The 8 Ball 10.15.12: The Top 16 Guitarists (#16 – 9)
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Music Zone! I’m your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, I will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly. With that in mind, let’s get right in to it!
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Blame Guitar World. I had a top 8 list category all picked out and ready to go for this week; I had narrowed down to my top eight choices and was about to start looking for pictures and YouTube videos. Then I saw this news article on 411, wherein Guitar World declared Eddie Van Halen the greatest guitarist of all-time. Now I’m not going to hold that decision to Guitar World–it was the result of a bracket “tournament” voted on by readers–and as I’ve always said, no opinion is wrong. But suffice it to say, I rather disagree. And thus, my other topic was abandoned in favor of a new top 8, which quickly swelled to a top 16 because it is absolutely and completely insane to try and narrow down a list of the greatest guitarists to eight people. We’re kicking it off with #16 through #9, so let’s get to it.
Caveat: Do I need a caveat here? No, not really. I guess if I was going to list a caveat, I would say that a guitarist’s presence and rank on this list was not decided purely based on technical skill alone. I was looking at innovation in the art form, influence, skill and even stage presence to some degree. Basically I was looking at the “total package” in terms of a guitar player.
Steve Vai (Whitesnake, David Lee Roth)
John Petrucci (Dream Theater)
Angus Young (AC/DC)
Right off the bat, I sense I have lost some of you. The Grateful Dead does not, unfortunately, have the most sterling level of esteem among music fans these days it would seem; decades of Deadheads being mocked and poked fun at in popular culture has permanently relegated the group’s fanbase, and thus the band by extension, to a lower level of esteem than they deserve. That being said, even if you’re not a fan of the Dead and don’t think their fans are worth the time of day, you have to show respect for Jerry Garcia’s rather stunning skills as a guitarist. Even without his ability to work musical magic with a guitar in his hands, Garcia would have a claim to fame as a counter-culture icon, but as a guitarist he was able to do things that most people have dreamt about at one time in terms of making a guitar respond exactly how he wanted. Consider his intricate picking on “Friend of the Devil” or the jam-worthy excellence of “Dark Star.” Now consider that he was able to accomplish that with less than nine and a half fingers, having lost two-thirds of his right middle finger (a fairly important one for guitarists) as a child. That’s incredible. What’s more, Garcia as a musician represented someone who could tell just as great of a story with his instruments as he could with his lyrics. The Dead were far more than the prototypical jam bad and for my money Garcia is one of the more underrated guitarists out there.
Hey, I didn’t say the guy wasn’t one of the greatest guitarists of all-time, simply that he is in no way who I personally would pick as the greatest guitarist of all time. It almost goes without saying that Eddie Van Halen is one of the most accomplished men ever to strap on a guitar. The first time I ever heard his blistering work on “Hot For Teacher” my tastes suddenly shifted. I wasn’t into hard rock in 1984, and that changed after this. There are only a very few people who can instantly realign your musical tastes to any degree, and if you can do that it’s something that certainly earns you a place on the all-time greats list. And that’s just one song that is not even his best work. Van Halen’s work with riffs is exceptional; it’s a joy just to sit back and listen to him go. Even if I don’t enjoy a Van Halen song, I can always sit back and dig on the guitar work, which is a mix of precise technical skill and unbridled passion for playing. Many accomplished guitarists are unable to mix the two; they get stuck inside their head when they try to get it right and the passion suffers, or they get too far into the feel and the technique slips. Eddie can do both at the same time and make anyone who can’t look like an idiot.
Few people can lay claim to as many iconic guitar riffs as Keith Richards. In fact, that statement is probably not quite fair; I would venture to say that no one can. Having a fifty year career in one of the most enduring and influential rock music acts of all time can have that effect on your resume. But that is not to say that Keith Richards’ placement on this list is because of his longevity in the business, as much as I constantly how it is that the notoriously hard-living Richards hasn’t gone the way of Keith Moon and John Bonham. Richards has been instrumental in shaping and influencing not only the course of rock music, but the course of rock guitar work. From the dark, ominous work in “Gimme Shelter” and “Paint it Black” to the power chords of “Start It Up,” the swagger of “Sympathy For the Devil”…I could continue for paragraphs just with quick descriptions about the riffs and solos that Richards engineered. Can anyone even begin to imagine what the music industry would be like today if not for the influence that Richards had on the landscape of rock. He’s not the flashiest guitarist you’ll ever meet; sure he has his flairs he tends to keep things simpler and more personal. He doesn’t need to go all out in order to draw audiences to his work; people hear brilliance and respond to it. That’s Keith Richards in a nutshell.
True story: someone actually threatened the well-being of my Doctor Who collection if Prince did not make this list, “at least at #2.” Clearly I didn’t put him as high as requested (and my Doctor Who collection is safe as long as Netflix keeps their servers secure), but even disregarding threats you have to respect the hell out of Prince as a guitarist. Honestly, I tend to believe that the Purple One doesn’t get nearly enough respect when lists like this are compiled for guitarists; his work as a singer is usually kept at the forefront and combining with his pop sensibilities it makes people forget that, for example, he is the man who blew us away with his guitar solo on “Purple Rain” and shredded his way through the opening moments of “When Doves Cry.” Don’t mistake me here; he’s far more than just the Purple Rain soundtrack but those are the first two that always come to mind for me when thinking of Prince as a guitarist. Prince is a guy who can do it all with a guitar; he can go hard or he can ease back and let the funk roll. Even when his guitar work is keeping to the background in songs like “Gett Off,” your ears unconsciously seek it out because he’s just as captivating with his playing as he is his singing. When people dismiss Prince as “just another weird pop star,” I look at them like they’ve grown another head because he’s so very much more, and his guitar work is evidence of that.
