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

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 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 writes several 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.
  • jason switzer

    great list! my only suggestion would be, in terms of great frisell albums, i think you have to mention “gone just like a train” . it’s a great starting point for anyone not familiar with bill’s music as it offers a wide range of his many styles.

  • Mark Saleski

    that’s true jason. i picked Have A Little Faith because it was a great example of what Frisell can do and why i really appreciate him…though that particular record might not be an appropriate point of entry for most folks. Gone Just Like A Train would be less likely to scare people off, if you know what i mean.

    • S. Victor Aaron

      Where’s Slash?

      ;-)

  • Mark Saleski

    Slash? as i said on facebook, Slash is off playing with another mediocre rock band.

  • Kid

    Where’s Frank Zappa??

  • Mark Saleski

    hmm, you have a good point about Frank, who i really, really loved. though i’d have to say that i probably loved him more as a composer (and insanely great thinker) than a guitar player….and that’s NOT to say that i didn’t appreciate his guitar playing. heck, who couldn’t!

  • Paul Mallary

    Dave Alvin should be on one of these lists

  • Hank

    I like the list. My one personal opinion is that Fripp has more talent in his toenail than Belew has overall. IMHO, and many others, Belew ruined KC with his overblown, histrionic playing. Fripp killed the last itieration (2008) of KC because of Belew.

  • Mark Saleski

    well hank, you are entitled to your opinion, though i think Fripp himself would probably disagree with you.

  • Jon Stone

    I have the issue, but recall seeing Richard Thompson listed. Was he and if not, shame.

  • tony soley

    Where is Eric Gale ?????

  • tony soley

    Where is Albert Lee ??????

  • Vinny Shinblines

    What, no Dickey Betts? I have never been here before so just my two cents worth. Great player ,Still writing great music. Allmans are no more than a cover band with out him . # 2 would be Freddy King, I was lucky enough being an old fart to have seen Jerry G, Play live with Old & in the way loved Vassar s Fiddle playing . Plus of course the Dead but some nights they could get a little to wasted to play . I am sure you dont agree but thats the beauty of listening to what you enjoy . I can argue Guitar players and base pitchers . I just happen to think we need to keep guitar players out of baseball stadiums.

    3

  • Steve

    Totally agreed, Bruce Springsteen is a better player than Jimmy Page. He’s had a much bigger impact on the instrument too.

    Turning off the sarcasm, I did like the choice of David Lindley; a serially underrated musician in my opinion.

  • Michael Sherwood

    I supposed he may be too young to be included in this list, but Jake Cinninger from Umphrey’s McGee deserves some consideration for this list. The man is a heavyweight player who is conversant with so many different styles of music. For my money (in the live setting) there aren’t many players I would rather listen to than Jake.

  • http://somethingelsereviews.com/ Mark Saleski

    you know, i’ve hardly listened to any of their stuff. anything you’d recommend in particular? they used to have metric buttloads of live shows on archive.org.

  • Michael Sherwood

    I would suggest going to their website and simply listening to their podcasts. They are free soundboard recordings that typically cull live highlights. They can be found at http://www.umphreys.com. Beyond that, 2009’s “Mantis” is a studio album that does a good job displaying Jake’s chops but frankly he is better appreciated in the live setting.

    Also, OHMphrey released their second album (“Posthaste”) on Itunes this week. OHMphrey is collaboration between members of OHM and Umphrey’s. The interplay between Jake and Chris Poland is phenomenal. The album’s tracks are very loose (I think some may have just been recorded pieces of improv).

    Archive.org does still have a ton of live shows (over 1,000 I believe). Most shows pre-2005 are soundboard matrices. For specific shows that fans really like look to 1/27/11, 10/9/08, 1/21/12 and 9/28/06. These can be found at umlive.net. I hope this helps.

  • S. Victor Aaron

    Right on, Michael, Cinninger is a force to be reckoned with. OHMPhrey is coming out with their follow-up record in a few weeks and I hope to get to review it for then.

  • Darren Bennion

    Everyone has their favorites and when it comes to picking who the greatest anything is…everyone starts screaming and yelling…Me? I have my own opinions and these guys are never EVER mentioned in the mainstream but are worthy as any other guitarists..Steve Lukather…Marc Bonilla, Joe Satriani, Ronnie Montrose (RIP) and Jeff Kollman

  • Perplexio

    These lists are largely subjective but I must agree with your selection of Pete Townshend. Admittedly my list would look considerably different other than the inclusion of Townshend but I do like your justifications for the inclusions on your list.

  • http://www.trippyfood.com Val

    Um. Les Paul, any one? Django Reinhardt? Carlos Montoya? No? OK, it’s your list. Only one I’m not on your page with is Springsteen, but the other 9 make a damned fine list.

  • MRodifer

    Excellent suggestions (von Duser’s Stars and Stripes Forever is monumental!). As pointed out previously, these kinds of lists sure are subjective. I had a real problem with the recent RS “100 Greatest” list in terms of exclusions, but the panel was pretty knowledgeable. I’m almost always disappointed that guys like Tommy Bolin and the great, magnificent, bonkers-brilliant Ollie Halsall tend to be completely forgotten. And does anybody know what Jukka Tolonen has been up to of late? (And although he may not rate in the top 100, I have great affection for George Kooymans’ style….)

  • Ed

    Your comments on Keith Richards vs. Joe Satriani are well-taken…but from a pure “guitarist” context, it’s hard to not put Steve Howe on any list. His body of work with Yes alone would qualify him due consideration, but his solo work proves his talent from an organic level as well.

  • mauidan

    Larry Carlton, anybody?

  • Mark Alcorn

    It is a difficult task to create a list of top 10 guitarists. Every listener has their own likes, dislikes, tastes, genre favorites and musical knowledge. The 10 guitarists you chose are all fine players and you did some genre crossing as well, which is appreciated.

    For all of the respondents asking where is so and so, you can’t possibly include the hundreds of fine guitar players on a 10 name list. Yes, my list would be different from yours, but this is your list, not mine. And many people would ask me where is so and so.

    Thanks for taking the time to give us your opinion.

    And just a small thought I would like to share with some of your readers. There are a good number of financially successful pop/rock guitar players in the world today that are extremely well known. However, money and fame are not necessarily qualifications to make it to a top 10 guitar player list. There are a large number of these guys who are simple three chord rockers and based on their ability to actually play their instrument, they wouldn’t even make it into the top 100 list.

    This is not to take away from their success. They certainly have had a much more financially rewarding career than the majority of guitar players. They just are not great guitar players. They are great pop/rock music sellers, and they have the bank accounts to prove it.

    People who are impressed with them are generally not musicians, and certainly have very limited knowledge about guitar or guitar playing. And fortunately for the pop/rock guitarists, these people make up the majority of music purchasers.

  • Rick Lee

    Pretty good list, with valid justifications for your selections, though I probably would not have included Springsteen and Townshend, for the same reasons that you gave in comments for excluding Zappa–all are better known for their songwriting and ideas than for their formidable guitar prowess. But I agree that the others, regardless of technical ability or commercial success (or lack thereof) are worthy simply for being INTERESTING, and idiosyncratic enough to have a personally identifiable sound. For those reasons, I definitely would include, as previously suggested in the comments, the great Richard Thompson, whose guitar playing, in my opinion, somewhat overshadows his exceptional songwriting abilites, and sounds both technically impressive and styistically distinctive.

  • Joe Cogan

    Jerry Garcia? Seriously?

    • Mark Saleski

      yep. my criteria mostly avoid the usual zillion-notes per hour kind of thing (which is why i find most shredders really, really boring…unless there’s a flaming codpiece involved…because i am ALL ABOUT the flaming codpiece).

      uniqueness and feel, that’s what moves me.

  • Brian X

    Thank you for not including Slash. He’s over rated, I believe. Not even a Top 100.

    Lindley! Kottke! Belew! Fripp! Jerry!

    Good list.

    • Lily

      Steve Lukather, come on!! He should be on everybodie’s list. I think.

