100 Greatest Guitarists: David Fricke's Picks - Rolling Stone
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100 Greatest Guitarists: David Fricke’s Picks

From Jerry Garcia and Joan Jett to B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix, Rolling Stone critic chooses the best and most influential guitarists in rock

Jerry Garcia Grateful Dead

Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead was a folk and blue-grass obsessive who started playing guitar at 15.

David Redfern/Redferns/Getty

In 2003, I proposed to my editors a special issue devoted to the best and most influential guitarists in rock. They suggested a number – 100 – and the idea of ranking them. I came up with the names, based on my life-long love of the instrument and those who play it. One hundred proved to be too small for the job – my working list of the worthy ran closer to 500 – and the running order was frustrating work. In the end, I looked at it this way: Jimi Hendrix was Number One in every way; the other 99 were all Number Two.

The original inspiration was a celebration of the guitar and how it changed the world – and me. Everyone has their own version of this list. This was mine, in 2003.


Keith Richards

In his forty-one years with the Rolling Stones, Richards has
created, and immortalized on record, rock's greatest single body of
riffs — including the fuzz-tone SOS of "(I Can't Get No)
Satisfaction," the uppercut power chords of "Start Me Up," the
black stab of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and the strum and slash of
virtually everything he plays on the Stones' 1972 classic,
Exile on Main St. Richards is not a fancy guitarist; his
style is a simple, personalized extension of his teenage ardor for
Chuck Berry and the swarthy electricity of Muddy Waters and Howlin'
Wolf. Born in Dartford, England, in 1943, he was expelled from a
technical college when he was sixteen. He immediately joined his
childhood friend Mick Jagger and another R&B aficionado, Brian
Jones, in a combo, Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys, that by 1962 — with bassist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts —
had become the Rolling Stones. Richards is routinely hailed as the
most indestructible of rock stars, but he credits his music with
giving him life. As he told Rolling Stone last year, "You gotta be
a real sourpuss, mate, not to get up there and play 'Jumpin' Jack
Flash' without feeling like, 'C'mon, everybody, let's go.' "
"Happy," Exile on Main St. (1972)


Jimmy Page

In the 1970s, there was no bigger rock group in the world than Led
Zeppelin and no greater god on six strings than Zeppelin's
founder-captain Jimmy Page. Nothing much has changed. The imperial weight, technical authority and exotic reach of Page's writing and
playing on Zeppelin's eight studio albums have lost none of their
power: the rusted, slow-death groan of Page's solo, played with a
violin bow, in "Dazed and Confused," on Zeppelin's 1969 debut; the
circular, cast-iron stammer of his riffing on "Black Dog," on the
band's fourth LP; the melodic momentum and chrome-spear tone of his
closing solo in Zeppelin's most popular song, "Stairway to Heaven."
Page actually built Zeppelin's sound and might from a wide palette
of inspirations and previous experience. In the early and
mid-1960s, Page was a first-call studio musician in London, playing
on Kinks and Everly Brothers dates and honing his production skills
on singles for John Mayall and future Velvet Underground vocalist
Nico. And before forming Zeppelin in London in the late summer of
1968 with singer Robert Plant, drummer John Bonham and bassist John
Paul Jones, Page had been the lead guitarist in the final lineup of
the Yardbirds.


Ry Cooder

In Ry Cooder's hands, the guitar becomes a time machine. Ever since
he began as a teen prodigy in the Sixties, he has been a virtuoso
in a host of guitar styles going back to the most primal bottleneck
blues, country, vintage jazz, Hawaiian slack-key guitar, Bahamian
folk music and countless other styles. He's combined these
different musical idioms into his own eclectic style as one of the
world's foremost performing musicologists. He got his start playing
the blues with Taj Mahal in the Sixties and, after a stint in
Captain Beefheart's Magic Band, began making solo records such as
Paradise and Lunch and Chicken Skin Music,
unearthing obscure folk tunes like "Vigilante Man" and "Boomer's
Story" and breathing slide-guitar life into them. Cooder also gave
one of the most significant guitar lessons in rock & roll
history: During his sessions with the Rolling Stones in 1968, he
taught Keith Richards five-string open-G blues tuning, which
Richards used to write some of his greatest riffs for songs on
Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed and Exile on
Main St.
He played on the Stones' "Love in Vain," which
features Cooder on mandolin, and on Randy Newman's "Let's Burn Down
the Cornfield." Since the Eighties, he has composed acclaimed
scores for films such as Paris, Texas. He continues to explore
sounds from around the world, collaborating with African guitarist
Ali Farka Toure on the 1994 Talking Timbuktu and
assembling old-school Cuban musicians for the wildly successful
Buena Vista Social Club.


