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    The 26 Best Rock Musicians of All Time

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    Rock and roll is a fascinatingly diverse genre, one that brings in a surprising array of different styles. And the best bands in the field usually consist of amazing musicians, people who take unique influences and bring them together to produce something new. The finest rock musicians also combine technique, feeling, songwriting, and lyricism into one package.

    The musicians on this list were rated based on these factors, including their instrumental skills, their songwriting styles, and their lyrical abilities. This list is very subjective, of course, and should be taken with a grain of salt.

    One person’s number one choice will be another person’s trash. However, we feel confident that just about everybody will find something to like on this list.

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    1. Paul McCartney: A One-Man Pop Factory

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    As one half of the greatest rock band of all time, Paul McCartney’s legend was already secured during those seven magic years in the late 60s and early 70s. However, McCartney went on to huge solo success (with late-arriving critical acclaim) for his strong string of solo albums and band albums with Wings.

    The thing about Wings, though, is that it often featured just Paul playing a majority of the instruments. Though his wife Linda helped with keyboards and Denny Laine sang and played guitar, Paul usually wrote, arranged, and played just about every note. To this day, it remains his preferred working method.

    2. John Lennon: A Poetic and Melodic Genius

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    As a pure instrumentalist, John Lennon may have been little more than above average. His rhythm guitar is underrated, and his piano work is soulful, but he’d never top any list as a pure musician. However, his songwriting and lyrics were among the finest of all his peers.

    Lennon’s poetic lyrics, rich melodies, and diverse range made him incredibly influential with The Beatles. One moment he’d be playing finger-picked acoustic guitar ballads, and the next, he’d be bringing down the house with fiery rock and roll—a true legend.

    3. Jimi Hendrix: The Most Influential Guitar Player of All Time

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    Rating Jimi Hendrix on just his guitar playing alone would be good enough to get him on the top 10 of any rock musician list. His incredible tone, soulful leads, and immaculate technique came out of nowhere and made him immediately influential with every other guitarist on the planet.

    But his songwriting and arranging are what put him so high on this list. Though often humble about both his playing and writing, Hendrix created some of the most harmonically rich, poetically evocative, and downright fun rock music of all time. His too-short life seems even more tragic in this light.

    4. Pete Townshend: Rock’s Experimental Poet

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    Pete Townshend’s legacy was secured the moment that “My Generation” became a huge hit. His biting lyrics, beautiful melodies, hammering guitar work, and experimental drive pushed his band, The Who, to the top of the charts and into some fascinating new realms of rock expression.

    Like or love his rock operas, albums like “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia” expanded rock songwriting forms in many ways. And Pete’s continued experimentation with synthesizers was revolutionary and still drives songs like “Baba O’Riley” with a sense of passion and fire.

    5. Joni Mitchell: The First Lady of Rock

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    In the mid-1960s, a young Joni Mitchell moved to California from Canada and immediately made an impression. Her deeply original guitar playing, her beautiful lyrics and melodies, and her deep sense of emotional sense made her a favorite of many rock musicians and helped her start a continually revolutionary solo career.

    Throughout the 70s, Mitchell pursued a unique range of jazz-rock fusions that brought the immediacy of her folk forms into the harmonic richness of jazz. The results included massive hits like “Help Me” and some of the most fascinating and deeply rewarding rock albums of all time.

    6. Bob Dylan: Rock and Roll’s Original Poet

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    The quiet and unassuming Robert Zimmerman likely never thought he’d change rock music forever when he recorded his first folk-influenced solo album. However, the rechristened Bob Dylan brought a sense of deep poetics and folk soul to a series of classic 60s albums and changed the form forever.

    Before Dylan, rock lyrics were “moon and June” style love anthems. After Dylan, every lyricist crawled over themselves to create bizarre and unpredictable lyrical concepts. Dylan himself moved on from this style and became a straighter yet still worthwhile, lyrical genius.

