Top 10 Punk Guitarists

A very opinionated ranking by someone who has no business telling you what to think.

I’m going to do something stupid and try to rank the top 10 guitarists in punk rock history. Here’s the thing, there is no right answer at all. Your top 10 and mine could be so different. There are also way more than 10 iconic and influential punk guitarists. In fact, I went back and forth over if East Bay Ray, Joe Strummer, Joan Jett, Brian James/Captain Sensible, Greg Ginn, and many more should be in here.

But what I did do is try to take a unique approach here. I tried to create a top 10 based on overall influence on the punk bands that followed them. Not just on technical skills, but also encompassing song writing, length of relevancy and influence, and how impactful their career was on punk overall.

This leads to a very different list than if you just picked the most iconic or well known guitarists. So get angry, yell at me in the comments, and buckle up for a look at which punk guitarists seem to have left the most lasting impression on the genre.

10. Kurt Cobain

Cobain and Nirvana were an undisputed punk band in my eyes. While they obviously pioneered grunge music, they had far more in common both musically and historically with The Clash, Sex Pistols, Black Flag, and other punk bands than they did with Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, or Soundgarden. They sort of bridged the gap between punk and alternative rock, with more garage/gutter punk rep than your Sonic Youths, after idolizing the Melvins.

His impact on punk music was undisputed as record companies and the world took far more notice in the mid ’90s leading to the eventual explosion of The Offspring, Green Day, Rancid, and many more bands. While I don’t think Kurt/Nirvana’s sound has persisted in punk bands to come, their attitude, approach, and commercialization of punk is undeniable.

9. Steve Jones

This was a tough choice. I did think about swapping Johnny Ramone here for Steve Jones (a big jump I know). but I think the sheer magnitude of the Sex Pistols lone album makes him a slam dunk choice for the top 10. Everyone looks at that album as the sole unifying piece of great punk work. I hate to admit it, because I don’t really think the Sex Pistols were THAT good. I mean, they were basically a boy band assembled to sell clothes. But Steve Jones was that good, and his riffs and songs (with Glen Matlock’s help). However, the short career of the band really doesn’t mesh with a lot of the clear goals I set for this article. And while Jonesy may have been a better guitarist than some on this list, the impact was large but limited to a short fuse.

8. Dr. Know

East Coast hardcore is really not talked enough about. From DC to Boston, bands like Fugazi, Minor Threat, and Scream took punk in a more thoughtful and political direction than some of their West Coast counterparts (Black Flag, The Germs, Circle Jerks). No one embodies this more than Bad Brains and their legendary guitarist, Dr. Know. Gary Miller, aka Dr. Know, brought an incredibly musical edge to this hardcore scene, with a virtuosic and innovative touch that few had at the time.

There’s elements of jazz, disco, and reggae in the band’s sound and his playing that set the example of versatility long heralded by bands like Nirvana, Beastie Boys, Foo Fighters, Rage Against The Machine, Green Day, and Red Hot Chili Peppers. While Dr. Know aren’t maybe as widely known as others on this list, his impact on punk and popular music is beyond comprehension.

7. Poison Ivy/Billy Zoom

What puts this dual billing ahead of the rest so far? The unique creation of the “psychobilly” sub-genre of punk rock that can be directly linked to these two. While both Billy Zoom and Poison Ivy came from different bands on different coasts (X and The Cramps respectively) both brought rockabilly guitar into the punk mainstream. Both also did some with classic Gretsch guitars by their side that would surely make Gene Vincent and Chet Atkins proud.

But one thing that I really want to highlight here is how long rockabilly guitar has persisted in punk culture, even outside of “psychobilly” bands. We see that Americana/country feel in the ’80s first with their bands, The Clash, then with Social Distortion, than even in modern days. You can hear that spring reverb drenched guitar in punk bands like FIDLAR, Chubby And The Gang, and The Regrettes. I also think you can draw a straight line from Rockabilly influences to surf guitar influences in The Vandals, The Offspring, Beach Goons, and SWMRS too.

6. Wilko Johnson

Another highly underrated and unknown hero of punk music. Wilko Johnson and his band, Dr. Feelgood, were the British analogue to proto punk bands like The Stooges and The MC5. Paul Weller, John Lydon, Suggs, Joe Strummer, and Jean-Jacques Burnel all point to him as huge influences. It might sound overdramatic, but I can’t imagine British punk being the same without Wilko Johnson. And then if there is a lesser version of the Pistols, Clash, Damned, or UK Subs, how different would all the punk that followed be? You can see why I feel Johnson is majorly deserving of more praise right?

5. Johnny Thunders

Now we enter the top 5 and I’m going to be honest, I was sort of hesitant to put Johnny Thunders up so high. I never really “got” the New York Dolls. They seemed fun, over the top, and made some good music! But maybe you just had to be there, and unfortunately I was decades to late for that. So why does he crack the top 5? Well, basically every guitarist I love holds Thunders on a pedestal and absolutely reveres him.

The Les Paul Junior is a punk guitar because of him, the cranked P90 is a punk sound because of him. Mick Jones, Brian Baker, Billie Joe Armstrong, and dozens of other punks laud him as an icon of style, performance, personality, and punk rock guitar. If Wilko Johnson taught lots of punks how to play guitar, Thunders taught them what guitar to play and how to look like they knew what they were doing.

4. Tom Morello

Tom Morello is a lot like Kurt Cobain in the sense that I don’t think enough people associate him with punk. But make no mistake, Morello is as punk as they come. Not just in politics, activism, and appearance, but in the impact his band has had. The sheer sonic walls of guitar he created has inspired my generation to pick up the guitar en masse and I truly believe the guitar’s revival in 20-30 year old music/culture is in part because of him.

