Ry Cooder has an unbelievably funky sense of rhythm. His tone, what he leaves out when he plays – he's as ferocious and as heartbreaking a musician as I'd ever heard. When I first heard him, I fell out – I'd never heard anything like what he was doing. At the time, I was way into Delta blues, but it never occurred to me that someone could move the music I loved into someplace even deeper. And the fact that he was also from L.A. – it was the first time I could stand being from there. Ry's first few albums and his work on Randy New man's 12 Songs are so innovative and brilliant. You could start with Ry's early albums but, really, all of them are great for different reasons. This guy's the master.
I grew up listening to my parents' records, and my dad's a big rock & roll freak, so I knew Jeff Beck's name from when he was in the Yardbirds. But when I was a kid, guitars were just a sound; there was no such thing as technique. It was just a texture in my life, something intangible. Sort of like when Frankenstein hears the violin, and he's reaching out to grab it, and it's just a sound in the air. It's a lot easier to appreciate Beck's guitar playing if you're a guitar player. He just has such a natural control over the instrument. It's the ability to make it do something that you've never heard anybody else do. Blow by Blow is the album I had when I was a kid. He would go from love songs to a really blistering, hard-rock, heavy-sounding guitar without ever going over the top.
I don't have a favorite guitarist. I don't have a favorite solo. I don't even like guitar solos. I hate them all. There's nobody good out there. It's crazy.
The ones that stand out are from when I was a teenager, in the Seventies. The first guitar players I really loved were Michael Bruce and Glenn Buxton, from the original Alice Cooper group. They did that soloing crap, sure, but nice, short, melodic solos, so it wasn't like soloing solos. Usually when you say "solos," I picture Steve Vai up there – like, ten feet tall and hideous.
I also like Mick Ronson. He's not the best guitarist ever, but he's the coolest – ever. He looked cool, played cool, everything was just so cool. And, of course, he played guitar on "Jack and Diane," too.
I think Steve Howe from Yes is the best. He's not a typical math-rock guitarist. He never used distortion but he still thrashed, which I could never figure out. And who isn't a fan of Eddie Van Halen? When that first record came out, I wanted to fucking kill myself! I said, "I'm wasting my fuckin' time, aren't I?"
There aren't any guitarists anymore who are going to light the world on fire. Maybe everything's been done. Once Eddie Van Halen hit the scene, he did everything that hadn't been done – and that was it. I started liking the emotional guitarists, like Kurt [Cobain] and the punk-rock guitarists. I thought they were more like it.
Leslie West [of Mountain] never gets any recognition. I've always been a big fan of his, since back when he was a fat kid dropping out of high school in Forest Hills [Queens]. He was, to me, one of the top five guitar players of his era. His playing is so soulful and tasteful. His break in "Theme for an Imaginary Western" is the best thing I've ever heard. It builds so me-lodically. The last note in the break – he hits one of those notes that just shoots up the octave, this harmonic jump. The whole solo is a thing of beauty.
Joe Perry (Aerosmith)
My favorite guitarist is Steve Rose. He was the first guy I ever saw actually play an electric guitar onstage. He was arguably the best guitar player for a few towns around [Boston], and he gave guitar lessons. You talk about guitar heroes – I can remember seeing him and his band, the Wildcats, at a high school dance. I was like, "Shit!" It wasn't just something coming out of the radio; it wasn't the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. I didn't dance with anybody; I just watched him play guitar. I'll never forget the smell of his Gretsch Country Gentleman when he opened it up – all that wood and lacquer and gold.
After I'd had a few lessons from Steve and I'd started learning the chords, that's when I started listening to Chuck Berry.
Berry's On Top is probably my favorite record of all time; it defines rock & roll. A lot of people have done Chuck Berry songs, but to get that feel is really hard. It's the rock & roll thing – the push-pull and the rhythm of it. There are very few bands that come close to that.
I met Michael Bloomfield at his uncle's pawn shop, on Clark Street on the North Side of Chicago. I picked up a guitar and started hittin' a couple of blues licks when this real energetic kid about my age jumped over the counter, grabbed another guitar and just started playin' some hell of a shit all over the fingerboard. I said, "Wow!" I didn't see him for quite a while, until Paul Butterfield got his band [the Paul Butterfield Blues Band] together. "Bloomers" had been playin' in bands since he was twelve or thirteen – all kinds of bands, playin' jazz and swing music to rock & roll. Clapton said, "He was music on two legs." He was consumed with it, just burning up.
