10 Guitarists I Just Don’t “Get”

A bit of a polemic this time. Have you ever found yourself wondering what it is about certain guitar players that make other people wax lyrical about them? You may, from time to time, have frowned in confusion about just what it is that everyone else sees in a particular player. These are the ones which illicit this reaction in me. Feel free to disagree… I know you will, but music is a very personal thing & these are just my opinions…

  1. Billy Gibbons – Is it just me, or is this guy little more than style over substance? It’s all about the furry, odd shaped guitars, that spin around his belt buckle, and squealy pinched harmonics every other note. I saw ZZTop, (whose name I pronounce as “Zed Zed Top” on account of me not being American, by the way) on the BBC Glastonbury coverage this year. His tone was dreadful… like a wasp farting into a kazoo underneath an old army blanket. And his playing was plodding, pentatonic noodling – I’ve heard more inspiring fretboard skills down the local pub on open mic night.

  2. Now, I know this choice is going to upset some people, but I have to be honest… I really don’t see what all the fuss is about when it comes to Jimmy Page. I’ll admit that I do own Led Zep IV & I listen to it occasionally… Stairway To Heaven is a great track, but that’s kind of where I lose interest. Watching that reunion “Celebration Day” gig on the telly a while back, I was struck by how much his rambling, dissonant, never-quite-in-tune, over-indulgent soloing reminded me of Nigel Tufnel on a bad day.

  3. Often, it is said, the best way of achieving immortality is to die young. It’s also a pretty good way to be declared a genius when clearly you aren’t… or weren’t. Never was this more true than in the case of Kurt Cobain. Nirvana were just starting to hit it big at around the same time I began teaching guitar for a living. So I knew just how long it took to master the few barre chords necessary to play songs like Lithium & Smells Like Teen Spirit… not long. Not long at all – these are NOT difficult songs to play. And didn’t he just nick that “quiet bit/loud bit” idea from Frank Black & The Pixies, anyway? “Ah…” you might say “but Kurt had immense inner pain & he spoke for a generation.” Really? I was part of that generation (I was born in the same month of the same year as Kurt) & he didn’t speak for me… or indeed anyone else who liked to listen to inspiring, musical, virtuosic guitar playing. And as for “inner pain”… every 6th form poetry club is awash with it – being glum doesn’t make you a genius.

  4. Yngwie Malmsteen. I bet you thought from my little rant about Nirvana that I am a dyed in the wool “shred” fan. Well, think again. Whilst I begrudge the “genius” status bestowed on anyone not equipped with the requisite technical skills, I also have no time for any guitarist who seemingly places astonishing technique above musicality. I remember having Yngwie’s first album on vinyl in the mid 1980s. I never got as far as listening to side two. Although his technique was/is gobsmacking, it always struck me as being like a circus act… no matter how amazing the daring young man on the flying trapeze may be, it does wear thin after a while. By the end of side one, I was bored… every time.

  5. Neil Young. Let’s face it… we all know he can’t sing. His voice is a peculiar nasal whine that has the same effect on me as sucking a lemon whilst scratching fingernails down a blackboard. But we’re talking about guitar playing here, right? Well let’s address that then. I have never heard anyone get such an awful, ham fisted sound out of a P90 equipped Gibson Les Paul. A guitar like that should sing with mellow sustain but instead, it’s all fret buzz, dead notes and the kind of plunky, bum-note-filled solos you can hear in any music shop when a new guitar is being tried out by a teenage “guitar hero”.

  6. David Evans. Who he? Well, he’s the guitarist in Paul Hewson’s band. You may have heard of them, they’re called U2. “The Edge” (as Mr. Evans somewhat pretentiously requests that we call him) has built a career out of plunking away on open chords whilst letting his delay echo effect give the impression of him playing more notes than he actually is. But that, in itself is inspired right? Yup… and it was being done long before Dave “The Edge” Evans supposedly “invented” it. The godfather of using tape delay to augment his guitar sound was, of course, Les Paul back in the 1950s – the kind of innovator that The Edge is often called. But isn’t.

