It’s understandable that this is a little bit touchy subject, knowing how hard is to come up with the ultimate list of anything in general, not to talk about something like best guitarists – which is to some degree matter of individual opinion. So, in our attempt to try to deal with this problem, we decided to approach things from somewhat of a different angle.
First of all, we haven’t really set a limit on how many guitarists we’re gonna add to the list. Ten was a good number to strive for, but if you take all things into consideration, it’s hard to set any limit because there were so many good bands in the 90s, and so many new guitarists came into the spotlight. There were a few grunge bands, but most of the 90s was a continuation of Yngwie Malmsteen and Eddie Van Halen school of playing, meaning it involved a much more technicality and raw skill than it did in the past.
All that said, undoubtedly some people will comment on how this list is nothing without one particular guitarist they had in mind, which is alright. By all means, post your thoughts in the comments, and we’ll consider your opinion. The list can be edited and modified, and that’s most likely gonna happen more than a few times. Voice of many will certainly provide a more neutral and empirical list – which is our end goal.
Guitarists are listed in a random order.
Eric Johnson – Cliffs of Dover – live 1990
You can dislike Eric Johnson, and you can simply not enjoy the type of music he’s making, but after hearing him and watching him perform live, it’s almost impossible not to respect him. He’s a type of dude that goes all in and throws his hearth at whatever he’s doing, and this is made perfectly obvious in his live performances. He basically took an old Stratocaster and made it sound youthful and juvenile like it did when it first appeared back in the 50s.
When Eric released Cliffs of Dover, it was something fresh and original, and even though many people thought that the guitar heroes were a thing of the past, Eric surely became one and was immediately recognized as one. His live performance from 1990 is one of our favorites.
Slash – Godfather Theme Live in Tokyo ’92
For some reason, a lot of unnecessary controversies follows Slash, and a lot of people bad-mouth him and directly question his guitar skills, but objectively looking – the dude is an icon. How many kids watched November Rain video, and dreamt of one day becoming just like that guy playing a Les Paul in the middle of a desert. Few guitarists ever achieve to become guitar heroes, but Slash surely did become one.
What Slash does seems simple and brain-dead to some, and there really are people who could’ve done it better, but Slash represents something bigger than just a pair of fingers going over a fretboard in a fastest possible manner. He is an icon; almost every kid who buys a Les Paul first thing that he tries to learn is Slash’s version of Brucia La’ Terra or Godfather theme song because it’s just so memorable.
Marty Friedman (Megadeth) – Tornado of Souls – Live ’92
Playing alongside Dave Mustaine in Megadeth was surely not an easy task, but Marty Friedman is certainly one of the few people who are up for the challenge. Initially denied to join the band for having multicolored hair, Marty went through what Dave called “Rock School 101”, and eventually joined Megadeth as the lead guitarist.
Aside from the unavoidable association with Megadeth and Dave Mustaine, Marty is also a great solo artist who released a total of twelve solo albums. He’s into Japanese culture and music, and he currently lives and works in Tokyo. Solo in “Tornado of Souls” is one of Marty jewels, and it’s simply a joy to listen to – whether you’re into this kind of music or not.
John Frusciante (RHCP) – Parallel Universe Live at Slane Castle
Perhaps one of the most influential guitarist of past two decades, solely responsible for thousands of kids being attracted to a guitar just by watching this dude with a long hair having a mild orgasm every time it’s his time to perform a solo. It’s impossible to say how many cheap rosewood Stratocaster knock-offs with sunburst finish were sold in the past 20 or so years, to kids just trying to sound and look exactly like John.
Live concert in Slane Castle was filmed in 2003, which falls off the 90s limit we’ve set for this article, but without any future plans to make a “2000s list”, we felt John deserved a spot here instead. Live at Slane is just a joy to watch; every member of the band was in the right state of mind, and the music they played together that night came out effortlessly as a result of a perfect synergy between those four people. John played lots of cool bits, but the solo at the end of “Parallel Universe” was really something special.
Jerry Cantrell (Alice in Chains) – Nutshell Unplugged ’96
Jerry Cantrell is one of those guitarists who do exactly what’s expected from them, and he rarely goes to unnecessary lengths just to show off what he’s made of. His riffs perfectly reflect what the song is about, and they blend into the overall feel of the melody and they are always a great follow up on Layne’s vocals.
“Nutshell” is one of the band’s better-known songs released as part of the “Jar of Flies” EP. Jerry’s solo in the acoustic live version of the song is simple and mellow, but very memorable, and the song as a whole is just a masterpiece. Everything falls into its place wonderfully, and it takes a special kind of person to know what’s enough, where to stop, and how to keep everything together. Jerry is like that – he cares about making good music above all and in that process, he completely forgets about his ego – and that’s the main reason why we love him!
James Hetfield (Metallica) – Nothing Else Matters live ’98
Everyone knows Kirk Hammett as the lead guitarist in Metallica – and without any doubt, he is a good guitarist, and we do plan to include him in the list we’ll write about 80s guitarists. But for this occasion we chose James, and his live performance of “Nothing Else Matters” during the Cunning Stunts gig.
