Believe This Hype Too: The 8 Most Underrated Guitarists I Can Think of Right Now

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.

The Totally Not Brief History of Awesome American Music Pt. 7: Modern Times

Chances are, if you read Bollocks!, you are somewhat aware of American music history through the first part of the 21st century. And if you’re a ten-year-old reading this blog, well, you’ve learned some new words, haven’t you? Anyway, to conclude my less-brief-than-intended history of awesome American music, I’m just gonna sum up the decade in things I think are awesome.

And one thing I think is stupid. In the first part of the decade, Metallica got embroiled in a legal battle with Napster over the peer-to-peer sharing of Metallica’s catalogue of unintentionally hilarious songs about darkness, blackness, death, and so on. That doesn’t bother me one way or the other, but Lars Ulrich, Metallica’s shitty drummer, wrote an editorial for Newsweek in which he stated that Metallica didn’t make music for their fans. This comment has stuck in my craw for the better part of ten years because it smacks of the sort of fuck-you-I’ve-made-my-money ingratitude that deserves repeated face punchings. Ulrich basically said that Metallica doesn’t make music for the people who made them millionaires. Well, Lars, I’ve never really been of the opinion that your band made music at all. Fuck you, sir, and good day.

Wilco did two very awesome things in the last decade that are worth mentioning. First, they turned in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to Reprise, a record label owned by AOL/Time-Warner. The label didn’t hear a single on the album (“Heavy Metal Drummer”, motherfuckers! But also, why would you sign a band like Wilco if you want radio hits?) and rejected it. Wilco left the label and, after streaming the whole thing on their website (for free, Metallica. And they’re poorer than you!) and building some buzz around it, they got snapped up by Nonesuch records and here’s the punchline: Nonesuch is a subsidiary of AOL/Time-Warner. So the Warner Music Group fired and rehired Wilco and looked like complete idiots in the process. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was released to well-deserved critical acclaim. The second awesome thing Wilco did this decade has to do with file-sharing. When they were set to release A Ghost is Born, a dude brazenly emailed Jeff Tweedy to make sure he’d downloaded the properly sequenced version of the album. In response to this, rather than getting all litigious, Wilco set up a link to Doctors Without Borders on their website, allowing people to assuage their piratey guilt by donating to charity. They ended up raising a shitload of money for Doctors Without Borders and also issued a statement about how they don’t just exist to make records but to – gasp! – play music for their fans. So to recap, Wilco is awesome and Metallica is pretty much wrong about everything.

The 21st century has been all about revivalism so far, for good and ill. Bands like the White Stripes and the Black Keys have done a pretty good job of keeping the blues vital, even while idiots like Kenny Wayne Shepherd and John Mayer seek to destroy them. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings have almost single-handedly attempted to rescue soul and R&B music from auto-tuning and over-production, doing for that genre pretty much the exact opposite of what Brian Setzer did for swing in the late 1990s (well, to swing. Rape is something you do to people, not for them). And my beloved Hold Steady have taken classic rock out of your alcoholic stepdad’s hands and put it in the hands of people who read books (some of which don’t even have pictures).

There’s even hope for punk music, Green Day notwithstanding. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, whose Brutalist Bricks may be their best album yet (and that’s saying something) is probably leading the charge, with fellow New Jersey-ites (New Jerseyians? Whatever) Titus Andronicus not far behind him. And the Thermals, who hail from my old stomping ground of Portland, Oregon, have been kicking ass for a few years now too. There’s also The Old Haunts, who should probably make another album now.

I started really paying attention to hip-hop in the last few years, even going back and listening to the old school stuff I’ve mentioned previously. Sage Francis was good when he was with Non-Prophets, and he should go back to that. Atmosphere might be the most bang for your hip-hop buck right now, as their last two albums have been nothing short of stellar. And since we’re talking about Minnesotans, you should know about Brother Ali as well. But if you want your hip-hop shit on the level of Coltrane, consider DOOM (formerly MF Doom) the hip-hop version of Interstellar Space. DOOM’s work is of a consistently higher quality than, well, pretty much everyone else’s. The dude even sampled a Bukowski poem on his last record. Of course, there are a couple of hip-hop producers of note, the two big ones being Madlib and Danger Mouse. Danger Mouse, of course, rose to fame by making the Gray Album, a mashup of Jay-Z’s Black Album and the Beatles’ White Album. Jay-Z got his panties in a twist over it and the album was litigated into its grave. Hey, Jay-Z: what the fuck do you expect people to do when you release an a cappella version of your album? Do you really think people like your voice that much? Asshole. Anyway, Danger Mouse went on to form half of Gnarls Barkley, produce an awesome Black Keys record, and cocreate Dark Night of the Soul with Sparklehorse (the late, totally underrated Mark Linkous).

