Ask Heidi

Hendrix? Clapton? Santana? Who is the greatest guitarist of all time?

Chuck Berry’s rock ’n’ roll legacy

Jon Pareles, a music critic for The New York Times, reflects on the pioneering music and attitude of rock legend Chuck Berry.
Up Next
Jon Pareles, a music critic for The New York Times, reflects on the pioneering music and attitude of rock legend Chuck Berry.

Q: As the world mourns Ed King, the former guitarist of the band Lynyrd Skynyrd who died on August 22, it had me wondering: Who are the greatest guitar players of all time?

A: Music is one of those subjective experiences that can make it difficult to rate performances. But there are a few names that come to mind when talking about great guitar players.

I’ll leave it to you to choose “the greatest.” This list is neither comprehensive or complete.

Jimi Hendrix: He was famous for his left-handed guitar riffs and his unbounded creativity. Hendrix could play the guitar with his teeth and, sometimes, set it on fire afterward. But beyond the showman antics, he certainly could play. Some of his most legendary performances include his performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock and “Wild Thing” at a festival in northern California in 1967. Hendrix died at age 27 after an overdose of sleeping pills, though there are some competing theories on his death.

Carlos Santana: He was born in Mexico in 1947 and became a naturalized American citizen in 1965. Santana became known for his unique mix of jazz and Latin music. Some of his greatest hits were “Black Magic Woman” and “Oye Como Va”, which was written by Tito Puente. Santana was also noted for his performance at Woodstock in 1969 and at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts, about a year later. Though he was the victim of an internet hoax in 2015 where his death was inaccurately reported, Santana is alive and well.

Eric Clapton: In the 1960s, a graffiti artist was painting “Clapton is God” in London. Clapton, though not immortal, has led a fruitful and relatively lengthy career with such hits as “Layla” and the solo on The Beatles’ song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Though he struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, Clapton overcame his troubles to become one of the most notable guitarists of all time. In 2018, he announced he is going deaf and suffering from tinnitus or ringing in his ears. Clapton also has peripheral neuropathy, which can make guitar playing difficult by creating pain or weakness in the hands.

Chuck Berry: Berry was born in St. Louis in 1926. Some say rock ‘n’ roll owes its creation to Berry and his unique, rollicking style. His biggest hits included “Roll Over Beethoven” and the delightful “Johnny B. Goode.” In 1985, Berry was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. John Lennon reportedly said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’ ” Berry died at age 90 in Wentzville, Missouri, in 2017.

Jimmy Page: Guitarist and founder of Led Zepplin, Page played the now-legendary “Stairway to Heaven.” Music enthusiasts claim Page’s playing has had its ups and downs throughout his career, but he has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice. He was honored as a member of the Yardbirds in 1992 and again in 1995 as a member of Led Zeppelin. Page lives in The Tower House, a Victorian-era castle in London, next door to singer Robbie Williams.

  Comments