The hype about punk rock has always been that anyone can do it. This has resulted in misguided notions that musicianship is absent from punk. Truth be told, you only stand out in this scene if you can really play. Nothing grates eardrums harder than a punk band with no chops.
Guitarists are especially under scrutiny. Yes, the basis of any great band is the drumming — the beat has to be solid. But the electric guitar is punk’s sonic signature. So not only should you be skilled, but you need to distinguish your sound in a world marked by distortion. And maybe have some individual ideas, as well.
Read more: These are the 20 best English punk songs
With these considerations in mind, here are 20 of punk’s greatest guitar players. Please enjoy our custom playlist as you read about what makes all these six-stringers unique.
SIGNATURE MOVE: Johnny Thunders might be the definitive punk-rock guitarist. Sure, he had forebears. He combined the Chuck Berry school of bent-note lead guitar with the filthy raunch of Keith Richards (as well as a few of his tonsorial and sartorial cues). Then he coated it with the unstable harmonic overspill emanating from the MC5’s amplifiers. His raw power chords with those barbed-wire blues guitar breaks became The Punk Guitar Primer. Most everyone on this list owes Thunders everything, including the importance of the Gibson Les Paul Junior, rock’s perfect raunch machine.
CLAIM TO FAME: Sex Pistols, the Professionals
SIGNATURE MOVE: Steve Jones stands at the intersection of Thunders and heavy metal. His chords were the crunchiest this side of Black Sabbath, his lead work was Thunders-esque and his tone was huge and rich, even live. He accomplished all this with a Gibson Les Paul Custom originally belonging to the Dolls’ Syl Sylvain and a Fender Twin Reverb pilfered from Bob Marley And The Wailers. He used no pedals, save for a phaser on “Anarchy In The U.K.” It was all down to Jones’ hands and the massive, thick overdrive of that Twin pushed by the Gibson’s humbuckers, with every dial on the amp on maximum.
BEST HEARD ON: Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols
CLAIM TO FAME: The Clash
SIGNATURE MOVE: Mick Jones is where punk meets the skilled musicality of Mick Ronson, David Bowie’s first guitar hero and secret weapon. From the Clash’s slash-and-burn early days, Jones decorated his brutal chord work with a lyrical lead guitar approach that sang more than screamed. He used very musical sustain and feedback on key tracks such as “Clash City Rockers” and “London Calling.” Most importantly, like Ronson, Jones arranged expertly. Witness the guitar arrangements on their cover of Junior Murvin’s “Police & Thieves.” The riff was broken — Joe Strummer coming down hard on one and two, with Jones replying with distorted upstrokes on three and four. No other early punk band enjoyed such musical sophistication.
BEST HEARD ON: The Clash Hits Back
CLAIM TO FAME: Ramones
SIGNATURE MOVE: Johnny Ramone might be an even bigger influence on punk guitar than Thunders. Yet Ramone are as much a child of Thunders as the rest of this list. Except he took the Dolls’ advent as permission to play his own way. Which meant he skipped over the Les Pauls and Fender Stratocasters dominating rock, favoring a Mosrite Ventures model purchased for $50 on 48th Street. He excised blues influences and lead guitar. He reduced rock ‘n’ roll guitar to a relentless chainsaw drone, accomplished via viciously downstroking two barre chord positions played up and down the neck, fed through Marshalls cranked to maximum distortion. This became punk’s standard rhythm guitar method.
BEST HEARD ON: Rocket To Russia
CLAIM TO FAME: Iggy And The Stooges
SIGNATURE MOVE: The Stooges had two guitar players — at one time working in unison, eventually one making way for the other by switching to bass. Original six-string Stooge Ron Asheton learned on the job and reduced rock guitar to a series of drones blasted through what sounded like The World’s Biggest Fuzz Box. But James Williamson pushed the fervid, violent ‘60s guitar heroics of the Kinks’ Dave Davies and Jeff Beck in his Yardbirds period, then made them more intense. With his sick chords and spastic, gibbering leads, pushed through a mountain of tube distortion, Williamson created a futuristic, sci-fi blues style all his own. Few have equaled him, and none have surpassed him.
BEST HEARD ON: Raw Power
CLAIM TO FAME: The Cramps
SIGNATURE MOVE: “All rock ’n’ roll from the ’60s, going into the ’70s, was based on Chuck Berry, at the exclusion of any other influence,” Cramps leader/guitarist Poison Ivy told Guitar World. “So even though we loved Chuck, we decided to do all we could to not have that influence.” Instead, punkabilly’s queen concentrated on Link Wray’s monumentally distorted chords, Duane Eddy’s big banging single notes and abuse of a whammy bar, fuzz, reverb and tremolo. It distinguished Ivy, among a universe of pseudo-Thunders-ites Chuck Berrying their way across their fretboards.
