The guitar is arguably the most popular western instrument, rivaled only by the piano, and it is my favorite. I’ve been immersed in rock guitar since I was 9, at the oldest, when my older brother started to play. Ten years later, I picked up a six string, too, and haven’t looked back. So when it comes to hearing and appreciating other guitarists, I have something of an idea of what I’m talking about. It’s important that you understand I have at least some credibility on this subject before I proceed.
There have been a lot of great players throughout the years. Some created new techniques, others perfected existing ones; some moved blindingly fast, others used their fingers in unconventional ways. You don’t even really need to look that hard to find names of celebrated guitarists, as there have been tons of lists of the “100 Best” or “50 Best” that ever lived. Well, with such a saturated market, those kinds of things can get not only a little stagnant, but also kind of hijacked. There are many guitarists that I feel either don’t get enough recognition for their skill and creativity, or get way too much. We’re going to go through a few of each.
Oh, and a quick note–I make no qualms about the fact that this is all rock guitar-based. It’s much easier to write that way, plus I have a lot more knowledge in this area than in other genres.
When talking about famous guitarists, it’s VERY important to differentiate between great and influential. They’re very different. To be influential, one doesn’t need that much skill on the fretboard. To be great, you had better know your way around those six strings very well; influence is important here, too, but it needs to be guitar-focused influence. For these four guitarists, I would never deny their impact on rock music, but they are listed among GREAT guitarists continually, and they either shouldn’t be there at all because they are or were not that skilled of players, or they really shouldn’t be ranked as highly as they always are.
4. Johnny Ramone was a driving force behind an influential band, but it had NOTHING to do with his guitar playing. Any beginner guitarist can play any Ramones song, and that’s not an exaggeration. They’re that easy. Johnny and his band were without a doubt influential musicians and personalities in the rock world, but it’s really that he was those things, Oh!, and he also played the guitar in the band. So Johnny on a list of great guitarists? Johnny mentioned in a conversation about great guitarists? No and no. The perfect fifth is a great interval, but playing little else for 20 years is not guitar playing greatness.
3. Pete Townshend. When it came to actual playing of the guitar, Townshend really didn’t do all that much that was earth-shattering. I mean . . . he can solo . . . but his talent isn’t really in being an amazing guitarist. He was really creative with his overall songwriting, he did some neat stuff with synthesizers (read up on how he came up with that synth part for “Baba O’Riley”), and he had great theatrics while playing guitar, such as the windmill and being the first recognized to trash his equipment on stage . . . but none of that is actual guitar-playing skill. It’s one thing to be a great musician and/or performer, and another to be a great guitarist. I believe he is the former. Plus the magic that was The Who was the combination of Townshend and Daltry and Entwistle and ESPECIALLY Moon, not Townshend alone. That’s most obvious in the fact that everything for them was downhill after Moon died in 1978. The little he’s done in the last 30 years (and even less in the last 20) has not been guitar-centered. One can’t blame a guy for living off of the fame of his youth and playing to large crowds that are clearly happy to have him there, but producing very little output in favor of playing your three chords in “I Can’t Explain” over and over does not make you a someone worthy of high praise as a guitar player in my book.
2. Kurt Cobain, like Johnny Ramone except more so, is more memorable because he was the driving force behind an important rock band and just happened to also play the guitar in that band. Also he died young. Nothing that Cobain ever did on the guitar was worthy of being called “great.” I wrote stuff more complex than that in my early 20’s, and don’t give me the “minimalism on purpose” argument, either. Cobain wrote what he could. While Nirvana turned the rock industry on its head overnight (shout all you want about who greatest grunge band was–it was “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that changed things), it was all in spite of his skill level on the guitar. So I’d put Cobain very close to the top of the list for influential guitarists, and certainly close to the top on a list of important rock musicians, but nowhere on the list for great guitarists.
