The People’s Guitar Heroes

Published on 01 September 2023

Guitar Heroes. It’s a funny business, being a guitar hero these days. Back in the 60s and 70s, you’d get Jimmy Page striking a pose with his tiger-striped Les Paul on stage at Madison Square Garden, effortlessly ruling the world. Hendrix, Gilmour, Jeff Beck, all of these people were quite typical guitar gods, melting their fans with gonzo solos as their hair blew in the wind.

Things are more fractured now, so whilst you certainly have your time-honoured shred heroes like Satriani and so on, you also have tons of niche players whose appeal is perhaps more selective, though certainly huge within their own worlds. We’re thinking about the Djent crew, the Youtubers, the microniche scenesters who are worshipped on a tiny level but don’t quite make it to the stages of the local enormo-dome. A kind of post-internet age of worship, if you will. These people have huge online fanbases, but you might never see them live.

(Photo: Pavel Suslov)


Who are considered guitar heroes?

Well, for the general music fan, there has always been another strain of six-string messiah: mighty guitar-toting titans who have made huge contributions to the landscape of music on a global scale, but maybe in a less blatant manner. These are the people who are known by everyone, loved by millions and make their music with guitars, but are not necessarily celebrated by guitar aficionados. If they are, it tends to be along the lines of ‘they don’t play like Van Halen but they’re just as influential’, and so on.

Let’s face it: these are the types of guitarist who are more instrumental (sorry) in getting guitars into the hands of newbies than anyone else, so it’s time to round up a few and make some noise about them! Who is with us?

In no particular order, here are… the people’s guitar heroes!


1. Neil Young

Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young is hardly a niche artist, but he is definitely someone to whom guitar snobs are known to turn their noses up. Neil has almost made an artform out of…let’s say…instinctive guitar playing, as if he’s going on a journey to some unknown destination and he’s happy to make a lot of detours on the way. We go with him on these excursions because, frankly, he is one of the world’s greatest songwriters. When you have the catalogue of songs that Neil Young has, you can play solos however you want.

(Photo: Joel Bernstein)


His guitar playing is an attitude, and as Miles Davis once memorably said, ‘Anybody can play. The note is only 20 percent. The attitude of the motherfucker who plays it is 80 percent’.


2. Dave Grohl

Everyone’s favourite ex-drummer and rock’s nicest guy, Dave Grohl is an underrated and inventive guitar hero. He often misses out on praise because he’s happy to let his Foo Fighter cohorts Chris Shiflett and Pat Smear take the glory, but it all begins with him. Given that he already influences generation after generation of drummers with his playing in Nirvana, it's all the more impressive that Grohl can put together riff frenzies like Everlong, plus be lead singer and frontman at the same time. Overachiever!


3. Billie Joe Armstrong

Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong has a guitar sound that anybody would want. He knows the secret to keeping things simple, but we get the feeling he’s a more-than capable player who just wants to get on with singing his songs. Green Day are another of those massive bands with a back catalogue that is studded with jewels, and they are all propelled by Billie Joe’s economical-yet-huge guitar crunch.

How many of you have seriously considered a P90-equipped guitar directly due to hearing those perfect rock rhythm tones on American Idiot?

(Photo: Pamela Littky)



4. Noel Gallagher

Whilst he’s often spoken of in the press more for his opinion on his little brother, Noel Gallagher is a powerful songwriter with great taste when it comes to tone, not to mention guitars themselves! Crucially, he’s also responsible for penning a collection of songs that pretty much summed up an entire generation, and continues to reach new ears every year. The very fact of Oasis’ continuing significance is less now about culture and more on sheer tunesmithery.

From back in the early days of Oasis to his current solo career today, Noel has always put the song first, but been savvy enough to understand the notion of writing guitar parts that people can sing along to. In some ways, he’s almost like a Mancunian Neil Young, from a certain perspective. Plus, his wall of sound approach to guitars in Oasis was always way heavier and noisier than the also-rans, so Noel’s a good guy in our books!


5. Tom Delonge

How many music fans would have guessed that Blink-182 would be selling out multiple nights at 13,000 seat venues in the UK, 25 years after their heyday?

Not us, to be honest, despite our love for their pop-punk antics and huge tunes. Some bands endure and others vanish, and Blink are one of those bands who seem to be evergreen.

(Photo: Fender)


Guitarist and co-vocalist Tom Delonge is as well known for his UFO fascination and clothing brands as he is for his music, but that says more about how popular culture needs angles for stories than it does about his songcraft.

