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.

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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.

 

10. Mick Mars
People have underestimated Mick Mars’ playing for 35 years, probably because his Mötley Crüe bandmates were much more larger-than-life. But Mars’ blues-metal stylings are what gave the band its heavy/catchy appeal. Listened to “Girls, Girls, Girls” or “Shout at the Devil” lately? Or every track from Mötley’s sexy glam-punk debut, Too Fast for Love? Mars’ playing is flat-out brilliant. But his finest moment is on the power ballad to end all power ballads, “Home Sweet Home” — a solo that soars, sins and singes. Bic lighters will be eternally raised to you, Mr. Mars. —M.W.

9. Frank Zappa
Zappa's eccentricities as a songwriter and bandleader frequently overshadowed his brilliance as a musician. Though he played myriad instruments, he was best known for his dazzling guitar work, which could ping-pong in any number of directions, from soulful blues to wheedly prog to jazz-tinged funk-rock. Even playing with a ’70s talk show orchestra, as in the above clip, Zappa took his expressive playing to some truly unexpected places. —A.H.

8. Roger McGuinn
Chicago native Jim "Roger" McGuinn wasn't the first folk or rock musician to play a 12-string guitar, but the sparkling, jangly sound he created on it with his L.A.-bred band The Byrds in the mid-’60s became the template for countless 12-string players who followed in his wake — everyone from George Harrison to Tom Petty to Johnny Marr. By combining banjo-picking techniques with jazz and blues scales on his now-iconic Rickenbacker, McGuinn made classic Byrds tracks such as "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and "Mr. Tambourine Man" shimmer with rich harmonics that few have equaled since. —A.H.  

7. Tom Morello
If the Jaws theme impregnated Sabbath's “Into the Void,” it would beget something like what bolts out of Tom Morello’s fingers on “Bulls on Parade” and other essential Rage Against the Machine cuts. By the mid-’90s it seemed nothing new could be pulled out of riff-rock — but Morello managed to do it by channeling hip-hop DJs for his inventive soloing techniques. Bruising guitar has never been smarter. And don’t sleep on those songs by Morello’s Chris Cornell–fronted supergroup Audioslave either. On the anthemic “Like a Stone,” Morello’s guitar solo somehow turns into a laser beam. —M.W.

6. John Frusciante
As Red Hot Chili Peppers evolved away from the frathouse funk-rock of their early years and transformed into the more sophisticated (and platinum-selling) rock group of "Under the Bridge," "Scar Tissue" and "Can't Stop," the catalyst for their transformation was one John Anthony Frusciante, an Italian-American kid from Mar Vista with the chops of a heavy-metal guitar hero, the rhythmic skills of Jimmy Nolen and the soul of Frank Zappa. In the studio, his endlessly inventive, colorful leads and riffs pushed the Chili Peppers' sound to new heights, especially on 1999's jammy, psychedelic Californication. Live, his mastery of the wah pedal kept the band's sound rooted in funk, even as his kaleidoscopic solos flew off into the stratosphere. These days, he's focused on his solo career, releasing albums full of experimental rock and electronic music that still showcase occasional flashes of his six-string wizardry. —A.H.

5. Lita Ford
A total rock original, Lita Ford began her career making her Hamer Explorer snarl for teen rockers The Runaways. The chunky, catchy chords of “Cherry Bomb” set it all off. The band’s later stuff, like “Queens of Noise,” got heavier and hotter. Post-Runaways, Ford’s playing became even more aggressive — and her tone nastier — as she embarked on a solo career in which she brandished wicked-looking B.C. Rich axes. Check the out-of-my-way solos and snaggle-tooth rhythms on 1983 title track “Out for Blood.” Ford became a full-on metal star with her Lita LP, a disc that includes some of her most compelling playing: pop-thrash burns on “Can’t Catch Me”; the dark-ice of “Close My Eyes Forever”; and the wailing that sends “Kiss Me Deadly” buzzed and grinning into the night. —M.W.

