Friday, April 06, 2007

The Greatest Guitarists of All Time

You'd think at this point in my life, I wouldn't be such a sucker for yet another bloody list of the "Greatest [BLANK] of All Time." But while age has increased the size of my belly, it doesn't seem to have brought me a commensurate amount of wisdom. I always look at the lists. And I almost always come away angry and frustrated. Yeah, the Internet has been a great development in the history of humankind, but it has also led to a serious social problem that doesn't get enough coverage - the toxic proliferation of bad list-making. So when Crystal - who's usually such a nice, un-opinionated girl (cough) - recently decided to start some trouble by claiming that Eric Clapton was an "overall better guitarist" than Jimi Hendrix, she linked to a list of the "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time." And I, like the fool I am, fell for the bait. I had to know who they were.

The Great Creator Spirit of the Guitar. And, in my mind, an underrated vocalist as well. Just before he died, Jimi was in discussions with Miles Davis to do a jazz album. Oh, what might have been!

To her credit, Crystal linked to the list even though it had Jimi #1 and Eric #4. (Duane Allman was #2 and B.B. King #3.) The list was done by a major corporate magazine that used to cover music a long, long time ago but switched over to Men's Fashions sometime in the 1980s. For some reason [an extensive marketing budget], they still have a reputation for being an authority on music, and their list even has its own entry in Wikipedia. But I'm not linking to them. I simply refuse to empower such an intellectually lazy, artistically unethical, and ultimately disrespectful effort.

Imagine for a moment that someone decides to list "The Greatest Writers of All Time." You think, "Hmm, will Shakespeare be higher than Cervantes? What about Tolstoy vs. Dostoyevsky? Homer? Baudelaire? Toni Morrison? Where will they fall?" Yes, it's a bar game. But it can be an interesting bar game that sparks good discussion and may even teach us something when we come across names we don't know. But when you look at the list, you see that Cervantes, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Homer and Baudelaire aren't even there! What the hell?!?!

That was my reaction, more or less, to Unnamed Corporate Magazine's "Greatest Guitarists of All Time." For one thing, I truly wanted to know how Jimi Hendrix matched up against the likes of Andrés Segovia or Django Reinhardt. Those three have always formed a kind of holy trinity of guitar-playing in my mind. How interesting to debate their various unique styles and abilities. And what about Eric Calpton vs. Paco de Lucía? Or Jimmy Page vs. Wes Montgomery?

Andrés Segovia, moments before squirting lighter fluid all over his guitar and setting it on fire.

But no. This was really just a list of the "Greatest Rock and Blues Guitarists, According to Our Limited Knowledge, Narrow Mindset, and Necessary Marketing Strategies." So, screw the classical guitarists, the jazz guys, the flamenco guitarists, the country-folk guys, the Brazilians, etc. But a list of "Greatest Guitarists of All Time" that doesn't include Andrés Segovia and Django Rheinhardt is like a list of "Greatest Artists of All Time" that doesn't include Rembrandt and Picasso. What's the damn point?!?!

The simple solution would be to drop the "Greatest" tag and simply say "Our Favorite Guitarists." Or, heck, just say the "Greatest Rock and Blues Guitarists of All Time." If you can't make an effort to produce a reasonable list of the greatest artists in a field, then why pretend you did? But then people like me wouldn't bother looking at it, would they? So, I help foster this disease by being unable to refrain from clicking on the link.

Perhaps the editors of such lists are afraid their readers won't know enough names if they put together a real "Greatest" list. Rather than try and expand an audience's knowledge of the world by introducing them to various important but lesser known figures, they prefer to keep their readers in a smaller, thinner, marketing-driven universe.

And what of my own compulsion to look at these lists? What do I long for so desperately that keeps me going back to them, even though I'm constantly disappointed and infuriated? Order in a chaotic world, perhaps? "Please, help me! There's war and famine and poverty and cancer! Tell me if Jimi or Django is #1!!! Help me sort out the confusion between Julian Bream, Mick Ronson and Chet Atkins!" If I can't figure out what I'm doing on this planet, I at least want to know that my gut instincts are right and that Charlie Christian was a more significant guitarist than the dude from Foreigner.

