My Favorite Guitarists
This is a considerably expanded version of a discussion I started by email a while back.


You don't make my list if you can't play a solo.  Don't tell me that Kurt Cobain is the best guitarist ever.  I just don't see it.  I don't confuse good players and good recordings.  The two are mutually exclusive.  Consider Clapton's back catalog.  There are a lot of weak songs in there with great playing.  Conversely, there are scores of terrific pop songs that could have done even better with a great guitar solo (as demonstrated by EVH's moment on Michael Jackson's "Beat It").

#1 Django Reinhardt
 
Signature guitars
  • Selmer Maccafferi D-hole
  • Selmer Maccafferi oval-hole
Bands
  • The Quintet Of The Hot Club Of France
  • Solo artist
Must Hear Recordings
  • Minor Swing (1937 recording)
  • Minor Swing (1949 recording)
  • Honeysuckle Rose (1938 recording)
  • everything else!
It's hard to believe that the top guitarist on my list would also be the one guy among the lot who was dead before many of the rest here were even born.  However, even though he predates rock and roll, Django remains the most capable guitarist on any "best of" list.  The speed at which he assembled complex phrases is astounding.  Further, he had the ability to play any note and make it sound natural.  His solos are full of blue notes and chromatic runs, yet absolutely every lick sounds fully formed and perfectly in touch with the band and the rest of the piece.

Even Jeff Beck acknowledges that to this day no one has surpassed Django at playing from the heart with the greatest degree of skill.  And he did this with only two working fingers (and the occasional thumb) on his left hand to fret with!


Guitar spotlight: My Gitane D-500 replica by Saga.

#2 Jeff Beck
 
Signature guitars
  • Signature Stratocaster with Lace Sensor pickups
  • Signature Stratocaster with Vintage Noiseless pickups
  • Black Les Paul with open-face humbuckers
  • An occasional Telecaster
Bands
  • Solo artist
  • The Jeff Beck Group
  • with Rod Stewart
Must Hear Recordings
  • Brush With the Blues
  • Cause We Ended As Lovers
  • Amused to Death (concept album with Roger Waters from Pink Floyd)
  • damned near everything else.
Beck has it all: a great sound (several of them, to be honest), an incredible range of styles, and uncanny technique.  While he can certainly play conventional styles, Beck also has an elastic approach that is impossible to imitate.  Believe me, I've tried!  I have read discussions of Beck's playing where the reviewer was unable to state with certainty whether a recording was made using a slide or fretted with fingers.

Beck continues to be an innovator.  He has moved through fusion, blues, classic rock, pop, and even loop-driven electronica lately.  His latest album is better than much of his earlier material.  There aren't that many guitarists who can continue to be original.  Even David Gilmour says Jeff Beck is his favorite guitarist.  I don't know who could give a higher recommendation than that.



#3 Eddie Van Halen
 
Signature guitars
  • Frankenstrat
  • Kramer "5150"
  • Steinberger GL, etc.
  • Ernie Ball/Music Man signature model (now known as the Axis)
  • Peavey Wolfgang
Bands: Van Halen (duh!)
 
Must Hear Recordings
  • Entire albums: I, 1984, 5150, most else!
  • 316 (live from Right Here, Right Now; encompasses Eruption, Spanish Fly, Cathedral, etc.)
Must See Performance: Live Without a Net (concert video)

EVH is undeniably one of the most inventive guitarists and individuals on the planet.  Any single innovation Eddie had a hand in creating or popularizing had such a tremendous effect that it would have been remarked upon throughout his career.  But Eddie has quite a history.  Consider the following.

  • Tapping.  Eddie certainly wasn't the first to do this, but he was the first to employ this technique the most imaginatively and consistently across his work, inspiring heavy metal guitarists for the next decade and beyond.
  • The Floyd Rose.  He didn't invent it, but Eddie was an early adopter of this tremolo system, and he used it to great effect, easily pushing it to extremes beyond anything most players out there would have considered before he set the example.  Also, rather than using a floating tremolo, Eddie has almost always used a flush-mounted version on all his guitars; it can dive-bomb but cannot be pulled back
  • Guitar building.  Eddie always did things his own way.  Countless guitars marketed by Kramer and their imitators were influenced by his unique one pickup design.  Further, Eddie's penchant for striping his axes resulted in a similar run of recreations among guitar makers... at least until Eddie's lawyers set them straight.
  • Electronics.  In addition to playing a role in building, designing, and rebuilding various pickups, Eddie also modified his amp, including adding a VARIAC to change the properties of his equipment and to get the sounds he sought.
  • The D-Tuna.  This is Eddie's latest creation.  A major drawback of the Floyd Rose tremolo was that even a simple drop-D tuning could not be achieved without an Allen wrench.  This device gets around that by dramatically extending the range of the fine tuner on the low E string such that it can drop a full step.

