I have always thought top ten guitar lists, or top one hundred or whatever, are silly.
There is no such thing as a best guitarist.
Its all relative to the context, the era, and personal taste. None the less they are a hell of a lot of fun to read and I have always disagreed with the Rolling Stone magazine list they publish every year. I was stunned by the excellent list that was written by Josh Tyrangiel of Time magazine.
He’s the only guy I have seen with the balls to include Yngwie Malmsteen.
In my opinion due to the sweeping changes and influence Malmsteen brought to the guitar not including him, as most of these lists do, is a complete joke. To give you an example of the scope of his influence; The first signature guitar Fender ever made was “The Yngwie Malmsteen” model. Imagine that, they got around to Eric Clapton next.
Without further adieu since I make my living playing the guitar I have decided to throw my hat in the ring.
I decided to use a three prong approach to my list. The first criteria I think is paramount is signature. And what I mean by this is signature sound. A strong aural identity is one of the rarest and most challenging thing to develop. This is so because to do so one has to have the moxie and courage to look inward. To not mimic and copy other peoples sound, but truly be committed to finding your own voice. I am talking about a musician where you hear one note and you know who it is. This alone is one of the rarest qualities on the planet, and is deserving of recognition.
Secondly I will use influence as a measure of scope here because when one has the courage to do the aforementioned, it has a positive effect on guitar because change always comes from the outside, not inside where everyone is paying attention to what everyone is doing.
Thirdly, I will argue that the best guitarists who create the unique sounds and change the game often do not listen to other guitarists and are influenced by horn players, singers, and have a vision of taking the instrument to a higher level. Like Howard Roark the famous architect in Ayn Rand’s epic novel The Fountainhead did with architecture.
One thing you will notice about this list is many of these guitarists are not that well known because they are guitarists favorite guitarists. Its often a fun idea to find out who your favorite guitarists are listening to.
1. Clint Strong
I put Clint first on the list because I’ve seen them all and I’ve heard them all and when it comes to what I call just the plain “Wow Factor”. This guy takes the cake. Everything about him and his style just reaches out and pops like some kind of prize fighter when he plays. I have seen musicians high fiving each other while watching in the audience during his gigs like it was some kind of NBA championship game after a slam dunk. Clint doesn’t talk, he just does it. You may have never heard of him, but when you do you will remember and mark my word, Ive seen them all.
2. Yngwie Malmsteen
I would argue as far as rock guitar is concerned there have been three major revolutions in the approach to the instrument since the sixties Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, and then Yngwie Malmsteen. This guy was and is a major game changer. He is the epitome of the three principles I set out as criteria for my list. He didn’t listen to other guitar players and he tells guitarists all the time- don’t listen to me, don’t listen to anybody, find your own way, believe in yourself. He listened to Bach and Paganini and brought the brilliance and approach of a virtuoso violinist to the guitar. Before this guy came along rock and rollers were stuck in their little pentatonic boxes. Over night people had to learn what an arpeggio was. Learn about diminished scales, and the fifth note of harmonic minor. By mimicking violin Yngwie took technique to a level never before seen in rock guitar. You hear one note of this guy and you know who it is.
3. Allan Holdsworth
All of us in the guitar community know about the influence of this guy. Even guitar players who don’t know who Allan is are influenced by Allan. He is definitely a visionary who found his own way and has a signature so recognizable that you can hear one fourth of a note and tell who it is. Allan is definitely a guitarist guitarist, a great guy, and it is a joke that he is not on the top of that silly Rolling Stone list. So cheers to Allan, this is where he belongs. I have always considered him to be on the top of my list long before we became friends.
4. Eddie Van Halen
It goes without saying this guy changed rock guitar forever. This was the second major sweeping revolution in what we all thought was possible. Everything about this guy was different, and if you want to talk about Allan Holdsworth, Eddie is a big fan and helped Allan get exposure early on in the states. Everything about Eddie is unique, innovative, and game changing. I remember in the 90’s a radio DJ in Dallas announcing two new songs being released by a former band with their old singer. He declined to say the name, as it was a surprise that he would play after a commercial break. I was listening carefully after the commercial and I heard one note I got goosebumps because at the onset of that one note I knew, unequivocally, without a doubt that it was Van Halen. His brother Alex plays drums the same way, one note and I know who it is. Tone Loc, the rapper, sampled Jamie’s Crying, and the first time I heard that, I knew right where it came from. This is what I am talking about.
5. Pat Metheny
Lock, stock, and barrel here is a cat who is the penultimate example of hearing just one note and you know it’s Pat Metheny. His signature is his phrasing and ability to spontaneously create beautiful melodic improvisations that are astounding, original, and very pleasing to the ear. He has a very classy, elegant, approach that has elevated our instrument in so many ways. Hats off to Pat Metheny.
6. Al Dimeola
Al Dimeola is a very good guitar player. So much so at times he is accused by people, with very little technical command of their instrument, as being just a guy with chops. When I hear one of these clowns saying this foolishness about Al I know they have no idea what they are talking about immediately. While his technique is astounding, his playing is deep and rich harmonically and his chordal approach is beautiful. He also has uncanny control rhythmically that sets him apart in a league of his own. I can tell his playing by one note easily. His album Cielo De Terra completely blows me away every time I hear it. It is, to me, right up there with Julian Bream seminal guitar masterpiece Twentieth Century Guitar.