Stevie Ray Vaughan

With the blinding stratocaster fireworks on his debut album,
Texas Flood, in 1983, Stevie Ray Vaughan kicked off a
blues-rock renaissance when the music needed one most: the heyday
of hair-spray metal and synth-pop. Until 1982, Vaughan's fame was
limited to clubs in central Texas, where he perfected a
brass-knuckled soul influenced by Jimi Hendrix's psychedelia and
the funky twang of Lonnie Mack. But after David Bowie saw him at
the 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival (a rare gig for an unsigned act),
Vaughan was invited to play on Bowie's Let's Dance. By the
late 1980s, he was filling arenas with his longtime band Double
Trouble. On August 27th, 1990, Vaughan died in a helicopter crash
in East Troy, Wisconsin, after leaving a venue where he had just
jammed with his guitarist brother Jimmie, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy,
Jeff Healey and Robert Cray. He was thirty-five.


Chuck Berry

There would be no rock & roll guitar without Chuck Berry. His
signature lick — a staccato, double-string screech descended
from Chicago blues with a strong country inflection — is the
music's defining twang. He introduced it in his 1955 Chess Records
debut, "Maybellene," and used it to dynamic effect in nearly two
dozen classic hits in the next ten years, including the best songs
about playing rock & roll: "Roll Over Beethoven," "Rock and
Roll Music" and "Johnny B. Goode." Born in San Jose, California, in
1926, Berry learned to play guitar as a teenager but did time in
reform school for attempted robbery and moonlighted as a beautician
in St. Louis before "Maybellene" made him a star. Berry's career
was sidelined by a two-year jail stint in the early 1960s; his only
Number One single was the mildly pornographic singalong "My
Ding-a-Ling" in 1972. But Berry was the first giant of rock & roll guitar. Nothing else matters.


Robert Johnson

Johnson is the undisputed king of the Mississippi Delta blues
singers and one of the most original and influential voices in
American music. He was a virtuoso player whose spiritual
descendants include Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Jack White.
Johnson's recorded legacy — a mere twenty-nine songs cut in
1936 and '37 — is the foundation of all modern blues and
rock. He either wrote or adapted from traditional sources many of
the most popular blues songs of all time, including "Cross Road
Blues," "Sweet Home Chicago" and "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom."
Johnson, the illegitimate son of a Mississippi sharecropper, poured
every ounce of his own poverty, wandering and womanizing into his
work — documenting black life in the Deep South beneath the
long shadow of slavery with haunted intensity. "It was almost as if
he felt things so acutely he found it almost unbearable," Clapton
said of Johnson's music. Legend has it that Johnson made a deal
with the devil to acquire his guitar gifts. There was certainly a
lot of daredevilry in his flouting of standard tempos and
harmonics; his records are breathtaking displays of melodic
development and acute brawn. Johnson died in 1938 at twenty-seven,
poisoned by a jealous husband. Fifty-eight years later, a box set
of his recordings was certified platinum. "Hell Hound on My Trail,"
Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings (1990)


Eric Clapton

It first appeared in 1965, written on the walls of the London
subway: "Clapton is God." Eric Patrick Clapton, of Ripley, England
— fresh out of his first major band, the Yardbirds, and
recently inducted into John Mayall's Bluesbreakers — had just
turned twenty and been playing guitar only since he was fifteen.
But Clapton was already soloing with the improvisational nerve that
has dazzled fans and peers for forty years. In his 1963-65 stint
with the Yardbirds, Clapton's nickname was Slowhand, an ironic
reference to the velocity of his lead breaks. But Clapton insisted
in a 2001 Rolling Stone interview, "I think it's important to say
something powerful and keep it economical." Even when he jammed on
a tune for more than a quarter-hour with Cream, Clapton soloed with
a daggerlike tone and pinpoint attention to melody. The solo albums
that followed Layla, his 1970 tour de force with Derek and the
Dominos, emphasize his desires as a singer-songwriter. But on the
best, like 1974's 46I Ocean Boulevard and 1983's Money
and Cigarettes
, his solos and flourishes still pack the power
that made him "God" in the first place.


