Here is the fourth of five posts listing a top 100 favourite guitarists of mine, from number 100 to number one. All of the pieces 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 great names, some obvious names, and quite a few marginal figures – downright obscure in some places. I do wonder at those I have overlooked. The instrumentals requirement meant the exclusion of some notables (Robert Johnson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe), but what was I doing leaving out Buddy Guy, Martin Carthy, Duane Eddy…? Well, all I can say is that everyone on the list has earned their place, and I would not to lose any of them.
So we’ll just blame the meaningless taste for round numbers, and press on with 40 to 21.
40. Martin Simpson, ‘Plains of Waterloo / James Connolly’
Martin Simpson is one of English folk music’s most distinguished guitarists. Known as a singer and as accompanist to many others, he has also recorded many instrumentals. The plangent tone shows how the particular power of the guitar (particularly the solo or melodic line) lies in how it echoes the human voice. It is music that, though without words, still sings.
39. Freddie King, ‘Funky’
For many, not least Eric Clapton and others from the 1960s British blues boom, Freddie King was the electric blues guitarist. He had the sounds, he had the manner, he played like a man inspired. His recorded output is uneven, but ‘Funky’ lets rip with a fine soul backing.
38. Nathan Salsburg, ‘Eight Belles Dreamt the Devil was Dead’
Nathan Salsburg is curator at Alan Lomax Archive at the Association for Cultural Equity, a body formed by the great American musicologist to “explore and sustain the world’s expressive traditions with humanistic commitment and scientific engagement”. Salsburg’s acoustic guitar music feels like the embodiment of such a goal. It is expressive, humanistic and profoundly engaging. One pities the dull mind that is not transported by a piece such as ‘Eight Belles Dreamt the Devil was Dead’. Come on, just the title alone…
37. G.F. Fitz-Gerald, ‘Opal Pyramid Drifting Over Time’
Fitz-Gerald is the mystery man of British guitar music. Lurking on the fringes of the R’n’B and experimental music worlds since the 1960s, he has only produced the one album under his own name, though he has appeared on many other people’s records (I first came across him on the Fred Frith-compiled Guitar Solos 2). His 1970 album Mouseproof is wildly eclectic in style (think late psychedelic folk), with the dreamy epic instrumental ‘Opal Pyramid Drifting Over Time’ at its heart.
36. Michele Bonifati, ‘Idiot Wind’
Italian electric guitarist Michele Bonifati’s 2016 instrumental album Another Side of Bob Dylan is one of the most remarkable sets of Dylan covers that I have come across. He takes the familiar into places not previously imagined, yet does so with such lightness and economy. Either you know Dylan, and the way he re-interprets ‘Idiot Wind’ into something else entirely will draw you deep into the music as you try to find the connections; or you will hear a quietly meditative piece that is beautiful on its own terms. Either way, it is music to give time to.
35. Bert Jansch, ‘Alice’s Wonderland’
Bert Jansch was the guitarist that other guitarists want to be, and never will be. That said, his is a style that I’ve entirely warmed to (his band Pentangle over-complicated things, I always felt), but you have to acknowledge a master.
34. Debbie Davies, ‘Fishnet’
Debbie Davies is a fabulous blues guitarist. She just has the right sound. She’s an American musician, both singer and guitarist, who has played with Albert Collins and Duke Robillard, but she’s the equal of any of the great blues names. The virtuoso ‘Fishnet’ – a Robillard song whose macho swagger she completely turns on its head – comes from her 2009 album Holdin’ Court, which may just boast the best album cover ever.
33. Lou Reed, ‘Metal Machine Music, Pt. 1’
Metal Machine Music horrified people when it came out in 1975. A double-album torrent of feedback and wild electronic sounds, devoid of any recognisable musical structure – just one long metallic scream. Well, yes, that is true. It is also singularly beautiful. It’s every worthwhile tune that was ever thought of, all played at once. It has a quality of sweetness, which might come from the high pitch of some of the sounds, or those cries of what sound like seagulls at the start of Part 1. It is the electric guitar giving voice to its feelings once the humans are out of the way.
32. Django Reinhardt, ‘Django’s Tiger’
Just think what musical heights he might have climbed if he had had ten working fingers instead of eight.
31. Booker T. & the M.G.s (with Steve Cropper), ‘Time Is Tight’
Steve Cropper was the guitarist in the Stax Records house band, Booker T. and he M.G.s. They made soul music. Cropper had (or rather has, because he’s still with us) perfect judgement, and ‘Time is Tight’ is the most perfectly-judged piece of music you will hear. It is the definitive piece of modern music, and so of course the guitar breaks could not be bettered.
