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Guitar Gods

Page 5 of 6

Joni Mitchell
Am I a god? I'm a godette. I never had a guitar god. I couldn't do what I first set out to do. I wanted to learn Cotten picking, which was kind of rudimentary. Elizabeth Cotten, who was Pete Seeger's house-keeper, a black woman, had a style of picking that every folkie could do. It was on this Pete Seeger record that started with how to tune the guitar. Most of it didn't interest me, but I did attempt to learn Cotten picking.

I never emulated anybody. My first instrument was the piano, because my first god was Rachmaninoff. By the time I was a teenager and learning guitar, I had no ambitions as a musician – I just wanted to accompany people singing bawdy songs at weenie roasts.

I'm a painter first, and a painter – unlike a musician – is driven to innovate, generally speaking. You want to discover. I eventually got enough facility just by tracing the melodies in my head, but I couldn't get it out of standard tuning. Then Eric Andersen showed me banjo tuning. That's what the old blues guys did – they tuned the guitar like a banjo. That's what Keith Richards uses. Eric showed me open G and D modal, which Neil Young uses a lot. No one was doing what I wanted to do – I wanted to play the guitar like an orchestra.

I know I have a unique way of playing, but nobody seemed to notice. I found it kinda silly that they kept describing it as folk guitar when it was more like Duke Ellington. I always thought of the top three strings as a horn section and the bottom three as a rhythm section. It's more a frustrated attempt at orchestration.

Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine)
The guitar player who was most instrumental to me developing the eccentric side of my playing was Andy Gill of Gang of Four. When I first heard Andy play, it sounded so horrible. It was as if he was playing a different song with a different band. It didn't have any of the pentatonic flair or the technical fluidity of the guitar heroes I was used to, like Randy Rhoads. But the more I listened to Gang of Four, the more I realized how brilliant the guy is, and by deconstructing the guitar parts, playing the unexpected and playing off the funk of the rhythm section with almost atonal drill noises, he made the band so much more powerful. It pushed my thinking into an entirely different direction and encouraged me to concentrate on the eccentricities of my guitar playing. Now, there aren't a whole lot of people who throw their hats in the ring of the guitar-hero sweepstakes. The stuff that has sonically leapt out of records to my ears isn't guitar players but more DJs or programmers, such as the Liam Howletts of the world.

Kenny Wayne Sheppard
Stevie Ray Vaughan was the whole inspiration for me picking up the guitar. I got to hear him play for the first time when I was seven years old, in Shreveport, Louisiana. My dad was the promoter of the show. He picked me up and set me over on the side of the stage, and I got to watch on an amp case. That was pretty monumental. It's weird to think that a seven-year-old child can have such a spiritual experience, but it affected the rest of my life. Six months later, I got my own guitar.

The thing that really caught me is how free he was. It poured out of him. He played with such fire, and then he could play with such delicacy. He had this ability to reach out and grab everybody's attention and hold it in the palm of his hand.

I play by ear; I'm all selftaught, and I learned how to play listening to his songs over and over again. I learned the history of the blues through him. He was always quick to give credit to who he learned from. That's another thing he taught me: respect for for your peers. And he taugh me how to let go and find my voice within my own playing.

Noodles (The Offspring)
My favorite guitarist is Stan Lee from the Dickies. He played mostly bar chords, but occasionally he'd throw in the solo or weird lick. It's great stuff. Keith Richards and Johnny Ramone were also big influences. Johnny is such a powerful rhythm player. It was rad. I tried to emulate Richards, too – more for attitude than chops. But Stan Lee was a master. He had such a cool attitude about playing leads; he wasn't a rock star about it. He put 'em in when they worked.

The greatest guitarist right now is Warren Fitzgerald of the Vandals. He plays the fuck out of the guitar, but he knows it doesn't mean anything. It's not brain surgery, it's just fun.

Donita Sparks (L7)
I love Dick Dale. His speed and his choice of notes are very tasty. He just rocks me. It's so turbocharged, it just sends you to the moon. I tried to do some of his moves on a song a few years back called "Mr. Integrity," a kind of surfy song of ours. I just totally fudged my way through it. He would probably listen to that and hear nothing in there that sounded like him. But I was trying.

And I love Les Paul when he gets really out there and really goofy. He, to me, was just extremely ahead of his time, extremely unconventional. He doesn't look like the hippest cat on the block, you know, and yet he's playing this amazing stuff.

And then, of course, I love Johnny Ramone. He's so simple and so great. I was taking guitar lessons, and once my teacher showed me how to do a bar chord, I could play the Ramones. And so that was it: I stopped my formal education.

My sister brought home the Ramones' Rochet to Russia. And I had to buy her a new record because I were it out. You know, I love the Stones and stuff, too, but the Ramones have this special place in my heart as the band that changed my life.

Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine)
Johnny Ramone was the first guitarist who blew me away – he showed me that maybe I could do something with the guitar. People like Hendrix also blew me away, but I felt like that was something I could never do. But when I saw Johnny and the Ramones, it was different.

After getting into the Ramones, my attitude became one of using that guitar as simply a noise generator. I didn't have any ambition to learn the guitar; I just wanted to generate noise like he did. On the surface, [his playing] seemed really simple, but there was a never-ending depth to it, especially on Leave Home, which is my favorite record. It's somewhere between stupid and genius. Even though they were part of punk, the Ramones were much more sophisticated. Most punk players were tied to Chuck Berry-isms. Johnny wasn't. It made him more radical.

Steve Miller
I have two favorites: Les Paul and T-Bone Walker. Les Paul is a phenomenal soloist and jazz player, but he also invented a lot of the tools that we take for granted now. He was instrumental in inventing the solid-body electric guitar, of course, and he also invented the multitrack tape recorder.

When I was a child, Les actually gave me my first guitar lesson. My dad was a tape-recorder nut – he had probably the only one in Milwaukee. What happened was, Les came to Milwaukee and my dad went over there with a tape recorder and asked if he could record him. I watched him play every day; I was four or five years old and thought it was the neatest thing in the world. That was a huge influence on me.

Later, my family moved to Texas. One day, my dad rented a piano. I was getting ready to go to school, but I immediately got sick and stayed home – I was nine. T-Bone Walker showed up. He drove into our driveway in a flesh-color Cadillac convertible with leopard-skin seats and stepped out. He was the sweetest man and a phenomenal player.

The reason T-Bone is so important is that he is the bridge between jazz and blues for the electric guitar. Charlie Christian was great; T-Bone was even cooler, because he was bluesier, and that's where I learned to play lead guitar and where I also learned to put the guitar behind my head and do the splits.

Hubert Sumlin
Before I got with Wolf, I'd be B.B. King. I'd be Albert King, man. I had all these guys in mind. You know, I like a lot of songs those guys did. You sit and listen to them, and you know they're sayin' something. They're tellin' a story you've been through, talkin' through the song, and you've lived the life.

B.B. and I met up in Argentina; we hadn't saw one another in thirty years – we hadn't shook hands since we played together in Memphis. Today, he got his thing and I got mine. He can't play my stuff and I ain't tryin' to play his.

Buddy Guy
B.B. King taught us everything. When he came out and bent the strings, he turned the whole guitar world around. My dad told me before he died, he said, "Son, if you learn how to play a guitar," he said, "B.B. King don't make mistakes." I make a lot of them – you know, hit a wrong string. I've never seen him do that.

Every time I bend a string, that's his stuff; it's nothing Buddy Guy invented. B.B. said the reason he came up with that is he could never learn to play the slide. He bent the string one day and he heard something, and thank God he did. He gave us all a lesson.

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