Guitar spotlight: My customized Frankenstrat replica.  I also built a 5150 out of a Kramer years ago, but have since sold it since I already had the Frankenstrat and didn't need another single pickup guitar.

#4 Eric Clapton
 
Signature guitars
  • "Blackie" (black Stratocaster) among many other Strats
  • original Fender signature model Strat with Lace Sensor pickups
  • modern Fender signature model Strat with Vintage Noiseless pickups
  • various hollowbodies, including a few Gibson 335s
  • Gibson SG (during the Cream years)
  • Gibson Les Pauls
  • signature Martin acoustic
  • ...and anything else vintage.
Bands
  • Solo artist
  • Cream
  • many, many other bands
Must Hear Recordings
  • I Wish It Would Rain Down (w/ Phil Collins)
  • Pros and Cons of Hitchhicking (concept album with Roger Waters from Pink Floyd)
  • Ain't Gone and Give Up on Love (live on A Tribute To Stevie Ray Vaughan)
  • River of Tears (compare the recording on Pilgrim to the live version!)
  • No Alibis
  • She's Gone
  • Crossroads (w/ Cream)
  • Wonderful Tonight (live on 24 Nights)
Even if you don't believe the graffiti that "Clapton is God," at least consider the fact that he has been Eddie Van Halen's favorite guitarist from the very beginning.  However, I will be the first to admit it's sometimes hard to see where Clapton is an innovator or a killer guitarist, especially in his latter years.  However, he has largely worked in established styles such as blues and country rock, although he has also keep a finger in the popular styles of the day including psychedelic rock (as with Cream), pop music, and even playing with electronic loops (e.g., on Pilgrim and recording as "X-Sample" on the TDF album Retail Therapy).

He has also demonstrated a skill for experimentation in searching out interesting gear.   Decades after building his trademark "Blackie" from the parts of "seconds" (guitars considered inferior), Clapton popularized Lace Sensor pickups and on-board pre-amps in his signature model Stratocaster that recreated his famous ax.

Clapton is the ultimate blues player.  There's just no question about it.  He simply is the best.  Unfortunately, he rarely shows the full extent of his abilities.  Some of his best recordings (see above) were back-up performances in the shadow of other artists.  He's just quirky that way, but humility always earns points with me.  So does opening a rehab center to help other recovering addicts.


Guitar spotlight: My black Strat, a take on Clapton's signature strat with all the same hardware plus a few tricks up its sleeves!

#5 Brian Setzer
 
Signature guitars
  • Gretsch signature 6120 (orange)
  • Gretsch signature Hot Rod
  • Gretsch White Falcon
Bands
  • Stray Cats
  • Brian Setzer Orchestra
  • Solo artist
Must Hear Recordings
  • Rock This Town (Stray Cats)
  • Sleepwalk (with the BSO)
It has become a cliché, but Brian Setzer continues to demonstrate that he's one cat with nine lives.  He started out as the frontman for the Rockabilly band The Stray Cats.  His playing on those albums was an astounding piece of musical time travel.  He took what was good about those early recordings of Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, and others, and pushed it farther than the originals ever could have.  It's an insult to consider the early Stray Cats material that of "just some cover band."

Setzer tried a brief stint in country music next, but his songs failed to showcase his capabilities with a guitar.  Then he somehow he literally wandered into a group of swing musicians and found that things clicked.  Since the formation of the Brian Setzer Orchestra he has gotten even better, even if the songs are sometimes sappier.  In recent years, Brian has put the Orchestra on hold and he has been rocking out as a solo performer again.  Most recently, the re-united Stray Cats have been out touring.  Who knows what's next?


