Originally published in Guitar World, April 2009
Ready to venture off music's beaten path into the wild world of guitar-wielding conjurers and mystics? Guitar World presents 25 guitarists from the past to the present whose supernatural talents have inspired legions of devoted followers.
Behind every famous guitarist is at least one obscure ax wielder that inspired him to achieve greatness. For that matter, the world of guitar music is filled with players that history has treated as mere footnotes but whose contributions have advanced the medium by leaps and bounds. Though rarely given their due, they have built devoted followings of their own—bands of disciples who seek out every album, track, article and performance featuring their idol.
Guitar World decided it was about high time someone gave these cult leaders their due. This month, we celebrate 25 guitarists who have carved out their own special place in the guitar pantheon through their talents, unique style and undeniable influence. Read our choices, listen to the recommended song and album selections, and learn for yourself why these musical messiahs have inspired multitudes of loyal followers.
One of the few surviving photos of Robert Johnson shows a small-boned, dapper man with a self-conscious smile, his long, slender, almost startlingly elegant fingers draped around a guitar. Several generations of guitarists have studied this image and examined the 29 recorded songs that Robert Johnson left behind. But when all the analysis has been done, there’s still something elusive and mysterious about Johnson, one of the most influential and fiercely original bluesmen of all time.
He was born in 1911, out of wedlock, in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, and spent his childhood in a few different places down South. This instilled in him a habit of rootless wandering that possessed him all of his short life. During his formative years, Johnson had the opportunity to learn from some of the greatest Delta blues guitarists and singers, including Son House, Charlie Patton, Willie Brown and a fellow named Ike Zinnerman, who claimed to have learned to play guitar at midnight in a graveyard. Johnson took the ancient, eloquent language of the blues and imparted his own unique accent to it. His guitar work was uncannily fluid and supple, his sense of rhythm playful and easygoing. He’s famous for introducing walking bass lines into the solo acoustic blues idiom. And indeed, when Keith Richards first heard a Robert Johnson recording and was told who it was, Richards said, “Yeah, but who’s the other guy playing with him?”
Of course there was no other guy. It was all Johnson. Traveling from town to town, playing juke joints and parties, he had to be a one-man band. He also had to play all the popular styles of the day—not only blues but also ragtime and popular vaudeville numbers. All of this lends great rhythmic and harmonic richness to his music.
Dark legend also figures in accounts of Johnson’s six-string prowess. He did little to discourage the notion that he’d sold his soul to the devil at the proverbial crossroads to obtain his musical gift. Indeed, Johnson wrote his own myth in songs like “Hellhound on My Trail,” “Me and the Devil Blues” and “Crossroads.” His singing and playing possess a haunted quality, which is especially apparent in his plaintive, knife-edge slide guitar work.
From what we do know of Johnson’s life, he was the prototypical rock musician: almost constantly on the road, fond of getting loaded and extremely partial to the ladies. Although shy and somewhat moody, he was very successful in endearing himself to the feminine gender. But his desire for a good time frequently got the better of his judgment, which ultimately cost him his life.
Down in Greenwood, Mississippi, Johnson got way too friendly with the wife of the proprietor of a roadhouse called Three Forks. The jealous husband had someone slip Johnson some poisoned whiskey. Tales of Johnson down on all fours howling like a dog in his final agonies are probably spurious. Firsthand accounts suggest that the poison didn’t even kill him, only weakened him so that pneumonia could carry him from this life on August 13, 1938.
Robert Johnson had a profound and direct influence on Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Robert Lockwood Jr. and other great bluesmen. And in the rock era, Eric Clapton has taken Johnson as his blues guru, which has helped create a cult following for him among guitarists today. Dare to dig his music and see if you don’t start to play better.
SIGNATURE TRACK “Hellhound on My Trail”
RECOMMENDED ALBUMRobert Johnson: The Complete Recordings
RECOMMENDED READINGSearching for Robert Johnson by Peter Guralnick
Inarguably death metal’s most well-known and revered shredder, Morbid Angel guitarist Trey Azagthoth (née George Emmanuel III) built his reputation by also being one of its scariest. In the Tampa, Florida, band’s heyday, he and his colleagues would cut themselves with razorblades before shows so that they could bleed all over their instruments onstage. On their albums, they espoused their interest in Satanism, ritualism and the alphabet (each album title begins with an initial letter sequential from the last). One of these eccentricities must have worked, because Azagthoth’s virtuosic solos are among the most memorable and musical solos in his genre.