  7. Eddie Van Halen. Oh… another controversial choice. Like the aforementioned David Evans, Eddie (or is it “Edward” these days?) is credited with inventing an entire style of playing. Namely the phenomenon of finger tapping. He has even stated in interviews that he gets annoyed by people stealing “his thing”. Except, it’s not “your thing”, is it Eddie? Robert Fripp was doing it on King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man long before Van Halen released their first album, as was Steve Hackett in Genesis. And flamenco guitarists have been employing this technique for centuries. Sure, Eddie popularised this way of playing but what exactly did he do with it? Songs which sound like they were written by a teenage boy who’s wondering what it’ll be like when he finally “does it” with a girl, and the adolescent, immature obsessions with partying, getting high & thumbing a nose at the “squares” of the older generation. Throw in a few bars of Eddie’s tasteless, un-melodic pyrotechnics half way through each song (he’s got some fast licks & he’s going to use them whether they serve the song or not) and you have the formula. Perfect example? How about Jump?

  8. Ritchie Blackmore. I know, I know… He played on one of my favourite albums, Machinehead, but that still doesn’t excuse the years of truly awful soloing since then. If you want an example of the kind of thing I mean, listen to his tuneless, meandering, ego trip of a lead break from Knocking At Your Back Door. Then listen to the live album Nobody’s Perfect released after the “classic” Mark II line up reunited in the 1980s… it’s horrible (particularly the dreadful version of Child In Time). And that was also the opinion of Deep Purple keyboardist Jon Lord, who disowned the album largely due to Ritchie’s bum-note infested speed-finger widdling. If you love Deep Purple, and want a great “best of” album, check out “Live At The Olympia ’96” where Steve Morse plays the songs the way they deserve to be played… tasteful virtuosity personified.

  9. The Blues Police are probably going to come & lock me up for this one… B.B. King. There, I said it. I love blues, I really do. But I just don’t see what all the fuss is about with BB. I really don’t want to speak ill of the recently departed, so I’ll just say that I find his playing a little bit… erm… boring. Give me Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin or T-Bone Walker any day. These are guitarists who (to my ears, anyway) convey the passion & angst of the blues in the way that B.B. King never really did. Sorry.

  10. Finally, and probably most controversial of all, Eric Clapton. Yes, he has recorded some absolute gems… Layla being the most obvious example. When he’s on form, there are few guitarists who can touch him – take a listen to his solo on Roger Water’s Pros & Cons of Hitch-hiking, it’s a masterpiece of tone and phrasing. Or how about Derek & The Dominoes version of Key To The Highway? Utterly spectacular! The problem is that he only seems to play this way about 10% of the time. For every “Layla” there are dozens of drab mediocre “I want a new Ferrari, so I need to make a new record” type tracks. Have you ever heard anything as tedious as Wonderful Tonight? If you have then I bet it’s either Lay Down Sally or Holy Mother. Even his old boss, John Mayall (of The Bluesbreakers) said of the 19 year old Eric “Some nights he (Eric) would just turn up and strum his way through the songs, like he couldn’t be bothered.” Also, there are those of us still remember his remarks in 1976 about “keeping Britain white” in support of Enoch Powell. It was this rant, at a gig in Birmingham, that spurred the “Rock Against Racism” movement to be created in response. If, like many, you idolise this man then check this out & see if that alters your perception: Eric Clapton’s Racist Rant.

So there you have it. Sorry if I’ve ruffled any feathers but I can’t pretend I feel otherwise about each of these players. Some, or even all, of them may be responsible for “that special tune” which gives you goosebumps and sends shivers down your spine. If this is the case, then please don’t take offence – none is meant. I just needed to get this off my chest.

Next time it’s the 10 Guitarists Who Leave Me Awestruck. If I’ve slagged off any of your favourites here, feel free to rip my list of heroes to shreds next time. Until then…

Have Fun!

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

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3 Comments

  1. I love your candor and bravery to say what needed to be said. Thank you and it’s refreshing to see such honesty in music. It’s about time. Big fan John!

  2. Thanks for the comment, mate! I know that a few of those I mentioned are regarded as sacred cows, but I had to call it as I see it… I don’t get offended when others don’t like the same music as me, but it seems that many people do get upset on hearing that not everyone shares their tastes.

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