Guitar spotlight: My Gretsch 6120 1960 reissue.  Essentially the same as Brian's signature model minus the expensive extras.  (He has three actual 1960 Gretsches of his own.)

#6 David Gilmour
 
Signature guitars
  • '50s reissue Fender Stratocaster with EMG SA pickups and EXG and SPC preamps
  • vintage sunburst Telecaster
  • Gretsch Duo Jet
Bands
  • Solo artist
  • Pink Floyd
Must Hear Recordings
  • Okay, yes, the solos on Comfy Numb and Another Brick Pt 2 from The Wall
  • The solo on the title track of Pink Floyd's Final Cut album
  • No More Lonely Nights (w/ Paul McCartney)
  • Live version of Running Up That Hill (w/ Kate Bush from The Secret Policeman's Third Ball)
Dave's playing is remarkable in its clarity and beautiful, almost hummable melodies.  But as big a role as Roger Waters played in establishing the lyrical themes and song stylings of Pink Floyd, David Gilmour's sound is an unmistakable presence on every track.  I didn't realize how integral his sound was (Roger's solo work not withstanding) until I heard Dave's first solo album.  Somehow Dave gets a unique tone out of his rig that is impossible to imitate, although I've been trying to for years.

Guitar spotlight: My red Strat.  Features Gilmour's EMG pickups, pre-amps, and much of the vintage look of his own axe.

#7 Eric Johnson

Signature guitar: vintage sunburst Fender Stratocaster

Bands: Solo... always
 
Must Hear Recordings
  • Cliffs of Dover
  • Trademark
  • SRV
I was fortunate enough to see Eric Johnson live at a relatively small club when I was an undergrad.  I think about 90% of the guys in the audience were fellow guitarists because everyone just stood there with an unbreakable focus on Eric's left hand.  No one moved as he worked through an extended opening to Cliffs of Dover.  We all knew what was coming next and we definitely wanted to figure out how the hell he could play like that!

Eric's style is built around a number of unconventional techniques.  For example, he's famous for "string skipping," a conscious bounding across the fretboard instead of the usual scale runs.  Of course, he can do those too.  In fact, Ah Via Musicom is like traveling across the history of guitar music.  Pieces like Song for George take you way back, whereas Steve's Boogie brings you to closer to the present, and then tracks like Trademark are from a genetically enhanced future where everyone has extra fingers and lightning reflexes.



#8 Buddy Guy

Signature guitar:  signature polka dot Fender Stratocaster

Bands: Solo... always
 
Must Hear Recordings:
  • Long Way From Home (from the SRV tribute album)
  • Title track from Damn Right I Got the Blues
Buddy has amazing energy, yet can be incredibly laid back.  Consider the two tracks above.  On "Long Way," he takes a machine gun SRV track and brings it down to super cool.  Then he plays "Damn Right" like he's going to kill his guitar, and you're next on his list.

But Buddy has a sense of humor too.  At the close of the SRV Tribute concert some years back, there was an extended blues jam that had the performers each wrap up the piece with a signature lick.  Robert Cray played the usual minor pentatonic lick.  Bonnie Rait ran her bottleneck slide around something sort of bluesy.  The Buddy let out a chicken-scratch rendition of Mary Had a Little Lamb.  The audience went nuts.  Even Eric Clapton acknowledges Buddy Guy as "the greatest living blues player."


#9 Jimmy Page
 
Signature guitars
  • signature Les Paul with coil taps, series/parallel switching, and a phase switch
  • Double-neck SG (red)
Bands
  • Led Zeppelin
  • Solo artist
  • Page & Plant
Must Hear Recordings
  • Stairway to Heaven
  • Rock and Roll
  • Going to California
  • and everything else on Led Zeppelin IV
Page was the master of all riffs, and he was a genius at innovations in studio recording and multi-track guitar orchestration (although a more apt description might be to call them guitar armies).  Most importantly, he was an inventive player, and he continues to try new styles and techniques.  Some of the tangents he has explored include Middle Eastern influences, bowed guitar, and alternate tunings (lately with the TransPerformance system).

Guitar spotlight: My customized Les Paul.  Features all the crazy wiring of Jimmy's signature model and more (i.e., series/parallel switching, phase switching, coil taps, etc. plus a bit more).