1. Jimi Hendrix. I’m going to get a lot of flack for this one, I know. My beef with JimiPraise is not that he’s considered one of the greatest guitarists that ever lived. That’s easy to buy. My problem is that he’s the generic go-to for EVERYONE as “THE greatest guitar player that ever lived.” Well, I don’t believe that. I don’t believe he was the greatest in his day, and I believe his talent and skill have been surpassed by others 100 times over since his death (which, by the way, was at age 27 in 1970!). Yes, he was good, yes he is influential, but when you make a list of guitar greats and place Jimi as #1 or even (gasp!) #2, you’re either playing to an audience, or you’re a coward. If he were still with us, would he have continued to impress us? Or would he have grown stagnant? No one that knows what they’re talking about can deny his skill, and certainly not his influence, but I think it’s high time people passed on his crown to someone more deserving. Clapton? Page? King? There’s a very long list of players from which to choose.
There have no doubt been hundreds of players throughout the last several decades that had talent and skill that could floor many of the kings of guitar that we know, but they didn’t get famous enough (be it on purpose or through the right events never lining up in their favor) to really have the attention needed to be celebrated. That said, there are many out there who never quite get the wide-spread acclaim as guitarists they really deserve, despite having more than enough fame and attention as musicians and performers. These are are a few that I think should always be in a top 100, and a couple that should always be in the top 10.
(note: I’ve used Soundcloud for some song samples here, but it’s temperamental; as backup I’ve linked YouTube videos of the same song under each Soundcloud player.)
4. Mark Knopfler is always on a top 100 list, and often on a top 50 list. Anything beyond that, though, and he’s hard to find. Unless you really know your guitar players, you may not even know who he is. Let me give you a hint: “I want my MTV.” Now you’re saying, “That guy?” Yes, that guy. He has chops that rival those that always make the top of the list, and I believe that the reason he’s ranked that low so often is because he’s not a household name. First of all, I think anyone that plays electric without a pick should get bumped up 10 places, automatically. Now add in that he’s hands-down better than most (if not all) hair metal guitarists, and there is something of a debate on who is better–him or Eric Clapton . . . and I think you’ve got someone deserving of a few more nods.
3. Rivers Cuomo. Here’s my rationale. To start, the odd man-boy front man of Weezer is an incredible guitarist. The guitar work on The Blue Album is really a demonstration of a deep understanding of rock guitar, with the catchy riffs and fun solos . . . but his true talent shows in their masterpiece, Pinkerton. On The Blue Album, Cuomo established that he can play guitar well, but it was on Pinkerton that he really showed off that he was in control of his instrument. The control of the feedback is insane, the riffs and solos are raw and dirty, the utilization of micro tones fits perfectly, and its all played with the kind of precision that amateurs in Weezer-clone bands could only dream of. He did, unfortunately, pull back the complexity immensely for The Green Album, and he’s not really cranked it all the way up again since . . . but we know he can do it! The other half of my rationale is that if you’re going to ALWAYS include guys like Mick Ronson, Johnny Marr, or Tony Iommi, you should also always include Cuomo–not to mention if you include vastly inferior guitarists like Cobain every time.
2. East Bay Ray never shows up in any list of guitar greats. Well . . . I’ve seen two, actually. One was specifically for punk guitarists, and the other ranked him #216 out of 500. Yet I have seen Johnny Ramone, Billy Joe Armstrong, Joe Strummer, and a number of other punk guitarists praised for their “creativity” or ability, despite playing in a genre notorious for poor musicianship and none of them doing much more than being in well-known bands. I say this for all of those guys–their playing is generic. Nothing wrong with generic (I’m generic), but it doesn’t warrant much celebration beyond, “hey, you can play guitar,” or “hey, good song.” East Bay Ray, of the band Dead Kennedys, actually had a unique style! If you could pin down Billy Joe’s “style” and play in it, not replicating one of his famous riffs, it would be indistinguishable from many other punk players–heavy distortion, reliance on fifths and octaves, catchy riffs built out of pentatonic scales; as I said, it’s all very generic. Ray played with a dirty mix of psychedelic experimentalism, punk intensity, new wave ambiance, and surf-rock tone. This is a guy that had to have sat down and thought about what he was doing, and had to have listened to music by artists other than his contemporaries, and had to have spent endless hours on his own, playing, experimenting, and perfecting. Perhaps only Greg Ginn had that degree of uniqueness in the early existence of punk music. The biggest issue that Ray has faced has been that he had to play back seat to front man Jello Biafra’s big-ego antics all the time. Watch any video of them live and you’ll catch him to the side here and there, while the camera focuses nearly 100% on Biafra being obnoxious.