Adding to Azagthoth’s quirkiness, he cites Eddie Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as primary influences (though the first song he learned to play was Black Sabbath’s “Electric Funeral”). Moreover, when he solos, he enters the Temple of Ostx, a state of mind unique to him, which, from what anyone can gather, informs his excellent use of whammy bar, finger tapping and wah. In 1998, Morbid Angel released a 40-track CD titled Love of Lava, which isolates each of his solos from that year’s Formulas Fatal to the Flesh album. It even included a guitar pick—just the thing for the cult-worshipping completist.
SIGNATURE TRACK “Maze of Torment” (Morbid Angel, Altars of Madness)
RECOMMENDED ALBUMAltars of Madness (Morbid Angel)
In the mid Sixties, when the young Clapton, Beck and Page were in England studying the records of Muddy Waters and other blues greats, an equally youthful Mike Bloomfield was on Chicago’s South Side, jumping onstage to jam with Muddy in funky clubs, copping weed from Muddy’s pianist Otis Spann and traveling with Big Joe Williams. One of the original white blues guitar icons, Mike Bloomfield’s Chicago upbringing enabled him to cross racial, social and musical barriers, literally going where no white boy had gone before.
The archetypal “wired” electric bluesman, Bloomfield had a style that was marked by frenetic bursts of dazzling intensity and a crisp tone that stung like iodine. There was a spark of the blues in everything he did, whether it was co-creating psychedelic raga rock on “East West” by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band or helping Bob Dylan go electric on the landmark Highway 61 Revisited album and at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Bloomfield’s late-Sixties Supersession work with organist Al Kooper started a blues/rock jam that’s still going strong today.
Heroin addiction and ill health put a premature end to Bloomfield’s career and life. He died of an overdose in 1981, but his legacy lives on in every guitar player who probes the ancient rite that is the blues.
SIGNATURE TRACK “East West” (The Paul Butterfield Blues Band)
RECOMMENDED ALBUMThe Live Adventures of Al Kooper & Mike Bloomfield
RECOMMENDED READINGMe and Big Joe by Michael Bloomfield
Perhaps no guitarist has explored the application of dissonance as wildly or as deeply as Justin K. Broadrick. In doing so, he helped define the distorted and atmospheric sound of post-metal and its many splintered offshoots, including industrial and shoe-gazing metal. As guitarist for Napalm Death, the British ax man helped pioneer grindcore’s heavily distorted downtuned guitars before moving on to found Godflesh, where his regimented tone-heavy plodding forged the aesthetic for industrial metal. Most recently, he’s taken his tone to a new distorted low with Jesu, whose doomy metal he drapes in sheets of psychedelic noise. In the process he has defined guitar style and tone for a whole new generation of players.
- Surprisingly, Broadrick’s setup has been fairly consistent no matter who he’s played with: a Fender Stratocaster, tuned down to C#, and plugged into the high-gain input of a Marshall JCM 800. But it is his technique, as much as his gear, that defines his sound: dragging a metal pick across light-gauge strings, his signal accented with ambient delay, Broadrick conjures up the sound of a dismal cityscape, undoubtedly inspired by the industrial cheerlessness of his hometown of Birmingham, England.
- His cult status notwithstanding, Broadrick is a hero to such well-known guitarists as Joe Satriani and Kirk Hammett (who cite Godflesh as a favorite band). And while highly visible acts like Danzig and Faith No More have reportedly offered him positions, Broadrick prefers to maintain a profile as low as he keeps his tone.
SIGNATURE TRACK “Like Rats” (Godflesh, Streetcleaner)
RECOMMENDED ALBUMStreetcleaner (Godflesh)
“The World’s Greatest Unknown Guitarist.” That’s how Roy Buchanan was once billed. A husky, bearded guy who looked more like he’d come to fix the air conditioner than rock the house, Buchanan could nonetheless reduce you to a puddle of tears once he started tugging at the strings of his ’53 Telecaster. His style was an amalgam of blues, country, rock and gospel. His take on this music was intensely personal, and a steely tension between technical mastery and unbridled emotion gave his playing an incredible sense of drama.
A series of Seventies solo albums cemented Buchanan’s reputation. Commercial success eluded him, but guitarists felt deep empathy and admiration for his work. The Rolling Stones were reportedly considering Buchanan as a replacement for Brian Jones in 1969. Everyone from Jeff Beck to John Lennon to Les Paul sang his praises, but he quit music in 1981, frustrated at being misunderstood by the general public, wrestling that all-too-familiar demonic duo: booze and dope.
Alligator Records revived Buchanan’s career in the mid Eighties, but that revival was cut short in 1988. Buchanan was arrested for drunkenness one evening. The next morning they found him dead in his cell, hanging from a noose fashioned from his own shirt. A sad end, but the recordings he left behind are a lasting memorial.
