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.


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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