High Strung: The 25 All-Time Weirdest Guitarists
Once upon a time, the mere act of strapping on an electric guitar and cranking up an amplifier marked one as an outsider, a rebellious badass who refused to live by the laws of a "decent" society.
But today's cookie-cutter rockers and forgettable pop janglers make studying for the priesthood seem like an edgier pursuit than playing guitar in a band.
Guitar World thought it might be instructive to salute some genuine rock weirdos—25 individuals whose unique personalities and/or playing styles have been dictated not by popular trends, market research firms or knit-capped A&R guys, but by an all-consuming need to express themselves to the fullest. Some have crashed and burned, especially when LSD was involved, and you probably wouldn't want to invite most them to dinner.
But they're all colorful characters whose flying freak flags have contributed much to rock's rich tapestry.
Numerous books have been written about the late Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd's original leader and rock's first serious acid casualty. His madcap antics range from the amusing (fixing Pat Boone with a murderous stare during an interview on Boone's TV show; styling his hair with Brylcreem and crushed Mandrax tablets) to the psychotic (locking a girlfriend in a bedroom for days with nothing to eat but crackers). An incredibly inventive guitarist who combined an unorthodox slide technique with various echo units to create a truly "interstellar" sound, Syd unfortunately became synonymous with "losing one's shit entirely."
The wildest one-man band in the history of recorded music, the late Hasil Adkins cranked out warped rockabilly paeans to sex, dancing and decapitation for many decades. A manic-depressive lover man whose diet consisted entirely of meat, nicotine and endless cups of coffee, the Haze liked to scare visitors to his rural Appalachian abode with his collection of mannequin heads, and had been known to send unsolicited copies of his new records to the White House. True connoisseurs of weirdness (including the Cramps, who covered Hasil's "She Said") worshiped his every primal clang and growl.
This reclusive, robotic guitarist (whose personal brand of shred encompasses the most out-there elements of art rock, heavy metal, hip-hop and free jazz) is never seen in public without a white mask on his face or a fried-chicken bucket on his head. According to legend, the latter helps him harness the spirits of all slain and martyred chickens, without which he is powerless. Buckethead has visited Disneyland hundreds of times (He even claims to have jammed with Haunted Mansion house band) and dreams of building his own surreal theme park, Bucketheadland. For more on that, head here.
Guitarist and founding member of the world's first psychedelic band, the 13th Floor Elevators, Erickson has claimed at times to be from Mars, and his songs are filled with convincing references to aliens, demons and reincarnation. Busted for pot in 1969, he tried to beat the rap by pleading insanity. Although his habit of tripping four to five times a day might have already qualified Erickson for the nuthouse, the ensuing three-year incarceration (complete with Thorazine and shock treatments) in Texas' Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane certainly didn't help. Roky recorded prolifically in the Seventies and Eighties, but he currently spends most of his time at home.
The very definition of "weird beard," Wood has always cut a uniquely hirsute figure in the world of English rock. A worrying number of his songs for Sixties psych-pop legends the Move dealt with paranoia, insanity and mental anguish and allegedly resulted from the band's manager instructing Wood to "write about what you know." An inventive guitarist capable of everything from shuddering power chords to delicate classical filigrees, Wood spent much of the Seventies cranking out Phil Spector-meets-Sha-Na-Na Fifties pastiches with Wizzard, doubtless scarring countless impressionable youngsters for life with his hideous glam-clown makeup.
Like the man himself, former Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley's playing remains maddeningly unpredictable—to this day, he can sound like a teenager who's just picked up his first electric — but he always injected Kiss with a jolt of electricity. Ace's coked-out 1978 self-titled solo LP perfectly encapsulates his "life is one big joke" philosophy, but it's also one of the great bonehead rock albums of all time, right up there with the first Ramones record and Foghat Live.
Glenn Ross Campbell
The visionary behind Sixties garage-psych ravers the Misunderstood, Campbell could barely play a chord on a six-string guitar. But armed with a pedal steel and a fuzz box, he produced a mind-blowing squall that sounded like the missing link between Jeff Beck's work with the Yardbirds and Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced. Inspired by his spiritually oriented mother, Campbell and his band toyed with the vibrational effects of feedback and light, sending unsuspecting audiences in to a communal trance with the sensory overload of their powerful performances. Sadly the Vietnam War draft destroyed the band after it had waxed only a handful of tracks.
A visual cross between the Joker of Batman fame and Ronald McDonald, Cleminson was the musical lynchpin of Scottish glam terrorists the Sensation Alex Harvey Band. Cleminson's contorted, grease-painted mug, green Lurex body stocking and synchronized dance moves invariably provoked an avalanche of catcalls and projectiles from audiences who didn't appreciate the SAHB's theatrical bent—ditto the band's "talent show" routine, wherein Cleminson recited Shakespeare while tap-dancing. But his deft fretwork and monstrously fat sound endeared him to mid-Seventies rock fans with a taste for something beyond the usual arena fodder.
