Satin Doll

What started off as 10 minutes of fun, posting a few lines about my favourite guitarists turned into a bit of a marathon.  However, in doing so I am reminded of my place in the order of things.  I have really enjoyed putting together this list and revisiting some of the music I grew up with.

Let me know who you would vote for.

32 thoughts on “Top 20 most influential guitarists”

    1. I love the nylon strung guitar and there can be no doubting the huge influence of Charlie Byrd, especially after the 1962 Jazz Samba Album with Stan Getz. However, I felt that on this and other recordings, his improvisation was a little wooden. It was my personal opinion at the time, yet everyone seemed to love him. So I can honestly say that he didn’t influence my own playing. This changed after a trip to the UK visiting my father, bassist, Clive Morton. He told me about a short tour he had just done with guitarist, Nate Najar. I asked him what he was like, as I had never heard of him. “Great, he had a lovely sound.” I was a little surprised; Dad is not known for giving out compliments to guitarists. I picked up an album that Nate had given him. It was titled Remembering Charlie Byrd. Oh dear, I probably wouldn’t be able to listen to this for very long. The only thing is, I loved it. Nate studied with Charlie Byrd and dedicated the whole album to him. I rate his playing highly, the improvisations have a flow and harmony that is profound. It is was I would call; accessible Jazz; easy listening but also subtle and technical. So, thank you, Nate, if that is you. I am going to take another shot at listening to Charlie Byrd 😉

  1. Nice list, but you’re forgetting the two
    Pats. Pat Metheney and Pat Martino.
    Shame on you. How about a bigger list.

  2. What no Pat Metheny? where have you been on the planet listing to rap? Best I have heard as a jazz player in my 71 years.How many Grammies like 22?

    1. Oh no, not another why oh why is Pat Metheny not on the list of the “oh so important top rated jazz guitarist?” Actually, I am not keen on rap either, but I also found Pat’s music a little unmemorable and lacking in the excitement that cuts through clearly in some of those early recordings of Django, Christian, Pass and Tal Farlow. I have the greatest respect for his achievements and for the fact that he has been able to motivate so many people to do more with the guitar. However, I cannot imagine why he has won all those Grammies. I am guessing that the awards were for record sales as opposed to Jazz guitar innovation, technique or style. I also am a great fan of Pat Martino, but whilst I love his music and admire the technique, I have never wanted to play like him. I get many emails from guitar students who are frustrated rock guitarists studying jazz in the hope that they too will be able to play like Metheny, but my question is, why? What is the point in singing like Frank Sinatra or playing guitar like George Benson. My advice to all guitarists young and old is develop your own style. One that is memorable, remember to make your phrases musical, not just a sea of demisemiquavers. The music is what matters most and will be what you are ultimately remembered for. Fastest guitarist in the west? Quickest forgotten. Play from your soul not just from your body…

  3. Your list says Top 20 Influential Guitarists, not MY Top 20 Influential Guitarists. The fact that you did not include Pat Metheny as one of the Top 20 Influential Guitarists immediately discredits the entire list and your opinion. Clearly, Metheny is one of the most important jazz guitarists ever, so any list without him is flawed and utterly without merit. His sheer body of work, guitar technique, sound, compositional work, improvisational skills and experimental works clearly put him on the list somewhere.

  4. Thanks for this post. I didn’t know Yamandu Costa and will definitely listen to some of his music, as he is my age and I love nylon guitar players and brazilian music !
    Have you ever heard Sylvain Luc play ? He’s a french phenomenon, the guy often plays solo in concert, improvising.

  5. Kessel once said ‘The greatest of us all is unquestionably Wes Montgomery’
    Joe Pass said ‘Who do you feel was the last guitar innovator?: Wes Montgomery. There hasn’t been anything really new since then. To me there have only been three real innovators on the guitar – Wes, Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt.’

    So Wes can’t be left at number 4 but MUST be number 1 guitarist of all history, followed by Charlie Christian and Django. Then Joe Pass and Barney Kessel.

    Also, I would never have put Pizzarelli on the chart leaving a master like Joao Gilberto out of it!

  6. I completely agree about Joe Pass, he is the greatest guitarist that has ever lived, any time any style. Even with classical guitarists like Manuel Barrueco walking around I still think this is the case.

  7. Just perused your list Al. Any listing is going to be subjective, but as a rounded intelligent informed choice, your suggestions could/should be put in a time capsule for the Throglians of Arg Outer Rim Survey to dig up in the fifty third century. I suppose I mean you’ve got as near veracity/validity as is possible, in a world in which George Harrison is indisputably the most famous/highest paid guitarist who ever lived, according to most of the planet, who’s average I.Q. is now officially below room temperature.

    1. Thanks for your comments Mike, but everyone knows that the Throglians of Arg outer rim are nothing more than a bunch of cloth-eared, goat guitar strumming, chinless extra twatestrial oafs that couldn’t help their mothers make a bitch pie, let alone appreciate the subtle harmonic differences between George Benson’s sublime solo on Stella by Starlight and George Harrison’s interpretation of a cat being run over by a lawn mower on ‘My Sweet Lord’.