    7. Mike Oldfield: A Multi-Instrumentalist Supreme

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    Primarily known for his ambitious and sweeping “Tubular Bells” album, Mike Oldfield is a fascinating and endlessly inventive instrumentalist. Oldfield is a guitar wizard, capable of beautiful and fantastic melodies, harmonies, and tones within the rock idiom. However, he is also known for playing over 20-30 different instruments on each of his albums.

    Throughout his career, he has touched on instrumental suites, heavy rock, gorgeous pop, aching ballads, deep ambient musicianship, and much more. Few musicians in the rock field have the kind of sweeping skill and ambition of Oldfield, nor his consistent ability to produce interesting and worthwhile instrumental compositions.

    8. Keith Richards: A Riffing Genius

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    Many of the finest rock and roll songs center on the “riff,” a series of notes or chords that stick in the mind and produce a hook. While many fine riff writers have existed throughout the genre over the years, it’s hard not to argue that Keith Richard (or “Keef Riffhard”) was the best of all time.

    With his open-tuning concepts, Richards revolutionized rock guitar and continually produced the finest riffs of all time. Beyond that, Richards was a surprisingly solid piano player who occasionally played soulful chords on a handful of hits, such as “Ruby Tuesday.”

    9. Buddy Holly: Rock’s First Genius Songwriter

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    Rock songwriters before Buddy Holly were usually good for one or two solid songs that usually nicked from the blues. Buddy Holly was different. He continually explored new chords and melodies in his songs, producing the first truly original songwriting voice in rock history.

    Beyond his excellent songwriting, Holly was also a fascinating guitar player, capable of hard-hitting riffs, concise and meaningful solos, finger-picking accompaniment, and more. As a singer, he brought in a quirky and memorable style that is still emulated by singers today.

    10. Chuck Berry: The Most Emulated Guitar Player of All Time

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    If Buddy Holly brought brains to rock and roll, Chuck Berry brought the fun. As a skilled songwriter, he also created some of the most fascinating riffs of all time.

    His guitar playing style was continually emulated (or stolen) by early rock musicians. You can still hear his licks in “new” rock today.

    Berry was also a surprisingly skilled lyricist, as well, writing autobiographical tracks like “Johnny B. Goode” and many others. His influence is hard to ignore, and his rating would be higher if not for some questionable personal behaviors later at the end of his life.

    11. Little Richard: One of the Original Rock and Rollers

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    Little Richard’s personal antics and strange personality often detract from the fact that he was one of the first rock and roll stars of all time. His combination of high-energy piano, passionate singing, and often evocative lyrical content made him very controversial and a fascinating and engaging artist whenever he released an album.

    Richard’s high energy sound influenced artists as diverse as Paul McCartney and Pete Townshend and served as the backbone for many rock albums for years. Even today, Little Richard is considered one of the best pianists and singers in rock history, and his much-emulated vocals are continually aspired to by many within the field.

    12. Frank Zappa: The Original Rock Satirist

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    Love him or hate him, it’s hard to deny Frank Zappa’s raw talent. A startlingly original guitarist, Zappa could also hold his own on keyboards, play rhythmically complex drum parts, and produced some of the most outrageous and experimental production techniques in the early and late 60s.

    Zappa was also skilled at bringing in multiple genres. You were likely to hear a heart-felt doo-wop track next to a raging hard rock song next to a beautiful jazz fusion or classical piece.

    His pure range as a composer goes beyond any other rock star. And his satirical lyrics often hit hard and poked fun at various social norms.

    13. Jimmy Page: A Guitarist of Unlimited Range

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    When it comes to pure guitar playing, few could top Jimmy Page at his peak. As a session musician through the 60s, he plays lead on a diverse array of rock tracks.

    But his career with Led Zeppelin is where his legend truly lies. Over the course of eight albums, he continually expanded rock formats.

