Friday, 13 January 2012

News, Views and Music Issue 129 (Top Ten): AAA Guitarists Part Two

Just before Christmas Rolling Stone Magazine released their updated lists of the greatest guitarists as chosen by a panel of people in the know. Considering they only did their last list in 2004 there were one heck of a lot of changes (and some surprising additions of AAA members including two Byrds which shows how their stick has risen in the past seven years) and it’s caused it’s fair share of controversy in the past month. For the record here’s where the AAA stars came:  95) Roger McGuinn 93) Paul Simon 91) Dave Davies 55) John Lennon 52) Clarence White 47) Stephen Stills 46) Jerry Garcia 44) Mark Knopfler 37) Mick Taylor 17) Neil Young 14) David Gilmour 11) George Harrison 10) Pete Townshend 4) Keith Richards You can see the full list of entrants here (and no surprise that Jimi Hendrix is #1 two polls running, with Eric Clapton close behind): Actually I think it’s a pretty decent list even with a few too many heavy metallers and modern day guitarists in there (will we really be rating Jack White this highly in a few decades time? And did Angus Young slip the editors a few fivers?!) but as ever it can improved on so here’s my attempt at listing the top 20 guitarists ever (the top ten to be featured in our next issue!) Those just bubbling under the list but still highly recommended: Lol Creme, Si Cowe, Clarence White, Steve Marriott, Jimmy McCulloch and Paul McCartney...

20) Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits)

In an alternate universe somewhere a class of students are celebrating the retirement of their favourite history teacher. After plying him with a few drinks they’re amazed to see the punctilious Mr Knopfler (who never revealed his first name) shrug off his shirt and tie and take to the school hall stage with a guitar and a bandana, stripping back the years to when he played part-time in a rock and roll band but was too afraid to go pro. The students are all amazed – quite apart from the fact that teachers are never usually this talented he just doesn’t seem like a rock legend. And yet he sounds like one, they even jig along to an old song he half-remembers called ‘Sultans of Swing’. And it’s very apt too because this guitarist does swing, a half retro, half-modern clear ringing sound that’s quietly forceful (just like Mr Knopfler was  that time they were fooling around in the cloakrooms) but quietly respectful too (just like the time Mr Knopfler caught Mary crying behind the bike sheds). Best of all, Mr Knopfler seemed to know how to get the most out of his instrument, finishing his performance with an extended finale that went on for hours and yet never got boring and never once repeated itself. The school are hoping Mr Knopfler, 62 this August, will return for the Christmas fete.

Guitar highlight: the long long fadeout on ‘Telegraph Road’ (‘Love Over Gold’ 1982)

19) Paul Simon

A surprising new entry to the Rolling Stone list, Paul himself has never considered himself anything more than a competent guitarist. And yet few guitarists have managed to make their instrument speak with more depth or emotion than Paul on the acoustic, his fragile, delicate backing the perfect accompaniment for Simon and Garfunkel’s harmonies. Like his songwriting, Paul’s guitarwork has changed over the years too, going through the folky route of the early 60s into the flowing soundscapes of ‘The Boxer’ and ‘Cecilia’, through the sparse singer-songwriter days of the early 70s and onto the African and Brazilian rhythms of his ‘world music’ albums of the 80s and 90s. Throughout, though, Paul’s playing never hits a wrong note and even when surrounded by flashier, better trained guitar players in one of his many bands he always holds his own against such distinguished company. In fact we’d like to hear more of Paul playing on his record these days, but a sore bout of calcium deposit build-up on his guitar-playing left hand in the early 1980s has understandably put him off his playing slightly. Still, his work is an influence to many and can be heard in every sensitive singer-songwriter Britain or America have ever produced.

Guitar highlight: the crystalline beauty of ‘For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her’ (Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’, 1966)

18) Carl Wilson (Beach Boys)

Poor Carl is always being overlooked by ‘greatest’ polls (singers, songwriters and guitarists) so I’m not surprised Rolling Stone missed him out yet again. That’s probably because of the oft-mentioned ‘fall out’ of the late 60s after ‘Smile’ when The Beach Boys just weren’t seen as ‘cool’ in their striped shirts and the knowledge that by the mid-60-s they rarely played on their albums. Rolling Stone #1 Jimi Hendrix even called them a ‘surfing barber shop quartet’, but for my money the youngest Wilson was a far more natural and less fussy guitarist, with a clean style and a background that went back to a much younger age (most books reckon Carl was 11 or 12 when he started playing). When Brian was having his own difficulties Carl was the musician in the band he could always count on, a very reliable no 2 in an often wayward and difficult band of brothers, cousins and friends. Even though Carl’s solos on Beach Boys record are few and far between, it’s usually his work you remember and his special touches that make a good song special, from the ringing chimes of ‘Dance Dance Dance’ to the opening Chuck Berry lick of breakthrough hit ‘Surfin’ USA’. Not many reviewers seem to realise just how much Carl grew with the band either, from aping the surf style of Dick Dale so professionally at 17 years of age many people in the know were fooled into thinking they were listening to the ‘real thing’ into the rockier, then folkier, then psychedelic style of the band through the 60-s and early 70s and into an almost grunge-punk playing on ’15 Big Ones’ and ‘Beach Boys Love You’. Without Carl in the band The Beach Boys would still have sounded good, but with Carl on board they sounded like a real tight band.