I can’t leave it at that. I want to contrast and compare, here, so I know you are ABSOLUTELY SURE of the actual skill he had/has. Get your headphones out and get comfortable:
Exhibit A-1 – The Ramones, “Blitkrieg Bop.” Pay close attention to Johnny’s playing and style, and how, despite how great of a song this is, he’s not doing much.
Exhibit A-2 – The Clash, “Death or Glory.” This is a nice step up in complexity and creativity from The Ramones, but even with the soloing at the end, it’s still basic guitar.
Exhibit A-3 – Green Day, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” I searched for a long time, and this is really the most complex song from a guitar point-of-view that Green Day has. It’s good–but not celebration-worthy.
Exhibit A-4 – Bad Religion, “Part III.” This is here because I want to make the contrast really strong. Bad Religion guitarists Brett Gurewitz, Greg Hetson, and Brian Baker are actually some of the best punk guitarists out there, and despite that, their stuff is still very basic rock. (Note: Brett wasn’t in the band at the time of this video; also, please forgive Greg Graffin-he’s a great singer but such an annoying and pretentious front man; have you noticed this thing I seem to have against front men? Weird.)
Exhibit B-1 – Dead Kennedys, “Government Flu.” And here we are. Note how much of this song is carried by the guitar playing. Note that not only does he not rely on fifths for his rhythm, but his overall sound is very unique.
Exhibit B-2 – “Police Truck.” Please forgive some of the lyrics in this one, but it’s such a great example of Ray’s stand-out style that I had to include it.
Exhibit B-3 – “Holiday in Cambodia.” And no conversation about the Dead Kennedys, let alone East Bay Ray’s awesome style, is complete without bringing up this song. I’ll let it speak for itself.
1. Claudio Sanchez and Travis Stever have probably not shown up in many lists because they haven’t been around long enough to be really noticed on a scale that would include Hendrix or Townshend or Knopfler. I think Rolling Stone’s last list of 100 guitarists was like 2002, and Coheed & Cambria was just starting out, then. I have no doubt that, given a couple more years, these two masters will become as solid main-stays of those lists as Slash and Zakk Wylde are now. This is not to mention that true rock and roll, especially heavily guitar-based rock and roll, is in something of a lull in both popularity and abundance these days, so it’s easy to overlook guys that weren’t already around in the 90’s. All four members of Coheed are mind-numbingly talented musicians (the last time I saw them live, these two drunk guys would NOT shut up about bassist Michael Todd . . . and I think it was warranted), but make no mistake that it is a guitar-driven band, and it is both of these guys that share the wheel. As any fan can tell you, there’s no better example of this than the solo-swapping they do at the end of the melt-your-face anthem, “Welcome Home.” The solo starts at 4 minutes in, but I really don’t know why you wouldn’t want to watch the whole thing . . .
Do you agree with my opinions? Tell me in the comments. Do you have your own you want to add, be they over- or under-praised? Please, share. Do you think I’m an idiot? Bring it!
EDIT, JANUARY 16, 2011
It’s not uncommon for me to write a post on a topic, and then not long after to stumble across some new (to me) information that would have been great to include in the original post. I typically let it go, because it’s not good for one to spend their life constantly going back and updating posts with every new idea. Eventually you have to learn to just let what was written be written. This is typically be the case with me, especially when I’m taking an extended break away from the blog anyway, but something happened later in the month of November 2010 that has led, now nearly 2 months after the fact, me to a place where I MUST edit the post.
