It seems like music has been changing since the 80s, and even the hardest rocking bands don’t give enough credit to their guitarists. After MTV broke onto the scene, bands were suddenly being judged on how they looked rather than their music, and it still going on in today’s market. Sadly, we are having to rely on the past to get our guitar fix, and while the Foo Fighters and Smashing Pumpkins are still guitar-driven, I wouldn’t call Dave Grohl or Billy Corgan guitar heroes.
It was hard to narrow down our list to ten, and while some of you might disagree, note this is only MusicSnake Magazine’s opinion. True Rock and Roll guitarists can steal the spotlight from frontmen, and each of my picks did just that.
Number Five: Brian May
Influenced by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, Brian May has possibly the most distinctive sound of all. As a member of Queen, May had to compete for the spotlight with the flamboyant Freddie Mercury on a nightly basis. If you think Eddie Van Halen invented tapping, take a listen to Queen’s “It’s Late” from News of the World. Using a homemade guitar, the Red Special, he was instrumental in the band’s success. The guitar has a distinctive sound and was designed to utilize controlled feedback. Much more than a hired gun, Brian was a formidable songwriter and composer, as he would often lay down multiple guitar riffs for a single song. May still reigns as the “King of Tone” and still works with other artists such as Pink and Lady Gaga (who got her name from the Queen track “Radio Ga Ga”).
Number Four: Carlos Santana
After watching Santana perform “Soul Sacrifice” in the film Woodstock, I was hooked. The young band had energy, swagger and musical abilities far beyond their years. At the heart of the band was lead guitarist Carlos whose technique is a mix of fusion and Latin flavored rock. He has always surrounded himself with other great musicians such as Neal Shcon and Gregg Rolie (who later were instrumental in forming the supergroup Journey), Buddy Miles from Jimi Hendrix’s project, Band of Gypsys, and in 1999, Carlos teamed up with Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20 and released the monster hit “Smooth.” While on a well deserved break in 1998, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and since, they formed in 1967 having sold 100 million records worldwide. Moreover, they have received ten Grammy awards and three Latin Grammys. He continues to be a force well into the 21st century.
Number Three: Eric Clapton
Though I was never a hardcore fan, I still have respect for Clapton as a guitarist. Eric Clapton came out of the Yardbirds after only two years to join John Mayall & the Blues Breakers. Out of this collaboration came the classic record Bluesbreakers – John Mayall – With Eric Clapton which proved to be an even shorter stint before Clapton walked away. Eric grew up enamored with Chicago blues, and his unique style gave him a reputation as the best blues guitarist in the UK. In 1966, he replaced Peter Green to form the first supergroup, Cream. It was during this time when Clapton began writing and singing. Still rather unknown in the United States, Cream would prove to be his springboard into America with such tracks as “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room.” After the demise of the band, Clapton put together Blind Faith with Steve Winwood. While the band only released a self-titled debut, it was a masterpiece, and Clapton’s masterful licks were legendary. His solo career began with Derek and the Dominos’ release of Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs,which featured the hits “Layla” and “Bell Bottom Blues.” His reign as a solo artist gained momentum, and by 1974, he was churning out hits such as the Bob Marley cover “I Shot the Sheriff,” JJ Cale’s “Cocaine” and “Wonderful Tonight.” With the death of his son, Clapton penned “Tears in Heaven,” which proved to be a monster hit as it won 6 Grammy awards. Today, Eric Clapton can do pretty much anything he wants to. Whether it’s reuniting with Steve Winwood, jumping on stage with the Rolling Stones or collaborating with B.B. King on Riding with the King.
Number Two: Stevie Ray Vaughan
Hailing from Dallas Texas, Stevie Ray Vaughan only had a seven year career before dying in a helicopter accident, but what a career it was, as Vaughan brought the blues back to the mainstream with a vengeance. After forming Double Trouble with drummer Chris Layton and bass player Tommy Shannon, the trio released Texas Flood in 1983. Stevie drew inspiration from English blues rather than American blues. The disc was comprised of original material with a few covers thrown in such as Howlin’ Wolf’s “Tell Me” and Buddy Guy’s “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” The second release, Couldn’t Stand the Weather, found the band growing as they covered the classic Hendrix “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” and Freddie King’s “Hideaway.” But it was the title track that got the most attention, as Vaughan was redefining the blues for the masses. His style of playing was often compared to Jimi, which was fair to compare him to the greatest guitar player in the history of rock. As a live act, Stevie demanded your attention as he slashed through tunes with an unforgiving demeanor. His final studio recording, In Step, was a nod to his new found sobriety. While he still paid his respects to the blues masters, he was writing more introspectively lyrics such as “Tightrope” and “Crossfire.” While he did contribute to Family Style with his brother Jimmie, he wouldn’t see it make the charts. While we lost him too early, he left his mark on blues and rock which inspired other young artists, including Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Jonny Lang and John Mayer, to pick up where he left off.
Number One: Jimi Hendrix
You probably already guessed who my number one guitar player is. It would be a sacrilege to put anyone other than Jimi Hendrix in the top spot. What can I say that hasn’t already been said about this amazing guitarist? He took the blues and put his own unique spin on it and is credited for inventing psychedelic rock as he left other guitarist shaking in their boots. His influence can still be heard four decades after his death. He wasn’t afraid to take risks as he shed all of his earlier tricks such as playing with his teeth. He was a musician’s musician, and one can only speculate what he would be doing had he lived.