Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Most Influential Guitarists of All Time

I typically dislike such lists. Strongly. They're always informative of the writer's personal tastes, which is fine, but too often presented as some sort of factual list based on objective standards. That is simply not the case.

So I've opted for a mildly different approach and tried to find peak moments across both historical & stylistic lines by which to choose guitarists as not so much an announcement of my personal aesthetic, but as an educational tool. Many an incredible and influential player didn't make it onto this particular list (names like Cobain & Satriani, Django & Wes, Gambale & Clapton, Emmanuel & Vai, and more are sure to figure largely in the critiques), but I had to narrow this down to a manageable list and so choices had to be made. Some of these players also taught - no small point in being influential during one's time as well as across time. somewhat chronological order, a Baker's Dozen of best:

1) Antonio de Torres Jurado 

Antonio de Torres Jurado (June 13, 1813 - November 19, 1893) is credited with building the first modern style guitar. It had a radically different proportions, a significantly altered bracing pattern, larger body, and other such modifications from the guitar-like instruments that came before it. Without doing the deep dive through guitar history, suffice to say that while almost every culture in history has a musical instrument that has a resonating body and strings (and is easily recognizable as "guitar-esque"), the modern guitar begins with Jurado's design from roughly 1850.

Without Antonio, there is no list.

2) Andrés Segovia

Andrés Segovia Torres, 1st Marquis of Salobreña (February 21, 1893 - June 2, 1987) is quite possibly the man who first made guitar "cool" (though he and most of his fans would likely balk at such a description). He popularized the instrument while simultaneously making it more respectable with serious musicians as well as fans of so-called "serious music". He reworked & transcribed for guitar the works of the masters (like Bach, etc) while also commissioning contemporary pieces from composers (Villa-Lobos, etc) and, of course, continued to play traditional guitar compositions by composers (Fernando Sor, etc), all the while recording in studio, performing the concert stage, and teaching the next generation of "classical" guitarists such as Julian Bream, Christopher Parkening, and John Williams.

With Segovia, the guitar explodes into the 20th century as a force across styles. VIDEO 

3) Carlos Montoya 

Carlos García Montoya (13 December 1903 - 3 March 1993) is credited as the man who single-handedly created flamenco guitar. Not that flamenco didn't exist before him, mind you. But the guitar was purely a rhythm instrument playing in an ensemble and fronted by dancers and singers. Montoya completely transformed the role of the guitar and even even angered many traditionalists in the process (in part due to his flowing sense of time rather than the strict dance times), but his technique was super-human, his dynamics were pure fire, and his sound absolute magic - and it made him an international superstar and made flamenco guitar music an international treasure.

With Montoya, the guitar becomes a musical weapon. VIDEO 

4) Robert Johnson

Robert Leroy Johnson (May 8, 1911 - August 16, 1938) was certainly not the first blues musician, not the first blues guitarist, and wasn't the first blues virtuoso. Son House and Charley Patton and Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt were all amazing players and dynamic performers who were already on the scene when Johnson showed up. But Johnson hit the scene with a style, a flair, and sound unlike the others, with insane skill, wailing voice, uncanny rhythmic complexity, and chilling compositions - his thumb continuously thumping the bass notes while his fingers picked out chords and his bottleneck slide worked furiously across the fretboard. So fast did he acquire these skills that everyone was certain a Faustian Deal had been made. But then, abruptly, he was dead. And forgotten. Then, just as abruptly, he was rediscovered in the 1960s, with players of all styles citing him as a major influence. 

With Robert Johnson, a revolution is brewing. VIDEO 

5) Charlie Christian

Charles Henry Christian (July 29, 1916 - March 2, 1942) was among the first jazz guitarists to step from the rhythm section and solo, and one of the first to employ the electric guitar rather than the acoustic. And his improvisation skill was legendary. In additional, he is often credited as a one of the founders of the bebop style of jazz. He went from near complete unknown - when he was hired by Benny Goodman in 1939 to play in his orchestra - to a national guitar star by 1940. And yet, just 2 short years later, he died of tuberculosis. But in that short time his legacy was sealed. He had already been voted tops of jazz & swing polls, played on hit records and on sold out stages, and was later inducted into both the Downbeat Jazz Hall of Fame and the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame.

With Charlie Christian, a new era is born. VIDEO 

6) Les Paul

Lester William Polsfuss (June 9, 1915 - August 12, 2009), known professionally as Les Paul, revolutionized not just guitar, but the entire music industry. As a popular performer (with Mary Ford, solo, & collaborating with others), he had over 50 charting hit singles from 1945 to 1961; as a guitarist, he explored not only various physical techniques (trills, slides, rapid-change chordings, etc) but electronics, inventing & pioneering multiple guitar effects such as tape delay & phase effects; as a music inventor he built one of the first solid body electric guitars (later redesigned and released as Gibson's Les Paul) and pioneered multi-track recording....all this leading to him being the only person ever to be inducted into the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame and the National Inventors Hall of Fame, as well as other Halls, won multiple Grammys, sold millions of records, and much more. He changed guitar design, sound effects, and sound recording forever.

With Les Paul, modern music & music technology is truly born. VIDEO 

7) B.B. King

Riley B. King (September 16, 1925 - May 14, 2015), known to the world as B.B. King, revolutionized the blues world (and the music world) when he released his first hit single (though his 8th release), "3 O'Clock Blues". The song featured his signature interplay between vocal and guitar (he sings a phrase and then "answers" the vocal with a guitar phrase), his early use of bends and vibrato, and his highly fluid & emotional approach to single note lines. He had 19 more hit records before the end of the decade and another 24 in the 1960s - all before the release of 1970's "The Thrill is Gone", which became his best-known song internationally. King is often credited with re-writing the book on blues guitar soloing and his playing impacted players of every style.

