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Remembering the guitarists we lost in 2021

(from left) Alexi Laiho, Nanci Griffith and Michael Nesmith
(Image credit: Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images, Steve Thorne/Redferns, Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

2021 has been a banner year for electric guitar innovation and experimentation, with new, up-and-coming players re-writing the rulebook of the instrument we so love.

Sadly though, it's also been a year in which we've had to bid farewell to a number of extraordinary guitar players, each of whom left a lasting impact on the instrument that will be felt for years to come.

Below, we remember these guitar greats, who between them helped shape death metal, country-rock, jazz, surf rock, punk, and more. 

Alexi Laiho

Editor's note: Though Alexi Laiho died on December 29, 2020, news of his death was not made public until early January 2021.

As the guitarist and vocalist for Finnish group Children of Bodom, Alexi Laiho was one of the 21st century's defining figures in death metal. 

Typically armed with a sharp-angled ESP, Laiho was known for his frenetic guitar work, packed to the brim with relentless power-metal riffage and deeply complex solos that juggled dazzling technical brilliance (Laiho was particularly well-known for his sweep picking) with melodic innovation. 

Having written a column for the magazine between 2004 and 2005, and appeared on the cover of its April 2005 Virtuoso Issue alongside Steve Vai and Zakk Wylde, Laiho was also a dear friend of Guitar World, who was always kind, approachable, and generous with his time.

His legacy is perhaps best summed up in this tribute from Steve Vai: "With his band he was part of a powerful movement that ushered in hi-octane, intense metal at its most brutal and beautiful.”

Sylvain Sylvain

Although his six-string partner-in-crime in the New York Dolls, Johnny Thunders, became more of a legend, Sylvain Sylvain was an integral part of the proto-punk band's sound, remaining – with frontman David Johansen – a key member of the group throughout their original (1971–1976) and 21st century (2004–2011) runs.

With a focus on sleazy but infectious riffs driven by monumental powerchords, Sylvain and Thunders took the simplicity, power and attitude of classic rockabilly and the early Rolling Stones catalog and kicked it up a few notches with wild stage antics, impressive volume, and an androgynous look.

Though divisive in their heyday (one review of the band's debut famously likened the band's guitar tone to that of a fleet of lawnmowers) the Dolls' music proved to be enormously influential, both to glam-rock and the burgeoning New York City punk scene of the mid-70s. 

Hilton Valentine

Hilton Valentine's name may not immediately ring a bell, but you've most certainly heard his guitar playing.

The instantly identifiable A minor arpeggio that opens The Animals' chart-topping 1964 cover of The House of the Rising Sun? That's Valentine, on a Gretsch Tennessean played through a Selmer Selectortone.

Though the British group never equalled that song's success, they – with the help of Valentine's innovative guitar work – are widely credited with being one of the bands that brought blues music to white American mass audiences.

Of Valentine's most memorable contribution to the rock guitar lexicon, Scottish singer-songwriter Ian MacDonald said: “It is one of the most instantly recognizable introductions to one of the most memorable pop songs of the ’60s. 

“A seemingly simple but technically perfect execution of an ongoing arpeggio figure over a repeated chord progression in A minor, which countless budding guitarists have tried to emulate over the decades, though rarely with such accuracy and precision.”

Corey Steger

He may have been long gone from the band by the time of their greatest commercial success, but in the mid-2000s, Corey Steger played a vital role in the early days of Florida metalcore band Underoath, playing lead guitar on their first two albums – 1999's Act of Depression and 2000's Cries of the Past.

Steger also co-founded the thrash band Hand Of Fire with Tantrum Of The Muse’s Jim Settle, though he left the group before they were signed to Rottweiler Records in 2016.

In a tribute written after his death, Steger's one-time Underoath bandmate, Dallas Taylor, said that Steger was "one of the kindest souls I’ve ever known."

Dan Sartain

Known for mixing rockabilly and blues with the non-conformity of punk in his music, Alabama native Dan Sartain released a series of critically acclaimed, though sadly commercially overlooked albums over the course of his 20-year career. 

