And since you already know about Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and other famous and undeniable players, I thought I’d focus on 16 of the lesser known (by the general pop-music listening populace that is) players that have enriched the musical landscape widely, uniquely, or both.
Here they are, in no particular order.
One of the first blues musicians to take up the electric guitar and use it regularly on her long recording career, Memphis Minnie (born Lizzy Douglas in 1897), was an early pioneer who brought the blues out of a rural, acoustic setting and into an electric, urban one much to the edification of people like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and laterally nearly every rock player currently plugging in. In 1929, she recorded what is probably her most celebrated song “When the Levee Breaks”, recorded and made even more famous by Led Zeppelin in 1971.
Recommended listening: “When the Levee Breaks”
2. Wes Montgomery
A late bloomer to the guitar, learning the instrument at the advanced age of 20, Wes Montgomery soon became a giant in the field of jazz guitar, for all time. His claim to fame, besides his supernatural improvisational abilities, was his unique playing style, using his thumb and eschewing a guitar pick, a practice leftover from the evenings of late night practices without wanting to disturb his sleeping family. The effect is much like the flight of a bumblebee — seemingly impossible, and yet highly efficient.
Recommended listening: “Impressions“
3. Wanda Jackson
The undisputed Queen of Rockabilly, Wanda Jackson is to Oklahoma City to what Elvis is to Memphis. In fact, the two were a brief romantic item in the mid-50s, recording some of the same songs, including “Hard-Headed Woman” and “Let’s Have a Party”. Wanda’s approach comes out of country music traditions, with the grit of R&B mixed right in. She’s an active performer today, still keeping the flame of proto-rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly alive.
Recommended Listening: “Money Honey“
4. Link Wray
A largely uncelebrated figure to many, Link Wray was a key player in the development of instrumental rock. Link Wray and the Ray Men can be credited for the early use of distortion, and perhaps more famously, the earliest use of the power chord. His 1958 instrumental hit “Rumble” looms large , with a clear influence on surf-rock bands into the 60s, and in more recent times on soundtracks — including that of the movie Pulp Fiction.
Recommended listening: “Rumble“
5. Les Paul
A musician, and inventor, Les Paul’s name is borne on the guitar he invented, and the first solid body guitar in the world; the Gibson Les Paul. In addition to this, he invented the studio of multitrack recording, something we take for granted today. He took his own jazz influenced country-pop guitar licks, and created the first overdubs, filling out the sound in an unprecedented manner for the time. Along with a choir of overdubbed harmonies from then-wife Mary Ford, he managed to be innovative and have hits. His importance to the guitar, and to modern recording cannot be underestimated.
Recommended Listening: “The World is Waiting For A Sunrise“
Albert King was a singular figure in blues and soul playing. A left-handed player, King learned to play the guitar upside down on right-handed guitars, with the low E-string on the bottom, and all of his chord-shapes inverted. Further, King employed open tunings, that made his approach to the instrument a singular one. Among the many players he influenced, the most high profile may be Stevie Ray Vaughn, with whom he duetted in the early 80s.
Recommended Listening: “Born Under A Bad Sign“
7. Steve Cropper
If you’re a fan of 60s soul music, chances are you’ve heard Steve Cropper play. He was a key member of the Stax/Voltz family, and the guitar-slinger in Booker T. & The MGS, the label’s house band who backed soul greats Otis Redding, Sam, Dave, and Wilson Pickett, among many others. His playing is razor sharp, making any song he plays on exceptional, and epitomizing the “Memphis guitar” sound. Cropper is the co-writer on a tune you may have heard: “(Sitting on the) Dock of the Bay”.
Recommended listening: “Green Onions“
8. Jerry Reed
Jerry Reed’s playing was unorthodox, confounding early attempts at formal training, with keen abilities on the instrument that made him a standout during the development of the cosmopolitan country sound. His trademark use of a nylon-stringed guitar can be heard on his 1967 hit “Guitar Man”, later recorded by Elvis Presley. When the King needed the “Jerry Reed sound” on his version, Jerry Reed submitted that the best way to get it was to have Jerry Reed play on the track. He did, and he was right.