    Whether he brought in blues, funk, soul, classical, or Eastern music, Page added his unique touch. And while his legacy after Led Zeppelin is more mixed and inconsistent, those albums he produced with the band cement his place in rock history for years to come.

    14. Elton John: A Powerhouse Singer and Pianist

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    The painfully shy Reginald Dwight transformed himself behind a piano when he became Elton John. And his musical genius burned brightly in the 70s. His string of classic albums and songs came quick and fast, sometimes at the pace of two albums a year, as he and lyricist Bernie Taupin mined a range of styles.

    Known as a shockingly fast composer, Elton John was also a powerhouse singer and pianist. Capable of deeply emotional vocals one song next to rocking shouts the next, he matched it with endlessly inventive piano playing. He has continued to remain relevant well into the 2000s and beyond, though the quality of his music has dipped.

    15. John Fogerty: A Multifaceted Legend

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    John Fogerty’s output with Creedence Clearwater Revival is shocking to consider in context. In just two years, the band released six albums, all of which featured major chart hits. John wrote and arranged almost every song on these albums and sometimes even played all the instruments.

    The band only went wrong when control was taken from John on the legendarily poor “Mardi Gras” album. While Fogerty’s post-Creedence output has slowed, his ability to combine blues, soul, rock, and pop is unparalleled. That’s all without mentioning his powerful singing voice or diverse lyrical skills.

    16. George Harrison: More Than Just the Third Beatle

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    In a way, we feel bad rating Harrison this far down on our list. His beautiful guitar playing (particularly on the slide), fantastic singing voice, thoughtful lyricism, and unforgettable songwriting technique make him someone who definitely deserves to be recognized as one of the greatest musicians of all time.

    If you were to listen to only “All Things Must Pass,” his classic triple album, you’d easily want to rank him as high as Lennon or McCartney. Unfortunately, Harrison could never equal that great album. Of course, he had many great songs and albums after that debut.

    But they never quite hit as hard nor are as consistent and memorable, somewhat bringing him down slightly. That said, he deserves a deeper listen.

    17. Brian Wilson: “Like Mozart or Someone”

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    The quote above is a paraphrase of what rock legend Neil Young had to say about Brian Wilson. And it’s hard not to agree. Wilson’s prime work with The Beach Boys features a harmonic depth, emotional intensity, and vocal blend that puts him at the highest tier of rock musicians.

    Wilson’s experimental songwriting style, complex vocal harmonies, and melodic genius make him one of the finest composers of all time. He’d be higher on the list, but his string of emotional troubles has often crippled his career. Yet when he puts out an album, the quality usually remains high.

    18. Neil Young: Soulful, Diverse, and Meaningful

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    Few artists have lasted as long as Neil Young. Young keeps putting out albums, year after year, and often still retains the excellent songwriting stamp of his best albums. However, his true legend centers around his 60s and 70s work, where he took the poetic lessons of Dylan and applied them to a harder rock style.

    Young should perhaps be higher up on this list based on his sheer output, his range of classics, and his influential guitar and lyrical skills. However, the sheer volume of his work means plenty of questionable work lingers in his catalog.

    That said, the journey is often worth more than the destination with Young. Some fans may spend their whole life exploring his many albums.

    19. Eric Clapton: The Original Guitar God

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    Clapton’s reputation may not be as high as it was in the 60s and 70s, but his impact during these years cannot be denied. His technical skill was new to the genre, as was his deeply rich and emotional lines. Clapton pulled from blues past and brought his own melodic genius to each solo he played.

    Through his years with Cream, Derek and the Dominoes, and his own solo career, Clapton explored genres outside of rock. He helped popularize reggae with his cover of “I Shot the Sheriff” and later explored techno and electronic music, with admittedly mixed success.

    20. Jeff Beck: A Virtuoso of the Highest Order

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    If we were rating Jeff Beck on pure instrumental capability, he’d be closer to the top five. His guitar style was so innovative, and his technique so advanced in the 60s that there were really no comparisons. When he joined The Yardbirds, his rich tone, flawless technique, and solo daring made an immediate impact.

