What makes a great guitar player? Yes, skill is important, but so is emotion, tone, and the ability to write a song beyond mindless noodling. It could be said that the electric guitar is the most versatile instrument in all of music. A guitar can range in tones, depending on technique, brand and effects. These variations allow each musician their own unique sound. There are times when certain guitarists slip through the cracks. It could be because they were overshadowed by contemporaries, or perhaps they are simply workmanlike, and would rather focus on song structure rather than soloing. Others are at times buried by ego-driven and more-flashy band members. Regardless of the reason, there is a myriad of innovative, and undervalued guitarists out there, and so with this list, I plan to aim left of center and cover who I feel are the Top-5 Most Underrated Guitarists. Let’s get started.
5) Johnny Ramone
Punk Rock guitarists don’t ever get any credit. Furthermore, Punk Rock playing as an art form is hardly ever appreciated. When it comes to The Ramones, it’s a tale we’ve heard endlessly. Four bums from Queens clad in leather and chains took the stage one faithful evening at CBGB’s and played 25 songs in 25 minutes, and the world was shattered on impact. We all know the legend. We all remember the songs. However, what made The Ramones the quintessential Punk Rock group was their three-chord primitivism, which represented the absolute apex of their technical know-how and musical abilities at the time. In truth, the band members adored Alice Cooper, The Stooges, KISS, and Black Sabbath, and actually had intended to compete with arena rockers such as Aerosmith and Ted Nugent.
However, The Ramones breakneck, boiled-to-its-core, mad Rock assault was simply the best they could muster. What was perceived as a backward version of trying to be good, and failing, actually turned out to be a genre-defining “happy accident,” most of which emerged due to none other than Johnny Ramone. In an attempt to literally wear some of his influences on his sleeve, or shoulder, Johnny Ramone armed himself with a cheap Surf-Rock Mosrite guitar and did literally the only thing he knew how to do, which was strum on the down-stroke. His over-the-top, drug-addled, intense personality resulted in him playing as fast as he humanly could, for as long as he possibly could during each short burst of a song.
The true unintended brilliance of Johnny Ramone’s barbaric playing was his actual inability to make it through even a simple guitar solo. You may think me being ironic, or trite, but in truth, Johnny Ramone was a pioneer of Punk Rock guitar playing. Though he never intended it, he ended up inspiring droves upon droves of imitators who ironically aspired to play as quickly, and simply as he did. It goes to show you that you do not have to be physically gifted with supreme talent to make an impact, or create meaningful, lasting art. Hey-ho – nobody could go like Johnny Ramone.
4) Pat Smear
Unless you’re a Punk Rock aficionado, I suspect that Pat Smear is a guitarist that many of you may not have heard of. Born and raised in Los Angeles, California, Pat Smear was the guitarist for the seminal Punk Rock band, The Germs. He was also the touring guitarist for Nirvana in the early 90s and has been the on-and-off-again rhythm guitarist for the Foo Fighters for parts of 25 years. Classically trained as a pianist from a young age, before being kicked out of school, and teaching himself to play guitar, Pat Smear’s early influences were the likes of Bryan May, Joan Jett, and Steve Jones. From a young age, Smear also idolized the likes of Alice Cooper and the Runaways. Thus, he sought to combine Cooper’s showmanship with The Runaway’s edge.
In 1977, Smear formed a band that was probably too Punk Rock for even the most hardcore Punk rockers. That band was The Germs. A band comprised of four members, who couldn’t even play their instruments, but never-the-less aimed to become the most notorious Punk band in the world. Smear later commented, “If we were gonna be Punk, then we were gonna out-punk the Sex Pistols.” During their first gig, The Germs played a literal two-minute set and then proceeded to smear themselves in peanut butter and spit on the audience until they were hauled off stage for their own safety. Pretty Punk, right?
