Yes, yes, children. It is time for that most anticipated and yet largely unloved thing – the “favorite guitarist” list. Now before you dive in and say, “How the fuck could you leave Alex Lifeson (or Eddie Van Halen, Dimebag Darrell, Yngvie Malmsteen, etc.) off the list? know this:
This is a subjective list of my own favorite guitarists, not an objective list of “these guys are the best ever.” Although I enjoy reading those lists, who really can say and what are those criteria anyway? Most innovative? Most influential? Sweetest tone?
How my list may differ from yours is that I have been playing guitar for a long time and these are the guys who I not only have enjoyed listening to most but who I have also ripped off, er, lovingly paid tribute to the most. It’s also heavily freighted towards blues players. If there had never been a genre called blues, I would probably never have taken up the guitar. I’m less about the flash, more about the feel. Period. Full stop.
They’re all guys. Alas, while I enjoy players like Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchell and Nancy Wilson, I just haven’t gotten enough inspiration – that’s the word – from them to honestly list them. That’s changing with more female guitarists like Samantha Fish and Ana Popovic.
I was originally going to list these randomly but then I thought, fuck it. Take a stand. Despite the fact that every list you see starts by putting Hendrix #1 and saying “Ok, let’s see who’s left,” that doesn’t do it for me. Most influential rock player ever? Sure. One of my favorites? Beyond any shadow of a doubt. My favorite? Nope.
Here we go. There is, of course, a Spotify list but I added in a few tunes randomly along the way. Even if you don’t agree with my choices, I think you’ll find it to be an hour and a half well spent. And at the very least, listen to perhaps the greatest segue in the history of playlists after “Every Day I Have the Blues.”
20 – Leo Kottke – I wanted to have at least one great acoustic player on here and Kottke is not only that but I have also seen him live and (sort of) half-learned some of his stuff. Here is the beautiful “Three Quarter North.”
19 – Buddy Guy – One of the last of the great generation of Southern bluesmen. Still going strong at 82 years of age and we last saw him a couple years back. “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues,” will give you a taste of his singing and playing style that influenced Clapton and everybody.
18 – Peter Green. He first replaced (temporarily) Eric Clapton in Mayall’s Bluesbreakers then founded the mighty, mighty Fleetwood Mac, at the time a straight-up Chicago-style blues band. BB King said, “He has the sweetest tone I ever heard; he was the only one who gave me the cold sweats.” Here on “Drifting,” you get some hot smokin’ angry blues.
17. Prince. In addition to all the other shit he could do, just a killer, killer guitarist. I’ll be doing a Prince six-pack soon so watch for more on this dude. The solo on “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” is one of my absolute favorites of his. He has the ballsy audacity to just play a straight scale in the middle of his solo. Love it.
16. Mark Knopfler – Dire Straits showed up on US shores in 1978 with a unique style and sound. Doesn’t use a pick (pretty rare in electric guitarists) and gets a sweet, country-influenced tone. Signature tune – “Down to the Waterline.”
15. Steve Howe – Yes is my favorite prog-rock band and Howe my favorite guitarist of that genre. He can play it all from fast, jazzy riffs to classical tunes to outer space music. From The Yes Album is the “Starship Trooper” suite. I especially dig his take on the final piece, “Würm” where he effectively trades licks with himself.
14. Frank Zappa – So good that he has three albums called “Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar.” Incredible tone, jazzy playing. Bluesy when he wanted to be but generally speaking, not so much. Frank did some straight-up, no comedy, fusion-oriented stuff. He gets going about halfway through “Eat That Question,” from 1972s The Grand Wazoo.
13. Robin Trower – Trower was the guitarist in Procol Harum where until about 1970 or so his talents were largely wasted. He broke out in the Seventies and was – with his Hendrix-inspired sound – one of the key blues-rock players. I saw him a few years back and he sounds as good as ever. From his classic Bridge of Sighs album, I offer “Little Bit of Sympathy.”
12 – Dickey Betts – There were (and are) guitar duos and guitar duos but I will tell you that there has never been a better one than Duane and Dickey. But Dickey stands on his own and even Duane would say “I’m the famous one, Dickey’s the good one.” Here’s a tune, “Pegasus” that you may not know from a late 70’s reformation of the band including second guitarist. the late Dan Toler.
11 – Ritchie Blackmore – I was unaware of him until Deep Purple but well aware of him after that. A classically trained guitarist, he didn’t wing his solos but rather worked them out in advance. He claims the solo to “Highway Star” was Bach-inspired. I’ll take his word for it.
10. – Brian May. Is this guy great or what? I learned his first solo in “Bohemian Rhapsody” and it is totally unique, totally unlike anything any of these other guys would play. But I also dig his playing in “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” which is straight-up rockabilly.
9. B.B. King – BB. Fuck. The Man. The guy all of these guys learned something from. I called up my friend Bill one day and told him that I think B.B was the quintessential bluesman. He agreed wholeheartedly. That tone, that vibrato. From the classic Live at the Regal, “Every Day I Have the Blues.”
8 Stevie Ray Vaughan – In the early ’80s, just when we thought blues was fading away as a popular mainstream genre, SRV blasts out of the gate, seemingly out of nowhere to remind us how it’s done. “Cold Shot” is a super cool tune.
7. David Gilmour – Gilmour has gone way, way up in my estimation the more I play guitar. I’ve learned his “Another Brick” and “Time” solos and can “Comfortably Numb” be far behind? The master of tone, taste and melodic invention. “Numb,” of course, is from The Wall. The lyrics “were inspired by Waters’s experience of being injected with tranquilizers for stomach cramps before a Pink Floyd show in Philadelphia.” (Was it the cramps or Philadelphia that caused him grief one wonders – ME).
6. Jimi Hendrix – Does anybody need me to explain? He took blues, R&B, and dreamy psychedelia and spun it all on its head. Unquestionably the most influential electric guitarist who ever lived. “Little Wing” is a beautiful tune, covered by everybody.
5. Jimmy Page – I just can’t get enough of Pagey’s playing. I can’t. Much of it was blues-based but later on, quite a bit of it wasn’t. Always tasty, always lyrical. I didn’t post “Lemon Song” as part of my Zep-o-stravaganza. Now I will. “Squeeze my lemons, till we get lemonade.”
4. Carlos Santana – Boy, I love Carlos. I’m actually taking an online video “Master Class” from him. How many notes to you have to hear from him to know it’s him playing? Carlos rips it up on “Jingo” from the first album, setting the blueprint.
3. Jeff Beck – I don’t know of any rock player on this list or elsewhere who has dabbled in so many genres. Neither of his direct Yardbirds peers – Clapton or Page – came anywhere near doing jazz like Beck did. Not even close. From his follow-up to Blow By Blow, Wired, I give you “Head for Backstage Pass.”
2. Eric Clapton – EC didn’t invent electric blues guitar playing but he might as well have. You can divide electric blues playing to before and after the Blues Breakers “Beano” album. His health has been dodgy lately but he can still play rings around most other blues players. From 1981’s Another Ticket is the nasty done-him-wrong tune, “Rita Mae.”
1. Duane Allman – Along with Jimmy Page, the only other studio musician on this list who escaped that environment. But playing with people like Aretha and Wilson Pickett honed his sharp R&B skills and growing up in Tennessee and Florida provided a rich blues environment. I know of few other players who had his tone and could play with his charging, exciting, passionate fluidity. Eric says that Duane’s solo on “Hey Jude” was the greatest rock playing he’d heard on an R&B song. But I’m going with Boz Scagg’s masterful “Loan Me a Dime.”
Feel free to advise me of exactly where I got this wrong. 🙂