Sunday, December 19, 2010

Some of my favorite guitarists
by David Gilfix

Besides the computer and the wheel, the invention that has most benefited society is quite possibly the guitar.  And before you start accusing me of hyperbole, stop and imagine what the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin would have sounded like if they all played the accordion.  Or think of Jimi Hendrix performing Purple Haze on the recorder.  Choosing a single favorite guitarist is a little like choosing your favorite pastry at Dalloyou’s in Paris. Impossible!  The best I can do is to discuss a few of my many favorites.

Charlie Christian (Texas, 1916 – 1942)

The first great electric guitarist, Charlie Christian championed a fluid, single-line swing style that influenced almost every major jazz guitarist that came after him including Barney Kessel, Les Paul, Wes Montgomery, Herb Ellis, Tal Farlow, and George Benson.  Christian tried to model his solos on the sound of jazz saxophonists from his era, yet his own harmonic vocabulary was more sophisticated and influenced the later bop players. 

Born in Texas in 1916 and raised in Oklahoma City, Christian was discovered by the great record producer and talent scout, John Hammond (who also discovered Billy Holiday, Count Basie and Bob Dylan).  Hammond introduced Christian to Bennie Goodman with whom he played from 1939 to 1941, wrote many of the band’s arrangements, and became a star performer.  It was here that he popularized the new electric guitar. 

In Christian’s recordings, what stands out is how perfectly his solos enhance the music.  His musical conceptions are doubly impressive since he accomplished everything at very young age.  Sadly, Christian died of tuberculosis in his prime at 25.  

Pepe Romero (Malaga, Spain)

I challenge anyone to find another guitarist of any style who is technically better than classical guitarist Pepe Romero.  His colorful interpretive skills are equally noteworthy -- always stylistically correct, never showboating (even though he could out showboat anyone). 

Born in Malaga, Spain in 1944, Pepe Romero only had one guitar teacher in his life – his father, composer/guitarist, Celedonio Romero.  He has performed both classical and flamenco guitar since the age of seven.  Additionally, along with his father and brothers, Celin and Angel, Pepe has performed in the renowned Los Romeros Guitar Quartet, given solo concerts, and premiered works by major composers Rodrigo, Torroba, Palamo, and Romero senior.

Pepe Romero - Fantasia, by Celedonio Romero

I liken Pepe Romero to a great athlete such as Michael Jordan.  For us mortal guitarists, Pepe Romero makes the impossible appear downright easy -- blinding speed, gorgeous tone, and flawless left-hand technique, all masterfully combined to bring out the highest levels of  art.  

Arthiel Lane “Doc” Watson (North Carolina)

For old-time folk and bluegrass music, it’s hard to find a guitarist who does better finger-, flat-, or cross picking.  In case you’re not a guitarist (remember that it’s never too late), cross picking involves rolling the pick evenly across three adjacent strings over and over as you change the notes in the left hand, thereby creating a banjo rhythm triplets-inside-the-bar effect in which the important melody notes keep falling on different beats.

If that sounds too technical, here’s another way of thinking about Doc Watson.  Imagine sitting on a porch on a hot summer day, drinking beer, wearing a straw hat, feet propped up, and the person across from you is playing old time folk music with the sweetest, smoothest, guitar playing you could imagine. 

Doc Watson - Black Mountain Rag

Doc Watson sounds like the guitarist for whom the acoustic flat top guitar was invented, and he is considered by many as a guitarist who has exerted a huge influence on acoustic guitar lead playing in folk and bluegrass music.

Michael Dadap (Southern Leyte, Philippines)

The first time I heard Michael Dadap in concert, he performed a piece I had heard more than some “top 40” hits – Villa Lobos’s Prelude in E minor; and he made it sound brand new.  It was like listening to Ray Charles singing America.  I asked Michael for lessons, and after several years under his tutelage, we became good friends.

