Ranking Rock’s 10 Greatest Replacement Guitarists

A countdown of the greats who had huge frets to fill.

Today we honor Ronnie Wood, one of rock’s greatest rhythm players, and unquestionably one of the all-time most towering six-string-strummers. Forty years ago he was called upon to fill some mighty huge glittery boots he replaced Mick Taylor in the the Rolling Stones.

It’s always a big deal when a band has to change over to a new lead singer. Replacing a guitar player, although it may less obvious to casual observers, can pose every bit the same life-or-death challenge to a group. Woody is one of an elite group of guitarists that have successfully climbed on board and existing juggernaut and also managed to steer its onward and upward direction.

For the purpose of assembling this list of such second-or-third-string guitarists who proved to be first-class, it’s not so much an assessment of the talent and skills of the individual musician, it’s more about how much he positively transformed the existing outfit and how deep an impact him made on the group’s place in history.

So without further ado: here’s to Ronnie Wood and his backup fleet-fingered fret wizards who went from reinforcement status to leading new charges all their own.

  1. Tommy Bolin

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    “Comin’ Home” – Deep Purple (1975)

    Band: Deep Purple Replaced: Ritchie Blackmore Tenure: 1975-76

    Tommy Bolin stands as a two-time replacement guitarist called in to take up the mantle left behind by departed giants. He joined the James Gang in 1973 as the band’s second attempt to fill the void left by Joe Walsh (and Walsh himself had recommended Bolin for the job). Then, two years later, Ritchie Blackmore split from Deep Purple and Brolin got that particularly daunting invite.

    Aside from the James Gang, Purple’s interest in Brolin arose from the Iowa native’s work in the early-’70s proto-metal heavy blues combo Zephyr, plus his jazz-fusion studio session playing. Tommy’s long in-development solo effort, Teaser, is a cult classic that released in conjunction with the guitarist’s lone effort with Deep Purple, 1975’s Come Taste the Band.

    Tragically, Tommy Bolin died on December 3, 1976. While opening for Jeff Beck and Peter Frampton to promote his second solo LP, Private Eyes, Tommy overdosed on drugs and alcohol and the world lost another genius just as he truly took flight. Tommy Bolin was 25.

    Fortunately, Tommy’s work will live on indefinitely. So plug in to Come Taste the Band and pump it up—now and forever.

  2. Slim Dunlap

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    “I’ll Be You” – Replacements (1989)

    Band: The Replacements Replaced: Bob Stinson Tenure: 1987-1991

    Drunk punks the Replacements blazed, battered, and barfed a unique road up from the underground throughout the 1980s, powered simultaneously by frontman Paul Westerberg’s unique brilliance as an multilayered songwriter and the complete and utter intoxicated abandon of the band members.

    Chief among the Replacements’ raucous reprobates was lead guitarist Bob Stinson. He was to Paul Westerberg what Keith Moon had been to Pete Townshend: a tsunami of obliterating anarchy who’d blast the exquisite compositions of the poet in charge into new, oftentimes accidental levels of sublime rock-and-roll transcendence.

    Alas, also as with Moon, Stinson’s appetites ultimately overtook his entire existence and, in a move meant to pre-empt the manner in which Keith exited the Who (i.e., belly-up), the Replacements axed Bob from the band (worth noting: Stinson maintained that he quit) In 1995, Bob sadly but not shockingly quit living due to organ failure.

    Knowing that the task of replacing the ultimate party-hearty wrecking-ball Replacement would be a fool’s errand, Westerberg invited loose, laid-back, and somewhat country-tinged Slim Dunlap to join the group. Dunlap happily abandoned his janitor gig and strapped on a Rickenbacker.

    The Replacements released Pleased to Meet Me in 1987, then hit the road with Dunlap in the former Bob spot. The album is noticeably more subdued than their previous work with Bob Stinson, but Pleased does contain a robust number of alt-rock classics, including “Can’t Hardly Wait,” “I.O.U.,” and the soaring tribute anthem, “Alex Chilton.” Dunlap’s guitar work fit the songs dandily in concert, as well as the next two (and last) Replacements albums, and he proved to be a legitimate replacement Replacement.

