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Jimi Hendrix, One of the Greats

The Great Guitarists

By Nathan Dalla Santa

Lots of folks, especially guitarists, toss around the idea of greatness. But what does it mean? Is it blazing speed? Originality? Catchy tunes? What we need is a common vocabulary — a standard for greatness. Of course, we may never see eye-to-eye on who the greatest guitarist is, just as most of us will probably never agree what the greatest sandwich is, but we certainly can identify some essential criteria. So, that’s what we’ve done here.

The first step was to identify who the great guitarists are. This is murky water to wade through, so we let the internet do it for us! We sifted through 19 online “Greatest Guitarist” lists and selected the 5 guitarists who appeared in the top 5 most often. We were left with a list of five unique guitarists, each embodying a different aspect of guitar greatness.

Of course, there are some potential flaws with this model. Some would argue that a guitarist who made it to 6th place on every list (looking at you, Stevie Ray Vaughn) is greater than a guitarist who made it to the top 5 only a handful of times. That argument may have merit, but whe're talking about greatness here — 6th place just won’t cut it.

So we proceed.

The Greats

Eric Clapton

Clapton is a natural place to start. With beautiful tone, an endless supply of licks and a fair bit of creativity, Clapton is a master of improvisation. He plays bravely, following each note wherever it takes him. And, when he plays himself into a corner, he always finds his way back out.

This blues-rock pioneer isn’t the fastest or the most complex, but he just sounds good. That’s a gift they can’t teach in school, and it’s an essential quality of any great guitarist.

Eddie Van Halen

When watching a truly great guitarist at work, it can feel as though there’s a physical barrier separating us and them. The majority of us, no matter how much we practice, will never be able to do some of the things our heroes can. Eddie Van Halen makes us feel, full force, the limits of our own capabilities.

When Van Halen entered the popular stage in 1978, audiences were downright confused. He created sounds the guitar had never made before, screeching up and down scales at speeds never heard before. And at the end of the day, it all sounded good.

Audiences listening to Eruption for the first time were left with nothing to do but scratch their heads, lock themselves in their bedrooms, and try to decipher this new guitar sorcery. Today, we’re accustomed to some serious shredders, but it really all started with Van Halen.

BB King

On the other end of the spectrum from Van Halen’s explosive technical prowess lies BB King and his cool, economic style. Like a poet who conveys meaning with few words, BB King creates great power with clear tone, a few well-chosen notes, and just the right touch of vibrato.

Listening to this blues ambassador, it can be tempting to think, “I could have done that!” But the truth is that BB King can squeeze more feeling out of three notes than most guitarists can find in a full fretboard. He truly is a master.

Jimmy Page

It’s not hard to see that Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page is a great guitarist. With an intimidating list of classic riffs like Black Dog and Heartbreaker, solid rhythm skills, and mean soloing chops, the guy has made serious contributions to rock guitar. Less obvious, however, is his iron grip on the finer points of recording and production.

Before Zeppelin and before The Yardbirds, Page was a session musician, learning the tricks of the studio. He used that experience to produce masterful recordings, bringing depth and tone out of every instrument – not just the guitar. Using clever mic placement, stereo interplay, and judicious track layering, he brought dimension and majesty to every Zeppelin track.

Just put on a pair of nice headphones and listen to When the Levee Breaks. Hear those drums? They sound like that because Page had Bonzo set up in an old stairwell.

Jimi Hendrix

Hendrix was a true synthesis of all that was happening in his time. Rock, blues, society, war – it all converged on Jimi Hendrix.

It’s hard to pin down one quality that makes him great, because he was so good at so many things. Sure, he might not have been the absolute best at any one skill, but he competed at an Olympian level in every regard. By mastering every aspect of his music, from rhythm and lead to sound effects and stage presence, Hendrix was able to push his genre lightyears further than it had ever been before. And speaking of versatility, did I mention the guy was ambidextrous? Enough said.

It’s impossible to pick one video to demonstrate the breadth of his skills with one clip. To truly understand, you have to listen to all of it… but that’s just crazy, right? So, I invite you instead to watch this clip of Jimi playing the guitar with his teeth.


In the end, we all decide greatness for ourselves. I know I sure would've liked to see David Gilmore on this list. But oh well. How about you? Who makes your top-five list? What's your measure of greatness? Let us know in the comment section below!

 
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