10. Tony Iommi. An interesting figure because he is Classic Rock but also the Godfather of Heavy Metal. But if you listen to those early Black Sabbath songs, they are quite different from today’s metal. They have a horror-movie moodiness and tremendous imagination. Unlike today’s metal, Iommi was firmly connected to the blues.
9. Richie Blackmore. I call Blackmore the architect. By that I mean that no one structures a lead more intelligently. Exhibit A: “Highway Star.” Blackmore is all rationality and planning – and he had a great Strat sound.
8. David Gilmour. Epic sound, which is exactly what Pink Floyd needed. (Chicken and egg question: Was it because he was in Pink Floyd that he developed an epic sound?) Listen to the long, soaring notes in “Time.” It’s like Lord of the Rings in a rock lead guitar.
7. Duane Allman. To me, Allman defines the Gibson sound. Those Humbucker pick-ups have a kind of horn-like sound to my ears that can sound cheesy when played by your average guitarist. Using his slide he could be graceful and energetic at the same time. Too bad he ate a peach.
UPDATE: According to Wikipedia, I fell for an urban legend.
There is a widely believed urban legend that Eat a Peach was a reference to the type of truck that killed Duane, however that is not true; though the cover art of the album does a depict a truck underneath a giant peach, and whether or not it is a reference to Duane's accident or not is unknown.
6. Johnny Winter. He smokes. Listen to “Be Careful With A Fool.” He is unbelievably fast. And the great thing is that, unlike the post-new wave/punk/metal revolution guitarists, Winter never loses the emotion. He never sounds mechanical and alienating.
5. Jeff Beck. I can’t play as well as anyone on this list, but I can understand what most of the others are doing. I mean, they sound rational. With Beck, I think, “What th… WHAT DID HE JUST DO?!” He is the most imaginative lead guitarist. He does things with his whammy bar most people would never dream of.
4. Neil Young. No, really – he’s good. I’ve heard guitarists laugh at him because in some of his leads he plays one note over and over. Yes, but what a note! Nobody else sounds like Young. I get the impression that he never copied anyone else, he just sat down and worked to make the sounds in his head reality. The result is quirky, sometimes naïve and straight from the heart.
3. Alvin Lee. Fluid. No one comes close to his fluidity. He moves his fingers over a fretboard with astonishing ease. He gets from note to note the way Muhammad Ali moved in a ring, the way Fred Astaire danced. I think the new wave/punk/metal revolution of the late ‘70s was particularly hard on him and Winter, both blues rockers, whose careers went into decline after the deluge.
2. Jimmy Page. Defined hard rock lead guitar. He puts a bite into every note that energizes his leads. His style is the opposite of Alvin Lee’s because every note is distinct, like he had to work for it, but he’s also fast. There is one amazing moment in the lead of “Dazed and Confused,” where his lead is working and working, building to a frenzy, and then he hits a pick squeal – a mistake or was it planned? I don’t know, but it is the perfect variation from the flurry of notes that makes the lead both exciting and moving, and then it climaxes in power chords with Bonham wailing on his drums.
1. Jimi Hendrix. The sorcerer. Before him rock leads were black and white; he showed us color. Before him, Newton; he was Einstein. The opposite of Blackmore, in that I don’t think he really planned it out, but was all improvisation of the moment. At his worst he is unfocused and dull (read: stoned out of his gourd); at his best he is the best. “Voodoo Child” walks the edge of anarchy and chaos, exploring how far one can go with an electric guitar, but never quite falls over the edge. Like all of hard rock, I can only take him in small doses (I listen to classical music more now), but when I was a child, he was the man.
Why 11 instead of 10? Hey, haven’t you seen Spinal Tap?
(My thanks to Billy Beck of Two-Four for his insights that sparked my thinking on rock guitarists.)
UPDATE: Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists list puts Neil Young at 83, after such guitarists as Joni Mitchell, Steven Stills, Johnny Ramone, Jack White and Lou Reed. Please. That is just idiotic.