You don’t have to be a virtuoso guitarist to touch people’s hearts with your music! Guitar teacher Samuel B. shares a few of his favorite great-but-not-that-great famous guitar players…
Towards the end of Johnny Cash’s autobiography, you’ll find the following paragraph:
As to my musical future, my prospects look good. I can whack on a guitar as incompetently as I could a year ago, probably more so. I can sing just as well, or as badly, as I ever could. And I’ve got more songs trying to go through me than ever; I’ve written three in the last three weeks.
Despite his technical limitations, Johnny Cash remains an iconic musician, and likely will for decades to come. It is a mistake, I think, to automatically link great music with technical perfection.
Vaughan, Hendrix, and Clapton aside, the majority of my guitar heroes were not superb musicians. Their influence is based on innovation and expression to a much greater extent than it is on fluid musicianship.
Cash is just one example. Here are nine others:
Guitar-wise, the best I’ve heard of Dylan are the tracks on his first album for Columbia: Bob Dylan (1962). With two exceptions, its 14 tracks are traditional songs or material by other artists which Dylan adapted to a fast-paced “high and lonesome” style involving intense strumming and (in some cases) intricate fingerpicking.
Despite these energetic musical highlights, none of his other albums boast remarkable guitar moments. While Dylan has proven himself an exceptional and highly influential lyricist, his musicianship is considered average at best.
Just listen to the opening chords of “Free Fallin’.” They are about as simple as they come. The song itself has no chorus or bridge.
Very few figures in rock create anthems as memorable as Petty’s. They’re not based on intricacy – just gut and tone. Petty’s music is raw and exuberant. Any listener can relate to it.
A former doo-wop and gospel singer, Havens maintained a career of playing an alternate tuning with his thumb over the neck. The sound of his strumming and his voice was unmistakable – a powerful yet warm and soothing balm.
At times, he described his guitar as more of a tool than an instrument. Havens’ contribution to music history was not based so much on musical excellence as it was on his ability to use his artistic gifts and his grandfatherly wisdom to inspire the best in others.
Footage from the 1988 documentary Rattle and Hum includes a collaboration between U2 and King. During the rehearsal, King twice indicates how poorly he plays chords.
King’s calling card was his vibrato which (like Havens’ thumb chords) was his alone. Who can forget his childlike face after telling Lucille to talk to him and closing his eyes?
Even on Nirvana’s intimate MTV unplugged album, no guitar highlights are apparent. In most respects, Cobain was an innovative songwriter and bandleader.
He should be credited as having been one of the key players that brought alternative music to the mainstream. Few bands had a sound as full-bodied and expressive as Nirvana’s.
Mitchell’s diverse use of open tunings is not well-known. She’s used more of them than any recognizable guitarist I can think of. The sound of her lower strings has been compared to that of a snare drum. The sound of her higher ones to that of a cool jazz horn section.
She’s even taken to having her electric “VG-8” guitar tuned offstage as each song on her set list is in a different tuning. Still, she is not a technically brilliant guitarist.
Dave “The Edge” Evans
I once saw Evans provide a televised tour of his onstage lineup of pedals and related electronic tools during U2’s Zoo TV tour in the early 90s. Among the guitarists who’ve honed a recognizable niche in alternative music, he’s a chief innovator.
The haunting opening lines of “With Or Without You” should be considered a revolutionary piece of musical history in of itself – a single sustained note over multiple measure of the bass line (not an easy feat actually). The strumming later in the song comes close to imitating the sound of a train.
As with Cobain, credit is due as praise for the sound itself – not for how fast and flashy he has played it.
Amy Ray and Emily Saliers
When it comes to attitude and energy (not to mention lyrical brilliance and enough stage presence to convert an entire arena of avid concertgoers into instant fans), nobody compares to Amy and Emily (The Indigo Girls). They’ve penned what I consider to be some of the most memorable songs of the last two (nearly three) decades (ie “Closer To Fine”, “Joking”, “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee”, “Least Complicated”).
As is true with many of the others mentioned, unforgettable guitar licks are few (if any) on their albums and in their live shows. They’ve given us a beautiful tapestry of poetry and emotion that’s easy for most of us to appreciate and understand.
What did you think of this list? Are there any famous guitar players you’d like to add? Let us know in the comments below!
Samuel B. teaches beginner guitar lessons in Austin, TX. He teaches lessons face-to-face without sheet music, which is his adaptation of Japanese instruction (involving a call-and-response method). Learn more about Samuel here!
Photo by Mathias Miranda