7. The Edge
When I was a kid my buddy Chris Sacco, a fine guitarist in Houston, turned me on to U2. This guys sound is so completely original and instantly identifiable. He is the poster-boy for the three strong traits of signature, influence, and taking the guitar past where you got it. When he plays it doesn’t even sound like a guitar. It sounds like a piano, or it sounds like the hills of Ireland. His playing is so beautiful it evokes visuals, like a soundtrack to a movie. Simply unbelievable.
8. Ted Green
In the guitar community Ted Greene is like our Yoda. Every great guitarist I ever met, or took lessons from, had his book Chord Chemistry. He dedicated his life to the guitar and his approach was so thorough and deep and profoundly affected so many of us that love the guitar. The first time I heard his arrangement of Send in the Clowns by Stephen Sondheim I wept. He had the same effect on me that John Coltrane and Bach have, and that is some very heavy company for a humble guitarist like Ted Greene who put out one LP called Solo Jazz Guitar in 1971. Ted is the best of the best and pretty much the reason I made this list.
This list is about signature and style. No one tops this cat when it comes to originality and taking the game to a new level. Growing up with Princes music, I always knew he had something unique and special, but it wasn’t until seeing him perform live that I realized what a burning guitarist he was. You can hear his influence in a lot of guitar players and to me Prince is a guitarists guitarist, as well as a rock star. I hear a lot of his influence in Steve Vai’s style. And Steve is one bad dude himself.
10. Pat Martino
Pat Martino is a class act, and has been from day one. He had the moxie and the courage to move to Harlem as a kid and make a name for himself. Like Allan he has his own system and approach to improvising and it is profound. His playing strikes me as someone who loses their mind and comes from their senses. Some Jazz improvisors come across as a little cerebral for me. Pat’s playing always hits you in the gut. My friend Fred Hamilton shared with me recently how Pat explained improvising to him and the students at my Alma Mater UNT. It was profound, based on the seasons. There are twelve notes in the chromatic scale and there are twelve months in a year. He based his system on the way he heard it, and that’s what this list is about.
11. Billy Gibbons
The reverend Billy G. My first guitar hero. This guy is so fucking cool I don’t know what to say. I grew up in Houston, and Billy is Houston. He is so down home, groovy, and always has the best guitar tones . I always say its better to be tasty than trendy. Everything about Billy and his playing is genuine and stands the test of time. I started out with the blues and no matter how far away I strayed, every time I hear this man play the guitar I remember where I came from, and what its all about.
12. Chris Carrington
As I stated previously I have based this list on the “Wow Factor”. I have spent a considerable amount of my years studying classical guitar. I like the discipline. Its like gourmet cooking, fine wine, or building a ship in a bottle. It requires dedication, preparation, and perseverance. The first time I heard Chris play was when he was touring with Al Dimeola. Several years later I was eating in a Lebanese restaurant in Dallas with my girlfriend there was this guitarist over in the corner, and everything he was playing just popped, and had this swagger to it. It was outrageously different than most stuffy sounding classical guitarists. It was so good, it was distracting me from being able to eat. So I went over to introduce myself and when he said his name I immediately realized who he was and I said, “What are you doing in Dallas?” He replied “I live here.” We’ve become good friends and he built me a wonderful guitar. It still doesn’t change the fact every time I hear him play I go “Wow!” Here is a testimony to his “Wow Factor.” One night on Lemmon Ave. in Dallas Chris was playing in an Italian restaurant and Al Dimeola, Paco De Lucia, and John Mclaughlin walked in. Hows that for pressure? If I remember right, Chris tells me he went in the kitchen to hide or something and the owner made him come out and play. Al Dimeola asked for his number and the rest is history.
I want to close here in saying that this list is in no way definitive. Its just the top twelve guitarists that impacted me. I encourage you to make your own list. Not of just guitar players, but of the people that impacted your life. You are the five people you hang around the most. You can learn a lot about yourself from doing something like this. I chose twelve because there are twelve notes in music, twelve months in a year, and twelve eggs in a dozen. Its just a cool number and making it was a lot of fun. These guitarists are not in any specific order. Any one could be in any order they are just the twelve that came to mind extemporaneously as I wrote this blog. Even as I wrap this up I am realizing I didn’t include Chet Atkins, Neal Schon or Jeff Beck? You see how these list are impossible? Still fun though
Ooh I thought of one more. We’ll have to make this one into a bakers dozen!
13. Brian May
Ever since I was a kid this guy’s been on my radar. Besides myself, Eddie Van Halen and Yngwie Malmsteen are big fans. This guy’s done it all. Earned a PHD in astrophysics, built his own guitar from scratch- every piece of it hand tooled by him and his father. I haven’t even mentioned yet that he happens to be the guitarist for one of the greatest bands ever- Queen, and has been dubbed Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. This is a guy that knows how to live, and his guitar tone is unbelievable.