Read Time 13 Minutes
The Guitar With Such Greatness
Believe it or not there was a time when the guitar didn’t have the powerhouse influence that it has on the music industry these days. Back in Bach’s day the guitar was around, but it hardly had an influence on the musical trends of the time. Even back in the earlier decades of the 1900s when jazz and blues music was on the rise the saxophone reigned supreme.
But who made the guitar cool? Who were the most prominent guitarists that made everyone want to throw down their violins, grab a guitar, and crank the amp up until the ground under our feet fissured?
I’ve ordered this according to generations, though some are a bit fuzzy. When ordering I had considered when the given musician began compared to when their influence began to take shape and sorta played it by ear from there.
As Always – Click any image to enlarge
Andres Segovia was possibly the first person to really make the guitar cool. Sure the guitar had been around before him and history is littered with talented classical guitarists, but when you look at the body of music that came out in the baroque, classical, and romantic periods the ratios were just plain not in the guitar’s favor. While Segovia was up against dominant instruments in his hey day he managed to bring something new out of the instrument and that brought a lot of attention to it.
Not only did Django Reinhardt play well enough to give everyone a run for their money he did it with two fingers. Since then he’s been the poster child of “if I can so can you” guitarists to bring up whenever someone doubts their capability. Reinhardt has always been proof that a love for the instrument is all you need. The rest will take care of itself.
Speaking of influential guitars. Les Paul. Les Paul didn’t just make you want to play the guitar. He made you want to play a Les Paul. And let’s face it. What influence the world of the guitar didn’t get from Fender they got from Gibson and Les Paul. You know. The other company that set the standard on how to design guitars.
Who said guitar playing had to be your profession to make a guitar cool? Leo Fender was the man behind the Stratocaster. Do I need to elaborate on that one? One of the coolest models out there the Strat set a standard in design and since then countless models have been designed to some degree around the style of the Strat. Ibanez, Jackson, BC Rich, and plenty more. I think by now you’re hard pressed to find a company that doesn’t have some sort of Strat influence in them.
You know why BB King could be considered the textbook example of what it is to be a guitarist? The man ran into a burning building to get a guitar back. That’s the kind of dedication to the instrument you just can’t fake. His love for the guitar didn’t just stop at his choice of notes to play, but his life choices, some of which involved putting his life in danger.
Johnny B. Goode. That’s all I need to say about Chuck Berry. While rock was still in its formative years Berry came along and supplied the world with one of the most memorable energetic and upbeat rock songs ever. That’s not to skim over every other noteworthy song that Chuck Berry has done. But that’s the song that set the planets of rock in motion. Plus it made Back to the Future even cooler.
Johnny Cash was a strange breed. I don’t know that I’d ever consider him as a guy that played the guitar overly complexly, or that I ever sought his music with the interest in hearing exclusively his guitar work, but when he played the instrument some sort of honesty in him came through. Does anything seem more natural for Cash to have than a guitar? Aside from cigarettes that is. Plus he was giving cameras the finger long before Slipknot. Lewd gestures always make a guitarist look cooler.
I remember reading a quote from Decca Recording circa 1960s when speaking of the Beatles. “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on its way out.” That was stated as they declined the Beatles, dismissing them as a fad passing as soon as it began. Boy were they wrong. That is an interesting observation though. The Beatles played a pivotal role in preventing exactly what they were accused of being. A passing fad. Say they were just a passing fad. How many electric guitarists would we have these days?
Keith Richards was the perfect guitarist for the era he played in. The electric guitar was still very young and while they may seem tame by today’s standards, back in the 60s they were at the forefront to show the wild side of the guitar. Besides. Without him who knows how long it would have taken for distortion to take off?
While rock was getting the wheels turning Clapton was carrying the torch for the blues into the next generation where they would have a great influence on rock bands yet to come. On top of that Clapton’s was one of those guys whose ear for tone would snowball into an entire musical culture constantly endeavoring for “that sound” thanks to his constant gear and effect experiments.
You knew he was going to be on here. Hendrix changed people. He changed how they saw the instrument and that impact wasn’t limited to just his generation. Still to this day people analyze his music as professors have analyzed Mozart’s music and I don’t foresee that changing any time soon. From playing with his teeth to outright burning his guitars alive in some sacrificial ceremony, whether you agree or not that he’s history’s greatest guitarist, he certainly did wonders to increase guitar awareness.
The guy just couldn’t touch anything without consequently causing a group of people massive enough to command their own gravitational pull towards whatever he left the smudges of his fingers on.
