Listening to music, whether it’s live or on record, download or streamed, is an essential part of my life. If I’m writing, or painting there’s music on somewhere, blocking out other sounds, or driving me on. Guitar music, of almost any sort, is my first choice because it’s such a varied instrument, and I play. I’m always listening out for something new, something different but inevitably there are some tracks and artists that continue to live with me .
Choosing the best guitarists has been a joy. And a challenge. Restricting it to a top 10 has helped, curiously, because there are so many good guitarists it becomes impossible to decide if the 17th would be better than the 18th, or any other random number in, say, a top 50.
So, I had a few factors:
- Guitarists who were more than interpreters, but creators and arrangers.
- Variety of tone and power. Some of the artists who didn’t quite make it into the top 10, for me, are brilliant speed merchants, but that’s just not enough.
- The playing comes from the heart, is evocative of people and places, that reeks of dreams and doleful nights.
- They also have to be good live. In fact, the truly great guitarists are a revelation when you see them live, playing with other great musicians. Often the recording process is so stultifying it can destroy the very thing it’s trying to capture.
In the past I’ve caught myself saying that I don’t like the blues. Looking at the list below that’s clearly not true. I suppose I just don’t like it played badly, or lazily and much recorded material is poor. By contrast, I’ve seen some incredible local bands in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles that need to be heard by a wider audience offered by a recording contract, but never will be.
Anyway, enough rambling, here is the countdown to the top 10 Guitarists.
The driving force of the original Fleetwood Mac (“Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac”) he played with B. B. King, Peter Bardens, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and several later sessions, including Peter Gabriel‘s Up. It’s possible I’ve put Green in for sentimental reasons: he disappeared for a long time, and on his return as a recovering addict he was half the guitarist he used to be. In the mid to late 60s he was confident, natural, feel guitarist; not flashy, but evocative and powerful, soulful and gut-wrenching. Some of his best work is on the featured album 1968’s Fleetwood Mac.
The thing about Mr Hackett is that he’s not showy. He invented shredding (oh yes he did, acknowledged by Eddie van Halen) but his appeal lies in the incredible breadth of his work, from early Genesis albums to over 30 solo albums that range from classical music to hard rock, to middle-eastern and spanish, east-european folk to sustain-focused lead work. Albums that show his range include Spectral Mornings from 1979, the more recent Out of the Tunnel’s Mouth (2009) and the most astonishing success of his reworking of early 1970s Genesis, 2012’s Genesis Revisited II.
Juan Martin’s flamenco is lively and good-hearted, his passionate lines are carefully controlled. When I was younger, he was a brilliant foil to ferocious intensity of Paco de Lucia, and I worked through his Flamenco instruction book (that took a few years!). He is a brilliant educator, clear and crisp and amongst the many album that live with me is the simply named Solo album.
As I said at the top of this post, I’m not a great fan of the blues and much of Stevie Ray Vaughan‘s recorded material is dull and flat, but live he was a different creature. Wild and febrile he used 13s on his guitar (for a big fat sound) and often played so hard his fingers bled at the end of a gig. Texas Flood is probably his best record, but the tech rehearsal below is electrifying.
Porcupine Tree, No Man, Blackfield, solo albums and extensive work as a producer and remixer, Steven Wilson is an astonishing, eclectic musician, and playing the guitar is only a part of his musical vocabulary. He’s perfectly at home playing restrained, intricate acoustic, and some powerful electric guitar: at 5.10 on the video (Drive Home) below the solo is riveting.
Influenced by Jazz as much as rock and the blues Santana is another great guitarist who emerged in the crucible of the late 1960s. He cooked a heady brew of exuberant salsa, jazz and blues at a time when rock music and album sales were taking over from perfectly formed but ultimately limited trajectory of the 45. Carlos made his own spiritual journey and created some fine collaborative guitar work. One of his best albums is Supernatural
with Eric Clapton, live
One of a number of incredible guitarists that were nurtured through the Yardbirds school (Clapton, Page, Green) Beck eventually turned away from the commercial and cleaved to a more technical career. Beck enjoyed monumental success as The Jeff Beck Group (with Rod Stewart in tow, sounding like Robert Plant before Robert Plant sounded like his famous self), with Beck’s Bolero ( Keith Moon on Drums, John Paul Jones on Bass and Jimmy Page on 12 sting) and on 1968’s Truth, Freeway Jam. Also noteworthy is the entire album from 1975, Blow by Blow which confirmed his instrumental prowess.