As the years went by, Smear drifted around Hollywood with no more than 20 dollars to his name at any given time. During this time, he befriended Courtney Love, and in 1993 he was asked by Kurt Cobain to join Nirvana as a second guitar player, a gig he held onto until Cobain’s death in 1994. Soon thereafter, Smear was asked to join Dave Grohl’s new band, Foo Fighters, which he happily accepted. Smear hung around until 1997 when he literally quit the band on live TV during an MTV performance and walked off stage. Years later, in 2005, he would rejoin the Foo Fighters and has been with them ever since.
Pat Smear is not the typical type you would think of when you envision a “guitar hero,” and that’s the point. A seismic, and consistent rhythm guitar player, with a fantastic knack for playing what the song requires, rather than stroking his own ego. No, he will never be mistaken for Jimmy Page, but the Foo Fighters loud, churning wall of sound simply wouldn’t be possible without the violent baritone down strokes of one Pat Smear. Plus, he gets bonus points for being a general badass, and stone-cold legend of Punk Rock. Pat Smear did it his way from day one, and although it took him a long time, he got exactly where he wanted to go, and he did it on his own terms.
3) John Squire
There is an entire era of British guitar music that was, and still is entirely ignored by the general music-consuming public here in the United States, and that is a pretty sad thing. That era of music, from a guitar standpoint at least, was led by a few men. John Squire is one of those men, and he may just be the very best of the bunch. Those of you that have followed the “Madchester” era of guitar music in England (The Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets, Primal Scream) will know all too well that John Squire can be described as one of the most accomplished and influential guitarists of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
As the lead guitar player of the seminal Manchester band, The Stone Roses, John Squire was best known for his chiming melodies, spiraling and churning riffs, and fire-laden live solos that would bring even Hendrix to his knees. While he owes much of his style to early Blues Rock, and surprisingly Heavy Metal, John Squire molded and blended many styles to make something that was truly all his own. Without him there very well may have never been bands like Blur, Oasis, and The Verve. Besides music, John Squire is also an accomplished and published artist. His action-based, Jackson Pollack-influenced artwork has adorned the singles, album covers, and promotional posters for both his own and The Stone Roses music. Remember the interesting abstract cover for their debut album? That’s John Squire.
Interestingly enough, in 2007 Squire actually completely gave up music to fully commit to painting. On the subject, Squire stated, “I’m enjoying this far too much to go back to music.” When asked about a Stone Roses reunion, he said it was “Highly unlikely.” However, in 2011 John Squire ate those words, and one of England’s best-kept guitar secrets reunited with his bandmates, and The Stone Roses toured the world once again. As of now, the band is on another indefinite hiatus, but it seems Squire has finally found a happy medium between his abstract art and his guitar playing. Cheers to that, as the musical world is truly a better place with him in it.
2) Vernon Reid
Vernon Reid was never someone who was on my musical radar. Not until I got older at least. I always felt Living Colour was a pretty cool band, but one day they just clicked for me. Their seamless fusion of Heavy Metal, Punk, Funk, R&B, Jazz is pretty amazing. More so, they managed to blend all of these genres and become commercially viable, as an all-African American band, during the white male-driven Glam Rock and Thrash Metal era. I became very interested in their story, their success, and their longevity through multiple eras of music that they systematically refused to conform to. I wondered who the driving force of this band was, and I came to find that it was none other than the true virtuoso Vernon Reid.
One critic noted, “Reid’s rampant eclecticism encompasses everything from Heavy Metal and Punk to Funk, R&B and avant-garde Jazz, and his anarchic, lighting-fast solos have become something of a hallmark as well.” There have been many African American guitar heroes through history, and it’s time that Vernon Reid be counted as one of them. People always remember Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, and Buddy Guy, but Vernon Reid is too often persona non grata. That needs to change. Of all the “amazing” and “virtuoso” guitar players over the last 25-30 years, there truly aren’t many better than Vernon Reid, but let’s go deeper. How about the conversation of “Greatest British Born Guitar Players?” You often will hear the likes of Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, or Keith Richards. Do you know else is British-born, and never mentioned in that same conversation? Vernon Reid. Sadly, the world has a habit of relegating persons of color, and the music industry, its critics, and its listeners are no exception.
