February 2017 – Favourite Guitarists And Why

posted in: Observations, Opinion | 0

This month, I’m continuing with a list-like feature. This isn’t laziness, it’s just about time I focused back specifically on guitars and guitarists.

Here are some of the guitarists I enjoy listening to and, linking back to my January 2017 article about why we like what we like, artists that I keep coming back to for more. If there was some sort of formula that is common to all of them, it might be expressed as:

Unique talent + quality instrument + great song writing + timing + opportunity = music history.

The first ‘variable’ above is a key ingredient… talent. Most phenomenal guitarists are instantly recognisable by their distinctive sound, which is more about the person than the instrument they play. Simply put, no-one sounds like them. Why? It comes down to individual technique. It’s the same with classical painters, each one highly recognisable for their outputs, even though the inputs are essentially the same (paint, brushes, canvas, etc.). As the late great Stevie Ray Vaughan sagely commented, “Your sound is in your hands as much as anything. It is the way you pick and the way you hold the guitar, more than it is the amp or guitar you use”. In addition to the “it’s in the hands” adage, they also often have a ‘how do they do that?’ factor that differentiates them from the hoi poloi (NB. for trivia fans, from the Greek meaning ‘the many’). For guitarists to shine there needs to be strong song writing – it doesn’t actually matter who wrote any particular track, it’s how it is interpreted that matters.

Most guitarists will own several guitars and use then for certain situations. Many top guitarists may have extensive collections, although they tend to have one instrument or model with which they are uniquely associated. Combine that stylistic talent with, perhaps, a ‘signature’ instrument and the basics are there. By ‘quality’, I simply mean ‘fit for purpose’ within this context. Using a ‘favourite’ guitar is not a prerequisite, however, it is likely that removing a physical impediment to technique (i.e. an inappropriate guitar) has liberated many players to feel, rather than think, about their playing. There is something special in the relationship between player and preferred instrument that adds a ‘secret ingredient’ that no-one else could muster from it.

Another characteristic of accomplished guitarists with longevity is that they usually have a refined sense of song writing, either on their own or as part of a band, often prolifically so. They instinctively know what people tune into, including well-honed sense of harmony, melody, tempo, etc. They also adapt their writing over time to accommodate changing listening tastes. It isn’t just about image or the axe that they wield.

There is something to be said about time period and cultural context and being in the ‘right place at the right time’. If any of these guitarists were struggling to establish a career in today’s Spotify-saturated, X‑Factor sterilised world, would they stand out and have a chance? I would wager not. Many of these greats were also pioneers who broke the mould at their time in some way – they are not generic or homogenous. Musical integrity and coherency have been shattered by our seemingly insatiable appetite for the iTunes attention deficit disorder-oriented society. It is so much harder to be genuinely innovative now, which may explain why there are so few challengers striving to not only usurp the thrones of the exalted ‘old-timers’ but also to stay there. Aspiration and ambition is just the start, achieving longevity and legendary status is another matter altogether.

Some other characteristics spring to mind, these guitarists were as sound at rhythm guitar as they are at lead lines. So many great tunes would flounder without the solid rhythm chops from great guitarists who knew how to groove in their chosen genre.

I would also argue that these guitarists are/were as great at playing live, as they are/were in the studio. On stage, there is nowhere to hide and these artists have to work very, very hard to earn and sustain credibility over many years of continuous touring.

So… to the point… at long last. As my guitarists of choice are diverse in style, genre, time period, success, etc., it was impossible to rank them from 1-20, so they are presented in alphabetical order for fairness and simplicity. I’ve indicated the instrument(s) that they are often associated with, as well as a track that, for me, acted as an entry point into their canon (not necessarily their best or most well-known track), a catalyst if you will for grabbing my aspirational attention.

