Greatest Guitarists of All Time?
To Rolling Stone’s credit, founder Jann Wenner and company know how to get people talking, often constructively, always passionately, which is borderline amazing, considering that the same publication whose editors recently put literary sensation Snooki on their cover is the same venerable media outlet whose editors and writers regularly produce serious, award-winning reportage and vibrant criticism.
Before lists became short-hand for We’re a magazine/newspaper/website, and, well, we’re just plum out of ideas at the moment, Rolling Stone was pumping out lists of the greatest thises of all time and the greatest thats, as determined by select R.S. editors and writers and pop-music industry experts, dating all the way back to before the internet’s ubiquity, its essentialness.
Rolling Stone’s latest list is the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time, one of several greatest-guitarists lists assembled by the magazine over the years and easily the most controversial to date –– something about guitarists brings out people’s flag-waving tendencies. Maybe because unlike R.S.’s 100 Greatest Singers of All Time, 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, or every other list, the mag’s greatest-guitarist inventory crosses over, bearing the ability to appeal to serious music aficionados (most, musicians themselves), who might have long ago dismissed Rolling Stone as some liberal starfucker’s personal pamphlet, and to, y’know, Snooki’s readers.
For anyone who’s ever even glanced at an issue of Rolling Stone, yes, the 2011 greatest guitarist list skews heavily toward blues and pop vernaculars –– the magazine’s voice has always been decidedly left-of-center, very “of the people.” In frequently placing simplicity/pop propensities and history over technique and originality, the list makers –– select R.S. editors and writers plus several dozen famous pop-rock guitarists/musicians –– not so lightly warp the definition of the term “greatest,” whose most comprehensive definition should encompass every possible major criterion, not just “simplicity” and “history.” If anything, “originality” should be the most important. No doubt we can all agree that saying something that’s been said before but in a different way is not nearly as exciting or ostensibly influential as saying something new and that the only way to be able to say something new is by having a large vocabulary (advanced technique).
In a couple of blurbs, one concept repeatedly pops up: an admiring guitarist saying of a hero, You can play his riffs and licks note for note, but you can’t sound like him. (And about half the time, this disconnect is attributed merely to tone, not necessarily to feel or soul, but to an effect of technology.) In cases decided by feel/soul, you’d be forgiven for asking, Well, according to whom can’t Guitar Player X sound like Guitar Player Y? However, you can understand that a player’s quirks and emphases inform his performances and that ways of playing are influenced by mood, setting, experience, and practice, in addition to technology/equipment. But if failing to play like another guitarist is a testament to his or her greatness, why does R.S.’s 2011 list exclude Yngwie Malmsteen, Joe Satriani, and Steve Vai, three guys who could easily replicate the playing of pretty much every player on the list but whose playing would probably defeat most listed players?
Seemingly forever, Rolling Stone has been biased against heavy metal, especially the genre’s bastard child, hair metal, circa 1985. Though hair metal’s formalistic pop contemporary, rap music, was equally flashy, superficial, and disposable, rap had the streets and grassroots on its side –– “of the people,” indeed. Evidently, hair metal’s ancient obsolescence hasn’t even tickled R.S. editors’/writers’ retro-loving bones. Only a handful of 2011 listees could be qualified as practitioners of heavy metal and none of hair metal (though Slash, whose melodic blues-rock in his heyday of the late 1980s/early ’90s occasionally flirted with hair, makes the list at No. 65). Just because Yngwie, Satch, and Vai play speedily doesn’t mean they don’t play tastefully or creatively. The bias against them –– and also against Warren DeMartini (Ratt), George Lynch (Dokken), Jake E. Lee (Ozzy), Adrian Vandenberg (Whitesnake), Paul Gilbert (Mr. Big, Racer X), and Vito Bratta (White Lion) –– is the definition of unfairness.
The scope of the list also doesn’t extend to classical music, naturally –– Rolling Stone is a pop magazine with a pop audience –– and only barely touches on C&W and jazz. The only out-and-out jazzbo listed is John McLaughlin, which is great but … no Django? No Metheny? No Sco? No Wes Montgomery? No Holdsworth? Even though all of them have undoubtedly influenced the playing of some of the players on the list? No. 8 Eddie Van Halen, for one, is a huge Holdsworth fan. Willie Nelson, who adores Django, appears at No. 77.
Of course, there are questionable, borderline scandalous omissions. No Steve Howe. No Steve Morse. No Michael Schenker. No Kevin Shields. No Jorma Kaukonen. No Gary Moore. No Stone Gossard. No Steve Hackett. No Elliot Easton. No Eric Johnson. No Dave Mustaine. No Alvin Lee. No Mick Ralphs. No Uli John Roth. No Adrian Legg. No Rik Emmett. No Johnny Thunders. No Neal Schon. No Brian Setzer. No Robin Trower. No George Thorogood. No Vernon Reid. No Nuge!
Instead we get Bruce Springsteen (96), James Hetfield (87) (and not Metallica lead guitarist and Satch acolyte Kirk Hammett), Lou Reed (81), Joni Mitchell (75) (the other woman listed is Bonnie Raitt, 89), Kurt Cobain (73), John Lennon (55!), and Prince (33, right before Billy Gibbons and three spots before Randy Rhodes). Thirty-three for Prince? Has anyone ever heard any guitarist today say that he or she was influenced by Prince’s fretwork? I doubt it. Conversely, the number of young guitarists influenced by Gibbons and Rhodes is undoubtedly astronomical. And what possibly could Springsteen, Uncle Lou, or Joni Mitchell say with a guitar that Yngwie, Satch, and Vai can’t? Seriously. What? The list is “Greatest Guitarists” of all time. Not “Greatest Songwriters Who Also Happen to Play Guitar.”
R.S.’s odd list also gives us Rush’s Alex Lifeson at two from the bottom, The Doors’ Robby Krieger as low as 76 (right after Mitchell), Carlos “I Play the Same Solo Every Song” Santana as high as 20, Derek Trucks (who?!) as sky-high as 16, George Harrison as low as 11, Eddie at the aforementioned 8, Keith “Rolling Stone Is Under My Thumb” Richards cloudlike at 4, and Eric Clapton stratospheric at 2. (Make sure you read Eddie’s backhandedly complimentary blurb about “Slowhand.”)
Writing a great song, clearly, is much more significant to rock ’n’ roll than being able to play one particular rock ’n’ roll instrument really well, and to the list makers of Rolling Stone’s 2011 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time, songwriting accounts for a lot, apparently. Sounds like Rolling Stone should have come up with a different list, though.