25. Bob Mould
Post-punk, alternative music fans are well aware of Mould’s talent with the guitar. It all started during the 1980s with Twin Cities rockers Hüsker Dü. Mould was, and still is, quite capable of mastering that “dirty” guitar sound, while also adding some structure to the process. A song like “Sorry Somehow,” from the band’s 1986 effort Candy Apple Red, is a perfect example of Mould’s ability to mix straight-forward punk with a rhythmic tinge of pop – while still not losing any musical street credibility.
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24. Gary Richrath
The late REO Speedwagon lead guitarists did most of his signature work during the 1970s, Back when the outfit was a true rock band. In the 1980s, REO delved into Air Supply territory, thanks to singer Kevin Cronin’s penchant for commercially successful ballads. Still, on albums like 1980’s Hi Infidelity, Richrath delivered the goods amid the pop schlock. His presence on songs such as “Take on the Run,” “Follow My Heart” and “Tough Guys” is worth celebrating.
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23. Steve Stevens
Best known for his work with Billy Idol, Stevens was more than just a backing musician for one of the most popular artists of the ‘80s. Stevens was a major presence on Idol’s two biggest albums of the decade – Billy Idol (1982) and Rebel Yell (1982). He also contributed as a songwriter on those records. Some might not know that it was Stevens, who also played with the likes of Michael Jackson and Robert Palmer, won a 1987 Grammy Award for his instrumental guitar work on the famed “Top Gun Anthem,” from the famed Tom Cruise movie.
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22. Joe Perry
Aerosmith’s first two records of the 1980s – Rock in a Hard Place (1982) and Done with Mirrors (1985) – were far from stellar. However, Perry and Co. returned, clean and sober, to prominence later in the decade. On 1987’s Permanent Vacation, Perry, one of the stronger blues-infused rock guitarists of the 1970s, came through on popular tracks like “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” and “Angel.” On ‘89’s Pump, Perry stood out via “Janie’s Got a Gun,” and “What It Takes.”
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21. Paul Gilbert
Guitar aficionados and critics know just how good Gilbert is on the instrument. A prodigy of sorts, Gilbert first earned acclaim with ‘80s’ metal band Racer X. Towards the end of the decade, Gilbert, known for his brilliant technique and speed on the guitar, joined forces with famed bassist Billy Sheehan to form Mr. Big. That band would go on to enjoy some decent commercial success in the early 1990s. Gilbert was named among Guitar World’s “50 Fastest Guitarists of All Time.”
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Slash’s excellence with a Les Paul has been celebrated for more than 30 years. Though the intricacies of his work was on full display on Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion records in the early 1990s, the rock world was introduced to him earlier on in 1987. That was the year the band burst onto the hard-rock scene with Appetite for Destruction. Slash’s play on G N’ R classics from that album like “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Nightrain,” “Paradise City,” “Sweet Child o’ Mine” and “Rocket Queen” is simply legendary.
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19. Mick Jones
Jones is considered one of the most influential punk guitarists of all time. It can also be argued that his influence goes beyond the punk genre. Though The Clash enjoyed its initial success in the 1970s, Jones was obviously a major reason later albums like Sandinista! (1980) and Combat Rock (1982) are among the band’s most commercially viable, but also well respected. When he left The Clash in the mid-1980s, Jones enjoyed success with General Public and, perhaps most notably, Big Audio Dynamite.
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18. Steve Vai
Vai might be best known for playing with David Lee Roth (1985-’89) and Whitesnake (1989-’91), but he actually began his career playing with the great Frank Zappa in the early 1980s. Vai is a guitar wiz who cites the influence of many high up on this list (most notably our No. 1 pick). Known for making his guitar “talk,” Vai put out his first solo record in 1984 and continues to play today. While it took some time for Vai to get his due, he remains a giant among rock guitarists.
