In no particular order I present to you the 5 guitarists who had the biggest impact on my playing.
This choice might be controversial to some. After all Kurt Cobain wasn’t exceptionally skilled as a guitar player. However his guitar playing for me was the perfect gateway into becoming a guitarist. The fact that his songs weren’t complicated and could easily be learned in their entirety by a beginner was the greatest gift I could have had as a novice. I started playing guitar right around the time I first got into Nirvana, and I was given a catalogue of songs that were not way beyond my abilities to learn as a beginner, and for that I will always have a soft spot in my heart for good ol’ Nirvana.
It does go beyond that though. Kurt Cobain wasn’t only the beginner guitarist’s perfect idol, he epitomised the notion that its not all about playing guitar with great skill. I think he certainly had some technical ability, but his guitar solos were all about energy and feeling. I remember seeing the Live Tonight Sold Out film on VHS as an adolescent, and admiring the sheer awesomeness of the solo to Breed, which he performed writhing on the floor. There was something about that idea, that its more about energy and emotion than technical prowess that has always stuck with me as a guitar player.
I’ve listened to Nirvana so many times, that I probably wouldn’t willingly put them on anymore, but I have everything to thank Kurt Cobain for, because undoubtedly without his influence I would not be a guitarist, and my life would be measurably worse for it.
Unlike Nirvana, whose music I absorbed through the influence of my older brothers, the White Stripes were totally my own discovery in that they were among the first music that I took home rather than took from home in some way. For that reason they felt special to me. Like they were my thing.
His songs were simple enough for a beginner to learn, but often also went into more advanced territory. I can remember listening to the guitar solos on Elephant in complete awe. He had a sound that was really raw and manic. The solos on Ball and Biscuit are a prime example. Pure screeching energy. I had to get me some of that.
He was the first guitarist that I consciously tried to emulate with gear, picking up my own Digitech Whammy for that intense high pitched squeal and a EHX Big Muff Pi for the beefy fuzz. I saw them twice before they split, and they were incredible. Jack and Meg White were pure brilliance. I hope they decide to reform their duo sometime.
There was one album that I listened to on my cassette Walkman more than any other during high school and that was Rage Against the Machine’s first album. There was one sentence in the linear notes that I couldn’t get my head around. “All sounds produced by guitars, bass, drums and vocals” or words to that effect. I didn’t get it. His guitar playing is just unique and set apart from any other.
He can make a guitar sound like a DJ scratching records. Or a helicopter. Or a siren. It’s just incredible how one guy can come up with so many new and unique techniques for playing guitar, as well as come up with some rocking intense riffs to go along with it.
Rage Against the Machine were just a unique, rebellious, funky, heavy, awesome band that opened my mind in terms of the possibilities of the guitar.
Some of you are probably rolling your eyes right now. But I can’t be honest with myself and not include Jimi on this list. He is still a massive influence on my playing. Every day I sit and noodle trying to emulate his incredible style of fusing lead and rhythm playing (listen to Little Wing for an awesome example.
He just totally revolutionised the guitar and his greatness has not even been remotely challenged by any other guitarist since. You could listen to Jimi Hendrix every day, and spend 30 years learning his sounds and you’ll still find something in there that makes you go ‘how the f**k did he do that?’
So I understand the impulse, and that some people think they are cool when they say ‘Hendrix was overrated’ but the fact of the matter is he invented modern rock guitar and no one has been able to play better since. So shut up and go listen to some Hendrix.
Although the Red Hot Chilli Peppers have been on my radar for years, its only been recently that I got into John Frusciante as a guitarist. I think he is easily the greatest living rock guitarist. But I include him on this list more because of how he approaches music.
John Frusciante has an almost religious devotion to music, and he connects with the guitar not only on a purely technical level, but to him it is something more transcendent. You might be put off when he talks about other dimensions and ghosts etc. But his essential message is that the guitar is more than just a piece of wood with strings on it, that it is something you can use to express something, to communicate something, and that the ability to perform music is sacred and transcendent.
I don’t use those terms to mean there is something actually magical or religious about playing the guitar, but that it is something more than just muscle memory and music theory. That it connects with something deeper. If you want some inspiration to grab your guitar, and play it every day with a deep reverence for it then you should get into John Frusciante. Once you get what he is about, you get his guitar playing and you can’t help but be inspired by it.