What is it about guitar music that I find so compelling? The interest has been not so much in the guitar as one feature of a group, but as a solo endeavour, where all is stripped away that detracts from letting the instrument speak for itself. There is pleasure in the sound of the guitar, in its many acoustic and electrical forms, but what I think lies at the heart of the compulsion is the guitarist.
It is the guitarist, hunched over their instrument, coaxing sounds from it that feel like the translation of thoughts, that creates (for me) the attraction. Of course, any musical instrument playing any piece of music, composed or improvised, is an expression of thought and feeling, but the human-like form of the guitar conveys a special emotional affinity. The guitar looks and sounds like our other self.
I cannot play the guitar, much as I would like to, so there is a certain amount of wish-fulfilment in the compulsion. I would like to be such a person, but I’m not, so all I can do is listen and imagine. And make lists.
For some while now I’ve been toying with the idea of producing a long list on my favourite guitarists. I held back because of the scale of the task, and because I couldn’t think of any great reason for doing so. But the idea kept on nagging at me, til it became reason in itself.
And so I have come up with a top 100 favourite guitarists, to be documented over five posts, from number 100 to number one. All of the pieces I have picked are as much favourites irrespective of the performer as much as they are examples of their best work. All of the pieces are instrumentals – I decided that there should be nothing to detract from the guitar itself, though this does mean that a number of excellent musicians who would otherwise score highly are not listed (Robert Johnson, Andy Gill, Bonnie Raitt, the nimble-fingered members of several bands from Africa). It is a personal top 100, selected more by sentiment than science, showing my fondness for fingerstyle acoustic guitar players and for the experimental side of things in particular.
It is a list of favourites rather than an actual top 100, though the absolute favourites are at the top, and the number one choice is someone whose music I have treasured for almost 40 years now, though they would be unlikely to be named first in anyone else’s list of great guitarists. But who could it be?
We start with numbers 100 to 81…
100. Deborah Coleman, ‘Greezy’
Deborah Coleman, who died too young in 2018, played soulful blues with a raw authenticity, best reflected in ‘I’m a Woman’, her swaggering riposte to Muddy Waters’ ‘Mannish Boy’. She’s in a light mood for ‘Greezy’, a fun instrumental which is simultaneously a pastiche of blues guitar styles (complete with faux 1930s scratchy sound at the start) and a highly proficient exposition of them.
99. Jeff Parker, ‘Get Dressed’
Jeff Parker is guitarist with the unutterably cool post-rock/post-jazz band Tortoise. His solo work is reliably inventive and eclectic, no one number quite preparing you for the adventure of the next. This trippy piece counterpoints hip-hop-style drums with jagged guitar in a form that is just completely in the groove.
98. Davey Williams, ‘Military Brat Blues’
The free improvising musician must leave the listener both flummoxed at such alien sounds, yet at least partly intrigued at the sense of other paths for music down which they might travel, if they were only brave. American guitarist Davey Williams was an exemplary improviser, forever exploring the strange adventures for the ear once the instrument had been set free. ‘Military Brat Blues’ is actually quite catchy (to begin with) – a good starting point for the explorations to come.
97. Derek Bailey, ‘N/Jz/Bm (Re-Mix)’
The granddaddy of improvised guitar. Bailey started out as a conventional session musician in the 1950s, before rejecting all conventional forms in pursuit of free music, culminating in the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and a notable book, Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice (1980), which inspired a radical Channel 4 series, On the Edge: Improvisation in Music (1992), from the days when the channel was actually radical. There’s seldom much fun to be had from listening to Bailey’s earnest efforts, but he never stopped exploring, as with this extraordinary late recording (he died in 2005) in which wildly distorted guitar rages alongside some frenetic drum’n’bass.
48. Sarah Louise, ‘Ancient Intelligence’
Sarah Louise is a fine American twelve-string guitarist in a recognisable folk idiom, who has taken a bold step musically with her latest album, Nighttime Birds and Morning Stars. She employs electric guitar combined with electronica to create mysterious musical landscapes that are almost but not quite melodic and that continually surprise. ‘Ancient Intelligence’ disorients you right from the start. A distinctive artist.
95. Julian Lage, ‘Harlem Blues’
Crystal-clear jazz lines from former American child prodigy Julian Lage, who ably bridges the traditional and the exploratory.An entirely pleasing sound.
94. Peter Lang, ‘John Hurt in the 21st Century’
Peter Lang is a twelve-string guitarist of great facility, a protégé of John Fahey, who perhaps never quite made the top grade but plays with such wistfulness on his 2003 album, Guitar, of which this track is typical but also such a great title.
