Recently, I was trawling through some old content in Rolling Stone (I’m a bit of a nerd like that), when I came across this article written in 2015. For the piece RS assembled a “panel of top guitarists and other experts,” including Eddie Van Halen, Ritchie Blackmore, Robbie Krieger and Brian May, to vote for the greatest guitarist of all time.
Here’s the top ten:
Justifying the choice of Jimi Hendrix for the top spot, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello wrote the following:
“Jimi Hendrix exploded our idea of what rock music could be: He manipulated the guitar, the whammy bar, the studio and the stage. On songs like “Machine Gun” or “Voodoo Chile,” his instrument is like a divining rod of the turbulent Sixties – you can hear the riots in the streets and napalm bombs dropping in his “Star-Spangled Banner.”
His playing was effortless. There's not one minute of his recorded career that feels like he's working hard at it – it feels like it's all flowing through him. The most beautiful song of the Jimi Hendrix canon is “Little Wing.” It's just this gorgeous song that, as a guitar player, you can study your whole life and not get down, never get inside it the way that he does. He seamlessly weaves chords and single-note runs together and uses chord voicings that don't appear in any music book. His riffs were a pre-metal funk bulldozer, and his lead lines were an electric LSD trip down to the crossroads, where he pimp-slapped the devil."
I mean, you can’t really argue with Morello’s justification. Saying that, though, these top ten/top 100 lists tend to leave me somewhat cold. It’s a bit arbitrary. What makes a guitarist great is an entirely subjective thing, and creating a “leaderboard” doesn’t really feel like it’s in the spirit of rock n’ roll.
So with that in mind, I thought it’d be fun to put a spin on the well-worn format. I don’t want to know who the greatest guitarist of all time is. But what I do want to know is who your favourite guitarist is, and why they mean so much to you. Let us know how you got into their music, what it is about their playing that inspires you, whether you’ve met them; whatever you feel is significant about your relationship with their music.
To kick it off, here’s mine: Jimmy Page. I vividly remember the first time I saw the “Whole Lotta Love” video on MTV (likely some time around the year 2000).
That riff floored me.
That apocalyptic mid-section scared me.
Needless to say, I was hooked.
As a British adolescent, I was shocked to discover that Led Zeppelin were a British band. I’d assumed they were American; we Brits were too reserved to make this kind of racket, surely?
From there, I rabidly consumed everything that Jimmy had ever done, and was amazed by his balance of virtuosity with an on-the-edge, almost avant-garde-at-times style of playing. Pretty much every modern rock guitarist is influenced by Jimmy, but none of them can really play like Jimmy Page. It’s testament to his genius and part of the reason I love him so much.
So that’s my story. But what are yours? Sound of loudly, verbosely and vigorously in the comments section, on social media, or wherever it’s convenient for you to communicate. Let us know who you love to listen to and why!
Leo Kottke is a fingerstyle institution, and an inspiration to guitarists across the globe. His unique blend of folk, blues and jazz and his distinctive syncopated, polyphonic melodies have earned him accolades and followers galore. And, his battles with adversity – he’s overcome partial hearing loss and a near career-ending bout with tendonitis – are testament to his dedication to his craft.
We’re living in a great time for acoustic music. Fingerstyle guitar is thriving, and outlets like YouTube give exposure to new guitarists on a regular basis. But, this wasn’t always the case. In the ‘80s, when synths and electronic sounds reigned supreme, some thought the humble hollow-bodied six-string would go the way of the dinosaur.