Friday, 20 January 2012
News, Views and Music Issue 130 (Top Ten): AAA Guitarists Part One
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): http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/100-greatest-guitarists-20111123 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 rest of the top twenty were featured in our last issue!)
10) Justin Hayward (Moody Blues)
There are those who dismiss the Moodies’ work as ‘lightweight’ and ‘wordy’, something that’s so obviously wrong when you hear any of their records that the person sniping almost invariably hasn’t actually heard any of their records at all. The reason the band got away with such mystical thoughts for 40 years is nearly all down to Justin’s tough guitar sound. A wonderful hybrid of heavy metal and folk, it’s the power behind the throne of such tender love songs as ‘Nights In White Satin’ and such power-charges as ‘Question’. Most fans assume that, as a quintet, the Moodies are full of guitarists – actually Justin is the band’s only guitarist until John Lodge starts duetting on acoustic guitar sometime during the mid-70s (on the ‘Blue Jays’ album). All those dozens of styles – peaceful, noisy, angry, kind, sad, happy, determined, out-of-control – are all from the same guitarist using the same guitar. Few musicians have ever had the depth of Hayward or the ability to place just the right-sounding solo at just the right point of each song.
Guitar highlight: ‘The Story In Your Eyes’, an extraordinary snarling rocker about a forthcoming apocalypse which, thanks to Justin’s searing guitar-work, sounds all too believable (‘Every Good Boy Deserves Favour’, 1971)
9) Dave Davies (The Kinks)
I’m very pleased to see the younger Davies brother finally get his dues in the Rolling Stone list, although if anything his placement at 91 is a bit on the low side. After all, how many angry, erratic solos were there in the world before ‘You Really Got Me’ came along? None, that’s the answer. The fact that Dave could not only copy that style (created by slashing the cones of his amplifier speakers with a razorblade) but develop it for ‘All Day And All Of The Night’ and ‘Til The End Of The Day’ is incredible. Dave never stopped learning either, developing his style along with Ray’s songwriting when his brother got folkier, more ‘English’ and whimsical and yet his songs still often dripped with sarcasm and bitterness. I fully recommend Dave’s solo albums to anyone with an interest in Kinks-ness – ‘Chosen People’ in particular is the logical development of the band’s sound in the 1980s even more than the band albums – and they’re the only place you can hear all of Dave’s ‘styles’ in the same place, instead of progressing across successive albums. An inspiration to everyone from Pete Townshend through to today’s heavy metal wannabes (‘All Day’ is still a favourite as a warm-up piece, full of spiky energy and chords that are a joy to play), Dave Davies is a true one of a kind, with a highly original speaking style brother Ray once compared to his speaking style and overall energy (‘very fast and chatty and very...individual!’)
Guitar highlight: I know we’ve mentioned it already, but just cast your mind back to 1964 and hearing ‘You Really Got Me’ for the first time, before all the pale imitations that came since. There’s a whole world of possibilities opening up there in just one single solo.
8) David Gilmour (Pink Floyd)
Gilmour always rates highly in these polls – no surprise there, really, given that he virtually created the 1970s image of a tanned, long haired minstrel doing strange things to his guitar and floating off into a crowd of weirdness. It seems amazing that the Floyd could ever have come up with a guitarist as individual and mellifluous as their former leader, Syd Barrett, but Gilmour was the perfect choice: equally adept at thrilling psychedelia and going out on a limb as far as ever, but also more firmly rooted to rock and folk at the same time. Like many others on this list, Gilmour also has such a strong individual style that you can tell within seconds that it’s him playing and it’s a thrilling, wondrously moving sound even though – unlike many others on this list – Gilmour generally plays quietly, cleanly and precisely (unless he’s doing a Syd Barrett song). It speaks volumes that even when Roger Waters takes over the band almost completely in the early 80s he still asked Gilmour to play some solos on ‘The Wall’ and ‘The Final Cut’ in order to make them sound ‘like the Floyd’. Some fans are known to travel all over the world in order to see how Gilmour’s solos vary from night to night – and there’s a bucketloads of his performances on Youtube, stripped down to just how the solos in his songs altered from one performance to another. That kind of devotion is special indeed –m but then Gilmour is a special kind of guitarist, responsible for many of the best solos in music.
Guitar highlight: That moment in ‘Comfortably Numb’ when all hope seems extinguished and the character ‘Pink’ is doomed, only for that chorus and that solo to kick in and for one glorious moment we think everything’s going to be OK (That goes double for the stage performances, where Gilmour plays on top of the wall built right across the stage...)