I want to wrap up by talking about some women who I think are vital to American music right now…

I could have mentioned Ani DiFranco in the 1990s section, but she’s been going strong in the last decade as well, standing out as one of the most fiercely independent artists in American music right now. Dudes who can shed their ego enough to actually listen to her work will find that she writes very compelling songs and is one of the most unique acoustic guitarists I’ve ever heard.

Neko Case, as I believe I’ve mentioned before, is a goddess. End of story. If you’ve read this blog at all and don’t own Middle Cyclone, I don’t really understand your priorities. It’s like you’re striving to make your life less awesome.

I am secure enough in my whatever to admit that I like Alicia Keys, but I will like her a lot better when she fires her current producers, gets a lot more jaded, and becomes our next Aretha Franklin. I’m thinking this could happen by about 2030 (I know what I said about making predictions, but I reserve the right to contradict myself).

Bettye LaVette has been one of  the best-kept secrets in American music, and that’s really too bad. As a younger woman, she toured with Otis Redding. Later, she did a stint on Broadway with Cab Calloway. Her first full-length album, Child of the Seventies was inexplicably shelved by Atlantic records until 2000, when Gilles Petard released it as Souvenirs on his Art and Soul label. Eventually, LaVette was picked up by Anti-, the label that puts out Neko Case and Tom Waits records (that’s one helluva roster) and released I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise in 2005. Since then, she’s enjoyed some renewed and deserved interest. I’ll be reviewing her album of British songs later this year.

So that’s pretty much everything I could think of to tell you about awesome American music. I know I missed some stuff and I know I deliberately skipped some stuff, but so be it. I’m compiling a page of essential American tracks that should be up soon, so you can look for that if you want. In the meantime, though, don’t be a musical xenophobe. There’s amazing music all over the world and you’ll probably like some of it if you give it a shot. Some time in the future, I’ll get back to regular reviews, but I’m getting married in 30 days and that’s gonna have an effect on the ol’ updating schedule. We’ll be in touch.

How to Be a Guitar Hero (featuring Ted Leo and the Pharmacists)

If I were to teach a class on How to Be a Guitar Hero, there would be a substantial unit on Ted Leo (in among units on Jimi Hendrix, Tad Kubler, Django Reinhardt, Elmore James, Peter Buck, and a weekend seminar called Fuck Joe Satriani*). Leo is a guy who can rip into a blazing, badass guitar solo on a moment’s notice but, tellingly, he doesn’t always need to. He’s also a blissfully funky rhythm guitarist and his tone is perfectly suited to his punkish rock – really, I would call his music punk-pop if it didn’t conjure up images of Blink-182, Sum-41 and other truly shitty bands with numbers in their names. (Try to name a good band with a number in their name. The closest I can come is the 101ers, the pub rock band Joe Strummer was in before he joined the Clash. And they were kinda mediocre. On the other hand, you can have an X in your name and be pretty good – see X and the XX for proof.)

Over his last few albums, Leo has managed to craft really catchy pop melodies with a musical and lyrical edge that gives him a lot more punk cred in any one song than Green Day can get in one redundant, trite “concept” album. If you play Green Day’s “Holiday” next to Ted Leo’s “Bomb.Repeat.Bomb” and still prefer the former as your “Fuck Baby Bush” anthem, I suggest you might need to recalibrate your inner sense of what is and what is clearly not awesome. Or maybe you’re thirteen and there’s still hope you’ll grow out of your current silliness.

