Here is part three of a series of five posts listing 100 favourite guitarists of mine, from number 100 to number one. All of the pieces selected 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. Another day and the 100 might be in an entirely different order. Some might be left out; others would brought in. But, for now, it stands.
Here we go from number 60 to number 41.
60. Hound Dog Taylor, ‘Phillips Goes Bananas’
In just about every picture of blues guitarist Hound Dog Taylor, he is smiling. How could he help it? He played joyous music. ‘Phillips Goes Bananas’ provides all the evidence you need.
59. Noveller, ‘Rituals’
Noveller is Sarah Lipstate, a New York guitarist and filmmaker. Her forte is lavish washes of sound, in which guitar, keyboards and electronica merge as music that is dramatic, abstract and lyrical. ‘Rituals’ is typical of the dream-like adventures she conjures up.
58. Bruce Cockburn, ‘Foxglove’
Canadian singer-songwriter and political activist Bruce Cockburn is revered by many guitarists for his unshowy technical ability. There aren’t too many instrumentals in his huge recording legacy (thirty-three albums and counting), but his 2005 record Speechless has fifteen, all of them quite dazzling. ‘Foxglove’, brief though it may be, is as perfectly-formed a guitar piece as you could hope to find.
57. John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers (with Eric Clapton), ‘Hideaway’
Well, you have to have Eric Clapton in the list. I’ve never been that much drawn to him, but the 1966 album by John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, which boasts his presence – Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton (on the cover he’s the one reading The Beano) – is magnificent throughout. ‘Hideaway’ is a Freddie King number, though King in turn borrowed the ideas from others (among them Hound Dog Taylor). It is the quintessential blues guitar instrumental, since played by countless others, but Clapton nails it and owns it.
56. Kaki King, ‘Carmine Street’
Kaki King is a modern star of the guitar, though primarily in the USA. She has got there through a combination of prodigious talent and bravura live shows. Stylistically, she has moved on from her early solo acoustic pieces, with their jazzy, percussive feel and dazzling technique. Now she undertakes bolder explorations with electric guitar, richer musical backing and multimedia presentations, though returning at times to her acoustic roots. From her first album, ‘Carmine Street’ immediately grabs the attention with its sense of musical adventure.
55. Wes Montgomery, ‘Willow Weep For Me’
Jazz guitar great Wes Montgomery had one of the most recognisable of all guitar styles (it’s in the octaves). From a 1967 album of pop cover versions (released the year before his death), this version of ‘Willow Weep for Me’ uncovers a mystery lurking within the standard that all other versions miss.
54. Jimi Hendrix, ‘Pali Gap’
In another universe, Jimi Hendrix did not die in 1970. He carried on his musical experiments with assorted ensembles who could not live up to his talent, eventually quitting America for Africa to seek out musical inspiration, much as Ginger Baker did in pursuit of the roots of drumming. After a dreadful flirtation with disco, then a period in the wilderness, Hendrix returned with a pared-down, acoustic sound that won him followers old and new. He became a favourite of the interview circuit, then discovered a talent for TV commentary and presented a highly successful series on the history of blues guitar on BBC Four. Latterly he came a respectable fourth in Strictly Come Dancing. Meanwhile, back in this universe, here’s a dreamy instrumental from the posthumous compilation Rainbow Bridge, which exemplifies the sense of quest that characterises everything he did.
53. Mark Fosson, ‘Frozen Fingers’
American roots guitarist Mark Fosson died in 2018, leaving behind rather too small a musical legacy. From an album of 1970s home acoustic guitar recordings, ‘Frozen Fingers’ establishes its excellence with the very first notes. The music has such presence.
52. Suni McGrath, ‘Cornflower Suite’
Suni McGrath was an acoustic guitarist in the American primitive fingerpicking style, who had lessons from the blues masters Reverend Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt. He made three albums in the late 60s/early 70s, revered by the cognoscenti at the time, wildly rare now. ‘Cornflower Suite’ is his greatest work – a 13-minute epic, demonstrating extraordinary technique and compositional imagination. It brings in diverse influences (European folk, Eastern), served up with with arresting time signatures and dramatic shifts in development. It may be a hymn to a flower, but it’s also a hymn to the guitar.