30. Gunn-Truscinski Duo (with Steve Gunn), ‘Some Lunar Day’
Steve Gunn is an American singer-songwriter who, having served his dues for some years now, appears to be on the verge of wider recognition. He’s accomplished guitarist, never lacking for interesting ideas. The haunting ‘Some Lunar Day’, from a instrumental collaboration with drummer John Truscinski, feels like a rougher version of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Albatross’: less romantic, more convincingly evocative of sea, sky and journey.
29. Fennesz, ‘Circassian’
The music of Austrian producer (Christian) Fennesz is half-guitar, half-laptop. He produces rich, almost melodic, sometimes idyllic, soundscapes whose source is not always easy to determine. He has worked particularly well for the cutely-named Fenn O’Berg trio (Fennesz, Peter Rehberg, Jim O’Rourke). From his fine solo album Venice, ‘Circassian’ is a glorious outpouring of harmonious noise, like the underlying sound of something profoundly optimistic.
28. Mary Flower, ‘Atchafalaya’
Mary Flower is an American fingerstyle guitarist, folk blues singer and music educator. There is nothing academic about her playing, however – you’ll not come anything more authentic. Her music ranges from the muscular to lively ragtime to definitive blues (her version of Son House’s ‘Death Letter Blues’ is awe-inspiring). ‘Atchafalaya’ shows she does lyrical too.
27. Mats Bergström, ‘Nursery Rhymes I’
Swedish classical guitarist Mats Bergström has a mischievous side. When he is not making recordings of composers great and new, with a particular facility for chamber music, he lets himself go on his solo recordings. His 2013 album Dadadado is a model exercise in testing how far you can go with the guitar, while still retaining discipline. That makes it sound a bit austere – but it’s nothing but. ‘Nursery Rhymes I’, though brief, is wild fun, something like a Tom and Jerry cartoon soundtrack (complete with crashes and skid noises).
26. Leo Kottke, ‘Lost John’
Guitar on fire.
25. Richard Thompson, ‘Banish Misfortune’
Of course Richard Thompson should be at the top of such a list, because you can’t imagine his guitar playing to be second to anyone else. From folk rock with Fairport Convention, to heartfelt recordings with his then wife Linda, to gleeful workouts with experimenters like Fred Frith and Henry Kaiser, to a solo career that has been rich and powerful, everything he has done has been marked by exceptional guitar playing. He has simply found more expression in the instrument, particularly the electric guitar, than most. But he is primarily a singer-songwriter, with not that many instrumentals in the recorded repertoire. Where you can find them, they delight. The Celtic folk-ish ‘Banish Misfortune’ comes from his 1981 album of instrumentals Strict Tempo!.
24. Hayden Pedigo, ‘Greetings from Amarillo’
Amarillo’s finest, Hayden Petigo is perhaps the most interesting and promising young guitarist out there. He plays quiet, introspective pieces interspersed with off-kilter experiments, music that unsettles as much as it beguiles.
23. Happy Traum, ‘Poor Howard’
What is the best album of music that was never made? Well, that sort of argument will run and run, but I think I could make a strong case for the album that could have been made in September 1971 when Bob Dylan worked with Happy Traum on four immaculately-realised songs, ‘Down In The Flood’, ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’, ‘I Shall Be Released’ and ‘Only a Hobo’. It never was the intention to record more, but if that literally happy collaboration had continued, what a classic would have emerged. Traum, a key figure in the Greenwich Village folk scene, has been the most proficient of folk musicians, writing several instruction books for budding guitarists. If only you could follow every lesson completely: ‘Poor Howard’ would be the result.
22. John Renbourn, ‘The Pelican’
English folk musician is best-known for his collaborations with Bert Jansch. He rates more highly on this list than Jansch for the varied nature of his solo work (branching out into medieval music and jazz), but particularly for this haunting long number from his 1979 instrumental album The Black Balloon. ‘The Pelican’ is the epitome of musical grace.
21. Marc Ribot, ‘The Cocktail Party’
Marc Ribot has not only a sound that is unmistakably his own (the mark of a great guitarist) but an entire style. No one else has anything like the jagged guitar music that he has brought to Tom Waits and many other collaborators, a mixture of blues, jazz, rock and raw sound. On ‘The Cocktail Party’ he shows that he also does funky.
Coming up, numbers 20 to 1…