Slashing his speakers to create that distorted "You Really Got Me" sound, Davies has clearly been thinking outside the box from the early Kinks days onward. In the late Seventies, Davies became deeply interested in telepathy and mental visualization, and claims to have used these concepts to energize or heal concert audiences many times since then. In 1982, he was telepathically contacted by "five distinct intelligences" from another dimension, who significantly enhanced his consciousness and taught him the principles of "etheric magnetism." Davies loves to scan the skies for UFOs, and extraterrestrial elements abound on Purusha and the Spiritual Planet, the techno/dance/New Age record he recorded in 1998 with his son Russell. DD is going strong in 2016.
The mustachioed fret-mangler for Mayhem, Norway's original black metal band, Euronymous spent most of his downtime concocting explosive potions in his home laboratory, or presiding over pagan rituals and orgies in the basement of Hell, his Oslo record store. When Mayhem's lead singer blew his own brains out with a shotgun, the guitarist harvested the scattered grey matter from the suicide scene, then gleefully ate it in a stew of ham, vegetables and paprika. The accumulated bad karma finally caught up with Euronymous in 1993, when he was stabbed to death by Count Grishnackh of rival black metal purveyors Burzum.
An intimidating enigma in dark shades, greasy pompadour and a black leather jacket, the late Link waxed guitar instrumentals so pungently crude, one of 'em (the 1958 hit "Rumble") was even banned on numerous radio station for being "too suggestive." After losing a lung in his twenties to tuberculosis, Link let his cheap-ass guitars do most of the talking—or swearing, as the case may be. In the Fifties, he freaked out more than a few studio engineers with his primitive fuzz tone, achieved by punching holes in the speaker of his Premier amplifier.
The tastiest guitarist to emerge from the British blues boom of the Sixties, Peter Green was also the most troubled. Originally a brash and arrogant player, the Fleetwood Mac founder decimated his ego with numerous LSD binges and became deeply uncomfortable with is modicum of fame and fortune. He gave most of his money and belonging away to charity—and unsuccessfully tried to convince his bandmates to do the same—and took to wearing flowing robes and crucifixes. Green left the band in 1970 and was later institutionalized, where his schizophrenia was only worsened by repeated shock treatments. Although he still records and performs, the psychic scars from his ordeal remain.
Ever the straight man to Gibby Haynes' psychotic jester, Leary gave up his stockbroker ambitions to wreak sonic vengeance on the world as the Butthole Surfers' lead guitarist. With his permanently dilated pupils and Rockettes-style leg kicks—and, for a brief period, a hot-pink "sideways Mohawk"—Leary would have been the resident freak in any other band, but he was typically overshadowed by Haynes' lysergic meltdowns and the Buttholes' collection of surgical-training films. Still, there was no denying the potency of Leary's bad-trip guitar grind, or his propensity for smashing and setting fire to his instruments at the beginning of a show. As he explained to Guitar World in 1991, "Why wait for the end, you know?"
No one who saw Bryan Gregory onstage with the Cramps will forget the arresting spectacle of the stick-thin guitarist coaxing scorching feedback from a polka-dot Flying V (several years before Randy Rhoads wielded one!) while wiggling his ass and flicking lit cigarettes into the crowd. With his pockmarked skin, viciously pointy fingernails and impossibly long bleached fringe, Gregory looked like a Times Square hooker returned from the dead, thus accomplishing the impressive feat of making bandmates Lux Interior and Poison Ivy seem positively normal. Gregory allegedly left the band to join a snake-handling cult, though the Cramps have always maintained that his exit was drug related.
It's one thing to put on a mask or makeup when everybody else in your band is doing it; it's another thing entirely to dress up as a randy satyr or acid-crazed monkey when the rest of your bandmates are all backward-baseball cap-wearin' slobs. In Limp Bizkit, Borland's individualism extended not just to bizarre getups and mind-bending guitar noise but also to his very public discomfort with the band's dumbed-down shtick. Wes also has channeled his ADD-fueled energy into considerably more twisted projects like Goatslayer, Big Dumb Face and Eat the Day.
Jeff "Skunk" Baxter
Worried about American coming under missile attack from evildoers in faraway lands? No doubt you'll sleep easier knowing Jeff "Skunk" Baxter is counseling our elected officials on missile defense. That's right—the beret-wearing former Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan guitarist currently works for the U.S. Department of Defense as an adviser to the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. Baxter apparently immersed himself in defense manuals and technical weapons texts while his bandmates were out partying, and now peppers his interviews with anecdotes that begin, "When I was in Afghanistan—well, I can't tell you
The unlikeliest guitar hero to emerge from the New York City punk scene, the bald, bearded and bespectacled Quine looked more like a lawyer than a lead guitarist—before joining Richard Hell & the Voidoids, he'd actually spent three years writing tax law for Prentice Hall Publishing. But Quine's musical presence was commanding as hell, and his ability to whip off the most mind-bendingly surreal solos without breaking a sweat won him work with such notorious hard-to-please figures as John Zorn, Tom Waits and Lou Reed. And on Reed's The Blue Mask, Quine did something no guitarist has accomplished before or since: get a killer tone out of Peavey Bandit amplifier.