Django Reinhardt. As a teenager, he was injured in a fire in his gypsy caravan, leaving him with only two functioning fingers on his fret hand. He could still outplay everybody else.

Also, maybe I'm seeking approval, wanting to belong to the tribe. Is that why I get angry when I see that THE PUBLISHED LIST is so different from my own inner list? I might act intellectually smug and superior and call the list-makers idiots, but wasn't I a little shaky and upset when I read that viewers of the UK's Channel 4 had chosen Grease as "The Greatest Musical of All Time"? Was there something wrong with me? I hadn't even considered Grease a possibility! Maybe my values were skewed because I thought Singin' in the Rain or The Band Wagon were infinitely better. Oh my G-d, what if I'm a freak? At least tell me my own choices are somewhere on the list! What happens if all my favorites don't make the grade?! [Luckily, American Film Institute did choose Singin' in the Rain as the Greatest Musical, restoring - for the moment, at least - my shattered sense of belonging.]

Maybe that's why Unnamed Corporate Magazine doesn't even bother mentioning someone like Andrés Segovia. They know the power these lists hold over people like me. Why send some poor, suffering rock-and-roller to an early grave by listing Jimi Hendrix #2 behind a Spanish classical guitarist?

Finally, there's the whole question of why we feel the need to set up false competitions between different musicians, films, writers, etc. What is it in our culture that causes us to name one entity #1 and another, "lesser" entity, #2? Is this a Western trait? Global? It's all a bit odd, isn't it? Which doesn't stop me, of course, from reading one stupid list after another.

Chet Atkins. Married (and later divorced) One Day at a Time star Valerie Bertinelli, fought constantly with bandmate David Lee Roth, and recently entered rehab.

Actually, some people do make an effort. I found another list of "Greatest Guitarists of All Time" that was much more knowledgeable, holistic and respectful. That is to say, it fit my own concept of what a list of Greatest Guitarists should look like. The list-maker(s) even explained how they came up with their rankings:

They were picked for their importance in the guitar world including innovation, respect from other guitarists, influence on both other players as well as on styles of playing, impact, legendary status, and overall importance on shaping the guitar world. Plus for the playing abilities including technique, creativity, versatility, musical depth & expression both in composing & performing, live energy and improv skills, and originality.

So, here's Digital DreamDoor's Top 10 All Time Greatest Guitarists:

1. Andrés Segovia
2. Django Reinhardt
3. Jimi Hendrix
4. Chet Atkins
5. Wes Montgomery
6. T-Bone Walker
7. Charlie Christian
8. B.B. King
9. Robert Johnson
10. Joe Pass

I can quibble with the rankings (Chet Atkins at #4 and Joe Pass at #10 both seem too high to me), but that's part of the fun. At least they got the right names!

Segovia's role in developing the guitar as a serious instrument in the 20th century has to be taken into consideration. Without him, there wouldn't even BE a list of "100 Greatest Guitarists."

I might put Jimi #2, above Django, but it's hard to say. Hendrix always has an advantage over most other guitarists, because he died so young. We never had to hear his bad 1980s albums with electronic drums, or grimace through his Michelob ads, or watch him perform, fat and bald, on his PBS concert with the Boston Pops. He's forever trapped in amber as the sexy, brilliant, guitar god.

I thought it was interesting that Robert Johnson made the top 10 on both lists (#5 and #9). I've always known he was one of the key figures in the history of Blues, but I didn't realize he had such a reputation as a guitarist. That was a discovery for me. guess I'll haveto go back and listen to his recordings again.

Another discovery was Sabicas, listed at #16. I'm ashamed to say that despite living in Spain for 5 years, I had never heard of him. Now I find out he's one of the most important figures in Flamenco. I'm going to go home tonight and drink some vino tinto and bury my head in shame. Que verguenza. But that's one of the great parts of life - sudden and unexpected discoveries.

