For "An Ear For Music" Group.
I started playing the guitar as a little kid. While never devoted to the instrument as a player I've been devoted to it as a listener. While I can play and amuse myself for hours on end I will never play professionally and can only dream of what it must be like to stand on a stage in front of thousands and make them scream with joy from a single sustained note.
I love music because it runs the gamut of ability. There are professional musicians who, like me, are amateur musicians but don't refuse to settle for playing to their dog. And they can be successful because music is art, not science. There is no one way that music must be played; or one way it must be enjoyed. There are punk bands rehashing Ritchie Blackmore power chords simple pentatonic scaling to sell records. There are other guitarists who try to marry five different modalities to several scales while trying to introduce Beethoven phrasing in a single song. To each their own. If it makes you feel good...who cares whether the player is self taught or sat at the knee of Segovia.
Rock guitar begins with a poor black guy playing blues on street corners for food money. His name was Robert Johnson and quietly he is probably the most influential guitarist in the history of the modern guitar...if indirectly. Most do not know Robert Johnson...but they know the people he influenced. His recordings in the 1930s paved the way for so many more to follow.
Also in the 1930’s the electric guitar was invented…and while unpopular at the time…the invention would prove to have some worth.
By the 1940’s two other guitarists and innovators were inspiring future artists. One, Muddy Waters, played the blues. The other, Django Reinhardt was reinventing Jazz guitar…despite having a partially paralyzed hand.
In the 1950’s some dude showed up with a golden voice and loose hips. The founder of Sun Records said that “if I could find a white guy who sang with the soul of a black guy, I’ll make a million dollars.” The white guy with the bluesy voice and swinging hips went by the name of Elvis. The 1950’s also saw the rise of the electric guitar. A guitarist and inventor by the name of Les Paul, who’d already made a name for himself in the music industry developed the solid body electric guitar. Fender followed suit with the introduction of the Telecaster (originally the broadcaster) and would soon follow with the mass produced and affordable Stratocaster.
The thing that is always amazing about innovation…the first steps usually endure where those that follow fall by the way side. Stradivarius instruments are inimitable centuries after they were made. Torres’ guitars are similarly revered in classical circles. The Gibson Les Paul’s of the 1950s are the gold standard to many modern guitarists. For whatever reason, wood, humidity at time of construction, the position of Venus in the sky…some instruments just have a tone, a quality, craftsmanship that can not be duplicated nor improved upon.
Well, the 50’s was the birthplace of Rock and Roll. Elvis brought the sedate sounds of gospel and blues to a new and receptive audience. Ray Charles followed suit. Bill Haley refined his music and rock took leapt into the mainstream. Fusing blues and rock Buddy Holly and others became the rebels and that would inspire a generation. At the end of the 50’s rock took another leap when Chuck Berry assaulted listeners with music that just hadn’t existed before. His guitar playing was revolutionary. No single guitarist may be more responsible for modern guitar playing…though he receives less than his fair share of credit.
In the early 60s the blues of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters and other giants were sweeping the UK. Young musicians were listening and taking notes. Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, Syd Barret and Pete Townshend and Keith Richards and on and on.
Most of 2011’s guitarists will list several of the British guitarists from the 60’s as their inspiration. But the 60’s was rocks golden age. So many bands and musicians were willing to push boundaries and follow the beat of their own respective drummer. Sure, there were some successful copycats, most notably the Monkees. But there were other bands searching for the own sound, their own identity. The Doors. The Beach Boys. Velvet Underground. Some of these bands were modified blues rock while others, like Pink Floyd blended other music with modern technology and technique.
Then of course there was the guy who every guitarist wishes they could be for just one day….it’s a Jimi thang. From his appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival to the day he died Jimi was the man. Guitarist, lyricist, composer…he was the total package.
Yes, the 70’s had more to offer than tight shorts, sequins and disco balls. Holdover’s from the 60s were still productive. Others formed new bands. Others went solo. And punk brought back simplicity…music that was about feeling and not about who could play the fastest or write tightest arrangements. KISS rode Chuck Berry pentatonics and some stagecraft to become cult heroes. Some lunatic with a love for guns gave Detroit another stage managed persona some fame. Lindsey Buckingham was the guitarist behind some of the catchiest guitar riffs in rock history…and few who don’t know Fleetwood Mac would even recognize the name. Rhodes took over for Iommi in Black Sabbath. Deep Purple kept churning out music.
The 80s were much like the 70s. Bands and guitarists focused on retaining their 60’s audiences and 60’s vibe. But there was a subculture taking root in garages around the world. People who loved the freedom and passion of punk aggression but also wanted to prove they could perform as instrumentalists as well. A young guitarist seemed to enter the conversation every time this new fusion of punk and hard rock came up. Joe Satriani. From composition to technique to instruction…Satriani was the puppeteer hiding behind the scenes. 80’s and 90’s guitar mags are littered with guitarists citing Page and Clapton as their idols…but nearly as omnipresent was the phrase, “former Satriani student”. For people that never listened to metal most of these names won’t mean a thing. To those of us that did and do…they are our 60’s-like guitar gods. Kirk Hammet, John Petrucci, Alex Skolnick, Phil Kettner and Larry LaLonde. You had a young dude who went by the name of Dimebag and you had someone with the talent of Dave Mustaine being axed from playing the ax for a band known for furious ax play, Metallica. Then you end the decade with more evolution…Cobain and the grunge brigade. Satriani finally gets known for more than being a presence when he releases Surfing With the Alien.