SIGNATURE TRACK “The Messiah Will Come Again”
RECOMMENDED ALBUMDancing on the Edge
Anyone who wears a fried chicken bucket on his head, never appears anywhere without a mask and claims that he was raised in a chicken coop by chickens probably never planned on becoming a mainstream guitar hero. But strangely that almost happened when Buckethead became a member of Guns N’ Roses between 2000 and 2004, toured with the band and played on all but two tracks on Chinese Democracy. Ultimately, working with GNR became a drain on Buckethead’s insatiable creative appetite (he released 28 albums of material in 2007 alone), and he’s currently back where he belongs, working on an endless succession of solo projects and numerous collaborations with artists like Bootsy Collins (Science Faxtion, the Z-Class) and Viggo Mortensen.
From the extreme violence and atonal brilliance of The Cuckoo Clocks of Hell to the serenity of the mostly acoustic Colma, Buckethead’s playing encompasses just about every emotion imaginable, including ones that are decidedly nonhuman. Sure, he can shred at superhuman speeds but he also coaxes soothing melodies from his guitar that can make listeners weep like children. Genius often manifests itself in strange ways, but it may never again come in a package as bizarre as Buckethead in any of our lifetimes.
SIGNATURE TRACK “Jordan”
RECOMMENDED ALBUMDreamatorium (Death Cube K)
With songs about Canadian Mounties, WWII German jet fighter pilots, and everyone’s favorite Japanese B-movie monster, Blue Öyster Cult were one of the strangest bands to fill arenas during the Seventies. But a huge factor of the Cult’s popularity was the formidable talents of guitarist Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser, who boasted more killer chops than a karate school in an Ebola-infested steak house. Before the band scored its first major pop hit with “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper,” BÖC shows were basically several extended guitar solos with brief snippets of songs in between (as captured for posterity on the essential live album On Your Feet or On Your Knees), culminating in a five-guitar climax with all band members strapping on axes.
Buck Dharma developed a truly original voice on guitar by frequently exploring mixolydian and modified melodic minor and harmonic minor scales at a time when most players were still struggling to break out of the pentatonic blues box. The Middle Eastern and Spanish flair of his idiosyncratic melodic solos complemented the drama and mystery of the band’s cryptic lyrics, while his fleet-fingered riffs ran circles around the competition. Dharma still tours with BÖC today, and he’s one of the rare few players who has actually improved with age.
SIGNATURE TRACK “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper”
RECOMMENDED ALBUMOn Your Feet or On Your Knees
Robert Fripp is the man who made prog-rock truly progressive. Ever since founding King Crimson in 1969, he has continually rethought and redefined the role of the electric guitar in the music of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. His pioneering work with Brian Eno on albums like 1972’s No Pussyfooting and 1974’s Evening Star introduced the word and concept “Frippertronics” into the guitar vocabulary. And while much of Fripp’s work is too “outside” for mass consumption (hence his cult hero status), he occasionally infiltrates the mainstream, as he did with the sonorous guitar counter-melodies on David Bowie’s 1977 hit “Heroes.” Fripp is most at home among cutting-edge artists like Bowie, Peter Gabriel, the Talking Heads or electronic music innovators the Orb. His restless intellect is constantly deconstructing the norms of guitar playing, such as standard tuning, which Fripp challenged by introducing his New Standard Tuning (C G D A E G) in the mid Eighties.
Fripp’s influence is everywhere. You can hear it in the atmospheric treatments of textural guitarists like Kevin Shields, Robin Guthrie and Johnny Marr, in the radically altered tunings of Sonic Youth and in the genre-morphing cacophony of Omar Rodriguez from the Mars Volta. The guitar world would be a much duller realm without Robert Fripp.
SIGNATURE TRACK “Baby’s on Fire” (Brian Eno)
RECOMMENDED ALBUMDiscipline (King Crimson)
A consummate master of the blues, Rory Gallagher combined the influence of Chicago, Texas and country blues with a supercharged, passionate rock and roll playing style to become one of the most compelling blues-rock guitarists ever. The Irish guitarist’s influence on his peers was significant; Brian May adopted Gallagher’s Vox AC30–and–Dallas Arbiter Rangemaster setup and out-of-phase pickup settings to imitate his tone; Alex Lifeson imitated his use of artificial harmonics; and Eric Clapton credits Gallagher as “the man who got me back into the blues.” But he also received accolades from blues forefathers like Albert Collins, Albert King and Muddy Waters, all of whom invited Gallagher to play on their albums.
