Christian’s Top Ten: Guitar Players

my second foray into the blogosphere…to re-iterate, if you didn’t see my last list these picks are personal and subjective, although i also happen to be right. please send in your comments and your “i can’t believe u didn’t pick ???” and your “what the f’s” along as well so i can destroy them. in all seriousness though i had fun coming up with this list and it got me listening to some great music that i haven’t heard in a long time.

here are my “top ten guitarists”:

1. jimmy page

jimmy page

a legend, an icon, a musical god…what more can be said about james patrick page. as the founder and lead architect of the greatest band of all time, jimmy has cemented his place in history. generations decades from now will still be listening to his music and will continue to be just as gobsmacked as i was when i heard my first led zep track. a friend of mine said a long time ago: “the rolling stones are my favourite band, but if i had to genetically create the ultimate rock band it would be led zeppelin”. i know what he meant. each member of that band defined their respective roles and instruments for the hordes of bands to follow. the man who harnessed all that energy and laid out the blueprint for all this to happen was page.

as a young man cutting his teeth in the london session scene page performed on tracks for the who, the kinks, and donovan. in fact one of my favourite jimmy moments isn’t even a part of zep’s canon, it’s the first three notes he plays in joe cocker’s version of “with a little help from my friends”. he hangs onto to those notes like his life depended on it which truly showcases his incredible feel and passion for the instrument. jimmy had it all — smoking chops, amazing tones, a veritable riff machine, he was badass cool, wore great clothes, the dude even had better hair than everybody else. on the short list for the “greatest rock star of all time” title (yet again, another list), pagey was also a really debaucherous fellow which is how i like my rockstars. ahhh the stories he could tell. anyway i chose jimmy for the number one spot because i cant think of anybody else that fits all of my “personal criteria” whereas jimmy nails it. one aspect of page’s immense talent that seems to be undervalued is his revolutionary production chops. listen to any album recorded in the 60’s then put on zep 1. no comparison, sonically nothing had sounded like that before, nothing.

like i said the guy had it all (just stay away from the mid-late 70’s bootleg stuff, not good. let’s just he had some issues with drugs at the time). jimmy, like beethoven, is a genius and his music will be around for as long. i’ll bet some of you thought that another “jimi” would be in this spot. sorry.

essential listening: really?

2. jeff beck

jeff beck

tone maestro beck is truly one of the pioneers of the rock n’ roll guitar. from his early days in the yardbirds to the hard rocking jeff beck group with rod stewart, his jazz/funk solo stuff in the early- to mid-70’s, to his stuff from the past two decades which has embraced techno and electronica, beck is as diverse as they come. the one constant through all of this was beck’s unbelievably gorgeous tone which was generated through his finger plunking style and the lack of a pick.

one of the “big three” to have played in the yardbirds (the other two being page & clapton — imagine the odds of that ever happening again), beck still has the fire in his playing that the other two seem to have lost. in fact, beck’s fairly recent “live at ronnie scotts” album is some of his heaviest playing to date.

at his recent induction into the rock and roll hall of fame his pal jimmy page said of beck: “i don’t understand, after all these years jeff keeps getting better”. quite a statement considering his career spans five decades!

for me beck’s most vital era was the 70’s triumvirate of blow by blow, wired and  the there and back albums. i consider these albums as do many to be 3 of the finest examples of jazz/fusion ever recorded.

jeff beck — the guitar player’s guitar player.

essential listening: see above

3. john mclaughlin

john mclaughlin

mclaughlin is the spiritual guru of the guitar world. why he even gave himself the moniker “mahavishnu” and to be honest when he did play it sounded like he was performing for the heavens. a brilliant technician with just the right amount of rawness to bring it on home. technique without an element of losin it is empty but to see someone with immense talent like john’s play on the edge is a sight and sound to behold.

the mahavishnu orchestra in the 70’s was an awesome beast, capable of playing almost anything in any time signature at any speed. they remind me a bit of zeppelin but with way more chops and they weren’t shy about showing those chops off either. they are a spectacle to see (via youtube) as i never had the pleasure of seeing them live but they are definitely one of my future time machine bands. set the dial for 1973, i’m off.

a master of dynamics and subtlety as well screeching feedback and strident biting fuzz tones, john’s playing at times could be a cacophony of noise. a din to challenge the most eclectic of ears, but he could in an instant transform into the gentlest of players, pulling out of his signature double neck the most beautiful, pastoral textures and tones that could bring the most savage of souls back down to a sublime state of bliss. in john’s own words: “it’s all about the love”, indeed!

essential listening: visions of the emerald beyond, birds of fire, 1st album (the mahavishnu orchestra)

4. steve vai

steve vai

steve vai was a prodigy in every sense of the word, so much so that he was hired by no less than frank zappa at the tender age of 16 as a transcriber. he was soon elevated to full band status and he became an instant star. burning his way through some of the most brutal charts ever produced for a musician, vai, still a teenager, was “the man”.

