Seems like every list of the best rock guitarists features the same names: Hendrix, Page, Allman, Rhoads, Satriani. All are guitar Gods deserving of praise, but what about the less-heralded players who merely rock out with a vengeance, and whose licks, chops and chords helped push guitar playing to new heights of greatness? Ladies and gents, I present to you 10 guitarists who deserve more recognition as some of the best in rock music!
First a back story. The New York Times printed a list of top guitarist (which I can’t find now) that included many jazz and classical players as well as rock. Buried deep within the article comments, a lone voice spoke up for a guitarist too easily overlooked, who played alongside two of the most gifted musicians of their time and produced an epic catalog of rock music. That guitar player is:
1). Alex Lifeson of Rush. Sir Alex spoke up for himself in the Times because the writers overlooked his contributions to the art of playing guitar with other musicians. From solos on songs like Limelight and Freewill, to the brilliance of Spirit of the Radio and Tom Sawyer, Lifeson displays feel, technique and inspired creativity. Any conversation about great guitar players of any genre should include him.
The next guitarist is a controversial pick because glam rock is snickered at among “real” rock musicians. A bunch of girlie men wearing makeup just can’t produce the sound that aspiring players will struggle to learn 20 years later, that stands out from the rest for a higher level of musicianship. That guitarist is:
2). C.C. Deville of Poison. Hear me out before calling the rock police. Have you ever really listened to Deville’s chops on songs like Nothin’ But A Good Time and Talk Dirty to Me? Dude rocks, fast and clean, and if it wasn’t for so many critics knockin’ Poison for their glam ways, they might stop complaining long enough to realize C.C. is a rare talent. Sure, other guitarists like Richie Sambora (Bon Jovi) and Mick Mars (Motley Crew) also created memorable licks and wore makeup at some point during their careers, but C.C. in my mind is the better player. Haters gonna hate, and it’s easy to hate on C.C. for making millions by playing shit like Every Rose and bagging busloads of hot groupies.
3). Jack White originally of the White Stripes. When Jack first hit the scene, I was slow to catch on. He was too noisy and lacked sophistication as a guitar player, in my mind. But that’s his genius, and as I’ve listened to him more, the more appreciation I’ve gained for his nasty slide guitar and frenetic yet controlled rhythms and solos. I similarly love Tom Morello, but he’s gotten a lot of credit for his guitar innovation and skill. But Dirty Jack seems to channel the spirit of an old black man sitting on a hickory stump and making the dogs howl with his pickin’. (If the movie Crossroads is ever remade, White should get the starring role.) Jack probably can’t play a blazing Satriani-style solo, nor would he want to, but just try to duplicate his gritty sound. The man’s got soul and it shows in every note, and that to me is a large part of what defines a great guitar player.
Now I’m going to pull another surprise by nominating a player for guitar greatness that you’ve heard many times but probably had little idea how exceptional he really is. I have the advantage of having heard his playing on an album titled Submarine by Gregg Bissonette. This guy plays guitar on one song and the first time I heard it I had to drop everything and listen (the entire album is an orgie of different music styles featuring the best guitar players). At one point during the outro solo — using tremolo and maybe a power tool or child’s toy — he makes his guitar sound like a spaceship taking off. Then I went back and listened to his more famous work and gained new appreciation, enough to mention him here:
4). Steve Stevens of Billy Idol. Can you hear the signature riff in your head from the song Eyes Without A Face, when the distorted guitar kicks on? bumbum BAM BAM! bumbum BAM BAM! A simple riff that gives me chills just thinking about it. Or that long wavering harmonic on the opening to Rebel Yell, before Billy starts singing? Stevens goes where none have gone before, always mixing things up and taking risks, soaring and diving and growling with his guitar (here Stevens plays Voodoo Child). Go back and listen to the solo on Rebel Yell and try to tell me it doesn’t absolutely rock.
5). Rik Emmett of Triumph. I grew up listening to arena rock during the ’80s, and other than Randy Rhoads, no other guitar player inspired me more to pick up the instrument than Rik Emmett. While Rhoads brought a classical approach to his metal sound, Emmett’s classical training colored his arena rock sound. One moment he treats us to power riffs and soaring guitar solos on songs like Fight The Good Fight and Lay It On The Line; next song he’s launching into intricate picking and fast, melodic chord changes, like Midsummer’s Daydream or A Minor Prelude.
