Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, David Gilmour, Eric Clapton, take your pick for greatest guitar player of all time. No? Well, you can have Jeff Beck as well, or BB King. All these guitar players, and many, many more have become synonymous with the six stringed instrument, and justifiably so.
Every one of the aforementioned guitarists are exceptionally talented, and worthy of the praise they have received throughout their careers. But for every one of these guitarists who has defined an instrument there are some that are nearly as talented, perhaps as talented, or daresay even more talented than some of the more famous and well regarded guitar players that just never seem to rightfully get their due.
On this list, we have ten of those guitarists that largely fly far lower under the radar than many of their counterparts for whatever reason. Some are country or pop artists, one is known for extreme metal, one has run the gamut of styles through his career, and one guitarist is in a league of his own. Here are ten of the most underrated guitarists of all time.
10 Keith Urban
Though Keith Urban is associated with his pop country brand of music and inevitably more famous still for his marriage to Nicole Kidman, Urban is actually a very, very accomplished guitar player. While his radio flavored tracks may belie the true level of skill Urban posses, if you see the man perform live, where he has the ability to let loose freely with some truly incredible solos, his guitar playing skills become apparent. Beyond playing guitar, Urban also plays banjo, mandolin, bass and even the drums on his records, and sometimes can be spotted with a banjo live, but it is on the guitar where he truly shines. Urban began learning to play guitar at the age of six, and quickly became a Mark Knopfler devotee, studying the guitar legend's technique incessantly, which has no doubt made Urban the player he is today. As a true testament to the respect Urban is gaining as a legitimate guitarist outside his genre of music, he has released numerous best selling instructional DVDs.
9 Richie Sambora
Bon Jovi’s right hand man for nearly thirty years, Richie Sambora has co-written some of rock and roll’s biggest anthems, including “Living on a Prayer,” “You Give Love a Bad Name,” and “It’s My Life.” Beyond his exceptional song writing ability, Sambora is also a fantastic singer, arguably even better than his band’s namesake, and a very underrated guitarist. When rock guitarists are being debated and discussed, how often is Sambora’s name mentioned in the same breath as Joe Perry, or even Jimmy Page? And yet, Sambora’s subtle technique when crafting tasteful solos that serve the song he’s written, not overshadow it, as well as his mastery of the talk box often get overlooked. His unique blend of rhythm playing and lead riff lines during many of Bon Jovi’s most famous hits also adds to Richie Sambora’s exceptional talent as a guitar player. The biggest problem for Sambora, the problem that keeps him under the radar amongst guitar aficionados, is the fact that his primary strength is to always serve the song above all else, never overshadowing the greatness of the song to showcase his own abilities.
8 Mikael Akerfeldt
Undoubtedly the least known guitarist on this list, Sweden’s Mikael Akerfeldt plays in the progressive/death metal band Opeth. Over the course of the last twenty years Opeth, with Akerfeldt acting as their vocalist, guitarist, primary songwriter and even more recently, producer, has written some of the most exhilarating metal music of all time. While some of the heaviest aspects of Opeth, along with the death metal growled vocals Akerfeldt employs on many of their albums may turn some listeners off, true musicians, guitarists, and fans of great music in general would be doing themselves a disservice not to check out some of their videos. As influenced by 1970s progressive rock bands and free jazz (particularly on their last two, growl free albums) Opeth, driven by Akerfeldt, are musical wizards. There really isn’t much, if anything, Mikael Akerfeldt can’t play. Whether Akerfeldt is lashing out in full metal fury like on the track “The Grand Conjuration,” or playing a sole, classically picked, acoustic guitar on “Benighted,” or playing to off beat time signatures, like on “Deliverance,” in truth, he could most likely out play everyone else on this list. He occupies eighth place because, though he is virtually unknown outside of the heavy metal world, within it he is considered one of the most gifted talents of his time.
7 Mike McCready
Virtually everyone loves Pearl Jam, no? Ask the vast majority of Peal Jam fans who their lead guitarist is, and most wouldn’t know it’s Mike McCready. And yet, since the band’s debut album, Ten, released in 1991, McCready has consistently crafted brilliant solos and lead lines that, if absent, would make Pearl Jam an entirely different band. Lumped into the grunge genre of the early 90s with many other bands undeserving of the label, Pearl Jam has always, particularly on their earliest albums, their ‘grunge’ ones, felt like a 70s arena rock band, in no small part to McCready’s guitar playing. The solo that ends the track “Alive” from Ten is quite possibly one of the best guitar solos in modern rock history. McCready’s brilliant guitar playing, solo and all, on the iconic track “Yellow Ledbetter,” left guitarists drooling the world over, it really is phenomenal. Though he may have peaked in the earliest years of Pearl Jam’s fame, Mike McCready has remained rock solid and consistent in his song writing and guitar playing throughout the band's career.