1. Jeff Beck (1944-) – Where on Earth does one start with a genius like Mr Beck? Invention, reinvention, experimentation and continually challenging the boundaries of what can be done with 6 strings on a Strat. No-one comes close to decades of innovation. As soon as you think you’ve nailed his rut, he surprises by a change of direction with consummate musicianship in whatever he does. Listen: ‘Brush With The Blues’ (1999). Guitars: Fender Stratocaster, Gibson Les Paul Standard, Fender Telecaster

2. Ritchie Blackmore (1945-) – Ignoring well-documented character traits, Blackmore’s Deep Purple/Rainbow rock era featured some of the most incendiary, flamboyant and flashy lead lines, all seemingly delivered with minimal effort. Extraordinary. Credit for following his passion in traditional guitar, rather than selling out/cashing in by endlessly regurgitating ‘Smoke On The Water’ for decades. Listen: ‘Child In Time’ (1972). Guitar: Fender Stratocaster

3. Dimebag Darrell (1966-2004, 38) – Sadly, the late ‘Dimebag’ Darrell Lance Abbott was taken too young. Metal guitarists are often easily categorised without really appreciating their innate talent and abilities. Darrell was a terrific guitarist with soul and technical skill that is hugely under-appreciated both for storming southern-tinged riffs and searing lead lines with Pantera. Listen: ‘Cemetery Gates’ (1990). Guitar: Dean ML

4. Rory Gallagher (1948-1995, 47) – A unique talent not sufficiently acknowledged while he was alive, his contribution and reputation has rocketed since his demise. The modest and unassuming Gallagher had a tremendous ear for fusing blues tropes with an astounding melodic sensibility evoking his Irish roots. A great slide player too. Live, he was astounding, consumed with energy and passion that few could match. Listen: ‘Calling Card’ (1976). Guitar: Fender Stratocaster

5. Billy Gibbons (1945-) – With his roots deep in Texan blues, ‘the greatest beard in rock’ can make his axe sing with great feeling, as evidenced by early material. As part of ZZ Top, he pushed R&B boogie into the limelight with mega commercial success, thereby adding more flavours to his not inconsiderable palette. Listen: ‘Blue Jeans Blues’ (1975). Guitars: Gibson Les Paul Standard, Gretsch Billy Bo

6. Kirk Hammett (1962-) – Another metal guitarist who knows how to use a guitar in anger as a member of Metallica. Listen to his playing and there is much more than flashy thrash metal guitar work. His legacy will forever be integrated with the riff from ‘Enter Sandman’. Look beyond those few familiar notes and be rewarded. Listen: ‘Seek & Destroy’ (1983). Guitar: ESP

7. Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970, 27) – Predictable. To attempt to explain in a few words what James Marshall Hendrix unleashed on rock music during his short career would be inadequate. He was a true revolutionary and showman, imbued with massive talent and skills honed through passion, dedication and commitment. Contemporary music owes a massive debt to a true pioneer and just think what he could have achieved. Listen: ‘All Along The Watchtower’ (1968). Guitars: Fender Stratocaster, Gibson Flying V

8. Steve Hillage (1951-) – Easily overlooked because of his relatively obscure ‘hippie’ career (Gong, System 7), Hillage is a talented and individual guitarist with a very recognisable tone and style. Even in later years, which focus heavily on electronic dance grooves, guitar remains an important stylistic element. His contribution is much undervalued. Listen: ‘Hurdy Gurdy Glissando’ (1976). Guitars: Fender Stratocaster, Gibson Les Paul Standard

9. John Lee Hooker (1917-2001, 83) – Hooker was a true individualist who always played by his own rules. He is one of the most expressive and soulful bluesmen, his emotions emanating through his guitar and gravelly vocals. Yes BB may be the King but JLH was a blues Hooker at one with his delta roots. At his best just him and his guitar, rather than the sanitised reverential collaborations. Listen: ‘Crawlin’ Kingsnake’ (1991). Guitars: Epiphone Sheraton, Gibson ES-335

10. Tony Iommi (1948-) – Where would rock be without Black Sabbath. Another guitarist who ploughed a furrow that hadn’t previously been ploughed and as the ‘godfather of metal’, his influence has justly pervaded the landscape of modern hard rock and metal for decades. How much of his individual style resulted from his infamous industrial accident, we can never know. Listen: ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ (1973). Guitars: Jaydee Custom S.G. ‘Old Boy’, Gibson SG

11. John Martyn (1948-2009, 60) – Martyn started off in traditional English folk music and then something happened and he became a true experimenter using delay and other effects to create something completely new and adventurous, mostly on acoustic guitar. In addition to innovating, he also retained the heartfelt lyrical nature of his music, using guitar to complement his unique voice. Listen: ‘I’d Rather Be The Devil’ (1973).  Guitar: Martin D‑28

