FEATURE: Guitarists who are better than you think they are

You know what it’s like as a guitarist. You find your favourite players or styles, you put the blinders up, and before you know it you’re swearing to some guy down the pub that you have no idea who Goo Goo Dolls are, even though you know damn well who they are and have maybe sung along to them on the radio once or twice, but you’re a hardcore guitar guy and you don’t dare admit something like that in a crowded room. Someone might be listening, and you have a reputation to uphold, dammit.

Look, it happens to us all. But there comes a time – usually when I’m in the car by myself – where I’ll hear some guitar playing and think ‘Hot damn… they’re actually pretty good…’ So here’s a little list of guitar players who are better than you probably think they are. Starting with…

John Mayer

This might be an odd choice, because among some corners of the guitar community you’ll find people who are well aware of Mayer’s fretboard skills. But others have no idea. If you want to see just how good John Mayer is, check out the amazing Jeff Beck-like solo in ‘Heartbreak Warfare,’ the opening track from his new CD ‘Battle Studies.’ The vocal-like phrasing, the killer tone, the dead-on sense of timing – these are traits you just don’t find every day in the guitar playing a pop artist. But dig a little deeper – say, into his ‘Try!’ album with the John Mayer Trio, and you’ll hear a dude whose blues education went far deeper than Stevie Ray Vaughan’s greatest hits and Eric Clapton’s ‘From The Cradle.’ He can shred too – just check out his solo on Fallout Boy’s cover of Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It.’

Sammy Hagar

We all know the Red Rocker as the dude who can’t drive 55, the guy who doesn’t know why this can’t be love, the dude who can’t tell when it’s love, the dude who’s there when love walks in, and the dude who doesn’t want you to tell him what love can do. But when he’s not crooning about love or rocking out as the vocalist in Chickenfoot, Sammy is one heck of a guitarist. He tempers Led Zeppelin-style blues rock with just enough technical flair to kick his playing up a notch above every other Zep-influenced soloist and riffmeister, and when he really wants to Sammy can slay. Check out Van Halen’s ‘Live Without A Net’ DVD/video to see Sammy going toe to toe and lick for lick against Eddie Van Halen in a killer guitar duel during ‘One Way To Rock,’ or his perfectly constructed solo during the solo track ‘High Hopes’ on his ‘Unboxed’ greatest hits CD. Sure Eddie eventually kicks his ass (and he hits one hell of a clanger right before the harmony bit) but he puts up a valiant fight and is worthy of a hero’s death as Eddie hammers him into the ground with a flurry of classic Van Halenisms.

David Bowie

David Bowie’s been known to strum a guitar from time to time – his late 60s 12-string acoustic work was quite adequate for his material at the time, for instance. But Bowie came into his own as a guitarist when he retired the Spiders From Mars, effectively giving the sack to the legendary Mick Ronson on lead guitar. What was Bowie to do? Play the axe himself of course. So that iconic riff to ‘Rebel Rebel’ and the greaser rock of ‘Diamond Dogs’ emanate from the fingers of Bowie himself. Much later, during the tour to back up his ‘Heathen’ and ‘Reality’ releases, Bowie’s fuzzy rhythm playing – on a few identical Supro solidbodies – was the perfect foil for Gerry Leonard’s ambient soundscapes and the 70s heroics of Earl Slick. Cool. The video here is Be My Wife and to be honest I’m not 100% sure if he plays it on the album, but his ‘finger synching’ in the video appears dead-on and he has that cool side-to-side classical-style vibrato, so obviously the dude can wail.

Keith Scott (Bryan Adams)

Hey, don’t tell anyone I said this, alright? I have a stack of Strapping Young Lad, Kreator, Sepultura and Morbid Angel CDs right here on my desk to prove I’m still totally metal, but… man, the dude in Bryan Adams’ band can play. Just listen to his solo in ‘Anything I Do (I Do It For You)’ for proof. It’s ok, sit through Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves to hear it over the end credits while pretending you’re trying to figure out who the Key Grip was if you can’t bring yourself to sit and listen to the track by itself and risk being caught. But you’ll hear some great delicate phrasing, perfectly understated whammy bar manipulation and killer note choices. Now, embedding of this video is disabled so instead I give you this:

Frank Zappa

Again, as with John Mayer there are people who well and truly know how good Frank Zappa was as a guitarist, but there are others who just think he’s that dude with the moustache who wrote songs about getting chicks off, yellow snow and valley girls. But if you need proof of exactly how incredible Zappa was, just listen to Steve Vai – some of his more out-there work sounds like a more polite Zappa, and of course Vai was Zappa’s stunt guitarist in the early 80s. If you’re in the ‘I didn’t realise Zappa was a serious musician’ camp, check out Frank’s stunning solo on ‘Inca Roads’ (where he performs two-handed tapping years before Van Halen), or his perfectly conceived and executed but totally improvised clean-toned solo in ‘Any Kind Of Pain’ – a solo so perfect it’s amazing that it wasn’t painstakingly mapped out note-for-note beforehand. This video is the actual performance used on the ‘Broadway the Hard Way‘ album, although a little bit was edited out for the album.

Do you have any favourite players who you feel are underrated? Comment below!


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