93. The Shadows (with Hank Marvin), ‘F.B.I.’
Few other electric guitarists have been so good as Hank Marvin at creating an imaginative landscape. The best instrumentals by The Shadows – ‘Wonderful Land’, ‘Apache’, ‘Man of Mystery’, ‘F.B.I. – have this remarkable cinematic quality to them. The use of tremolo arm and the tang of the guitar sound aid the drama, but ultimately it’s about that sense of space. Marvin inspired a thousand guitarists not just in how it how it looked to play a guitar, but in its limitless imaginative potential.
92. Max Ochs, ‘Raga Puti’
Another associate of John Fahey (who will be appearing more towards the lower numbers of this list), Max Ochs is a guitarist who combines familiar fingerstyle playing with the radical in so subtle a manner that you do not spot the join. This piece takes its inspiration from Indian classical ragas while sounding like the musician had discovered such sounds free of any influence, just following where the sounds must take him.
91. Sue Foley, ‘The Snake’
Canadian blues musician Sue Foley has never made a bad recording, or even just a plain average one. Every song, every tune, delivers. It’s something about the commitment and the belief, combined with such delight in the American tradition. A fine guitarist who has produced several good instrumentals along the way, ‘The Snake’ has a timeless quality to it, sounding like it could have come equally from 1950s-era Sun studios, or yesterday (it dates from 2001).
90. Brad Barr, ‘Sarah Through the Wall’
American guitarist Brad Barr is best known (so Wikipedia tells me) for playing with indie band the Barr Brothers, but I know of him through a delicate, delightful album of acoustic instrumentals, The Fall Apartment, of which this number is a highlight. The very spirit of gentleness.
89. Jef Lee Johnson, ‘Jungle (Part 2)’
There’s always something satisfying in the story of those musicians who do solid session work with established, conventional artists by day, then go freeform by night. So the late American jazz guitarist Jef Lee Johnson played with names such as Aretha Franklin and Billy Joel, which will have paid the rent, then let rip with his solo work. This ranges excitingly across soul, off-kilter funk, experimental oddities, and wild workouts like ‘Jungle (2)’. Freeform in every sense.
88. Duck Baker, ‘Doctor Jazz’
Duck Baker is an agile fingerpicking guitarist whose roots lie in folk music but who throws in elements of swing and ragtime, while also working comfortably alongside experimentalists like Henry Kaiser and Eugene Chadbourne. There is such an engaging spirit about everything he does, exemplified by the cheery ‘Doctor Jazz’. He has a great taste in album covers too.
87. Link Wray, ‘Big City After Dark’
Link Wray made guitar music rebel music. His 1950s recordings established an attitude which has been played out many thousands of time since. His power chord masterpiece ‘Rumble’ is the track that has exerted the influence, but his back catalogue is rich and varied. ‘Big City After Dark’ is as raw an electric guitar instrumental as you could hope to be stirred by.
86. Vieux Farka Touré, ‘Tabara’
Vieux Farka Touré is the son of the great Mali singer and guitarist Ali Farka Touré. As with his father, Touré plays fingerstyle guitar (acoustic and electric) in a manner that understands American sound while maintaining what feels like an ageless tradition. Listening to the hypnotic instrumental ‘Tabara’ might make you think that perhaps music is the only wisdom that we have to hand down.
85. Noël Akchoté, ‘Hello Dolly!’
Prolific French guitarist Akchoté moves easily between the worlds of classical and avant garde. Among the latter, his deconstructions of Barbra Streisand show-tunes on the album You Don’t Bring Me Flowers are both droll and wistful, mocking and fill with respect.
84. Earl Hooker, ‘Wah Wah Blues’
Peerless slide guitar from a Chicago blues master, here with exquisite use of wah-wah pedal, turning what could have been gimmicky into a model exercise in how to bring out the most expressive sounds from a guitar.
83. Harry Taussig, ‘Der Dritte Mann Fantasia’
Well, it’s good to have a few strings to your bow, and Harry Taussig has more than most. He’s a biophysics professor, a photographer, film curator, artist – and guitarist in the so-called American primitive style that brings together folk and the improvisational. His 1965 debut album, Fate is Only Once, is a classic expression of the style, as in this sweet deviation on The Third Man theme. Originality and simplicity, adroitly combined.
82. Yair Yona, ‘Are You Smarter Than a 35 Year Old TV Host?’
Yair Yona is an Israeli acoustic guitarist who combines great skill with compositions (sometimes enhanced with background electronica) that are rich in tone, graceful in effect, and consistently imaginative. It’s hard to pick one track. But this comes out top for having such a splendid title.
81. Nick Jonah Davis, ‘Pili Pala’
You arrive at a party. There’s a guitar lying in a corner. Someone calls out for you to play something. You can’t play a note, but you pick up the guitar anyway, unable not to oblige. Magically your fingers take on a life of their own and an exquisite piece emerges out of nowhere. All those at the party, reduced to silence, think exactly the same thing – that is how beautiful a guitar can be. English guitarist Nick Jonah Davis has that sound.
Next up, numbers 80 to 61…