Recommended listening: “Guitar Man“
A master of the Fender Telecaster, and yet another Elvis Presley sideman, James Burton brought something of the swamp into his playing, thanks to his Louisiana upbringing. Burton backed Elvis on his early comeback period in Las Vegas, along with later stints with Emmylou Harris’ ‘Hot Band’, among with many other appearances. Never has rockabilly and country sounded so funky as when James Burton was playing it.
Recommended Listening: “Mystery Train“
10. Richard Thompson
A national treasure in his native Britain, and a founding father in late 60s British folk-rock starting with his time in Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson’s skill with the guitar is only rivaled by his abilities as a songwriter. Thompson forged an impressive career even after leaving the Fairports, creating classic albums with his then-wife Linda Thompson (neé Peters), and as a solo artist up until the present.
Recommended Listening: “1952 Vincent Black Lightning“
11. Peter Green
Former John Mayall Bluesbreakers lead guitarist, and founder/leader of Fleetwood Mac by the end of the 60s, Peter Green is an electric blues innovator, adding psychedelic flourishes, and pure rock muscle into the mix before his departure from the band by the early 70s. Among his many admirers, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana (who recorded Green’s “Black Magic Woman”), and Jimmy Page have all acknowledged his skills with a guitar, known for a distinctive style in its use of vibrato and sustain before these techniques were widely used.
Recommended listening: “The Supernatural“
12. Michael Bloomfield
Bob Dylan, who hired him in 1965 to play on Highway 61 Revisited, called Michael Bloomfield “the best guitar player I’d ever heard”, and he was not alone in that opinion. Bloomfield grew up in Chicago and learning his craft at the feet of his heroes in sweaty, crowded blues clubs along with his compatriot and musical partner, blues-harp master Paul Butterfield. Bloomfield’s flammable licks with Paul Butterfield Blues band revitalized the American blues scene, and his work on Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” alone makes him a legend.
Recommended listening: “Born in Chicago“
When Steve Hackett joined Genesis in 1971, he added important texture to the complicated, yet lyrical, progressive rock the band was known for. And in terms of technique, he introduced important innovation to the guitar. The tapping technique he used in pieces like “The Musical Box” and “Supper’s Ready” while with Genesis were later employed and more widely popularized by Eddie Van Halen. His solo career continued to bridge the gaps between rock, folk, and classical guitar playing.
Recommended Listening: “Horizons“
14. Alison Robertson (AKA ‘Donna R’)
When it comes to amalgamating the attack of punk rock and the muscle of blues-rock and heavy metal, Alison Robertson of the Donnas (and billed as Donna R) is a skillful alchemist. Taking cues from both the Ramones, and from Angus & Malcolm Young, Robertson’s ability to build riffs around which to construct extremely hook-laden pop songs in a rock vein makes her an indispensable element to her band. And a further ability to do this without getting in the way of the songs is also an important, and undeniable example to all rock players.
Recommended listening: “It Takes One To Know One“
Although she’s pretty well known for her radio hits, not many people realize what a dexterous, lyrical, and versatile a guitar player she is. Easily integrating the blues, country, and pop, Raitt’s signature slide guitar is like a second voice to her lead vocal. But, her intuition with the subtleties of the blues as well as its living spirit is a true standout skill. This is an influence she’s passed on to newer players in the same vein.
Recommended listening: “Sugar Mama“
16. Charlie Hunter
The Charlie Hunter Trio is comprised of guitar, sax, a drummer — and no bassist — exploring jazz, psychedelic rock, and everything in between. But doing without a bass player is easy when you can play guitar and bass parts yourself. In Charlie Hunter’s case, his eight-stringed guitar gets him there quite ably, with his own almost supernatural ability with balancing melody and countermelody.
Recommended listening: “Come As You Are“
There are so many other names I could have talked about here, so many unsung heroes and heroines — David Rhodes, Andy Summers, Curtis Mayfield, Ollie Halsall, Robbie Robertson, Bruce Cockburn, Susan Tedeschi, Marc Ribot are also among my personal favourites. What are some of yours? Who should have made this list? Tell me all about it in the comments section, good people!
“Memphis Minnie” Source Unknown
“Electric Guitar” Jsome1 @ flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“Link Wray” by Anthony Pepitone
“Albert King” Wikipedia
“James Burton by Scott Dudelson” Wikipedia
“Steve Hackett” Wikipedia
“Bonnie Raitt” Wikipedia