  3. Jimmy Crespo

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    “No Surprise” – Aerosmith (1979)

    Band: Aerosmith Replaced: Joe Perry Tenure: 1979-1984

    Aerosmith’s late-’70s self-immolation went down at an odd pace—with tensions exploding after lead guitarist Joe Perry’s wife reportedly threw a glass of milk at rhythm guitarist Brad Whitford’s wife backstage in Cleveland. After a few more blow-ups, both Perry and Whitford quit the group, leaving the album they’d been working on, Night in the Ruts, to be completed by fill-in players.

    Most impressive among the guest guitarists was Jimmy Crespo, a New York native and veteran of the hard rock combo Flame who’d become a hugely in-demand studio musician after working with Meat Loaf and Stevie Nicks.

    While Crespo could no more replace Joe Perry next to Steven Tyler than anyone else could properly sub for Keith Richards alongside Mick Jagger, Jimmy did some tremendous work with Aerosmith on both Night in the Ruts and 1982’s Rock in a Hard Place. For those efforts, and for actually keeping Boston’s baddest intact enough for Perry and Whitford to return on 1985’s criminally overlooked Done With Mirrors, Jimmy Crespo remains improperly unsung.

  4. Gilby Clarke “November Rain” – Guns N’ Roses (1991)

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    Band: Guns N’ Roses Replaced: Izzy Stradlin Tenure: 1991-1994

    Back in late-1970s Indiana, high school longhairs Jeffrey Dean Isbell and William Bruce Bailey formed a garage band that went by multiple monikers. A few years later, they hightailed it to Los Angeles, changed their names to Izzy Stradlin and Axl Rose and, after hooking up with cabal of like minded punk-loving fans of metal, glitter, and arena-rock, settled on calling their group Guns N’ Roses.

    As a rhythm guitarist, Izzy Stradlin brought gutter-glam soul and sartorial splendor to GNR, a genuine classic rocker amidst the high-’80s heavy metal madness of his bandmates. His contributions to the group’s classic albums are unmistakable and enmeshed DNA-deep in GNR’s greatness, up to and including 1991’s Use Your Illusion I and II.

    Alas, at the very peak of Guns’ utter dominance of rock, Izzy called it quits. He was the first member of the band to get sober and, as such, the first to find it no longer bearable to endure Axl’s antics such as delaying shows for hours at a time and/or cursing the audience and then storming off stage after a song or two.

    Knowing that there really is only one Izzy, GNR opted to hire Gilby Clarke on rhythm guitar. Clarke loomed as a local hero among the Sunset Strip hair metal scene from which Guns initially emerged, and he brought dynamic, up-to-the-minute energy to the group throughout their epic Use Your Illusion tours. Clarke’s influence is also quite palpable on the final release by GNR Mach I, the 1993 covers collection, The Spaghetti Incident?

  5. Vinnie Vincent

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    “Lick It Up” – Kiss (1983)

    Band: Kiss Replaced: Ace Frehley Tenure: 1982-84

    Lightning-riding axe-master Vinnie Vincent found his way to the top of the heavy metal mountain through one very amusingly peculiar path: he was the music coordinator and chief songwriter for the cheeseball 1982 Happy Days spinoff, Joanie Loves Chachi.

    Clearly talented and obviously in need of a more appropriate outlet, Vincent met Kiss members Gene Simmons and through a mutual songwriting pal. When original guitarist Ace Frehley split from Kiss in ’82, Vinnie hopped on board. He started by co-writing several tracks on that year’s Creatures of the Night LP, which he then toured with Kiss to support, donning ankh-emblazoned face-paint as a new Kiss character, The Wizard.

