The 8 Ball 10.22.12: The Top 16 Guitarists (#8 – 1)
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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Last week we began our look at the top 16 guitarists of all-time, and I learned that Eric Clapton and Eddie Van Halen fans are incredibly…shall we say, “passionate” about their fandoms. I say that with all good humor and thank those who left responses in the comments, especially those who did so in a respectful manner; we can agree to disagree and that’s all well and good. For those who were too irritated by my rankings to be as civil as you may have wished, I still appreciate your comments. At any rate, let’s get right back to it and conclude with the elite eight!
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)
16: Jerry Garcia (The Grateful Dead)
15: Eddie Van Halen (Van Halen)
14: Keith Richards (The Rolling Stones)
12: Robert Johnson
11: Frank Zappa
10: Slash (Guns N’ Roses, Velvet Revolver)
9: Jeff Beck (The Yardbirds, the Jeff Beck Group)
It has been said “There would be no rock & roll guitar without Chuck Berry” so many times that it has become an official, dyed-in-the-wool cliché. The fact that it is a cliché doesn’t keep it from being completely and wholly true. Chuck Berry took the blues and turned it into rock and roll, placing him rarified company among the top few most influential artists in the history of rock and roll. There is absolutely no denying that fact. That being said, influence alone doesn’t necessarily make someone one of the all-time greats. Just because you’re the first to do something doesn’t mean the best. Chuck Berry fits that criteria of great as well; his guitar technique was incredibly precise and he created some of the more unforgettable guitar solos ever set down. “Johnny B. Goode” is considered to be one of the greatest guitar songs of all time, if not the greatest, and that’s only his most well-known song. Berry is one of those people that many have tried to imitate but very few have been able to truly capture the magic of. If that isn’t a mark of greatness, I don’t know what is. Ted Nugent probably said it best: “If you don’t know every Chuck Berry lick, you can’t play rock guitar.”
Duane Allman is a guy who doesn’t get mentioned enough on lists like this for my tastes. Maybe it’s because his career was cut so tragically short, having died in a motorcycle accident at the age of just twenty-four. Maybe it’s because he’s remembered almost more as a session musician than he is within his own band. That’s not an attempt to minimize his work with the Allman Brothers Band, mind; it’s just that more people seem to let “Layla” come to mind when thinking of Allman, and that puts him in the shadow of Eric Clapton a bit. Whatever the reason, Allman deserves to be recognized as one of the greatest to ever pick up a guitar. His work as on slide guitar is almost unparalleled and he contributed to dozens of truly great records including Wilson Pickett’s Hey Jude, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs and more. We can’t forget his work as a jam artist with the Allman Brothers Band either, where he took his guitar playing to another level. If you don’t consider Allman one of the greats then do yourself a favor and check out his work on such tracks as “Statesboro Blues” and especially “Whipping Post.” Even a quick sampling of the groups work, supplemented with some of that stunning session work, is very likely to change your mind.
Randy Rhoads was a guitar god. There’s just no other way to put it. You wouldn’t necessarily expect it from him either, if you just looked at him. He was a small guy just to look at, a little bit geeky even. But put a guitar in his hand and you had an absolute powerhouse who delivering some of the most blistering guitar riffs in rock history. Rhoads got his career officially going when he taught his best friend Kelly Garni how to play bass, and eventually the two went on to form Quiet Riot. Rhoads ended up getting stolen away by Ozzy Osbourne and proceeded to shred his way into rock and roll history. Rhoads’ skill with a guitar wasn’t just stunning, it was practically preternatural. He was able to play with an incredible speed and turned in iconic solos on the likes of “Crazy Train” and “Mr. Crowley.” Despite the fact that he only featured on two Ozzy LPs and two Quiet Riot LPs before the idiocy of Andrew Aycock took his life, Rhoads is universally recognized as the man who helped set the template for what metal guitar solos should be. He is clearly the greatest metal guitarist of all time and while his early death is tragic for far more reasons than this, it is indeed tragic to think of what could have been if he had lived past the age of just twenty-five.
From the greatest metal guitarist, we move right into the true icon of rhythm and blues. B.B. King should be on just about every guitar-related list you can imagine. I mean, let’s set aside the fact that he’s still rocking over a hundred shows a year even today at the age of 87, long after most of your great guitarists have hung it up (if not passed on). For the record, that’s him cutting back from the 250 – 300 he did during his seventies. In other words, B.B. King is just about as badass as an octogenarian can get. But even without that fact, the King of Blues deserves a placement on this list as much as anyone. He is an absolute institution of electric blues and influenced the likes of Richards, Page, Clapton, Harrison, Beck, Cray, Allman, James, Vaughan…the list goes on. The way he plays Lucille (the name of his guitar, for the uninitiated) is a thing of absolute beauty. He plays the blues with a clarity that you don’t find in a lot of guitarists. Technical precision can be a bit of a lost art sometimes, as those who try to be too precise lose the passion. King is a master of doing both and he set the standard for countless others to follow, both in blues and in rock and roll alike. I’m not even a big blues fan, and I love B.B. King’s work. It transcends genre and taste to become something universally brilliant.