B.B. King

The self-proclaimed "Ambassador of the Blues" has become such a
beloved figure in American music, it's easy to forget how
revolutionary his guitar work was. From the opening notes of his
1951 breakthrough hit. "Three O' Clock Blues," you can hear his
original and passionate style, juicing the country blues with
electric fire and jazz polish. King's fluid guitar leads took off
from T-Bone Walker. His string-bending and vibrato made his famous
guitar, Lucille, weep like a real-life woman. It was the start of a
hugely influential blues-guitar style. As Buddy Guy put it, "Before
B.B., everyone played the guitar like it was an acoustic."

King grew up on a Mississippi Delta plantation and took off in
1948, at twenty-three, for Memphis, where he found fame as a radio
DJ on WDIA and earned the nickname "Beale Street Blues Boy." Along
the way, he picked up a uniquely eclectic vision of the blues,
blending the intricate guitar language of country blues, the raw
emotion of gospel and the smooth finesse of jazz. His Fifties
classics — "Every Day I Have the Blues," "Sweet Little
Angel," "You Upset Me Baby" — are tender as well as tough,
and 1965's Live at the Regal remains one of the hottest
blues-guitar albums ever recorded. King remains unstoppable,
touring hard and cutting albums such as his recent Eric Clapton
collaboration, Riding With the King.


Duane Allman

If the late Duane Allman had done nothing but session work, he
would still be on this list. His contributions on lead and slide
guitar to dozens of records as fine and as varied as Wilson
Pickett's down-home '69 cover of "Hey Jude" and Eric Clapton's 1970
masterpiece with Derek and the Dominos, Layla and Other
Assorted Love Songs
, constitute an astounding body of work.
But Allman also transformed the poetry of jamming with the Allman
Brothers Band, the group he founded in 1969 with his younger
brother, singer-organist Gregg. Duane applied the same black soul
and rebel fire he displayed as a sideman to the Allmans' extended
investigations of Muddy Waters and Blind Willie McTell covers and
to his psychedelic-jazz interplay with second guitarist Dickey
Betts in live showpieces such as "Whipping Post." Although Duane
and Gregg had played in bands together since 1960, Duane did not
learn to play slide until shortly before the start of the Allmans.
In his only Rolling Stone interview, in early' 71, Duane said that
the first song he tried to conquer was McTell's "Statesboro Blues."
Allman's blastoff licks in the recording that opens his band's
third album, At Fillmore East, show how far and fast he
had come — and leave you wondering how much further he could have gone. In October 1971, eight months after the Fillmore East
gigs, Allman died in a motorcycle accident in the band's home base
of Macon, Georgia.


Jimi Hendrix

I feel sad for people who have to judge Jimi Hendrix on the basis of recordings and film alone; because in the flesh he was so extraordinary. He had a kind of alchemist's ability; when he was on the stage, he changed. He physically changed. He became incredibly graceful and beautiful. It wasn't just people taking LSD, though that was going on, there's no question. But he had a power that almost sobered you up if you were on an acid trip. He was bigger than LSD.

What he played was fucking loud but also incredibly lyrical and expert. He managed to build this bridge between true blues guitar — the kind that Eric Clapton had been battling with for years and years — and modern sounds, the kind of Syd Barrett-meets-Townshend sound, the wall of screaming guitar sound that U2 popularized. He brought the two together brilliantly. And it was supported by a visual magic that obviously you won't get if you just listen to the music. He did this thing where he would play a chord, and then he would sweep his left hand through the air in a curve, and it would almost take you away from the idea that there was a guitar player here and that the music was actually coming out of the end of his fingers. And then people say, "Well, you were obviously on drugs." But I wasn't, and I wasn't drunk, either. I can just remember being taken over by this, and the images he was producing or evoking were naturally psychedelic in tone because we were surrounded by psychedelic graphics. All of the images that were around us at the time had this kind of echoey, acidy quality to them. The lighting in all the clubs was psychedelic and drippy.

