Influential GuitaristTop 5 Most Influential Guitarists
Everyone has a favorite, whether it be a particular player, style of music, or era. When making a list of the “greatest” guitarist players of all time—or in this case “most influential”—passions are bound to be ignited one way or the other. However, that doesn’t mean such a list can’t be based on some element of objective reasoning. The key is determining which guitarists have had the most impact among the larger number of players—in other words, who has contributed most across the board to the way we approach the instrument.
One thing is for certain: if the following musicians are not the five most influential guitarists of all time, they are certainly five of the most influential guitarists. Regardless of their respective styles, all are players who have excited the imagination and kindled the flame to pick up the instrument in countless individuals. By singling them out, we honor their contributions and, at the same time, bring to mind great guitar music we have treasured.
James Marshall Hendrix
James Marshall Hendrix (Jimi Hendrix) was the single most inventive electric guitarist in rock. He did more to extend the reach of the instrument than anyone else of his generation. He single-handedly demolished traditional definitions of music by playing and recording sounds made with his guitar that defied transposition or even explanation. One of the best examples of these effects is his playing of “The Star Spangled Banner,” in which he essentially deconstructs the original composition and rebuilds it as a showcase for his guitar prowess, using his instrument to sonically illustrate the action taking place in the song.
Eddie Van Halen
Eddie Van Halen is undoubtedly one of the most important rock musicians of the last 35 years. Beginning with Van Halen’s 1978 debut, he virtually single-handedly re-invented the entire rock guitar lexicon with his blend of tone, technique and sheer musicality. The legendary guitarist is most celebrated for his “fingertapping,” a technique in which Van Halen uses the fingers of his right hand to fret notes on the neck of the guitar, which allows him to phrase passages very rapidly without the limitations of a pick.
It’s hard to imagine what rock & roll would sound like without the amazing and inovative guitar playing of Eddie Van Halen. Like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton before him, he single-handedly (or perhaps, in his case, double-handedly) changed the vocabulary of guitar for a generation. His pyrotechnic finger-tapping, elastic dive-bombs and bursts of melody redefined the guitar solo and inspired legions of copycats in the process.
Les Paul is best known as the genius who invented the solid-body guitar that bears his name. But he was just as imaginative as a player. “He made the very best guitar sounds of the 1950s,” said Brian Wilson. “There’s nobody that came close.” A long string of hits in the Forties and Fifties (on his own and with his wife, singerguitarist Mary Ford) established his signature style: elegant, clean-toned, fleet-fingered improvisations on current pop standards. Paul created a groundbreaking series of technical innovations, including multilayered studio overdubs and varispeed tape playback, to achieve sounds nobody had ever come up with – check out the insect-swarm solo on his 1948 recording of “Lover.” Until shortly before Paul’s 2009 death at age 94, he was still playing weekly gigs at The Iridium Jazz Club in New York City, with adoring metalheads in the audience. In Richie Sambora’s words, “He had all of the licks, and when you heard it, it sounded like it came from outer space.”
Joe Satriani is the world’s most commercially successful solo guitar performer, with six gold and platinum discs to his credit (including one more gold award for the debut album by his band Chickenfoot), and sales in excess of 10 million copies. His 16th studio album,”What Happens Next” (Jan 12, 2018), picked up rave reviews as yet another creative breakthrough – this for a guitarist who has routinely topped guitar magazine polls since the release of his first full-length album, “Not Of This Earth”, in 1986.
Satriani has appeared in motion pictures such as Christopher Guest’s 2006 release, “For Your Consideration”, and the 2011 Brad Pitt starrer, “Moneyball”. Through the years, he has designed and endorsed guitars, amplifiers and effects pedals for Ibanez, Marshall and Vox. The Joe Satriani Series of guitars through Ibanez has been one of the company’s most popular and consistent sellers.
Steve Vai is an American guitarist, composer, singer, songwriter, and producer. A three-time Grammy Award winner and fifteen-time nominee, Vai started his music career in 1978 at the age of eighteen as a transcriptionist for Frank Zappa, and joined his band from 1980 to 1983. He embarked on a solo career in 1983 and has released eight solo albums to date. He has recorded and toured with Alcatrazz, David Lee Roth, Whitesnake, as well as having recorded with artists such as Mary J. Blige, Spinal Tap, and Ozzy Osbourne.
