For the categorizers, inventory takers, and list-makers among us there’s nothing more exciting or divisive than a best guitarists list (see last week’s best vocalists list). Even now, typing that combination: “best guitarists” brings a wave of nostalgia over me—reminding me of endless late night discussions with friends or bandmates over who’d we pick if ever we were GMs for some sort of guitarist draft. Who wrote the biggest riffs, who had the best tone, and who could rip the meanest solo?
In today’s denuded indie rock landscape however, the conversation surrounding best guitarists is, for the first time since the dawn of modern pop music (or at least since the early 80s), in danger of losing some relevance. While there do of course remain plenty of top-flight guitarists today, the fact is that if we’re looking at the best guitarists in 2014, it’s hard not to acknowledge our diminishing sample size. So what do we make of all this? Is it just a phase? A blip on the radar? A dot on the rock-history timeline that’s more like an endlessly repeating circuit—bound to repeat itself ad infinitum—than a straight line anyway?
I say “yes “to all of the above. Below are 10 of the most compelling, forward-thinking, or downright talented guitarists in the alt rock game today.
Annie Clark (St. Vincent)
Annie Clark took the long road to stardom—starting as a backing member of the sprawling choral-rock outfit Polyphonic Spree, then later as a guitarist for Sufjan Stevens—but after five gold records and more memorable riffs than one can shake a stick at, there’s no denying her place on top of the indie rock heap. Incredibly diverse and creative as a guitarist, Clark has the rare ability to sing while playing complex riffs.
Jack White (The White Stripes)
It may be awhile since White’s heyday with The White Stripes, but there’s no doubt the man can still rip it. With an ear for melody that created perhaps the most memorable riff this century in “Seven Nation Army” and oft overlooked chops as a bluesman, Jack White is the closest thing we have to a modern era guitar god.
Say what you want about the antics, but Salad Days was one of the most exciting alt-rock releases this year. Born in BC, Demarco is more craftsman than shredder on the 6-string, creating dreamy, timeless bits of slacker rock that burrow into the ear. As evidenced in the above video for Viceroy, his ode to the discount Canadian cigarette maker, he knows his way around a solo as well.
Jamie Cook & Alex Turner (Arctic Monkeys)
While their sartorial style seems to change with the release of each new disc, excellent guitar work has remained a constant of Arctic Monkeys’ ascendant career. Balancing larger-than-life, lizard-brain garage riffs with nuanced, intelligent songwriting, the Cook/Turner combo more than make up for their technical deficiencies with a keen ear for melody and dynamics.
Dan Auerbach (Black Keys)
Dan Auerbach is the triple thick milkshake of guitarists. With plenty of rich, creamy tone, hearty low-end and undeniable cool, he makes the two-piece work like few can.
Behold the loving hands of Blake Mills. A Cali-based songwriter, guitarist, producer, and composer, Mills has collaborated with everyone from Conor Oberst and Band of Horses to Weezer and Lana Del Ray since going pro at age 14. While his solo work may be understated, there’s a reason they call him a virtuoso.
David Longstreth (Dirty Projectors)
With his winding staccato guitar lines and alien tone, David Longstreth sounds unlike anyone else. If we’re talking about guitarists who are willing to push boundaries and take risks within an indie pop framework, Longstreth’s gotta be near the top of the list.
Archy Marshall (King Krule)
Mixing jazz-punk, hip hop, and something called “darkwave” Archy Marshall, 19, is as close to unclassifiable as a musician gets. He’s also a heck of a guitarist. Discordant, complex and unpredictable on the strings, Marshall plays each note with intense precision.
Paul Saunier (PS I Love You)
Paul Saunier was destined to play the double-necked guitar like King Arthur was destined to free the Excalibur from its stone. With his signature guitar histrionics (heavy on the distortion and tapping) and Frank Black-like vocal delivery, Saunier has become one of Canadian indie rock’s most underrated frontmen.
Marissa Paternoster (Screaming Females)
At a time when most babies were kickin’ it to Rafi, Marissa Paternoster was probably shredding out to Dinosaur Jr. & Pavement in her crib. Widely considered to be one of the top rock guitarists in the world, Paternoster is an absolute force of nature on the ‘guit’—making her live albums a must-hear for fans of the New Jersey power punk trio.
Nels Kline (Wilco)
Who but Nels Cline could pull-off a four minute—at times harmonized—shred fest with such stately elegance? A great guitarist in the vein of the great axemen of yore like David Gilmour and Jeff Beck—Kline has been quietly writing some of the best guitar parts in alt rock for two decades.
Honourable Mentions: Marnie Stern, Dave Sitek (TV on the Radio), Johnny Marr (The Smiths, Modest Mouse), Kurt Vile, Kevin Parker (Tame Impala).