Those wacky Rolling Stone people are at it again, with yet another list of the greatest something or other. This time it’s 100 Greatest Guitarists. Unfortunately for them, this is right in my wheelhouse and I’m begging to add some juice to the discussion.
Now, this list has already generated quite a bit of controversy, as most lists do. And I’m sure it’s meant that way – after all, “greatest ever” or “top ten” lists are highly subjective. But some of the choices are truly mind-boggling, both as inclusions and exclusions.
(I feel like I should be doing one of those SNL segments, Really? With JB.
“Bruce Springsteen at #87, Rolling Stone? Really?!? He’s ahead of 13 people? I didn’t know one of the criteria was being able to strum so hard the strings pop off your Tele. Really.”)
It’s no different than a sports Hall of Fame; who gets in versus who gets snubbed. Fans can argue all day long over the choices, and some of my friends and I have already begun this process on Facebook.
For me, the biggest question is this: How do you define “greatest”, when we’re talking about guitarists? That’s a toughie, and unfortunately NOT something Rolling Stone made clear. So let’s clear it up here, shall we?
The Great Ones
The first order of business here is defining the word, “greatest”. Are we talking the skills to pay the bills, influence on other guitarists and the genre itself, sales/fame? A little of all of the above?
In Rolling Stone’s short description, they also use the term, “legendary”. Most of the people on this list are not what I would call legendary, but many of them are great, in the generic sense of “highly accomplished in some way, shape or form”. Some are not even that, from either a technique, influence or sales standpoint.
For the sake of argument, I’d take influential before the other stuff, and that often correlates (but not always) to a fairly high degree with popularity, hit songs, etc. Hard to be truly influential if only a handful of people know who you are. And if you’re a badass player, that should count for a few extra points, right?
Exhibit A: Lou Reed at #81 and J Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.) at #86…while Alex Lifeson (Rush) and Lindsey Buckingham (Fleetwood Mac) sit at 98 and 100 respectively. Really?
Lifeson and Buckingham own the other two in every conceivable way: chops, influence, sales.
Exhibit B: The list completely excludes some phenomenal, influential, world-class players like Eric Johnson, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteem, Steve Howe, Larry Carlton, Allan Holdsworth, Wes Montgomery, George Benson, Brent Mason, Albert Lee, Django Reinhardt, Danny Gatton, Paul Gilbert, Brian Setzer, Steve Morse, Tommy Emmanuel, Andy McKee, Sonny Landreth, John Petrucci, Neal Schon and Steve Lukather, yet we’ve got Jack White, Willie Nelson, Thurston Moore and Nels Cline.
I’m not saying some of these guys aren’t good, I’m just saying, let’s keep our perspective and put Yes’s guitarist on a legends list before, you know, Willie Nelson. I guarantee you Willie HIMSELF is even saying, “Really?”, in between tokes.
Again, take out the jazz and country guys and you’ve still got a handful of grave rock injustices in the above paragraph. It makes it all the more mind-boggling when you consider that actual musicians – not just members of Rolling Stone’s staff – were the voters on the list. To reiterate: Really?
For more fun on this topic, check out Guitar Squid’s, “10 Guitarists That Should Have Made Rolling Stone’s Top 100”. Don’t necessarily agree with all of these either, but it’s a fun read.
A Bad Mix
Let me go on record as saying that any musical list where you mix genres – rock versus jazz versus blues versus country, etc. – is inherently bad and akin to comparing apples and oranges. You can’t put Robert Johnson and John McLaughlin on a list with Johnny Ramone and Dimebag Darrell; there’s no real way to compare them. Too much difference in skill and style.
Same thing with electric players versus acoustic players. Tony Iommi versus Paul Simon, anyone? Impossible. To throw an additional curve ball here, it can be difficult to compare primarily solo stylists versus band members. Think Jeff Beck and George Harrison. There is no doubt that Beck could play rings around George using his toes, but c’mon – George was in The Beatles. Checkmate.
So I implore the Rolling Stone to please – please – stop mixing genres and styles, at the very least. If you want to have a side list called “Major Influences on Rock’s Greatest” and slap BB King, Les Paul, Chet Atkins, Albert King and Muddy Waters on there, fine. But it’s a mistake to have them on the same list. ‘Cause let’s be honest: this list is really about rock guitarists, with a cursory nod toward other styles and players. Otherwise how could you justify putting Neil Young ahead of Les Paul and Chet Atkins? Inconceivable.
JB’s Mount Rushmore of Guitar Legends
My personal Mount Rushmore of Guitar Legends is made up of four game changers. Everyone else comes after.
