It’s not enough to simply be a technically good player. The guitarists on this list, as with the greats, all manage to somehow transcend the song they are playing, stealing attention away from the front man of the band and getting lost – along with the crowd – in hypnotic paroxysms of sick chords and riffs. It is as though they manage to become one with the music and are daring the listener to do the same.
Although the musicians on this list would likely never claim to be as good as the gods of guitar, there can be no doubt that they are the best guitarists the 21st century has to offer, and it would be a mistake to ignore their considerable musical talent.
# 10 – Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys)
The singer and front man of The Black Keys, Ohio-born Dan Auerbach is every bit as cool as the band’s combination of rock, blues and soul would have you believe. There’s something somehow effortless about the way Auerbach manages to produce riffs, which all manage to make you feel like you’re living in a Tarantino movie trailer. He is able to flit between the slinky and stripped back sound of songs like “Never Gonna Give You Up”, the rough, fuzzy old school chords of “Gold on the Ceiling”, and the head bobbing anthemic elements of “Next Girl”. Dan Auerbach is a unique guitarist who is making the blues cool for a whole new generation.
Must listens: Lonely Boy, Next Girl, Howlin’ For You
# 9 – Frank Turner
Despite an impressive number of albums under his wing, Frank Turner is still not a household name. It was, therefore, a surprise when he was chosen to commence the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games with a rousing rendition of ”I Still Believe”. Clearly, the organizers knew exactly what they were doing, as Turner enthralled viewers all over the world with his acoustic sound. It’s hard to pin Frank Turner down to an exact genre, straddling the line, as he does, between folk and punk. But the fact that he’s a solo artist yet manages to completely captivate crowds should tell you something about Turner’s skills as a guitarist (and singer). It’s not even that he’s particularly unique in his style, there’s just something magnetic him when he’s performing. There can be no doubt that many a young guitarist in the 21st century has been inspired by Frank Turner.
Must listens: The Way I Tend to Be, I Still Believe, Photosynthesis
# 8 – Danielle Haim (Haim)
While it’s the “bass face” that her sister makes whilst strumming away that often distracts during Haim shows, you’d
do well to pay closer attention to the guitar work of Danielle instead. From her chirpily strummed chords on “Falling” to the brooding and foreboding bending on tracks like “My Song 5”, this Gibson SG toting woman means business. The unusual blend of pop, rock (and even some slight dance) elements of Haim’s music should be enough to get you to pay attention to this band, but if not, then watching Danielle do her thing live is sure to turn you. It’s a pleasure to see her, alongside her sisters, command the stage with the confidence and glamor of a pop diva and the impressive musical talent of any number of icons.
Must listens: Falling, My Song 5, If I Could Change Your Mind
# 7 – Sergio Pizzorno (Kasabian)
When a guitarist is better known than their lead singer, you can be sure you’re dealing with something special. And “special” is the perfect way to describe Sergio Pizzorno. Though he’ll often keep himself to himself on stage – brooding quietly – without fail he’ll deliver immense, twanging riffs that hit you like a ton of bricks. Along with his band, Pizzorno is a force of nature, whipping crowds up into a frenzy with the irresistible chord progression evidenced on stadium-fillers like “Shoot the Runner” and “Fire”. Kasabian are easily one of Britain’s biggest rock bands, and it’s impossible to discuss them without mentioning the sheer guitar might of Serge Pizzorno.
Must listens: Fire, Shoot the Runner, Club Foot
# 6 – Annie Clarke (St Vincent)
Although it’s not quite correct to pigeonhole her as a rock artist, Annie Clarke, better known by her stage name St
Vincent, is easily one of the most distinctive guitarists of the 21st century. She’s even created a guitar ergonomically designed for women’s bodies. Whilst she definitely delivers a different musical style to other musicians on this list, the synth tones and chord stabs of St Vincent are something to behold. The fuzzy guitar solo on “Rattlesnake” will make your hair stand on end as you’re happily grooving to the esoteric art rock of one on music’s most interesting sonic auteurs.
Must listens: Cruel, Rattlesnake, Birth in Reverse
# 5 – Jamie Cook (The Arctic Monkeys)
From the euphoria of I Bet the You Look Good on the Dancefloor, the dark menace of Do I Wanna Know, and the urgent progression of Teddy Picker, Jamie Cook (and lead singer/rhythm guitarist Alex Turner) are responsible for some of modern rock’s best and most recognizable riffs. Cook, famously the most outspoken of the band, seems to channel his confident, bullish energy into his music, creating brash and impossible to resist guitar-forged ear worms that will stay with you for a long, long while.
Must listens: I Bet the You Look Good on the Dancefloor, When the Sun Goes Down, Do I Wanna Know www.arcticmonkeys.com
# 4 – Derek Edward Miller (Sleigh Bells)
Sleigh Bells are one of those bands who’s lyrics take second place to their guitar riffs, and this isn’t just because of the distortion effects applied to the vocals. The guitar output of Derek Edward Miller are like miniature – extremely aggressive – pop songs. They’re so immediate, catchy and fully formed that you’ll easily find yourself getting obsessed with a single chord, thinking it must be the absolute pinnacle of all music. That is, until the next one begins, and hits you like a slap in the face. The talent of Miller’s guitar playing has helped Sleigh Bells create a genuinely distinctive sound, which is crunchy, DIY, danceable, and above all, unique.
Must Listens: Infinity Guitars, Riot Rhythm, Bitter Rivals
# 3 – Laurie Vincent (Slaves)
In the hands of Slaves’ Laurie Vincent, the guitar becomes a weapon. That is, of course, a metaphor. Though there is no doubting the violence which underlines the sound that Vincent and his bandmate create, as you would expect from a punk band. The guitar hook of The Hunter has to be one of the best riffs of recent years; it’s dangerous, dark and completely brilliant. All of these adjectives could be applied to a Slaves concert, although interestingly perhaps not to Vincent himself, who is comparatively chilled out compared to his punk contemporaries.
Must listens: Cheer Up London, The Hunter, Feed the Mantaray
# 2 – Tosin Abasi (Animals as Leaders)
It’s hard to capture just how impressive Tosin Abasi is in writing, he really needs to be listened to or seen to be believed. The speed and dexterity with which Abasi plays his music is truly extraordinary. Not to mention that he plays an 8-string guitar. The fact that the vast majority of Animals as Leaders’ work is entirely instrumental – and yet they’re still hugely popular – should go some way to display the crazy talent on offer here. The soundscapes created by Abasi and co are truly magical, wrapping you up in a world of shredding madness which is hard to escape.
Must listens: Physical Education, Tooth and Claw, The Woven Web
# 1 – Matt Bellamy (Muse)
Very much the elder statesman of 21st-century rock, Matt Bellamy has been delivering devastating guitar work since the band debuted in the 90’s, and he just keeps getting better and better. The defining Plug in Baby remains his highest point, although new songs like MK Ultra and Psycho (which echoes some of the band’s best work)are up there with the greats. Bellamy has also shown immense versatility, helming the Queen-esque United States of Eurasia, and Supermassive Black hole, which seems to be influenced by a Britney Spears song, of all things. Since he’s been in the business for so long and is still making mind-melting great riffs, it seems only fair to crown Matt Bellamy as the best rock guitarist of the 21st century.
Must listens: Plug in Baby, MK Ultra, Supermassive Black Hole
Black Keys By Jason Persse (Flickr: Black Keys) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Frank Turner by By Henry W. Laurisch (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Danielle Haim By Bene Riobó [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Sergio Pizzorno By Stuart Sevastos (http://www.flickr.com/photos/stusev/6825193212/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons