Finally we come to the top 20 of this listing of 100 instrumentals by 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. And I like lists. They make sense of things.
20. Nic Jones, ‘Planxty Davis’
Nic Jones had the most distinctive and admired style of guitar playing. In simple terms, it sounds like more than one person is playing: one providing the rhythm, the other the harmonies. It is a rough style: the listener can feel the guitar being hammered. On top of this comes a singing voice of unforced authenticity, meaning that Jones is revered (and copied) perhaps more than any other folk musician. Sadly, one has to put the reverence in the present tense but the playing in the past, as Jones lost the ability to play as he had done following a severe traffic accident in 1982. He still plays, but can never be the musician that he once was. His masterpiece is the 1980 album Penguin Eggs – go out and listen to it now. The instrumental on the set is ‘Planxty Davis’.
19. B.B. King, ‘Blues Boys Tune’
It’s in how the strings are bent. It’s in how the notes are sometimes stopped when you expect them to go on. It’s in the voice. It’s in the blues.
18. Bill MacKay, ‘Dragon Country’
American guitarist Bill MacKay is a recent discovery of mine, but already established as a stand-out performer and a reliable favourite. Occupying that interesting space between folk and the experimental (as is the case with several others on this list), he has a thoughtful, seemingly uncomplicated style through which he is always exploring new ideas, ‘Dragon Country’ being a case in point. It is singularly eloquent music.
17. Jack Rose, ‘Blessed Be the Name Of The Lord’
Jack Rose, who died in 2009 of a heart-attack, aged just thirty-eight, came out of drone/alt rock music to become one of the most accomplished and distinctive acoustic guitarists of recent years. ‘Blessed Be the Name of the Lord’ has something joyous about it, that comes from deep within the American heart.
16. Elmore James, ‘Hawaiian Boogie’
‘Hawaiian Boogie’ may not be the greatest number in Elmore James’s repertoire, but the King of the Slide Guitar didn’t record many instrumentals, and there was no way he was not featuring in the top twenty. There’s such a thing as respect. And it lays most of the competition dead in any case.
15. Gary Lucas, ‘Rise Up To Be’
I first heard Gary Lucas on the late-lamented Radio 3 programme Mixing It, where the presenters said of a live performance of ‘Rise Up to Be’ that it was hard to believe just the one person was playing the guitar. Indeed Lucas is a virtuoso, but one with a mischievous edge, which has led to an extensive, imaginative and occasionally peculiar musical legacy, including Jewish folk music, Chinese pop and silent film scores. He is best known for his stints with Captain Beefheart (Ice Cream for Crow) and Jeff Buckley, who converted this tune into the title track of his only studio album, Grace. Lucas’s bold original idea is what works best.
14. Bruce Langhorne, ‘Leaving Del Norte’
Had this been a list of guitarists accompanying songs, Bruce Langhorne could well have come out top for his exquisite accompaniment to Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. But Langhorne was a studio session man, who lived to serve. Despite losing two-and-a-bit fingers in a childhood accident, he became a guitarist of uncommon sensitivity, who – as is often the way – rose to the heights when the talent that hired him merited it. Dylan was one such case; another was Peter Fonda’s elegiac 1971 western, The Hired Hand, for which Langhorne provided the ghostly score. From the soundtrack album, ‘Leaving Del Norte’ is brief, but you never forget it.
13. Elizabeth Cotten, ‘Vastopol’
Elizabeth Cotten, like Jimi Hendrix, was a left-handed guitarist who played a right-handed guitar upside down. She developed her own fingerpicking style, playing the bass lines with her finger and the melody with her thumb. A virtue made out of an obstacle seems to sum up her music. She sang American folk songs, some traditional, some her own, with a cracked voice that goes straight to the heart. She was the epitome of authenticity. ‘Vastopol’ is a traditional tune, performed with gentle majesty.
12. Fred Frith, ‘A Path Made by Walking’
Fred Frith is one those figures from whom everything else radiates. Inspired to take up the guitar by Hank Marvin, he moved through blues music to experimental and an omnivorous interest in world music cultures. He co-founded radical music group Henry Cow in 1968, and since then has gone on to play with a huge number of collaborators (Wikipedia informs me that he has played on over 400 albums), as well as pursuing his solo work. He has always been, and continues to be, a pioneer. Sadly, some of my favourites from his great output are not available on Spotify – the legendary 1974 album Guitar Solos, his 1980 album Gravity with its priceless version of ‘Dancing in the Streets’, the documentary soundtrack Step Across the Border, or his collaboration with percussionist Evelyn Glennie. But ‘A Path Made by Walking’, from 2018, is vintage Frith, still pioneering.
11. Ry Cooder, ‘I Think Its Going to Work Out Fine’
Rock guitarists are often associated with showmanship, but the finest are distinguished by their modesty. They just play. Cue Ry Cooder.
10. Blind Blake, ‘Blind Arthur’s Breakdown’
Blind Blake was one of many blind blues singers and guitars – Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Willie McTell – who were often blind from birth, likely victims of inherited syphilis, which was a rampant in a black American population condemned to poor sanitation and inadequate medical treatment. Did they see through their guitar? The music is like another sense. Blind Blake, something of a mystery figure, recorded between 1928 and 1932. His dazzling ragtime technique can sound like a piano player having taken up the guitar. His musical vision astonishes to this day.
9. Glenn Jones, ‘Of Its Own Kind’
Glenn Jones is an American fingerstyle guitarist, one of the grand school of musicians tutored in the ‘American primitive’ style associated with John Fahey (see below). But there is something more to his music than a great facility with the steel-string acoustic guitar as a solo instrument. There is a resonance to his playing which is visual as much as aural – he conjures up time and place (many of his tunes reference particular locations). ‘Of Its Own Kind’ simply carries the listener away.
8. John Fahey, ‘Sligo River Blues’
You can float with the mainstream, or you can sail in the other direction. John Fahey set to sea in the other direction, and brought many with him, guitarists (several of them on this list) inspired by his back-to-basics approach. Fahey was inspired by the blues musicians of the 20s and 30s, but also by classical composers and avant garde music. There was a shared goal, based on sincerity over formula, discovery over acceptance. ‘Sligo River Blues’ is his signature recording – seemingly the simplest of pieces to begin with, it deepens as it proceeds, sailing onwards into uncharted waters.
7. Bill Frisell, ‘Gone, Just Like a Train’
Bill Frisell is a guitarist who makes every note tell. His is a supremely immaculate style, beguiling, even laidback, though in his early days working with John Zorn he could play thrash guitar like no one else (check out the album Naked City, if you’re brave). Originally labelled under jazz, the more obvious label for him now is Americana. There have been a few too many easy numbers and cover versions of late for my taste, so I look back to his 1998 album, Gone, Just Like a Train, the title track of which is a masterpiece of dramatic construction. It builds up tension from a gentle beginning, before Frisell well and truly lets rip, only for the track to return to gentleness once more. It’s great musical theatre.
6. Marisa Anderson, ‘In Waves’
Marisa Anderson performs quiet music with guts. Featuring hypnotic solo electric guitar, the music is a blend of country, folk and minimalism, but no label quite fits. It is something that comes out of the land, which initially come across as pleasantly introspective, but hides a harder edge. It is music for cold weather.
5. Mike Bloomfield, ‘Blues for Nothing’
Mike Bloomfield played with Bob Dylan, of course. That’s him on ‘Maggie’s Farm, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, ‘Tombstone Blues’. He created riffs and guitar licks that are an indelible part of music history. He brought the electric blues to mainstream America. What more need be said? Well, he played for many others besides Dylan (Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Electric Flag), and in this ‘super session’ with Al Kooper and Stephen Stills delivers as great a blues guitar solo as you will ever hear.
4. Etta Baker, ‘I Get the Blues When it Rains’
Etta Baker lived and played the blues for ninety years. You can only play the blues like this is if you have lived a little. It is sad, and wise, and perfect.
3. Bob Hadley, ‘Blackberry Picking’
Canadian acoustic guitarist Bob Hadley made three albums in the 1970s. He then gave up music to become a professor of computing science. Were it not for Spotify, none but the specialist collector would have known of these superlative gems. Among the many, many fingerstyle guitarists out there, the best of whom I hope are identified on this list, Hadley has just that little bit more. Maybe it’s in the melodic approach, maybe it’s the air of steady calm. Maybe he understood the guitar more. Don’t think, just listen.
2. Mary Halvorson, ‘Cheshire Hotel’
Mary Halvorson is an American avant garde jazz guitarist. That ought to condemn her to obscurity, except that for the past three years she has topped the poll as Best Guitarist in Downbeat magazine’s International Critics Poll. She has found a sound, and a mode of expression, that is quite her own – thin, bright, questioning, unsettling, a sound to make you re-think what the guitar can do, indeed where music can go. ‘Cheshire Hotel’ is beautiful and radical, a good introduction to where her music can take you.
1. Hans Reichel, ‘Good That We have Guitar Players’
And finally. Hans Reichel (1949-2011) was a guitarist insofar as the instruments that he played for the most part looked like guitars even if they didn’t sound too much like guitars. He was an inventor who built his own instruments, often strange mutations of the traditional guitar shape, with multiple necks, oddly-placed pick-ups, bridges in the middle of the strings rather than at the end. He created an instrument he named the Daxophone, a wooden blade of sorts played with a bow, which produced a bizarre, human-like voice. When he wasn’t literally re-inventing the guitar, he was a typeface designer of renown, his FF Dax typeface being widely used in advertising.
I first came across Reichel through his 1979 album The Death of the Rare Bird Ymir. It was lyrical and challenging and peculiar, the epitome of free music. ‘Free music’ sums up Reichel well. He played without barriers. Some of his recorded output is difficult for the average listener, some of it can try anyone’s patience (a little of the Daxophone goes a long way), but the best of it is enthralling, the work of an inspired mind unchained. He sought out beauty, and found it in strange places. Sadly, much of his music is now difficult to track down. Only a few records are on Spotify, and they are not always indicative of his best work – so there is no The Death of the Rare Bird Ymir or the equally fine Bonobo Beach. But how could I resist ‘Good That We have Guitar Players’ as the instrumental with which to conclude this list? Thank you to them all.
The full one hundred is here, all seven hours and eight minutes of it: