Move over, Rolling Stone!: Here are Mark Saleski’s Top 10 Guitarists

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After reading Rolling Stone magazine’s list of Top 100 guitarists, I felt the need to chime in.

Not that there’s a problem with the list or anything. Well … OK, there is a problem. There’s a problem with any list that attempts to rank players as if one is ‘better’ than another. Does it really matter how ‘skillful’ a player is if they don’t do anything interesting with that talent?

For example, take Keith Richards and Joe Satriani. Sure, Joe can play monstrous scales, the notes splattering all over the floor like rock dandruff … but I’d rather listen to Keith do that ‘Keith-riff’, those ragged rhythms, those knotty and off-kilter guitar solos. There’s some ‘meat’ in his playing. Nobody sounds like Richards. His is a singular voice … and it sticks with me.

So that’s what the players to follow have in common. A unique sound. Most of them are from the rock world, with a few moderately ‘out-there’ jazz players. A list of favorite jazz players is a topic for another day. The order is just how they popped into my head. Oh yeah, and there’s only 10 of them.

Here goes…

MARK RIBOT: Hear just a few notes from 1990’s Rootless Cosmopolitans and you might think, “Hey, maybe somebody should tell that guy to tune his guitar.” While Ribot is often associated with the downtown New York scene, the man in fact really gets around. He’s played: jazz in his own ensembles, deconstructed guitar etudes for John Zorn, Cuban music (and how can you not like a group called “Los Cubanos Postizos” …the prosthetic Cubans?), rock with Tom Waits and Elvis Costello (to name a couple).

What’s unique about Marc Ribot’s sound is his combination of angular melodic lines and humor. Sometimes I hear him playing and a picture forms in my head: a tall, lanky guy wearing baggy pants playing a mutant Telecaster: it’s 10-feet long and has strings hanging down to the ground.

LEO KOTTKE: As a guitar player I’ll often watch guys at shows and envy at their technique. The clean lines, the speed, the acceleration.

With Leo Kottke I just sit there and wonder just what the heck he’s doing. There seems to be no connection between what his fingers are doing and the sound that’s coming out.

That’s OK though, because the tunes he spins out of that collection of walking basslines, contrary motions and other fingerpicking gems are truly memorable. (Honorable mention must be given here to the late, great John Fahey, who gave Leo his first big chance).

GUY VAN DUSER: On his solo records as well as one part of the duo of Van Duser and Novick, Guy Van Duser has been making spectacular fingerstyle guitar music for years. I became aware of him back in college when a friend played his solo version of “Stars and Stripes Forever” (from American Fingerstyle Guitar).

If you see him live he will sometimes play a just plain wrong version of “Caravan” … during which he will explain how he learned to play the guitar by learning licks from Chet Atkins records … and how Chet used an echo chamber to double up the bass parts, a fact that Van Duser learned long after he figured out how to double up the bass parts using his thumb. He then goes on to play “Caravan” with simultaneous walking bassline and melody. It’s just not right.

You may have heard Van Duser play before: Van Duser and Novick’s “Louisiana Fairy Tale” used to be the theme song for the original “This Old House” TV show.

DAVID LINDLEY: It has been said that David Lindley can play anything with strings on it. I believe it. Anybody who was around in the 1970s will recognize Lindley’s sound. He just about defined that Southern California sound — especially on a bunch of Warren Zevon and Jackson Browne records.

He was also the guy who squeezed out the falsetto part during Running On Empty’s “Stay” (I’ve seen him do that live…and I don’t know what was more disturbing: the voice coming out of that man, or the violently fluorescent Hawaiian clothing he sometimes wears).

Lindley also put out a few great solo records full of slack-key finger picking and pedal-steel guitar craziness. Put on an El Rayo-X record at your next party and you’ll be dancin’ on your coffee table in no time.

BILL FRISELL: When I went through my ECM Records phase (ok, I’m still not out of it) I came across Mr. Frisell. Here’s a player who’s tough to classify. His sound can go from tender and heartfelt balladry to full-on skronk … sometimes within the same tune!

Frisell’s been through his phases: early on there was a lot of abstraction and rubato, then there was some near-rock and pop material (check out the cover/destruction of Madonna’s “Live To Tell” on Have A Little Faith). From that point there was an extended period of what I would call Frisell-Americana. Then we saw him turning to a sort of world music.

He has also played country and straight-ahead jazz … and the amazing thing is that that voice remains distinct throughout all of the styles he’s dealt with.

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ADRIAN BELEW: What can’t Adrian Belew do? He’s played Beatles-influenced pop with the Bears (and on his solo records), funk (Talking Heads), art-pop (anybody remember the fork, knife and spatula scene during Laurie Anderson’s Home Of The Brave?) and, of course, art rock … or whatever you want to call what King Crimson has done since Discipline.

The man seems to draw from an endless pool of creativity … and he’s fun too!

ROBERT FRIPP: Belew’s alter ego? Not exactly. On the other hand, when Belew looks like he’s having fun, Fripp looks like he’s eaten too much for dinner.

The proof, though, is in the playing. Fripp defined the King Crimson sound — then drove it through a bunch of variations. I love it all: the scary doom-laden metallic clang, the nervous rhythms, the interlocking guitar figures, the Frippertronics.

His sound can go from a whisper to a howl. Kinda frightening. Always entertaining.

JERRY GARCIA: Ah, Captain Trips, how I miss him. Some folks are dismissive of the Dead … and that’s OK. But to ignore the talents of Jerry Garcia is to miss out on a player who truly loved all kinds of music — and who displayed that love as a quite unique style of guitar playing.

Jerry loved old-timey music, bluegrass, country and jazz. He took all of those styles and distilled them into something else. If you want to hear him living in those influences, give a listen to some of the Old and In The Way material or maybe the Miles Davis stuff his did with David Grisman.

The Dead may have been sloppy at times, but nobody sounded like Jerry Garcia.

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: When I was learning how to play the guitar, a lot of time was spent listening to Darkness On The Edge Of Town. There’s some truly nasty guitar work on that record.

I loved the way he ‘leaned into’ the solos. Lots of passion, lots of tension. Springsteen did learn how to make that thing talk (and check out his duet with Warren Zevon from 2003’s The Wind … he nearly rips the strings off the guitar).

PETE TOWNSHEND: Maybe my favorite rock guitarist. The body of work he’s helped to create with The Who (plus his solo stuff) is pretty stunning. The list of great songs (with those great riffs) seems endless. I don’t think rock music would have been the same without him.

“Substitute” was one of the first rhythm parts I ever learned how to play. It still rocks. It always will.

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Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he originated several of our weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mark Saleski
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