  • Benny Buchtrup

    Great list, great choices in Lindley and Belew but:
    What – no Jeff Beck, really?
    Also, Julian Bream, Al Di Meola and Brian Robertson of Thin Lizzy might have made my list but then, these lists are always so personal and besides, mine would’ve been topped by EVH, so what do I know?

  • http://www.theflycats.com Dave Zibman

    You forgot Terry Kath and Steve Howe!!! :)

  • Liz

    Hooray for Adrian Belew!!!! And Robert Fripp. And I’ll overlook that you left out Alex Lifeson.

  • Stig

    Two guys I like to listen to are Paul Gilbert and Adrian Legg.

  • Gary Bowden

    No Richard Thompson? No Frank Zappa? A list that doesn’t include these two geniuses is like not having Bruce Lee on a list of the best Martial Artists..

  • Tiny Montgomery

    Bruce Springsteen’s there… and Neil Young’s not… What happened??

  • Paul Burns

    Fascinating list. I can see where you’re coming from, I think.

    But it always puzzles me to see a list like this and not see any mention of two very different but enormously influential guitar giants, James “Blood” Ulmer and Tony Rice.

  • http://zinontwerpers.nl peter

    I know, I’m late. But anyway… You start out with a great distinction – Satriani vs. Richards.
    That’s technical skill against feel, gut, emotion.
    But really… as usual everybody, including almost all the comment-people (most of whom immediately forget what your benchmark was in the first place – and start bringing up names that belong in the Satriani-corner) , I repeat almost everybody forgets the one that should be on top, the one guitarist that has absolutely NO skills (or has he???) but more feel in his one note solo’s than Satriani has in his complete – yuk- ‘oeuvre': Neil Young. Every guitarist that wants to let his audience FEEL something should listen to him closely.

    If proof should be necessary I dare everyone to take half an hour and crank this up – Coltrane meets rock ‘n roll…

    http://youtu.be/3fZ1yigpTRA

  • Brien Comerford

    Any list that does not include Jeff Beck has no credibility !

  • Gus

    I honestly think Mike Oldfield and Allan Holdsworth deserve to be on this list. As well as Frank Zappa.

  • Louis

    Gus, you are SO right about Zappa and so is Brien about Jeff Beck. Music and what type of music (or guitar player) one likes is so subjective thus rendering these lists ridiculous but in the spirit of the fun I would add Johnny Winter, Alvin Lee, Danny Gatton, and Steve Morse.

  • djtrane

    Totally agree with others on Zappa, Richard Thompson and especially Danny Gatton. My triad.

    Great Neil Young vid – thank you!

  • Chris

    Can’t argue with most. Just so many good guitarists it’s hard to whittle the list down. Allow me to suggest some obscure and overlooked greats from the past 40 or so years: Roy Buchanan (top 5 all time, IMO), Lindsey Buckingham (known for his singing), Kenny Greenberg, Dennis Coffey, Joey Santiago, Steve Morse, Danny Gatton, Barry Bailey.

  • http://thescenics.com andy meyers

    I’d have Fahey instead of Kottke– Fahey has mystery and an enormous vision in his playing. Kottke has chops, but his playing does little for me. Love his monologues, tho. Lenny Breau, Mick Ronson, who made every note count. Ed Bickert. And yes, i’d pick Neil Young over Springsteen, and make note of Neil’s under rated acoustic playing. An iron fist in a velvet glove.

  • E

    Bruce Springsteen? Seriously?

  • Sabrina Holland

    No Eddie…I think I will be alright without this list!

  • Dr no

    No J Mascis? Granted he’s somewhat of an acquired taste, but he’s aces on all fronts – melodic electric and acoustic, inventive soloing, and a master of effects. Not much of a showman and a tough interview, especially when asked inane questions by uninformed press, but a tremendous talent worthy of your list.

  • Dr no

    Frippertronics indeed. Don’t enjoy it with the same fervor since I quit the hallucinogens but it evokes wicked memories. Used to ponder the mystery of sound modulation and the ability of a guitar string to produce a frequency pleasing to my ear and dissonant to my wife’s. Quite the poser, it is I think. Or not?

  • tom elder

    Peter Green