Michael sounds different than other classical guitarists perhaps because he perceives the music differently, perhaps because his background is so unique: award-winning composer; folk performer in a touring Filipino ensemble; jazz guitarist who survived music school by playing gigs; founding music director of the Iskwelahang Rondalla (Rondalla School) of Boston, Massachusetts; and conductor and co-director, along with his violinist wife, Dr. Yeou-Cheng Ma, of New York’s renowned Children’s Orchestra Society.

Both as soloist and part of the Dadap-Ma guitar/violin duo, Michael’s music seems to come alive with fresh ideas where others have grown stale.   Here are two Filipino folk songs arranged and performed by Michael Dadap, accompanied by the paintings of Fernando Amorsolo:

Filipino Love Songs by Michael Dadap 

Michael has received numerous awards, including the (borough of) Queens Musician of the Year, and the Pamanang Lahi (lifetime achievement) Award from Philippine President, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Steve Morse (Michigan)

The worst thing I can say about him is that he is a Guitar Hero.  But whose fault is that, anyway?  He’s good - really good.  Morse is a fusion player who combines funk, jazz, classical, country, and rock to create his own individual sound.  Morse grabs you with an arsenal of rhythms, creative chord choices, and lead lines that range from smooth and songlike, to sharp and edgy.

Morse first drew a following in the 1970s with his University of Miami group, The Dixie Dregs.  While the Dixie Dregs never achieved huge commercial success, the progressive nature, sheer sophistication, and expert musicianship of the band drew a loyal following and juggernauted Morse as a top guitarist among fellow instrumentalists.  Morse has been nominated for six Grammy awards and is a five-time winner of Guitar Magazine readers’ Best Overall Guitarist (only Steve Howe of Yes has won as many times).  In the 1980s, Morse created his own Steve Morse Band.  Later, he joined Kansas and, in 1993, Deep Purple.

Like most rock musicians, the lights, glitter, and costumes in Steve Morse’s performances are part of the package that attracts people.  Despite that one shortcoming, Morse is one of today’s most interesting and exciting guitarists.

Steve Morse -  8 1/2 Minute Unnamed Solo

Carlos Santana (Jalisco, Mexico)

Long before Paul Simon brought international music to the pop world through his groundbreaking Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints albums, Mexican-born Carlos Santana introduced an entire generation of British and American rock listeners to timbales, congas, as well as Latin and African rhythms. 

Santana’s Latin/Afro music is made as an insider, as someone who breathes these sounds as part of his own culture and then incorporates them into popular music styles.  He has collaborated with a who’s who of musicians, including Dave Mathews, Angelique Kidjo, Herbie Hancock, Eric Clapton, Dave Mathew, Shakira, Jose Feliciano, Gloria Estafan, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and Bob Dylan. Moreover, Santana is fanatic about choosing top drummers, and his own Carlos Santana Band is widely recognized for having one of the best percussion sections in the business.

Santana was ranked 15th in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Times.  His technique is superb, and he combines it with passion and an authentically personal style. He is able to mix blues and rock with Latin and African styles to create a completely individual sound that grabs you instantly from the moment you sip your first Corona with lime.

Jeff Beck (Wallington, England)

Jeff Beck gained stardom by playing in the Yardbirds.   He joined them in 1965, two days after Eric Clapton left the group.  Playing alongside Jimmy Page, they comprised probably the greatest guitar duo in rock history.  The Yardbirds are often cited as pioneers in the (then) new rock sounds of distortion and feedback, which is true but misses the bigger point: their greatest contribution was as pioneers of an original, technically challenging, exciting, and innovative rock and blues guitar style.  Clapton and Page also belong on my all-time favorites list, but there is only room here for one former Yardbird guitarist.

Since leaving the Yardbirds, Beck has performed and recorded blues-rock, heavy metal, and jazz-rock both in his own self-named groups and in collaboration with many top artists including Sting, Phil Collins, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Cindi Lauper, ZZ Top, and Les Paul.  His work has earned him numerous awards, including five Grammies for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.

Beck has a unique, thumb picking style that includes creative use of feedback and distortion, and an uncommon skill on the vibrato bar and the volume knob – the later is often turned up after the initial attack on the string, creating a “spacey,” ethereal non-guitar-plucking sound.  

