In 1992 Guitar Player magazine published an article entitled 25 who shook the World. It was, of course, a subjective piece on the greatest guitarists of the twentieth century and numbered amongst the luminaries guitarists like Segovia (of course), Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, B B King, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Eddie van Halen, Allan Holdsworth and many more.
The list was not exhaustive - it couldn’t be - and it was subjective. It was a list compiled by the top hundred guitarists in the USA, Britain and Europe, and the list was culled from their suggestions. People like Joe Satriani were left out, while Steve Vai was included.
John Williams was left out in favour of Julian Bream. Jeff Beck was mentioned, Jimmy Page not, and they stressed the fact that the list was subjective. No place for Gary Moore, but David Gilmour was amongst the lot, as was Al Di Meola.
What you’ll notice here is that more were left out than mentioned, amongst them great guitarists, but here is how they compiled the list. These people had not only to be brilliant musicians, as they were, but their influence had to be felt on succeeding generations. And if you look at the partial list, you’ll see that’s true.
About twenty years ago, my brother played me an Australian band, The Screaming Jets, and immediately evident was the influence Clapton had had on their guitarist, though he himself was no slow-hand.
Django Rheinhardt was amongst that list; there could never be a list that would exclude him and again, brilliant guitarist that he was, his influence can be heard on rock guitarists today. So Steve Lukather, brilliant guitarist that he is, borrowed instead of lending. There are thousands of guitarists trying to emulate him, but they are, in actual fact, emulating Eddie Van Halen.
And this is not to belittle Steve Lukather. The fact is, there can only be so many originals. If I could play like Steve Lukather, I wouldn’t be writing this for your entertainment, so it’s not criticism.
Now, here is where it becomes personal. Only guitarists are rated by how fast they play.
That, to a large number of people, seems to be the measure of the skill of a guitarist. Many years ago, I was told, ‘Learn to play fast; melody will follow if you can get all the notes down fast and accurately.’ Which is a load of bollocks.
Listen to the introduction to Shine on You Crazy Diamond and the ensuing solo. Sublime skill and musicality, but not a lot of speed. Listen to anything by BB King: you’re not going to hear a whole lot of speed, but you will hear a whole lot of melody.
In 1995, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and Eric Johnson staged a live concert, which was recorded as G3. It was a wank-fest of note. Or many notes. Everyone trying to play faster than the other. Bo-o-o-o-o-oring!
Dream Theater is another of those ridiculously skilful bands who play utterly boring music completely devoid of any soul. It’s all technique. I’ve never heard a memorable solo by John Petrucci. They’re all over-long and far too fast. Too many notes in too little space.
In 1997 a friend of mine loaned me a video with Mr Big and Ingwe Malmsteen, raving about how brilliant they were. Technically, yes. Musically - anything but.
Tacked on the end, as an afterthought, was John Williams and the Seville Festival Orchestra at the Palace of the Doges. It was like an earwash! There were times when John Williams played as fast as the other two acclaimed guitarists, but he played fast because that’s how it was written.
With too many guitarists there’s too much noise with too little substance.
Not that speed doesn’t have its place! Imagine a cricket team where everyone batted like Jacques Kallis. It just cannot be. Speed is there, like volume, to emphasise a musical point.
Two of my favourite guitarists, Al Di Meola and Allan Holdsworth, play as fast as it’s humanly possible to play. But it’s always melodic, and the speed is part of a crescendo, which then subsides back to the melody.
Eddie Van Halen was rated as the guitarist of the eighties, and I don’t think many people would argue the point, but he was clever in that he kept his solos short, leaving you wanting more, not putting your hands over your ears and shouting, ‘Please stop!’
There’s an in-joke amongst musicians: how do you know a lead guitarist is knocking on your door?
He doesn’t stop, even after you open.
In The USA, there is a musical college called GTI: Guitar Technology Institute, and the teachers are people like Joe Satriani, Steve Lukather, Steve Morse and so on. And the young guys who attend are seriously talented.
Fewer than one in a hundred ever go on to be professional musicians. Even fewer develop their own sound. It’s a factory for producing guitarists, and it’s a dismal failure.
Dweezil Zappa learned from his dad: he’s a brilliant guitarist, and utterly different from Frank Zappa.
Music can be taught, technique can be taught, skill can be taught. Musicality cannot be taught. That is the gift you’re born with.
Eric Clapton’s solo on While My Guitar Gently Weeps is simple and heart-rendingly beautiful. David Gilmour’s solo on Comfortably Numb give me goose-flesh, it’s that perfect. Neither of these guitarists thought it necessary to go to an academy in order to learn guitar. They honed their skills the hard way; playing live to crowds who would show their disapproval in sometimes violent ways.
As with everything, originality has made way for technicality, and music as a whole has suffered. That is why I said once before, and maintain, that the mid-sixties to mid-seventies was one of the most fertile periods in the history of music.
And good music is, I fear, going the way of Test Cricket, one of my other great loves.
Slowly and with very little dignity.