Whereas many Sixties rock guitarists approached the blues with scholarly reserve, Gallagher developed an individual voice on the guitar that appealed both to hard rock fans and blues purists. His combination of deft left-hand pull-offs and hammer-ons with intricate right-hand hybrid-picking technique allowed him to play surprisingly complicated rhythms and execute dizzying licks that ascended and descended that fretboard with ease. Gallagher recorded 11 studio albums before he passed away in 1995 at the age of 47, but the true fire and fury of his playing is captured best on his numerous no-holds-barred live albums, where he was truly in his element.
SIGNATURE TRACK “Shin Kicker”
RECOMMENDED ALBUMLive at Montreux
A definitive “guitarists’ guitarist,” Danny Gatton forged a virtuoso style from a smorgasbord of American roots idioms, including country, blues, rockabilly and jazz. He called it “Hillbilly Jazz,” a term he introduced as the title of a 1975 solo album. Guitarists called Gatton “the Telemaster,” and the steely tone of the Fender Telecaster was indeed integral to his unique playing approach.
It was always a treat to watch Gatton’s stubby fingers dance like fire on the maple fretboard of his battered ’53 Tele, blending muscular jazz chords, blue-note bends and open-string banjo runs in seamless, and surprising, combinations. His right-hand style was an equally unorthodox yet dazzling amalgam of combination picking (plectrum plus fingers) and down-home chicken pickin’.
The son of a professional guitarist, Gatton won the praise of guitar greats ranging from Steve Vai to Les Paul to Ricky Skaggs to James Burton. He was picked up by Elektra Records at the dawn of the Nineties—the start of a brief roller-coaster ride with a tragic end. In 1991 Gatton’s 88 Elmira Street album was nominated for a Grammy, but by 1994 the guitarist had been dropped from the label. That same year he locked himself in his garage with a gun and took his life, opting out of a world where instrumental prowess is no guarantee of commercial success.
SIGNATURE SONG “Elmira Street Boogie”
RECOMMENDED ALBUM88 Elmira Street
Punk rock was initially supposed to be about breaking rules and defying the status quo, but most early punk guitarists played the same three-chord progressions and blues licks that rock and rollers had played since the Fifties. Greg Ginn, who formed Black Flag in Southern California in the late Seventies, lived up to the original punk ethos with atonal solos and unorthodox time signatures that sounded more like Ornette Coleman or Sun Ra than Eddie Cochran or Sun Records. Black Flag helped establish the template for hardcore punk with their raw, visceral sound and breakneck tempos, while their slowed-down, Black Sabbath–style sludge-’n-dirge riffs inspired alternative and grunge bands like Dinosaur Jr and Soundgarden (who both released albums early in their careers on Ginn’s SST label).
After Black Flag disbanded in 1986, Ginn freed himself from the increasingly confining expectations of hardcore punk followers by exploring a diverse musical palette. Last year he played on albums by four disparate projects: the classic country–inspired “rhythm and swing” of Greg Ginn and the Taylor Texas Corrugators, the offbeat funk rock of Mojack, the electronic/organic jam band hybrid Jambang, and the unclassifiable jazz/surf/metal of Gone. Although his current projects may never reach as large an audience as Black Flag did, Ginn continues to expand the minds of guitarists who take the effort to seek out his work.
SIGNATURE TRACK “Slip It In”
RECOMMENDED ALBUMIn My Head (Black Flag)
One of the Sixties’ greatest blues guitarists is also one of the decade’s saddest acid casualties. Peter Green had the daunting job of replacing Eric Clapton in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers in 1966. He handled the challenge beautifully, proving himself Clapton’s equal in both technique and command of the blues idiom while establishing his own musical identity: a legato sweetness of tone and style combined with a flair for moody, minor-key blues that would soon lead Green to pen “Black Magic Woman,” which became a hit for Santana. From Mayall’s band, Green went on to start his own outfit, Fleetwood Mac, one of the pioneering blues rock groups of the late Sixties.
On classic tracks like “Oh Well,” “Albatross” “Man of the World” and “The Green Manalishi,” Green and the early Fleetwood Mac eloquently demonstrated how the blues could expand into the domain of rock without sacrificing its essential, expressive truth. But by 1970, Green had left the band. Excessive bingeing on LSD had propelled him into schizophrenia and he spent most of the next three decades either institutionalized or in impoverished seclusion.
He returned to action in 1997 with Peter Green’s Splinter Group, but his condition makes it difficult for him to tour or record on a regular basis, and he remains a shadow of his youthful self.
