Unlike its equally tumultuous twin, heavy metal, punk rock is not so much concerned with technical virtuosity as it is in inflicting pure blunt trauma.
Case in point is one of the form’s most riotously revolutionary fret-wreckers: the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones, who turns 60 this year on September 3rd. When asked about how he took up guitar, Jonesy echoes punk’s inherent do-it-yourself ethos.
“I wasn’t planning on being a guitar player,” Jones said. “I was going to be a singer. And I was for a little bit in the Sex Pistols—that is, until we got John Lydon [Johnny Rotten]. And then I realized I wasn’t really suited as a front guy. The only spot open in the band was guitarist, so I had to do that or f–k off.”
When it comes to punk, sheer drive and determination come first, and details such as how to actually operate your instrument follow in that frenzy. As a result, happy hardcore accidents can thereafter light the world on fire. In time, too, many a primitive player develops meaty chops and expands his or her musical vocabulary—without ever losing that original punk spirit.
Here now are our picks for the Top 10 punk rock guitarists. Think we missed somebody or got it wrong? Mosh it out in the comments section.
East Bay Ray – Dead Kennedys
Raymond John Pepperell, better known to safety-pinned devotees as the Dead Kennedys’ East Bay Ray, had his work cut out for him from note one in terms of keeping up with the group’s whirlwind firebrand frontman, Jello Biafra.
Ray proved more than up to the task by launching elements of the music he loved growing up into the DKs’ raucous punk pummeling: surf, rockabilly, old-time country, jazz, spaghetti western soundtracks, and even the psychedelic explorations of Pink Floyd founder Syd Barret. You can hear them all when East Bay Ray plays—and only as he can play them.
Poison Ivy Rorschach – The Cramps
San Bernardino-born Kristy Marlana Wallace reinvented herself as Poison Ivy Rorschach en route to New York City’s nascent 1970s punk scene. There, partnered with her husband and wildman front-beast Lux Interior to form the Cramps, Ivy’s incendiary guitar tones and absolutely reckless musical abandon combusted in a punk-inflamed new way to wig-out that was rooted in ’50s rock-and-roll and deemed, quite accurately, “psychobilly.”
Wayne Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith – MC5
Ted Nugent describes his first witnessing a performance by punk pioneers the MC5, his Detroit comrades in rock (if not political philosophy) in awestruck tones that hammer home just how profoundly the group upended the possibilities in electrifying, confrontational music.
“It was seeing the MC5 that opened our eyes,” the Motor City Madman marveled. “I can’t describe in words what it meant to witness that band live.”
The Nuge also regularly singles out the twin guitar firepower of the MC5’s Wayne Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith, describing them as “stupefying” and humbling even the towering Uncle Ted to say, “And I thought I was a bad-ass guitar-slinging motherf—er?! They were the best.”
Dr. Know – Bad Brains
So much music goes on in the course of any one Bad Brains discharge that, given the group’s typical locomotive pile-up pacing, it takes multiple listens to even begin to comprehend what’s just hit you.
It’s in examining the Bad Brains closely that the brilliance of Dr. Know sinks in. The guitarist born Gary Miller plays notes, keys, and chords flawlessly at speeds that simply can’t be mathematically possible—yet there they are.
From that combustion of velocity and virtuosity, Dr. Know propels his playing off in astonishingly original and impactful directions, blasting forth past the cosmos and bringing what he finds out there back down to us here on earth in the course of, most times, about a minute-and-a-half.
Paul Leary – Butthole Surfers
The Austin-spawned Butthole Surfers initially described their berserk implosion of hardcore punk, heavy metal, acid rock, and Zappa-fied taboo-shattering extremism as “psychedelic Texan gumbo.”
The ingredients in that stew burbled up so strange that only punk rockers, at first, could comprehend what the Buttholes were cooking. Other elements included multiple topless percussionists, a bassist who played like it was raining bowling balls, a chaos-igniting cacophonous vocalist, and the unhinged musical imagination of guitarist Paul Leary. Tasty!
Leary’s torrential, often terrifying leads veer from power chords to screeches that sound like he’s strangling his instrument in hot blood—often within the same note. It’s a racket that, truly, could only erupt forth from the land of presidential assassinations, ZZ Top, Roky Erickson, and chainsaw massacres.
Ron Asheton – The Stooges
The sound of Ron Asheton’s wah-wah guitar opening of “1969,” the first track on the Stooges’ self-titled debut of that year, is the birth wailing of punk rock.
From there, the song goes into a tribal percussion, over which Iggy Pop howls about being 22-years-old, bored out of his gourd, and itching to make a massive noise about it. That’s when Ron returns with a serrated-edged solo that slashes out an entire new direction for rock-and-roll to follow. The next number, “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” is even more severe.