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17. Keith Richards
When talking about the great guitarists of all time, Richards is among the top 10 or so. When specifically talking about the decade of the 1980s, however, the abundance of the band’s material was just not there as in past decades. Of course, the heart of the Rolling Stones’ catalog came during the 1960s and ‘70s. Yet, songs from the 1980s like “Start Me Up,” “Hang Fire,” “She Was Hot” and “Mixed Emotions” proved that the incomparable Richards could still deliver best than most during the decade.
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16. Billy Gibbons
Like plenty others on this list, Gibbons is among Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.” Gibbons was already a highly regarded, established player during the 1970s with ZZ Top. However, the emergence of MTV in the 1980s help the band enjoy tremendous success with records like Eliminator (1983) and Afterburner (1985). Gibbons shines on popular ‘80s’ staples “Gimme All Your Lovin,’” “Sharp Dressed Man,” “Legs” and “Sleeping Bag.”
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15. Brian Baker
When talking about the elite of hardcore punk guitar playing, Baker is one of the best. If not the best. Baker made a name for himself out of the gate in early 1980s with influential hardcore punks Minor Threat. Slayer is just one band influenced by that outfit. From there, Baker enjoyed success with Dag Nasty before ultimately garnering more mainstream punk love with Bad Religion in the 1990s.
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14. The Edge
From the opening bars of “I Will Follow,” off U2’s 1980 debut Boy, we knew there was something special about the guitar work of Dave Evans (aka The Edge). The Edge further showed off his chops on the stratocaster with such U2 classics like “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “Pride (In the Name of Love),” “Bad,” and one of the great-opening album track of all time, “Where the Streets Have No Name” from 1987’s The Joshua Tree. His playing isn’t over the top, and does not consume the band’s songs. It’s straight-forward rock guitar brilliance that maybe does not always get the credit it deserves.
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13. Eric Clapton
There is no doubt Clapton is one of the greats of all time. His solo career has spanned five decades. During the 1980s, he put out five such records, which produced hits like “I Can’t Stand It,” “I’ve Got a Rock ‘n’ Roll Heart,” “It’s in the Way That You Use It” and “Before You Accuse Me.” Sure, these are some of Clapton’s more mainstream tunes, but obviously still showcase his elite talent and reinforce his legendary status.
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12. Brian May
The 1970s were the heyday for May’s excellence with Queen. Showcasing some of his great legendary guitar work. However, the ‘80s weren’t too shabby for one of the greats of all time. Gems from May’s war chest during the 1980s include “I Want to Break Free,” “Hammer to Fall” and “I Want It All.” Even into the 1990s during Queen’s final years, May still stood high above many.
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11. Johnny Ramone
Johnny Ramone didn’t need many chords to deliver his straight-forward, unabashed version of power-punk guitar playing. Many critics and guitar pros consider him the greatest punk guitarist ever. The Ramones catalog is seemingly endless, and when we talk about the 1980s, there is plenty of Johnny Ramone love to go around. Highlights from the decade include: “Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio?” There’s also, “Psycho Therapy,” “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg” and “Pet Sematary.”
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10. Alex Lifeson
It can be argued that Lifeson is the most underrated member of the legendary Rush trio. And during the 1980s, his guitar ability was certainly on display for all rock fans to enjoy. From “The Spirit of Radio” to “Limelight” to “Red Sector A,” Lifeson came through on some of the best guitar work of the decade – and within the entire Rush catalog. Sure, there are hardcore fans of the band who did not like the more “mainstream” direction Rush seemed to take in the ‘80s, but that didn’t mean Lifeson was any less talented.
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9. Kirk Hammett
James Hetfield might be the greatest rhythm guitarist in the history of thrash/heavy metal. If that’s the case, then Hammett should be considered one of the great lead players of the genre. Just listen to Metallica classics like “For Whom the Bell Tolls (1985), “Master of Puppets” (1986) and “One” (1988). Hammett’s playing then, and to this day, was/is not about just speed. He might be the most melodic lead guitarist in all of metal.