Everyone who has ever picked up a guitar has been influenced by Robert Johnson, whether they know it or not. And odds are, they don’t. Robert Johnson is a name that echoes in music mythology. Born in 1911 in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, he grew to become one of the most influential artists in the evolution of what popular music would become and became the leading voice in blues. What’s more, he did it in a relatively short period. The stories surrounding Johnson are infamous and shrouded in uncertainty due to poor documentation and his sudden death at the age of 27, thus becoming the first official member of the infamous “27 Club” that has claimed the likes of Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison and Amy Winehouse. The most famous myth surrounds the idea that he sold his soul to the Devil at a crossroads as a young man in exchange for being able to create the blues for which he became famous. Many musicians who knew Johnson well say that he even told the story as if it was factual. While the truth is unknown (and somewhat dependent on your belief in the supernatural), it isn’t difficult to see why people would accuse him of having sold his soul for his playing ability because if it is true, he certainly got his money’s worth. Keith Richards was first introduced to Johnson by Brian Jones and asked, “Who is the other guy playing with him?” The answer was no one: it was Johnson playing by himself. Consider, just for a moment, the fact that pretty much every guitarist in popular music is influenced (knowingly or not) by Johnson’s work. Now consider that he only has twenty-nine songs to his name. Imagine what he could have done with enough time for fifty or a hundred.
Normally, people’s opinions are just that and I can accept them without getting annoyed. The lack of due that Frank Zappa gets, on the other hand, drives me nuts. I dare say that there are few people who have ever been as technically proficient with a guitar as Zappa, who could take his instrument and do incredibly unconventional things that just…worked. Sometimes they shouldn’t have worked, but they did nonetheless. Zappa found inspiration in incredibly disparate genres of music and brought them all together into one weirdly-brilliant fusion all his own. Creating songs with such inspired titles as “In-A-Gadda-Stravinsky” and “Invocation and Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin,” Zappa took the idea of not being defined within one genre to a new level and his guitar work was able to accommodate virtually any style–or any combination of styles–with ease. That’s deceptively difficult to be a master of so many genres, but Zappa had it all down and did it without seeming schizophrenic with his musical style. It was all one fusion of Zappa sound, even when it varied wildly, and he deserves all the accolades he can get.
Metal is strongly associated with its heavy, guitar-laden sound. And yet somehow, so few metal and hard rock guitarists get the proper respect when it comes time to name the absolute best. The reason for that is actually fairly simple. Metal is a music about extremes and metal guitarists sometimes have a tendency to get wrapped up in that, letting it push them over the top into unrestrained flourishes that sound good enough when they’re performed but are so fast and wild that it all ends up in one unmemorable soup. That’s why an artist like Slash is so essential to metal-driven guitar work. Where other people are obsessed with improvising skin-blistering solos that end up blending all together, Slash has filled his body of work with passion but restraint. That’s not to say that Slash is boring though. (Could a guy named Slash ~be~ boring?) The guitar god of hard rock has brought some of the most enrapturing and thrilling guitar solos of the last thirty years. But each one is entirely memorable and in fact unforgettable because Slash knows when to push the speed and when to dial it back. Think about “You Could Be Mine” and “Welcome to the Jungle.” Anyone trying to proclaim that Slash’s guitar work doesn’t kick some serious ass is deluding themselves. And then compare them to the epic solo in “November Rain,” the fantastic work in “Civil War” and then “Sweet Child o’ Mine.” Slash is a guitar god, to be sure, but he didn’t get that way because he’s stuck on keeping the volume at eleven. He does so because what he brings in his music can approach divinity at its best.
Eric Clapton gets a lot of love from music journalists, and for good reason. I’ve shared my appreciation for Clapton’s work in several columns myself. But when it comes to the Yardbirds, he holds a backseat to his fellows when the guitar comes out. And that’s by no means a statement against Clapton; rather its one that is very much in the favor of Jeff Beck. Beck is one of those incredible combinations of nearly-unmatched skill and unique personality for something wholly unique and awe-inspiring. Beck was the second of the Yardbirds’ guitarist between Clapton and Jimmy Page and with those two legendary guitarists bookending him he still holds his own as one of the all-time greats and not just a guy obscured by some very hefty shadows. Beck would go on from the Yardbirds to form the Jeff Beck Group and had some harder influences to his already-impressive work. Beck is not quite the household name that Clapton and Page are but his skills are as strong as either of them. Above all, Beck’s playing has an undeniable spirit to it, a personality all its own. You have to respect that and give the man his due.
MUSIC VIDEO A-GO-GO
As much as I love the band, I was not able to justify even seriously considering Allen Collins or any of the other guitarists from Lynyrd Skynyrd. That doesn’t stop me from putting one of the all-time great guitar songs, “Freebird,” here for your listening enjoyment:
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.