With King, electric blues truly blossoms. VIDEO 

8) Chet Atkins

Chester Burton Atkins (June 20, 1924 – June 30, 2001), known simply as Chet Atkins, was a man who we could write about as a record producer (he helped create the "Nashville Sound" and produced the likes of Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley, Floyd Cramer, Waylon Jennings, & more), or as a session player (he played with The Carter Sisters, Hank Snow, Les Paul, & more), or as a record exec for RCA (he launched the careers of Willie Nelson, Jerry Reed, & more), or as a a guitarists. His sound was an incredible display of Travis picking with simultaneous virtuoso lead lines and complex jazz chords, all with a country-esque aesthetic. Over his lifetime, he influenced countless players, is recognized as one of the best players to ever live, won an astounding 14 Grammy Awards & 9 CMAs, played for 6 presidents, and has been inducted into the Country Music, Rock-n-Roll, and Musicians Halls of Fame.

With Chet, the bar is forever raised. VIDEO 

9) Chuck Berry

Charles Edward Anderson Berry (October 18, 1926 - March 18, 2017) made the guitar "cool" for millions. Little remembered is that in pop music, sax was the sexy instrument. Until Berry. His first single, "Maybellene", sold a million copies and went to #1....a full 6 months before Elvis' first #1 song, "Heartbreak Hotel". 22 charting singles in the 50s alone, along with brilliant showmanship, non-stop performances, and his incredible guitar pyrotechnics, made Berry an international star. His use of double stops, rapid single-stroke picking, and bluesy lines established the "guitar bible"of rock-n-roll. Berry has been recognized by Rolling Stone, the R&R Hall of Fame, performed at The White House for Jimmy Carter, and has the only rock-n-roll song on the Voyager Gold Record.

With Berry, the guitar becomes THE instrument of rock-n-roll. VIDEO 

10) Jimi Hendrix

James Marshall Hendrix (born Johnny Allen Hendrix, November 27, 1942 - September 18, 1970) known later as Jimi Hendrix, was the first to fully realize the potential of the electric guitar as distinct from its acoustic cousin. Utilizing not only high-powered traditional techniques in unique ways (from his screaming rock work in songs like "Purple Haze", but in advanced chordal play in songs like "Castles Made of Sand"), he pioneered the use of feedback, was first to push the "whammy bar" beyond rational limits, was first to heavily use multiple guitar effects (fuzz to octave dividers, uni-vibe/tremelo to wah pedals), and was clearly the first to completely fuse "electric" and "guitar". His songwriting was bold & fearless, his performances were unlike anything ever seen in the mainstream popular music world, the list of accolades far too long to mention here, he did it all in just 4 years with 4 albums...and then, like Christian & Johnson, he was gone.

With Hendrix, anything becomes possible. VIDEO 

11) Nile Rodgers

Nile Gregory Rodgers Jr. (born September 19, 1952) is the only name on this list who is still alive, and he is just as agile a player & prolific as a producer as ever. Nile started his career as co-founder, guitarist, & primary songwriter of the 70s funk band Chic, whose debut single hit #1 and charted in 7 countries and continued this streak for 15 years. With his signature "chucking" rhythm & complex chords, he revolutionized dance music, but didn't stop there. He went on to produce & co-write with everyone from Madonna's debut to David Bowie's "Let's Dance" to Sister Sledge, Dianna Ross, Daft Punk, Mick Jagger, INXS, Duran Duran, Lady Gaga...the list goes on. He has written, performed, & produced albums that have sold over 500 million copies worldwide, won multiple Grammys, is in the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame, Songwriters Hall of Fame, and far more than can be listed here.

With Nile, guitar becomes THE groove machine & earns its place in all of music. VIDEO 

12) Eddie Van Halen

Edward Lodewijk Van Halen (January 26, 1955 - October 6, 2020) co-founded the rock band Van Halen with brother Alex in the early 70s. By 1978 their first album was already changing the world, with "Eruption" screaming out over stereo speakers. The incredible songs as well as solo pieces ("Spanish Fly", "Mean Streets" intro, "Cathedral", the intro to "Little Guitars"), coupled with innovative techniques (tapping, dive bombs, tremelo picking, over-bends, harmonics, etc) and a unique sense of style & phrasing, helped catapult the band to super-stardom and EVH to legendary status. Eddie also lent his talents to Michael Jackson for the song "Beat It" (from MJ's album "Thriller" which went on to outsell every album in history) as well as other artists (such as Brian May's "Starfleet" album). He also went on to hold patents on 3 guitar devices, issue a signature guitar based on his home-made "Franken-Start", a signature amp (the 5150), signature strings. 

With Eddie, the guitar was primed to enter the 21st century. VIDEO 

13) Stevie Ray Vaughn

Stephen Ray Vaughan (October 3, 1954 - August 27, 1990) exploded on the scene in the 1980s, placing blues back on center-stage and re-introducing legends like Buddy Guy and Albert King and Otis Rush to the world. His big break came after years in Texas clubs when he landed a gig on the Nile Rodgers produced comeback album by David Bowie, "Let's Dance", where he played lead guitar alongside Rodgers. He was to play the tour, but opted instead to hit the road with his band Double Trouble....and the rest is history. His lightning fast fingers, amazing tone, pitch-perfect bends, encyclopedic knowledge, and a vibrato as wide as the Grand Canyon helped establish him as a a bona fide guitar god before his 2nd album was even recorded. His compositions ranged from hard Texas blues to gorgeous chordal explorations ("Lenny" and "Riviera Paradise", to name two) and his covers of blues classics and Hendrix staples cemented his place in history. Sadly, he was killed in a helicopter crash on the way to a gig.

With SRV, the guitar sings into the future. VIDEO 

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