For me, these legends – three of them of the “living” variety – are folks who have forever changed the way the instrument or the music is heard and played. They have had the most profound influence on subsequent generations. In order to have this type of influence, of course, a certain amount of fame must be present as well – no obscure playas here. These are not necessarily my personal favorites or the players that I think are the best technically. Mount Rushmore is all about importance. Here goes!
1 – CHUCK BERRY
Without Chuck Berry, there is no rock and roll.
On the Rolling Stone list, he came in at #7 which is inexplicable, considering he is the granddaddy of it all. His songs and guitar style influenced entire generations; playing something “Chuck Berry-style” is like saying, “Make it sound like rock and roll.”
Quick Hits: For the famous Berry guitar intro alone he might make the list. The Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones are three early heavy-hitter examples of his influence. Listen to the solos in AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” and Van Halen’s “You Really Got Me”: pure Chuck. Guitar students to this day – 60 years later – still request “Johnny B. Goode”, even though the sound is, admittedly, pretty dated. That’s a good indicator of legendary status right there.
JB’s Desert Island Recording: “The Great Twenty-Eight”
2 – JIMI HENDRIX
He was Rolling Stone’s top pick; on the JB list, Hendrix would be #2. He forever changed the way a guitar was used and viewed. The virtuosity, the effects, the songs, the rhythm playing, the stage persona: Hendrix is an icon of rock music and of guitar, no matter the genre.
Quick Hits: The r&b-style rhythm guitar exemplified on “Wind Cries Mary” and “Little Wing” is must-know material. Hendrix’s “intergalactic blues on steroids” approach completely took the guitar world by storm back in the day, with other famous guitarists routinely going to his shows to watch in amazement. His signature song, “Purple Haze” is routinely regarded as one of the seminal tracks in rock history. Although other players have used fuzztones and wah pedals, there is no doubt that Jimi is the artist most closely associated with these effects. Play with your teeth? Check. Set your guitar on fire? Check. The most blatant example of his influence is probably Stevie Ray Vaughan, who just happened to single-handedly revive an entire genre of blues music with his 1983 debut, “Texas Flood”. SRV is not far off from Mt. Rushmore himself.
JB’s Desert Island Recordings: “Are You Experienced?”, “Axis: Bold as Love”, “Electric Ladyland”
3 – EDDIE VAN HALEN
There was rock guitar pre-EVH and rock guitar post-EVH. Once Eddie – who inexplicably sits at #8 on the list – burst on the scene in the late 70s, every other guitarist knew it was time to go back to his practice room and try a little harder (just read any interview with Journey’s Neal Schon or Toto’s Steve Lukather where the Van Halen topic comes up).
Quick Hits: He not only played faster and more acrobatically than anyone else, he practically invented new sounds and techniques with every new album. He built his own iconic guitar. His signature sound had its own name – the “brown sound”. Although tapping was around before him, it was so obscure that, for all intents and purposes, we should just go ahead and credit EVH with inventing the entire technique. Virtually every rock guitarist post-EVH not only had to learn to tap, but to use the whammy bar. He put the Floyd Rose locking tremolo system on the map. For all of Eddie’s lead guitar virtuosity, he could easily go down in history as the grooviest rock rhythm player who ever lived. Oh, and “Eruption” was recorded when he was, like, 20.
JB’s Desert Island Recordings: “Van Halen”, “Van Halen II”, “Women and Children First”, “Fair Warning”, “Diver Down”, “1984”
4 – THE EDGE
This might surprise some people, but IMHO, no guitarist has had as big an impact on the sound of the modern pop/rock band or the concept of creating song/guitar hooks – without which the song would not exist – as U2’s The Edge. Certainly not a guitar virtuoso in the traditional lead guitar sense, Edge’s influence on the whole “sonic landscape” approach is felt far and wide nonetheless. Evidently Rolling Stone does not agree with me, seeing as how Edge resides at #38, behind such guitar giants as Curtis Mayfield, Mick Taylor, and Elmore James, who was famous for exactly ONE slide guitar lick.
Quick Hits: Edge practically invented the concept of using echo as an integral part of his sound. His signature sound – a wicked combination of chiming double stops, muted “scratch” rhythm parts, chorused arpeggios, power chords, harmonics, and the aforementioned echoes – is unique and immediately recognizable. Guitarist and primary songwriter of one of the greatest rock bands in history. Edge’s sound is the sound of U2 (along with Bono’s voice); his layered guitars were the driving force behind U2’s full-blown transition from their early, classic sound to a more modern, experimental one (beginning with “Achtung Baby”).
JB’s Desert Island Recordings: “The Unforgettable Fire”, “The Joshua Tree”, “Achtung Baby”
It’s Your Turn
Now that you’ve read my take on this topic, what do you think? How do YOU define “greatness” in a musician? Who would be on YOUR Mount Rushmore of Guitar Greatness? Comment away!
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