Listmania: Top 50 Guitarists (#10-1)

In pop culture, lists are everything. They lend a sense of order to an otherwise orderless world. From film and literature to music, critics and readers alike love to put things in tidy rows. It is with this in mind that Popdose presents Listmania, a weekly series counting down the staff’s favorite things.

This is it! The top 10 guitarists, according to the Popdose staff. I’m certain that there are at least one or two surprises waiting for you below, alongside a few obvious choices. Next week, we’ll run an epilogue to the list with the guitarists that just missed the list. For now, here’s your top 10.

If you missed the previous week’s installment, you can catch up here:
Top 50 Guitarists (50-36)
Top 50 Guitarists (35-21)
Top 50 Guitarists (20-11)

10. David Gilmour. Our appreciation for David Gilmour can be summed up thusly: he’s arguably the only person on this list one could identify by only hearing a single note (excluding the use of feedback and effects pedals, of course). Gilmour’s playing doesn’t just boast an abundance of personality, though – it has considerable emotional depth and flexibility as well, which is why he can be found on Roger Waters’ songs of alienation, Bryan Ferry’s lustful ballads, Kate Bush’s pleas for reconciliation, and whatever issues Pete Townshend is working through at the time. The true genius of his playing, however, lies in its economy; he treats his solos like vocal performances, creating a hook with a few highly memorable notes rather than gunning down the listener with a smattering of forgettable ones. There literally isn’t another guitarist like him in all of rock. Pity. - David Medsker
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9. George Harrison. Sure, he may have been “the quiet Beatle,” but George Harrison’s voice was loud and clear from the earliest Beatles’ recordings, through his work as part of The Travelling Willburys. Harrison was gentle when he needed to be; as heard in his lilting acoustic guitar work on “Till There Was You,” and he knew when not to be; see “I Me Mine.” He could say it all, without a word; imagine “Here Comes the Sun” without the vocal track, can you still clearly hear the words? Perhaps one of his greatest contributions, and the one that cements him in the top 10, is “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Arguably, one of the greatest guitar songs of all time; it has been covered by just about every guitarist on this list in some form, and stands as a tribute to the man himself. - Michael Parr
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8. Jimmy Page. When thinking about what makes a great guitarist, the natural thing is to point to examples in certain songs, or how long of a shadow an artist has cast in the culture.  With Jimmy Page, it’s undeniable that he’s one of the greats, and there’s no shortage of guitarists who point to Page’s work as a major influence in their own playing.  But greatness isn’t something that arises out of vacuum; it doesn’t “just happen.”  Yes, one has to have talent, but sometimes it takes years of playing a variety of styles and being a student of music that is broader than the standard rock scale to become sui generis in the rock biz. Jimmy Page’s biography follows that trajectory.  Before joining the Yardbirds, and later forming Led Zeppelin, Page was a session player who developed a talent to quickly learn a song, and generally play it in one or two takes.  Through this musical apprenticeship as a session player, he was able to get his stylistic chops up by playing music that, yes, paid the bills, but also playing a variety of musical styles that built up an arsenal of riffs and a versatility of playing that other rock guitarists lacked. And while it’s easy to classify the mighty Zep as ‘70s cock rock, just listening to the classic riffs in songs like “Heartbreaker,” the acoustic noodling of “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp,” or the progressive rock of “Achilles Last Stand,” it’s clear that Page is an artist who pushed himself in new directions while trying not to rest on his musical laurels. - Ted Asregadoo
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7. Jeff Beck. There are a few instances that come to mind when the name Jeff Beck is heard. The first is the lineage of The Yardbirds, where he was between Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page in the guitarist running order. [Ironically, this is also where he sits in our list - Ed.] The second is his version of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” with Rod Stewart on the vocals. The third is his temperament, famously short. What gets lost a lot of the time is his gift with a guitar. Eschewing the older glories, I’d like to point your way to one of the coolest instrumental albums of the 1980’s, Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop. On it, he lets his guitar swing (“Savoy”), cry (“Behind The Veil”) and explode (“Sling Shot”.) He has also added his specific touch to other projects like Roger Waters’ album Amused To Death. Nowhere is it felt more, and felt is a choice word here, than the instrumental bridge between the tracks “It’s A Miracle” and “Amused To Death”. “It’s A Miracle” is a sarcastic take on the folly of man, viewed as the species does all the things it ought to do, peace, justice, that sort of thing. It’s sad and moving because, as we all seem to learn daily, these better aspects never seem to take hold. It is the squeal of Beck’s guitar, backed by a choir of voices, that doesn’t herald the grand occurrence, but mourns for it seems so unlikely. I don’t know if talent and perfectionism warrants bad behavior. Maybe it should; the gossip sites tell us every day about those without talent and professionalism, and how their sense of entitlement makes them look that much more foolish. Beck seems to feel justified in his reactions and a part of me, the part that listens to what he can do with a guitar, can’t blame him. Now if I was his bassist or drummer, I might feel a whole lot differently! - Dw. Dunphy
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6. Eric Clapton. He had to end up in the top ten. We’re not shocked, but we are a little disappointed; after all, he winds up number one on virtually all “Best Guitarist” lists. Disappointment may be harsh, but Clapton is just as well known for squandering his gifts as he is presenting them. “Wonderful Tonight”? “Change The World”? Where’s the passion on those songs? Fortunately for him, and for us, he still has a lot of discography entries that confirm Slowhand’s immortality. He’ll never leave us, or the top ten of Guitarist lists, but next time out, E.C., it had better be awesome. - DW