BTW, if you're a sicko list-lover, Digital DreamDoor has many, many lists of "Greatest" This-and-That in Music.

So, here's the World's Greatest Guitar Hero Andrés Segovia in action.

[Despite rumors, Segovia did NOT record George Harrison's solo on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," nor was he a member (at least officially) of The Spiders from Mars.]

Alas, Crystal, Eric only came in at #25, behind Paco de Lucía, who was at #21. The only other rock guitarist ahead of Clapton (besides Hendrix) was Jeff Beck at #17. Jimmy Page came in at #29. Hendrix, Beck, Clapton, Page. Yawn. The Rock Guitar Pantheon hasn't changed in almost 40 years!!! I have a hard time believing that nobody's improved upon these old farts. Where are the young turks?!

Paco de Lucía's legendary collaboration with flamenco great Camarón de la Isla helped catapult the guitarist to fame.

To my surprise, Tomatito didn't make the list. He was the son of "Tomate" [really!] and played with Camarón de la Isla after Paco split to go on his own. He continues today both in flamenco and nuevo flamenco settings, as well as doing some work in rock and jazz. Guess the "Little Tomato" isn't that good. You decide. Here Tomatito blazes through some flamenco action.

Wes Montgomery shows some of his stuff in "Jingles." Notice that he isn't using a pick. He always played with his thumb.

This film of Django Reinhardt doesn't really show what he could do, but it's a lot of fun anyway.

Tolstoy &
Chekhov's Rock and Roll Circus.

The two Russian axe masters gave the original Crosby, Stills and Nash recordings a much heavier, Black Sabbath sound. But creative differences with David Crosby and Stephen Stills led to major tension within the group. Finally, one night, in a coke-induced stupor, Crosby began waving his pistol around at Leo and Anton and screaming that they were just a couple of "commie pinko faggots." Jealous of Leo's attentions towards Joni Mitchell, the drug-addled Crosby then erased the two Russians' guitar licks from the tracks the group had already recorded. The two were later removed ignominously from the album cover.

The following summer, the Russian duo jammed with Clapton, Dostoyevsky and Ginger Baker, but plans for a super group never materialized.


Liam said...

Yeah... I think Unnamed Corporate Magazine's list should be "Greatest famous rock guitarists and a few black guys in case someone accuses us of racism." The blues representation is scattered throughout the list, and I love Nirvana, but Kurt Cobain is not a better guitarist than Buddy Guy. Of course, everything that Unnamed Corporate Magazine does is pathetically dumb, anyway.

It does make sense, however, to list classical, jazz, and flamenco guitarists separately. The approach to the instrument is so different that they are really not comparable.

cowboyangel said...

It does make sense, however, to list classical, jazz, and flamenco guitarists separately. The approach to the instrument is so different that they are really not comparable.

Shockingly, for the first time in my life, I may have to disagree with you. Tomatito plays flamenco, nuevo flamenco, won a Grammy for a jazz album with Michael Cimilo, and plays on Kiko Veneno's rock albums. Bruce Cockburn was classically trained but plays rock with strong jazz elements. Pat Metheny has recorded with Ornette Coleman and Joni Mitchell. Paco de Lucia has recorded Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez and other classical works, played with Camaron de la Isla, and done albums with John McLaughlin and Al Di Meola. Eric Johnson combines elements of rock, jazz and even country (being a good Texas boy). He's done albums with Chet Atkins and John McLaughlin, and he toured with Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. A great guitarist can and usually does play a wide range of material. I think the real issue is that a lot of rock guitarists get their asses kicked by jazz, flamenco and classical music. They simply don't have the chops. So, yes, in that regard, I guess there is a different approach. The jazz guy picks up the guitar and yawns through "Stairway to Heaven," while the rock guy flails miserably at Thelonious Monk, gives up, and goes back to blow drying his hair.

crystal said...

I concede defeat - your list is the better. I like Chet Atkins too ... I think he's the one who did this version of classical gas I posted once, though many think it was eric clapton. Thanks for all the YouTubes - I really liked the Tomatito one.