4. Slash
The beauty of Slash’s playing on Appetite for Destruction was its refreshing recklessness. Amid an era of soulless hairspray shredders, he made hard-rock guitar dangerous again, on brutal tracks like “Nightrain,” “Out Ta Get Me” and of course “Welcome to the Jungle.” You can hear the strippers, syringes and blackouts in there, but not a single bum note. Slash would’ve been a legend for Appetite alone. But the well-paced “Jungle” solo and swooshing “Sweet Child O’ Mine” hinted at Slash’s compositional prowess, which unfurled as GNR moved into more ambitious music on the Use Your Illusion LPs. The majestic, melody-drenched solos on “November Rain” are songs unto themselves. In 2016, it’s entirely possible that Slash has inspired millions of people to learn to play guitar by now. And that’s the ultimate compliment any guitarist can receive. —M.W.

3. Robby Krieger
When Robby Krieger joined The Doors in 1965, he was just 19 years old and had been playing guitar for only about two years. But right out of the gate, he announced himself as one of the most innovative and versatile rock guitarists of his era. His work on The Doors' 1967 debut alone is astonishing: the gutbucket blues of "Back Door Man," the jazzy solo on "Light My Fire," his eerie bottleneck work on "End of the Night" and even eerier raga-rock curlicues on "The End." His bag of tricks was seemingly endless; he could bust out gorgeous flamenco work on "Spanish Caravan," turn out an effortless acid-rock lead on "Shaman's Blues" and just go for the nasty riff-rock jugular on "Maggie M'Gill." And has anyone ever delivered a more potent 12-second guitar solo than Krieger's psychedelic freakout at the 1:30 mark on "Peace Frog"? Morrison's antics and Manzarek's carnivalesque organ may be more emblematic of The Doors' unique sound, but Krieger was the glue that held it all together — and at 70, he can still rip. —A.H.

2. Randy Rhoads
It sounds like a wild animal closing in on its prey. Thirteen seconds into that famous live version of “Crazy Train,” Randy Rhoads peels off powerful abstract lines before launching into the undeniable groove of Ozzy Osbourne’s signature rocker. It’s the kind of gorgeous noise only a true virtuoso can summon. That recording is on Tribute, released five years after Rhoads died at age 25 in a joyride plane crash while on tour with Osbourne. This 1987 concert LP is the best way to hear Rhoads’ still jaw-dropping playing. He became a local Sunset Strip hero with a pre-fame Quiet Riot before hooking up with Ozzy, as the former Black Sabbath frontman attempted to start a solo career. Rhoads’ classically influenced, sawblade-toned riffage was a huge reason that Osbourne soon went from has-been to one of rock’s biggest solo stars. “Diary of a Madman,” the title track from Osbourne’s 1981 sophomore album, is perhaps the ultimate studio crystallization of Rhoads’ guitar style. The flamenco intro. The metallic orchestration. The spiraling solos. A genius, silenced decades too early.  —M.W.

1. Eddie Van Halen
One hundred and two seconds. That's how long it took a young guitar player from Pasadena to change rock guitar — scratch that, all guitar — forever. The finger-tapping technique Eddie Van Halen deployed on "Eruption," the brief guitar solo from Van Halen's 1978 debut album, was not new; folk, jazz and even classical musicians had been tapping the fretboards of their instruments for generations. But the speed, dexterity and rich tone he brought to it were so unprecedented that it sent a generation of guitarists scurrying back to the woodshed, trying to figure out how EVH made his trademark "Frankenstrat" sound like Godzilla playing a harpsichord. Though thousands (millions?) of metal and hard-rock guitarists have mimicked his technique and tone in the decades since, none has equaled the virtuosity of "Eruption" — or, for that matter, "Atomic Punk," "Somebody Get Me a Doctor," "Little Guitars," "Panama" or countless other Van Halen classics that have proven, time and again, that in L.A. and beyond, no one can top Eddie. —A.H.


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