What can you say about Jimmy Page? From Kashmir to Whole Lotta Love Page reached the height of his powers during the series of albums that defined the hard rock sound from the 1970s on. Rooted in the blues Page experimented with a much wider palette of sounds, chords and harmonies, producing and creating a series of ground-breaking albums with three engaging, muscular musicians, John Paul Jones, Robert Plant and the mighty John Bonham. As with all truly great guitarists Page competed with the talents of his companions and created some of the best rock guitar songs ever.
As a session musician he had played on hundreds of singles (The Kinks, The Who, The Rolling Stones and, er, Val Doonican), learning his craft before reaching out on his own and conquering the world in the early seventies with the drug-fuelled, talent dripping best rock band in the world, Led Zeppelin. Oh, and there’s a reason why every guitar shop in the world still rings with the irritating sound of badly plucked, Stairway to Heaven: it’s a brilliant, cascading, dynamic song.
Widely regarded as the best electric guitarist ever, by fans and professionals alike, he exploded onto the London scene in the mid sixties after years of playing the US blues circuit. A parade of grade A guitarists saw him when he first played at the Marquee club, fresh from America, later on he burned Eric Clapton off the stage, and left Jimmy Page, Jeff Becks and Pete Townsend, three of the best and most successful guitarist of their generation, open mouthed with admiration. His playing went beyond exuberance, he was a force of nature, his instinctive left handed, upside down Fender Strat was a weapon of music and every live performance was an exposure to sheer musical energy.
Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced and Electric Ladyland are the the best albums, but Youtube is alive with incredible gigs.
For me, Paco will always be number one. He took a tradition that was ring-fenced in its region of Andalucia and hauled it out to the world stage, devoured influences of jazz and latin rhythms. He brought the complex riffs, the exhilarating energy, the soft and fluid lines of traditional flamenco and showed he world how it could battle with the best. His tours with John McLaughlan and Al Di Meola were a triumph of modesty and talent and for a while they ruled the world. Paco suffered the patronizing slights of lesser technicians in the classical world, and the luddite mentality of traditionalists but he brought his love of the flamenco, his skill and his passion to a grateful world. The featured album is Entre Dos Aguas
Any of these could have hit the lower reaches of the top 10 and I feel bad for Eric Clapton and Pete Townsend who, in their distinctive ways, are titans of the guitar. But the talents of many others are undeniable:
Duane Allman, Eric Clapton (Cream era), Mick Ronson, John Lee Hooker, Dave Gilmour (Comfortably Numb), Eric Johnson, Brian May (Bohemian Rhapsody), Ed O’Brien (for Kid A), Matt Bellamy, Jack White, Dave Davies (You Really Got Me), Martin Pugh (for Buzzard), Bonnie Raitt (slide!) , Joe Walsh.
There are hundreds of other good guitarists of course, and in any other top 10 list you might find find some of these fine musicians: Trey Anastasio, Ritchie Blackmore, Eric Clapton, Kurt Cobain, Steve Cropper, The Edge, Lita Ford, Robert Fripp, John Frusciante, Pepe Habichuela, Karl Hammett, Mark Knopfler, Steve Lukather, Al di Meola, John McLaughlan, Ramon Montoya, Scotty Moore, Tom Morello, Joni Mitchell, Gerardo Nunez, Orianthi (played with Michael Jackson and Santana), Prince, Kieth Richard (on record at least), Carl Perkins, Joe Perry, Nino Ricardo, Robbie Robertson (subtle and more interesting than you might think), Pepe Romero, Joe Satriani, Slash, Richard Thomson, Tomatito, Pete Townshend, Steve Vai, Nancy Wilson.
Just to finish
Three brilliant performances:
From Gary Moore, a terrific version of Parisienne Walkway.
When Eric met Jimi, and blew him offstage
And a live flamenco performance by Gerado Nunez.
If this has piqued your interest, here’s a post on the late Paco De Lucia.
Back to movies, fiction and art next week…