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Guitar Gods

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Willie Nelson
"Django Reinhardt is like Sinatra. The voice is there – and it wouldn't matter what he played. He could play scales and it'd be beautiful."

Django reinhardt was the best there ever was. His technique, his playing ability and his tone were all incredible. A friend of mine, Johnny Gimble, who plays fiddle, was a big fan of his – and also Stephane Grappelli, who played fiddle in the Django Reinhardt band – and he gave me a tape of Django and Stephane playing together. That was back when I was twenty years old, I guess, and I've been a big fan ever since. He has so many great songs, it's just his style. It's like Sinatra, you know. The voice is there – and it wouldn't matter what he played. He could play scales and it'd be beautiful. I really like everything he's played, and I still listen to his records a lot. There's other great guitar players that I like: Grady Martin, who played guitar out of Nashville for so many years, was a fantastic guitar player, and Chet Atkins. I grew up listening to the music of all these guys, but Django is the one that's done the most for me than anybody.

Eddie Van Halen
I think the whole guitar-god thing is funny. To be a legend, don't you have to be dead? Call me a legend when I'm gone. How about just a guitar player?

As I started buying records, it was stuff like Hendrix and Cream. Hendrix blew my mind, like everybody's. One of my favorite guitar solos is the second one in "All Along the Watchtower" – I get goose bumps every time I hear it. But – I hope people don't take this wrong – he wasn't really an influence. It wasn't because I didn't like it; it was just that I could not afford a Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face or a wah-wah. So I just plugged straight into the amp and realized that's kinda what Eric Clapton did.

"Sunshine of Your Love" was the first one that made an impression – everything about his phrasing, it was like he was speaking. Every solo he did back then you can hum. We had a stereophonic Zenith, and I would turn it to sixteen so it would be half-speed, and I really got into learning note for note all the live stuff. "I'm So Glad" made me realize how important the bass and drums are. When people started calling me a guitar god, I didn't know what they meant. In England, they said, "You're magic." I said, "If it was magic, I wouldn't have to practice." Actually, I don't practice. I just sit and play, because you do play music, you don't work it. But it takes a lot of work to play.

Trey Anastasio (Phish)
Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia and Frank Zappa are my three favorite electric guitarists. I'll add Robert Fripp and Duane Allman to that list. Sometimes I think they brought the same thing by traveling different roads. It's a method of stretching out that is similar. The biggest thing I learned was from Jerry. He taught me subtlety, the emotional power of a quiet phrase. I saw a Dead show at the Hartford [Connecticut] Civic Center in 1982 that was a life-changing event for me. I had seen them before but was too busy talking to people and not getting into it. But at this show, I went off by myself. It completely changed my perception of what was possible. The entire time, I was completely tuned in to what Jerry was playing. The whole thing had a logical form to it, and it was just heart-wrenchingly beautiful. I always thought an arena show meant "entertainment," but after that, I realized that it could be such an emotional event.

As far as new guitarists, the guy I love the most is Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine. He's the absolute best. I think Loveless is the defining album of the Nineties as far as sound goes. Oh, my God, I've never heard anything like that before. That record was the Number One choice for me and Fish, our drummer, to cover at the last Halloween show. I had the whole thing figured out: I wanted to have five amps all lined up, with a slight delay between each one so it sounded like there were five different sounds coming out of it. But Fish and I got outvoted, so we did Loaded instead. Maybe next year.

Kim Thayil (Soundgarden)
Jeff Beck always comes to mind. He's an incredibly proficient guitarist, but he isn't Mr. Pedant. The late Seventies to late Eighties were full of guitarists who were preoccupied with technique, like the guitar wasn't a voice but a tool to be mastered. Jeff Beck wasn't that way – he used it as a microphone. He was confident.

The first time I was aware of Beck was probably Wired. I heard the song "Led Boots" in Chicago on WXRT in the mid- to late-Seventies in some record store. There were no vocals; it was more electric and neonlike. Before I heard Wired, I was listening mostly to the loud guitar music of the time: Ted Nugent, Aerosmith and Foghat. Wired sounded incredibly contemporary but also sort of futuristic to me.

As far as Nineties guitarists go, I have a lot of respect for Tom Morello, not just for how he plays but also for his head. He's not just an inventive guitarist, he's also a smart guy. He doesn't sound like a thousand blues players, he doesn't sound like a thousand Van Halen wanna-be's. He doesn't sound like anybody else. It's nice to hear his interviews, too. He's not some L.A. "I wanna be a rock star" bonehead. There should be more people who are that aware and accountable.

Carlos Santana
John Lee Hooker – it's deep, deep music. B.B. King used to say, "We're gonna get really funky now – we're gonna take music to the alley." And John Lee Hooker said, "Why take it to the alley? Why don't you go over to the swamp?" It's like the devil and God playing together. To most people, it's one or the other, but to me and John Lee Hooker, it's all one.

I was reading that the synthesizer and the electric guitar are still the most modern instruments. And the electric guitar still beats up the synthesizer because synthesizers are trying to sound like guitars. And it don't matter who it is: They'll never sound like a guitar, even if they sample it till your eyeballs fall out. You're just not gonna re-create that. It's like John Lee Hooker says: "It's in you, and it's gotta come out."

Lenny Kravitz on Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile": "It just howls from the soul. It's so intense. Sometimes I put it on, I can't even take it. You know? Sometimes it's just too much."

Beck
For me, the guitar is usually a percussive instrument. When I'm recording, I like to get guitars to sound like keyboards. I'm really more interested in guitars that don't sound like guitars.

I'd say that the guitarists who really excite me are the older blues players. Mance Lipscomb is one of my favorites. His voice and his guitar are so perfectly melded; they both have this graceful awkwardness. There's a deliberateness to his playing that just rocks all over somebody who's a lot fancier. The way he plays guitar sounds like a horse and carriage. It has that atmosphere and that ricketiness. It's pre-jalopy.

The irony is that I don't think he was recorded until he was in his midsixties. I remember reading on the back of one of his records, "You all should have been here fifty years ago when I could really play." Maybe part of the ricketiness of his playing is due to his age. Being limited to what you can play on the guitar is often a good thing. That understatement can be so powerful. Sometimes arthritis can be more effective than a hammer-on.

Wyclef Jean
I have two guitar gods: Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana. Freedom of expression on the instrument – that's what I love about the way both of them played. They capture with their sound and their expression, as compared to all the people who can just go up and down on the scales and you feel nothing. These guys can hold one note of vibrato and you say, "Wow, that's the way these guys make these guitars cry." A lot of pedals were invented on the way these guys play, you know that?

My brother put me up on Santana when he came back from college. I think he was watching Woodstock. You know, college, not much to do, chilling with the herbal. And then here comes Carlos Santana. And it was like, "Yo, this shit is incredible."

I think everyone is scared to play today. What happened to the fifteen-minute guitar solo? People used to live for it, man! The Steve Vai days, I don't know where them days are. The last cat that gave me a vibe was Kurt Cobain. He was ill with the power chords.

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Song Stories

“Bird on a Wire”

Leonard Cohen | 1969

While living on the Greek island of Hydra, Cohen was battling a lingering depression when his girlfriend handed him a guitar and suggested he play something. After spotting a bird on a telephone wire, Cohen wrote this prayer-like song of guilt. First recorded by Judy Collins, it would be performed numerous times by artists incuding Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker and Rita Coolidge. "I'm always knocked out when I hear my songs covered or used in some situation," Cohen told Rolling Stone. "I've never gotten over the fact that people out there like my music."

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