There are always debates about who the greatest batsman is, the greatest golfer, the greatest footballer and so on and I think, with one exception, that of Don Bradman, the jury will remain perpetually hung.
So too with musicians: with the exception of Buddy Rich, there is no other greatest musician, in any field. Buddy Rich is universally regarded as the greatest drummer ever, and this got me to thinking. Of all the great musicians in the rock pantheon, who would I choose as my personal best.
This would not rely purely on skill, of course, but influence beyond their time and genre.
I’ll start with lead guitarists, and there have been so many great ones that the mind whirls! How do you choose between Ritchie Blackmore, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, Mick Box, Eddie van Halen, Joe Satriani, Steve Morse, Jan Akkerman and the thousands of other great guitarists?
Santana forged a sound of his own, that has been copied by millions of guitarists and influenced an entire generation of guitarists. So too with Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmy page. Where do you begin?
My wife answered it for me. She knows nothing about rock, but when I asked her who the greatest rock guitarist was, she said Jimi Hendrix. Now, he may not have been the most skilled guitarist of those mentioned and, in fact, was not as skilled at his own songs as Stevie Ray Vaughn. But he is the epitome of rock guitarists.
My wife could not mention another guitarist, but she knew Jimi Hendrix.
So too with bassists: Gary Thain, Roger Glover, John Paul Jones, Paul McCartney, Jack Bruce, Greg Lake, Chris Squire, Les Claypool, where does one begin? Gary Thain was, to me, one of the most melodic bassists of the great rock era and remains one of my favourites, where Roger Glover drives Deep Purple with effortless ease.
Greg Lake was amazing and although Emerson Lake and Palmer was pretentious, they were great musicians. Paul McCartney was, and is, an absolute genius, and it was years before he was recognised as the great bassist he is.
Les Claypool redefined bass playing as the lead singer (?) of Primus, and playing the most ridiculous bass lines with apparent ease. In fact, Primus was the first truly original band I’d heard since the heydays of the sixties and seventies.
But for me, the king of rock bassists has to be Chris Squire, because you can recognise a Yes song before a note is sung, just by the unique sound of Chris Squire’s bass. And the ridiculous ease with which he plays the most difficult and complex bass lines.
All of these opinions are highly subjective, of course, but I haven’t chosen people only I consider good. I’ve chose people universally regarded as greats.
Drummers. The engine room of the band. In fact, the bass and drums are called the rhythm section, that’s how important they are. Where to start? Ginger Baker? Karl Palmer? John Hiseman, Bill Bruford, Terry Bozzio, John Bonham, Keith Moon, Iain Paice, Phil Collins? There are more great drummers than I can name, and they are all superstars in their own right. That’s forgetting the modern greats, such as Tim (Herb) Alexander, Simon Philips, Rod Morgenstein and an endless list of great rock drummers.
But for my money it has to be Iain Paice. There is no more skilled drummer in the world and now, in his late sixties, he’s lost none of his drive and skill. He’s one of the few top rock drummers to have stuck with a single pedal all these years and has the blinding speed and skill to effortlessly switch to jazz when the occasion demands it.
Keyboards, oh keyboards, where do we begin?
There’s the sublime skill of Vincent Crane, officially classed as the greatest organist in the world at the time. Keith Emerson, Thijs van Leer, Rick Wakeman, Ken Hensley, Dave Greenslade, Brian Auger, Don Evan, John Airey, Jon Lord and so on and so forth. Each of these keyboardists had an amazing effect on the bands in which they played, but for my money it has to be the father of the modern rock organ, the man who powered his Hammond B3 through a set of Marshalls, Jon Lord.
No organist has so defined the sound of a band as has Jon Lord, the most influential organist of his time and, quite likely, ever. Many people have tried, and failed, to emulate what he did. Because of his classical background, he brought a level of sophistication allied to hard rock that has never been surpassed.
Finally, the lead singers, the front men. The first real front man was Elvis Presley. The band was immaterial; they were there to see him, and he didn’t disappoint. Then there was Little Richard, one of the great showmen of his era, in spite of the fact that he was playing piano while singing.
Robert Plant, one of the great voices and a front man to take his place with the greats. Roger Daltry, whose performances were hypnotically brilliant. Ian Gillan, one of the finest voices in rock and a born entertainer. What more could you ask for? Peter Gabriel, one of the most original front men ever, with his iconic costumes and style of story-telling. His heir apparent, Phil Collins, who dispensed with the costumes and relied on personality and stage presence. Mick Jagger, who swaggered around the stage like he owned it and the audience which, for the time he was on stage, he did.
But the greatest of them all, and one of the greatest voices ever to sing rock music, has to be Freddie Mercury. I consider Queen to be a four album band, but watching them live you tend to forget that. Two of the greatest rock anthems ever, We Will Rock You and We Are the Champions, come from lesser albums, but there has been no-one, in my opinion, who has so captivated an audience and sung with such a magnificent, searing voice.
This list is, as I said, personal opinion and, if there’s one thing readers of this forum know, it’s that I’m opinionated. However, I think you wold be hard-pressed to find a better line-up than the one I just put together.