Awhile back, Alert Reader (hope Dave Barry didn’t copyright that!) Mike Shoup commented on an entry in my This Week in Rock History concerning the birthday of guitarist Peter Green. The former Fleetwood Mac frontman, it noted, was ranked 38th on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
Mike observed that the Rolling Stone list far underrated Green, who he personally ranked among the greatest of all. I tended to agree — but also had to inform him that it was worse than he thought. My source for that item had gotten it wrong, I said, and the ex-Big Mac six-string wizard was ranked even lower than that.
Or so I thought at the time. Actually, RS has two 100 Greatest lists: a 2010 compilation by one of its senior writers, David Fricke (who ranked Green 38th); and a 2015 list put together by a panel consisting of Fricke and a couple of the magazine’s other staffers and lots of guitarists from different eras and genres (which ranked him 58th).
So I spent some time this week perusing those lists. I’m going, as much as I can — comments on such things generally will come later — to take the 2015 list more seriously. Mostly because it’s more than just one person’s opinion.
I’ll begin by saying that I’m not a guitarist, and I don’t play one, on TV or anywhere else. (Although I’ve tried to learn to play other stringed things.) That said, I have to scratch my head — like Mike did — about where some of these six-string artists were ranked.
But before I wade into that, one thing that struck me was the absence, for the most part, of studio/session guitarists. Those guys should be the musicians’ musicians, but the overwhelming majority of those honored in the 2015 list (and the earlier compilation, too) are pickers who fronted bands.
The most notable exception would be Steve Cropper, the legendary Stax Records backing guitarist, but he’s spent much of his career in an ensemble, Booker T. and the MGs, that label’s legendary house band. What about Larry Carlton? Donald Fagen, an artist whose opinion I would trust, thought he was top-shelf enough to have him play on Steely Dan albums and his solo projects.
Another thing that caught my attention about the list was that, of the 60-plus members of the RS panel, 55 or so are musicians; of that number 21 are in the 100 Greatest. Incestusous? Self-referential? Log-rolling?
I was glad to see that the panelists recognized some of the pre- and early-rock guitar geniuses: Chet Atkins and Duane Eddy; Wisconsin’s own Les Paul, who invented the solid-body electric six-string (along with some of the recording techniques that helped make The Music); and Link Wray, who invented the heavy metal guitar. Elvis’s guitarist, Scotty Moore, and James Burton, who picked for Ricky Nelson, are both in the Top 100.
Also conspicuous by their presence, and deservedly so, were the African-American blues musicians who had so much influence on the British rockers who brought blues-influenced rock ashore in the Invasion. That includes some of the really early influences: Delta blues legend Robert Johnson, who died in 1938, and Elmore James from the 1940s and ’50s.
There are other blacks, including those who helped popularize the electrified blues, Chicago and otherwise, recognized: Hubert Sumlin, who accompanied Howlin’ Wolf on stage; Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Bo Didley, etc. Heck, the list’s Top 15 is one-fifth We Three Kings: Albert, B.B. and Freddie. But considering the influence black artists had on The Music, you’d think that they’d get more than 15 of the 100 spots on this list.
As far as that goes, what about the ladies? There were a half-dozen or so women on the panel — including Melissa Etheridge and Nancy Wilson of Heart — but only one female in the 100 Greatest, Bonnie Raitt. And she’s out there at 89th.
Which brings us back to Mike’s point: how this list in particular (and such comparisons in general) rank artists. There are 57 Greater Guitarists than Peter Green? Sixty-eight better than Richard Thompson? Thirty-eight better than Cropper?
Dimebag Darrell is greater than Roger McGuinn? Bruce Springsteen is in the Top 100, but not his E Street Band lead guitarist, Nils Lofgrin. (Who I liked more when he had his own band, Grin.) Kurt Cobain ranks ahead of Buddy Holly (and he’s only No. 80?). Mark Knopfler’s only 44th?
Things kind of get sorted out towards the top, and it’s great that Duck Walkin’ Chuck (Barry) and B.B. are in the Top 10. But what’s Eddie Van Halen doing there?
And B.B. and Chuck are just outside the Five Greatest. Which … looks like a Stoner’s Guitar Gods wish list: first through fifth, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards and Jeff Beck.
Those picked nits aside, I’m grateful to the magazine and its panel for providing some teaching moments. Not only are there guitarists in there that I’d never heard of, some played for groups I’d never heard of. (For some of those, that’s maybe just as well.)
And they affirmed me in some cases, one being David Gilmour’s ranking two spots behind Stevie Ray Vaughn. Both are in the Top 15, and that perhaps justifies a discussion I had with a friend who’s a big blues fan.
Frank Zappa at No. 22 gives credit to an artist who’s often thought of as just the head of a musical freak show; his solo on the live “Orange County Lumber Truck” (from Weasels Ripped My Flesh) should make you think otherwise. And Ry Cooder coming in at No. 31 recognizes an artist whose influence and impact are more widespread than well known.
But those caveats underline what exercises like all-time best lists are: pretty subjective. So’s this blog — but it doesn’t require a 60-member committee to come up with an opinion. You're welcome ...