BEST HEARD ON: Off The Bone
CLAIM TO FAME: Nashville Pussy
SIGNATURE MOVE: Fire-breathing Southern punk outfit Nashville Pussy stood out in a couple of different ways. One, they owed as much to ‘70s Camaro rock as to classic punk. Two, half the personnel were women. And while singer/guitarist Blaine Cartwright growls superbly from both his throat and fretboard, much of their sonic blitzkrieg is down to the gonzo virtuosity of his wife, Ruyter Suys. She rages across every stage the hard-touring band play, handling her Gibson SG like the genetically modified lovechild of Angus Young and Johnny Ramone.
BEST HEARD ON: Ten Years Of Pussy
CLAIM TO FAME: Bad Brains
SIGNATURE MOVE: As hardcore inflicted grievous bodily harm upon land speed records and societal norms, early hardcore heroes Bad Brains stood out They were not only the earliest of thrash outfits, but they were likely the best musicians to tackle the form. Guitarist Dr. Know is especially adept, spewing volleys of 16th notes like some people yawn. This American Rasta was like one of the earliest metal guitarists working within a punk format. Then, like the rest of his brethren, he could stop on a dime and downshift into the slowest, deepest dub reggae. It’s truly astonishing.
BEST HEARD ON: Bad Brains
Kid Congo Powers
CLAIM TO FAME: The Gun Club, the Cramps, Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, Kid Congo And The Pink Monkey Birds
SIGNATURE MOVE: Kid Congo Powers is a world-class musician still in touch with his inner primitive. In 1979, Jeffrey Lee Pierce open-tuned a Fender Strat and taught his friend how to play one-finger guitar. Then Powers joined Pierce’s band, blues-punk desperados the Gun Club. Powers still tunes to that open chord, still chords with one finger and remains the world’s most crucial avant-punk six-stringer. His CV reads like a who’s who of the most musically advanced roots/punk outfits. All have benefitted from his stinging, beautiful tone and caress.
BEST HEARD ON: The Las Vegas Story
SIGNATURE MOVE: Bob Mould manages to crunch and jangle, often at the same time. In Hüsker Dü alone, he pioneered and defined a few American punk eras — hardcore, pop punk and early stirrings of alternative rock. These changes all occurred as his songwriting grew. His guitar work grew with it. He’s always appreciated and utilized the MXR Distortion + pedal’s sawtooth wave grit. Employing an Eventide Harmonizer electronically created a 12-string-like ring as ‘60s pop melodicism sank more into his work.
BEST HEARD ON: Flip Your Wig
CLAIM TO FAME: MC5
SIGNATURE MOVE: Wayne Kramer defines the term “guitar hero.” He and fellow bandmate Fred “Sonic” Smith ruled the ‘60s Detroit rock scene. Kramer was nominally the lead guitarist, but he and Smith locked into contrapuntal flights of fretboard fancy aimed for the stratosphere. The heady mix of free jazz improvisation, Chuck Berry raunch and the Yardbirds’ feedback-drenched experimentation gassed up MC5’s guitaristic engine. They also were pioneers of customized guitars — witness Kramer’s American flag motif Strat, or both guitarists loading Gibson humbuckers into their guitars. There was also Kramer’s idea of “playing the amp,” cranking it so loud that overtones spill all over the place.
BEST HEARD ON: Kick Out The Jams
CLAIM TO FAME: Black Flag
SIGNATURE MOVE: Black Flag, the Hermosa Beach riot squad that helped initiate hardcore, grunge, stoner rock and doom metal, saw endless lineup changes across the years. The only essential member was visionary founder Greg Ginn. His psychotherapeutic songwriting and loud, aggressive atonal guitar were their cornerstones. He seemingly tapped into the same free jazz as MC5, plus the guitar gymnastics of Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band. Doused in Black Sabbath’s metallic sludge, then blasted on a Plexiglas guitar through a solid state PA head, and you get the harsh, discordant battering ram that was Ginn.
BEST HEARD ON: Damaged
CLAIM TO FAME: The Replacements
SIGNATURE MOVE: As a basement trio called Dogbreath playing hyperspeed Aerosmith, Ted Nugent and Yes covers in a Minneapolis basement, the Replacements were Bob Stinson’s band. Then singin’/strummin’ janitor Paul Westerberg changed all that, adding his incredible heartfelt songs. There was still room for Stinson’s gonzo yet melodic guitar work. He’d clearly learned a thing or two from ‘70s metal, but left the parts he didn’t like on the cutting-room floor. Instead, he played with an abandon that was clearly intuitive, not premeditated, while hardly lacking emotion. Every time he took a lead, he peeled out, saying he’d see you on the other side and dishing out this haphazardly beautiful cluster of single notes.