While the 60s and 70s are littered with greatly influential bands, Ritchie Blackmore had the guitar down. A lot of musicians were known for letting a lot of sloppiness slide, but Blackmore knew what he was after and he nailed it. Blackmore set the bar for a lot of others in that if you were going to have some speedy licks make sure they’re on the beat. Not to mention he’s responsible for Rainbow. Rainbow alone warrants a solid groveling at the feet of whilst chanting “we’re not worthy”.
If there were ever two words created to be used in unison to describe one person the words would be “holy crap” and they would be all the description anyone would need about Steve Howe. Yes began in the late 60s, but they didn’t truly start until Steve Howe joined in 1970 when he harnessed his virtuosity over the guitar to take their music to the next level. His bizarre progressive twist on jazz with rock and any other style he could meld in there pretty much made him the pinnacle of guitarist achievement.
And then there was the other legendary guitarist Jimmy. Jimmy Page. I don’t think Page just played the guitar. He had this supermodel finesse about him. Just look at any picture of him playing from the 70s. Do any of them ever look like they couldn’t be tacked onto a guitar ad? He wasn’t just made for the guitar. He was made to make us want the guitar too.
David Gilmour is all the proof the world needs that making the guitar a worth playing and hearing doesn’t have to hinge on flashy performances or shredding. Instead his style hinges on simply making every note he plays really count. Each note feels like it has a purpose, like it’s going somewhere, and really making a point. That’s why people talk about him still to this day.
Any and all who fancy themselves a fan of metal owes a bit of something to Tony Iommi. Black Sabbath was at the least the first band to successfully merge horror concepts with music that would make parents everywhere wonder why they bothered complaining about the Rolling Stones to begin with. And he did it with nubby, severed fingers too.
So what did Pete Townshend do that brought everyone’s attention to the guitar? Well, he did smash one on stage. Since pioneering the violently expressive art of incondite instrument dismantling not only had it become a staple for The Who performances, but for guitarists to come.
Describing what Frank Zappa’s done for the guitar is kind of like describing what colors look like to a blind person. Unless you have some sort of frame of reference it’s going to turn out as a clunky description that doesn’t really do justice to what you’re trying to describe. Everything Zappa wrote was an experiment in finding new things to do with music. He knew what he wanted, how to get it, and he never settled for anything less. Besides. As great as Vai and Dweezil are where would they be without Zappa? Just how different would their styles be?
AC/DC has easily been among the most influential bands out there. Even their material from the 70s sounded like they were ushering a new era of rock that would become the fruits born of the 80s. And who do we have to thank for that? Angus Young. Now go and give thanks.
Al Di Meola
You know what Al Di Meola brought to the table? Speed. You know what he showed guitarists they can do? Play really fast. You know what he paved the way for? Shredding. Di Meola’s ability to fly through complex scales, shifting up and down the neck like nothing. Hell, Race With Devil on Spanish Highway has all the makings for a modern rock/metal song and it came out back in 1977.
I think if I had one paragraph to write about Eric Johnson and I had to highlight one aspect about him as a guitarist I would zero in on his ears. It’s true there are a lot of musicians with great ears, but Eric Johnson is possibly at least as famous for his ears as he is his guitar playing. No chunk of gear ever goes without being tweaked to just the right sound and no sound is ever used in just the right place at just the right time for just the right reason.
Few guitarists manage to have such a long lasting impact in general, let alone one whose career would be put to a staggering halt as his career was just getting started. He went from his own band Quiet Riot to changing the world with Ozzy Osbourne to deceased and still he’s as revered as they get.
Kirk Hammett/James Hetfield
I often wonder if Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield could have made the guitar as cool as they have without each other. They’ve been playing together for so long their styles have pretty much melded into one big style. When they showed up back in the 80s they didn’t waste any time getting everyone’s attention in showing how cool they could make playing the guitar. Of course in recent years it seems like they’ve taken to also showing how to make the guitar not cool. Guess there’s a yin to every yang.
Eddie Van Halen
I can’t even count the times I’ve heard people talking about how they had obsessively analyzed Van Halen’s music back in the 80s to figure out how he played so damn fast. When the tapping cat got out of the bag people fled to their guitars to master the technique solidifying its place in the guitar world and his place as one of the more influential people keeping the guitar alive.
If there is anything Steve Vai has done it’s narrow the scope of just what you can do with a guitar. Proclaimed a “stunt guitarist” by Frank Zappa, Vai has made a career out of performing the unthinkable and then finding a way to outdo himself.
