10 Most Influential Guitarists Who Were Technically Not Great

10 Extremely Influential Guitarists Who Were Not Technically Great

10 Most Influential Guitarists Who Were Technically Not Great

You don’t have to be a virtuoso guitarist to touch people’s hearts with your music! Guitar teacher Samuel B. shares a few of his favorite great-but-not-that-great famous guitar players…

Towards the end of Johnny Cash’s autobiography, you’ll find the following paragraph:

As to my musical future, my prospects look good. I can whack on a guitar as incompetently as I could a year ago, probably more so. I can sing just as well, or as badly, as I ever could. And I’ve got more songs trying to go through me than ever; I’ve written three in the last three weeks.

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Despite his technical limitations, Johnny Cash remains an iconic musician, and likely will for decades to come. It is a mistake, I think, to automatically link great music with technical perfection.

Vaughan, Hendrix, and Clapton aside, the majority of my guitar heroes were not superb musicians. Their influence is based on innovation and expression to a much greater extent than it is on fluid musicianship.

Cash is just one example. Here are nine others:


Bob Dylan

Guitar-wise, the best I’ve heard of Dylan are the tracks on his first album for Columbia: Bob Dylan (1962). With two exceptions, its 14 tracks are traditional songs or material by other artists which Dylan adapted to a fast-paced “high and lonesome” style involving intense strumming and (in some cases) intricate fingerpicking.

Despite these energetic musical highlights, none of his other albums boast remarkable guitar moments. While Dylan has proven himself an exceptional and highly influential lyricist, his musicianship is considered average at best.


Tom Petty

Just listen to the opening chords of “Free Fallin’.” They are about as simple as they come. The song itself has no chorus or bridge.

Very few figures in rock create anthems as memorable as Petty’s. They’re not based on intricacy – just gut and tone. Petty’s music is raw and exuberant. Any listener can relate to it.


Richie Havens

A former doo-wop and gospel singer, Havens maintained a career of playing an alternate tuning with his thumb over the neck. The sound of his strumming and his voice was unmistakable – a powerful yet warm and soothing balm.

At times, he described his guitar as more of a tool than an instrument. Havens’ contribution to music history was not based so much on musical excellence as it was on his ability to use his artistic gifts and his grandfatherly wisdom to inspire the best in others.


BB King

Footage from the 1988 documentary Rattle and Hum includes a collaboration between U2 and King. During the rehearsal, King twice indicates how poorly he plays chords.

King’s calling card was his vibrato which (like Havens’ thumb chords) was his alone. Who can forget his childlike face after telling Lucille to talk to him and closing his eyes?


Kurt Cobain

Even on Nirvana’s intimate MTV unplugged album, no guitar highlights are apparent. In most respects, Cobain was an innovative songwriter and bandleader.

He should be credited as having been one of the key players that brought alternative music to the mainstream. Few bands had a sound as full-bodied and expressive as Nirvana’s.


Joni Mitchell

Mitchell’s diverse use of open tunings is not well-known. She’s used more of them than any recognizable guitarist I can think of. The sound of her lower strings has been compared to that of a snare drum. The sound of her higher ones to that of a cool jazz horn section.

She’s even taken to having her electric “VG-8” guitar tuned offstage as each song on her set list is in a different tuning. Still, she is not a technically brilliant guitarist.


Dave “The Edge” Evans

I once saw Evans provide a televised tour of his onstage lineup of pedals and related electronic tools during U2’s Zoo TV tour in the early 90s. Among the guitarists who’ve honed a recognizable niche in alternative music, he’s a chief innovator.

The haunting opening lines of “With Or Without You” should be considered a revolutionary piece of musical history in of itself – a single sustained note over multiple measure of the bass line (not an easy feat actually). The strumming later in the song comes close to imitating the sound of a train.

As with Cobain, credit is due as praise for the sound itself – not for how fast and flashy he has played it.


Amy Ray and Emily Saliers

When it comes to attitude and energy (not to mention lyrical brilliance and enough stage presence to convert an entire arena of avid concertgoers into instant fans), nobody compares to Amy and Emily (The Indigo Girls). They’ve penned what I consider to be some of the most memorable songs of the last two (nearly three) decades (ie “Closer To Fine”, “Joking”, “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee”, “Least Complicated”).

As is true with many of the others mentioned, unforgettable guitar licks are few (if any) on their albums and in their live shows. They’ve given us a beautiful tapestry of poetry and emotion that’s easy for most of us to appreciate and understand.


What did you think of this list? Are there any famous guitar players you’d like to add? Let us know in the comments below!


SamuelBSamuel B. teaches beginner guitar lessons in Austin, TX. He teaches lessons face-to-face without sheet music, which is his adaptation of Japanese instruction (involving a call-and-response method). Learn more about Samuel here!


Photo by Mathias Miranda

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7 replies
  1. James
    James says:

    BB King absolutely does NOT belong on this list. King played an economical style in later years and was self deprecating about his own ability but a good study of his late 50s to late 60s material along with a look at some interviews will tell you that he was a far better musician than the modern casual listener might think.

  2. Fred McCarty
    Fred McCarty says:

    I hope you’re not trying to get notoriety by being controversial. And if so, I pray it backfires. There is no reason to write an article like this, nor do any of these players belong on this list. All of these players are perfect at accompanying what they do. I will share this on Facebook and make sure that you get no props for this! Man, you guys suck!

  3. Kid Andersen
    Kid Andersen says:

    You put the man who INVENTED modern lead guitar over a list of “Bad guitar players”?
    You are a poor excuse for a hack.
    I don’t think you even know what “technique” or “musicianship” means.
    Get off the internet. No, make that the planet.

  4. vince
    vince says:

    You’re right. You knew you would be controversial, so it was the first word you used. A gift from God is a gift from God. And a gift from God is never junk. But you give us good insight as to why, no matter how great a musician may be, there is always someone out there, who does not like that musician. Just because someone may not like a musician, or, may think they’re ‘not technically brilliant’, which is the same thing (after all, if you can cause controversy with a diverse view, so can I) remember, one man’s ‘trash’….. I happen to like ‘simplicity’ and ‘complexity’. But, in reality, neither is possible to us who do not have that particular gift from God/Jesus. If the gift has reached someone, it qualifies as a gift. In reality, all ‘simplicity’ is complex, because, like I said…B.B. King can do what you and I cannot do.

  5. Nick Prudent
    Nick Prudent says:

    If by technically great, you mean 70’s jazz guys or 80’s shredder, I agree. However, all these players are virtuoso songwriters, whose songs are more memorable than Malmsteen’s 200mph shredding. I specially appreciate The Edge. His famous “dot height” delay technique was mind blowing at the time.

  6. Me
    Me says:

    Author is a moron. BB King never ever said he played chords poorly just that he “didn’t do chords” as he preferred lead, single not style. Amongst this articles most laughable mistakes is the idea that Edge’s guitar sounds like a “train”. Author needs to get his ears checked, what an idiot!


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