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8. Angus Young
True AC/DC fans know the 1970s were a magic decade for the band, Most notably, the riffs and solos of Angus Young. Donned in his school-boy outfit, Young also was a force during the first half of the 1980s. Out of the gate with Back in Black (1980), then For Those About to Rock We Salute You (1981), Young’s stellar playing continued to move on. Some of Young’s highlights from the decade can be found on “Back in Black,” “Hells Bells,” “Shoot to Thrill” and “You Shook Me All Nite Long.”
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7. Thurston Moore
Many critics don’t hesitate to label Moore the greatest guitarist in the history of the alternative music genre. Sleater-Kinney even wrote some lyrics about the legendary Sonic Youth guitarist. Known for his unique guitar tunings and his sort of squealing distortion, Moore was an innovator who influenced many more wannabe guitar heroes such as Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins. He also had a significant impact on what would be become the grunge movement from the 1990s.
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6. Yngwie Malmsteen
While the famed Swedish axe man played with early-‘80s metal bands Steeler and Alcatrazz, Malmsteen earned most of his acclaim as a solo artist. A true technician of the craft, Yngwie put out four solo records during the 1980s, showcasing his neoclassical style. Though Malmsteen never really enjoyed the mainstream success as some of his ‘80s metal contemporaries, within that community, he was highly regarded as one of the great guitarists of the genre. His playing is still influential and studied around the globe to this day.
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5. Joe Satriani
When it comes to technical guitar play, many critics and fellow guitarists believe Satriani is on the Mount Rushmore of that particular group. In addition to being an accomplished guitarists, composer and songwriter, Satriani was a long-time instructor. Some of his students included Alex Skolnick (Testament), Steve Vai and Kirk Hammett. Satriani has also been nominated for more 15 Grammy Awards (as of 2020), with his first two coming into 1989 for the hit “Always With Me, Always With You” and the album Surfing with the Alien.
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4. Stevie Ray Vaughan
After finding fame with Double Trouble, beginning in the late 1970s, Vaughan eventually enjoyed more mainstream success as a solo artist in the ‘80s. It was during that decade where he solidified himself as one of the great blues guitarists of all time. In 1989, Vaughn released In Step, his fourth studio album at the time. It featured the hit “Crossfire” and won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Performance. Sadly, it was the last record Vaughn recorded. He died, at age 35, in a helicopter crash following a show in southeastern Wisconsin in August 1990.
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3. Randy Rhoads
When it comes to Rhoads, it’s always about what could have been. The guitar virtuoso died in a senseless plane crash in 1982, at age 25. A co-founder of the band that would become Quiet Riot, Rhoads, however, earned international notoriety playing lead guitar at the beginning of Ozzy Osbourne’s solo career. Osbourne’s Blizzard of Ozz (1980) record would become the defining moment of Rhoads’ legacy. Songs like “Crazy Train,” “Mr. Crowley” and “Steal Away (The Night)” are just a few examples of Rhoads’ excellence.
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Prince was at the height of his fame during the 1980s. Though he didn’t always showcase his guitar ability, when he did, it was usually pretty much mind-blowing. None more so than on 1984’s smash Purple Rain. It’s most evident on album gems “When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy” and, of course, the emotionally epic title cut. However, Prince’s guitar greatness was not limited to that record. Fast forward to 1987’s Sign o’ the Times, and underrated magnitude of “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.”
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1. Eddie Van Halen
By the time the 1980s rolled around, Eddie Van Halen was already a guitar giant. That only solidified during the decade with tracks like “Everybody Wants Some!!” Then “Unchained,” “(Oh) Pretty Woman,” “Little Guitars,” “Panama” and “Hot for Teacher.” The emergence of MTV help expand Van Halen’s appeal and Eddie became an international superstar. Don’t forget he also played guitar on Michael Jackson’s classic “Beat It.” The 1980s were the arguably the height of Eddie’s popularity and perhaps the defining time period of a legacy that continues to be celebrated following his death in October 2020.
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