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5. Prince. Ain’t no one bad like Prince. From the crescendo that closes “Let’s Go Crazy” to the jangle of “Raspberry Beret,” Prince has always put the guitar front and center in his mix. Even when experimenting outside of his wheelhouse, the guitar is never far. Sure, since finding Jehovah and losing the cuss words and any form of sexual innuendo from his music, he’s lost some of his fire. But it seems that he has chosen to drive that pent up energy into his guitar work; channeling ferocious riff work into tracks such as “Fury,” and the aptly titled “Guitar.” Live, he has taken his guitar work of hits past and cranked them up to 11. Look for a version of the Parade sleeper “Anotherloverholenyohead” from his 21 night residency at London’s O2 and just stand back when the riff kicks in. Hell, just revisit his Super Bowl performance from a few years back and watch him slay his signature lead from “Purple Rain.” His brilliance on six-strings knows no bounds; he’ll out-funk, out-rock, out-shred everyone — he’ll do it without breaking a sweat, ’cause he’s bad like that. - MP
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4. Steve Cropper. As the guitarist for Booker T. & The MGs, Steve Cropper’s stinging Telecaster defined Southern soul guitar on dozens of classics on Stax Records. The ultimate rhythm guitar player, Cropper’s specialty is filling in the spaces, never overplaying, all in service to the groove and, most importantly, the song. Think of the arpeggios in Otis Redding’s ballads, the use of sixths on “Soul Man” by Sam & Dave, the metronomic chinka-chink on Eddie Floyd’s “Knock On Wood” and you’ll hear a versatility that is often overlooked. But it’s his solo on “Something,” from McLemore Avenue, where he boils down George Harrison’s beautifully fluid original to its most essential notes, that defines Cropper’s approach to his instrument. - David Lifton
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3. Stevie Ray Vaughan. On August 27th, it will have been 20 years since Stevie Ray Vaughan left this earth. In those 20 years, the legend of the hard playin’ Texan has eclipsed his fame while alive. In guitar circles, he’s revered for the ferocity with which he played; one need only look at his “Number One” to see the passion he threw into his performance. Wrestling the tone from his guitar and amp, pushing both to the extreme limits — all in search of the sound in his head. To Stevie, it was all part of the role; “I don’t consider myself a guitar hero,” he said “I just have fun playing the guitar.” Spoken like a true hero, Stevie. - MP
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2. Eddie Van Halen. Yes, he turned the guitar world on its ear with his singular technique — like baby boomers who know exactly where they were when JFK was shot, there isn’t a guitar fanatic alive who doesn’t vividly remember the first time he heard “Eruption” — but in the post-shredder era, it’s easier to hear what really made Eddie Van Halen special: his ear for melody. He could, and did, run around the fretboard with high-volume abandon, but he also knew how to write the kinds of hooks that radio couldn’t resist — and the kinds of AOR anthems that never fall out of style. During the hazy ’70s, synth-frosted ’80s, and grungy ’90s, Van Halen never stopped being cool precisely because of the brilliant way they wedded hard rock crunch with a delicious, candy-coated pop sheen. Of course, things went downhill pretty quickly after that, but isn’t there a part of you that still believes Eddie has another great album in him? - Jeff Giles
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1. Jimi Hendrix. It’s the obvious choice, isn’t it? It’s the Rolling Stone choice, kinda like picking “Stairway” as the greatest song of all time on your local rock station’s Labor Day weekend countdown.  We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that James Marshall Hendrix was the greatest guitarist who ever lived. It also happens to be the right choice. Look at the rest of the top five—aside from Steve Cropper, whose sound help create southern soul music in the Sixties—and tell me where Van Halen, Vaughan, and Prince would be without having heard “Purple Haze,” “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return),” or “Red House.”  The rest of the top ten were Hendrix’s contemporaries, and Brits at that, who expressed wonderment (and perhaps some jealousy) at this wild-ass black American who coaxed heretofore unheard sounds out of his Strat, and did so with about as much soul as one could imagine existing in one man. As proof of his greatness, we have his recorded legacy —undeniably brief (though reissued countless times), undeniably awe-inspiring.  There is no artist today with the tools or talent to create a string of records as imaginative or skillful as Hendrix’s output from Are You Experienced in 1967, through Band of Gypsies in 1970; only Stevie Wonder’s run from Music of My Mind through Songs in the Key of Life could come close.  “Manic Depression,” “Fire,” “Crosstown Traffic,” “Little Wing,” “Up from the Skies,” “Little Miss Lover,” “Come On,” “Machine Gun,” “Burning of the Midnight Lamp,” “I Don’t Live Today”—mindblowers, all of them, and that’s just a taste. He was an eccentric record maker, given to oddball psychedelic flourishes that filled the space around his tasteful melodies and exploding solos.  He helped expand what it meant to record rock music, just as he had expanded what it meant to play rock guitar. Yet, to drive home what he had and what we lost when he died, you have to listen to the First Rays of the New Rising Sun collection, because it provides an idea of where he was going. These are powerful songs we previously heard spread out on posthumous compilations, but combined in one album, we have a clearer picture of where his cosmic blues exploration was taking him, and where we might have followed him to, had he just stuck around long enough to lay it all on us. - Rob Smith
Popdose Staff
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