12. J. Mascis (1965-) – Often described as an alternative maverick, born of the New York punk era, Mascis is a genuine one-off and enduring front man of Dinosaur Jr. A bit like Neil Young on steroids. As a guitarist, he doesn’t stun with millions of notes and sterile technical ability but, boy, does he put some energy and power into his searing, laser-guided lead lines that have impressed consistently over the years. Always on the fringe. Listen: ‘Out There’ (1993). Guitar: Fender Jazzmaster

13. Brian May (1947-) – Dr. May’s melodic and harmonic brilliance will forever be remembered for his Mercury-period Queen. However, like his distinctive home‑made guitar, the astrophysicist created a unique and recognisable guitar style that pervades western culture. His MTV pop sensibilities are as strong as his earlier rock riffs. Listen: ‘Seven Seas Of Rhye’ (1974). Guitar: Brian May Red Special

14. John McLaughlin (1942-) – In terms of phenomenal ability, dexterity and skill, McLaughlin is near, if not at, the top of the tree. Not only is his speed and proficiency astounding, his genre-spanning flexibility is formidable. Describing his playing can only be achieved through hyperbole. An extraordinary guitar superman. Listen: ‘Vital Transformation’ (1971). Guitar: PRS

15. Gary Moore (1952-2011, 58) – In later years before his untimely death, Moore concentrated on the blues, joining the ranks of the few white, non-American blues legends. Go back earlier in his career and his abilities at rock and fusion show just what a great and adaptable guitarist he was. Listen: ‘Stormy Monday’ (2001). Guitars: Fender Stratocaster, Gibson Les Paul Standard

16. Tom Morello (1964-) – Probably the youngest of the guitarists to make the list. Go back to RATM’s debut album and reflect on the pounding riffs and genuinely innovative lead playing and recognise that Morello is one of those guitarists who could take the mainstream and adapt it into something no-one had heard before. Listen: ‘Bombtrack’ (1992). Guitar: ‘Arm The Homeless’ custom

17. Carlos Santana (1947-) – Renowned for his ability to sustain notes, Carlos was also a very fluid player and highly acclaimed for his feel. From his appearance at the end of the 1960s to today, he can produce an inimitable and remarkable guitar tone. He could play blindingly fast and he could also turn out achingly emotive lead lines. Listen: ‘Samba Pa Ti’ (1970). Guitar: PRS Santana

18. Jimmy Page (1944-) – Like Blackmoore, Iommi and Hammett, Page is another guitarist whose legacy may be forever associated with a single track in the consciousness of the music listening public (Stairway To Heaven). However, Zeppelin-era Page is a multi-talented guitarist. It is a shame that he hasn’t been able to shine to the same extent in his post-Zep solo career. Listen: ‘Kashmir’ (1975). Guitar: Gibson Les Paul Standard, Danelectro 3021

19. Stevie Ray Vaughan (1954-1990, 35) – SRV is another guitar phenomenon taken from us way too young. Unapologetically Texas blues to his core, he shared Hendrix’s immense ability to introduce many other styles into his playing, including jazzy influences. Another whose formidable combination of talent and relentless hard work set him apart from the crowd. Listen: ‘Tin Pan Alley’ (1999). Guitar: Fender Stratocaster

20. Neil Young (1945-) – Quite often referred to as the master of the one-note guitar solo, this underrates his ability to wring considerable emotional content from just a few well-chosen, emotionally driven and sparingly targeted tones. One thing is for sure, his distinctive tone and style has sustained his well-deserved reputation over many decades. Listen: ‘Southern Man’ (1970). Guitar: Gibson Les Paul Standard

Most of these guitarists will, perhaps, be obvious entries. However, there may be a few unexpected curve balls thrown in for good measure. Of course (don’t you just hate it when people say that!), there is a very long list of superb guitarists that didn’t make the 20 above, including the likes of George Benson, Joe Bonamassa, Eric Clapton, Robben Ford, John Frusciante, Peter Green, Steve Hackett, Allan Holdsworth, BB King, Paul Kossoff, Robby Krieger, Randy Rhoads, Mick Ronson, Joe Satriani, Slash, Steve Vai, Van Halen, Jack White, Johnny Winter, Zakk Wylde, Angus Young, Frank Zappa, etc., etc., etc. It’s virtually impossible to name them all. While I recognise their massive influence, this is my list of guitarists, not a regurgitation of anyone else’s list or a contrived list of ‘stature derived through perceived wisdom’.