post-zappa, stevie ventured into a solo stint which included his debut album, the aptly name flexible. vai was then offered the axe slinger job for david lee roth’s new band which of course brought along international acclaim.

a guitar hero’s guitar hero, vai’s dedication and natural ability made him one of the slickest and most technically brilliant players on the planet. this, along with a penchant for big rockstar posturing and fashions, made him one of the most entertaining players to watch. i remember reading about a gig he did with the tokyo symphony a few years ago. apparently word on the street was that the piece he was faced with was so complex it was considered “un-playable”. vai of course proved it was indeed playable — perhaps they should have said un-playable for everybody but “little stevie vai”!

i had the pleasure of watching vai play on the g3 tour from side stage in holland a few years ago and i have to say i just laughed my ass off for the entire set. what else can you do but laugh when you see that kind of ridiculous talent?

essential listening: passion and warfare (steve vai), eat ’em and smile (david lee roth)

5. allan holdsworth

allan holdsworth

like vai, holdsworth was a technical wizard, but without the rockstar packaging. a shy, meek individual, holdsworth was all about the music. i remember when i first heard his playing on his 1982  i.o.u. album, i listened to it  because i really liked the drummer (gary husband) a lot! the music itself was far too dense, too obtuse for me to enjoy. that being said, i kept coming back and it wasn’t just about the over-the-top drummer. there was something i wasn’t getting.

i soon realized that this was some of the most beautiful music i had ever heard. holdsworth’s playing was so over my head that i had to seriously focus on what was unfolding before my ears. over time as i listened, more was revealed and soon my confusion had melted away and i got it. it was well worth the time.

the early 70’s was spent with outfits such as psychedelic jazz monsters the soft machine, super drummer tony williams’ lifetime project, prog supergroup U.K., and violin legend jean luc ponty. although holdsworth shined in all these projects it was his solo work in the late 70’s and early 80’s that showcased his incredible mastery of the guitar. bizarrely technical, with incredible speed and finesse, holdsworth really created his own musical world. it is a world that is difficult to enter and certainly not for everybody, but i would highly recommend grabbing a bottle of extra-strength tylenol and diving right in.

essential listening: i.o.u., road games (all holdsworth), U.K.’s debut album (U.K.)

6. edward van halen

eddie van halen

when i was rebellious young punk back in high school, a friend and i skipped class one day and went over to his house to drink beer, smoke pot and listen to music. his older sister had this portable turntable that we dragged out of her room down to the basement so we could flip some discs. there was an album already on the player and even though we had never heard of the band before we decided to give it a chance. the record spun away and we were playing caps or something, not really paying much attention to the music we were hearing. those automatic turntables would of course replay the record side when it finished and by the time it had finished it’s second revolution we looked at each other and said “who the hell was that!” we ran up to his sister’s room grabbed the album cover and stared at it awestruck.

the album i am talking about was of course van halen’s triumphant debut. we had never heard guitar playing like that before, ever!

i mentioned in my last top ten neil peart’s impact on the drumming community, ya know with the ice pick in the forehead etc etc. well eddie had the same effect and not just on the guitar world but the “rock” (punkers hated him) music community as a whole. rock music changed after van halen showed up and eddie’s dazzling, virtuosic playing spawned an entire generation of shredders and wannabes that continued pretty much until kurt cobain showed up and shut them all down. being the originator of that sound and style, eddie survived the grunge epidemic and the band was still a huge concert draw in the 90’s due mainly to the fact that eddie was also a 24/7 riff machine that pounded out hit after hit.

back to the kurt cobain effect for a moment, it was time for the “razzle dazzle” look-at-me guitar solo thing to end, for a while at least. it had run it’s course and was flat-out boring in my opinion, but when eddie first appeared on the scene it was like a “six string supernova” went off!

essential listening: van halen 1, 2 and 1984 (van halen)

7. johnny marr

johnny marr

i had to put at least one anti-guitar hero on this list, in fact i have two. the first is johnny marr, a sonic architect whose playing and brilliant fuzz tone and echoplex work on the smiths haunting “how soon is now” alone would have guaranteed him a spot on this list. one of my favourite guitar tracks ever. a broody, sonic tour-de-force that was definitely one of the 80’s finest musical moments.

the fact that marr played 2, count em 2 solos in his entire career with the smiths and he can crack this list is a testament to his less-is-more approach and the importance of serving the song. all the while still establishing himself as the most influential british guitar player of the 80’s. as marr himself said it’s about “the right note in the right place” but i prefer noel gallagher’s quote: “johnny marr is a fuckin wizard”. hard to top that so nuff said.

essential listening: meat is murder, the queen is dead (the smiths)

8. frank zappa

frank zappa

there was about a two-year period in the 80’s where i listened to almost nothing but frank zappa’s music. i am being completely serious here. his catalogue is so deep that one could literally spend years listening to frank’s music and not grasp the full scope of his work.