The Allied Forces and Thunder Seven albums are epics of guitar rock. Emmett’s chord voicing is pure genius, alternating between distorted power chords and clean appregios, always reaching for the extra note or two that turns ordinary into memorable and memorable into masterful. Many other great players hogged the limelight during the late ’70s and ’80s, but how many of them are still all over rock radio like Triumph?
Ever since conceiving this Top-10 list of under-recognized guitarists, I’ve been debating between two masters of metal who are often left out of the discussion of great players. They each have avid fans; each has merits and created riffs back in the ’80s and ’90s that guitar students still use to build their skills. These two guitarists displayed blazing speed with the best of ’em, and mastered techniques that helped define the hard, fast sound of a generation of rock guitar. George Lynch of Dokken fame was my original choice, but I’ve finally settled on another player that I think is a little more deserving:
6). Jake E. Lee, probably remembered most for the two blistering solos on Bark at the Moon, a song I’m still trying to learn all the way through. Jake was overshadowed by his predecessor Randy Rhoads, who to some fans will always be the best guitar player to join with Ozzy Osbourne. To really appreciate Jake though, listen to some of his more obscure work like Killer of Giants and Ultimate Sin. What I really love about his playing is, even when he’s out front of the music he’s still playing within it. Jake’s replacement, Zakk Wylde, is a complete badass of the guitar, but really only has one speed. He’s a muscle car next to Jake’s Porche which takes corners at high speed with grace and style and still beats the muscle car off the line. Jake brought a deep bag of tricks with him when he played with the Oz, and, later, on his own with Badlands, influenced by many styles — even disco! Anyone who can turn disco licks into classic heavy metal deserves a place among the greats, in my opinion.
Another surprising omission from many lists of great guitarists — including the New York Times list, if memory serves me correctly — is a name closely associated with rock guitar innovation. He can play with both hands at the same time on specially designed guitars, is better with one hand than most players are with both, and his sound can be identified from the first note. He’s played with the biggest names in rock, recorded hits as a solo artist. … One more hint: he was in the movie Crossroads:
7). Steve Vai. Some people might say he’s had enough recognition, but he’s often excluded from the top tier of guitar players when really he IS the top. His solos can be ridiculously complex, but what I admire is his versatility and distinctive voice. Enough said. If you’re aren’t familiar with Vai, or don’t agree, there’s no point in going further. (This next video is long and very vulgar, but the entire second half is Vai and Frank Zappa throwing down monster solos):
Only three more slots to fill this Top-10 List and so many great guitar players who deserve a mention. I already know who the last one is going to be, my personal pick for the Rock Guitar Hall of Fame, so really I have to choose two. Pulling out an obscure soloist could burnish my cred as a guitar fan, but none that come to mind fit all of the criteria. I could play it safe and argue the greatness of David Gilmore of Pink Floyd, who never played as fast as guys like Vai or Lee or Stevens, and who recycled many of the same licks. Frank Zappa was a wickedly good guitarist. Also, many people these days don’t remember Eric Johnson, who grabbed the world’s attention for a few years with his hit album Ah Via Musicom. Back in my rock journalism days I interviewed Eric, and he is definitely one of the best guitarists as well as people, though his later albums never came close to the commercial success of Musicom. But after much consideration, the guitarist who keeps coming to mind is:
8). Chris DeGarmo of Queensryche.
Once again you see how arena and guitar rock has influenced my taste, and DeGarmo was the creative force behind one of the most creative rock bands of my generation. Queensryche wrote radio hits that had balls. I mean the swinging between your knees variety. With the exception of one power ballad that also happens to be a beautifully restrained guitar piece — Silent Lucidity — everything else Queensryche put out on the radio with DeGarmo combined powerful guitar riffs with sweet interludes and at times operatic arrangements. While Grunge was taking over popular music, DeGarmo developed a sound that could be at once more metal and make the leftover hair-rock bands of the ’80s wish they were so good at writing hits. DeGarmo’s playing was the driving force behind songs like Empire and Eyes of the Stranger, and made the album Operation Mindcrime one of the best rock concept albums of all time. When he left the band, no one could adequately replace him and take the band back to the pinnacle of rock. His sound and influence are unique, making him one of the best.
