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Guitar Gods

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Brian Setzer (Stray Cats)
If I had to pick just one guy who influenced me the most, it would be Cliff Gallup. He played with Gene Vincent's Blue Caps and he's kind of the first rock & roll guitar player, really. He wasn't afraid to mix all sorts of different styles: You can hear country in there, there's swing in there, you can hear this new sound called rockabilly. I think he played with the Blue Caps for less than a year, but he made such an impact. It's just the way he crafted his solos. A lot of guitar players jump in on the first solo like they're playing for the back row. But Cliff would build them up. He's so distinct. He would use a flat pick and three-finger picks, like a banjo player. That's totally a unique way of playing; I've never heard that from anyone else.

I was down in Virginia about six years ago, and I set it up to meet him. Someone calls me that morning and says, "Well, you're not gonna believe it, but Cliff had a heart attack onstage last night." So I missed him by one day.

Keith Richards (The Rolling Stones)
To me, Chuck Berry always was the epitome of rhythm & blues playing, rock & roll playing. It was beautiful, effortless, and his timing was perfection. He is rhythm man supreme. He plays that lovely double-string stuff, which I got down a long time ago but I'm still getting the hang of. Later I realized why he played that way – because of the sheer physical size of the guy. I mean, he makes one of those big Gibsons look like a ukulele!

Everybody has to adapt their own physical possibilities to the instrument. Some guys have tiny little hands that can zip all over the thing. If you don't, you find another way. So given the size of his hands, it's not surprising that Chuck figured out a style where you didn't have to just nimbly pick one string at a time. He got harmonies down so that every note has another note behind it, which gives it that really strong, broad sound. It's fascinating. He's playing half-chords all the time.

I mean, those records Chuck made in the Fifties still basically stand out as your rock & roll guitar playing to the max. Especially when you add it to the songwriting and the singing and everything else. There's your package.

As for me, I've never picked a guitar up without learning something. Sometimes you're learning things you don't want to know, like you're not as good as you thought you were. But even that's a lesson. To me, it's a friend when there's nothing else around. Everybody else is asleep or gone, or your old lady's left you. Well, you've always got her. I mean, the shape alone . . . I sleep with the thing sometimes.

Melissa Etheridge
Keith Richards was really my largest influence, because he plays with such a rhythm style. Especially in things like "Start Me Up." It's rhythm, it's all those notes, it's five strings. And they're real open and easy, but, man, we never forget 'em.

When I was a teenager and started playing in front of people with just my guitar, I was influenced by Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez, this kind of fingering-guitar thing. I wanted a big rock band behind me, but I didn't have one. So I played the guitar like it was a band. That's like what Keith does. He drives it; they're not solos.

I also thought that Kurt Cobain was just a great guitar player. Once again, it was the rhythmic issue. Because Nirvana were just a three-piece, he had to hold everything together, and he had such an amazing range.

You know who doesn't get a lot of notice for being a great guitarist? Bruce Springsteen. He doesn't show it off. I've actually gotten to sit in his house and hear him play, and I was like, "Wow, he's really a good guitar player!" There's no over-the-topness. It's all in helping the song. Like, when you ask me about guitar solos, I'm more about what a guitar and a guitarist can do for the song.

The Edge (U2)
I particularly admire the work that Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd produced for Television's first album, Marquee Moon. Hearing that record at the end of the Seventies was just such a throw-down to me. The electric guitar had really become such an unoriginal-sounding instrument. Marquee Moon is a very uncomplicated record sonically. No pyrotechnics, no histrionics, no trickery. It's timeless because there's nothing in it – a very simple drum sound, a bass and two guitars, and Tom's voice. Verlaine got a lot of the credit for putting it together, but in pure guitar-playing terms, I think Lloyd did some of the finest work on that record.

