The decade of the 1970s marked the end of the emergence of the real guitar pioneers of the last 100 years. In part, this was because the greatest innovations in both the technical development of electric guitar, and the development of music styles (primarily in jazz & rock), had reached a climax by the time of the mid-70s. After this, we see the appearance of certain excellent stylists; however, the primary 'breakthroughs' had already been made. The emergence of 'digital sound' in the late 80s marked the beginning of a downhill trend for instrumentalists of all kinds, because since 'digital' programs could now imitate almost any sound, living music was becoming, in a sense, 'irrelevant'.
However, the 70s saw the emergence of several players who could be rightly placed in the pantheon of innovators.
Alan Holdsworth, from the UK, probably represents the pinnacle of modern electric guitar players. Fluid in the traditional jazz, blues based fusion style, Holdsworth made a major break through with his album 'IOU' which featured his highly developed 'pan-tonal' approach to electric guitar. Whereas most guitarist play in a modal style on the guitar finger board, using 'positions' based on sections of 4-5 frets at a time, Holdsworth expanded this reach to one using patterns and intervals utilizing stretches of 7-8 frets (he has large hands). This technique made extensive use of not only 'altered' scales, but 'pan tonality' since his technique and concept allowed him to imply more than one key at a time.
Holdsworth also pioneered the use of synthesized guitar on a number of albums, and was masterful in it's use. In addition to all of his innovations, Holdsworth also played more 'straight ahead' on earlier releases like 'Velvet Darkness' and with Bill Bruford in the group 'UK'. John McLaughlin was once asked about Holdsworth. His reply? 'Yes, I know Alan from back in the day, and he is a wonderful guy. His guitar playing? If I could figure out what he was doing, I would try to copy some of it.'
Eddie Van Halen
Eddie Van Halen was probably the last of the electric rock guitar pioneers. He almost single handedly brought electric rock guitar back to the forefront of popular public notice during the late 70s, after years of turgid guitarists playing 'da blooze'. Although preceded by a few 'new generation' players like Randy Rhodes, Van Halen made virtuoso electric guitar playing 'cool' again in the 'punk era' where any kind of technique and excellence were rejected in favor of more 'deconstructed creativity'.
Van Halen was a great technician, building his first 'Van Halen' guitar, and his use of harmonics, 'false fingerings' and, especially, his 'tapping' technique' (where he eschewed use of the pick and played runs using just his left hand, or tapped the strings with his right fingers) opened up a new vista for younger guitarists. Eddie combined raw power with serious technique.
Pat Metheny is a Missouri born guitarist and composer who excells on electric and the acoustic instruments. He is primarily noted for his highly individualistic and lyrical style, his fluency in a variety of forms, including straight ahead jazz, fusion and Brazilian music. Metheny was also an earlier pioneer in the use of synthesized or MIDI guitar. His highly recognizable sound, willingness to experiment and longevity have made him perhaps the last of the great jazz guitar standouts. Metheny was also very fortunate in having strong record label support almost from the start of his career.
Tom Verlaine & Richard Lloyd
Tom Verlaine & Richard Lloyd were/are the guitarists for the 'cult rock' band Television. Television were pioneers on the US 'punk' scene, but there music was far removed from punk's musical mentality. Rather, Television was more of an 'evolved' progressive rock ensemble, with a minimalist structure, and literate lyrics. Verlaine & Lloyd formed the 'twin gear guitars' of the group's inter-locking rythmnic sensibility, creating a 'wheel within wheels' effect, using contrapuntal lines and patterns to unique effect. Television still plays a few gigs a year: I saw them in 2003, and they have maintained their trademark style, with new extensions and elements. Verlaine has also played live musical accompaniment for various art and experimental films in a number of museums and galleries over the past 6 or 7 years.
Television marked a change away from the 'virtuoso' guitar soloist style in general in rock music. Nevertheless, both Lloyd and Verlaine are both exceptional and imaginative soloists with style and technique.
Robert Fripp is best know as the founder/composer/guitarist for the UK group King Crimson. However, Fripp has been pioneering in many ways, including teaching.
Fripp is from the generation of UK guitarists that include Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, John McLaughlin and Alan Holdsworth. His disciplined and 'mathematical' approach to guitar, and his pioneering work with tape loops used in a solo guitar setting make him a true innovator. Fripp continues to compose and play until this day, with various formations of King Crimson, along with other projects.