FEATURE: Guitarists who are better than you think they are

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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!

18 Replies to “FEATURE: Guitarists who are better than you think they are”

  1. I would say Prince, though now everyone seems to realize that he is not just a superstar but also a hell of a guitarist!

  2. Good list. Three of my personal faves:

    -Mark Knopfler. Maybe not a phenomenal chops/technique style player, but the most tasteful guitarist I'm familar with. I played saxophone in high school, and my jazz director passed along two lessons I've never forgotten. One: If the note sounds wrong, move it a half-step up or down. Two: Phrasing, phrasing, phrasing, phrasing. He was a percussionist by trade, so that lesson was something he had to learn. Knopfler has better phrasing than most wind players I've heard. The man is a sheer genius.

    -John Sykes. Only "famous" for playing on Whitesnake and with Thin Lizzy's recent incarnation, but… if you haven't heard Blue Murder, grab a fresh pair of boxers (you'll need them when you soil yourself) and hold on for dear life. Beautiful vibrato, the ability to build a crafted solo to a blazing peak, and KILLER vocals while playing some phenomenally complex rhythm parts. Absolutely a monster player.

    -Tim Reynolds. Best known to most people as "That Guy Who Plays With Dave Matthews". While that is the case (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nCKvaMeu-yE), he's also a kick-ass guitarist on his own: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bLZplGopyZA

    True story–drove out to Chicago a couple years ago to see his electric trio play. There was some college-aged d-bag there who was wearing a Chicago Cubs jersey with "Big Eyed Fish #41" on the back (two DMB songs, for the uninitiated). All throughout the night, he kept yelling out DMB songs for Tim to play. Took a look at him and realized… "Wow, that used to be me." Fortunately, my tastes expanded before that time, but a great deal BECAUSE of said closed-minded, ignorant, rude d-bag.

    So yeah. Three picks from this particular corner of the PG offices. ;)


  3. While I knew about John Mayer and, of course, Frank Zappa, I didn't know Sammy Hagar was that capable on the guitar. He probably dreams about being lead guitarist, but keeps ending up in bands with Eddie and Satriani :).

    As for other unknown guitar heroes… well, there's Matt Bellamy from Muse, who has great riffs and melodies, apart from everything else he can do, but then again, he's no well kept secret either.

    Also, I gather that Steve Vai, the famous beekeeper, has been known to strum a chord or two on the guitar from time to time and even pick out the occasional solo!

  4. How about Billy Gibbons man?

    I mean, everyone gives him credit for knowing how to write a catchy lyric, and for being a sharp dressed man. But he also seems to be a byword for incredibly simple playing. And yet, have you ever tried to copy some of his guitar solos? It's some of the trickiest stuff ever recorded.. and yet it SOUNDS so deceptively easy and bone simple. But he has these little microtonal nuances to everything that can make even a slow two note phrase a complete killer. He is my vote for "better than you think they are", well certainly better than I used to think he was anyway.

  5. Great list…and, I agree with every one; especially Keith Scott, who is an extremely tasty player, known to play for the song, not for shredder recognition. The only comment I have is about Frank Zappa on the list, since he is well known as a true guitar God, althoug I must be showing my "age" by making this comment.

  6. Sammy rocks. He plays some great solos on the songs Eddie plays keyboards on the "Live without a Net" DVD.

    I will say that Eddie's playing in that concert was effortless. His playing was top notch and he made it look easy.

  7. Big Zappa fan. Big Hagar fan from before Van Hagar. ++ for Tim Reynolds.

    I have to say that Jack White surprised me. If you can put the chords together and sing, you can get away with not being there with the notes, but once started getting into him, he can bring it.

  8. David Bowie 'sacked' Mick Ronson, when was that then?
    Your a journalist, You should know to fully research your subject before posting such a damining statement then.


  9. Colin, my research was the book Bowie: Loving The Alien by Christopher Sandford and I guess another way of saying it was that Bowie broke up the Spiders from Mars – I see 'sacked' as a softer term than 'fired' – the former implies 'being given the sack' which might even be done by a benevolent boss, while 'fired' is much more aggressive. I’ve been a very vocal supporter of Ronson for many years – I’ve signed your petition and I’ll tweak the article.

  10. I think perhaps LTA may not be the best (only source?) source
    David asked Mick to continue working with him on his next project after Pinups – Diamond Dogs – and the two rehearsed material with the new band at Trident (the only officially released track being 1984/DODO) however, their mutual manager, Tony DeFries, felt that the time was right for Mick to have a solo career, Slaughter on 10th Ave being the result (another project where David had an input) David and Mick remained close – regardless of what auto biographers may write – so Mick was neither sacked , fired or even given the elbow.
    For the record, David did not play the riff on Rebel Rebel that was actually played by session guitarist Alan Parker.
    Peter, On behalf of Suzi Ronson and myself, thanks a million for keeping Mick’s name alive and for signing the petition – (and watch out for the forthcoming documentary about Mick)

  11. I saw and John Mayer play leads on Chapelle show some years back and was blown away. He is "guitar George", as he also knows all of the chords too. Add to this list Jon Bon Jovi, Richie Sambora, and Dwezil Zappa and I could not agree any more. Great job!

  12. Ace and Paul from KISS, Tom Keifer from Cinderella, Bruce Kulick from KISS, GFR and solo… Oh too many obvious ones,… some less obvious – Chris Impelliteri's "Somewhere over the Rainbow" Dave Murray and Adrian Smith from Maiden, Stu Marshall from Empires of Eden and Paindivision (Aussie bloke who can shred the hell out of a guitar yet keep it really melodic). I mean to me these guys are not underated!!! I could list guitarists from nearly every band I like…. but I wont!

  13. My list consists of Neal Schon (Journey), Gary Ricrath (REO Speedwagon), Neil Giraldo (Pat Benatar), Davey Johnston (Elton John), Michael Sweet (Stryper), Les Paul, George Benson, Tommy Shaw (Styx), Andy McCoy (Hanoi Rocks). And I also agree with those who mentioned Sammy Hagar, Tom Keifer and Paul Stanley as well-All of which are better players than most people realize.

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