      There are references to Throglian poor taste in music in the definitive Encyclopaedia of Galactic Guitar Tuition, published on earth in coded format under the generic brand a ‘Tune a Day’. The follow up to the massively popular “50 Worst Guitar Solos in Zero Gravity”, “Deep Space Bar Chords for Astronauts and Environmental Suit”, “Air Guitar for Dummies” and “An Introduction to Jazz for Deities, Multi Dimensional Beings and Eric Clapton”.

      As you can probably tell, I am still off my medication, but I wanted to respond anyway, as yours was one of the few comments that didn’t call for me to be lynched by an angry mob for leaving Pat Metheny off the list. With regards to planetary IQ being officially below room temperature, could global warming possibly be responsible for raising the bar on this much maligned indicator of human stupidity?

  8. Dude!
    I liked your top twenty list very much, and I totally agree with Joe Pass being the first. He’s my first favourite jazz guitarist, too. I’d probably get Wes some positions up, anyway. There aren’t enough first places for the ones we’d vote for, that’s why we make top 5, 10, 20, 100 lists…
    Although I love Paco and the Brazilian guys (I’m a Brazilian myself, as well as I’m a fan of flamenco music), I don’t acknowledge them as jazz guitar players (neither is Secovia), if we consider that most of the others are traditional jazz musicians from a strict point of view. But your list is awsome.
    I didn’t know the ladies. My bad; I know a lot of female jazz singers from now and then, but female jazz guitarists, it seems like I still have a lot to learn.
    If the other kids are criticizing your PERSONAL preferences, to hell with them.
    Let the good music be played!
    Best regards,
    Luis Felipe

  9. I play folkish acoustic and use open turnings a lot, so my own list would include Ralph Towner, John Renbourne and Bert Jansch. Leo Kottke too. Great to see Joe Pass at the top of yours.

  10. A very personal exercise, and very enjoyable… but for me personally Kenny Burrell would always have to be at the top, possibly because he plays music and just happens to use a guitar to do so …

    1. Thank you for commenting Steve. You are right about Kenny Burrell. I just love the sensitivity and light touch that he brings to his music. I played Moon and Sand over and over and have to say that the acoustic guitar numbers on the album are my absolute favourite recordings.

  11. Great post.

    Just started jazz and I am a fan of Pat Metheny. Dissapointed to not to see Pat in your list but as you said it is the list of greats that influenced your playing and i totally respect it..

    Few of the guys in your list were totally new to me. Guys like Yamandu Costa, Louis, Jim Mullen, Martin Taylor(didnt knew he was that good untill now) totally blew my mind. Im sure listening to them will help improve my jazz vocabulary to a large extend. Thanks.

    1. Guarav, you are more than welcome. Thanks for your comment. All of these guitarists made a difference to the way that I play jazz. I think Steve Mars hit the nail on the head when he talked about Kenny Burrell playing music rather than just being a guitarist. I feel like that about George Benson. If I can give one bit of advice to anyone starting out in jazz guitar, it would be to play music and not just scales. Nobody cares if you play a flat 5 scale, but they will remember if you play with feeling and with your soul.

    1. Thank you Bill. At the risk of repeating myself, it is a list of guitarists who most influenced my own playing. Not an ordered list of the the world’s greatest guitarist. Otherwise the list would include Pat Metheny and without doubt the incredible Stanley Jordan. I am interested to know where you would rank Pat though? Where would new guys on the block such as Frank Vignola appear? I love his clean style of plectrum guitar and would definately include him on my new list.

  12. Hello Gil, thank you for commenting. Charlie Christian is first on the list because it is a list of guitarists who have most influenced my own playing. I had not become familiar with the Grant Green until much later. I also agree that it is a silly list, but it was only created for fun and then I found I could not leave it alone. As for Emily, YES she was a great guitarist period. She is only in the same category as Orianthi, because she happens to be female. There is no comparison. Orianthi, should not be on the list, as she had no influence on my playing. Don’t you think that it is interesting that there are so few female jazz guitarists though? Emily really did make a difference. I was facinated that she thought it was wrong to stop the bass notes in the left hand with the thumb. She thought that people who played like that were trying to play like Jimmy Hendrix!!! Tell that to Barney Kessel, Maybe she already has, sadly neither are with us anymore.

  13. Charlie Christian is first on the list of influential jazz guitarists.
    No Grant Green? Thats a silly list you got…
    ps Emily Remler doesnt desrve to be classified as a great “female” jazz guitarist, she was a great jazz guitarist period. DONT PUT HER IN THE SAME CATAGORY AS THAT FLASHY MONEY MAKER. EMILY WAS AN ARTIST- BIG DIFFERNCE.

    1. Hey, I’m pretty sure these are the most influential guitarists on HIS playing. But you’re right about Christian and I agree that Emily Remler is light years ahead of Orianthi. She gets overrated by unintelligent rockers just because she’s a girl, when really she’s just pretty good.

  14. Are you guys kidding me? How can you leave out Earl Klugh? Oh, MOST INFLUENTIAL, not BEST…because I would not have any respect for you if Earl was left off THE BEST GUITAR PLAYERS OF ALL TIME list.

    1. Sorry Jim but I do not think that someone who specialises in “smooth jazz” is influential and/or the best guitarist.
      I have transcribed some of Earl’s music and have concluded that he is great to listen to up north at the cottage but if I want to see a concert, it would be someone else

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