#10 Reeves Gabrels
 
Signature guitars
  • Steinberger GM
  • Parker Fly
  • various Fernandez models
Bands
  • Tin Machine (w/ David Bowie)
  • David Bowie (as a "solo artist")
  • Protecto
Must Hear Recordings: Anything live by Tin Machine

Reeves is probably the most unconventional player on this list.  While he is capable of playing traditional rock and roll (see Tin Machine, for example), Gabrels has moved steadily toward abstraction like no one since perhaps Robert Fripp.  The first time I saw him was during his time with Tin Machine on a SNL performance.  That was also the first time I ever saw a Steinberger guitar (ever the innovator, Gabrels now plays a Parker).  I had never seen such wild playing before.  He demonstrated the extremes to which a Steinberger can be pushed.

Playing aside, Gabrels is also a very well-read and all-around intelligent guy.  He used to write a column in Guitar for the Practicing Musician magazine that went well beyond presenting interesting scales and alternate chord inversions.  His articles focused on ways to be different, to reconceptualize the guitar, and he often did this through analogies unrelated to music.  This was quite a departure from the style and content of the other columnists in GFTPM, and it was vastly more instructive.  If you can get a copy of these, they are definitely worth the price of the issue.


Guitar spotlight: My customized Steinberger.  A very, very cool guitar with a few extras you probably haven't seen elsewhere.

#11 Stevie Ray Vaughan

Signature guitar: Number One sunburst (what was left of the finish) Stratocaster with gold hardware including a left-handed tremolo (according to his guitar tech who built it, he wanted gold hardware and all that was available for the trem was a leftie!)
 
Bands
  • SRV and Double Trouble
  • with David Bowie on Let's Dance
Must Hear Recordings
  • Little Wing
  • Voodoo Chile
Must See Performance: On Austin City Limits (frequently re-run on PBS during pledge drives)

Unfortunately, and this is just my opinion (and an unpopular one at that), I feel like on a lot of recordings he's too drunk or stoned or whatever to produce great music.  Granted, he's a great guitarist, head and shoulders above just about anyone playing the blues, but you can see where some performances are clearly below what he demonstrated he was capable of delivering.

However, when you see some of the live material, it's amazing what he was able to do with (and to) that instrument.  The simultaneous rhythm and lead playing is uncanny.  He was two guitarists in one.

Personal note: Charlie's Guitar Shop (featured on SRV's t-shirt in the photo above) is right near me in Dallas.  Very nice place!  I've been there a few times and even bought some of my first push-pull pots from them some years ago.  They have a huge blow-up of this photo framed on the wall next to the front door.



#12 Steve Vai
 
Signature guitars
  • Ibanez 7 string (smeared/streaked dayglow rainbow)
  • Ibanez 777 (white with vine inlay)
  • Ibanez 777 (black with mirrored pickguard and pyramid inlay on body)
Bands
  • Solo artist
  • w/ Frank Zappa
  • Whitesnake
  • w/ David Lee Roth
Must Hear Recordings
  • The entire Passion & Warfare album
  • The duel at the end of the movie Crossroads (no, not the one with Britany Spears)
Steve doesn't push a lot of boundaries, but he's good at what he does.  He was also one of the first guys in rock with a 7-string guitar (some jazz men were doing it first).  This was ten years or so before KoRn and the rest of those neanderthals had even plugged in.

Vai is anything but afraid of guitar effects, and Passion & Warfare is guitar rock what Star Wars was to science fiction.  He is very showy, but he knows how to employ big sounds.


Other Noteworthy Axe-men (in not particular order)

In a few words....

  • B.B. King -  Who needs chords?
  • Joe Satriani -  Who needs hair?
  • Brian May -  Versatile and the master of guitar orchestration.
  • Kirk Hammett -  Faster and more intense.
  • Zack Wylde -  Not bad.
  • Randy Rhoades -  Amazing.
  • The Edge -  Great songs and an inventive player.
  • Carlos Santana -  A living legend.
  • Jimi Hendrix -  A dead one.
  • Slash -  Underrated.
  • Jake E. Lee -  Even more underrated.
  • Allan Holdsworth -  Channeled dissonance.


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