    Vincent amplified his Kiss role for the group’s first makeup-free effort, 1983’s Lick It Up. He co-wrote eight of the comeback album’s ten songs and erupted forth as a guitar virtuoso in his own right—The Wizard proved to be a wizard, indeed.

    In fact, so mighty did Vinnie’s guitar magic prove to be that he parted with Kiss rather promptly, forming the Vinnie Vincent Invasion in 1984. For the Wizard’s transformative powers on Lick It Up, however, Vinnie Vincent will always rule as a crucial member of Kiss, successfully leading their charge out of their original phase into their bald-face success throughout the late ’80s and into the ’90s.

  6. John Frusciante

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    “Give It Away” – Red Hot Chili Peppers (1991)

    Band: Red Hot Chili Peppers Replaced: Hillel Slovak Tenure: 1988-92, 1999-2007

    Multitalented, Israeli-born musical adventurer Hillel Slovak was not only the founding guitarist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, he taught Flea how to play bass. Slovak also invited teen pal Anthony Kiedis to take up vocals, and the core that ultimately exploded into Chili Pepperdom took hold.

    Hillel played guitars on the two initial RHCP albums to elevate the group from underground stars to alt-rock contenders, Freaky Styley (1985) and The Uplift Mofo Party Plan (1987). Then, as happens too terribly often, just as the Peppers were set to truly explode, Slovak died in 1988 of a heroin overdose. He was 26. Another heartbreaker.

    Among those immediately crushed by Slovak’s passing was John Frusciante, a teenage guitar monster himself who loved the Peppers and, in particular, idolized Hillel. Mutual friend and ex-Dead Kennedys drummer D. H. Peligro, who had joined RHCP full-time, hooked Frusciante up with Flea and Kiedis. The fit was magical and immediate. Sadly, Peligro’s own drug issues prompted the group to fire him. The upside is that drummer Chad Smith came on board.

    As a result, by 1989, the most powerful incarnation of the Red Hot Chili Peppers to date hit the studio to record Mother’s Milk and then hit the road to increasing prominence. In 1991, the Kiedis-Flea-Frusciante-Smith lineup hit it huge via Blood Sugar Sex Magik and took their place in the canon of rock’s all-time biggest and best-loved groups. Frusciante’s guitar playing is much of what drove the band to those lofty heights.

    In the decades since, John has been in and out of the Peppers. Notably, his 1999 return for Californication righted the group after a shaky period wherein Dave Navarro handled guitar duties. Although he’s now been an ex-Pepper for eight years, John Frusciante will always reign as the band’s definitive funkified volcano god guitar maestro.

  7. Zakk Wylde

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    “Miracle Man” – Ozzy Osbourne (1988)

    Band: Ozzy Osbourne Replaced: Randy Rhoades Tenure: 1987-95, 2001-2007, 2012

    Zakk Wylde did not immediately replace Randy Rhoads as the lead guitarist in Ozzy Osbourne’s band. The fact is that Rhoads’ work with Ozzy on Blizzard of Ozz (1980) and Diary of a Madman (1981), horrendously compounded by his death-by-airplane-misadventure in 1982, cast a long, dark, and impenetrable shadow over his immediate follow-ups Brad Gillis and Jake E. Lee. The ability and imagination was more than present in those players, but they somehow didn’t quite connect with Ozzy in that same (black) magical fashion.

    Enter, then, New Jersey hell-raiser and fret-wrecker Zakk Wylde who stormed in on “The Grail,” his bullseye-painted Les Paul custom axe to reinvigorate Ozzy Osbourne on his 1988 album No Rest for the Wicked and create one of ’90s metal’s defining take-no-prisoner singer-guitarist combos.

    Making use of Ozzy’s laid-back attitude toward his band members coming and going, in 1999 Wylde formed his own metal powerhouse, Black Label Society, and has become a superstar in his own right. In the years since, Zakk has rejoined Ozzy for albums and tours, and the duo seems happily fated to remain intertwined for the rest of their dizzyingly loud days.