51. Chris Forsyth, ‘String Haters’
Chris Forsyth does walls of sound. ‘String Haters’ is titanic.
50. Bill Orcutt, ‘The Sun and its Horizon’
Bill Orcutt is an American free improvising electric guitarist with a indie music background. Of the major experimental guitarists around today, his work is perhaps the most approachable, yet there is no compromise. ‘The Sun and its Horizon’ is a lovely, yearning piece with sharp edges, from his most recent album The Odds Against Tomorrow.
49. Fleetwood Mac (with Peter Green), ‘Underway’
Peter Green had a sweetness of tone that perhaps no other electric guitar player has matched. It is the very essence of a beautiful but wordless thought. From Then Play On, the last Fleetwood Mac album on which he played, ‘Underway’ exemplifies this to perfection.
48. Tom Armstrong, ‘White Pines’
American occasional guitarist Tom Armstrong made just the one, self-published album, The Sky is an Empty Eye, in 1987. It’s a treasure trove of reflective, inventive acoustic and electric instrumentals that display the many colours that the guitar can bring. ‘White Pines’, the wistful opener, sets the tone.
47. Lonnie Johnson, ‘Guitar Blues’
Modern guitar music probably starts with Lonnie Johnson. Born in 1899, he was playing guitar in his teens, not so much in an early jazz style as creating the style, from the rhythm to the solos that so many other guitarists would then adopt. He played with Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, crossed over musically between jazz and blues, and lived long enough to find acclaim on the back of the folk revival of the 1960s. ‘Guitar Blues’, from the mid-1920s, is a dazzling, high-tempo delight. It makes the heart dance.
46. James ‘Blood’ Ulmer, ‘Timeless’
James ‘Blood’ Ulmer is among the most progressive of guitarists of recent times. He is probably the coolest. He played with Ornette Coleman in the 1970s and there has been a shape-of-guitar-to-come about his music ever since. It’s a ragged, urgent sound, with elements of funk, punk and blues thrown in, forever looking forward.
45. Nels Cline, ‘Talk of Chocolate Bed’
To call Nels Cline a jazz guitarist is ridiculously limiting. He seems at ease in any musical style, whether as a solo artist or in a countless number of collaborations. The delicate jazz that he can produce has attracted the most followers, but he is just as likely to show his experimental roots and produce something to frighten the horses. ‘Talk of Chocolate Bed’ is a case in point: it starts peculiarly enough, then grows into sheer rampage.
44. William Tyler, ‘Kingdom of Jones’
American acoustic guitarist William Tyler seems comfortable in any musical style, producing tuneful, accomplished instrumentals that are immediately approachable while revealing new riches on repeated listenings. The beautiful, questing ‘Kingdom of Jones’ is the kind of guitar music that so many other guitarists strive to achieve yet never quite get there.
43. Precious Bryant, ‘Sugar Hill Blues’
Folk blues singer and guitarist Precious Bryant had awesome presence – in how she sang, what she sang, and how she played. She was an expert exponent of the Piedmont style of fingerpicking, a powerful sound driven by an alternating bass string pattern. She had plenty to say her in songs, but she was too good a guitarist to leave out of this list just because her recorded instrumentals are few. The peppy ‘Sugar Hill Blues’ is propelled along by bass and drums, as though the folk guitarist was on the cusp of discovering rock’n’roll.
42. James Blackshaw, ‘Memories of the Fox-headed Boy’
British fingerstyle player Blackshaw ought to be known as one of the greats of the acoustic guitar of today, yet he is cited more for those he resembles than for himself. I can’t see why. So many beautiful, expressive and varied pieces from which to chose, but this sweet, early miniature seems faultless to me.
41. Fiona Boyes, ‘Hokum Rag’
Fiona Boyes is an Australian blues musician with a rasping voice and a sassy guitar style. The lively ‘Hokum Rag’, with its snare and harmonica accompaniment, differs from her regular raw blues style, but just shows what a versatile musician she is – and what fun she finds in the music.
Next up, numbers 40 to 21…