From the first, even when we didn't know too many tunes or didn't have the arrangements down too good, Bloomers and Butterfield would get up there on the stage and they'd just burn. On a good night, Bloomers had an endless supply of shit that would come out of that fingerboard. He used to do shit onstage that was totally amazing. He got one of those things that the fire-eaters use in the circus. We'd play most of [the Butterfield Blues Band's] East-West, and it was so exotic and strange sounding – it hit right with what was happening socially and with the LSD at the time. So minds were blowin' anyway, and then he'd put his guitar down, dip the fire-eatin' shit in some lighter fluid and get up there and swallow the fire for a while as the band was keepin' the groove behind him. People would just fall out.
I'd say the first real guitar god in rock & roll was Duane Eddy. Duane was the front guy, the bandleader, and they were great songs – it wasn't just jamming. Here was a guy who was laying down the template for how to get across to the public. So many times guys are great players but nobody ever hears about them, like a good actor in a bad movie.
The first Duane song I remember hearing was "Movin' 'n' Groovin'." It was basically a Chuck Berry riff, except the guitar sounded so much better. It has this big, high strings part – like "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man." But then Duane came in with this other part, and I was just floored. His sound is one of those untouchable, unique things. All you have to do is tell a guitar player to sound like Duane Eddy and they'll immediately do some low-string twang thing.
I was a young, white, middle-class kid who had already listened to rhythm & blues for five years, and here was a white guy playing blues in a pop way. You didn't have to be from Mississippi and be black and fifty to do it. I could be playing it on my Sears Roebuck guitar in the eighth grade. And it sounded pretty close.
Nancy Wilson (Heart)
What Jimmy Page did was pretty inspiring for guitar players. He married a lot of acoustic elements into hard rock. The kind of chords he used were very left of center, with a lot of dissonance – I absorbed that like a sponge. It's all over the music I write, always.
I saw Led Zeppelin live for the first time when I was thirteen. I remember sitting there with Ann, and we were blushing 'cause they were so raw. It was disturbing yet alluring. We were already doing music together, mainly because of the Beatles. But when we got into Zeppelin, it really helped to form our identity. These guys were not just playing straight power chords, you know?
Not surprisingly, my favorite all-time guitar player is still old Garcia. The first time I heard him, he was playing banjo at a coffeehouse in Palo Alto called Top of the Tangent – that was back during the folk scare. He was playing with the Black Mountain Boys, his bluegrass band. Jerry was a good banjo player – the best I'd ever heard. But that's not saying much; I was only fifteen years old.
The better you get to know what he was up to, the harder it is to find fault with what he was doing. He taught me to avoid stylizing myself and to listen to brass sections for phrasing. He used to listen to trumpet – like Miles, for instance – and so I started listening to John Coltrane's pianist, McCoy Tyner. He was good at phrasing, but he was also good at creating what I call a textured harmonic carpet that he'd lay down for a soloist. There'd be a given key he'd be playing in, and then there'd be an overlay of notes on top of that that were basically suspended on the back half of the bar. I learned that you're not there to make a point – you're there to serve the music. Jerry taught me to listen.
My favorites are Richard Thompson and Jimi Hendrix. I never appreciated Hendrix at the time, but I revisited his stuff later on. He had a way to express with the instrument that everybody since has tried to copy. Richard is an expressive player, but he's also so gifted technically. To see Richard live is pretty scary. I saw him seven or eight years ago at Maxwell's, in Ho-boken, New Jersey, doing an acoustic show. I was floored. He has so much control over the instrument. It's humiliating to go see him and somebody says, "You're a guitar player, too?" Compared to him, not really.
I also like rhythm players – Johnny Ramone and Roger McGuinn especially. McGuinn could cut a pretty big wall of sound with a twelve-string. The first Ramones record is my favorite guitar album, because there weren't any solos. It was just the guitars hanging over one speaker and the bass guitar hanging on the other one. That's the record that showed me that anybody could play music.
This story is from the April 1st, 1999 issue of Rolling Stone.
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