I’m a guitar player. This may come as a shock to some folks who have declared that I’m “obviously” not a musician because I didn’t recognize the brilliance of their favorite shitty band. But I’ve been playing guitar for about half of my life now and so it follows logically that I would pay attention to guitars when I hear them in songs. A while back, Rolling Stone made a list of the 100 greatest guitarists ever; I assume it included basically everyone who has ever picked up a guitar (seriously, how can you possibly determine that someone is exactly the 69th best guitar player ever?). I like to work in smaller numbers, to single out that which is truly exceptional.
But that’s not what I want to do today. Because it’s unbearably hot in L.A. right now and I’m feeling grumpy. So I thought I’d share with you a list of guitar players whose praises are oversung to the point that I just ignore people when they tell me how good anyone on this list is. Peter Frampton is not included on this list because I don’t even consider him a guitar player. He is a joke about guitar players and his “contributions” to musical history should be forgotten as soon as possible. So now then, the Bollocks! list of the ten most over-hyped guitar players ever. In no particular order:
1. Joe Satriani. I’ll admit that, when I was starting out playing the guitar, I wanted to play that shred shit like nobody’s business. Because I thought that would make me a master of the guitar. But then I got into writing songs. Joe Satriani never did. He can play a lot of notes very fast and sometimes very slow, but nothing he plays has much in the way of meaning. He’s the Kenny G of the electric guitar. Every crunchy E chord that Johnny Ramone played – ever – has more soul in it than Satriani’s entire “creative” output. Guess what, shred guys: you still only have 12 notes and nobody but you and your asshole guitarist buddies cares how fast you can play them.
2. Steve Vai. Like Satriani, I used to listen to Steve Vai’s stuff like a dedicated student. Until I realized that what I was listening to was, though technically superior to Joe Satriani, pretty much meaningless bullshit. This guy used to hang out with Frank Zappa, but he lacks Zappa’s musical sense of adventure (unless you call briefly joining Whitesnake a sense of adventure). Vai and Satriani are in the same overrated boat because all they do is try to show you how good they are at the guitar; Robert Johnson (no slouch as a guitar player himself) was trying to show you how to outrun the devil and maybe squeeze his lemon until the juice ran down his leg. So who are you gonna listen to?
3. Eddie Van Halen. Am I invoking a thorny wrath (thank you, Patton Oswalt… by the way, I had a dream the other night that I met Patton Oswalt at some kind of convention and, along with every autograph he signed, he was giving people mix-tapes he had made especially for them. On cassettes. The only thing I remember being on the cassettes was Minor Threat, which leads me to believe that the rest of the tape must’ve been awesome) by attacking these long-cherished guitar gods? Who cares? Eddie Van Halen is most often praised for his ability to play hammer-ons really fast and for being a pioneer of “finger-tapping” which sounds a lot more difficult than it is. Come over to my house and I’ll show you how to do it. In like ten minutes. Whatever technical prowess Van Halen has, he has always been in a band that writes bad songs that are broken up by his banal, noodly/tappy solos. When the Smithsonian installs an exhibit on the decline of the American Empire, the whole thing will be set to a running loop of that Crystal Pepsi commercial that featured “Right Now.”
4. Jimmy Page. “Stairway to Heaven” is often suggested as the song which features the best guitar solo ever (by people who must, on some level, love shitty beer almost as much as they hate good music). Led Zeppelin had one of the best rhythm sections in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, but Jimmy Page is absolutely unexceptional as a guitar player. He murdered his share of Robert Johnson songs, sure, but he should be jailed for that, not praised. I’ve never seen what the fuss is about Jimmy Page and I guess I never will. His loss.
5. John Mayer. I used to dismiss John Mayer as a bad songwriter who was a good guitar player. But I’ve since changed my mind. John Mayer isn’t a good guitar player because he’s more like a guitarist impersonator. Usually, he likes to impersonate Stevie Ray Vaughan, who liked to impersonate Jimi Hendrix (easy, SRV fans! You’ll notice Stevie Ray is not on this list. I actually like a lot of his music). So let’s tell the truth: John Mayer isn’t so much good at playing the guitar as he is bad at impersonating Stevie Ray Vaughan.
6. Yngwie Malmsteen. Often regarded as a complete asshole (and rightly so. I’ve read a few interviews where this dipshit compares himself to Mozart), Yngwie Malmsteen plays notes faster than Satriani and maybe even Vai and every so often, he recruits hilariously bad vocalists to sing lyrics inspired by a lifetime of playing Dungeons & Dragons with the world’s least imaginative DM (that’s Dungeon Master, to those who pretend they don’t know. Let’s face it: if you read Bollocks!, there’s a better than good chance that you have played D&D or know someone who does). He’s sort of the Meatloaf of the electric guitar, minus the sense of humor.
7. The Edge. This guy has used the exact same annoying effects since I was in swaddling clothes, he never does anything really compelling in any of U2’s songs (I like some U2 songs, but a lot of them are greater than the sum of their parts, especially given that The Edge is one of those parts), and yet people think he’s brilliant. He’s boring! Fuck this guy.
8. Tom Morello. Uses too many effects. Has never been in a good band. Has, in fact, been in two really awful bands (I can think of three he’s been in, so I’ll let you do the math). Enough said.
9. Zakk Wylde. I guess Wylde gets points for loyally staying by Ozzy Osbourne’s side during many of the most embarrassing parts of Ozzy’s solo career (which is to say, almost all of it), but it strikes me that Wylde doesn’t do anything that Slash doesn’t do better, except for appear in the occasional episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force.
10. Eric Clapton. I’ve rethought my stance on Eric Clapton throughout my life. I used to think he was pretty good when he was still on drugs. But then I remembered he recorded his embarrassing cover of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sherriff” while still snorting his weight in blow every day. No, the fact is that Eric Clapton was a decent-at-best guitar player there for a while who later morphed into a parody not just of himself but of all the music he loves as well. He didn’t do anything Jimi Hendrix didn’t do way better (although this is true of pretty much everyone who plays guitar, myself and all my guitar heroes included) and I think, if Hendrix had lived longer, we would probably never have heard of Eric Clapton – and then we could have all been spared “My Father’s Eyes.”