So, what can you do to help? You can start by going out and buying Living Color’s beast of a debut, Vivid, but don’t stop there! Next, you can go out and find Vernon Reid’s debut solo album, Mistaken Identity. Both albums are a true showcase for this versatile, genre-bending, trailblazing wizard of a guitar player. Your ears and heart will thank me later.
1) Eddie Hazel
Have you ever heard of the phrase “token friend?” Eddie Hazel is music critic’s favorite token minority guitar player to throw on their best-of lists. A perfect example is in 2015, Rolling Stone Magazine was gracious enough to give Eddie Hazel a “prestigious” place on their 100 Greatest Guitarists list. They were so kind to give one of the greatest players to ever pick up the instrument the place of number 83 out of 100. That is what you call token placement. So, who is Eddie Hazel? Well, he was one of the founding members of Parliament-Funkadelic. Not good enough? OK. Well, his ten-minute guitar solo in the Funkadelic song “Maggot Brain” has been hailed as “One of the great solos of all time on any instrument period.” How does that grab you? Funkadelic band leader, George Clinton, commented on the solo, “I knew immediately Eddie understood what I meant. I could see the guitar notes stretching out like a silver web. When he played the solo back, I knew that it was good beyond good, not only a virtuoso display of musicianship but also an almost unprecedented moment of emotion in Pop music.”
Eddie Hazel’s signature style of distorted guitar fireworks and slinky smooth rhythms permeated a masterful career that sadly ended in 1992 when he succumbed to liver failure. Eddie Hazel is another example of a black musician being sadly relegated and shuffled away behind nearly all his peers. It’s discouraging to see list after list siting the “best guitar players” of the era, his era, and yet he is almost never on any of them. This absolute monster of a guitarist played with the aggressive Rock sound made popular by Jimi Hendrix, but also seamlessly flowed into the funky world of James Brown, and Sly Stone at the same time. His playing was soaked in reverb, and he was nothing short of a razor-sharp rhythm player, as well as an exceptional soloist, whose leads were fuzz-drenched, and cried with pain, passion, and raw, unfiltered emotion. George Clinton, the leader of Parliament-Funkadelic once said, “We were looking for a heavier, European sound, and I got Eddie a Marshall stack, and a Stratocaster to replace his Gretsch. It didn’t matter what Eddie played though, it could be a Kay or any cheap old thing – he could make it sound the same. He could it make it sound amazing. It wasn’t the gear or guitar. It was him.” So, next time you’re reading one of these “best guitarists ever” lists, if it doesn’t include Eddie Hazel, then you may as well move on. It simply isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Eddie Hazel was a true giant of his era. Generally speaking, there was no one better.
So that wraps up my list of the Top-5 most underrated guitarists. In our consumer culture, it’s all too easy to take in what is shoved in front of us without ever really questioning it. Time and time again, we see various “experts” working for one publication or another churning out lists of the “greatest of all time.” Yes, it’s true that when it comes right down to it, all of this is just a matter of taste and opinion. However, when you dig deeper you start to see that what’s popular, or what’s come to be known as “fact” is nothing more than the same regurgitated drivel, but it’s been painted a different color or shuffled around a bit. I encourage you to dig deeper. Perhaps, stop taking all of these lists at face value. I love Jimmy Page, as I am sure most of you do too but have you ever considered who influenced Jimmy Page? More so, who influenced the men, and women who influenced Jimmy Page? My point is, just because some magazine tells you Jimi Hendrix was the best of all time, does not make Jimi Hendrix the best of all time. Music is about self-expression, and taste is intensely personal. So, don’t let anyone decide what you like, or who your favorite anything is for you. Watch and listen. Formulate your own opinion. Make your own list, and allow that to be your own personal gospel. The things we love are ours, and nobody can take that away from you.
“Just keep playing that over and over.” – Eddie Hazel
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