Guitar Gods

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Vernon Reid
Carlos Santana is the first time I heard rock guitar where I really paid attention to it. His sound is incredibly vocal. "Black Magic Woman" is Peter Green's song, but Santana owns it. It's about a kind of moral ambivalence, about compassion and sexuality. And Carlos gets to that with his guitar. At the very end, there's the whole Latin vamp, which is so driving, even up to the feedback at the very end – that feedback takes over the entire sound.

My other favorite guitarist is Arthur Rhames. He died in 1989 of AIDS, and I've never seen a guitarist better than him. He had this incredible combination of technique and reckless passion. I used to go see him play in Prospect Park [in Brooklyn]. Looking at him and listening to him was weird – this was a guitar player from our neighborhood who played at least as much guitar as John McLaughlin. He'd finger the guitar under the neck, then play the same thing with his hand over the neck, with no break in between. And he was playing at furious tempos, furiously fast.

He had a certain kind of phrasing that I got from him. You can hear his influence on my solo on "Cult of Personality" [on Living Colour's Vivid]. There's a point where I do this harmonic skip between phrases, and that's really Arthur. He was an unbelievable musician – the greatest guitarist you never heard.

Robbie Robertson
When I was playing with Ronnie Hawkins, Ronnie brought in this guitar player, Roy Buchanan. Roy played with Dale Hawkins, Ronnie's cousin. And Roy's attitude was like a gunslinger coming to town: The Axman Cometh.

Roy had a command over the guitar that I couldn't comprehend. He bent the neck; he bent the strings behind the bridge. He played with both hands on the fingerboard. He used every ornament on the thing to get a noise out of it. It was like the guitar came to life.

It started speaking.

I had so many questions for him. And you couldn't get a straight answer out of him. One night, I said, "There is something about you and this instrument that I don't understand." And he said, "I'll tell you what it is. I'm actually half-wolf. It's a complicated thing, but my mother and the wolf . . . "

The next night, we were playing – Roy was doing this gunslinger thing on me and he became the wolf. Finally, Ronnie Hawkins came to the conclusion that Roy was too weird and spooky to deal with.

Because Roy was such a complicated person, he never played with anybody where he could be shown in his proper light. I remember hearing years ago that the Rolling Stones were talking to him, wanting to try him out, and he didn't even show up.

Joan Jett
The first concert I ever saw was the New York Dolls, when I was twelve. I was in the front row, between where Johnny Thunders and David Johansen were standing. It was sensory assault on every level. I remember taking David Johansen's beer can off the stage. That was right when I was becoming a rock fan, coming into being a teenager and getting turned on to music. Once I saw that, there was no question what I wanted to pursue.

Initially, I learned to play guitar from records – T. Rex's "Bang a Gong" and Chuck Berry – really simple rhythm-guitar things that were very obvious not just in sound but in feel. I focused on the way the rhythm guitar sounds, the way it feels against the drums – it moves you the way the bass or drums do. I was totally unconcerned with the lead guitar. It's all about the rhythm for me.

I was inspired by Seventies British glitter music – David Bowie, T. Rex, Sweet and Mott the Hoople, and Keith Richards, just the feel that he has playing guitar; that's really the essence of guitar playing for me.

Peter Buck (R.E.M.)
One of the people who I learned to play guitar from was Zal Yanovsky of the Lovin' Spoonful. I bought The Best of the Lovin' Spoonful when I was about twelve – for twenty-nine cents in the local dollar discount store in Roswell, Georgia. If your guitar was in tune, the songs were easy enough to play along with.

The Lovin' Spoonful were a cool combination of folk and blues with a little country & western. I loved the pithiness of Yanovsky's playing. On "Daydream," he muffles the strings and picks a three-note arpeggio, then does a volumepedal thing and some country pickin', all in one song.

Roger McGuinn took a lot of things that I never personally studied – finger picking, old Hamilton Camp records – and translated them into a rock idiom. The Byrds were doing things like "John Riley" [on Fifth Dimension] that were old folk-song changes done in this classical way, where the finger picking has majesty and depth. It sounds like a harpsichord.

Eric Erlandson (Hole)
I have a melting pot of guitar influences. But Johnny Thunders was the first one where I started going back to his records and trying to figure out this amazing fucked-up guitar playing. I still think a lot of Celebrity Skin is my Johnny Thunders influence coming up – which Courtney just fucking hates [laughs].

Johnny was sloppy, but in a cool way. I was working at a record store in the early Eighties and I had a friend who was obsessed with Johnny. He made me sit down and listen to New York Dolls songs like "Personality Crisis," "Puss 'n' Boots" and "Jet Boy." A lot of it was just the rhythm. Johnny had a certain style of rhythm. I saw him several times throughout the Eighties, and sometimes he would play just one note. But there would be something about that one note. There's no way to go to school to learn about Johnny Thunders. That's probably what I like about it. It was so unschooled. There would be no Steve Jones [of the Sex Pistols] without him.

Jonny Lang
The first time I heard Albert Collins, I was twelve or thirteen and I hadn't really started to play guitar. I was at my dad's ex-girlfriend's house, and she had the record Ice Pickin' – it blew me away. The production is so funky and raw. It's a mix of blues and funk, and somewhere in between it has this Seventies TV-theme funk, like The Jeffersons. It's wild. The way he picks and chooses his notes, the way he attacks the guitar – he can be sweet and gentle at the same time. He makes you hold your breath through one of his runs, and when he's done, you exhale. He's the man. With Albert, B.B. and Buddy Guy, those guys have such a sense that it's the missing notes that are the glue inside of a guitar part that set up everything.

As far as young guitarists go, there's this girl in Minneapolis named Shannon Curfman. She does the old Chaka Khan funky blues kind of stuff. She's only fourteen or fifteen, and she scares me.

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