The 20 Greatest Guitarists From Los Angeles

Santa Monica native Randy Rhoads
Santa Monica native Randy Rhoads

In a way, it's fitting that the former home of Tower Records on Sunset is now a showroom for Gibson guitars. As much as the music industry has transformed (or, some would argue, declined) over the past couple of decades, guitars never go out of style — at least not here in Los Angeles, where we have a long tradition of breeding bands built around creative, charismatic slingers of the six-string, from The Runaways' Lita Ford to Van Halen's Eddie to GNR's Slash.

To select and rank the greatest of our city's many brilliant guitarists, we looked not just at technical proficiency — though that's obviously important — but also at style, originality and, above all, influence. Not every guitarist listed here could hold his or her own in a shred-off with Steve Vai, but they've all inspired countless young musicians to pick up an SG, Strat or Flying V and follow in their footsteps.

One other important caveat: Because L.A. is a city full of transplants, we included some guitarists who, even though they're not originally from here, launched their careers here. They rep our city just as much as the born-and-bred OGs from Pasadena, Santa Monica, the Valley and South Central who make up the bulk of the list.

So here they are: our picks for L.A's 20 greatest guitarists of all time. Don't agree? Let us know in the comments. Debating these lists is half the fun.

20. Nita Strauss
If you’ve caught Alice Cooper’s live show in recent years, in addition to appreciating Cooper’s still-entertaining theatrics and shock-rock hits, you probably also marveled at Nita Strauss. Previously known as lead guitarist for all-female tribute band The Iron Maidens, Strauss' guitar work nails the sweet spot between classic-rock feel and blurry-hands shredding, making her a perfect fit for Cooper’s material and act. Strauss’ solo showpiece is a doozy. She conjures clouds of wah-wah, hellfire zig-zags and whammy-bar moans. And she often does it while covered in splotches of fake blood. —Matt Wake

19. Dave Mustaine
One could easily argue for Dave Mustaine being ranked at least a dozen notches higher on this list. But Mustaine, metal’s most brilliant malcontent, probably would prefer to remain an underdog on the outskirts. The man has made a career out of melting Flying Vs. After getting canned from early Metallica, Mustaine didn’t sulk into trivia-question obscurity; he formed Megadeth and staked his own claim to the thrash throne. Still, it’s hard not to think the dismissal hasn’t — at least in part — fueled his guitar’s light-speed slashing (“My Last Words”), subatomic bursts (“Blackmail the Universe”) and relentless flurries (“Wake Up Dead”). —M.W.

18. Shuggie Otis
The South Central–raised son of R&B bandleader Johnny Otis, Shuggie was a guitar prodigy who cut three cult-classic LPs for Epic Records in 1969 and 1974, all recorded before he was 21. A blues-based six-string magician capable of gorgeous flights of psychedelia one minute and hard-rock virtuosity the next, he earned comparisons to Hendrix and Love's Arthur Lee and the admiration of one B.B. King, who in a 1971 interview called Otis his new favorite guitarist. After turning down an offer to join The Rolling Stones and eventually being dropped by Epic for not producing enough product, the Greek-Filipino-African-American musician developed a reputation for being "difficult" and barely worked for the next three decades. But he's been touring regularly since 2013 and is still capable, at 62, of setting the joint on fire with his soulful shredding. —Andy Hermann

17. Mike Campbell
For 40 years, Tom Petty has been lucky enough to have a lead guitarist whose playing provides almost as many hooks as Petty’s timeless melodies and lyrics: Mike Campbell. The slippery opening melodic run on “Breakdown.” That twangy, twirly stuff at the end of “American Girl.” The descending Jimmy Page–style riff on “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and snakey “Into the Great Wide Open” slide. When called on to do so, Campbell can impressively throw down, as anyone who’s seen The Heartbreakers live will tell you. But for this guitarist, the songs have always come first. —M.W.

16. Dick Dale
Few guitarists can claim to have invented an entire genre of music, but that's pretty much what Dick Dale did in 1961 when he and his band The Del-Tones released "Let's Go Trippin'," widely considered to be the first surf-rock instrumental. Playing an upside-down Fender Stratocaster left-handed, Dale used Middle Eastern tuning and picking techniques (his father was Lebanese) combined with reverb to create a sound meant to mimic the roar of crashing waves. Many an aspiring surf-rock guitarist has tried to master his most iconic riff, the opening of "Miserlou," but no one can touch the speed, precision and swagger of the original. —A.H.

15. T-Bone Walker
T-Bone Walker was the legendary B.B. King’s own personal guitar hero. And you can totally hear it on Walker’s “Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just as Bad)” — the jazz chords, lilting vibe and conversational leads. In fact, King said that song is what made him want to play the blues in the first place. There’s a lot more to Walker’s musical story than inspiring an even bigger blues icon, though. The snazzy “T-Bone Shuffle,” recorded back in 1947, is a great place to start. —M.W. 

14. Ry Cooder
Quick, think of your favorite slide guitar solo ever. Was it from The Rolling Stones' "Sister Morphine"? Van Morrison's "Full Force Gale"? John Hiatt's "Lipstick Sunset"? The Beach Boys' "Kokomo"? (Hopefully you didn't really say "Kokomo.") They're all the work of one man: Santa Monica–bred Ry Cooder, who throughout the ’70s and ’80s built a reputation as one of the most creative, soulful slide players in the business. In more recent years, he's become better known for forays into world music, like his work with Cuba's Buena Vista Social Club and Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré. But whatever style he's working in, and with or without that slide on his finger, his mastery of his instrument remains a thing of beauty. —A.H.

13. Vicki Peterson
Maybe because much of The Bangles' best-known material is straight-up pop — or maybe because female players often are denied the acclaim heaped on their male peers — the group's Northridge-born lead guitarist, Vicki Peterson, has always been one of L.A.'s most underrated ax-slingers. But pay close attention to her melodic, jangly riffs and tasteful leads on early Bangles cuts such as "September Gurls" and "Dover Beach," as well as more recent tracks like "Anna Lee" from 2011's Sweetheart of the Sun, and it becomes clear that she's L.A.'s best answer to R.E.M.'s Peter Buck — a brilliantly versatile guitarist whose technical proficiency never overshadows the song. —A.H.

12. Lindsey Buckingham
Fleetwood Mac's studio output has rarely given their famously temperamental guitarist a chance to really strut his stuff (showcases of his gorgeous acoustic work like "Never Going Back Again" notwithstanding). But anyone who's ever seen the Mac live knows Lindsey Buckingham can shred with the best of them. Playing his signature Renaissance Model One guitar with an unconventional fingerpicking style borrowed from bluegrass and reinvented for rock, Buckingham solos with a combination of power and intricacy that can be breathtaking. —A.H.

11. Dave Navarro
The darker side of mascara rawk. Jane’s Addiction’s first three LPs — the eponymous live bow, Nothing’s Shocking and Ritual De Lo Habitual — set the gold standard for druggy art-metal, and guitarist Dave Navarro proved equally adept at both the “art” and “metal” components. Trippy atmosphere on stuff like “Summertime Rolls” and “Three Days.” Bludgeoning for “Whores,” “Mountain Song” and “Stop.” He even got elastically funky on “Been Caught Stealing,” which undoubtedly helped him secure his brief Red Hot Chili Peppers stint. Long before he became a celebrity babe, Navarro’s dynamic guitar playing helped alternative rock begin to reach the masses. —M.W.

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