This question could apply to anything concerning music- What makes a great singer, oboe player, pianist, etc… But since I’m a guitar player, and spend so much more time listening to guitarists, I chose to write about what I think makes a great gutiarist. Of course this is all also a personal opinion, really more based off of what I know as a musician.
Rolling Stone, as well all know, is a pretty brutal, and always has been quite a stupid magazine even when it was more rock oriented, but they made this 100 Greatest Guitarist edition featuring these four players on the cover: Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and Eddie Van Halen.
and of course, it featured they’re constant number one player Jimi Hendrix on it at least three more times, as opposed to these other men who were only featured once. All of them, regardless are some of the best at their trade.
I, being a huge fan of Mr. Jimmy Page, have considered him my favorite guitarist, and definitely one of the best, and disagree with Rolling Stone on having made Jimi Hendrix number one. It apparently is based on how influential a guitarist is, so I’ll make it my first point on what makes a great guitarist.
100 guitar players are obviously featured on this list, but the placement, and even omitting of some guitarists (like Zakk Wylde) is incredible to me. If this is based on influence, I’ll never understand why Mr. Rory Gallagher is placed at 56, and John Lennon, who was hardly even a guitarist was placed at 55. Influential things like his incredible solos and usage of pinch harmonics in 1975 was more than anything John Lennon did between his career in the Beatles much less his generic ’70s rock and folk music career up until his final album released in 1980. Either way, to not make this a Rolling Stone rant, Lennon was influential toward the end of the Beatles’ career with songs like I Want You (She’s So Heavy) and Julia. The band itself was probably more influential than Rory Gallagher, sure, but Lennon himself? I disagree. Either way, extending passed famous musicians, a guitarist friend of mine who only used to play for the choir talent show inspired me to be a better guitar player hoping to influence others.
Another thing that makes a guitar player great is the understanding of their instrument like any other musician. Since Jimmy Page is my favorite, I’ll go on to explain with him. Something that always fascinated me about him was the amount of improvisation that he did in live shows. Again with influence, after Jimi Hendrix passed away, he took the torch forwarding the development of rock guitar as well as the genre being the grandfather of heavy metal. The reason he forwarded the development of playing rock guitar was his ability to improvise his playing on stage. Though often claiming he could never remember a solo, he never delivered two solos of the same kind. This of course is due to knowing his instrument well. For pianists, it may be easy. C is before those two black keys, C# follows, and so on. As a singer, I don’t really need to memorize where an A is. Someone can play that for me, and I suppose for flutes and other wind and brass instruments you sort of have to memorize where and how to play the notes, but guitar is something else (I’m not undermining another instrument, it’s just myself, and so many guitar players have this problem). There are 6 strings and about 24 frets and many (like myself) can’t be bothered to memorize where a C6 is on any string which makes it a little hard to improvise if you wanted to use it over maybe a backtrack in the key of F or something. A guitarist like Jimmy Page seemed to have that down considering his skill of improvisation; a different solo every night he played.
Finally, what I believe makes a great guitarist in my opinion, is knowing how to make a good sounding song; a nice melodic thing of music. Many guitarists do this; Eric Clapton, Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Mick Mars, Chris Bodrick (bless him he has a degree in music/guitar), Rory Gallagher, Tony Iommi, George Harrison, Slash to an extent and a number of others. Other’s in opposition like Jamie Cook, Zakk Wylde, I guess, are both guilty of never getting out of the pentatonic scale, and the more famous chug-a-luggers, and people who rely more on the sound of the guitar rather than making a good solo are just guilty of not being good guitarists in my opinion, and with reason of course. I feel like the ability to create music using a guitar is an attribute to being a good guitarist, just like our favorite singers when they make a song, if they make a tune that just makes you wonder if they at any point in their life took music theory, and it was just so brilliant you have to sit down and ponder on it, it’s the same with guitarists. I can appreciate Zakk Wylde, and Jamie Cook, sure, but it’s a guitarist like Jimmy Page that makes me wonder how his brain even managed to compose a guitar “orchestra” as he put it with Achilles Last Stand.
Guitarists are fascinating, and despite what Rolling Stone says, there are so many more who are influential, who know how to work their guitar, and know how to make me wonder. That’s what makes a good guitarist.
To conclude, I’m gonna throw in my favorite solo. I know, the ’70s was a weird time with bell bottoms, long hair, open shirts and Robert Plant, so bare with me, but here’s a video of the live version of Jimmy Page’s solo in Stairway to Heaven. Nearly 100% improvised (especially if you’re familiar with the song, you’ll notice) and 100% makes me wonder…