He came to wide attention in 2007 as an opener for the White Stripes and the Hives, and also released a single, Bohemian Grove, on Jack White's Third Man Records in 2009.

“Touring with the White Stripes was my Rocky Balboa moment," Sartain told Music Mecca in a 2020 interview. "I was a virtually unknown barroom singer, and I went the distance with the champ. I don’t feel like I’m cut out for stadium touring, but there were a few times where we got some good licks in.”

Rusty Young

Known best as a mean pedal steel player, Rusty Young was a co-founder of the legendary country-rock band, Poco, with whom he toured and recorded for over 50 years.

Though they never rose to the extraordinary commercial heights of their California country-rock contemporaries, the Eagles, Poco shared the former band's sonic blend of sun-kissed, well-played tunes with radio-ready melodies, country twang and impeccable harmonies.

Though the band saw a number of all-star musicians enter and leave their ranks over the decades, it was Young who wrote and sang their biggest and most enduring hit, Crazy Love.

Mike Mitchell

Mike Mitchell had a far more profound effect on the trajectory of rock guitar playing than he's ever really gotten credit for.

It was Mitchell who played the aggressive, super-fast solo on The Kingsmen's cover of Richard Berry's Louie Louie, taking the Oregon band's version of the song to No. 2 on the pop charts in 1963.

More importantly though, Mitchell's raw, no-holds-barred approach to the song set the template for garage-rock – and later hard-rock – guitar playing, and made it one of the all-time pick-up-and-play rock 'n' roll standards.

Having co-founded The Kingsmen in 1959, Mitchell remained with the group for over six decades, and by the time of his death this year was their last remaining original member.

Denny Freeman

A pillar of the Austin, Texas blues scene, Denny Freeman played extensively with Stevie Ray Vaughan and his brother, Jimmie Vaughan, even living with the Vaughan brothers for a time.

An amazingly eclectic career saw Freeman tour with Taj Mahal, James Cotton and, most famously, Bob Dylan – from 2006 to 2009. Freeman did additional work in the studio with soul legend Percy Sledge, fellow blues guitar master Doyle Bramhall and Blondie, for whom he co-wrote the 1999 song Boom Boom in the Zoom Zoom Room.

In a 2006 remembrance of Antone's owner Clifford Antone, journalist and record executive Bill Bentley said that Antone once said to him, “Denny Freeman was the greatest guitarist alive and it wasn't fair that every single person didn't know it.”

Jeff LaBar

Jeff LaBar was the hotshot guitarist that helped Philly quartet Cinderella move smoothly from their multi-platinum, glam-metal beginnings in the mid-'80s to a more bluesy, hard-rock sound once the former genre faded rapidly out of fashion.

Following Cinderella's dissolution in 2014, LaBar issued his first and only solo album, One for the Road.

When asked by Guitar World in a 2014 interview about the best memories he had from his long career, LaBar told us that "The most memorable things are all of the 'firsts.' 

"Like the first time I walked into an arena when we were opening for David Lee Roth's first solo tour and saying, 'Oh my God! I'm playing here!' Or the first time I got a gold record, which was on that same tour."

John "Hutch" Hutchinson

A little-known British guitarist, John "Hutch" Hutchinson was a longtime friend of David Bowie, and performed as a member of Bowie's band in the mid-1960s – when he was still unknown – and as an auxiliary member (playing 12-string guitar) of Bowie's Spiders from Mars band in the early 1970s, when Bowie first became a worldwide star.

In 1968, Hutchinson helped Bowie sketch out a song called Space Oddity, playing acoustic guitar and contributing vocals to its demo. Released a year later in 1969, the song became a massive hit, and served as the first mainstream exposure in what would turn out to be a long, legendary career for Bowie.

Paul Cotton

Aside from losing Rusty Young this year, Poco also, sadly, lost Paul Cotton, who held down the band's lead guitar slot from 1970-1987, and again from 1991-2010.