Morello reminded everyone that punk was supposed to have societal and political roots behind the music. It was supposed to be a giant middle finger towards oppressive forces. More dramatically, you’ve seen a lot of modern punk bands rely on “sound” as an instrument. What I mean by that is all the feedback, drop tuned riffs, sustain, and pedal exploits that Morello pioneered. Tricks like that are showing up in Destroy Boys, SWMRS, FIDLAR, and many other alternative music bands. Ask anyone in the punk scene today what they think of Rage Against The Machine and you’ll see they have quietly achieved a Clash-like level of influence.

3. Mick Jones

Speaking of The Clash we finally have Mr Mick Jones. Mick gets such a high spot for several undeniable reasons. Firstly, The Clash are probably the most accomplished punk band of all time, both critically and historically. Mick is an iconic songwriter, crafting the music and melodies behind some of the most infectious punk tunes ever. Rudie Can’t Fail, Should I Stay Or Should I Go, London Calling, and The Clampdown are songwriting 101 for young punks.

It’s hard to imagine modern punk without his music, even if lots of the West Coast bands of the ’80s seemed to have more preference for The Ramones and Sex Pistols. The Clash also changed rock music as a broader genre, striking a huge influence on post-punk, alternative rock, and ska music that would be closely tied to punk in the coming decades.

2. Johnny Ramone

I’m going to keep this entry brief because lot has been said about Mr Johnny Ramone. He’s one of the most obvious choices on this list, above other heavy hitters like Greg Ginn or Joan Jett. He invented the style of punk rock guitar that would be the basis for every genre of American-influenced punk. All hardcore punk of the ’80s and skate punk of the ’90s goes back to his buzzsaw guitar. While I think the scope of his creativity and songwriting skills are limited compared to those ahead of him on this list, his guitar playing style is felt in everyone else that came after him.

1. Brett Gurewitz/Brian Baker

Somewhat surprising to see this tandem atop the list huh? I wrestled with this one for a long time. But quite frankly, no punk band has endured like Bad Religion has since their Canoga Park roots in the ’80s. They’ve survived a lot of personnel changes, different music trends (grunge, pop punk, hardcore), and probably have the most impressive catalog when you consider their longevity. I think The Clash, Sex Pistols, or Ramones probably were more impactful on a per album basis, but the breadth and depth of the Bad Religion career is unbelievable.

You can lump Greg Hetson and Greg Graffin in here too, as they’ve all contributed writing riffs, songs, and material through the bands career. But I don’t think a punk band has had such an active, profound impact on the scene like these guys have. There association with skate and surf punk basically invented a new scene that would be the basis for most punk after 1988’s Suffer. There’s no NOFX, Green Day, Blink 182, Pennywise, or other massive bands without them. Punk was dead in the water after the initial early 80s flurry that birthed Bad Religion. Almost all of it afterwards can be traced back to their Suffer-No Control-Against The Grain revitalization of the scene. Thus their guitarists are #1.

Published by Matt Dunn

Guitar and music journalist for and as well as a contributor for and Reach out to talk about guitars, commission a partscaster, or ask for a review.

26 thoughts on “Top 10 Punk Guitarists

    1. Thought long and hard about Sensible, but honestly I don’t know how much his legacy and impact could have outweighed anyone on the list already. that’s the problem with top 10 lists, there are way more than 10 amazing punk guitarists.


      1. Agreed, and again it was a tough choice, but I felt the influence couldn’t outweigh others on the list. Poison Ivy/Billy Zoom invent a whole sub-genre of punk, Ramone-S Jones are probably most iconic. Mick was the best songwriter in punk history or at least second to the Bad Religion crew whose career is far more impressive in length, quality, and influence on punk…rreally tough to make this list but hoped people would get a kick out of thinking about it in a different way


  1. Warren Fitzgerald of the vandals…. Better guitarist than all on the list and a long line of influence…. Where do you get your inspiration for such a tripe list?


  2. Not a bad list. I love the props to the Poison Ivy, who is very underrated and underappreciated as a Groundbreaking Guitarist in punk. I think Joey Santiago of the Pixies is sorely missing here. No Cobain without the Pixies. The Pixies set the tone for the 90’s sound with Jane’s Addiction. And Ian MacKaye has to be here. His blistering guitar work with Minor Threat/Fugazi paved the way for all things Hardcore in the early 90’s (Tool, Quicksand, Rage, all come to mind who borrowed Heavily from Ian & Guy’s Fugazi guitar workbook).


    1. Bob Mould certainly does! Impossible to fit them all, really a top 10 list is a pointless (but really fun) exercise that gets us all talking about punk!


  3. Including Steve Jones while omitting Saint Joe (to say nothing of Mick Jones) is ridiculous enough, but did you really just make a list of the best punk guitarists and not include Ron Asheton? That’s like making a list of country pickers and leaving off Mother Mabel.

    And J. Mascis doesn’t even get an honorable mention? Seriously, do you even have ears?


  4. Great shout putting Wilko Johnson in.
    Brilliant original choppy style that replicates the sound of 2 guitars playing.
    A true influence on the early punk bands

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I mean, they were assembled by a manager to sell clothes and they replaced their very competent bassist (who contributed to songwriting) with someone who couldn’t even play the instrument and was basically an “influencer”….I love the Pistols, I love Steve Jones he’s legit, but they were closer to a boy band in many ways


  5. No Bob Mould? Will you people stop acting like Kurt Cobain was some guitar genius. He was average at best..


  6. Stopped reading here ‘I don’t really think the Sex Pistols were THAT good. I mean, they were basically a boy band assembled to sell clothes’
    Author so oblivious to what he is talking about he should have avoided this topic altogether. The cringe raised by that smug aside basking in McLaren’s exploitative myth for the gullible overshadows and nullifies anything more that could follow.
    Never trust a hippy.


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