Over the course of The Stooges and the band’s next two (and only) landmark studio LPs, Fun House (1970) and Raw Power (1973), Asheton pushed the guitar harder and further into the brutal ooze that would ultimately flower, not terribly long after, into punk rock proper.
Johnny Thunders – New York Dolls, The Heartbreakers
As Johnny Thunders, the guttersnipe glamourpuss born John Anthony Genzale Jr. blazed punk guitar trails in not one, but two cornerstone combos of the music’s sprawling and brawling initial leaps forward.
First Thunders donned his sexiest frocks and high-heels to raise hell as axe queen supreme of the New York Dolls from 1971. Thunders’ bluesy leads and fantastically trashed and trashy solos ignited not just Manhattan’s punk onslaught at ground zero, but also simultaneously inspired Kiss, the Sex Pistols, and later very directly impacted Guns N’ Roses.
After ditching the Dolls, Thunders fronted the Heartbreakers just as full-blown punk hit. Thunders’ vocals and guitar blasting on the group’s lone studio release, 1977’s L.A.M.F.—which stands for “Like a Motherf—er”—brawls and bruises and leaves a deep a mark like… well, like a motherf—er, indeed.
Steve Jones – The Sex Pistols
The hyperkinetic, animalistic, soul-shredding bleats and bellows of Sex Pistols’ singer Johnny Rotten electrifyingly capture the very peak of punk’s apocalyptic nihilism run riot. Every bit as important to the sound of the band—and the movement that they embody—is the speed freaked Chuck-Berry-on-fire guitar onslaught of Steve Jones.
Drilling into rock-and-roll’s very beginning and spraying forth gushers of equally hostile and inspiring aggression, Gibson Les Paul player Steve Jones honed an aesthetic all his own.
When asked in recent years what advice he’d give to young guitarists, Jones said, “I’d tell them to copy me, because whatever I do is fantastic.”
Maybe he was joking. Maybe not. Either way, he’s not wrong.
Johnny Ramone – The Ramones
It’s a tale told endlessly in every account of rock history: four mooks from Queens donned leather jackets, took the stage at downtown Manhattan hellhole CBGB, played twenty-five songs in twenty-five minutes, and the world still quakes from the impact they made.
What gets overlooked on occasion, and what makes the Ramones’ the quintessential punk group, is that the members’ three-chord primitivism represented the absolute apex of their technical know-how and musical abilities.
The band members, who loved Alice Cooper, the Stooges, and Black Sabbath, actually set out to compete with arena rockers on the order of Aerosmith, Kiss, and Ted Nugent. Alas, the Ramones’ breakneck, boiled-to-its-core, mad rock assault really was the absolute best they could do.
That backward version of trying to be “good,” then, turned out to be great, and so much of that emerged from the genius of Johnny Ramone.
Armed with his surf-rock-friendly Mosrite guitar, Johnny could only strum on the down-stroke, and he was such an over-the-top intense personality, he could only play as fast as his hand could possibly move. He found further brilliance in his inability (at first) to make it through a guitar solo.
Hey, ho—nobody could go like Johnny Ramone.
Greg Ginn – Black Flag
As a workaholic electronics expert, Black Sabbath aficionado, and lifelong devotee of the Grateful Dead, Greg Ginn first formed Hermosa Beach hardcore heroes Black Flag in 1976. Over the next decade, through multiple incarnations of the group, Ginn redefined not just punk guitar playing and songwriting but the very dynamics of extreme rock itself.
Ginn ran Black Flag as a semi-dictator, demanding that the group practice multiple hours every day and adhere to his own ever-ascending standards of excellence. Greg led by example and, although the group seemed to have a revolving door when it came to lead singers, they always got better and stronger. Ultimately, Ginn met his workhorse match in take-no-prisoners frontman Henry Rollins.
In the course of this constant activity and aiming to reach endlessly higher, Ginn developed into a guitarist like none other in rock. Listening to Black Flag’s discography, you’ll hear him as a heavy metal virtuoso who shatters and spits on every technical rule, a hardcore brutalizer who departs into flights of soaring beauty, and a witty provocateur who cracks wise with his instrument because he inherently knows and masterfully directs every iota of the boundlessly complex music that’s flowing through him.
By way of Black Flag, Greg Ginn also tore open a touring circuit for punk bands that remains in place today. In addition, he created SST Records, the most important independent label of the ’80s. First and foremost, though, Greg Ginn is a guitar player—the greatest guitar player that punk rock has (yet) produced.