He was dusty — he had cobwebs and dust all over him. He was a very unremarkable-looking guy with an old military jacket on that was pretty dirty. It looked like he'd maybe slept in it a few nights running. When he would walk toward the stage, nobody would really take much notice of him. But when he walked off, I saw him walk up to some of the most covetable women in the world. Hendrix would snap his fingers, and they followed him. Onstage, he was very erotic as well. To a man watching, he was erotic like Mick Jagger is erotic. It wasn't "You know, I'd like to take that guy in the bathroom and fuck him." It was a high form of eroticism, almost spiritual in quality. There was a sense of wanting to possess him and wanting to be a part of him, to know how he did what he did because he was so powerfully affecting. Johnny Rotten did it, Kurt Cobain did it. As a man, you wanted to be a part of Johnny Rotten's gang, you wanted to be a part of Kurt Cobain's gang.

He was shy and kind and sweet, and he was fucked up and insecure. If you were as lucky as I was, you'd spend a few hours with him after a gig and watch him descend out of this incredibly colorful, energized face. There was also something quite sad about watching him. There was a hedonism about him. Toward the end of his life, he seemed to be having fun, but maybe a little bit too much. It was happening to a lot of people, but it was sad to see it happen to him.

With Jimi, I didn't have any envy. I never had any sense that I could ever come close. I remember feeling quite sorry for Eric, who thought that he might actually be able to emulate Jimi. I also felt sorry that he should think that he needed to. Because I thought Eric was wonderful anyway. Perhaps I make assumptions here that I shouldn't, but it's true. Once — I think it was at a gig Jimi played at the Scotch of St. James [in London] — Eric and I found ourselves holding each other's hands. You know, what we were watching was so profoundly powerful.

The third or fourth time that I saw him, he was supporting the Who at the Saville Theatre. That was the first time I saw him set his guitar on fire. It didn't do very much. He poured lighter fluid over the guitar and set fire to it, and then the next day he would be playing with a guitar that was a little bit charred. In fact, I remember teasing him, saying, "That's not good enough — you need a proper flamethrower, it needs to be completely destroyed." We started getting into an argument about destroying your guitar — if you're going to do it, you have to do it properly. You have to break every little piece of the guitar, and then you have to give it away so it can't be rebuilt. Only that is proper breaking your guitar. He was looking at me like I was fucking mad.

Trying to work out how he affected me at my ground zero, the fact is that I felt like I was robbed. I felt the Who were in some ways quite a silly little group, that they were indeed my art-school installation. They were constructed ideas and images and some cool little pop songs. Some of the music was good, but a lot of what the Who did was very tongue-in-cheek, or we reserved the right to pretend it was tongue-in-cheek if the audience laughed at it. The Who would always look like we didn't really mean it, like it didn't really matter. You know, you smash a guitar, you walk off and go, "Fuck it all. It's all a load of tripe anyway." That really was the beginning of that punk consciousness. And Jimi arrived with proper music.

He made the electric guitar beautiful. It had always been dangerous, it had always been able to evoke anger. If you go right back to the beginning of it, John Lee Hooker shoving a microphone into his guitar back in the 1940s, it made his guitar sound angry, impetuous, and dangerous. The guitar players who worked through the Fifties and with the early rock artists — James Burton, who worked with Ricky Nelson and the Everly Brothers, Steve Cropper with Booker T. — these Nashville-influenced players had a steely, flick-knife sound, really kind of spiky compared to the beautiful sound of the six-string acoustic being played in the background. In those great early Elvis songs, you hear Elvis himself playing guitar on songs like "Hound Dog," and then you hear an electric guitar come in, and it's not a pleasant sound. Early blues players, too — Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Albert King — they did it to hurt your ears. Jimi made it beautiful and made it OK to make it beautiful.

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