A massively influential player, his straightforward, brutish approach to riffing and tone has ignited many a fledgling guitarist’s desire to play, and his new signature Fender Strat is one of this year’s best-selling guitars.


6. Johnny Marr

Johnny Marr is a very rare breed of guitarist. He’s often referred to as a ‘player’s player’ but he is just as often cited by non-guitarists as an example of a great musician.

Both are correct, of course, and much that Marr has done over the years (mainly in the Smiths, let’s be honest) beguiles and thrills in equal measure to this day. Ever-inventive, great at collaborating and able to walk that tricky tightrope of being fancy AND supportive at the same time, there’s nobody quite like Johnny Marr.

Plus, how many indie legends had a long term gig with Hans Zimmer?


7. Kurt Cobain

Nirvana’s legendary frontman is still a devise choice for some guitar fans, but there’s simply no denying the man’s colossal influence over the last 30 years of guitar culture. It’s maybe fair to say that no other contemporary player has done more to inadvertently encourage people to pick up guitars than him.

Why? Well, like many of the players in today’s blog, he had the common touch; a direct and very accessible style that appealed to a huge number of people. He never over complicated his guitar playing or his writing, he favoured large dynamics in his sounds and he kept his lead work to a minimum, often mimicking the song’s vocal line.

It’s easy to see Cobain as a basic, simple guitarist, but that’s both unfair and missing the point. He used it as a tool of communication, and his perennial popularity would suggest that his attitude was the correct one!


8. Jack White

Jack White also knows a thing or two about direct, accessible playing, but he is far more willing than the likes of Cobain to entertain the notion of stepping into traditional ‘guitar hero’ shoes. From his White Stripes days onwards, Jack’s fuzz-laden sound has been as attention-grabbing as his outfits, and his playing style has always blended familiar blues tropes with borrowed elements from the wilder edge of noise guitar. He’s like a fringe artist who has ‘mistakenly’ (we put that in quotes because everything is deliberate about Jack White) found himself in the mainstream. It’s a place that suits him, and there aren’t many out there flying the flag for guitar histrionics quite like he does.


9. Josh Homme

The controversial Queens of the Stone Age frontman is another player whose somewhat niche style has nevertheless found mainstream acceptance and approval. Is it because his style is heavy enough to satisfy the hard rockers but not so heavy that he alienates the regular Joes? Could be. There’s also the predominantly melodic nature of his music - both in vocals and with guitar - that tends to set him apart from less gifted musicians?

It’s hard to say, but he also has a very unique sound, and one that’s not too easy to pin down, either. On top of all of that, there’s an undeniable rock star swagger to the man and his art, and maybe that’s just something we all miss a bit these days.


10. John Frusciante

The Red Hot Chili Peppers are one of the biggest rock bands on the planet, and their guitarist John Frusciante (which, once and for all, is pronounced FROO-SHON-TAY, trust us!) is considered by some to be that elusive missing link between Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain.

(Photo: Clara Balzary)


Tough shoes to fill, we’d say, but Frusciante makes a good stab of it nonetheless, building bursts of psychedelic fire into his funky, melodic style. Informed as much by New Order’s Bernard Sumner (not a name that pops up too often in guitar circles) as Jimi, John Frusciante is a guitar hero in the classic mould. The preeminent Strat player of our age? It’s between him and John Mayer, we reckon!


The People’s Champions

Those are our top ten people’s guitar heroes, and what is interesting is that, looking back on the list, many of them are also vocalists. Does this direct correlation alter the way they utilise their guitars? Even bona fide soloists like John Frusciante are noted singers, and even Johnny Marr has done a bit of yelling at a mic.

Aside from that revelation, the main thread running between these superlative talents is that, with the exemption of Neil Young, all of these players are very accessible. That seems to be key to their appeal and popularity, and even Young could fit in there, since he most often doesn’t solo at all (it’s just that when he does , he really takes his time…). And away from the notion of soloing, Neil Young is one of the great acoustic fingerpickers and strummers, which is massively important and influential in itself.

So there you have it: our list of guitar heroes for those who don’t necessarily care about guitar heroes. Who did we miss? Peter Buck? The Edge? Bruce Springsteen? Mick Jones? You tell us, and maybe we’ll do a follow up!

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I'm a musician and artist originally from the South West coast of Scotland. I studied Visual Arts and Film Studies at...

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