SIGNATURE TRACK “Albatross” (Fleetwood Mac)
RECOMMENDED ALBUMA Hard Road (John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers)
Guitar World Columnists
Any mention of guitar cult heroes would be remiss if it didn’t mention four of Guitar World’s recent columnists. Paul Gilbert, Michael Angelo Batio, Richard Lloyd and Ihsahn are each guitar trailblazers in their own right whose inventive and at times insanely unusual techniques have earned them legions of diehard fans who hang on every note they play.
Gilbert has demonstrated his amazing musicality, virtuosity and speed with Racer X, Mr. Big and as a solo performer, imbuing his playing with a sense of fun and eccentricity. His monthly “Shred Alert” column gives readers a first-hand look at his diverse style of shred while it reveals what makes him such an engaging and exciting player in the first place.
Shred virtuoso Michael Angelo Batio is among the most unusual of players. A onetime teacher both to Tom Morello and Mark Tremonti, Batio wields two- and four-neck guitars and blazes away on two fretboards at a time, inspiring players to surpass their limitations when playing just one. In his “Time to Burn” column, he shows how to perform everything from unusual scales to wide stretches to odd tempos, helping shredders keep the movement alive and on fire.
Likewise, former Television guitarist Richard Lloyd has revealed the fretboard’s hidden patterns and given readers new insights into the instrument through his wildly popular “Alchemical Guitarist” column, while Norwegian black metallist and former Emperor guitarist Ihsahn has provided unparalleled instruction in playing and composing techniques for black metal with his “Left-Hand Path” column.
To hear and see these guitarists perform is one thing, but to learn from them on a monthly basis is an entirely unique privilege, one that qualifies each as a hero in any guitarist’s book.
SIGNATURE TRACKS Batio: “No Boundaries” (No Boundaries); Gilbert: “Scarified” (Second Heat, Racer X); Lloyd: “Marquee Moon” (Marquee Moon, Television); Ihsahn: “Curse You All Men!” (IX Equilibrium, Emperor)
RECOMMENDED ALBUMS Batio: No Boundaries; Gilbert: Lean Into It (Mr. Big); Lloyd: Marquee Moon (Television); Ihsahn: In the Nightside Eclipse (Emperor)
Shawn Lane made his public debut in 1978 when he joined Black Oak Arkansas at the tender age of 15, but it took almost another 15 years before the general guitar community started to become aware of his phenomenal talent. Before releasing his debut solo album, Powers of Ten, in 1992, Lane played in a cover band at the Peabody Hotel and various bars around Memphis, where he blew the minds of visiting rock dignitaries like Kirk Hammett, George Lynch, Billy Gibbons, and Ted Nugent. He also contributed to a handful of albums, most notably the Highwayman 2 collaboration featuring Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson.
Lane initially became known for his blazing jazz-fusion style, which started where Allan Holdsworth leaves off and was characterized by hypnotic sweep-picking flourishes and incredibly precise breakneck runs. In collaboration with bassist Jonas Hellborg, Lane explored Indian and Pakistani classical music and eventually toured India in 2003, where he earned acclaim as a true master of the style. Sadly, Lane passed away a few months later when he was only 40 years old. Even though many consider Lane the fastest guitarist that ever lived, the most impressive aspect of his playing remains soul, personality and emotion that transcend mere notes.
SIGNATURE TRACK “Gray Pianos Flying”
RECOMMENDED ALBUMGood People in Times of Evil (Hellborg, Lane, Selvaganesh)
Ronni Le Tekro
In the Eighties, while most shredders were dousing their bands’ songs in excessive licks, Ronni Le Tekro stood out as a bastion of tasteful nuance. As lead guitarist for TNT, he integrated his solos within the context of the songs, interspersing succinct, whiplashing lead breaks throughout the tunes. Within a single guitar break, he could shift from a fast classical run to a gutsy blues lick. It’s easy to see why esteemed guitarists that include George Lynch, Nuno Bettencourt and Zakk Wylde have admired his playing.
Born in Oslo, Norway, in 1963, Le Tekro grew up in the middle of the woods. The nearest guitarist was miles away, and Norway’s radio stations played no rock. So Tekro taught himself how to play guitar and through his isolation developed a style that stands out even among fellow European players. His explosive playing with TNT ignited the Norwegian band’s first three stateside albums (Knights of the New Thunder, Tell No Tales and Intuition), but like many metal acts of the early Nineties, the band lost momentum to the arrival of grunge. But as any old-school-metal connoisseur will tell you, Le Tekro ranks among the elite hard rock guitarists. He continues to record with TNT and as a solo artist and occasionally plays throughout Norway in the Thin Lizzy cover band Bad Habitz.