Jeff Beck - A Day in the Life, by Lennon and McCartney:

However, what stands out in Becks music is his overall conception, which is always architecturally sound, yet personal, individual, and powerful enough to deliver a one-two punch to the gut and heart.

Honorable Mention:  Roy Clark (Meherrin, Virginia)

Roy Clark is as corny as Kansas in August, and he could care less; he’s having too much fun playing rings around everyone else.

The star of television’s long running Hee-Haw was a two-time National Banjo Contest winner before the age of fifteen.  He plays drop-dead country fiddle and many styles of guitar including country (of course), jazz and flamenco, sings, and has even won the Country Music Comedy award for his between-song patter.  Listening to Roy Clark play, one gets the impression that it is as easy for him as tying his shoes.

Roy Clark isn’t particularly innovative, he hasn’t written great songs, and he certainly hasn’t influenced many musicians with his music.  But he still deserves to be on this list for one simple reason: he’s fun!  There are many great musicians who can pour out their pain for us, but few can match Roy Clark in sharing a good ol,’ “aw shucks! Who cares if I’m corny?” approach to playing.  

Roy Clark - Black Sapphire / (Fingers on Fire)

Who are some of your favorite guitarists?


Mark said...

Great article.
Here are my favorite guitarists:
1. Eric Clapton
2. Jimi Hendrix
3. B.B. King
4. George Harrison
5. Stevie Ray Vaughn
6. Julian Bream
7. Pat Metheny

Gordon Whiting said...

Good list. Pepe Romero definitely! Since we all know the greats (or should) I'll add some guitarists that fall into the underrated/underappreciated category: Martin Simpson - English fingerstyle master; Allen Holdsworth - another Englishman, with a fluid electric fusion style that stands up there with Beck, Martino and McLaughlin; Steve Kimock - Jerry Garcia acolyte who may have surpassed his guru; Roy Buchanan - stinging blues shaman, did unearthly things with a Telecaster; and Mike Bloomfield - what can you say? Bloomfield in my view is equal to Clapton and Hendrix in pure mastery of instrument and artistic inspiration (and influence). I think his public reputation is in need of an upgrade.

Small nitpick: Beck, Page and Clapton were not all in the Y'Birds at the same time.

David Gilfix said...

Gordon, really nice list. I have to listen to Allen Holdsworth, as I am unfamiliar with his work. Believe it or not, I was going to include Martin Simpson, but the article was getting too long. Other guitarists who I would definitely include (perhaps in some future article): Django Reinhart, Paco de Lucia, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Pat Metheny, Robert Johnson, and many more.
By the way, thanks for the correction, Gordon, it has been changed.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more with Gordon Whiting. I'm working hard to change the fact that Michael Bloomfield is barely remembered. Visit his website.

then this one:

Lots to read, watch and hear about America's first blues guitar hero!!

Gordon Whiting said...

Well this could get addictive. Agree with all the names so far, glad to see Bream and Django appreciated. So here's ten more: Reverend Gary Davis, Michael Hedges, Jim Hall, Joe Pass, Chris Spedding, Jim Campilongo, Elmore James, Jimmy Herring, Johnny Winter and John Williams. I submit there should be a canonical list that just is not subject to question, with the supernovae of guitardom listed-- so we don't get consumed with the obvious. I'm talking about Segovia, Chet Atkins, Charlie Christian, Wes, Doc, Eric, Jimi, Les Paul and so on. Make a top 50 that are simply not subject to argument. Then we can start arguing our pet candidates, like Bert Jansch...and John Renbourn...and Davy Graham...Big Jim Sullivan, Hubert Sumlin, Bucky Pizzarelli, Mick Ronson, Leslie West, JJ Cale, T-Bone Walker, Manitas de Plata, Buck Dharma, Angus Young, Rick Nielson, Grant Green, Freddy Green, Duane Eddy, Dick Dale, Phil Manzanera, Peter Green. I think I'm getting ahead of the game here....

Richard Mirsky said...