One more slot to fill before the last one, and I’m sure many readers are wondering when I’m going to mention their favorite less-recognized guitar player. Ruled out of consideration are the certified greats like Hendrix and Page, and one-dimensional wonders like Slash. (I love his music and think he’s great, but in my book he’s overexposed, sort of the Clapton of a later generation.) Other guys from way back like Jeff Beck, Tony Iommi and Ritchie Blackmore have enjoyed long rides as guitar heroes. I’m looking for someone who isn’t mentioned in the same breath, yet is a certified master of rock guitar. Adrienne Belew of King Crimson fits the criteria, but that pick feels too predictable and old-school. There’s also Dire Straights guitarist Mark Knopfler to consider — also kind of old-school. Stanley Jordan put on the most impressive live solo guitar performance I’ve ever witnessed, but he’s not a rock guitarist. And I’m sure that for every Tony McAlpine, Neal Shon, Steve Morse, Trevor Rabin, Alan Holdsworth, Paul Gilbert, Larry Carlton, Steve Howe, Vernon Reid, John Frusciante, Gary Moore or Kirk Hammett I can mention, there are many more just as deserving. But in the end I pick:
9). Dimebag Darrell Abbott of Pantera fame. He redefined heavy guitar, laying down riffs and solos unmatched in ferocity. Floods, This Love, and my personal favorite Cemetery Gates … songs that demand attention and make any rock guitarist cream his or her pants. Until Darrell, the really heavy guitarists except Kirk Hammett lacked something, usually interesting melody. Putting much feeling into million-mile an hour riffs is difficult, just ask Malmsteen. Darrell poured emotion into his music; he really “got it” — how to speak with his instrument — and for that reason I chose him over all the other great guitarists who could be singled out.
And now for the rabbit about to be pulled out of my hat. This guitarist was not mentioned on the lists of great guitarists by Rolling Stone or LA Times, probably because his most famous song is an acoustic ballad still played to this day at high school dances. But the ground-breaking album that song is from is a feast of guitar playing offered to the Guitar Gods, pushing the limits of how many tasty riffs, delicious chops and mouth-watering fret runs can be packed into one hour-long musical meal. Three of the other tunes were played heavily on the radio: Get The Funk Out, Decadence Dance, and Hole-Hearted, and two others rank as almost superhuman feats of guitar playing: Flight Of The Wounded Bumblebee, and He-Man Woman Hater. The album is Pornograffiti, and the guitarist is:
10). Nuno Bettencourt of Extreme. Known best for his song More Than Words, Nuno recorded four albums with Extreme, three of which combine to form a guitar anthology covering every style under the rock umbrella. The riffs range from bone-crushing to soul-touching; the chords and chord changes are always interesting; and only the best players can attempt to keep up with his solos.
The follow-up album to Pornograffiti — 3 Sides To Every Story — in my opinion is one of the best albums ever made. Nuno’s sound and style matured, and his endlessly creative musical mind found an outlet in a 3-part album — Yours, Mine, God’s — that ranges in style from rock radio-ready, to tender and lyrical songs expressing the deepest of human feeling and observation. Nuno, who is also a masterful producer and pianist, colors the entire album with string, piano and orchestral arrangements that fill out the sound and fully develop the musical ideas.
The last album — Waiting For The Punchline — went nowhere commercially, and is barely known of even among some Extreme fans — but I saw the band on this tour, at Bogart’s in Cincinnati, and Nuno put on a chin-dropping performance. Punchline is stripped down rock and roll essence, in-your-face music with no pretension. It’s the opposite of the ambition heard on Pornograffiti and its Billboard #1 song, More Than Words. Nuno and the band had proven themselves, and for their encore they only wanted to rock.
Honorable mention goes to a fresh guitar player on the scene — so fresh he’s only 10 years old! And from Japan, to boot: Yuto Miyazawa.
I found Yuto’s cover of Mr. Crowley while researching this post. His playing is far from perfect, and his vocals are almost unbearable to listen to, but the kid can play some Randy Rhoads licks — he even performed Crazy Train live with Ozzy! It was like the first time watching the video of Funtwo perform Canon Rock; neither of these guitar players can truly keep up with the greats mentioned here, but they’re influencing the next generation. Funtwo (and his 100 million views) is getting into the heads of aspiring players everywhere, and a few of them are going to rise to the top in the next decade or two. Yuto could be among them if he learns how to express his own voice through his instrument — it’s one thing to imitate and another to create — and that is ultimately what separates the great from the good.