    Beck later became a fusion pioneer and played on some of the most enjoyable and melodic albums of the era. Even more impressively, he remains active today and still draws plenty of people to his shows. However, we rank him lower because his songwriting and composing ability is essentially zero outside of his beautiful solos and riffs.

    21. Dick Dale: The Original Speed Guitar King

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    Primarily remembered for his immortal take on “Misirlou,” Dick Dale basically invented a genre: surf rock. His deeply resonate guitar tone and fast-paced tremolo picking were an immediate sensation. The rock world had never heard an instrumentalist who played with such speed, fluency, and excitement before.

    And while not as remembered as groups like The Beach Boys or Jan and Dean, Dick Dale remained a consistent force within the music world. In fact, he doesn’t get nearly enough credit for being one of the first rock musicians to experiment with eastern tonalities and scales. This experimentation helped pave the way for more extensive deep dives by groups like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

    22. Freddie Mercury: Much More Than Bohemian Rhapsody

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    The sheer popularity of “Bohemian Rhapsody” often overshadows the many other amazing songs Freddie Mercury wrote. Mercury was a skilled, diverse, and experimental pop songwriter, capable of heavy metal anthems like “Ogre Battle” and tender love odes like “Love of My Life.”

    Of course, no article that mentions Freddie Mercury can ignore his sheer vocal talent and his amazing on-stage charisma. Simply put, he was likely the best rock singer of all time. Don’t forget his beautiful piano playing skills, either, which the band didn’t even realize he possessed when he first joined, due to his often shy personality outside of the stage.

    23. Grace Slick: A Ceaselessly Revolutionary Artist

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    Grace Slick is often overlooked in the pantheon of great rock artists, mostly due to her questionable work with “Starship” in the 80s. However, Slick is one of the top three female singers of the 60s, with her powerful and emotive vocals combining strength, sensitivity, and expression.

    However, Slick was also a skilled pianist and an experimental songwriter, one who pushed beyond the norms of the time. Her bizarre solo album, “Manhole,” could lay claim to being one of the strangest albums of its time. That said, her legacy with Jefferson Airplane assures her a place on this list.

    24. Bruce Springsteen: A Working-Class Poet

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    When Springsteen debuted in the 70s, his working-class lyrical stance was strikingly poetic and original. Few artists of the time were celebrating this class with as much grace and love. And his style of rock, jazz, and blues brought together many disparate elements to produce a singular voice.

    Springsteen rarely stood still in his career, either, occasionally going acoustic, adding synthesizers, deepening his sound to more adult themes, and continually pushing himself forwards. His body of work is dense, literary, diverse, and almost always rewarding.

    25. Jerry Garcia: Rock’s Friendliest Soloist

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    One of the best parts about seeing The Grateful Dead at any point during their career was watching Jerry launch into a solo. He always had a smile on his face as he continually produced fascinating and inventive solos. While not always technically immaculate, they remained beautiful and worthwhile.

    Beyond that, Garcia was also a skilled composer, a beautiful singer, and a skilled performer on banjo, keyboards, and more. Garcia’s skill at finding unique and forgotten folk favorites was unparalleled, and many standards were rediscovered and popularized by him over the years.

    26. Lita Ford: Pushing the Way for Female Metal Musicians

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    Though female rock and roll stars were not unheard of before Lita Ford, she was one of the first to truly embrace heavy rock or metal. Ford’s lead work with The Runaways helped make them an even tougher band. And her heavy career after The Runaways helped make heavy metal a female-friendly genre.

    While she might not have possessed the songwriting skills of former bandmate Joan Jett, her sheer musicality and technical skill earn her a place on this list. That said, you could easily swap out Jett in her place if you prefer Jett’s more punk-oriented style and her stronger composition skills.

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