Friday, 6 July 2012

My personal top 10 guitarists...

... why and their best work - in my humble opinion.

I was on the train yesterday and thought I'd set myself the challenge of naming my personal top 10 guitarists, why I feel that and what I consider to be their best work.  Now limiting it to the top 10 wasn't easy, but here goes in no particular order...

Steve Rothery

No mystery that I'm a Marillion fan, have been for decades ever since Script for a Jester's Tear came out in the early 80s.  Now whilst many will only recall those heady Fish fronted Top of the Pops days for the band with Kayliegh and other big hits actually I grew to more like them with Steve Hogarth (H) on vocals from the late 80s onwards.  Steve has to be in my top 10 simply due to his incredible ear for melody.  His solos are stunning, Easter is again in my little opinion the best guitar solo ever!  Huge statement but simply that song builds from this little 12 string acoustic intro to the immense soaring solo where every note is just so apt for the song, the feel, everything.  Some of his work on Marbles as well is other worldy - there is a gap in Neverland just before he hits the first note of the solo where you hinge on the edge of emotion and as he nails that bend you just are lifted up.  Best work - wow!  Now to limit to a track or album is hard - I'd have to still say Season's End the first with H.

Alex Lifeson.

Again any one who knows me know that Rush have been a constant in my life since er... the 70s!  Around Hemispheres I really latched into them, went backwards in the catalogue but also forwards with Moving Pictures and Signals hugely influential on me at the time.  I was writing for a prog rock band in my 6th form years called Unforgotten King and there was more than a hint of Rush and Alex in those Em 5/4 blasts!  With Alex it is his rhythm playing that sets him right up there for me, he manages to fill the space in a three piece prog band incredibly - I know Rush have at times been derided for going down the keyboard route but listen to Moving Pictures, Permanent Waves or Signals - watch any of the live DVDs, R30 probably the best in my view and just see how largely it is Alex with his suspended chords, huge 6 string voicings etc. that are the an essential essence of the Rush sound.  Then throw in his off the wall, at times, but memorable and suitable solos and he is unbeatable.  Best work - Signals... or Moving Pictures (hell that's the hard bit of this challenge)

Gordon Giltrap

I couldn't not have at least one acoustic genius in this list and the obvious answer is Gordon.  Again anyone who's been here a while will know of my love of the bearded, long haired, affable genius.  I liked him so much I bought his guitar!  Gordon has to be here just through his technical brilliance, couple that with his being totally self taught and not able to read any music or even really understand scales etc!  He just has the ear - he composes some of the best solo acoustic music for the guitar in the last 50 years.  Melody, technical brilliance, spot on tone, use of electronics within an acoustic setting etc.  the boy has it all and more coupled with a totally unique and instantly recognisable sound.  Best work - Troubadour, there is a great version with two CDs, the first as originally recorded with a band, and the second just Gordon solo.

Joe Bonamassa

Mr Bonamassa - what can I currently say about Mr Prolific!  That is the first thing, solo albums almost annually it seems and each one distinct in voice and character and better than the last, unbelievable Blues/Rock like you thought people stopped being able to create at the time Punk stole the headlines and hair metal pushed shredding and image beyond what was frankly decent in many cases, collaborations galore, and the guy seems to be endlessly on tour!  That is why he is here in my list that amazing level of output across that diversity of genres all with a tone to kill for and a touch that is sublime.   Best work - probably his latest!  Driving Towards The Daylight.

Jeff Beck

Redefined what was possible with the guitar from 1989's Guitar Shop as he threw away his plectrums, never hefted a Les Paul or Tele again and figured out that the vibrato arm on a guitar wasn't for divebombing or a little warble but could be an intrinsic element in ever note and melody.  See him live if you want the total experience, like the old blues/rock masters like Trower he still plays at an insane stage volume to get his tone but what a tone and what a master of that he is.  Since his style changed he has knocked out several albums of note some with electronica overtones others almost classical in scope and texture, check out Live at Ronnie Scotts as the best complete intro to him, esp if you only remember him as once in the Yardbirds!  Best work... hmm album I'd say Emotion and Commotion - but for one track to change your life (honestly I mean that) listen to Nadia (originally a Nitin Sawhney track) off You Had It Coming.

(5 down... 5 to go...)