While I personally don’t think she has as much business being on some magazine/web sites’ top 100 greatest guitarists of all time (especially when considering who didn’t even make the list), I’m more than willing to acknowledge that Joan Jett most definitely has done her part for the guitar. While I hate to play the gender card it seems like every time I talk to a woman about the guitar it’s no more than five minutes until her name surfaces and based off empirical evidence I’m lead to believe there’s a connection, so Joan Jett’s proven that women can rock out and get as sweaty and grimy as the best of them.
I think that Zakk Wylde doesn’t just strive to make the guitar cool, but gear as well, and to show which ones he has made cool he brands them as signature models. That and he’s one of the most notorious guitarists for making the instrument scream.
If there’s anything that Malmsteen could be accredited to it’s expose the historic works for the baroque and classical periods to a more modern age group. What was once a world of music reserved for music professors and geriatrics was suddenly being absorbed by budding guitarists with long, poofy hair and as it all melded together the neo-classical genre was born.
For Slash a number of opinions were consulted in an attempt to define what it is that makes him a cool guitarist. The consensus that was built was “he’s just cool”. Granted the results weren’t as groundbreaking as I’d previously expected, but never the less they do seem to be appropriate. He has a distinct style in appearance and performance and it just seems to work for him. Slash. He’s a cool guy just because.
What has John Petrucci done to make the guitar cool? What hasn’t he done? His innovative style, the odd time signatures, the flawless technique, everything. It all goes towards making the guitar even more wondrous an instrument. Even the things he does that don’t involve the guitar make the guitar better. Like when he put on 500 pounds of raw muscle. When I saw how huge he’d gotten I wanted to play the guitar.
Joe Satriani brought out the most accessible aspect of the virtuoso. He’s always been one to experiment with anything he can to whip up some song about dancing robots or aliens hanging ten or what have you, but he’s never done it so over the top that he skews the listener demographic down to just guitar zealots.
Paul Gilbert… sheez. The guy’s really Inspector Gadget, you see? He was involved in a freak accident that cost him both his arms when a smug scientist voice over comes in saying “we can rebuild him. Better than he was before. Better. Stronger. Faster.” Seriously, though. It doesn’t matter how complicated something seems to be. He can play it faster and so precisely on the beat it’s unreal.
Stevie Ray Vaughan
Stevie Ray Vaughan had been playing the guitar since he was a wee lad, sure, but his claim to fame and the influence he brought didn’t come until the 80s when he introduced the world to his thick blues playing and thus reminded everyone of why they liked the blues in the first place.
I don’t know that I’d ever accuse Kurt Cobain of having been an exceptional guitarist. Hell I don’t think I’d accuse him of being a guitarist that knew if he was in tune or not. But he had the right time, right place thing on his side. Nirvana started to surface as people grew tired of the over the top complexity of 80s hair bands and he brought it back to a simple trio of musicians with nothing to prove to anyone and little more than that. If you want to have fun go to a guitar forum and ask everyone who they think was more influential. Cobain or Hendrix? Then just watch them go at it.
Darrell Abbott was the embodiment of two generations in one, but it was in the 90s that the real Dimebag Darrell came out. There was the 80s when he was Diamond Darrell, a relatively indifferent thrash guitarist. Then once the 90s rolled around we got Dimebag Darrell that cast aside the trebly speed riffs and went for heavier crunchy rhythms. He was also a pivotal part in making scooped mids such a standard technique in metal.
White Zombie has had several guitarists, some a bit more influential to the band than others, but never the less each brought something different to the table. What they all brought to the table as a gestalt was a raw and aggressive metal band that would push the world of guitar away from the speed metal shredders into a more rhythm heavy thrash to just plain heavier industrial.
Ok, I know this may seem like a bit odd of an addition to some on a list like this, but Cannibal Corpse has done their part for the world of music. They’ve proven that even a death metal band as impervious to change (save for band members) as they are can go platinum. They have given a greater ray of hope to death metal
2000s and Later
Opeth has been around for a long time, sure, but the majority of people didn’t really know about them until Blackwater Park hit. Then they changed the world. Long songs that jumped back and forth between death metal and folkier acoustic stuff that reeked of 70s rock influences, he explored and developed a new style of darker music that no one had really done before. Plus his penchant for using the E-bow helped expose it to a broader audience.
Yeah, they’re a cartoon. But in an era dominated by electronic music Dethklok came along and kicked back in only the most gruesome way possible. Dethklok has been successful in lampooning death metal’s stereotypes while simultaneously exploiting them to make damn good death metal all while paying homage to the metal bands that paved the way for them. Oh, sure I could bring up how Brendon Small had a thing or two to do with Dethklok, but let’s face it. The cartoon characters made him up so he could design them into being so they could make us laugh while headbanging until our heads exploded.