Guitar highlight: There are few chances to hear Carl aside from the rest of the band except for ‘Carl’s Big Chance’, a spiky surf-style rockabilly instrumental (from ‘All Summer Long’,  1964)

17) Craig Chaquico (Jefferson Starship)

What do you do when your lead guitarist has left to go figure-skating with your former bass player? You draft in a 15-year-old wunderkind of course! I’m astonished the world never heard more of this expressive player after Starship wound up it’s weary path in the late 80s – after all, unlike his 45-year-old fellow members Craig was just pushing 30 when the band finally foundered. Craig’s style was superb for the new-look Starship that Paul Kantner and Grace Slick were after in 1972, bringing a much tougher, more mainstream style to the band but one that still evoked memories of Jorma Jaukanen’s great psychedelic masterpieces (see next week for more on Jorma). One of the few members to survive the band’s sideways fall into heavy rock and AOR round about 1979, Craig became ever more integral to the band, finding a neat niche between the band’s more eccentric songs still in the setlist and the harder-edged rock the band was adding to the mix. You only have to look at the ‘Definitive Concert’ DVD (sadly the only live DVD of the Starship band available) to see how much the band rely on him as the lynchpin of their sound – and how much the camera loves him. Chaquico never had as much chance to stretch out on his solos as some, but when he did he was excellent, as noisy as any heavy metaller and yet played with much more sensitivity and emotion, channelling each song in a very believable, heart-tugging way.

Guitar highlight: ‘Awakening’, a four minute song turned into seven minute rock epic thanks to a masterful guitar solo that’s among the loudest in rock (from ‘Freedom At Point Zero’, 1979)

16) Pete Townshend (The Who)

I’m impressed that Pete made the top 10 of the Rolling Stone list because, again by his own admission, he’s much more of a rhythm player than a lead guitarist (especially in the early Who days, where John Entwistle’s bass did most of the traditional ‘flashy’ stuff). In fact, Pete’s often felt uncomfortable playing solos (he even employs an electric guitarist on stage with The Who these days and sticks to playing rhythm), which is a shame because the few he has managed – ‘The Ox’ ‘Sparks’ ‘Music Must Change’ ‘New Song’ ‘Pinball Wizard’ etc – have been jaw-dropping brilliant. Basic, primitive and noisy his solos may be, a flurry of slashing chords and mayhem, but his work is ridiculously exciting and, on a good night, Pete has the ability to push his solos out to goodness-knows-where completely unscripted (just listen to the staggering improvised playing on the ‘Live at Leeds’ version of ‘My Generation’ where he plays against the echo bouncing off the back of the concert hall). Whilst Pete got much of what he knew from watching Dave Davies play, it’s true to say that generations of players have been inspired by him since, not just for the drama and showmanship of Pete’s playing but for the way his instrument becomes such an emotive, articulate beast. In all the 30-odd Who/Townshend albums I own he never once played a solo that sounded less than committed or from the heart.

Guitar highlight: the spluttering feedback-drenched agony of ‘Anyway Anyhow Anywhere’ (single, 1965) – without that daring record psychedelia might never have happened

15) Noel Gallagher (Oasis/High Flying Birds)

One of the surprising absences from the Rolling Stones lists was this (comparatively) modern-day musician, one who – rarely – seems equally at home on acoustic and electric guitars. To some extent Noel has always downplayed his abilities, to the point where latter-day Oasis saw Gem getting far more solos than our Noel and even now the elder Gallagher brother seems to prefer to play rhythm at his live shows. But when he gets going Noel is one of the most exciting players around, as tender and fragile as anyone on one of his beloved acoustic Oasis b-sides and as snarling as the most primitive punk on the songs that need it. His range, from the delicate strumming of ‘Talk Tonite’ to the demented headbanging of ‘Headshrinker’ is little short of insane. Alas Oasis tended to give up their guitar solos during the ‘big split’ of 1998, creating instead a meaner, leaner sound with less room for instrumental parts, but back in the 90s Noel remained one of the most inspiring players around, with a real feel for when to place a guitar solo in a song and choruses just built for edgy guitar riffs.