Young, famous for his pedal steel work, brought country twang to Poco's songs, while Cotton brought a harder-edged, blues-influenced rock touch to the group.

“We knew that he [Cotton] was bringing a little bit of an edge to our sound, and we wanted to be a little more rock ’n’ roll sounding,” Cotton's former Poco bandmate, Richie Furay, told Sound Waves in 2000 about the decision to hire the guitarist.

While Young wrote the band's biggest hit, Crazy Love, it was Cotton who penned Heart of the Night, an ode to New Orleans – featuring a trademark alto sax solo from Phil Kenzie – that hit number 20 on the charts in 1979, and proved to be one of the band's other major calling cards.

Nanci Griffith

A beloved artist known for her unique blend of folk and country, Nanci Griffith was a significant influence on a wide variety of singer/songwriters.

Though the music she made under her own name was widely acclaimed (she won a Grammy in 1994 for Best Contemporary Folk Album for the covers LP Other Voices, Other Rooms), her songs became best known via the artists who re-interpreted them.

Love at the Five and Dime – a song from Griffith's 1986 album, The Last of the True Believers – became a top 5 country hit for Kathy Mattea, while Outbound Plane became a top 10 country hit for Suzy Bogguss in 1991.

“Today I am just sad man," said Hootie & the Blowfish singer and country artist Darius Rucker upon learning of Griffith's death. "I lost one of my idols. One of the reasons I am in Nashville. She blew my mind the first time I heard Marie & Omie. And singing with her was my favorite thing to do.”

Don Everly

Along with his brother, Phil, Don Everly was unquestionably one of rock 'n' roll's early pioneers. 

With gorgeous, close harmonies and songs that blended country songcraft with rockabilly's rebellious urgency and image, the Everly Brothers dominated the pop charts in the late '50s and very early '60s with three chart-topping hits – Wake Up Little Susie, All I Have to Do Is Dream and Cathy's Clown.

Ironically, the Everly Brothers were chased off the upper reaches of the charts in the mid-'60s by a number of acts – the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, and the Beach Boys among them – whose sound they played an enormous role in shaping. 

Upon Don Everly's death, Peter Frampton said that both Don and his brother "created songs and harmonies that changed music forever."

Rickie Lee Reynolds

As their longest-tenured guitar player (with almost 50 years of service in total), Rickie Lee Reynolds was a pillar of Black Oak Arkansas, a long-running group that was at the forefront of the Southern rock explosion in the early '70s. 

Reynolds was the rhythm-focused anchor of the band's three-guitar attack, (an attack, we might add, that Black Oak Arkansas possessed before Lynyrd Skynyrd made the three-guitar-lineup famous).

Blending psychedelic, country, R&B and blues influences, the band – while never achieving blockbuster commercial success – cast a large shadow, and were a huge live draw, playing, for instance, at the California Jam festival in 1974 with some of rock's biggest names.

“There was no other group doing that kind of music then," Reynolds told Classic Rock in a 2008 interview. "We were the first ones to have the three guitars, the first to mix up rock, country, and rhythm and blues." 

Aries "Eben" Tanto

Aries Tanto – better known by his stage name, "Eben" – was a founding member and guitarist for Burgerkill, one of Indonesia’s flagship metal bands.

Influenced in his powerful, rapid-fire guitar work by the classic American thrash bands, Eben helped lead Burgerkill through a succession of lineup changes and inner turmoil (the band's original vocalist, Ivan "Scumbag" Firmansyah, died in 2006).

Eben also helped lead Burgerkill to commercial success and international acclaim, with the band notably winning a Metal Hammer Golden Gods award in 2013 in the ‘Metal As Fuck’ category.

Michael Chapman

Though he sailed largely under the radar for most of his prolific, 50+-year career, Michael Chapman crossed paths with, and had a tremendous effect on, many influential musicians.