SIGNATURE TRACK “Sapphire”—Tell No Tales (TNT)
RECOMMENDED ALBUM Knights of the New Thunder (TNT)
One of the epoch-defining guitarists of the Eighties, Johnny Marr created a brave new world of chiming, churning glory from the guitar pop legacy. He came out of Manchester, England, and teamed up with Steven Patrick Morrissey to form the Smiths in 1982. The Morrissey/Marr songwriting partnership produced a body of work that spoke deeply to a generation of bookish, disaffected youth. Marr’s incredible gift lay in his ability to find just the right guitar textures, chordal patterns and countermelodies to complement Morrissey’s lonely outsider lyrics. Together they created a vision of shimmering, fragile beauty amid the grit and grime of mundane existence.
Marr’s guitar technique is inseparable from his songwriting. The billowing waves of tremolo chording in “How Soon Is Now” arise organically from the song itself, as does the garage psych riffing that drives “What Difference Does it Make?” It’s all so right and so rock and roll.
Since the Smiths’ breakup in 1987, Marr has shown consummate taste in his choice of collaborators, including Bernard Sumner (Joy Division/New Order/Electronic), the Pretenders, Beck and Modest Mouse. His influence was vital to the “Madchester” sound of the Stone Roses and the Brit-pop stylings of Oasis, Blur and Suede. Radiohead also worship at the altar of Johnny Marr, as do more metal-centric L.A. guitarists like Dave Navarro and John Frusciante. All would concur with Noel Gallagher of Oasis’ noted appraisal of Marr as “a fucking wizard.”
SIGNATURE TRACK “How Soon Is Now?” (The Smiths)
RECOMMENDED ALBUMThe Smiths
The quintessential thinking person’s guitar hero, Bill Nelson has enjoyed a few different careers over the past four decades. He burst on the scene in the mid Seventies at the helm of the England’s Be Bop Deluxe, establishing himself not only as a formidable guitar wizard in a field crowded with six-string Merlins but also as a singer/songwriter/frontman with a distinctive sensibility: fiercely futuristic, yet steeped in old-world romanticism. Be Bop Deluxe fused the best instincts of prog-rock and glam, proving an excellent vehicle for Nelson’s lyrical, impassioned ax work.
But by the end of the Seventies, Nelson was sick of being a guitar hero. His Eighties electro-pop phase established him as the poet laureate of the EBow, a handheld magnetic device that electronically “bows” a guitar string. This was also when he got serious about producing his own albums at his home studio in rural Northern England.
Before long, he was putting them out on his Cocteau Records label as well, pioneering the concept of the self-sufficient, self-releasing, self-mythologizing artist. And the releases have come in droves: film music, avant-garde theater music, arty abstractions, ambient sounds and more.
With the advent of the internet, Nelson’s following has become a true cult. It takes an almost scholarly level of dedication to keep up with old Bill’s obsessively prolific output. Google him if you dare.
SIGNATURE TRACK “Adventures in a Yorkshire Landscape” (Be Bop Deluxe live version)
RECOMMENDED ALBUMLive in the Air Age (Be Bop Deluxe)
Melvins guitarist Buzz Osborne is well known as one of the musicians most responsible for grunge: not only did he play bass in Kurt Cobain’s first band, Fecal Matter, but it was his mix tapes that prompted Kurt Cobain to revisit punk. Yet, his and the Melvins’ influence resounds in everything from hardcore punk to doom metal. Armed with a Les Paul (sans the high E string and tuned to dropped-D), the shrub-haired frontman took his guitar cues initially from the plodding My War album by California hardcore punks Black Flag and the avant-garde works of proto-industrial group Throbbing Gristle, filtering them into heavily palm-muted, foot-slogging riffs.
Over the years, he has continued to inspire players of experimental metal with the avant-garde ensemble Fantômas and grindcore group Venemous Concept. A self-described “accidentalist,” Osborne writes songs by jamming and seeing where the mood takes him. Almost as much as his playing, it’s his tone that has won him so many devout fans. In the mid Nineties, stomp box manufacturer DOD even made a Buzz Box pedal, which was based on the MXR Blue Box Osborne used at the time. It featured four knobs: Heavy, Saw, Thrust and, of course, Buzz. A true iconoclast, Osborne refused to purchase his namesake pedal after his original version broke. DOD stopped making them in 1996, but the real thing continues to play on with the Melvins and his other projects, inspiring a host of new guitarists with each new release.
