Ten Greatest Rock Guitarists Ever
Man, these cats can blaze on that fingerboard!
All of these guys have paid their dues, if you will, and had careers lasting at least 10 years (except for one). Their lists of accolades are long as well, and you can find them on various “best lists.” You may not agree with my choices, of course, but the virtuosity of each is beyond question to most rock ‘n’ roll purists, I dare say. And if you don’t like this list, or don’t think its contemporary enough, fine, then produce your own and we’ll compare notes. Cool? So please check out the Ten Greatest Rock Guitarists Ever:
10. Chuck Berry practically invented rock ‘n’ roll lead guitar and, in the process, influenced countless guitarists in the 1950s, ‘60s and beyond. In fact, he may be the most influential rock guitarist of all time. He played his most famous riffs on the immortal tune, “Johnny B. Goode,” of which well over a hundred recorded versions exist. Rolling Stones lead guitarist Keith Richards may have learned more from Chuck Berry than any other artist. Yes, Berry could “play his guitar like ringin’ a bell.” Furthermore, if the so-called King of Rock ‘n’ Roll came from the 1950s, then it would surely be either Elvis Presley, Little Richard or Chuck Berry. Which illustrious cat would you pick?
9. Eddie Van Halen, trained as a classical pianist in his native Holland, developed a wild, finger tapping, whammy bar-accentuated guitar style that became the rage of the hard rock genre in the late 1970s; and throughout the 1980s and ‘90s he continued to astonish fans and fellow guitar players with his scatterbrained wizardry on the fretboard. Eddie’s solo work on the tune “Eruption” is considered a heavy metal classic. Perhaps one of the fastest rock guitarists ever, Eddie also has a keen melodic sense that all great guitarists seem to possess.
8. Joe Bonamassa is a true prodigy. He started playing guitar at five and, by the age of 13, could play blues guitar like a virtuoso. Perhaps this is understandable since Joe is a fourth-generation musician, so his familial influence goes way back. Anyway, Joe cut his teeth while plucking Hendrix’s devilish blues licks, and by 12 he opened for the legendary B.B. King, who called his talent “one of a kind.” But Joe says his greatest guitar influence comes from the British blues hybridization of the 1960s, as exemplified by the work of artists such as Jeff Beck, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, Cream, Peter Green and Jimmy Page. Joe says, “You know, my heroes were the English guys.” Since 2000 Joe has churned out a hit album just about every year and, these days, few people, if any, can play the guitar better.
7. Eric Clapton has played with just about everybody, and in every place, except Woodstock, somehow (but don’t forget Live Aid). Starting as a blues guitarist, as many rock guitarists have, Clapton was so ass-kickingly good by the time he was 22 that some rockers began referring to him as “god.” In 1966, Clapton formed the quintessential power trio, Cream, and then moved heavily into acid rock. Perhaps his best rock tunes over the years are “I’m so Glad,” “I Feel Free,” “Sunshine of Your Love,” “Layla” and “Cocaine.” Like Stephen Stills, Clapton can blast away or play poignantly slow, such as in the self-penned song, “Tears in Heaven.”
6. Stevie Ray Vaughan was an Albert King-inspired blues guitarist who also played rock, having a particular fondness for Hendrix numbers, recording versions of “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return),” “Little Wing,” and “Third Stone from the Sun.” Other than the masterful use of the wah-wah pedal, Vaughan was another guitar slinger who didn’t use lots of effects. He simply attacked his ’59 Fender Strat – or overwhelmed it could be a better way of describing it - astonishing everyone within earshot. Perhaps his best albums were two concert cuts: Live at Carnegie Hall and Live Alive, which features, among others, a rousing version of “Say What!”
5. Joe Satriani, like Steve Vai and Jeff Beck, has been a solo act for most of his career. Able to read and write music, and working as a renowned teacher of guitar since the 1970s, Satriani doesn’t seem to need much help working as an instrumental guitarist in the hard rock or progressive rock categories. Moreover, Satriani is another one of those guys who’s played with just about everybody, particularly when involved with his G3 Jam Concerts. In concert, Satriani shows technical virtuosity and dash, and if there’s a faster lead guitarist around, who in the heck would that be? Satriani’s first hit album was Surfing with the Alien, released in 1987, and perhaps his greatest album to date is The Extremist, released in 1992.
4. Jimmy Page, along with Clapton and Beck, emerged from the Yardbirds - the “yardstick” of rock, if you will, in the middle 1960s, and then formed Led Zeppelin, considered one of the top hard rock bands in history. The Zep, an enduring bunch, kept the same personnel for 12 years and influenced multitudes of rock guitar enthusiasts. Page played lead, of course, showing his artistry for blues, rock, classical and Celtic folk. Perhaps his best riffs were on “You Shook Me,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Black Dog,” “Stairway to Heaven” and “Whole Lotta Love.” After the Zep’s demise, Page pretty much went on hiatus, though he plays as a sideman from time to time, essentially resting on his laurels, it appears.
3. Jimi Hendrix died way too young to be higher on this list, but his guitar swagger and electrifying technique are without equal. Borne from the R&B bands of the early 1960s, Hendrix formed his power trio in 1966 and then took the rock world by storm, and within a year or two was considered just about the best around. (Hear the feedback, stuttering wang bar and outrageous distortion?) But he didn’t go around and tell everybody how great he was! Hendrix’s most creative work can be found on the double-album set, Electric Ladyland, released in 1968, and perhaps the greatest rock album of the 1960s, though that would be very hard to prove.
2. Jeff Beck made his own guitar from scratch as a kid, and he’s been amazing people with what he plucks from guitars ever since, using few if any special effects as well. One of three amazing axemen to play in the Yardbirds, Jeff Beck formed the Jeff Beck Group in the late 1960s, producing such classic albums as Truth, Beck-Ola and Rough and Ready. Then he developed his own jazz-fusion style in the middle 1970s, creating the incomparable album, Blow by Blow, including the dreamy, ethereal masterpiece, “Diamond Dust,”and then a notable follow-up disk, Wired, with Jan Hammer on keyboards. Since those days Beck has been a lone wolf, working as a soloist, sideman or studio musician. Beck continued the artistry in 1989 with Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop, including the frenetic and incendiary number, “Big Block,” and many other albums in the 1990s and beyond.
1. Steve Vai is as good as he is because he took lessons from Joe Satriani. He’s also surpassingly good because he has the balls to play a “triple-neck” guitar! Schooled in the avant-garde irreverence of Frank Zappa’s Mothers, with whom he played in the early 1980s and also transposed some of Zappa’s music, Vai impressed at an early age, with Zappa referring to him as his “little Italian virtuoso.” Vai played with various artists and bands throughout the 1980s, including David Lee Roth, Alcatrazz, Ozzie Ozbourne and Whitesnake, until going solo in 1989. His second solo album was the critically acclaimed Passion and Warfare, which includes one of his best guitar solos on the tune, “For the Love of God.” In 1996, Vai produced Fire Garden, an album including 18 cuts (wow!), and perhaps the best one was “Dyin’ Day.” In 2002, Vai played with a 100-piece orchestra in Tokyo. He’s also played on numerous sound tracks, video games and acted in several movies. In short, in the world of contemporary rock guitar, Vai has been there, done that.
Well, that’s it. Many other artists could be on this list. How about the mind-boggling Al DiMeola? Unfortunately, I don’t quite know how to classify his music. Could it be called a classical-rock hybrid? Put him on your list if you like, all right?
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© 2009 Kelley Marks