Before the 1950s, there really wasn’t any such thing as “Rock ‘n’ Roll” as we know it today. Mostly a new form of music, dreamed up by the likes of Les Paul and other like-minded men of the day. These were men no longer interested in the politics of Folk. These were men who lacked the time and energy for the complexity of Jazz. Rock music at its core has always been based on an aesthetic. Rock music is a symbol of rebellion, but in the same token, a sense of belonging to those who wanted to scream and roar with angst but never knew by what means to do so. Rock music is a rush of blood to the head, jam-packed into three chords and three minutes. Rock music is James Dean in a leather jacket. Rock music is what Brian Fallon calls “The Cool.” So, this list is dedicated to Rock music, but furthermore, this list is dedicated to my ten favorite Rock guitarists of all time.
10) Adrian Smith
People often cite many heavy metal guitarists as pioneers. Adrian Smith is, unfortunately, a name that too often gets left out of that conversation. Iron Maiden is well known for its trio of lead guitar players, so perhaps he gets lost in that shuffle, especially since he is the least flashy of the bunch in terms of showmanship. However, what Adrian lacks in panache, he more than makes up for in skill, effort, and spirit. Anyone who has seen Iron Maiden live in the last three decades can tell you that he is the stand-out of the bunch. Adrian has a presence on stage, not a larger-than-life, but more an air of Rock ‘n’ Roll decency, rooted in a very real respect for his audience, his music, and his instrument. I would go as far as to say he is the unsaid ebb and flow of this band.
9) Tommy Iommi
This man’s presence on this list is almost as dark and stormy as his presence in the music industry itself, and that is a massive compliment. Tommy Iommi is more or less the man who invented the Heavy Metal “riff,” and his band Black Sabbath were, and are, the flagship band for what we know today as “Heavy Metal.” Tommy showed us that Rock music didn’t just have to be loud or aggressive but that it could have a vibe. He showed us that the riff really does make the song and that the music can be literally driven by more than technique alone. Tommy showed us that by filling a space with enough sonic presence, music could take on a whole new meaning. Tommy knew how to get his message across by saying as little as possible…message received.
8) Joey Santiago
Joey Santiago is not what you would call the most skilled player, and back in the 1980s, when the Pixies were beginning to literally make noise, one would have never assumed that he would experience the longevity in the music business that he has. What he lacks in skill, he has more than made up for in sheer songwriting innovation. Most people will credit Nirvana for Grunge; more specifically, they will credit Kurt Cobain and his associates for the now-famous “quiet/loud/quiet” songwriting style and structure. What most people don’t know is that Joey Santiago and Frank Black had already been doing it for several years prior with the Pixies. Joey had the foresight to know that people would enjoy…noise.
7) Graham Coxon
This man is simply one of the finest guitar players to come out of the 1990s. About twenty-five years ago, Graham and his band Blur took the Brit-Pop world by storm, and they did so in style, even if they were too often overshadowed by arguably lesser artists in Oasis and The Verve. Graham built on the idea put forth by bands like Slint and the Pixies that people like noise and space. As a result, Graham’s patented brand of weirdo distortion, intertwined with sugary-sweet Brit-Pop chorus’s, put Blur on the map. However, the true test of an artist is time, and Graham is still forging onward today, making beautifully distorted and undeniably British music that you cannot help but love. Graham Coxon is probably the only true Brit-Pop guitar hero. He is truly a virtuoso who is recognized by both Rock forefathers and newcomers alike. He is a man that bridges the gap of the 60s and 70s giants with the players of today. His generational presence has made it possible for the likes of Jimmy Page, Jack White, and The Edge to share a stage. Graham is a Rock ‘n’ Roll peace keeper and a key-holder between rock gate houses, showing us that all forms of Rock can coexist. Graham Coxon brings class to Rock music, but in the same token, he knows how good and important he is, even if is he is too reserved to admit it. However, fans and fellow musicians alike know the truth– he doesn’t need to.
6) Alex Lifeson
Unfortunately for Alex Lifeson, it seems he suffers the same fate as the band he plays in (Rush): people either love him or hate him. It could be the polarizing voice of the lead singer, Geddy Lee. Perhaps its the massive presence of their recently deceased drummer, Neil Peart. I personally have always wondered how a man who resides in a top-selling band with forty-plus years worth of gold records, who has won multiple guitar player of the year awards, could really be considered “underrated” and “forgotten,” as so many seem to think he is. Consider this: maybe the real truth is that he is highly skilled and has had an amazing amount of longevity in music, as well in the quality of his playing. The sheer amount of spins that Rush records still receive on Rock radio to this day is living proof that Alex Lifeson and Rush possessed the craftsmanship to conjure up some of Rock’s best and most memorable solos and songs. I believe we all need to revisit our preconceived notions of Alex and Rush. Alex Lifeson is a phenomenally consistent guitar player in a great band who has experienced consistent popularity and unrivaled longevity through an ever-changing musical climate. Cheers to Alex, and Rush alike.
5) Eddie Van Halen
“Often imitated, but never duplicated. The absolute best. A legend in his time.” These are terms of endearment often reserved for Eddie Van Halen. Terms of endearment which are mostly well deserved. The interesting thing about Eddie is that he himself was the master of imitation and duplication. Many of his most famous licks and techniques are actually ones that Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Ace Frehley had been doing for years, but Eddie simply did them faster, and in some opinions – better. Eddie Van Halen was no doubt extremely talented and was absolutely one of Rock’s great songwriters. However, what really makes him stand out is the guitar tone he was able to achieve. When Eddie played, you knew without a shadow of a doubt who you were listening to within seconds of hearing it. Eddie created his own unique guitar tone, which he called “the brown sound.” Eddie achieved this by building his owns guitars (until he had money to have others do it). However, when you have no real technical background or knowledge of basic electronics, some very funky results, such as yellow striped guitars held together with duct tape, can rise to life. The good news for Eddie, and the rest of Van Halen, is that they were able to ride those results all way to the bank.