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t at least appreciate Pink Floyd. Their sound may not be for everyone and I’ve known people to say they are overrated or just not their kind of music, but you have to acknowledge their talent. And while Roger Water gets and deserves a lot of the credit for providing the conceptual and lyrical guidelines, David Gilmour provided just as integral a voice in his guitar work. Gilmour was brought in to cover for Syd Barrett on guitar in 1967 because of Barrett’s increasingly erratic behavior. After the band got fed up with Barrett and just chose not to pick him up for a gig, officially setting Gilmour as the lead guitarist. Gilmour proceeded to become an integral part of the group and contributed some of the most memorable guitar solos of the modern era. “Comfortably Numb” is a song that is just astounding in the emotional impact of its instrumental work; he doesn’t cram a thousand notes in there but he doesn’t need to. He is able to draw the emotional impact out of a more evenly-paced composition. He is very multi-dimensional as well; he can bring an element of funk when he so desires. “Another Brick In the Wall, Part 1,” “Time,” “Money”…all absolutely integral songs when you want to talk about the greatest guitar songs, and just a sampling of how great Gilmour really is.
I ask you, ladies and gentlemen: what the hell is it with vehicular accidents–and especially airborne ones–claiming the lives of great musicians? Randy Rhoads died in a plane crash, as did several members of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens went down in a plane crash, making the phrase “The Day the Music Died” a major one in rock history. And Stevie Ray Vaughan died in a helicopter crash in 1990 at the age of just thirty-five. The tragic death came just seven years after his debut album, Texas Flood, became an instant watershed album of blues rock. Vaughan had been working in the business well before that however, starting as a teenager in Austin, Texas and building his reputation with his band Double Trouble. Vaughan contributed to David Bowie’s almost Let’s Dance and helped it become his biggest-selling album to that point. Vaughan only got the chance to release two of his own albums, but what albums they were. Stevie Ray Vaughan didn’t play the guitar as much as he commanded it; he was a true master of the guitar in a way that not many people are able to even comprehend right, much less hope to reach. Vaughan’s ability to coax music out of his Fender Stratocaster was a thing of beauty, and even people who don’t lean toward lyrical music over instrumental love his work. Vaughan’s legacy is to be one of the greatest guitar players of all-time, who could have easily become the single greatest given a bit longer of a career to grow and get even better.
Led Zeppelin is THE rock group of the 1970s. Everyone has their personal favorites and not everyone counts Zeppelin as that favorite; I don’t consider them my personal favorite either, as much as I like them. But even if I have other bands I prefer on a personal level, I cannot deny that Zeppelin was the greatest rock group of the decade. And a big portion of the credit that stature belongs to one Jimmy Page. Page was able to create music that transcended its era and genre. Everyone knows “Stairway to Heaven,” and what do people think of first? Page’s incredible closing solo. But let’s not pretend he’s a one-song wonder. Look at the brilliant solo in “Heartbreaker,” the absolutely quintessential 70s opening to “Whole Lotta Love,” the bluesy riffs in “Black Dog,” the metal-influencing staccato of “Immigrant Song”…of course, I could go on and on. The point here is that Jimmy Page has been an influence on just about anyone who has ever picked up a guitar. Let’s just run through a list: Steve Vai, as Ace Frehley, Joe Satriani, John Frusciante, James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett, Zakk Wylde, Yngwie Malmsteen, Tony Iommi, Joe Perry, Richie Sambora, Angus Young, Slash, Dave Mustaine, Mike McCready, Jerry Cantrell, Stone Gossard, Mick Mars, Paul Stanley, Alex Lifeson, Dan Hawkins, Brian May, Johnny Ramone…I could keep going, but I really don’t think I have to. And hell, I didn’t even touch on his work with the Yardbirds, which was just as good in a lot of ways. Yeah, he’s #2 with a bullet.
If you read through this whole list and didn’t just skip to the end, then you should have seen this coming by the simple fact that he hadn’t been mentioned yet. There are great guitar players. Then there are guitar gods. Jim Hendrix is the god of gods when it comes to guitar work. Hendrix revolutionized guitar playing and rock music in a way that few others have done. I’ve never heard anyone for whom their instrument was so much like an extension of their own body. Hendrix played guitar the way other people walk or breathe. Sadly, we are entering an era where less and less people had the opportunity to hear him live and instead have to rely on recordings (obviously, I’m one of them), because by all accounts watching him perform live was nothing less than an extraordinary experience. Hendrix took what the world knew about the guitar and how it could factor into rock and roll, looked it over and then turned it upside down. As Neil Young said during Hendrix’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, “Hendrix threw a Molotov cocktail onto rock and roll.” He was a consummate performer and when he took the stage, people had to pay attention. There was simply no other choice than to do so. Listening to Jimi Hendrix the first time was, for me and many others, a life-changing experience because it was the moment that we really grew to love–not like, but love–rock and roll guitar.
MUSIC VIDEO A-GO-GO
To go along with this list, I thought I would include this; it’s not my list (though I agree with many of them) and it’s a topic I may visit at some point, but for now I think guitar work has been appropriately discussed for the time-being. Anyway, check out a set of the top 20 guitar solos of all time in one man’s opinion:
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.