One of the reasons why we chose James is because almost every single article on the web that has “Top Metallica Solos” in its title, almost never includes one of James’ solos. But the fact is that when he does get offered a chance to go wild, James absolutely destroys. His whole performance of Nothing Else Matters is amazing, and the ending solo is really spot-on. Not too long, not too short – just a powerful end-statement, like a great leader would end his speech which was right on the point the whole time. And you can tell that he loves it by the way he doesn’t wanna let that last note die – he just keeps it going on and on.
Tom Morello (RATM) – Bulls On Parade live ’96
Tom Morello is known for producing some of the weirdest sounding riffs and solos. His style is innovative to a point where it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing what Tom does – in the similar fashion it was hard to imagine anyone else playing Little Wing but Hendrix. Not to say the two sound similar, but they are both icons and sort of a marker of their time.
Overall, it’s just hard to find more energetic live band than the RATM was, and if you ever need a dose of energy you can just try putting on a few of their songs. Tom’s sound is something you probably never experienced before if you haven’t listened to RATM, and he often sounds like he’s not even playing the guitar, but scratching a vinyl or something. He certainly takes the guitar sound to a whole new level.
Dimebag (Pantera) – Cemetary Gates live ’97
Dime was one of the most laid-back dudes, and he didn’t bother showing off or being one of those people who become full of themselves feeding on other people’s compliments. Dime was just happy with where he was, and who he was, and he was certainly very passionate about what he did. He played the guitar like it was a no-brainer for him, and he was always there to explain and bring closer the guitar to someone who’s just becoming interested in playing.
Generally looking, Dime focused a lot on using the Floyd Rose tremolo and on the pinch harmonics – which are a sort of a trademark of his. He’s also mainly associated with Dean guitars, and he’s hugely responsible for their popularity. The video above is from 2001, from Pantera’s gig in Korea, and it’s a short demonstration of Dime’s enormous talent and love for the music.
Steve Vai – For the Love of God – Live ’96
Although not everyone finds it enjoyable to listen to instrumental rock, it’s hard to deny the technical ability of people like Vai and Joe Satriani. It’s really a small niche in the music industry, and an average listener is mostly just impressed by their technical skill, rather than being attracted to their music.
Nonetheless, Steve does make great music, and his success is surely not a coincidence. It’s obvious that he’s completely dedicated to guitar, and he spent thousands of hours mastering the skill. Some of us might not like his music, but we should learn to appreciate it for what it is – an explosion of technical skill mixed with hearth and soul of the artist. Listening to this live version of “For the Love of God” gave us an eargasm.
Zakk Wylde (Ozzy Osbourne) – Live at Budokan
Perhaps one of the more masculine guitarists to come out of the 90s – both appearance wise and sound wise, Zakk is known for his dirty and powerful guitar tone, obviously highly influenced by his early idol Randy Rhoads.
Some people also comment negatively on his style, and they argue that he mostly relies only on pentatonic scales – which basically means he’s doing the same stuff over and over again. We’re no experts on the subjects, but it’s pointless to try to belittle Zakk’s talent, whether you happen to like him personally or not. He wrote enough awesome music to gain immunity to those sorts of comments.
John Petrucci (Dream Theater) – Live in Tokyo ’93
Surprisingly left out off Rolling Stone’s list of 10o Best Guitarists of All Time, John Petrucci is someone we personally have a lot of respect for. He focuses on playing riffs and solos that sound good, rather than on making his fingers go supersonic speed. His playing at the time was refreshing, considering how many people were doing exactly that – making guitar playing a speed contest. Nowadays, his style seems to gravitate towards that which he initially stayed clear from, but that’s his own thing and who are we to judge, right?
The video above is an excellent representation of what John Petrucci is (or at least was back then) all about. He takes inspiration from some old tunes and gives them a breath of fresh air. He doesn’t over complicate things just for the sake of making a good impression on the audience, and he certainly plays with a lot of love and soul.
Paul Gilbert (Mr.Big) – Live in Budokan ’97
Although Mr.Big as a band was more of a soft-rock oriented, it did produce one of the most popular and idolized heavy metal/neo-classical guitarists of the 90s. The kind of music that Paul Gilbert made in his previous band “Racer X”, and later on as a solo artist, is perhaps a better representation of his overall style, and a part of the reason why he gained such a huge fan base.
We left Paul last intentionally, as he’s sort of a reflection of what 90s were all about (or for the most part). They were filled with guitarists who focused a lot on the technical part of the playing, which is sort of a logical step in the process of the evolution of the instrument. Early in the 60s, the guitar was new, and if you added something basic like a Fuzz pedal to your sound chain, you’d get a lot of attention. Guys from the 90s were treated differently, and you had to come up with something crazy and hope someone will take notice of you. They were not everyone’s favorite period of rock music, but if we’re open-minded there’s a lot of interesting stuff to discover.