BEST HEARD ON: Hootenanny
CLAIM TO FAME: L7
SIGNATURE MOVE: Of all the original grunge guitarists, L7’s classic duo of Donita Sparks and Suzi Gardner is possibly the most impressive. Sparks especially stood out, with her inside-out blues licks and melodic sense, and for consistently employing the thickest, loudest fuzzbox this side of Ron Asheton’s. Her tone was the dirtiest and widest heard in forever. It may still be. Sparks and Gardner both just seemed to want to outdo everyone, dead or alive, on noisy, messy guitar sounds.
BEST HEARD ON: Smell The Magic
CLAIM TO FAME: The Muffs
SIGNATURE MOVE: Kim Shattuck, undisputed leader of ‘90s Los Angeles garage/punk outfit the Muffs, had an unparalleled ability to growl and scream in pitch. Kurt Cobain surely envied her on that score. She also had a knack for writing heartbreakingly beautiful pop songs that resembled the reanimated Buddy Holly now fronting the Hollies. But few discuss her guitar work. She bent strings with an impunity that would’ve given Thunders pause, wrote catchy riffs that were almost casual in their infectiousness, then coated them all in a blanket of distortion filthier and nastier than L7’s. She is truly an unsung guitar hero.
BEST HEARD ON: Hamburger
CLAIM TO FAME: The Libertines
SIGNATURE MOVE: Both halves of poetic garage punks the Libertines were as strong guitar players as they were songwriters. But Carl Barât was more of a lead player than Pete Doherty. He scrubbed out some solid riffs, as Barât indulged in flights of jazz fancy that suggested a more-than-passing familiarity with Django Reinhardt. The pair also shared a yen for cheaper ‘60s student-model guitars and ancient British tube amps – various Epiphone models with batwing headstocks, Gibson Melody Makers, Vox AC30s or early Marshall non-master volume half-stacks. This influenced a generation of young Brits.
BEST HEARD ON: Time For Heroes – The Best of The Libertines
CLAIM TO FAME: Dead Boys
SIGNATURE MOVE: Cleveland’s Dead Boys were a bizarre, crossbred mutation of the Stooges and The Three Stooges. Slapstick nihilism, anyone? Theirs was the most Detroit hard-rock informed punk extant at the moment, with Stiv Bators’ pie-in-face Alice Cooper-meets-Iggy Pop stage presence icing the cake. A large part of Dead Boys’ sonic signature was Cheetah Chrome’s intense fretwork. He twisted the innovations of Thunders and Williamson into something sick and dangerous, crossed with something of the proto-metal charm of someone like Cooper’s Glen Buxton.
BEST HEARD ON: Sonic Reducer – Best Of Dead Boys
Billie Joe Armstrong
CLAIM TO FAME: Green Day
SIGNATURE MOVE: Billie Joe Armstrong contributed a lot to the art of punk guitar. Even in Green Day’s indie days on Lookout! Records, he achieved a nice, thick blast-and-grind. Once they signed with Reprise, their expanded recording budget enabled him to make it bigger and wider. Initially, the tone generator was Blue, his heavily stickered/modified Fernandes Strat copy his mother gifted him one Christmas as a teen. Then it was a number of Les Paul Juniors going through the modded Marshalls he’s played since Dookie. These machines broadcast enormous stereophonic crunch chords and stinging, abrupt melodic leads.
BEST HEARD ON: American Idiot
East Bay Ray
CLAIM TO FAME: Dead Kennedys
SIGNATURE MOVE: Auditorily, San Francisco political punks Dead Kennedys paralleled no other band. Yes, tempos and energy both were standard-punk-regulation high. But that’s where the DKs diverge, mostly via the sonic science laid down by guitarist East Bay Ray. Denatured surf and rockabilly licks got reprocessed through a surfeit of distortion, via a humbucking-equipped Partscaster. But what Ray ultimately brought to punk was the Echoplex. He utilized/abused the classic tape delay unit to create shrieking psychedelic textures not found on other punk records, even to this day.
BEST HEARD ON: Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables
SIGNATURE MOVE: Joan Jett gets universally recognized as a women-in-rock pioneer, as well as being as great a living definition of rock ‘n’ roll as, say, Keith Richards. But what’s frequently missing from the conversation is what a great guitarist she is. Utilizing a heavily modded Gibson Melody Maker purchased from Eric Carmen of ‘70s power-pop heroes the Raspberries, she slashes out the most solid power chords in all of rock. And her tone is the thickest and juiciest. But she’s also a capable lead guitarist. That two-note, bent-string lead-fest on “Bad Reputation” is all Jett, according to manager/musical partner Kenny Laguna. Had she dropped more such breaks, we’d think of her in the same class as Thunders.
BEST HEARD ON: Bad Reputation (Music from the Original Motion Picture)