There are also guitarists who aren’t listed above and who perhaps aren’t considered ‘great’ guitarists stylistically but are still notable for the instrument being an integral part of their music, e.g. Marc Bolan, Robert Smith, Thurston Moore, etc.

I also haven’t strayed into bass guitar but that’s an easy one for me, evidenced by the mercurial virtuoso skills of the incomparable, and sadly late, great Jaco Pastorius. Danny Thompson and Tal Wilkenfeld also deserve honourable mentions in this category for me.

Interestingly, 7 of the above guitarists (35%) are sadly no longer with us. Thankfully, at least 13 (65%) of them still are. I have been fortunate enough to see just over half of them play live and, of the ones I have seen, I can attest to their consummate skills. One thing I noticed when researching this article is how many of these guitarists regularly wear/wore hats when playing live (around a quarter of them). Head apparel seems a quintessential part of a guitarist’s touring equipment for many.

In terms of a ‘golden era’, many of these artists had their zenith between the late 1960s and the early 1980s. After a 10-year hiatus in the proverbial doldrums of the post-punk electronic era, there was a gradual resurgence of interest in guitar music from the 1990s that thankfully reignited a passion for the art into the 21st century. Thankfully that interest continues to flourish and diversify today, which will hopefully incentivise whole new generations of exciting new guitar heroes (genuine ones, not the ‘game’) to carve an identity for themselves.

One thing that does bother me is that there are no female guitarists on the list. This is more a reflection of historical exposure that male guitarists have had compared to female guitarists. It is not a misogynistic trait, just circumstance. There are great guitarists out there, e.g. Carrie Brownstein, Eva Cassidy, Lita Ford, Charlotte Hatherley, Kaki King, Orianthi Panagaris, Bonnie Raitt, Nancy Wilson, etc., they are just not my most listened to guitarists. There are also many girl bands, like Warpaint, Haim, Dum Dum Girls, Sleater Kinney, Smoke Fairies, etc., which is positive. Those who are familiar with my rants on the subject will know that I believe ‘girls with guitars are cool’. My view is that, as in any other streak of life, gender should not pose a barrier to success and there are some very accomplished female guitarists out there. Personally, I would dearly like to see equality and inclusion. Having said that, I don’t believe girls are actively excluded, it’s just that the prevailing environment isn’t conducive to girls seeking guitar playing as a job in the same way as there is, for instance, in orchestral classical music.

Also, as mentioned at the start, there essentially are no modern-era guitarists on the list. The most recent on the list above are from the 1990s, rather than the noughties and teenies; this is still around a quarter of a century ago now. There are many, many very talented modern-day guitarists out there but, again, they just didn’t make my list. I look forward to emerging guitarists taking up the reins. One wonders who we might admire in the future, in addition to the current greats.

What, though, really separates the greats from the very talented also-rans who also work very hard at their craft? If we all knew that, it wouldn’t be a question. Is it serendipity, happenstance, luck, contacts, situation? Perhaps the old adage that ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’, plays its part.

I only wish I had a minute fraction of the ability demonstrated by the guitarists mentioned here. Sadly, I don’t have that kind of talent (despite the hard work), so I have to end up writing about them!

One thing we might learn from them is that we shouldn’t try to imitate them. By all means emulate and pay homage to them but only if you can actually do what they do better than them – try that particular strategy and see how far you get! Perhaps another lesson for stalwart gear heads is that the guitars don’t make the guitarist, mostly anyone can own a Fender Stratocaster or Gibson Les Paul but not everyone can be a SRV or Jimmy Page – guitars are simply the professional tools of the expert craftsman. However, put the two together and something very special can happen. Modern music would not be the same without the skilled practitioner and their axes of choice, creating magic for us mere plebs to wonder at and aspire to.

CRAVE Guitars ‘Music Quote of the Month’: “If music is the result of passion, passion is the music of life.”

© 2017 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

 ← Return to ‘Musings’ page

Like it? Why not share it?