100 guitarists – part 2

Jimmie Vaughan, via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

As said, over five posts I am listing a top 100 favourite guitarists, 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 are instrumentals – I decided that there should be nothing to detract from the guitar itself. It is a personal top 100, selected more by sentiment than science. There are some notable names left out; there are some oddities and obscurities brought in. But all of them I want to listen to again and again. All make the guitar sound like the thing to play, of all musical instruments the one with the greatest human connection.

Here, in post number two, we go from number 80 to number 61.

80. Ava Mendoza, ‘That Furious Harpy’s Still Following Us’

Those of a nervous disposition might want to avert their ears. American guitarist Ava Mendoza plays in an exuberant, raucous style that combines all the roughest elements of blues, punk and the experimental. The result would probably leave most conventional heavy metal bands quaking in fear. Music to be played very loud, if you are determined to to rid yourself of those particularly annoying neighbours. The tune’s title will haunt them as they run.

79. C. Joynes, ‘The Running Board’

English electric guitarist C. Joynes occupies a halfway house between folk and the experimental, coming up with earthy numbers that sound traditional enough for the peasants to recognise and start to dance to, only to halt in bafflement. ‘The Running Board’ is from an album, Split Electric, that Joynes made in collaboration with Nick Jonah Davis (number 81 on our list).

78. Giles, Giles & Fripp (with Robert Fripp), ‘Suite No.1’

Robert Fripp is, of course, an outstanding guitarist, whose great technical skill is married to boundary-breaking musical concepts. Yet King Crimson have always left me rather cold. It’s like that Ray Lowry cartoon that I remember from many years ago, in the New Musical Express – one roadie says to another of the prog rock group playing earnestly on stage, “They’re one of the most technically proficient bands around – they make the audience do hard sums between the songs”. So instead I’ve gone for this dazzling but fun number from his earlier band, Giles, Giles and Fripp. It’s not just amazingly quick, but witty with it.

77. Wiek Hijmans, ‘One Hour – Part III’

Wiek Hijmans is a Dutch classical guitarist whose primary instrument is the electric guitar. No, he doesn’t play the standard repertoire with added twang. He has taken the guitar into new directions, working with classical ensembles, having composers write pieces for him, and exploring with his own fine compositions, as in the One Hour album which has four tracks, each exactly 15 minutes long. Unlike Glenn Branca, whose drone-heavy electric guitar symphonies can tend towards monotony, Hijmans’ own work is varied and imaginative, enticing the listener while leaving them never quite sure what direction the music will take them in next.

76. Frank Zappa, ‘Theme From Burnt Weeny Sandwich’

I can never entirely get over the feeling the Frank Zappa did not know what to do with his talent, which might just be the sign of a limited talent. Brilliant yes, travelling with ease across the rock, jazz, avant garde and classical worlds, yet with such relentless triviality. Worse than having nothing to say, what he had to say and kept on saying might have been better left unsaid. But enough of such dismissive thoughts. ‘Theme from Burnt Weeny Sandwich’ is a masterclass in disciplined musicianship.

75. Cindy Cashdollar, ‘Spanish Fandango’

Aside from having what is possibly the greatest name in popular music, Cindy Cashdollar is a renowned pedal steel guitarist and Dobro player, usually heard backing countless other artists, notably Bob Dylan. Her solo work is not earth-shattering, and in any case leans heavily on the support of others, but it has such a freshness to it. ‘Spanish Fandango’ (performed with guitarist Steve James, who didn’t quite make this top 100) is such a sweet number. One for dancing to in an abandoned square, as the late afternoon light fades.

74. Giacomo Fiore, ‘Until It Blazes’

Fiore is an Italian-born American music professor, who plays what he preaches. You might expect something drily academic, but on both acoustic and electric guitar he shows great range and freedom of thought. ‘Until it Blazes’ is an exquisite electric guitar piece, which builds up gently with Steve Reich-like echoey sounds, before unleashing a burst of raw sound at the piece’s conclusion. A fine composition.

73. Luke Vibert / BJ Cole, ‘Nice Cave’

Brian John, or BJ, Cole is a British pedal steel guitar and Dobro player, who as with others on this list pays the rent through session work (The Walker Brothers, Roy Harper, Gerry Rafferty, T.Rex, Kiki Dee, Shakin’ Stevens – you’ve probably heard him a hundred times) before expressing himself more freely in solo ventures. Here with producer Luke Vibert he produces a peculiar, compelling mix of Hawaiian guitar, techno beats and percussive electronica. Dreamy and spot on.

72. Henry Kaiser, ‘The Invisible Hand’

Henry Kaiser is fun. Everything he has been involved with in his prolific career as avant garde guitarist, film score composer, diver and ethnomusicologist has been fun in its way, driven by the thrill of discovery. He is a man constantly in search of sounds lost, elusive and new. In recent years he has become almost mainstream with his notable work for film director Werner Herzog (he was music producer on Grizzly Man), but his back catalogue is filled with wild musical adventures that more than merit the bloodied hands shown on the cover of his 1981 album Aloha, from which the exuberant ‘The Invisible Hand’ comes.

