Sunday, December 04, 2011

RS Greatest Guitarists

In recent years, Rolling Stone has made a cottage industry out of its “100/500 Best…” issues, which probably says more about Jann Wenner’s point of view than anything else. But I can’t really argue with the premise, because it is entertaining to hear what current artists and critics have to say about the masters of the past.

In the current issue, it’s the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.” While many of these lists are great argument starters, that’s not really the case here, because everyone in the world knew that Jimi Hendrix was the greatest guitarist of all time well before they picked up this magazine. It’s really impossible to argue against the premise of Hendrix as greatest ever, although I suppose it would be fun to see someone try. There’s just no disputing that he did more with less than anyone who’s ever picked up the instrument. Of the albums of his that I own, my favorite is a live recording from Winterland, because it truly shows what he could do at the spur of the moment, in the heat of battle.

Since we got the Clapton cover, I should say a few words about him as well. He comes in at #2 on the list, another choice I won’t quibble with (although I would have been tempted to put Keith Richards there). For a long time I thought Clapton was overrated, because I happened to start buying his albums right around the time (late 1970s) that he was entering into his “mellow” phase. There were certainly some flashes of greatness on “The Fuse” from “Slowhand,” but outside of hearing “Layla” on the radio, I could never quite figure out what all the fuss was about.

What turned my opinion were two performances – one on the “Just One Night” album, where he laid down some incendiary solos on some old Robert Johnson songs; but more than that, a joint appearance on a late night TV show (I can’t even remember which one) with Robert Cray. Cray is an outstanding blues and rock guitarist, and his “Strong Persuader” album may be better than any single album that Clapton has recorded in his career. But that night provided a great opportunity for comparison, because both Cray and Clapton play Fender Stratocasters – so they were on a level playing field, so to speak. And on that night, Clapton just blew Cray away – getting sounds out of his Strat that Cray couldn’t even begin to approach.

As for the rest of the list, I’d say that Jeff Beck, Eddie Van Halen, Joe Walsh and Slash seem ranked a little high, while Neil Young, Prince, Richard Thompson and Lou Reed seem way too low. But that probably says more about my taste in music than anything else. And one other quibble – I might have found room for either Gary Rossington or Allen Collins on the list. “Free Bird,” anyone?

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