Guitar highlight: ‘Champagne Supernova’ (‘Morning Glory’, 1995) is enchanting enough anyway but the epic end, with Noel’s guitar getting more and more passionate and angry before beautifully slipping back into the calm mood of the beginning is beauty personified

14) Mike Nesmith (The Monkees)

A rather less surprising omission, sadly, is the wool-hatted one from The Monkees who, before anyone scoffs, was already regarded as one of the best guitarists around before he even got The Monkees gig at the age of 24. As you all probably know, The Monkees were simply too busy to play on their early records and Mike is miming to the work of other players on the TV show but we’re not fussed about that – instead take a peek at any one of the classy albums from ‘Headquarters’ onwards. Chances are if you hear a great solo, it’s Nesmith playing, righting the rather lopsided band that The Monkees were in 1967 (with Micky still learning how to play the drums) to the pioneering country-rock band of 1969 that created the road The Eagles and co walked down in the mid 70s. Papa Nes’ guitar style is, like many of these players, a seeming extension of himself, confident assured direct and straightforward, saying more in a few words than lesser guitarists do in hours. Listen out for any of his pedal-steel recordings from ‘Headquarters’ too, such as the chilling ghostly accompaniment to ‘Mr Webster’ to hear a really imaginative player at work, not afraid to take risks but still grounded enough to make the most of each piece in turn.

Guitar highlight: when the echo-drenched riff of ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’ (‘Pisces Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd’, 1967) gets noisier and noisier and ends up drenching the whole recording in exciting atmospheric splendour   

13) Mick Taylor (Rolling Stones)

One figure I was pleased to see in the Rolling Stone list was Mick Taylor, lead guitarist on the ‘sultry six’ Stones records made between 1968 and 1973 – it’s no coincidence that many a fan reckons those six albums were the band’s best (me, I prefer the psychedelic years but then I’m weird).  Mick’s been forgotten now, to the point where he seems to be touring the clubs and pubs of the UK and making poor-selling low budget albums on a variety of labels but in his day he was the star-in-the-making above all others. His fluid, liquid style was exactly what the band needed in the sad days after Brian Jones’ death, giving the band a shot in the arm and an epic folky feel that added a whole new majesty to the Stones sound, whilst still being better able to play swamp rock than uncle Keef himself (just why is Keith so high on the original list? He’s a great writer of riffs and a superb rhythm player, but I can count on one hand the solos he’s played in 49 years of recordings!) Less grounded than Brian, but more grounded than Ronnie Wood, Mick is a natural musician, someone seemingly born with a feel for how to make an arrangement ebb and flow and reach new heights. It wasn’t just the band who were sad the day he quit and it’s notable how flat many of the Stones albums sound after his departure. 

Guitar Highlight: When the urgent Stones rocker ‘Can You Hear Me Knocking?’ segues into an extended prog rock jam, Mick tackling both extremes with ease (‘Sticky Fingers’, 1971)

12) George Harrison (The Beatles)

One of the new list entries that’s caused the most controversy is George Harrison. Soon after his death, when Rolling Stone made their choice in 2004 he was missing entirely; now, some ten year’s after the Beatle’s death when we’ve come to terms somewhat with his passing he’s now rated no 11. To be honest, I think the truth is somewhere in between: George never played that many solos in his career and tended to stick towards his distinctive slide-guitar sound rather than experimenting like some of the others on this list; that said, Harrison deserves to make this list, if only for making guitars ‘cool’ again for a whole generation and having such good ears he could always enhance a Beatles or solo record with his guitarwork, even when hearing a song for only the second or third time. Naysayers always say that the only memorable guitar solo in The Beatles’ canon is on ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ (and played by George’s pal Eric Clapton), but playing an instrument well is not just about solo-ing – next time you hear any of the ‘band’ Beatle performances listen out for just how right and unobtrusive George’s guitar is in the mix – and how wrong the song would sound without him there. And when George hit his peak with his slide-guitar style (as on ‘Marwa Blues’ from last album ‘Brainwashed’), oh it’s gorgeous...

Guitar highlight: the strummed opening chord to ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ (1964, from LP of the same name), perhaps the greatest opening note in rock and roll

11) Eric Stewart (10cc)

One guitarist who always gets forgotten or dismissed is Eric Stewart. But few other players are as recognisable as the lead of 10cc’s three guitarists, with a scatterbrained screaming torrent of sound that  nevertheless is fully controlled and channelled. When 10cc played in concert it was nearly always Eric’s solos that got the biggest applause, giving the band’s songs a real feeling of power, anger and poise. Only the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia could control feedback in such a natural-sounding way, as a really instinctive part of a song and not just an overblown out-of-control mess. Eric is at his best on the series of mid-70s 10ccc songs that are loud, proud and all-out for your attention (including two remarkable jaw-dropping solos on the ‘Original Soundtrack’ album alone), but even the band’s songs got quieter, subtler and more emotional (after the loss of Godley/Creme in 1976 and Eric’s serious car crash in 1980) his guitar-work was as beautiful and emotional as it had always been. You had to be a pretty fine guitarist to be in the same band as Lol Creme and Graham Gouldman, two other fine guitarists, but Eric had such an instinctive and natural verve and attack he complemented the band’s sound superbly, giving the band power without sacrificing the richness of the detail. 

Guitar highlight: It’s a toss-up between the two guitar-dominated songs from ‘The Original Soundtrack’ (1974), ‘The Second Sitting For The Last Supper’ and ‘Blackmail’, a song that closes with a deliriously exciting guilt-ridden slide into mayhem and feedback.

So which guitarist made it to the upper reaches of guitarist immortality? Find out next week, when we have even more newsing, viewsing and musicing!

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