although known to many for his sardonic, satirical lyrics, zappa kind of used this as a ruse to get people to listen to his “music” and to a slightly lesser extent his guitar playing. this is the man after all that created the unholy guitar trinity shut up ‘n play yer guitar followed by shut up ‘n play yer guitar some more and finishing up with son of shut up ‘n play yer guitar. i have to hand it to anybody that could make it through these three albums as their complexity, strident tones and baffling arrangements is almost too much to bear in one sit-down.

zappa’s style was definitely a challenge not only for him as a player but for the listener as well. yet, like holdsworth and mclaughlin, his stuff does open up after repeated listenings and it reveals an incredible range of feel and emotions. from soul moving tenderness to blunt crudity and everything in between, zappa had the technical ability, but more importantly the creativity, to deliver whatever he was feeling on a whim.

if holdsworth created his own musical world, zappa created a universe unto himself. a true and utter genius that constantly tested his legion of followers. he is sadly missed.

essential listening: get the catalogue (68 albums i think)

9. bob mould

bob mould

some may say what the hell is this guy doing on a guitar players top ten list and my answer would be “excuse me, one of the most influential guitar players of all time, you missed out sucka”. the second of my anti-guitar heroes, bob mould is an extremely loud ferocious player and a very talented yet underrated songwriter as well. there would have been no nirvanas, chili peppers, pixies, pearl jams, green days, etc without the massive impact that husker du had over that generation’s formative years. it’s a real shame that the band never got their due, and although they still have cult-like status they never attained the success that so many of their “proteges” have enjoyed.

although a fantastic unit, the lynchpin behind huskers power was mould’s wall of guitar sound and his frenetic muscular playing. the band sadly broke up due to drug and personal problems but their legacy is untouched. as a solo artist he has really embraced a wide range of writing and playing styles, from acoustic to electronica to a full-fledged dance project, but to me his greatest post-husker project has to be sugar’s “copper blue” album. a brilliant collection of solid punch in the face pop ditties that are still on pretty frequent rotation over at my place. bob mould a.k.a. “loudbomb” rules!

essential listening: zen arcade (husker du), copper blue (sugar)

10. robert fripp

robert fripp

one of the most bizarre and brilliant characters to ever step onto a stage. king crimson was one of the greatest “art rock” bands of all time and robert fripp was its founder and fearless leader. a very bold brash player that i believe owns the nastiest distortion sound ever recorded, on crimson’s “larks tongues in aspic”. like zappa, fripp continued to challenge the faithful, throwing curveball after curveball with each successive release. every album was a different animal and usually with a different line-up of musicians as well (i don’t think he was easy to work with/for). the only constant in the band was fripp.

as i mentioned earlier in this post i had the joy of watching the g3 show of which robert was also in the line-up. it went in this order: the steve vai band, robert fripp, followed by some satriani guy. after vai’s blistering over-the-top shit kicking rockstar set, robert calmly walked out onto the stage, pulled up a stool and quietly took a seat and began sawing away on whole notes. he was up there drawing out these lilting, fluffy little textures out of his more than ample pedal board. it was as if he said to himself “i can’t compete with that last lot so what’s the farthest thing away from that i can do?” there were 8,000 beer-soaked, super rowdy dutch rock fans in attendance and there was a collective “what the f#*k” across their faces — and not only theirs, as we of the side stage v.i.p. status were also very perplexed. anyway this long drony soundscape experiment actually became quite hypnotic and it ended about 45 minutes later to a rousing ovation as robert stood in the shadows at the back of the stage knowing he had conquered once again.

his work with brian eno and david bowie is also fantastic stuff. he introduced his tape looped “frippertronics” with eno and his gentle touch on bowie’s “space oddity” and “heroes” is pure splendour.

one of the great “artists” of our time.

essential listening: debut album, red, discipline (king crimson)

honorable mentions:

jimi hendrix, keith richards, steve howe (for schtookoff), joe perry, steve hackett, pete townshend, the underrated ian crighton, david gilmour, paco de lucia, angus young, mick taylor, slash

next up:

greatest “rockstars” ever!

3 responses to “Christian’s Top Ten: Guitar Players

  • John Mamajek

    What about Randy Rhodes…Vai and not Rhodes???? Really??????

  • Nick Spence

    I’ve always maintained that every 15 year old should (and usually does) undergo a Zep phase of life. It usually coincides with a marijuana phase of life, which is good. Its during this time that “When the Levy Breaks” couldn’t be one note shorter or more profound.

    Only a lucky few of us have never left that Zep phase, eh Christian?

    • Christian Simpson

      I have had a few people mention Randy Rhoads and in response I think he is closer to Van Halen than Vai. I couldn’t put both on the list as they are very similar in style but that being said it was still a no brainer for me, Rhoads career was sadly too short and Eddie did hit the scene first and has been going for over 30 yrs. Nuff said.

      As far as outgrowing a Zep phase, although there were times (like the 80’s) were I didn’t listen to them much at all I guess I never did grow out of it. Although thats almost like saying ” i used to like Beethoven and the Beatles but now I don’t”. It’s timeless music, there for life.

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