Was there something wrong with me?

... are you sure you want to head down that road? :-)

cowboyangel said...

Crystal, hope you had a great Easter! No "defeat." I'm just glad you brought up the subject! It was what got me blogging again.

You know, I don't really know Chet Atkins' work that well. I remember hearing him on Prairie Home Companion, and that's about it. I knew he was well-respected, but I've never had any of his albums. I enjoyed your link to "Classical Gas."

Did a little digging, wanting to know more about Chet, and I found his own list of the 10 Most Influential Guitarists of the 20th Century:

Django Reinhardt
Charlie Christian
Eddie Lang
Merle Travis
Chet Atkins
Augustin Barrios
Les Paul
Wes Montgomery
Lenny Breau
Johnny Smith
Jimi Hendrix

To show how subjective these lists are, Augustin Barrios doesn't even show up on the Digital DreamDoor list of 150. Yet Chet thought he was one of the most important of the century! Thought it was interesting he picked Django #1 and Charlie Christian #2. Turns out Chet was a big jazz fan.

I really liked the Tomatito video, too. There are some other good ones with him on YouTube.

... are you sure you want to head down that road? :-)

Yeah, I know. I realized a long, long time ago that I really was a freak. But that's okay. As Hendrix said, "I'm gonna wave my freak flag high!"

Hard to not have a special place in my heart for Jimi, as we share the same birthday! I really wish he would have lived long enough to record a solo acoustic album. Now THAT would've been interesting.

crystal said...

I feel like letting my freak flag fly

- David Crosby too. You're in good company :-)

Jeff said...

Now THAT Is the kind of classic Cowboy rant that I've been missing. Where have you been, man? What are the rest of us supposed to do when you aren't blogging?

You have the same birthday as Jimi? Cool. I have the distinction of almost having the same birthday as Morrissey (lead singer for The Smiths). We were born one day apart. We actually have a lot in common, except that I'm straight.

I often wonder whatever would have become of Jimi Hendrix. I try to picture him with short, graying hair, looking like Laurence Fishburne. I wonder if he would have become sort of a Quincy Jones type of character, or if he would have ended up more like Miles Davis... or Michael Jackson.

I feel like letting my freak flag fly

If Six Was Nine!! Axis, Bold as Love, one of the most underrated albums of all time.

I love your list. I've gotta love a list that has T-Bone Walker in the top ten and doesn't have Jimmy Page. I love Django Reinhardt and Paco de Lucia too. Have you ever seen Woody Allen's movie Sweet and Lowdown, about fictional jazz guitarist Emmet Ray (played by Sean Penn), who is obsessed with Django Reinhardt? It's not bad. How about Paco de Lucia in the Carlos Saura flamenco film Carmen?

I guess Robert Johnson was an innovative guitarist, although for me, it's really about the haunting, spooky vocals, like Me and the Devil Blues

Lawrence said...

Great Blogging William. I really enjoyed this.

cowboyangel said...

Jeff, I hope you and the family had a great Holy Week. Thanks for saying you missed my ranting. I'm still not sure what to write about sometimes. And I got busy, blah, blah, blah. But I appreciate your comments.

I take it your birthday is on May 21 or May 23? If it's the 23rd, then you almost have the same birthday as Bob Dylan: May 24.

You have a lot in common with Morissey? Hmm... I think you should fill us all in on that.

Axis is a great album. I was actually listening to it last night. (And then Segovia doing Bach.) I think if Jimi had added a couple more strong songs, it would be better regarded. My favorite Hendrix "sound" may be somewhere that album.

I think a guitarist(s) must have put that list together.

Enjoyed Sweet and Lowdown. Saw Carmen before I knew who Paco was. I should watch that again - it's been a long, long time.

Thanks for The Robert Johnson link. I enjoyed all 24 seconds of it! :-) I gotta go back and listen to his stuff.

cowboyangel said...

Lawrence! What a wonderful surprise. I'd love to know some of your thoughts on these guitarists. Are you still playing regularly?

Jeff said...