Ted Leo’s 2007 effort, Living with the Living was a lovely endeavor (one of my favorite records of that year), if a bit lengthy. This year, Leo and the Pharmacists (Marty Key on bass, James Canty on guitar, and a very beardy Chris Wilson on drums)  are back with The Brutalist Bricks, an album that wanders a little less than its predecessor and packs a mighty, tightly focused wallop. As the name and sparse album art suggest, The Brutalist Bricks is a buzzing, bashing, brief but intense mixture of bouncing pop (“Bottled in Cork”) and driving punk (“Where Was My Brain?” and “The Stick”, among others). Ted Leo’s guitar is nothing short of searing on most of these tracks, even when he’s just strumming chords. When he turns loose a solo, he’s like a samurai – a flash of blade here, there, and over there, and then your limbs fall off. That analogy didn’t work quite how I thought, and yet I maintain that it is not entirely inappropriate.

I’m happy to report, having caught Leo and the Pharmacists at the Troubadour on Saturday night, that these songs are even better live. Interspersed with some great cuts from Shake the Sheets and Living with the Living, Leo showcased eight of the thirteen tracks that make up The Brutalist Bricks and gave the overly-requesty (at one point, Leo shouted, “Shut the fuck up, we’ll play what we want!” He then paused for a minute, smiled, and said, “You know, I say that with all the love in the world.” He informed the crowd that he was so combative because he was in a good mood, and I took him at his word. He’s a guy who seems to really relish his work) audience a blazing, incredibly energetic show that also featured a chills-inducing solo rendering of the Waterboys’ “Fisherman’s Blues” to start the encore.

As a guitar player, Ted Leo makes it look pretty easy and – more importantly – he makes it sound awesome. Again, this is not just confined to his solos, but even his rhythm playing. If you look at something like “One Polaroid a Day,” the rhythm part is beautiful, and it suits the song. Part of being a true guitar hero, in my mind (the only mind that matters here at Bollocks!, for better or worse), is being able to serve the songs. And seeing Leo perform on Saturday night made me want to come home, plug in my electric guitar, and write really kickass songs. Of course, it was after midnight when I got home and, out of deference to my neighbors, I opted not to get started on that project just yet. But Ted Leo is a guy who knows how to rip shit up within the confines of a good song – that is, the songs are never about his uncanny abilities as a player. Contrast that with, say, Joe Satriani. Satriani’s albums are only about his uncanny ability to play a shitload of notes. There’s not an ounce of meaning in that stuff. Leo does more in the extremely brief “The Stick” by simply crunching out chords (the song also illustrates the debt Mr. Leo owes to Black Flag. In some ways, actually, I’d like to think we all owe a debt to Black Flag).

Of course, Leo is lyrically sharp on The Brutalist Bricks – I would expect nothing less. Never one to back away from a controversial statement, Leo opens “Woke Up Near Chelsea” by shouting, “Well we’ve all got a job to do/ and we all hate God.”  However, the best lyrical effort on the album has to be “Mourning in America” for its ability to both recall (and castigate) Ronald Reagan and (I’m speculating here, because the song is not dedicated to any one person, though it is apparently about a “white face in a white crowd”) call out folks like Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck, with lines like, “Whoever told you that we needed you to be this?” My other favorite lines on The Brutalist Bricks come from “The Stick”: “You think the government, it wants you on your knees/ but I’ll tell you something and here it is/ they want you driving to the supermarket, buying milk and cheese/And generating taxes to fuel their corn subsidies.” There should be a listening booth set up to play that song at every Tea Party protest ever. Along with placards that explain to them how Medicare is also socialism.

I was thinking on Saturday night (and early Sunday morning) that, although I never got to see the Clash or any other great punk bands live, the spirit and energy of that kind of music was very much a part of Ted Leo’s show at the Troubadour, a show that stands right near the first time I saw the Hold Steady among my favorite concerts ever. And that spirit drives The Brutalist Bricks, which is why I can’t stop listening to it.

*Before the shred kids come here with threats of my homicide and requests of my suicide, I will confess that I used to listen to Joe Satriani all the time (when I was a kid, I listened to awful music). When I was first learning the guitar, I wanted to be Joe Satriani. But the more I got into writing actual songs, the more soulless his music seemed to me. Joe Satriani’s albums do not consist of songs, they consist of exercises. The Ramones did more with an E chord than Satriani has done in his entire career. So fuck him.