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It’s a daunting task to list the greatest guitarists of all time. But these particular five have influenced legions of artists through sheer innovation and wonderful playing, touting both virtuosity and melodic wit in their unique craft. From the 1930s (Robert Johnson) to today (Sonic Youth), their influences are so great many aspiring guitarists immediately look to them for inspiration:
It’s well known that Jimi is considered to be one of the greatest guitarists who ever lived. Certainly it’s easy to get lost in the virtuoso perfection of “Purple Haze”, or the raucous excitement of “All Along the Watchtower”, but even listening to those on the greatest stereo system in existence does not give Hendrix’s eternal reverence its proper justification. For those old enough to know, Hendrix practically defined the term “stage presence” for a guitarist. By mixing the familiar sound of blues with recent invigorations of psychedelia and classic-rock, his sound was exciting and melodic while still leaving ample space for spur-of-the-moment creativity. Sure, he set his guitar on fire and his howl resonated into the night like no other, but his guitar playing remains the emphasis; it still sends chills up listeners’ spines several decades later. Hendrix was the ideal transition into classic-rock guitar playing, helping listeners moving past the Everly Brothers and Elvis into something new and exciting. There’s a reason why everyone from Eric Clapton to The Who idolized him, and still do to this day. It’s because no one will ever make guitar-playing sound as beautiful and invigorating as Jimi.
Many classic-rock heroes steeped in a bluesy sound, like Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones, would have sounded drastically different if not for Robert Johnson, the master of the Mississippi Delta blues. Although his discography is limited to about 30 songs in the mid-1930s, it’s all Johnson needed to leave his mark. Urban legend says that Johnson’s guitar playing, which in the 1930s was the best in the world, came from a deal he made with the devil; he apparently sold his soul for the virtuoso abilities. Tales of drunken wanderings and womanizing were rampant in his music, so one could see how such a legend was concocted during a period of rampant racism. The inhumane repression of his time seeped into his music, but couldn’t stop his music from leaving an unforgettable mark. His guitar playing was of a mesmerizingly high technical nature, best summarized by Keith Richards’ shocked realization when he heard Johnson for the first time. Not realizing it was possible for one man to play such an eclectic sound on his own, Richards asked “Who is the other guy playing with him?” Johnson’s fingers were magic, and all guitar legends in this list agree. He could play material by himself that two expert guitarists would have difficulty collaborating on.
Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth)
Sonic Youth’s music is defined by atmosphere, often concocted by the dual guitar attack of Moore and Ranaldo. Their avant-garde techniques employed a variety of idiosyncratic sounds; hazy blasts of distortion meshed with guitar sounds concocted from tools and appliances, creating sounds that somehow were melodic and harmonious. One reason was their mastery of prepared guitar, which alters the instrument’s timbre by placing objects on its strings. Sonic Youth’s reputation as “effects guitarists” may put some purists off, but the guitar duo’s innovation is worth noting alone. Perhaps the inventiveness is there because team grew up with differing influences; Ranaldo was a fan of Grateful Dead’s jam-band intricacy and Neil Young’s heartfelt melodies, while Moore idolized harder-rocking acts like The Stooges and Suicide. But cohesiveness came when working together. Through a mixture of drone-heavy backings, DIY effect techniques, and ripping solos, Moore and Ranaldo crafted some of the most striking guitar work of the ‘80s and beyond. Sonic Youth remain a huge influence for many risk-taking guitarists.
Clapton isn’t as technically gifted as the likes of Hendrix or Johnson, and doesn’t express the numbing art-rock innovation of Sonic Youth, but he’s one of the most skilled melodic guitarists to ever live. By touching on blues, psychedelia, and even heavy metal throughout his career with the Yardbirds, Cream, and as a solo artist, Clapton emphasized not only stylistic diversity but melody. Even through hectic examples of showmanship like “Layla”, there is a concise melodic spin apparent in all his work. Sarcastically nicknamed “slowhands” as a jesting reference to the speed of his playing, Clapton brilliantly juggles radio-friendly melodies with jaw-dropping guitar arrangements. And even on heartfelt efforts like “Tears in Heaven”, written after his son’s untimely death, the twangy guitar plays a large role – even when it’s not stunning audiences with roaring solos. There are few songwriters better able to juggle swooning melodies with depth-defying guitar virtuosity. Clapton is regarded as one of the most intuitive and melodic guitar-based songwriters ever for that reason.
The “King of the Blues” has influenced everyone from Clapton to George Harrison, joining Robert Johnson as the ultimate definer of blues-infused musicians from the ‘60s onward. King defines what listeners perceive today as a bluesy guitar solo; his creative use of pulsations and string-bending made for solos that were instantly recognizable as his own, full of the sensuality and coolness listeners widely associated with blues and blues-infused classic rock. King’s original songs, as well as the many he covered and ultimately made his own, flaunt his guitar playing as unique and unforgettable, technically inclined without sacrificing his trademark chilled-out demeanor. King’s notable use of vibrato, which flutters suavely like butterfly wings and is known as his famous “box position”, is a basic starting approach for all aspiring guitarists interested in blues. King, who will always be revered for creating such learning necessities, appeared at hundreds of shows every year until his seventies. Even at his current age of 87, King still makes plenty of appearances. We should consider ourselves lucky that his love for playing has never died. With the passionate way he always played guitar, it’s no surprise.