I, like many people born after the late 70’s, grew up to know the band Chicago as only a group that wrote cheesy adult contemporary hits, and the group that launched the career of power ballad king Peter Cetera. My parents were big Chicago and Cetera fans, but they only ever played the 80’s Chicago stuff. I learned around 2001 by word of mouth only that 70’s Chicago was apparently really good, but never looked into it. I bought a couple random, cheap vinyls I found at a Goodwill in 2006 with that in mind, but never listened to them. It wasn’t until just a couple weeks after this post published that I was playing Rock Band 3 and saw that there was a Chicago song in the game and decided to play it . . . and I was blown away.
The song was “25 or 6 to 4”. If you don’t know it already, here it is:
Now, if you’re in that “born since the late 70’s” category like me and hear the band name “Chicago” and immediately think, “You’re the Inspiration,” that song probably just blew your mind. Now let me ask–did you also catch the guitar playing? I’ll bet you did.
That was Terry Kath, who is without a doubt the most UNDERRATED AND IGNORED GUITARIST OF ALL TIME! The mere fact that you’ve likely never heard of him should speak to that. Heck . . . I knew that “old Chicago had this guitar player who was apparently really good” around 10 years ago, but I didn’t know anything else.
After I finished playing Rock Band 3 that weekend in November, I went and checked my vinyls to see which Chicago albums I had, and lo and behold I had the album with that song on it, called simply Chicago, but is referred to today as Chicago II. (I don’t have time to explain the album chronology here, we need to focus on Kath). The more and more I listened to their early-mid 1970’s work, and the more I learned about this guy, the more I’ve fallen in love with all of it. I have been over my head in Chicago obsession since then. (Please pray for my wife–she’s powering through, God love her). It’s even hit me harder and harder this last week or so, and I am literally FORCED to say that Terry Kath is my all-time favorite guitarist. This isn’t “picking one” like I’ve done with Satriani or even Sanchez and Stever–I can’t deny it. I want to learn to play exactly like Terry Kath played. I want the artistry, the power, the speed, all of it. I’ve never felt that way after hearing and loving anything by another guitarist.
So for some reason, I thought about my post that I’m editing here, and I wondered . . . “Where did they put Kath on all those ‘best guitarists’ and ‘top guitarists’ lists I read to do my research for this post?” I went and checked them, even (especially) Rolling Stone’s 2002 “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time,” and KATH WAS NOT ON A SINGLE ONE OF THEM. Not a single one. This is a guy to whom Jimi Hendrix allegedly claimed inferiority! I’ve seen him mentioned with extreme adoration on several guitar lesson sites, but that’s it. And what that tells you is that it’s serious guitarists that know about Kath and not many others. It’s blowing my mind that this is possible . . . but it is. It’s likely due to the fact that he died at a time when Chicago’s popularity was just starting to slip, and then the band managed to press on in the wake of that tragedy and forge a new, highly successful image in the early 80’s–which then caused Kath to fade into obscurity for most of an entire generation. But he is a name to keep in your brain in the event of some know-it-all talking about the best guitarists ever and only bringing up show-offs like Yngwie Malmsteen and Kirk Hammet, and you can test if they really know anything about great guitarists, or if they just know what’s fed to them.
I’ve tried to stick with just audio clips before for this post, but you absolutely must see this guy play. Here’s a couple videos. Enjoy.
I’ll tell you what. You pick your jaw up off the floor while I post a couple more.
Skip to 3:40 if you want the solo, but the whole “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon” is just such a phenomenal piece, I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t want to watch the whole thing.
That one’s fun because I love the musicianship that band was built on in their early days. I’ll save more talk on that for when I officially return to the blog someday, though.
So there you have it. Terry Kath. My favorite guitarist, and the most unsung, overlooked, tragically forgotten, and underrated guitarist ever.