A sorely underrated player in the annals of P-Funkdom, rhythm guitarist Lucius "Tawl" Ross turned on George Clinton to the high-energy sounds of fellow Detroiters and the Stooges and the MC5, and his distorted, protopunk riffs perfectly complimented Eddie Hazel's freaky leads on the first three Funkadelic albums. Tawl's voyage on the Mothership came to an abrupt ending 1971, following a tête-à-tête he'd had with his long-dead mother while tripping on a winning combination of raw speed and at least six hits of pure LSD. Though he briefly resurfaced int he Nineties, Tawl Ross essentially remains the Syd Barrett of funk.
The West Coast psychedelic scene's answer to Syd Barrett, Alexander "Skip" Spence was a free spirit who took a serious wrong turn in 1968 during the recording of Moby Grape's second album: believing a bandmate to be possessed by Satan, Skip tried to "save" him with a fire ax. After a stint in New York City's Bellevue Hospital, he wrote and played everything on Oar, a thoroughly deranged amalgam of folk, blues and psychedelia that's since become a cult classic. Unfortunately, Oar marked his last period of prolonged semi-lucidity; doomed to battle schizophrenia and substance abuse issues, Skip was in and out of various institutions until his death from cancer in 1999.
Everyone associates B-52's with Fred Schneider's campy bark and the bewigged antics of Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, but these perennial new wave faces wouldn't have gone far without the twangy licks of Cindy's guitarist brother, Ricky. Heavily influenced by the disparate likes of Captain Beefheart and Joni Mitchell, Ricky (who allegedly learned guitar by playing along to TV commercials) used a variety of weird-ass tunings on his old Mosrite, dispensing with the D and G strings entirely. At a time when Dire Straits and Van Halen ruled the rock roost, Ricky's thrift shop, surf-meets-spaghetti western sound was a total revelation.
Hound Dog Taylor
Born with six fingers on each hand, Theodore Roosevelt "Hound Dog" Taylor once drunkenly tried to remove his extra digits with a razor blade. Thankfully, he was only partially successful, leaving his left hand intact to execute his wild Elmore James-in-crystal meth slide runs. Despite his clownish stage persona, Hound Dog loved to fight with his bandmates, and even wounded HouseRockers guitarist Brewer Phillips with a handgun when one dissing session got out of hand. A devotee of $50 pawnshop guitars and busted amps, Hound Dog rarely practiced, and he never performed sober. "When I die," he sagely predicted, "they'll say, 'He couldn't play shit, but he sure made it sound good!'"
He claimed to know only five chords, but nobody ever whipped a Les Paul with as much effete elan as the T.Rex main man. The bisexual elf's Freudian fixation on guitar flagellation began during his stint with mod provocateurs John's Children (wherein he routinely beat his ax with chains during live shows) and continued long after he'd morphed from acoustic folkie to high-heeled glam warrior. Bolan's weirdo credentials were more confirmed by his impressive string of gibberish-laden hits—songs like "Metal Guru," "Hot Love" and "Telegram Sam" so brilliantly walked the line between genius and idiocy, no one is sure to this day which is which.
"I'm from outer space and I'm here to kill you all," was a favorite between-song threat of the erstwhile Faith No More guitarist, and frankly it wasn't hard to believe him. With his Furry Freak Brother beard and man—the latter gradually turning into an unsightly "reverse Mohawk," thanks to pattern baldness—his penchant for wearing several pairs of sunglasses at once and his unapologetic love for classic rock, "Big Sick Ugly Jim" always seemed the odd man out in the groundbreaking funk-metal band. Since parting ways with FNM in 1994, the reclusive Martin as lent his searing tones to a handful of projects but his main interest seems to be growing giant pumpkins that tip the scales at well over 800 pounds.
The pretty boy of the Manson Family (Charles, not Marilyn), Beausoleil was a talented musician who played rhythm guitar in Arthur Lee's Love, back when they were still known as the Grass Roots. In 1967, Beausoleil landed a gig playing guitar and sitar for the Magick Powerhouse of Oz, an 11-piece rock band formed by filmmaker Kenneth Anger to provide soundtrack to his occult film Lucifer Rising. After a headed argument, Beausoleil stole Anger's car, camera equipment and 1,600 feet of his film—the latter of which he gave to Manson, who buried it in the desert and demanded $10,000 in ransom. While in prison, Beausoleil has built a wide array of electronic instruments, including the Syntar, a stringless, digital, touch-controlled guitar.
Angus is such an established member of the rock pantheon, most of us don't even flinch when AC/DC's diminutive lead axman duck-walks across the stage in full schoolboy drag, despite the fact the dude is several decades past his 16th birthday. But how's this for a job description: not only do you sport a velvet jacket-shorts-and-cap look on a nightly basis but you do it while playing impossibly loud blues licks, punctuating each performance with a striptease and a full moon of the audience. If that isn't a weird way to make your living for 40-plus years, we don't know what is.