4) Ace Frehley
I’ll start by saying that Ace Frehley is my personal favorite, and while I cannot choose him as number one, I do believe that he deserves placement on this list, so here he is. In the early 1970s, along with three other guys from New York City, Ace took the world by storm as a member of the now infamous Rock band KISS. You may also know them for their Rock ‘n’ Roll anthem, “Rock and Roll All Night,” or by their Japanese Kabuki style make-up. Ace Frehley with KISS, and as a solo act, has contributed to more gold Rock records than any other Rock guitar player to date. Countless Rock musicians of all genres alike will continue to cite “Space” Ace Frehley as a direct influence. His solos are memorable, if not fantastic, and the man himself is highly likable, if not hilarious. His work, style, and showmanship have been ripped off too many times to count, but Ace is a true Rock ‘n’ Roll survivor. Ace is all that is good about Rock music, and he’s also perhaps one of Rock’s biggest remaining enigmas. Ace Frehley arguably stopped progressing as a guitar player around 1975, when he was about 24 years old; as a result, he has gotten by in his career on sheer skill alone. Ace is one of Rock’s most lovable and recognizable characters, but no one will ever mistake him for one of its hardest workers.
3) Johnny Marr
I implore you to recall one of Johnny Marr’s best and most shred-worthy guitar solos. Can you do it? I would bet not, and that is precisely Johnny’s intention. With his band The Smiths, possibly the world’s greatest and most infamous Indie Rock band, he became known as “the man who would not solo.” In the early 1980s, Johnny Marr turned back the clock to a time when music was about the song as a whole and less about the take-turns style of singing and soloing that too many bands of the day were relying on. Johnny combined the brashness of The Ramones with the bright-shiny-day chimes of The Byrds, and the results were no less than astounding. There has never been a guitar player better than Johnny Marr when it comes to filling negative space within the confines of a song, and considering we are talking about “Pop” music, that is no small feat. Johnny Marr does not subscribe to the theory that you should just riff; instead, he uses his guitar as means of harmonizing with the vocal track. Never short on frenetic flourishes and spastic chimes that stay with you long after the song has finished, much to lead singer Morrissey’s dismay. In The Smiths, we found a band whose guitar licks were possibly more catchy than their choruses.
2) Jimmy Page
Some people might say I am insane for not placing Jimmy Page as number one on this list, and his position as number two by no means discredits him. The man is an absolute legend. The man wrote ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ Jimmy Page is one of Rock’s first real innovators in the way he coaxes almost unnatural sounds from his guitar. Jimmy pushed the envelope in terms of what could be produced in the studio and heard on a record. Jimmy pioneered microphone positioning and tension of strings as well as different pick types and thickness grades. The result was an absolutely massive and legendary band known as Led Zeppelin. In the studio the man was a wizard, but where Jimmy fell short was in concert, not for lack of ability but for lack of sobriety. Jimmy Page is a player who could easily hold his own; he needed no help in terms of a second guitar player on stage. Jimmy Page is also a player that has never stopped wanting to progress. His primary issue as a player is that on stage, he was unable to conjure the magic he sparked in the studio. Jimmy suffered this fate for two reasons, the first being his well-documented substance abuse, which at times rendered him half the player he should have been. The second being that perhaps he was too innovative in the studio for his own good. Thus when it came time to play live, many of Led Zeppelin’s famed songs were simply unable to be spoken in a live musical language. As a result, Jimmy is often handed the title of sloppy, a title that cannot be considered anything less than an insult, for a player of his caliber. Jimmy Page is a unique, innovative, and larger than life guitar player. He is Rock ‘n’ Roll’s first true and most definitive lead guitar player. However, the catch-22 Jimmy has often found himself in is that he is unable to meet the expectations that he himself has set.
1) Rory Gallagher
Here is a man that far too many people have never heard of. Rory Gallagher is Ireland’s finest. He played with raw, unbridled passion. Early on in this piece, I spoke about the desire, and rebellion that defines Rock ‘n’ Roll music. Rory had a fire in him that burned hotter than most of his contemporaries combined. This fire came out in his records and in his stage shows. Rory was not larger than life in terms of who he was a man. Rory did not reinvent the wheel in terms of studio trickery. So, why is he number one? Rory Gallagher played the guitar, brought forth a sound, lived a life, and made music that embodied the Rock ‘n’ Roll spirit. Rory had an energy in his fingers that had never been heard before, and has not been seen or heard from since his death twenty six years ago. Like Jimmy Page, he also could easily get by without a second guitar player on stage. However, where Rory differs is that in the live setting, the man was absolute insanity, despite his also well-documented substance abuse issues that in the end did him in. Some little known facts about Rory Gallagher:
1) he was asked to join The Rolling Stones, after Mick Taylor left, but declined.
To close and to truly understand why he has earned his placement on this list, you simply need to listen to him. If you like Rock music, then you like Rory Gallagher. What’s not to like? It is that simple.
P.S – look up pictures of Rory’s beat-up Fender Stratocaster. It’s easily one of the coolest Rock artifacts left in the world today.
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Since he was a young child growing up on Long Island, NY, Andrew has always loved writing and collecting physical music. Present-day, Andrew is proud to share his love of music with the world through his writing, and the result is nothing short of beautiful: articles and interviews written by a music addict for fellow music addicts. Andrew lives on Long Island and works as a Horticultural Operations Manager by day and runs the Vinyl Writer Music website by night.