  8. Jeff Beck

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    “Stroll On” – Yardbirds (1966)

    Band: The Yardbirds Replaced: Eric Clapton Tenure: 1965-1967

    The Yardbirds took wing in 1963 London, during the same British rhythm-and-blues explosion that brought forth the Rolling Stones, the Who, and John Mayall.

    Immediately distinguishing the Yardbirds was its emphasis on intricate six-string virtuosity, a fact that bloomed fully upon their incorporation of lead guitarist, Eric Clapton.

    The Clapton-fueled Yardbirds scored a monster hit in 1965 with “For Your Love,” a psychedelic rafter-rattler than continues to ignite and inspire up-and-coming rockers worldwide. Nonetheless, the single still sounded too “pop” for strict blues disciple Clapton and he jumped ship to John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (with Cream, Derek and the Dominoes, and his own luminous solo career to follow).

    The group quickly offered new Yardbird status to wickedly in-demand session player Jimmy Page, but he worried about gambling away his high-paying studio gigs. Page, in turn, pointed the band toward his buddy Jeff Beck, who hurled himself headfirst into the opportunity.

    With Beck blasting out in front, the Yardbirds experimented with fuzz-tones, alternate-tunings, overseas influences, and the beginning of the wild abandon that would ultimate mutate into heavy metal. The band only got harder, heavier, and hotter when Page ultimately did come on board to play bass alongside Beck. After Beck got fired from the group in ’66, Page took over guitar duties.

    From there, everybody knows what happened.

  9. Ronnie Wood

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    “Miss You” – Rolling Stones (1978)

    Band: Rolling Stones Replaced: Mick Taylor Tenure: 1974-present

    Mod god Ronnie Wood first soared to big-league rock prominence as bassist for the Jeff Beck Group on the classic LPs Truth and Beck-Ola. In 1969, Wood formed supergroup the Faces with vocalist Rod Stewart and ex-members of the Small Faces, Ronnie Lane, Ian McLagan, and Kenney Jones.

    Following a smashing run with the Faces, Wood recorded a 1974 solo record—the perfectly titled I’ve Got My Own Album to Do—in conjunction with George Harrison and Keith Richards. When guitarist Mick Taylor quit the Rolling Stones in ’75, Richards invited Wood to take his place. It’s been impossible to think of the Stones without Ronnie Wood ever since then.

    Wood’s tenure with the Stones kicked off with 1976’s (arguable) semi-misstep Black and Blue, and then skyrocketed to unimaginable new heights via the group’s ’78 blockbuster, Some Girls. Ronnie’s dirty rhythmic swagger locks in flawlessly with Keith’s leads, and that sound has defined every Stones album for the forty years since they first played together.

    So dominant is Wood’s personality within the Stones, in fact, that it’s easy to forget how crucial the low-key Mick Taylor was to the group’s brilliant transition into the ’70s. In fact, it occasionally seems as though popular consciousness has forgotten Taylor altogether and just believes it was Ronnie Wood who initially stepped in for Brian Jones after the founding guitarist’s drowning death in 1969. That’s simply not true, of course—but it often seems as though a reminder is necessary.

    Mick Taylor left John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers to play on the Stones’ single strongest run of albums: Let It Bleed (1969), Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out (1970), Sticky Fingers (1971), Exile on Main Street (1972), Goats Head Soup (1973), and It’s Only Rock ’n Roll (1974). That’s the daunting track run against which Ronnie Wood had to compete when he joined the Stones. Just imagine!

    Nonetheless, Woody is as much as Stone as anyone has ever been. For that, and for his birthday, we salute him. When it comes to picking the greatest-ever replacement guitarist, there’s just no substitute for Ronnie Wood.

Mike McPadden is the author of the book "HEAVY METAL MOVIES: Guitar Barbarians, Mutant Bimbos, and Cult Zombies Amok in the 666 Most Ear- and Eye-Ripping Big Scream Films Ever!" (Bazillion Points, 2014).