Michael Schenker

Hello Chicago!  If you know what that is a reference to I probably don't have to explain why Herr Schenker is on this list but he is here due to being just one of the best rock guitarists ever in his period with UFO.  First, tone - again like many on here just a great great individual tone, his famous Flying V into a 50w Marshall head driven hard (before master volume and attenuation and all that ear saving nonsense you know) through a Vox Wah pedal.  With many guitarists they are either brilliant soloists with individualist style or great rhythm players but not always both.  Mr Schenker clearly wins on both counts - also within the context of rock he is a man to define the use of melody.  His solos aren't widdly widdly shred or old Chuck Berry double stop bends they are thoughtful melodies that emphasize the songs mood.   Best work - no contest, Strangers In The Night the seminal UFO live album from 1978.

John Frusciante

Yes he of Red Hot Chili Peppers.  For me I'm afraid the answer is RHCP are John Frusciante, their latest album, the first since John's latest departure is just RHCP by numbers, there isn't the fire, the flare or the power he has brought to them in the past.  Like Mr Schenker a man who complete across rhythm playing and stunning lead playing - and what a range of styles he covers, funk, rock, punk etc.  A Strat and a Marshall - Hendrix, Trower, Blackmore, Malmsteen you think then Frusicante ... but what a different tone, largely razor clean with a hint of breakup before stomping on one of his many pedals to fuzz up a soaring lead where needed.  To me his best work was on his return to RCHP on Californication.

John Martyn

Another acoustic master - but much more than that.  Now Johnny boy may not have been the most technically dexterous player etc. but it is his uniqueness that has him here and just his playing backing some of the greatest songs that'll ever be written - May You Never?  Exactly need I say more.  But also his ground breaking work with using an Echoplex couple to a DeArmond pickup gaffa taped onto his old Martin dreadnought, I saw that at some point in the 70s and just went "What the ****!"  He was no slouch on the electric later on either using swells and fantastic voicings to add the ultimate in atmospheric guitar playing under his most emotional of tunes.  In his voice was often such raw emotion it could break you and somehow he coupled that with his guitar playing too.  For me it is this electric period with his emotion not just on his sleeve but totally exposed that is the definition of John Martyn - listen to Grace and Danger, esp Hurt In Your Heart.   Sadly missed.  A legend forever!

Steve Howe

Steve Howe him of the Gibson ES175 using it in an environment not really expected, i.e. a noisy complicated Prog Rock band.  Oh yes and should a guitar normally more favoured by jazzers (Metheny, Joe Pass etc.) really sound like that?  Well when pushed through a Fender Twin Reverb with a bunch of effects it does.  Again he could be here just on unique tone and quality of his playing and solos which again from note one are always distinctively Mr Howe.  But then can 1981 and Yes split up (before a variety of reformations) and Steve joined Asia.  Almost the archetypical super group their first album was a stunner - Heat of the Moment being just a superb track.  But hand on this is Steve Howe, not sounding like Yes at all - still brilliant but in a new band context he completely changed his sound, his structure of playing etc.  Brilliant - Yes... (pun intended).  Today he slips between the current Yes - Fly from Here is a great album and still there is Steve with his unique Yes tone - and Asia.  Their latest release (XXX - side note don't search for Asia XXX in google that was a bad idea and didn't give me exactly what I was looking for first of all!) is very good (not like their first seminal album sadly) but again there is Steve being what Steve is in Asia.  For all of that, two huge bands, two completely different styles and sounds he has to be in my top 10.  Best work - 1st Asia album and given the contrast I'll throw a curved ball here - Relayer by Yes.

So to the last entry... how I've struggled here.  Hendrix?  Van Halen?  Holdsworth?  Metheny?  Even Francesco Tarrega - who I think was the most influential guitarist of all time - he kept the guitar as a respected solo performance instrument when it was not considered that way at all by many.  Without him and Torres on the constructional side at that time we may never have had all the 9 mentioned above.  However I have to go with my personal top 10 those I listen to.   For that the last entry is (just by the merest thin cigarette paper)

Tony Iommi.

