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