Blending the jazz he grew up with with folk guitar stylings, Chapman made a name for himself on the folk club circuit in the U.K. in the late '60s, catching the attention of the likes of Elton John (who reportedly wanted Chapman to be in his band). 

Decades later, his eclectic, genre-fusing material and guitar playing influenced a wide range of similarly unconventional alt-rock guitarists, some of whom – among them Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, Pelt's Jack Rose and Steve Gunn – Chapman would collaborate and tour with. 

Moore said that Chapman's 1973 record, Millstone Grit, informed the band’s “feedback extravaganzas," while Kurt Vile and Lucinda Williams have paid tribute to Chapman's influence with covers of his songs.

Julz Sale

Immersed in the same Leeds post-punk scene that produced the Mekons and Gang of Four, singer/guitarist Julz Sale formed Delta 5 with two bassists, Ros Allen and Bethan Peters, in 1979.

The group released only one album, 1981's See the Whirl, before disbanding that same year, but their debut single, 1979's Mind Your Own Business, endures to this day as a post-punk classic, having been covered by the Dum Dum Girls and even used as the soundtrack to a recent Apple commercial about privacy.

Aside from the group's still-influential catalog, Sale – along with the rest of Delta 5 – was also well-known for her work in the Rock Against Racism movement in the U.K. during the band's heyday, which led to Sale and the rest of the group receiving extensive verbal and physical harassment from local neo-Nazis throughout the band's brief existence.

Benjamin Vallé

Benjamin Vallé co-founded the acclaimed Swedish post-punk band Viagra Boys in 2015, and provided the perfect guitar-driven accompaniment to frontman Sebastian Murphy's provocative, confrontational songwriting.

The band released their sophomore album, Welfare Jazz, in early 2021. In a statement shared after Vallé's passing, the band said "Benjamin, we love you with all of our hearts and Viagra Boys would have been nothing without you."

Pat Martino

Pat Martino is simply a remarkable figure in the history of guitar. A jazz guitar master, he, incredibly, became a guitar virtuoso not just once, but twice in his life.

Martino's early, '70s guitar work – with its melodic sophistication, breakneck speed and fluidity – often drew comparisons to Wes Montgomery, but in 1980, tragedy struck. Emergency surgery to remove a large brain tumor, following an aneurysm, robbed Martino of all of his memory.

Defying all odds, Martino re-learned the guitar completely, and resumed performing, recording and teaching by the mid-1980s, on top of re-acquainting himself with friends and family.

"His playing," wrote New York Times jazz critic Jon Pareles in 1986, "is articulately wayward, approaching tunes from odd angles and taking rewarding tangents; he makes song forms seem slippery and mysterious.”

Michael Nesmith

With his wool hat, cool attitude and unmistakable custom, 12-string Gretsch, Michael Nesmith was a key member of the Monkees, the made-for-TV pop-rock band formed in 1965 that captivated America with a string of smash hits, including Last Train to ClarksvilleDaydream Believer and I'm a Believer.

A well-respected songwriter himself, Nesmith led the Monkees' rebellion against, and dismissal of, producer Don Kirshner – who up to that point exerted near-total control of the band's recordings – in early 1967.

Nesmith wrote many of the Monkees' latter-day hits and, after that band's dissolution, made a significant mark on West Coast country-rock with his First National Band.

"Many very accomplished players started their musical careers based on those Monkees shows and records, and I feel most gratified to have been a part of that," he told Guitar World in 2013. "It is a nice legacy, and I'm proud of it and happy to see it finally get the recognition."

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Jackson is an Associate Editor at guitarworld.com. He’s been writing and editing stories about new gear, technique and guitar-driven music both old and new since 2014, and has also written extensively on the same topics for Guitar Player. Elsewhere, his album reviews and essays have appeared in Louder and Unrecorded. Though open to music of all kinds, his greatest love has always been indie, and everything that falls under its massive umbrella. To that end, you can find him on Twitter crowing about whatever great new guitar band you need to drop everything to hear right now.