Mr Metal.  Simply that.  When Earth decided that they should play "scary music" to get an audience in like they saw going to the Boris Karloff movie they named themselves after they had the only man for the job already in the band - Tony Iommi.  Subsequent bands have come and gone, metal continues to be a hugely popular genre but let us be honest nobody does it like Mr Iommi!  Doom laden heavy riffs that bludgen you into submission often before the chorus.  His solos are very bluesy like but also contrast with actually being very trebly in nature cutting through the sonic onslaught.  Some may have gone much quicker as has been a trend but never heavier than Mr Iommi.   Add to that he could have been guitarist in Jethro Tull (what a loss that would have been) and that he had to overcome an injury that would have stopped many in their tracks (he lost the tips off two fingers on his fretting hand in an industrial accident before the band broke through) you have just put him up as an icon.  Personally I prefer the Dio years of Sabbath and the subsequent and sadly too short lived reunion of that band as Heaven and Hell.  Best work - for me the last live recording with sadly departed Ronnie James Dio - Neon Nights - 30 Years of Heaven and Hell. 


  1. Some names I'm familiar with and some I'm eager to check out. Are you familiar with Michael Hedges? Fantastic acoustic guitarist. Saw him at The Bitter End in NYC in the 80s. He was phenomenal.

  2. Thrilled to see Steve Howe on your list! He seems to have been forgotten by many, but was genius! For me, the late Michael Hedges would be at the top of my top 10. Wondering if you know his music. Died before he really got much traction...

  3. Two recommendations for Mr Hedges. I don't know his stuff - I think I saw a YouTube clip of him playing a harp guitar once.

    I will seek him out.

    Steve Howe - like I say I think he is just brilliant, you can hear some of his influence in some of my pieces, Solo Sunday (Solo 12) for example. He does now look like some humanities professor rather than a rock star, maybe that is one of the reasons the fashion followers overlook his talent.

  4. Interesting choices....
    The darling boy(my son) met Ronnie James Dio and was also fortunate enough to see Heaven and Hell live, as his friends father has connections with Black Sabbath and Heaven and Hell. He said he was a truly great vocalist and lovely warm man. Being a Brummie I do of course have a soft spot for Tony Iommi. I dont think I am musically informed enough to rate guitarists, I think my favourites would probably have more to do with an emotional response to the music. It has made me think who they might be though...

  5. That cascading solo in Xanadu can't be beat. Starts off with those slow, bending notes and builds. Also, give a close listen to the solo in Fly By Night. Lifeson was just a kid when he wrote that! I've never been a fan of a solo that just noisily hammers one note over and over a'la Ted Nugent. I like it when the notes are scattered all over the fret board. That's what makes Jeff Beck so great, as well. [Side note...I'm still mad at Jan Hammer for fucking up the mix on what would have been a stellar Beck album: Wired.]

  6. Definitely some interesting choices - a real variety on here. Surprised to see the likes of Jeff Beck and John Frusciante rubbing shoulders with Tony Iommi and Michael Schenker on anyone's personal list!

    I agree with the first comment; definitely some guitarists I'll have to check out now.

  7. Funny a guy who grew up on "new wave" and "alt rock" guitarists, I agree on Alex Lifeson. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Rush, as I've always admired their collective playing skills. Technically superb, but rarely "showy" (OK, Mr. Peart aside that is...). Alex is a fantastic and creative rhythm player, and, not afraid to use effects in a way that turns his guitar into a sort of synthesizer. And that's a compliment. It just so textured and nicely fills up space. I always felt he and Andy Summers of the Police had a lot in common in that approach. My faves due to my particular musical tastes: Johnny Marr (again, amazing and creative rhythm knows the power of a good hook); Mart Wilson Piper and Peter Koppes of the Church (modern day psychedelia at its best. I love their chiming arpeggios and stabbing leads); John Squire from the Stone Roses (a nicely balanced lead and rhythm player); and both Rob Dickinson and Brian Futter from the Catherine Wheel (talk about a wall of sound pumped from a stack of Marshalls and a Strat and Les Paul. A tidal wave of beautiful sound so thick you could spread it on a piece of toast). Anyways, as a music nerd, I could talk about this stuff endlessly...nice post.

  8. Nice list ! Speaking of Joe Bonamassa, have you checked his work on the three Black Country Communion albums (he plays with Glenn Hughes, Jason Bonham and Derek Sherinian) ? Great 70's hard rock, very Led Zeppelin meets Deep Purple style. The song "Song For Yesterday" contains my favourite Bonamassa solo, two minutes of sheer beauty and melody.

    PS : sorry for my english, it's not my native language...