Regardless of style, certain guitarists have made their mark on the world of guitar so that any guitarist who comes along after them has a hard time escaping their legacy. You'll find here, in chronological order, ten guitarists who mattered and why they mattered.
Andrés Segovia (1893–1987)
Not only was Segovia the most famous classical guitarist of all time, but he also literally invented the genre. Before his arrival, the guitar was a lowly instrument of the peasant classes. Segovia began performing Bach pieces and other serious classical music on the guitar (writing many of his own transcriptions), eventually elevating this "parlor" activity to a world-class style. His incredible performing career lasted more than 70 years. His signature pieces include Bach's "Chaconne" and Albeniz's "Granada."
Charlie Christian (1916–42)
Charlie Christian invented the art of electric jazz guitar. His fluid solos with Benny Goodman's big band and smaller combos were sophisticated, scintillating, and years ahead of their time. After hours, he used to jam with fellow jazz rebels at Minton's in New York, where his adventurous improvisations helped create the genre known as bebop. Christian played the guitar like a horn, incorporating intervallic (non-stepwise) motion into his lines. His signature tunes include "I Found a New Baby,""Seven Come Eleven," and "Stardust."
Chet Atkins (1924–2001)
Known as "Mr. Guitar," Atkins is the definitive country guitarist. Building on Merle Travis' fast fingerpicking technique, Atkins refined the style, adding jazz, classical, and pop nuances to create a truly sophisticated country-guitar approach. He's played with Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, and countless country stars over the decades. His signature tunes include "Stars and Stripes Forever" and "Yankee Doodle Dixie."
Django Reinhardt (1910–53)
Reinhardt is regarded as one of the greatest guitar players of all time; he was the first important European jazz musician who made major contributions to the development of the guitar genre. After his fourth and fifth fingers were paralyzed when he suffered burns in a fire, Reinhardt used only the index and middle finger of his left hand on his solos. He created an entirely new style of jazz guitar technique (sometimes called 'hot' jazz guitar), which has since become a living musical tradition within French Gypsy culture. With violinist Stéphane Grappelli, Reinhardt co-founded the Quintette du Hot Club de France, described by critic Thom Jurek as "one of the most original bands in the history of recorded jazz". Reinhardt's most popular compositions have become jazz standards, including "Minor Swing", "Daphne", "Belleville", "Djangology", "Swing '42", and "Nuages".
Wes Montgomery (1925–68)
A legendary jazz player, Wes's brand of cool jazz was based on the fact that he used his thumb to sound notes, instead of a traditional guitar pick. Another of his innovations was the use of octaves (that is, two identical notes in different ranges) to create fat, moving, unison lines. He died young, but his proponents still call him one of the all-time jazz greats. His signature tunes include "Four on Six" and "Polka Dots and Moonbeams."
B.B. King (1925–2015 )
Although he wasn't the first electric bluesman, B.B. King is easily the most popular: His swinging, high-voltage guitar style complements charismatic stagemanship and a huge, gospel-fueled voice. Along with his trademark ES-355 guitar, nicknamed "Lucille," King's minimalist soloing technique and massive finger vibrato has cemented his place in the annals of electric blues history. His signature tunes include "Every Day I Have the Blues" and "The Thrill Is Gone."
Chuck Berry (1926– )
Perhaps rock's first real guitar hero, Berry used fast, rhythmic double-stops to create his signature guitar style. Although some regard him equally for his songwriting and lyric-writing skills, his fire-breathing breaks made his signature tunes "Johnny B. Goode," "Rockin' in the U.S.A.," and "Maybelline," bona fide guitar classics.
Jimi Hendrix (1942–70)
Considered the greatest rock guitarist of all time, Hendrix fused R&B, blues, rock, and psychedelia into a mesmerizing sonic soup. His 1967 breakthrough at the Monterey Pop Festival instantly rewrote the rock guitar textbook, especially after he whipped off his Stratocaster and lit it on fire. Young guitarists religiously copy his licks to this day. Hendrix was known for his fiery abandon (even when his guitar wasn't actually on fire) and innovative work with feedback and the whammy bar. His signature tunes include "Purple Haze" and "Little Wing."
Jimmy Page (1944– )
Page succeeded Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck in the Yardbirds, but he didn't really find his niche until forming Led Zeppelin, one of the great '70s rock bands. Page's forte was the art of recording guitars, layering track upon track to construct thundering avalanches of electrified tone. Yet he could also play sublime acoustic guitar, regularly employing unusual tunings and global influences. In rock circles, his six-string creativity in the studio is unmatched. His signature tunes include "Stairway to Heaven" and "Whole Lotta Love."
Eric Clapton (1945– )
In many ways, Clapton is the father of contemporary rock guitar. Before Hendrix, Beck, and Page showed up, the Yardbirds-era Clapton was already fusing electric Chicago blues with the fury of rock 'n' roll. He later expanded upon this style in Cream, Blind Faith, and the legendary Derek and the Dominoes. Clapton eventually went solo, turning into one of the most popular recording artists of the last 20 years. A true living legend, his signature tunes include "Crossroads" and "Layla."
Eddie Van Halen (1955– )
Rock guitar's equivalent to Jackson Pollock, Eddie Van Halen's splatter-note approach to metal guitar completely reinvented the style starting in the late '70s. He turned two-handed tapping into a common guitar technique (thanks to his groundbreaking "Eruption"), while pushing the limits of whammy-bar and hammer-on expertise. He is also a master at fusing blues-based rock with modern techniques, and his rhythm playing is one of the best examples of the integrated style (combining low-note riffs with chords and double-stops). A guitar hero in every sense of the term, his signature tunes include "Eruption" and "Panama."