Rock and roll? Chuck Berry not only created the genre, he was the first rock rebel, having spent 2 years in prison while still in high school. Drawing influences from rhythm and blues, he took the 3 chord progression to a new level. Driving, uptempo rhythms, the duck walk and those unique 2 note leads, screamed change for the music industry. Commercial radio was inundated with clean cut, doo-wop bands, when Berry hit with Maybellene in 1955. Furthermore, he spearheaded the first wave of the British Invasion. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones covered many of his tunes, and both have cited him as a huge influence. Early punk bands, most notably The Sex Pistols and Rancid, have incorporated Berry's pentatonic-based soloing into their songs. He was the whole package: talented showman, singer, song writer and musician. Rock guitar's pioneer.
There isn't one guitarist out there that can dispute this choice. In fact, this list could be shortened to only one player, Hendrix. The man changed everything. He scared the crap out of every prominent player at the time. Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, all of them headed back to the woodshed after hearing Hendrix play. He had the uncanny ability to make his guitar sound like whatever he was singing about. In 'Fire', the lyrics are urgent and provocative. The solos enhance the urgency to the point of combustion. In 'Voodoo Chile' he sings about chopping down a mountain with the edge of his hand. Listen to the solo. You can feel the mountain crumbling. Years ago, I remember reading about Eric Burden of The Animals, talking about his new guitar player. He said he sounds like Hendrix, but then again, everyone does now. Decades after his death, musicians and writers are still analyzing every note he played. Jimi is like Stairway to Heaven, he never goes away.
Eddie Van Halen
It's circa 1978. The editor of Guitar Player magazine receives an advance copy of the first Van Halen album. While listening to the tapping sequence in 'Eruption', a columnist walks by, looks in, asks who's playing the keyboards? He answers, it's a guitar. With a look of disbelief, the writer says, wow, this changes everything. Huge understatement. Van Halen took guitar techniques into the stratosphere. Word is he didn't invent tapping (a technique that involves hammering a pick hand finger directly onto the fretboard, then pulling off to another note), but he might as well have. Without him, Floyd Rose (inventor of a bridge system that allows the whammy bar to move both ways without going out of tune), would still be knocking on doors trying to sell his product. His rhythm and soloing are so unpredictable, it always sounds like he is about to crash and burn. It's that slippery. As a guitarist, I can usually watch a player and know what scales, chords, tricks, etc, they are incorporating. After all these years, Van Halen still scares me. One drawback to the Van Halen era: he caused players to become too technical, which leads to my last choice:
In the 90's, Nirvana single handedly dismantled the Hair Band era. Performing with bargain basement instruments, Cobain's playing was basic and sloppy. The antithesis of technical. The songs were not merely vehicles for guitar solos. His lyrics were brilliant, and like Hendrix, his playing was an extension of the words. After 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', record labels flocked to Seattle to sign any act they could. The genre they pioneered even had a name: Seattle Grunge. His simplistic solo style can still be heard in all forms of popular music today.
There you have it. In my opinion, the four big boys of rock guitar. Comments (and I'm sure there will be, knowing guitarists) are welcome.