Punk rock is a curious genre of rock and roll. Despised by rock and muso purists as being infantile and idiotic — they’re not necessarily wrong — punk rock has always provided a visceral and engaging expression. Managing to capture the mind-numbing nuances of modernity in the thrilling three-chord structure we all know and love.
Thanks to that notion, punk guitarists are often maligned as inferior players of the instrument. While we wouldn’t suggest that Billie Joe Armstrong could take on Jimi Hendrix in a noodle-war, we would say that punk rock guitarists get a tough ride. Below we’ve pulled together 10 of our favourites to show off the talent that hides within the ranks.
Punk rock has become so ubiquitous with our culture that the genre has now been distilled further and further into more and more sub-genres. We’re ignoring all of that for now and looking back to the founding fathers of the genre and the most influential players of all time.
If there’s one thing that sums up punk rock, in all its liberating and ludicrous glory, is that thundering riff that it invariably produces. From the Sex Pistols to The Clash, they all had a powerhouse player in the ranks. We celebrate 10 of the greatest.
See the full list, below.
Punk’s 10 greatest guitarists of all time:
10. Billie Joe Arsmtrong (Green Day)
We thought we’d start off with a controversial pick and bring you Green Day’s own Billie Joe Armstrong as our first contender. Though likely to be derided by punk purists who think the genre ended in 1978, Armstrong along with Tre Cool and Mike Dirnt brought punk rock to a new generation.
The band’s seminal album Dookie is undoubtedly a modern masterpiece of puerile boredom and much of that is down to Armstrong’s uncensored stance on the modern world. It’s a sure-footed stance that he brings to guitar-playing too, thrashing with the precision intensity of a pneumatic drill.
9. Brian Baker (Bad Religion, Dag Nasty, Minor Threat)
If you’ve got one iconic punk band on your resume then chances are your beloved by many, if you do happen to have three hardcore heroes on the CV then chances are your name is Brian Baker. The guitarist has had a hand in Bad Religion, Dag Nasty and Minor Threat and is largely loved because of it.
The guitarist may possess all the supercharged power of punk’s finest but he’s also capable of making things a little more melodic when he wants. It’s fair to say Baker is one of the most celebrated punk guitarists in America.
8. Steve Jones (Sex Pistols)
A founding member of the punk outfit, Sex Pistols, a band which would go on to define a generation, Jones remains a stalwart of the music scene, as authentic and unrelenting as he always was, Jones is the real deal. A punk forever.
With the Sex Pistols Jones became an undoubted icon of the genre, as capable on his guitar as he was causing mayhem wherever he went—before Sid Vicious arrived Jones was the archetypal punk. The image of Jones with a hanky on his head and a string-bare jumper will remain a piece of punk iconography forever, let alone his appearance on Bill Grundy.
7. Poison Ivy (The Cramps)
One of the most recognisable faces in punk’s yearbook is Poison Ivy. One half of the creative duo that turned The Cramps into the ultimate acid-punk agitators, Ivy has always possessed a certain swagger that her male counterparts could only dream of.
Ivy can be celebrated for connecting punk back with its dark and primal roots, the twang of the everyman shot through the heart of the establishment. The sleazy riffs and snorting power makes Poison Ivy one of the deadliest people with an axe and she only ever needed one swing of that.
6. Greg Ginn (Black Flag)
The leader and principal songwriter of Black Flag, Ginn is seen as the godfather of the hardcore punk scene. Unlike some of his other punk rock contemporaries, Ginn does his best work not with power chords but with technical triumphs.
The crunchy and loud rhythm guitar that he brought to proceedings was all well and good but as soon as Ginn is offered the chance at a guitar solo he jumps and pounces with a sincere ferocity.
A Ginn solo will almost certainly swing, be jazz-influenced and improvised.
5. Ron Asheton (The Stooges)
The late, great Ron Asheton can be credited with being the ultimate punk guitarist before anybody else knew what punk even was. With The Stooges, Asheton created some of the most notorious riffs of all time. Forming the Stooges with his brother Scott, an act fronted by Iggy Pop, the guitarist created a wave of punk acts waiting to happen.
Having created some of the genre’s foundational tunes, Asheton deserves his place in the pantheon of punk’s finest guitarists and if you need convincing then just stick ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ on loud and prove yourself wrong.
4. Dr. Know (Bad Brains)
Dr. Know, AKA Gary Miller, might be the most universally gifted guitarists on our list. Miller is able to transfer his skills across punk and funk without ever compromising his own authenticity. Of course, when you’re performing with Bad Brains, one of the most influential punk bands of all time, chances are that you’ll be spreading yourself across the genres.
The group originally formed as a jazz fusion ensemble under the name Mind Power they soon developed a fast and intense style of punk rock and changed their name to Bad Brains following the Ramones track ‘Bad Brain’. The frenetic playing was only matched by the energy of their audiences and they were soon labelled as a hardcore alternative to punk.
3. Mick Jones (The Clash)
One of the most influential guitarists of his generation, the powerhouse performance of Mick Jones is often overlooked as a vital component of The Clash’s undoubted rise to the top of the punk pile. Jones, alongside Joe Strummer, crafted some of punk’s anthems and pushed them through the speakers to their adoring audience.
The Clash, unlike many other punk bands, did a great job of walking the line between commercial and critical success. Arguably, it is Mick Jones’ technique and performance that pushes the band into this direction, as able to thrash through the set as he was to ransport you to another place entirely.
Without Mick Jones, The Clash would have been nowhere.
2. Johnny Thunders (New York Dolls, Heartbreakers)
As part of two founding fathers of punk rock, we couldn’t have a list of punk’s greatest guitarists without including Johnny Thunders. The guitarist was a part of the foundational band New York Dolls—a band who can be attributed with changing the musical landscape all on their own— and later cultivated the bubbling underground punk scene further with the Heartbreakers.
One of the casualties of the punk rock scene, Thunders has become an icon of the genre not only for his bleeding-heart songs but his ability to add soul to a three-chord powerhouse riff.
He took The Heartbreakers on tour with the Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Damned to confirm their legendary status.
1. Johnny Ramone (Ramones)
Ramones may well be one of the most influential acts of rock history. The group inspired countless other acts with their back to basics approach and DIY ethos. They were, in many ways, the archetypal punks. The leather jackets and ripped jeans were one thing but the band needed tunes to pull it all together.
The creative force behind much of that imperious three-chord work with the Ramones, the controversial guitarist Johnny Ramone created a career out of thrashing out those riffs to his latest moment of adolescent discontent revisited. He, along with his adopted family of bratty brothers, in many ways invented the punk genre in the depths of New York’s underground scene.
Joey Ramone may well have been the voice of that movement but Johnny Ramone provided the stage and the microphone with which to speak. Simply put, Johnny’s riffs are what makes punk the buzzing, spewing and violent genre we all love to this day.