SIGNATURE TRACK “Hooch” (Melvins, Houdini)
RECOMMENDED ALBUMHoudini (Melvins)
Although he’s tired of the term “stoner rock,” guitarist Matt Pike is among the men most responsible for creating the genre. Performing in the Nineties with his pioneering doom metal band Sleep, the guitarist played Sabbathian riffs at half speed, creating epic heavy masterpieces that oozed rather than rocked. It was the group’s 1999 album Jerusalem that made Pike and his bandmates underground legends. Originally titled Dopesmoker, it consisted of one 52-minute track. Sleep’s label, London Recordings, refused to release it, and the album subsequently flooded bootleg circuits, where Sleep’s—and Pike’s—cult cred were secured. Unfortunately for Pike, so was the “stoner rock” tag, thanks to the song’s opening lyrics: “Drop out of life with bong in hand/Follow the smoke toward the riff-filled land.”
Since the group’s break up in 1998, Pike has continued to explore crushingly heavy tones with High on Fire. The group has repeatedly been mentioned as an influence by younger acts, including Mastodon, who reportedly formed after its members met at a High on Fire show. Pike’s fans were undoubtedly thrilled to learn that Sleep would regroup to perform two sets at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in Minehead, Britain, in May 2009—though, under the circumstances, Pike shouldn’t be surprised if the “stoner” label continues to follow him, at least a little longer.
SIGNATURE TRACK “Jerusalem” (Sleep, Jerusalem)
RECOMMENDED ALBUM Holy Mountain (Sleep)
When Chuck Schuldiner began making music in 1983, death metal didn’t exist as a genre but as a virile, yet negligible, strain of heavy metal comprising low tunings, guttural vocals and extreme speed. With the release of his band Death’s full-length album, Scream Bloody Gore, in 1986, Schuldiner gave the scene a united front. Although the genre’s standards had long been established, Chuck raised the bar with his technical and melodic riffing, while he upped the horror quotient with lyrics that drew colorfully from gore movies.
The death metal scene coalesced, and as the audience for established acts grew, a host of new speed-riffing Satan-worshipping bands emerged, each trying to out shock its predecessor. Schuldiner thought the whole devil thing a little silly. Looking at the daily headlines, he saw a much more interesting source of tune-worthy horrors in the American landscape. Beginning with 1988’s Leprosy, Chuck began to address topical, including the right to die (“Pull the Plug”) and abortion (“Altering the Future,” from 1990’s Spiritual Healing). With 1991’s Human, his lyrics took a more personal direction, while his guitar work rose to a new level of technical proficiency, elements carried on today by many deathcore acts.
Schuldiner was beginning to explore his own musical roots with the formation of Control Denied, a more straightforward heavy metal act, when he was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1999. He continued to work on Control Denied’s second album up until his death on December 13, 2001.
SIGNATURE TRACK “Pull the Plug”
RECOMMENDED ALBUMLeprosy (Death)
Kevin Shields’ legend and cult-hero status rests largely on one album, the blindingly brilliant Loveless, released in 1991 by Shields’ band at the time, My Bloody Valentine. The disc defined a pivotal moment in indie-rock guitar culture: the emergence of dream pop, a.k.a. shoe-gazing, a melodic, song-oriented style based around gauzy, hallucinogenic layers of electric guitar texture.
Shields was the pied piper of dream pop: an absolute master of beguilingly warped, digitally distressed six-string soundscapes. Loveless’ gemlike pop song structures emerge almost magically from shimmering billows of beautiful guitar noise. It took the notoriously perfectionist Shields a very long time to achieve this effect. He worked with 18 different audio engineers on the disc and spent a phenomenal amount of money.
Fans have eagerly awaited the followup to Loveless…and waited, and waited. So far it still hasn’t materialized. Occasionally, Shields says he’s making progress, searching for that elusive “something” in his guitar’s sound like a man trying to contact spirits in the afterlife. In the meantime, Shields has done some excellent studio and live work with Primal Scream, J. Mascis, Yo La Tengo, Patti Smith and others. And My Bloody Valentine reunited for a series of live shows in 2008, which is surely a good sign. If Axl Rose could finish Chinese Democracy, if an African American can become president of the U.S., maybe Kevin Shields will one day finally complete the sequel to Loveless.
SIGNATURE TRACK “Only Shallow” (My Bloody Valentine)
RECOMMENDED ALBUMLoveless (My Bloody Valentine)
When King’s X released Out of the Silent Planet in 1988, the sound of Ty Tabor’s drop-D tuned electric guitar was a new thing for fans of hard rock. Certainly, guitarists had been using the tuning long before Tabor came along, but for a generation of young players, it was a revelation. With it, Tabor created incredibly lush chord voicings that, coupled with the crisp, thick high-gain tones of his rig, sounded larger than life. By the time grunge acts like Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam appeared in the early Nineties, the sound of drop-D tuning was everywhere in hard rock. Young players have been dropping to D and even lower ever since.
