When it comes to classic rock, what truly defines this genre of music to most listeners is the guitar work: the hooks, the solos, and the riffs that make you grab you air guitar and show off. Classic rock is defined as any band that recorded in the 1970s or earlier. Apologies to The Edge, Kurt Cobain, and Jack White for not making this particular list.
Enjoy the axes ...
13. Joan Jett
She had to be here on this list, thanks to her efforts in The Runaways and during her lengthy solo career as well, because, yes ... women can play the guitar, too. How can anyone listen and watch a performance of "Cherry Bomb" and not recognize her talent? Whether it is on songs like "Bad Reputation" or "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" Jett has demonstrated her impressive prowess at creating memorable sounds we can never forget.
12. Keith Richards
It is hard to put this list together without representation from The Rolling Stones. Richards has achieved a certain notoriety for reasons other than his craftwork, but a quick sample of his artistry is enough to warrant inclusion here. "Gimme Shelter" may be the epitome of his excellence, although even into the late 1970s, Richards putout memorable riffs in songs like "Shattered" for all of us to enjoy.
11. Steve Howe
From his days with Yes through to his time in Asia and as a solo artist, Howe has carved himself a place on this list. If you have not seen him live, make sure you do. Howe is an absolute wizard on stage. His flexibility is impressive, as to whether it was acoustic work on songs like "Roundabout" or something heavier to be found on "Heat of the Moment" ... Howe nailed it all.
10. Neil Young
He has cast a long shadow over the rock world, from his days with Buffalo Springfield to the joining of Crosby, Stills & Nash and his arrival as a solo artist with his backing band, Crazy Horse. Sample any moment in his career and you find some incredible axe work. "Mr. Soul" shows his early promise; "Ohio" exhibits his growth; "Hey Hey, My My" and "My My, Hey Hey" finalize his maturity.
9. Angus Young
There is not another guitarist that can produce the sounds that Young has over the decades with AC/DC. Looking a bit like Mick Jagger with a guitar, Young's stage presence is hard to ignore in early songs like "High Voltage" and "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" that announced AC/DC to the world with authority. By the time of "Highway to Hell" it was clear that Young and his bandmates were something special.
8. Pete Townshend
No matter what way you slice it, The Who is one of the giants of the classic-rock era, and Townshend created some of the band's most memorable sounds. Maybe people do not recognize the brilliance of the riffs in "My Generation" because it feels so tame today. However, with efforts in songs like "Pinball Wizard" and "Who Are You" Townshend made sure we would remember him for more than his stage antics.
7. Ace Frehley
What can you say about Ace? Often overshadowed by the makeup and his louder peers in KISS, his guitar work was very underrated at the time. Over time, it has come to be more respected, and from the opening riffs of "Cold Gin" through tracks like "Love Gun"—where Frehley just owns the final minute of the song—pretty much everything Ace did in the 1970s was awesome and inspired a lot of kids to pick up a guitar. For a real treat, make sure to re-visit his acoustic version of "2,000 Man" from the band's unexpected MTV Unplugged reunion in 1995.
6. Eddie Van Halen
People do not talk about him much anymore, for some reason, but Eddie was a breath of fresh air in the late 1970s when Van Halen first made its initial forays into the rock scene. Just listening to the opening riff of "Ain't Talkin' About Love" today could confuse you into thinking it was a new release. By the time a song like "Dance the Night Away" came out in 1979, the reputation was cemented. And then came the 1980s ... the rest is history.
5. Carlos Santana
At this point, we may be splitting hairs, so take your pick of any of these guys, in any order. Santana has done tremendous group work with Santana, while his collaborations with a variety of artists and solo efforts are well known, too. Even if he never recorded anything beyond "Evil Ways" or "Black Magic Woman" or "Oye Como Va" ... he would still be pretty high on this list.
4. David Gilmour
Is there a better guitar solo ever than the one Gilmour delivers in "Time"? It is hard to find a better one in the Pink Floyd catalog, for sure, although some might argue for "Comfortably Numb" as well. It does not really matter, though, as Gilmour's signature sounds have been incorporated by many recording artists over the years, including dignitaries like Bryan Ferry and Kate Bush. That is a pretty awesome repertoire to have on your slate.
3. Jimmy Page
Thanks to his success with Led Zeppelin, it is hard to find a single rock 'n' roll fan that does not know a signature Page riff—even if they do not realize it. From the first song on the first side of the first Zeppelin album—"Good Times Bad Times"—listeners knew they were dealing with a serious force of talent. There are so many highlights of Page's work, it is pointless to try to sample them all here. Just come back here when you are done exploring YouTube clips of Page jamming. Thanks, in advance. For the record, "Heartbreaker" may be our favorite, along with the mysticism of "The Battle of Evermore" as well.
2. Eric Clapton
What we said of Page we could also state of Slowhand, for as we all know, "Clapton is God"—right? How do we single out anything special, when basically every song he has performed in his career has been special in one way or another? Clapton is a legend for reasons we cannot begin to define or explain here. We have our favorites, of course—try "I Feel Free" or "White Room" from his Cream days, or even "Spoonful" live—and we know you all have your own favorites, too.
1. Jimi Hendrix
This may have been the obvious end result of a list like this, although we hardly think we are predictable. Hendrix just was and is ... Jimi. Yes, his career was cut short, too, but oh what a career! The songs just line up like magic—"Purple Haze", "Crosstown Traffic", "Fire", his rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner", and countless others—and you just listen, transfixed by the talent your ears get the honor of absorbing. This stuff will live forever, and amen for that.
Honorable Mentions: Legends George Harrison and Duane Allman certainly left their marks on the genre. You have to include The Beatles guitarist, of course, although often his work was overshadowed by two of his more-famous bandmates. But just listening to "Here Comes the Sun" reminds us of his talent. As for Allman, his career was cut short, but we still have some incredibly memorable guitar work to remember him by—including the eternal contributions to "Layla" and "Midnight Rider" that will never leave our minds.