In his first Rolling Stone interview, published in March 1968, Jimi Hendrix described the moment that changed his life forever: “The first guitarist I was aware of was Muddy Waters. I heard one of his old records when I was a little boy, and it scared me to death . . . ‘Wow, what is that all about?'”
The history of rock & roll guitar is writ large and loud in its signature licks, riffs and solos: the barnyard bounce and pink-Cadillac shine of Scotty Moore’s epochal break in Elvis Presley‘s “That’s All Right”; Keith Richards‘ distorted three-note stomp in the Rolling Stones‘ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”; Kurt Cobain’s fireball power chords in Nirvana‘s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
But rock & roll’s infinite capacity for renewal and surprise is packed into the lightning-bolt impact of those Great Guitar Moments – the way a simple hook, a feedback squeal, even a cocksure pose can send a kid over the moon and then reaching for his or her own instrument. The following pages are a celebration of those flashes of discovery, related by more than thirty-five master players in rock, blues, folk, punk and hip-hop – an extraordinary testament to the enduring power and magic of the electric guitar.
The instrument is a lot older than rock & roll itself. Les Paul, a pioneer in guitar design and multitrack recording, was playing a primitive electric guitar as early as 1928, using his parents’ radio as an amplifier. In 1937, Eldon Shamblin of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys was the first country musician to play a solid-body model, a bantam-size Rickenbacker Electro Spanish – until his boss told him to stop, claiming that the damn thing didn’t look like a proper guitar.
But in rock & roll, the whole point of the guitar is to be anything but proper. Everything you need to know about the implicit sexuality of the guitar, and its potential for exuberant violence, can be seen in 1950s stage photos and footage of Presley – his guitar hanging over his waist like a tommy gun, banging into his pelvis with rhythmic authority. Amplification liberated the instrument from the rich, warm but literal sound of wire resonating against wood. It could sound like a wounded animal, a runaway train or, in Hendrix’s Woodstock recasting of the national anthem, America going up in flames. Citing the Who‘s Pete Townshend as an influence, Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney notes the way Townshend used his guitar, and its ferociously abused sound, as an extension of his body – and, in turn, of his personality, his fears, his dreams.
The guitar is not the only rock & roll instrument capable of expressing uninhibited joy and explosive honesty; the piano and the saxophone are part of the bedrock architecture. But the guitar remains a barometer of purity and commitment for the same reasons it was rock’s primary agent of change: affordability, accessibility and the fact that all you need to play it are desire and imagination. Technical competence is still optional. These interviews, featuring our finest guitarists talking about their own heroes and gods, show how the guitar transformed American popular culture – by putting immortality within arm’s reach.
Jimi Hendrix was just so fluid. His hands were connected to his soul, you know? His playing was just so emotional. You could feel the fire, you could feel the blues. You could feel the sadness. It’s unbelievable.
What did I learn from him? What you can do with an electric guitar. And how to blend rock & roll and blues all together in songs.
I didn’t really get into Hendrix until I moved to California from New York and I was about twelve or thirteen. I moved to L.A. and heard Smash Hits. It was unbelievable. It was everything: It was psychedelic, it was funk, it was blues, it was rock.
My favorite Hendrix song is “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland).” It’s just so soulful, so electric. It’s like floating in water.
Mike McCready (Pearl Jam)
I fuckin’ love Hendrix. He’s all-encompassing. His song-writing ability was amazing, his leads were genius – he was so far ahead of his time.
My dad was in Vietnam, and he had Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys record on his carrier. He brought that back when I was seven or eight, and I put it on not really knowing that much about rock & roll. I remember going, “What the hell is this?” I was pretty young, and it was so other-worldly. When I started understanding guitar more, I realized that Hendrix was so far above the level that a lot of other guitar players were at.
There’s a feeling you get sometimes playing leads – it’s like you’re out of your mind, you’re in a state of nirvana. It sounds silly, but it’s spiritual. I get that when I hear “Machine Gun” and he’s playing that one fucking note and it brings you to tears. I’m constantly striving for that kind of feeling, a feeling that will bring across an emotion to an audience or to myself.
Kirk Hammett (Metallica)
My favorite guitar player is Jimi Hendrix, hands down. It started when I was five or six years old – hearing “Purple Haze” and thinking it didn’t sound like anything on AM radio at the time. Then in 1976, I went to one of my first rock concerts. Between bands, they played “Purple Haze” on the PA, and I freaked out. The first thing I did when I got home – I was thirteen or fourteen – was go out and buy a Hendrix album. And that got me to play guitar. The first song I ever learned was “Purple Haze.” Within two weeks I formed a band, and we did a thirty-minute version of “Purple Haze.” That was the only song we knew.
His music was so visual. When he played a song and wanted sea-gull sounds in it, he would get those sounds. If he wanted his guitar to sound like it was underwater, he could do that. And in the live “Machine Gun” from Band of Gypsys, he goes into that whole thing where he’s mimicking the bombers coming in, dropping bombs, the voices crying out. Hendrix had a way of saying something political without speaking outside his own musical language. He said it in sonic terms. And his guitar tone is something he completely invented. There is no one who sounded like him, before or after. He invented the Church of Tone. He had monster tone, monster technique, monster songs. And soul to spare.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.