Duane Allman, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eric Clapton, Yngwie Malmsteen, Eddie Van Halen, Jimmy Page, Randy Rhoads, Steve Vai, Jeff Beck, Joe Satriani, the list of fretboard wizards is a long and ingenious one. When considering the many guitarists who have elevated music, fundamentally changed it, I chose to go with the following four, in no particular ranking, but for very particular reasons. Their contributions are immeasurable, indisputable, and in one case, highly controversial.
He's been known as the Father, the Architect, and the Ernest Hemingway of rock 'n' roll. John Lennon once said that if you were to call rock 'n' roll by any other name, you might call it Chuck Berry. At a time when crooners ruled the charts, Berry created a brazened new art form out of the most basic elements possible: an electric guitar and scads of attitude.
Chuck Berry's souped-up hybrid of rhythm and blues and country and western bridged the musical divide between the races. Blacks appreciated the narrative inherent in his songwriting, while whites delighted in the music's danceability. Classic subjects girls, fast cars, high-school life, and raging hormones unfolded in story lines, while Berry's signature guitar licks (two-note chords often called "double stops"), his repeating riffs and bends, and his showmanship (his patented "duck walk," playing the guitar behind his head and between his legs) formed the template of rock as we know it. Without him, there would be no Beatles, no Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, nor a myriad others. Elvis may have fueled rock 'n' roll's imagery, but Chuck Berry was its heartbeat and original mindset.
Born into a middle-class family in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1926, Charles Edward Anderson "Chuck" Berry had an interest in music from an early age and learned to play guitar as a teenager. Before he could graduate high school, however, he was arrested for armed robbery and did time in reform school. After his release on his 21st birthday, Berry married and worked a series of odd jobs as a carpenter, a painter, a janitor and a hairdresser before picking up his beloved Gibson in earnest. Berry signed with Chess Records in the summer of 1955 and hit it big with "Maybellene," which sold over a million copies and landed at #1 on Billboard's Rhythm and Blues chart. Subsequent songs like "Johnny B. Goode" and "Roll Over Beethoven" are the very cornerstones of rock 'n' roll.
Although Berry's career was sidelined by a two-year jail stint in the early 1960s, he forged a legacy which every rocker since has followed. Though not technically accomplished, many have covered Berry and acknowledge him as an influence. Keith Richards, John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and many other future legends cut their teeth on him.
Chuck Berry was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984 and was among the inaugural inductees to the newly christened Rock and Roll Hall of Fame two years later. Rolling Stone named him #6 on its list of the "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time" in 2003. "Chuck was my man," says Keith Richards. "He was the one that made me say, 'I want to play guitar.'"
According to legend, as a young man living on a plantation in rural Mississippi, Robert Johnson had a burning desire to become a great blues musician. He was "instructed" to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery Plantation at midnight where he was met by a large black man who took the guitar and tuned it. The man played a few songs and then returned the guitar to Johnson, giving him mastery of the instrument. In a Faustian deal, Johnson traded his soul for the ability to create the blues for which he became famous.
Robert Johnson is considered to be one of the greatest blues performers of all time, particularly of the Delta blues style. But Johnson in his day was most respected for his ability to play in a wide variety of styles from raw country slide guitar to jazz and pop licks and to pick up guitar parts almost instantly upon hearing a song. Ironically, considering his enduring mythology, as an itinerant performer who played mostly on street corners, in juke joints, and at Saturday night dances, this enigmatic blues legend enjoyed little commercial success or public recognition in his lifetime. Johnson died in 1938 at age 27, poisoned by a jealous husband.
Robert Leroy Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, in May 1911, the illegitimate son of a sharecropper. He poured every ounce of his own poverty, wandering and womanizing into his work, documenting black life in the Deep South. Much of his life and brief career is shrouded in mystery as Johnson traveled around, playing wherever he could, never staying for long in one place. Johnson's recorded legacy a mere twenty-nine songs cut in 1936 and '37 is the foundation of all modern blues and rock. He either wrote, or adapted from traditional sources, many of the most popular blues songs of all time including "Cross Road Blues," "Sweet Home Chicago," and "Love in Vain," and his music has been covered by rock 'n' roll artists as diverse as the Rolling Stones, Steve Miller, Led Zeppelin, and Cream. Though his records sold poorly during his lifetime, a reissue of his recordings in 1961 reached a far wider audience. Another retrospective collection, released in 1990, has gone platinum and won a Grammy Award in 1991 for "Best Historical Album."
Robert Johnson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an "Early Influence" in their first induction ceremony in 1986. He has also been inducted into the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame. In 2003, Rolling Stone ranked Johnson fifth on their list of "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time." Eric Clapton calls Johnson "the most important blues singer that ever lived," and says, "It was almost as if he felt things so acutely he found it almost unbearable." Marc Myers of the Wall Street Journal adds, "To the uninitiated, Johnson's recordings may sound like just another dusty Delta blues musician wailing away. But a careful listen reveals that Johnson was a revisionist in his time...Johnson's tortured-soul vocals and anxiety-ridden guitar playing aren't found in the cotton-field blues of his contemporaries."
If you were to ask anyone with even a modicum of musical sensibility who the greatest rock guitarist of all time is, chances are they'll say Jimi Hendrix. Widely recognized as one of the most creative and influential musicians of the 20th century, Hendrix pioneered the explosive possibilities of the electric guitar with his innovative style of combining fuzz, feedback and controlled distortion. He established the electric guitar as a unique sonic source, rather than merely an amplified version of the acoustic. Jimi's mastery of the instrument—his trademark solos and heavy riffs, his playing a right handed guitar with his left hand, playing it upside-down and restrung for a lefty, playing with his teeth and behind his head—put Hendrix in a league all his own.
