Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Who's the Greatest Guitarist of All Time?


It happened that about a dozen years ago or more I was asked to settle a dispute between two co-workers. One claimed Eddie Van Halen should get the nod, the other placed Hendrix on that ultimate pedestal. It was up to me to choose the tie-breaking vote. It wasn't really that hard for me. I first made my case for Eric Clapton. But ultimately, for innovation, influence and mastery, well Hendrix really was one of a kind.

It's the kind of debate that has gone on in every field of endeavor no doubt. Who is the greatest boxer? Who was the most influential writer? Who is the most talented magician? What is the best jazz album of all time?

These kinds of debates are probably fairly meaningless in one sense. What I have to think of say about it doesn't influence much of anything. But when a magazine like Rolling Stone weighs in... well, it may not settle the debate for some people but it does reveal how many talented rock and roll guitarists there have been out there. And if nothing else, it gives the publication a chance to sell a lot of magazines. If you're into rock 'n roll guitar, the December 8, 2011 Rolling Stone just might be the ticket.

Before going any further I should note that the electric guitar and the guitar are two different animals. The wonderfulness of a guitar used to be that you could take it anywhere. You could bring it to a remote village or a family reunion or to the beach for a serenade. You can lead choruses or make solitary revelry anywhere in the world with nothing more than a guitar.

Rock and roll music as we know it requires amps and electricity and sound systems. When Dylan was in Duluth in 1998, the team running the sound system was on the floor of the DECC in the midst of parallel 100 foot longs tables covered with dials and wires and assorted equipment designed to control volume, pitch, yaw and all the rest. This kind of music is not something you bring to a mountaintop except on your iPod.

The Rolling Stone special edition is fun because most of the writers are themselves guitarists or rock musicians. The Eric Clapton profile is written by Eddie Van Halen. The George Harrison piece is penned by Tom Petty. Keith Richards writes about Chuck Berry and Nils Lofgren of the E Street Band writes about Richards. It just adds a dimension that you won't find in most other places.

So let's cut to the chase.

Rolling Stone pretty much settled that one debate between my co-workers by placing their selection for numero uno on the cover. There was only one Hendrix. I still remember the incredible sounds that his three-man band produced on their first album, Are You Experienced? As Tom Morello writes, "He manipulated the guitar, the whammy bar, the studio and the stage." Where he came from and how he accomplished the things he achieved are a book length story. Suffice it to say, few would argue with placing him first and foremost in this list.

I won't be listing all one hundred here, but we really do need to comment on a few of them. Eric Clapton did rock the world with his guitar. Van Halen writes, "Eric Clapton is basically the only guitar player who influenced me – even though I don't sound like him. There was a basic simplicity to his playing, his style, his vibe and his sound. He took a Gibson guitar and plugged it into a Marshall, and that was it. The basics. The blues. His solos were melodic and memorable – and that's what guitar solos should be, part of the song. I could hum them to you."

I myself had all the Cream albums. The live jams on side three of Wheels of Fire never ceases to satisfy.

Number three on the list is Jimmy Page. I remember being in Scott Homan's basement when we heard the first Led Zeppelin album with songs like Dazed and Confused. Page, whose roots had been with the Yardbirds, lived the rock and roll dream and has survived to tell about it. Joe Perry writes, "He had this vision of how to transcend the stereotypes of what the guitar can do... He was writing the songs, playing them, producing them – I can't think of any other guitar player since Les Paul that can claim that."

Times of have changed in the music scene, but rock and roll is intimately woven into the Sixties. Much like the atmosphere that sustains life on earth, it nourished imaginations, and comforted a lot of souls during a time of great upheaval.

Time will not permit more than mentions of the rest of the top ten, as selected by Rolling Stone. There is Keith Richards of the Stones weighing in at #4, Jeff Beck #5, B.B. King at #6, Chuck Berry #7, Eddie Van Halen #8, Duane Allman next, and rounding out the top ten is the irrepressibly intense Pete Townshend of The Who.

One of the names on this list (#92) is Dimebag Darrell, who was shot to death while performing in Columbus in 2004. I mention this only because it's proof that going on stage really can be hazardous to your health. Fame isn't the only killer of rock stars.

Much more can be told here, but... I'm on a deadline. If you're favorites are not here, check out the full Greatest Guitarists list at Rolling Stone.

Photos at top of page by Andrew Perfetti

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