Even if you hate the guitar, you probably know some guitar player names: Hendrix, Slash, Eric Clapton, that asshole from Metallica (no, the other asshole from Metallica. No the other one). But there are some guitarists you might not know and I think you need to know them if you enjoy music. And fun.
1. Tad Kubler hid his guitar playing talents from the world by playing bass for Lifter Puller. When it came time to start the Hold Steady with fellow LP alumnus Craig Finn, Kubler upgraded to six strings and almost instantly (see “Most People Are DJs” from The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me for proof) became the best rock guitarist in America (more proof: “You Gotta Dance [With Who You Came With]”) . Clearly a graduate of the Melodic Riffage School founded by Angus Young and Slash, Kubler spends the bulk of any given Hold Steady record kicking ass and taking names. Basically, if I could have just one guitar lesson from one living guitar player, it would be Tad Kubler. Hands down.
2. Ani DiFranco. You probably don’t think of the guitar when you hear Ani DiFranco’s name. You might think “angry feminist folkie,” and that’s your prerogative. However, DiFranco has one of the most unique approaches to the guitar I’ve ever seen, her rhythms all choppy and funky, almost as angry as some of her songs (which aren’t all angry. Listening to Ani DiFranco won’t make your penis fall off, guys). She sounds simultaneously self-taught and accomplished, which is harder to pull off than you might think. When I saw her live, it struck me that she was someone who picked up a guitar and had no preconception of how it was supposed to work – so she made her own way with it and is really one of our finest acoustic players working today.
3. J. Mascis is the Rainman of the electric guitar. Seriously, if you see Dinosaur Jr. live, it looks like he has to be led to the stage and propped up between his two giant stacks of amplifier. But once he starts playing, you will fucking see colors. Mascis’s solos can seem a bit overstuffed at first, but his attack is furious and at his best, he is staggering. Some of his best moments can be heard on Dinosaur Jr’s Beyond, the “comeback” album for the original Dino Jr. lineup. Also check him out playing “Maggot Brain” on Mike Watt’s Ballhog or Tugboat album.
4. Doug Martsch. Built to Spill, like Death Cab for Cutie, is one of those bands that I associated with indie rock long before I ever listened to them. I was almost intimidated by the expectations I had for those two bands (and I wasn’t disappointed until Death Cab released Plans back in 2006; but they’re much better now) but Doug Martsch and Built to Spill put my mind at ease from the first time I heard Keep It Like a Secret. Then, in 2006, I heard You in Reverse and “Conventional Wisdom,” the central riff for which just makes me giddy all over. Martsch is a total package guitar player, busting out melodic solos, excellent rhythm parts, and – as he showed us on his solo outing, Now You Know – he’s no slouch when it comes to acoustic and slide guitar. Martsch has something for everyone, really, and now that you know that, go find some of his stuff.
5. Peter Buck. You don’t get to be a guitar god by having a tight grasp of nuance. R.E.M.’s Peter Buck is one of my very favorite guitarists because he doesn’t put on any airs about it. He’s the epitome of no-frills, but he can still play a lovely solo when the song demands it (the solo for “Flowers of Guatemala” is a perfect example). The lesson Buck teaches, with the patience of a Zen master, is that a good guitarist should be more interested in making great songs with his band than in showboating and noodling like a prick. This lesson is lost on far too many guitarists (and lead vocalists too).
6. Marc Ribot is not a household name. If it helps, he played on a lot of Tom Waits records. He combines the sort of buzzing electricity of the Ramones with the choppy funk of, say, Danny Elfman. Ribot is well versed in basically every style of music you want and his work spans pretty much every section of the record store. In 2005, he released an album of improvised sort-of covers of Albert Ayler (the famed free jazz saxophonist) songs. Let’s see Yngwie Malmsteen tackle that shit.
7. Nels Cline. If you’ve seen Wilco live since A Ghost is Born came out, then you’ve heard Nels Cline take Wilco’s songs and wrap them in a lovely ribbon of his furious riffage. Clearly a disciple of the Tom Verlaine school of guitar playing, Cline is one of the noodliest guitarists that I still enjoy. Why? Because when Cline plays, I imagine the proton beams from Ghostbusters firing out of his pickups. Watching the man play is like peering through your fingers at the Ark of the Covenant – expect some face meltage.
8. Ted Leo. Ted Leo plays the guitar like a motherfucker, but like Peter Buck, he doesn’t have to play a solo one thousand miles per hour to prove his chops. I read an article the other day that chided Ted Leo & the Pharmacists for considering themselves punk, but that article was bullshit. Punk isn’t a genre (not anymore), it’s a spirit, and Ted Leo certainly has it. The Brutalist Bricks is a compelling argument, but it’s only a fraction of the case Leo can make as a guitarist. See his band live and you’ll understand what it means for a guitar player to literally rip into a solo. Leo rips into them and tears them apart from the inside and then, as you’re coming down from that, he might just wow you by strumming out a cover of “Fisherman’s Blues” or something.
So there you have it. Some guitarists that people love too much, some that people love exactly enough, and now some that need more love. So go give it to ’em. We’ll return to regularly scheduled bitching about albums later this week, probably starting with Avi Buffalo.