There are thousands of guitarists who go unnoticed or underappreciated. I can list my top ten and in doing so can leave out 200 giants of the industry. But that is the beauty of music. Some people listen to the Femmes and hear perfection while Beethoven drives them insane. I listen to country and want to commit seppuku while Metallica or Disturbed can calm my nerves.
There are worthy guitarists from the 90s and oughts…but the truth is that they are harder to find. You have young guns like Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Johnny Lang flash and then disappear. You have Derek Trucks making some of the greatest guitar music of all time and being virtually unknown to anyone who doesn’t know who the Allman Brothers were or are. The fact is that music is going the way of film…cheaper and disposable. There are Miley’s to take over for every Brittany and a Taylor Swift to replace a Miley. There is boy band to replace a boy band and a Beiber to replace the boy band. You have Jay Z’s and P Diddy’s who, when they decide to make music…sound no different than any of the 100s of hip hop acts they copycat produce for a copycat world.
So, here it is, my top 10 and then 10 more underappreciated guitarists.
1. Kirk Hammet. The man can play any style…and in his prime, there may not have been a nimbler hand roaming the fretboard.
2. Satriani. Who can argue with his ability or success as an instructor.
3. Clapton. He just continues to play at a level few reach.
4. Santana. I love Santana because he plays with soul…he may not be technically superior, or play with the most speed, or go Jimi on his guitar…but when you hear him play…you hear music, not notes.
5. Jimi. Jimi can be number 1….but he’s always number 1 on everyone’s lists so fuck him…number 5 on mine!
6. Jimmy Page. To me Zeppelin is the most influential band in history. Most guitarists and band founders may love the Beatles…but the Beatles were pop, not alt…they were the preppie playing rapper whereas Zep was the bad boy inspiring a cult of bad boys to walk on the wild side. When I was a kid you wanted to be like Jimi…or Jimmy.
7. David Gilmour. Another 60s Brit who just keeps playing and playing…and in my book, DG is as good as any, could easily be number 1 on this list.
8. Derek Trucks. Trucks was raised to be a musician…that he pushes himself to continually improve and evolve is the testament to his drive…but he also has the pure talent to make the work pay off.
9. Stevie Ray Vaughn. Yea, number 9. I love SRV but looking at the other blues guitarists on this top 10 list…he just isn’t THE blues guy I think of FIRST therefore he can’t be first. Except when I’m listening to him…then “he’s the greatest fucking guitarist of all time”
10. Lindsey Buckingham. If you don’t know who LB is…google him…listen…learn.
1. Robbie Krieger. Simple blues riffs…but effective. When you listen to the Doors they are more than the Electric Poet.
2. Eric Johnson. Most people have probably never heard of him…and that sucks.
3. Chuck Berry. The Godfather.
4. BB King. The Godfather’s brother, not Fredo.
5. Tom Morello. Morello is a serious guitarist who constantly wants to be more than a power chord banging member of Rage.
6. Lenny Kravitz. Hopefully someday LK lets his ability outshine his ego.
7. Kurt Cobain. When people judge grunge they claim it is as simple as punk. Bang on power chords and tap dance some pentatonics. People who say this don’t understand that character is a part of being a musician. Cobain can’t be confused with the technical proficiency of Satriani nor of having Satriani’s education. But there aren’t that many people who can write catchy riffs, play them proficiently and play them well while screaming emotional lyrics while also having to connect with the crowd. KC will never reach a “top” list but he certainly deserves to be recognized for having been a guitarist.
8. Buddy Holly. He had such a short career that he is easy to overlook. But he was rock before rock was rock. He had the pop lyric accessibility but the catchy guitar hooks to go along with.
9. Steve Howe. YES! Hard to say Steve Howe is underappreciated until you ask someone who he is…and they have no clue.
10. The Edge. People might remember who The Edge is…or at least have heard the name…but few people realize how good U2s guitarist actually is. I’d put Peter Buck from REM in the same category. There is a misconception that the groups with the pop sensibility and simple melodies aren’t truly great as musicians. The Beatles were more than melody as are REM and U2 and the Beach Boys.
PS list: Paul McCartney is a guitarist. He did not want to be a bassist.
2. Syd Barret. David Gilmour was a childhood friend of Barrets and he didn’t want to replace him in PF because of that friendship. When it became clear that Barret wasn’t going to be included and that the remaining members of PF wanted DG to replace him Gilmour said he still had reservations because Barret was so talented that he didn’t know that he could measure up. Well, it worked out for DG but it would have been nice to see drug addiction and mental illness derail Barret’s career.
3. Dick Dale. Dale was the originator of "surfer" music.
Lady’s shoutout: Lita Ford and Joan Jett. Jennifer Batten. Nancy Wilson. Katherine Thomas (the Great Kat). Rutyer Suys.