71. Jimmie Vaughan, ‘Strange Pleasure (Modern Backporch Duende)’

Jimmy Vaughan, brother of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, is a modern great. He is a guitarist who embodies the blues, dedicating his career to keeping the sound, style and attitude of a great tradition going. He has played with so many artists, perhaps most notably as a member of the great retro band The Fabulous Thunderbirds. From his solo work, this mysterious, quiet number lingers in the mind. (Stevie missed the cut, by the way – the sort of blues swagger that isn’t much to my taste)

70. Eugene Chadbourne, ‘The Shreeve’

Eugene Chadbourne is a musical anarchist. Madly prolific, his guitar music has embraced jazz, punk, country, rock and pop, leaving each genre wrecked by the experience. I first discovered him in the early 80s through Shockabilly, his punk-rockabilly band that gleefully destroyed pop favourites. From his 1993 album Strings, ‘The Shreeve’ is an acoustic guitar piece in which he plays all the wrong notes in the right order.

69. Jesse Sparhawk, ‘Light Cycle / Tetrahedra’

There are so many talented fingerstyle guitarists out there. Sites like Bandcamp have given a platform to musicians of great skill who might nevertheless struggle to stand out from the crowd and get a regular record deal, instead turning to self-publication, hoping others will spread the good word. So here is Philadelphia multi-instrumentalist Jesse Sparhawk, from the self-published Palmaria Palmata, with acoustic guitar music of grace and imagination.

68. Tampa Red, ‘Denver Blues’

One of the classic blues greats, Tampa Red’s distinctive musical feature was his use of single-string bottleneck slide. It gave him an unique voice in a crowded field. ‘Denver Blues’ is the quintessential slide guitar piece. It has all of the special eloquence that a blues instrumental can possess.

67. Robbie Basho, ‘Pavan Hindustan – Instrumental’

American guitarist Robbie Basho (born Robinson, but he changed his surname in honour of the Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō) was heavily influenced by Asian cultures, at a time (early 1960s) when such music had barely made a mark on Western artists. He developed a twelve-string guitar style that absorbed lessons from Indian ragas in particular, with radical open tunings and a sound more drone-oriented that melodic. The result is awesome, almost daunting, as it ventures in areas few others could accomplish, and seldom so well. The way ‘Pavan Hindustan’ starts off sounding like a standard folk piece, then picks up ideas as it progresses into a jangling rush of sound, illustrates the remarkable music journey that he undertook.

66. Brandon Seabrook, ‘Ballad of Newfangled Vicissitudes’

Where Robbie Basho explored, someone like the mindboggling Brandon Seabrook then follows. Seabrook plays guitar and banjo at a manic speed, with such lurches in tempo and direction, that the brain can hardly keep up. His website calls him “one of the most unique and volatile guitarists of his generation”, and volatile is the operative word. ‘Ballad of Newfangled Vicissitudes’ sounds like it was programmed by a computer gone haywire. We are assured that everything we hear was played in real time, which only makes the whole thing seem all the more alarming. It is banjo, rather than guitar, but I’ve made an exception. It’s my list.

65. Sonny Sharrock, ‘Devil’s Doll Baby’

Sonny Sharrock made some terrific music on the experimental fringes of jazz in the late 60s/early 70s (including the fine album Black Woman), left music for years (making a living as a chauffeur), then was rediscovered by jazz bassist and record label owner Bill Laswell in the 1980s. He enjoyed a heartening late career revival, among which his album of instrumentals, Guitar (1986) shows a man still at the peak of his abilities given free rein. It’s the sound of liberation.

64. Sir Richard Bishop, ‘Canned Goods & Firearms’

Sir Richard Bishop (it’s a self-appointed knighthood) is an American acoustic (mostly) guitarist of wide-ranging interests that all pour out of his appealing, inventive music, which often employs electronic sounds to adroit effect. ‘Canned Goods & Firearms’ has him picking up the electric guitar for a frenetic jig, just that little bit too fast for anyone to dance to – which may be the point.

63. Steven R. Smith, ‘The Days Have Wiped Away the Image’

There is a lot to American guitarist and printmaker Steven R. Smith. Literally so – he plays under numerous aliases, both bands and solo outfits, that reflect a wide range of musical interests, particularly East European folk music (for which see his spin-off project Hala Strana). A folk sensibility imbues much of what he records, as in his recent record A Sketchbook of Endings (from which ‘The Days Have Wiped Away the Image’‘ comes), where noisy electric guitar workouts have a drone quality and patterning that is traditional as it is progressive.

62. Roy Montgomery, ‘Above All, Compassion’

Another academic who plays some guitar on the side, New Zealand lecturer Roy Montgomery specialises in simple motifs played on electric guitar with lots of echo and distortion, not dissimilar to the Durutti Column (Vini Reilly, mostly), another near-miss candidate for the list. Tunes like ‘Above All, Compassion’ conjure up epic vistas, repetitive sonic textures that could quite easily play on forever.

61. Chuck Berry, ‘Guitar Boogie’

In putting this list together, I tried to limit it not only to instrumentals but to those guitarists who had a number of instrumentals under their belt. But you can’t leave out Chuck Berry, probably the single most important guitarist (or even musician overall) of the twentieth century. He defined the times as no other musician had done before or may ever do again. How many instrumentals did he record? Not many I think, but ‘Guitar Boogie’ is unmistakably Berry right from the off.

Next up, numbers 60 to 41…


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