But the tuning was only part of Tabor’s tonal appeal. At the time he was playing a Fender Elite Stratocaster, a model introduced in 1983 and discontinued the following year, which featured an onboard active mid-boost circuit. The guitar’s high-gain tones, combined with a solid-state Gibson Lab Series L5 amp (the identity of which he concealed at the time), became the must-have sound for guitarists—and it remains so for hard rock players today.
Tabor’s playing on his recently released solo album Balance (available from tytabor.com) and XV, the latest effort by King’s X, still sounds as fresh and exciting as when he first burst on the scene in 1988. Though he no longer plays the Elite, its mid-boost preamp lives on as a rackmounted unit in his rig, where it continues to help him create his distinctive and inspirational tone.
SIGNATURE TRACK “Dogman”
RECOMMENDED ALBUMGretchen Goes to Nebraska (King’s X)
Johnny Thunders was the quintessence of punk, years before anybody thought of applying that word to a style of rock music. An Italian-American guy (born John Genszale Jr.) from the boroughs of New York, Thunders took the rock and roll of his Sixties youth—the London raunch of the Stones/Who/Kinks, the bratty belligerence of American garage bands, the sloppy drama and sexual tension of the girl groups—and rolled it all into a slashing, trashy guitar style that redefined rock music for all time. Thunders, who died under mysterious circumstances in 1991, condensed rock guitar down to its essence: switchblade open chords and razor-sharp leads that cut to the quick. His playing was the spark that ignited the New York Dolls’ gutter-glam histrionics. And without the Dolls, punk never would have happened.
Thunders was a profound influence on the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones, who repaid Johnny for leading him to a life of punk rock deviance by playing on Thunders’ first solo album, So Alone, in 1978. Thunders also performed with Richard Hell in the Heartbreakers and with Sid Vicious in the short-lived, but aptly named, Living Dead.
Chronic heroin use made Thunders’ career a hit-and-miss affair. Sometimes the notes were off, but the attitude was always dead-on. And attitude, not notes, is what rock is really all about.
SIGNATURE TRACK “Born to Lose”
RECOMMENDED ALBUMSo Alone
Guitarist Ben Weinman’s combination of mind-boggling tempo changes, jazzy freak-outs and rhythmically dense prog- and jazz fusion–based signatures defies convenient terminology. So a new term was coined—mathcore—to describe the style of hardcore music Weinman performs with Dillinger Escape Plan, the New Jersey–based band he formed in 1997 and of which he is the sole remaining original member. Since the group released Calculating Infinity in September 1999, Weinman has become something of an underground phenomenon for his calculated, but chaotic-sounding, blend of razor-sharp riffs, polyrhythmic beats and surprisingly subtle layers of tone and musical texture.
His own source of inspiration comes from some advice Helmet’s Page Hamilton once gave him: learn theory, then throw away that knowledge and just play. Weinman says it’s a practice he has always followed, and it’s one that has kept fans of technically adventurous guitar playing following him ever since.
SIGNATURE TRACK “43% Burnt” (Calculating Infinity)
RECOMMENDED ALBUMIrony Is a Dead Scene (The Dillinger Escape Plan with Mike Patton)
Clarence White is the towering figure standing at the crossroads where rock guitar and country guitar meet. His hard-driving flat-picked acoustic style and supremely twangy electric work were integral to the birth of the country rock genre, and he is regularly cited as a hero by present-day country pickers like Tony Rice and Marty Stuart.
The son of a French Canadian fiddle, banjo and guitar player, Clarence performed traditional bluegrass in his youth. But in 1966, he hooked up with one of the era’s greatest folk rock/psychedelic bands, the Byrds. White’s sparkling guitar contributions helped push the Byrds in a country direction, an impetus that culminated in the 1968 cult classic Sweetheart of the Rodeo, generally hailed as the first country rock album and the disc that became a blueprint for subsequent L.A. cowboys like Gram Parsons and the Eagles.
White’s passion for fusing country with rock also led to his co-invention, with the Byrds’ Gene Parsons, of the B-Bender, a retrofit device that allows a standard electric guitar to emulate the weepy sound of a pedal-steel guitar. White’s B-Bender is standard equipment for country players today. And where would the Stones’ Ronnie Wood be without it?
Alongside White’s work with the Byrds, he was a first-call L.A. session player, contributing to discs by Jackson Browne, Randy Newman and others. He was just hitting his prime when his life was cut short in 1973, killed by a drunk driver while loading his gear into a van after a gig.
SIGNATURE TRACK “The Christian Life” (The Byrds)
RECOMMENDED ALBUMSweetheart of the Rodeo (The Byrds)