Subsequently, I discovered in some of the works of Country Joe and the Fish connections with Television, and I realized years later that a lot of what Television were doing was actually working in the Dorian mode on top of regular rock & roll rhythm sections, and that was why a lot of their stuff had this very unusual feeling. The Dorian mode goes back to the earliest forms of vocal choral music, and you don't normally hear it in guitar music. It gave their work a stark, beautiful quality. And, of course, because no one is used to hearing that scale, it sounded completely original and fresh.

Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney)
"I get caught up in the electricity of Pete Townshend's playing. I strive for that kind of energy, to be so galvanizing."

I can't help but get caught up in the electricity of Pete Townshend's playing. It's moving to see and hear an instrument when it becomes an extension of someone, an appendage that's mastered with the naturalness and unconsciousness of the movement of your own body. I learned from him in terms of having the sound come from more places than just your fingers. And I do strive for that kind of energy, to be so galvanizing. I can play a windmill, but I don't normally – he's had some injuries that I don't necessarily want to experience.

Also, Ricky Wilson of the B-52's is an underrated guitar player with an endless supply of good riffs. He wrote deceptively simple guitar lines; they were full of so many angles and chord changes. Someone gave me a mix tape of the first two records by the B-52's – this was probably when I was fifteen, right after Wilson passed away. I listened to it unceasingly for a month. I could not figure out how these people were making music that just seemed so weird, this perfect combination of crazy voice, great female vocals and all these great, exciting guitar lines.

Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top)
"Jimmie Vaughan's got that self-assured artistic confidence."

For me, it's a tossup between B.B. King and Jimmie Vaughan. They've mastered the "layin' back" feel – in musicians' jargon, it's learning how to find the heavy hole behind the back-beat that is right in the groove.

B.B. King shows off his expertise with vibrato and with wigglin' that note to where it'll make you wiggle in yo' seat. Jimmie's got that self-assured artistic confidence. I first saw him playing at a nightclub in Dallas, in '69. We were both just startin' out, and we both looked up to so many of the same players from growing up in Texas. So many contemporary guitar players have the same list: B.B. King, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, Jimmy Reed. The blues list.

My favorite songs by them are B.B.'s "Three O'Clock Blues" and Jimmie's "Boom-Bapa-Boom." The guitar playing exemplifies great tone and composition. Those two songs qualify as the definitive work.

Eric Clapton
The first time I heard Jimmie Vaughan, I was impressed with the raw power of his sound. His style is unique, and if I've learned anything from him, it's to keep it simple.

Jeff Beck
The one that stands out above all else is Django Reinhardt. I've got one of those mystery cassettes that was handed to me amid the arms and legs at a concert. The tape just says "Electric Django." It takes both sides of a ninety-minute cassette, and it's just crammed with beautiful playing. There's some acoustic, but it's definitely got the blueprint of rock & roll riff in it – not dissimilar to Paul Burlison [of Johnny Burnette's Rock & Roll Trio]. It's got that angular blues feel. Django's got the audacity to play a big-band vamp on one string. It's an eye-opener. When I played the tape on the tour bus, everybody gathered around the speakers. It was like, "Hey, gang, listen to what I've found. This is forty years old." I've played it so many times that I know every single little inflection – in the hope that some of it will rub off.

Cliff Gallup played with Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps for only nine months. "Be-Bop-a-Lula" was used in the film The Girl Can't Help It. But for some reason, Cliff wasn't in it. Nobody really knows why. Maybe he didn't look the part. You have to listen to Vincent's album [Bluejean Bop] Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps. It's almost barbaric. It's like a barroom brawl or a punch-up in a swimming pool. You can hear this echo going, and it's just amazing. Among all the screaming and the shouting, you can hear this guitar. It sounds like someone was being impaled on a spit. Maybe it was Cliff's way of saying, "You barbaric bastards. I'm a jazz player. But if this is the sort of thing you want, I'm only doing this once." He never did anything like that again. Anyone with an affinity for rockabilly will know that there was never anybody so explicit in their guitar playing. This is quadruple-X-rated guitar playing.

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