Jimi's meteoric rise in just four short years is nothing short of remarkable when you consider that he was an entirely self-taught musician. He couldn't read music, couldn't write it either. Born John Allen Hendrix in Seattle, Washington, on November 27, 1942, Jimi first learned to play a one-string ukulele his father bought for him after Jimi showed an interest in the guitar by pretending to play a broom. At age 15, around the time his mother died, he acquired his first acoustic guitar for $5 from an acquaintance of his father. Hendrix learned to play by practicing for several hours a day, watching others play, getting tips from more experienced players, and listening to records.
After a short stint in the military, Hendrix moved first to Nashville and then to New York City, where he was discovered by a producer who sent him to London. There he formed The Jimi Hendrix Experience and released the single "Hey Joe," which became a top 10 hit in the UK. Upon his return to the States, Hendrix was to become the focal point of Woodstock and arguably, the best electric guitar player the world has ever heard. Even with all sorts of on-stage technical problems, his version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" has gone down in history as one of the best performances by any one artist. The footage of Jimi playing the song is one of the most studied pieces of musical film ever.
In the forty-plus years since his death in 1970 at age 27, Hendrix was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (as a member of The Jimi Hendrix Experience) in 1992, and was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award that same year. He was also inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame for his outstanding contribution to British music and culture, and was the first musician inducted into the Native American Music Hall of Fame. "I feel sad for people who have to judge Jimi Hendrix on the basis of recordings and film alone," says The Who's Pete Townshend, "because in the flesh he was so extraordinary. He had a kind of alchemist's ability; when he was on the stage, he changed. He physically changed. He became incredibly graceful and beautiful...he had a power that almost sobered you up if you were on an acid trip. He was bigger than LSD."
You may scoff to see Kurt Cobain's name on a list of guitarists of such high regard. Some of you okay, many of you will no doubt be up in arms at his inclusion. After all, and by his own admission, Cobain could barely even play the guitar! His musicianship was coarse, primitive even. Cobain is, in fact, considered to be one of rock guitars antiheroes. So why mention him in the same breath as someone with the mastery of Jimi Hendrix? One word: Nevermind.
The arrival of Nirvana on the music scene with their sophomore effort marked a seismic shift in the history of popular music, much like the emergence of Elvis and the Beatles. Nevermind, with its monster single "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and songs like "Come as You Are," "Lithium," and "In Bloom," exploded when it dropped in September 1991 and laid waste to everything that came before. Suddenly the pretense of glamour, the theatricality and extravagant shredding that defined the pop or "hair" metal bands of the late 1980s, seemed dated and irrelevant. The minimalist aesthetic of grunge had taken over the mainstream. While other alternative bands had had hits before, Nirvana kicked open the door for a host of alt acts like Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden to follow.
As the band's main songwriter, Kurt Cobain often looked to his childhood for inspiration. Born on February 20, 1967, in Aberdeen, Washington, Kurt said he was happy enough as a young boy right up until his parents divorced when he was 7, an event that resonated throughout the remainder of his life and fueled a lot of the anguish in Nirvana's music. With the disintegration of his family, Cobain felt isolated and became withdrawn and anti-social. He spent much of his time painting, singing, and listening to the Beatles and the Monkees, eventually moving onto bands like Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Black Sabbath, the **bleep** Pistols, and the Clash. For his 14th birthday, Kurt's uncle gave him the option of a bicycle or a guitar as a gift; he chose the latter. Although the instrument was fairly beat up, it inspired Kurt to learn to play. He began experimenting with different musical styles, trying to create his own, and gravitated toward the Seattle underground where he (and future Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic) roadied for a band called the Melvins. Kurt dropped out of high school a few weeks shy of graduation and left Aberdeen for Olympia, where he and Novoselic formed Nirvana in 1986.
The unassuming Cobain, with his passion for junk shop guitars and disdain for the sonic and visual excesses of glam, would become the poster boy for an entire movement. He wrote songs that were crafted from chord sequences based mainly around power chords and that combined pop hooks with dissonant guitar rhythms and shifts in dynamics, from quiet verses to loud choruses. He took an anti-musician stance and intentionally sought to break away from traditional structures with his sloppy, almost haphazard, everyman approach to making music that knocked rock off its pedestal and closed the gap between artist and audience.
Nirvana received several awards and nominations in their debut year in 1992, including nods for Favorite New Heavy Metal/Hard Rock Artist from the American Music Awards, Best Alternative Music Performance for Nevermind from the Grammy Awards, and Video of the Year and Viewer's Choice for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" from the MTV Video Music Awards. They won a Grammy in 1996 for Best Alternative Music Performance for their posthumous release, MTV Unplugged in New York. "Through Kurt I saw the beauty of minimalism and the importance of music that's stripped down," says Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl. In his Grammy Award acceptance speech earlier this year for Best Rock Performance by the Foo Fighters, Grohl reminded the audience that making music, that playing an instrument, is not about being perfect or sounding absolutely correct. "It's the human element that's important," he said. In a world overrun with technology, his simple message made headlines.
Okay. You've read my choices for four guitarists who have changed music forever, now let me hear yours. Which guitarists do you think deserve to be on this list and why?