7) Tony Hicks (The Hollies)
Alas even though 2011 was ‘The Hollies’ year’ (see news and views 127) their guitarist-in-residence still couldn’t make it onto the Rolling Stone list. That’s despite a string of well known singles (nearly all with wonderful solos – just think of the opening whine of ‘The Air That I Breathe’) and equally wonderful but lesser known album tracks and b-sides. Few guitarists were as respected on the 1960s music scene as Tony – there’s even a wonderful episode of Blue Peter on Youtube from the late 60s where the production team ‘borrow’ him to show off a new wireless guitar simply because he is so respected – and few experimented as readily. The Hollies influences are wide and eclectic and Tony (one of the band’s three songwriters) was a big part of that sound, veering from gritty rock to folk to country to psychedelia without a second thought. Tony even made the banjo popular again, after using it on a string of recordings between 1966 and 68! And oh that sound, rich and full and clean as you like – why the heck isn’t he on the Rolling Stones list?!
Guitar highlight: ‘Hard Hard Year’, a folky head-hanging ballad from ‘Would You Believe?’ (1965) that breaks away for one of the most emotional solos of all time, as Tony powers his way through a stunning solo drenched in feedback which is one of the noisiest solos ever put on record up to that time. Stunning.
6) Bert Jansch (Pentangle)
When the 2004 Rolling Stone magazine came out I remember visiting a few music forums and seeing what people thought of that last list and one comment in particular caught my eye. A fan, not unlike myself, had gone through the whole list, saying what he thought and adding comments to everybody as well as saying whether he thought they should be higher, lower or replaced with someone else entirely. Everyone else got a paragraph – Bert’s entry simply got ‘I don’t know the guy’s work’. That says it all, as does the fact that this second Rolling Stone list misses Jansch out entirely, despite the guitarist making the news just a few months ago with his death. But in the day there was no figure more respected than Jansch, a real musician’s musician who shied away from fame or any activity that got in the way of his playing, living only for the on-going love affair with his guitar. That devotion really showed, in both his solo and his Pentangle records, which are full of some of the richest and most varied sounds around. It’s no coincidence that Neil Young himself hired Bert as his ‘warm-up act’ on tour a few years back and refused to play with him too often because ‘I’d get blown out of the water’ – Bert’s ability to make an acoustic guitar sit up and speak all the hidden emotions of a song has never been bettered. It goes without saying that he’ll be sorely missed by whole legions of fans around the world who’ll miss Bert’s distinctive, mature sound.
Guitar highlight: We already mentioned it on our ‘tribute’ special (news and views 117) but ‘People On The Highway’ (‘Reflections’, 1971) is a stunning song, with a stunning guitar accompaniment to match.
5) Nils Lofgren
As we keep saying on this site, Nils Lofgren has such talent, charisma and ability, he should be a household name, not just a curio for collectors of Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen records who want to know what the rhythm guitarist sounded like on his own. Nils is a guitarist in the fast and fluid mould, one who like Dave Davies manages to combine pure theatre and performance (plying guitars while jumping up and down on a trampoline, playing his bother Tom’s guitar in the middle of a solo, etc) with solos that are nevertheless the perfect emotional foil for the songs. Nils’ songs are often about other people and the damage he sees in the world around him, with Lofgren never afraid to dilute the nastyness and violence around him, but more than most of the artists we cover Nils has a big big heart and his guitar solos somehow manage to show great empathy and sadness as well as brittleness and despair. Again like Dave, who uses this talent all too infrequently, Nils is just at home on an acoustic as an electric and Nils’ live acoustic, almost ‘unplugged’ record is one of his most popular with fans. Whether flying round some exotic chords at two hundred miles an hour (as he does on ‘Moontears’) or picking out a solo of just four or five notes (as he does on ‘Soft Fun’), Nils hits the emotional spot every single time.
Guitar highlight: ‘Moon Tears’ (from ‘1+1’ by Grin, Nils’ first band), a tight compact two minute rocker that spirals more and more out of control with each twist of fate and ends up in a sudden, sighing, disconsolate mess. The multi-dubbed solo in the middle is an outrageous mix of noise, mayhem and sadness.
4) Jorma Kaukanen (Jefferson Airplane)
We’re in danger of forgetting how brave and inventive the Airplane were, after several line-up shifts into Jefferson Starship and Starship, to the point where the band are now the butt of jokes about the 1960s. But back in the day there was nothing in music like it – soaring harmonies, killer angry brittle songs and an instrumental attack no one could match. Jorma’s guitar power was a key part of that driving sound, angular and odd sounding and yet hauntingly beautiful too, a perfect encapsulation of all the raw harmony and bitter-sweetness the Airplane represented at their best. Like the best guitarists, no one could match Jorma for intensity or for control and what he did with feedback was incredible, a skill and talent matched only by the next musician on our list. Despite ending up a talented blue player, Jorma really was our premier psychedelic guitarist, always looking to push music that extra mile and yet still very much a part of a ‘band’ and the perfect accompaniment to the three-pronged vocal attack of Marty Balin, Grace Slick and Paul Kantner.
Guitar highlight: There is no other song in my record collection quite like ‘The Ballad Of You and Me and Pooneil’ (from ‘After Bathing At Baxters’, 1967), a psychedelic masterpiece about companionship and trust, driven by a single shrill note of wobbly feedback that in true Airplane style is one of the most beautiful and scary things it will ever be your privilege to hear. The solo in the middle of this song is pretty extraordinary too!
3) Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead)
If you’ve ever heard a full Grateful Dead concert – and there’s about a million of them out there officially now, so there’s something wrong with you if you haven’t – you can’t help but marvel at Garcia’s ability to play just the right solo at just the right length across a full concert. Sure Jerry’s timing slips a bit in the 1980s when he falls ill with enough problems to fell the strongest of men but at any time throughout the 1960s and 70s he never lets the listener down once, simply living breathing and absorbing music. The Dead’s naysayers always dismiss them as lazy hippies, all too willing to suck the life of a song by stretching it too far, but I say in contrast that Jerry was the hardest-working musician that probably ever lived. Every Dead concert was long and every Dead concert was unique, not to mention the dozens of Dead studio albums, the dozens of solo or collaborative non-Dead projects and the literally hundreds of guest appearances on other people’s albums (including the Airplane and CSNY families). That’s a ridiculous body of work for someone who died in their early 50s, but then Jerry was special, everyone knew that and as articulate in his speech as his guitar abilities. No wonder he became the unofficial spokesperson for whole generation and the go-to voice every time the media wanted an intelligent voice to speak about peace and love (and David Crosby was unavailable). And what a player – not flashy, not bold, not quick but oh so tuned into what a song is all about and what it needs. All this from a player who was missing a finger on his right hand, after a childhood accident. Incredible. I still miss him dearly and I don’t think I’m the only one.
Guitar highlight: This was a tough one, but I’ve had to go with any of the live versions of ‘Morning Dew’ around (eg the ‘Europe 72’ version) – of all the cover songs the Dead played, none was better suited to drawing out Garcia’s deep compassion for human beings than this warning about nuclear war.
2) Neil Young (solo plus CSNY and Buffalo Springfield)
What a band the Springfield was – including guitarists #1 and #2 on our list. Undoubtedly both Stills and Young got the best out of each other, their very different personalities and guitar styles and their sense of competition getting the best out of most players, but even on their own these musicians are special. Neil is the tortoise out the two players, more likely to play long slow involved solos that have the unique ability to swirl together into a hypnotic whole that sounds unlike anything ever played (‘Like A Hurricane’ being the best example of this). And what a sound that is – a very human sound that somehow sounds like a wounded animal fighting for life and yet still so very very noble and beautiful. Neil’s guitar-work is also ridiculously varied and just as well because it’s needed to have been, sounding the part whatever genre Neil’s concoting songs in this time around (in rough order throughout his career Shadows-type shuffle, rock, psychedelia, country, folk, punk, heavy metal, electronica, rockabilly, blues, grunge, sea shanties and whatever the heck genre ‘Greendale’ was meant to be) and always with every note ringing true. Whether carefully planned or spontaneously wrought from nowhere in the middle of a song, the guitar solos are nearly always the most special bits of any Neil Young performance and, arguably, of our whole record collections.
Guitar highlight: For two extremes, see ‘Cinnamon Girl’ (‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’, 1970) for the greatest controlled solo, all played with fierce attack on a single note and the live version of ‘Dangerbird’ (‘Year Of The Horse’ 1997) for unhinged total madness and a harrowing haunting ghost of a guitar part that will stay in your dreams forever.
1) Stephen Stills (solo plus CSNY and Buffalo Springfield)
For me, though, the winner just has to be Stills. No one worked harder, no one pushed further and no one covered the ground that Stills did between the mid-60s and the mid-70s and even now his acoustic playing is still the best in the business. Whether howling blues with sincerity, picking out isolated notes of such sadness or rocking with the best riffs in the business, Stills never ever played a bad solo in all the years of collecting and listening I’ve dedicated to this man’s art (and there have been many of those, I can assure you). Rough and ready enough to spark the most disinterested of crowds or as intricate and subtle a backing as three-part soaring harmonies could wish to have, few musicians have such a natural talent as Stills and yet put in the hours of working and rer-working ideas to make good ideas sound great. The modern slant of CSNY is that Young is the one whose been propping up the talent in the band and the one who is the moist natural instinctive musician of the pack. Absolute nonsense. Stills’ guitar solos used to be legendary and, thanks to the many hundreds of bootleg tapes lovingly catalogued by still-awed fans, we can still hear how drop-dead amazingly Stills could be. That said, what better concerts were there than the ones that found Stills and Young at the top of their game, each one goading on the other’s genius? Absolutely first-class...
Guitar highlight: ‘Bluebird’ (from ‘Buffalo Springfield Again’ 1967), which veers from noisy rocker to wigged out psychedelic masterclass and ends with an Appalachian mountain acoustic coda, all played to perfection with Stills taking the lead. Stunning.
Think we missed out an obvious AAA candidate? Let us know on our forum! Till then, thanks for reading and see you next week!