6 Jerry Cantrell
Alice in Chains is another early 1990s band that got thrown into the grunge genre when, in reality, they owed more to Black Sabbath than anything else. A much darker band than any of the other bands that became popular during that time, Alice in Chains’ guitarist Jerry Cantrell, though widely recognized, never got the credit he deserved as a master riff writer and tasteful lead player. Coupled with his haunting voice, perfectly complimenting the late Layne Staley’s, and Alice in Chains were probably the best band of the early 90s. Though Staley received much of the music press and fan attention, Alice in Chains’ success was based on the strength of Cantrell’s songs, above all else. From their percussive driven first single with the heavy metal solo, “Man in the Box,” to the haunting tracks “Would?” and “What the Hell Have I?” Cantrell is a master at crafting skin crawling licks, heavier than earth riffs, and hauntingly melodic choruses. The band’s reunion success post Staley has also been based largely on the strength of Cantrell’s guitar playing and songwriting, proving that not only is he underrated, but he is, and always has been, the most integral piece of Alice in Chains.
5 Mark Tremonti
As a guitar player Mark Tremonti has never gotten the respect he deserves. In large part, that is no doubt because he is Creed’s guitarist and co-songwriter with the universally reviled Scott Stapp. Though his other, much better band, Alter Bridge gets a lot more respect, Tremonti will forever be known as the guy who wrote “With Arms Wide Open,” and that’s a shame because the guy is an incredible guitarist.
Tremonti claims that Metallica’s James Hetfield and Zakk Wylde of Ozzy Osbourne and Black Label Society fame are his main influences, and most often, it shows. Tremonti’s rhythm guitar playing is extremely tight, and very reminiscent of Hetfield’s, particularly on tracks such as “Metalingus,” while the Zakk Wylde influence shines through in many of the solos and licks he plays on the Alter Bridge albums.
While his playing is far more understated with the more popular Creed, with Alter Bridge Tremonti wears his influences on his sleeve. While only a handful of Creed songs show Tremonti’s full range, notably the solo in the reunion album track “Overcome,” singling out particular tracks would be near impossible when it comes to Alter Bridge, as almost every song showcases Tremonti’s formidable guitar playing. As a tip though, try “Metalingus” or “Coming Home” to hear a mix of intricate hard rock riffs, metal solos, and great songwriting.
3 John Mayer
It really is easy to hate John Mayer. His personal life is complete tabloid fodder, and he’s not exactly the best, or brightest interview. Save from a pretty funny stint on the Chappelle Show, John Mayer is known to most as a Dave Matthews-light, that guy who penned “Your Body is a Wonderland” and a purveyor of teeny bopper, FM radio pop music that no self respecting musician would listen to. And while the impression certainly holds some weight, in reality, if you dig enough on Youtube, or listen to his live albums it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that John Mayer is an incredibly talented guitarist. Like, an amazing guitar player, which is unsurprising as Mayer trained at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Massachusetts, one of the best music schools in the country. Check out his live work, and his acoustic finger style playing for proof. It’s painful to admit, but John Mayer is one of the best, and most underrated guitarists in music today.
2 Gary Moore
One of the most widely revered guitarists of his time by his peers, such as Brian May, Tony Iommi and Roger Taylor, and a guitarist who is cited nearly as often as many far more popular than him as an influence on their playing by such legends as Zakk Wylde, Kirk Hammet, Joe Bonamassa and Randy Rhoads, the late Gary Moore was widely respected, but never fully recognized for his talents during his life. Easily one of the most versatile players of all time, during his career the Irish guitarist recorded everything from progressive 70s rock to traditional Irish music, proto heavy metal and blues music. Though his hard rock/heavy metal albums of the later 1980s were his most popular based on the strength of singles like “Over the Hills and Far Away” (NOT the Led Zeppelin song), “Out in the Fields” and “After the War,” all of which showcase his immense lead guitar playing, the blues direction Moore transitioned into in the 1990s took him back to his roots and garnered him the most critical acclaim. For a good sample of Moore’s blues work check out some of the Youtube clips of him jamming. Sadly, with his death at age 58 the music world lost an incredible talent with many more years of guitar playing left.
1 Lindsey Buckingham
Let’s make two things clear: Lindsey Buckingham should need no introduction, nor should he be on a list of most underrated guitarists. But sadly, many music fans don’t even know who he is, and music journalists don’t give him the credit he deserves as a guitarist, vocalist and songwriter. Perhaps it’s a symptom of the band being so famous that the other members are overshadowed, but if that were true Stevie Nicks wouldn’t be synonymous with the band she shared with Buckingham, Fleetwood Mac. Whatever the reason for his insane talent being overlooked, Lindsey Buckingham is not only the most underrated guitarist of all time, he’s also one of the best, period. Buckingham employs a finger style method of playing guitar, he rarely uses a pick, and by employing this method he can play two, three, sometimes even four different rhythms and melodies at one time. Watch the live version of “Big Love” from the Fleetwood Mac reunion DVD The Dance. It is jaw dropping. Truly. And he is singing at the same time. Mega hits like “Go Your Own Way” with its distorted solo and heavy groove, and the atmospheric solo in the epic “Tango in the Night,” showcases Buckingham’s rock and roll chops profusely. But it is the aforementioned acoustic version of “Big Love” or the brilliant “Never Going Back Again,” just Lindsey Buckingham and his guitar and voice, that ultimately make most guitarists in the know weep with envy.