That'd be May 21. Why do I like Morrissey? Well, my girlfriend back in the eighties was a big Smiths fan, so naturally I was too... You know how that goes... I actually got a big kick out of Morrissey. All angst, all the time. I appreciated his droll, despairing wit.

Morrissey insists he has always been a chronic misfit. Recently, when asked "When and where were you happiest?" he replied, "May 21, 1959."
Steven Patrick Morrissey was born on May 22, 1959.

Steve Caratzas said...

Great post, William. As a guitarist (rock), I wanted to add my two cents' worth.

While it is true that jazz guitarists yawn through "Stairway to Heaven," they also don't know how to inject the proper feel into the song, because rock feel and jazz feel are two completely different animals. So, while their technique puts them head and shoulders above most rock guitarists, jazz guitarists simply can't fathom rock style.

Many great rock guitarists have been influenced by jazz players. Two of my favorite guitarists, Lou Reed and his one-time sideman Robert Quine, cite Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, respectively, as influences – and it is important to note that neither influence plays the guitar. What Reed and Quine heard and attempted to assimilate into their playing was something ethereal and elusive. They were going after the feeling.

Conversely, name me one jazz guitarist who isn't bored silly by rock music, and in fact doesn't find the entire genre beneath him? Yes, jazz players have the chops, but what they choose to do with said chops frequently has nothing to do with feel, but rather technique. Music, to my mind – like poetry, in fact – is all about feeling. If I don’t feel something from a song or a guitar solo or a poem it just isn’t interesting to me.

Rock and roll started as rebellion, and the electric guitar was the weapon of choice. It's the feeling that defines the better rock players, in my opinion, not the technique.

cowboyangel said...


You sure that was only worth $.02? I would've paid more!

I don't have a problem with rock guitarists. I'm a rock and roll kid. I groove on Hendrix as much as I groove on Django or Segovia. I have a problem with a major "music" magazine listing the "100 Greatest Guitarists of All-Time" and not including people like Django and Segovia. Or Charlie Christian. It's misinformation. And it's disrespectful to people who dedicated their lives, often at great cost, to creating beautiful music.

Yes, jazz players have the chops, but what they choose to do with said chops frequently has nothing to do with feel, but rather technique. Music, to my mind – like poetry, in fact – is all about feeling.

Hmm, that seems too simplistic a distinction. I don't think Jimi expresses more "feeling" than Django or Segovia, who just have "technique." All three convey some kind of feeling. Most jazz musicians are deeply rooted in the blues, just as many rock and rollers used to be. There's also a deep connection between a lot of classical guitar and flamenco, which has a tremendous amount of "feeling." Rock feeling is only one kind of feeling, no? I don't think it's fair to say that someone who has excellent technique can't have emotion. I'm not even sure you can separate technique and feeling. Poesis!

I suppose I was being too simplistic myself in my example of the jazz guy yawning through "Stairway to Heaven." As I mentioned in the same comment, there are jazz musicians who've done rock and roll.

cowboyangel said...

Rock and roll started as rebellion, and the electric guitar was the weapon of choice.

Yeah, everytime I hear Jimmy Page blazing through "Rock and Roll" on that Cadillac commercial, I feel like overthrowing the Capitalist system.


Lawrence said...

Well thanks to you I listened to Segovia for several years until I lost his CD. I have a few Cockburn CDs and still really like his old stuff, especially in the winter, again thanks to you for introducing his music to me. I heard Paco and was amazed but I listen to Carlos Montoya regularly simply because I got a deal on his CD and like it.
I still try to play every day but lack the discipline to be good. My flamenco guitar instructor told me not to come back until I could play the sequence without messing up a note. He said it nicely but I think he meant it so I am working on it though I am not sure he'll remember me when I return.
You blogs are cool.

Steve Caratzas said...

Here's two more cents:

In 1984 I spent the summer in Los Angeles at the Musician's Institute studying guitar.

Exactly one of the other students in my class of approximately 100 knew who Lou Reed was. No one considered rock and roll to be a serious genre; the student body was essentially divided into metal shredders (think Yngwie Malmsteen) and jazz players.

