If I’m gonna sit here like a jerk and tell you that some of your favorite guitar players are vastly overrated (I am and they are), I think it’s only fair to share with you some guitar players that I think are worth every ounce of hype and adoration they receive, starting with…
1. Angus Young. I know the schoolboy outfit is a gimmick and I know that AC/DC has recorded the same album like twenty times at this point, but the fact remains that a lot of AC/DC’s songs are fucking fun. And Angus Young is a large part of the reason. The dude basically exists to play sizzling riffs while Brian Johnson (the almost instantaneous reincarnation of Bon Scott) chokes on snot to some sort of melody. Angus Young’s playing is somewhere between brick stupid and elegantly simple, but it’s beautiful, goddammit. You plug your guitar in and play “Thunderstruck” or “Highway to Hell” and just try not to have an erection. I dare you.
2. Slash. Slash has never been in a band I liked. But the fact remains that the dude is one helluva guitar player. There are probably people who think that Guns ‘n’ Roses owed whatever brilliance they ever had to Axl Rose’s lyrics and voice; those people are wrong. I don’t listen to “Paradise City” when I’m out at the bars because Axl Rose (who is now just a chunky white dude with cornrows) is a great singer. I listen to every fucking note that Slash plays on that song, though. Despite the fact that he has inspired countless shitty guitarists (many of whom now plague your radio), he has also inspired the likes of Tad Kubler (of the Hold Steady, a.k.a. America’s Finest Rock Band). Slash’s playing is fluid and melodic and always entertaining and he deserves the reverence he receives, even if the bands he plays in do not.
3. Jimi Hendrix. If you’re youngish like me, there may have been a time in your life when you just stopped giving a shit about Jimi Hendrix. Perhaps (and this is just hypothetical) your alcoholic stepdad and all his asshole buddies would pound can after can of shitty beer while rocking out to “Purple Haze” and you just got to a point where you were like, “Fuck those guys and everything they love.” But with the distance of time – you’re an adult now, remember? – you can reevaluate Jimi Hendrix on his own merits. And here’s the shocking thing: the magazines and all the stupid pundits (those dimwits who think “Stairway to Heaven” is the highest musical achievement in the history of humankind) got exactly one thing right. Jimi Hendrix is probably the best guitarist ever. In terms of tone and melodic capability and just sheer fiery awesomeness, no one can touch Hendrix. Listen to “Little Wing” or “Bold as Love” or “The Wind Cries Mary” or “Red House” (the opening notes of which tell you pretty much all you will ever need to know about playing the electric guitar) and see for yourself. If we had more statues of Jimi Hendrix than churches in this country, I think we’d really be getting somewhere.
4. Keith Richards. This only works if you pretend the Rolling Stones died in like 1978, but just listen to “Honky Tonk Women.” Richards’ playing on that song alone is downright iconic. He’s not the greatest ever or anything, but Keith Richards has played some of the most memorable riffs in modern music.
5. Brian May built his own guitar and paired it with the impressive vocal stylings of Freddie Mercury (I don’t care if you like Queen or not, Mercury was one of the best vocalists in the history of rock. That dude had range that kids today are wise not to strive for) and proceeded to bridge the gap between glam and hair metal. From “Fat Bottomed Girls” to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Brian May has one of the most distinctive (and envy-inducing, at least in me) guitar sounds in music. Guitarists whose tone I would kill for: Jimi Hendrix, Eric Johnson, Brian May. Probably in that order.
6. Stevie Ray Vaughan died twenty years ago today, and that was too fucking soon. Though he was at times uncomfortably obsessed with Jimi Hendrix (and his cover of “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” is more than worthy), SRV brought the blues to the people in the 19-fucking-80s, when everyone was all, “I’ma buy a keyboard and listen to Flock of Seagulls.” That is, he made the blues matter in an era when nothing did. Stevie Ray Vaughan is the reason I bothered to find out who Elmore James was (listen to SRV’s version of “The Sky is Crying” and you’ll understand that Stevie Ray knew how to pay his elders some respect) and he played the guitar the best way anyone can: like he was in a fight with God.
7. Pete Townshend. Like Keith Richards, you have to pretend Townshend died before he got old (I believe it was Kurt Cobain who once quipped, “I hope I die before I become Pete Townshend.” And then he shot himself), just like he and Daltrey said they wanted to (Keith Moon was the only guy in that band with any fucking follow-through, I guess). But if you do that, you can look at albums like Who’s Next and rejoice. Townshend didn’t have to bust out big solos to make his musical points (though dog knows he was capable of it) and he could compose real songs. And he did that windmill thing which absolutely does not help you play the guitar in any way, but it looked cool back in the day. As an early master of three-chord rock ‘n roll, Townshend is at least part of the reason we have guys like Angus Young right now.
8. Eric Johnson. You might think that I would lump Eric Johnson in with those annoying shred guys, but I won’t. Johnson’s compositions wander around from dull new agey hippie shit to blues to jazz and back again, showing an interest in playing a wide variety of music rather than just proving he’s technically brilliant (which he is). His range and tone set him so far ahead of the pack of solo guitarists that they can’t even see his dust to eat it. And “Cliffs of Dover” is still almost stupidly excellent. End of story.
So now you know who is overrated and who is properly rated (in my opinion). Next time, I’ll talk to you about some guitarists who are underrated and need your love right now (including, at last, one female guitarist. I’m not trying to be sexist in compiling these lists, but there are so few female guitarists out there, at least that I’ve heard. And Joni Mitchell doesn’t count because she’s boring. Perhaps I’ll make it my mission to find awesome female guitarists and tell you all about them in a later list). Until then, go listen to some of the guys on this list!