Here's mine - in no particular or logical order...
Jerry Garcia
Pete Townshend
Jorge Strunz
Shinichi Matsumoto
Allan Holdsworth
Clarence White
Ernie Isley
Fran McKendree
and, though it's a slightly different animal but no less significant
Buddy Cage
Rusty Young
Sneaky Pete on pedal steel

agnosticcynic said...

This list, and the reasons given, are extremely impressive, and well stated by the author. But, I am left speechless at the glaring absence of Burl Ives. And, no one else has picked up on this? The man whose talents transcended artistic boundaries of many colors, bringing us "Big Daddy" alongside Paul Newman, and the voice of "Sam the Snowman" in "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer", is certainly worthy of consideration just for classics such as "Little Bitty Tear", "Call Me Mister In-Between", and "Funny Way of Laughing". I, for one, shall always treasure the guitar virtuoso who was Burl Ives.

Gordon Whiting said...

To agnosticcynic: Not to mention "Blue Tail Fly." Anyone hear his version of Dylan's "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight?" Pretty great, actually. Well, he was a giant talent and no mistake, but I'm afraid I'm voting him off the Island of Guitar Masters.

Gordon Whiting said...

To Richard Mirsky: Clarence White indeed! And Jorge Strunz, demon with pick (on a classical guitar no less).

David Gilfix said...

Agnostic Cynic, very funny! - Except that on second read you got me thinking … Burl Ives was certainly a very important musician (yes, I’m serious!); he helped resuscitate many American folksongs that we now consider standards, such as Big Rock Candy Mountain, and The Blue Tail Fly. But I don’t think he really contributed anything in the way of guitar playing. Pete Seeger, on the other hand, I believe is a truly great and completely underrated guitarist. Pete perceives music quite differently than most modern folk guitarists; his sense of phrasing (both on the guitar and vocally) is extraordinary. He finds places in the music to makes subtle shifts in tempo and dynamics where others do nothing. In fact, I like both Pete Seeger and classical guitarist Michael Dadap for the same reasons: they find opportunities to make the music come alive where others do nothing. In order to appreciate musicians like these, sometimes it helps to hear how different the same music sounds when performed by everyone else.

An interesting aside: During the McCarthy-led anti-communist trials held by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s, Ives saved his own career by informing against fellow folk musicians, including Pete Seeger. After a long rift, Pete forgave him, and the two performed The Blue Tail Fly in 1993, two years before Burl Ives died.

David Gilfix said...

Gordon, some pros and cons about the idea of creating a canonical list so that “we don’t get consumed with the obvious.” Pros – we would spend more time learning about top-level guitarists who are less well known. Cons – we would spend less time relearning about top-level guitarists who everyone knows, but most people haven’t really listened to. You might be an exception, but my guess is that most of us haven’t heard enough of the great works by people like Les Paul, Django Reinhart, Wes Montgomery, and on and on (not to mention all the guitarists I wrote about). Sometimes it’s nice to be re-inspired to take a new listen to the old greats.

In terms of underrated guitarists, here’s one from the Boston area who is well worth hearing: Geoff Bartley.

David Kassel said...

First, I'd have to dispute David's premise in this post and submit that the fiddle is the world's greatest invention. What would it sound like if Brahms had written his violin concerto for the kazoo?

Seriously, great post. Has anyone mentioned Django Reinhardt or Tony Rice?

Gordon Whiting said...

OK, let's go back in time. Here's Eddie Lang in 1927, Andres Segovia, 1927, and The Delmore Brothers, 1933. All hugely influential, and you can hear in these selections their influence on the work of others.

Gordon Whiting said...

Sorry, the link on Delmore Brothers messed up. Here it is.

Unknown said...

My two favorite jazz guitarists are Wes Montgomery and Pat Metheny for this reason: both are prolific and brilliant improvisers, who consistently create solos that are deeply felt, original, and beautiful to me. They sing though their instruments. Jimi Hendrix had this quality to me as well, they are all creative musicians who happened to play the guitar... I know there are many more, but these three artists are the most deeply talented that I have spent time listening to.