Vai has been described as a “highly individualistic player” and part of a generation of “heavy rock and metal virtuosi who came to the fore in the 1980s”. He released his first solo album Flex-Able in 1984, while his most successful release, Passion and Warfare (1990), was described as “the richest and best hard rock guitar-virtuoso album of the ’80s”. He was voted the “10th Greatest Guitarist” by Guitar World Magazine in New York City, and has sold over 15 million records.
Why Playing Guitar is Special
Here’s something many guitarists are unaware of: We are a special breed these days.
And I’m going to tell you why. Guitar is one of the only instruments that keyboard companies and sample library companies have a hard time duplicating in a way that can be played in a believable manner on keyboard.
If you want a guitar on your recording, you need to hire a guitarist to make it sound believable.
Why is this so? Because of the infinite amount of variations in which the sound of a guitar is capable! Guitarists have the ability to slur, slide, hammer, pick up and down, finger, tap, bend, whammy, vibrate, play with your palm, play with your teeth, use a slide and play with so many types of dynamics and articulations that they can’t be replicated successfully. These are the things that make guitarists so special.
We have all heard robotic music played by a computer. Many times, this is done on purpose. But have you ever heard a guitar sample? And tried to use it to replicate a real guitar? It is one-dimensional. Piano or basic string sections or wind instruments are simple. A drum is even easier. Saxes are a bitch. They also have job security—just like us guitarists.
Let’s talk about what you should be working on in your practice sessions to make them smile when they hear you bring the printed page to life and call back.
If you do not know how to sight read, you can still have a successful career in the studio, but you would be limiting the amount of work you could accept, so everything I am about to say holds true if you do not sight read. Or you are just reading this and are trying to better your soloing. Just learn the melody of the song you want to practice by ear first. Then add the suggestions in the following paragraphs.
In the studio, when someone puts a piece of music in front of you, the expectation, you would think, would be to play the correct notes. But you would be oh, so wrong. Sure, you’d better play the correct notes and in the correct timing; however, in reality you are expected to bring that piece of music to life using your magical guitar powers!
That is why most of the time all we get are chord charts and a note that says “solo here.” Many composers, arrangers and producers don’t know how to notate for modern guitar. And I don’t blame them. Imagine transcribing the Jimi Hendrix version of “The Star Spangled Banner”! Not in tab. In musical notation. I couldn’t do it, and I couldn’t read it. Not if I never heard it before. I’m sure someone has, and there are many fine transcription pros, but I have enough on my plate!
Here’s how you want to practice as a sight-reading, session-playing guitarist. Start by taking a piece of music and sight read through with no errors. Bring the tempo up. Push it. Now you’ve got the notes. Time to add the magic. Try playing the same music using all the articulations in your box of articulations. Try bending to as many notes as possible. Half-step bends, whole-step bends, or further. In tune. Slide from note to note. Add vibrato to the longer notes. Play the shorter notes staccato.
Transpose the song up an octave so it sounds like a solo. And avoid only sight reading in the first position. (Although the notes do sound the purer in that area and I tend to stick to the first position as much as possible on acoustic guitar or clean guitar playing).
Try tapping to any note that can be tapped to. You will be combining guitaristic technique while building a melodic sense. This can only help you when it is solo time.
My personal practice sessions start with a warmup of finger patterns. Next I sight read. After that comes chords and rhythm. Then I start my soloing. We all have strengths and weaknesses. Try and develop your strong points. Try and better your weaknesses. Articulations are the key, however, to making your guitar sing, and the reason no other instrument comes close to the versatility and range of creativity of which the guitar is capable.
I’m a session guitarist from New York, now living in Connecticut. I started playing at age 6, sight reading right off the bat. That’s how I was taught, so I just believed everyone started that way! I could pretty much sight read anything within a few years, and that aided me in becoming a session guy later in life. I took lessons from anyone I could and was fortunate enough to have some wonderful instructors, including John Scofield, Joe Pass and Alan DeMausse. I’ve played many jingle sessions, and even now I not only play them but have written a few. I’ve “ghosted” for a few people that shall remain nameless, but they get the credit and I got the money! I’ve played sessions in every style, from pop to jazz.
Ron Zabrocki – Guitar Word Magazine
Guitar Players and Musicians who changed the way we all listen to music
Follow John Denner on Social Media