The entire point of the course, obviously, was to learn technique, scales, chords, etc. Thus to show up and express interest in learning how to employ feedback and atonality into an eight-bar guitar solo in a three-chord song was thought to be a ludicrous ambition. Hence my prejudice toward jazz guitarists (not to mention metal heads).

You wrote:

I suppose I was being too simplistic myself in my example of the jazz guy yawning through "Stairway to Heaven." As I mentioned in the same comment, there are jazz musicians who've done rock and roll.

But have any done it well? I don't believe it's possible, personally, but would be open to examining examples. Technique, to my mind, always overshadows the feeling when a jazz player stoops to playing rock and roll. So you wind up with this collection of exquisitely selected notes gathered into virtuoso phrases, that might as well be rendered by whatever is the guitar equivalent of a player piano.

cowboyangel said...

What about Marc Ribot? I love his sound with Tom Waits. That wonderful, dirty guitar on "Jockey full of burbon" and other stuff on Rain Dogs.

I'd also argue that Slim Gaillard was doing basically a pre-rock kind of rock guitar back in the 1930s/40s - though he's considered jazz. That's some werid-ass stuff.

Also, there's the whole "contemporary" music scene, which is post-rock, post-jazz and combines elements of both. I've heard some really interesting stuff at times.

But if you don't like jazz guitarists, there's not much I can say, is there?! :-) As I said, I like it all. When I need to rock and roll, I like to rock and roll. When I need some jazz, I dig my jazz. Today, I needed some Jimmie Rodgers. Even more weird mixtures in the late 20s/early 30s. Rodgers is called the Father of Country Music. He's obviously a white blues player. He was a big influence on Dylan. And he cut several records with Louis Armstrong. It works.

It's all one to me.

Steve Caratzas said...

A) I don't consider Marc Ribot a jazz guitarist;

B) I agree his playing on Rain Dogs is amazing'

C) To paraphrase Mickey Rourke in Barfly: "I don't necessarily hate jazz guitarists, I just seem to feel better when they're not around."

D) Seriously, it's not the jazz guitarists I hate, but rather their approach to rock.

Your post's thesis is something I agree with: lists like this are bound to be idiotic by mere dint of their existence. But if it's a list of The Best guitarists, it should feature The Best guitarists, period - not just the best rock, blues, etc. players.

I actually saw, many years ago, a famed Spanish classical guitarist perform at the Metropolitan Museum. I am mortified that I do not recall his name, though I believe he played an 8-string guitar, or something like that.

The guy was an amazing technician, and it was just he and the instrument on stage. I recall hanging on every phrase as though I were being suspending over the edge of a cliff, such was the tension he provoked with his playing. An amazing event, entirely.

Should he be rated lower than, say, Nils Lofgren? It would be criminal to even contemplate.

cowboyangel said...

A) I don't consider Marc Ribot a jazz guitarist

Well, don't tell him that!
Official site for the jazz guitarists

I like the plural.

Interestingly, when you go to the Tour page it says: This is the official website of avant-garde guitarist

So, he's two or more jazz guitarists, an avant-garde guitarist and . . . who knows what else.

BTW, "Marc will be conducting a workshop / masterclass at New York City's Brecht Forum. Wednesday, April 18, 2-4 pm, $70 per student."

If I were a guitarist, I think I'd head over there. $70 - not bad. People pay more than that to listen to a "published poet" tell them about poetry.

And at the Brecht Forum. So, he's a Marxist guitarist as well.

The Barfly paraphraase is very funny.

cowboyangel said...


That's totally cool that you're taking flamenco guitar lessons. I envy you. I hadsome Carlos Montoya at one point - an old cassette. Don't remember where it came from.

Cockburn in winter. Yeah. High Winds White Sky. I made a playlist of winter music, and he's definitely on there. Still don't really like his later stuff, but the first ten albums or so are wonderful.

Do you know John Fahey's Christmas album - The New Possibility? That's one to have.