Friday, May 4, 2012

Spin's 100 greatest guitarists of all time 100% guarantee to piss off guitar nerds....

Every work day I catch a bus past the Enmore Theatre, a pretty famous venue in Sydney. Often you'll see fans milling around the street before you get to the theatre and I like to play the game "guess the band?" based on the fans. Usually, they're easy to pick by their t-shirts, age or demeanor (emo!) but the crowd I could honestly not pick was the one for famous guitar wanker Steve Vai. It was an odd podge of fans in Fender shirts and various states of age and dagginess. Guitar fans are a weird and eclectic bunch. I know this because I was one as a teenager: slavishly learning to play the instrument after school while reading numerous guitar magazines which were dedicated to metal or Hendrix, Page and Clapton. Guitar fans are opinionated weirdos whose weirdness and arrogance is only beaten by 99% of people who work at guitar stores (I hate those guys - standing around, preening their mullets while talking about shredding until they feel they might condescend to help you). It is a weird culture (did I mention it is weird?).

Therefore I am oddly intrigued by Spin's list of their top 100 greatest guitarists of all time because they are obviously fucking with us but in particular fucking with guitar snobs. At number 100, they listed Skrillex and at number 10 they listed Jam Master Jay. If you look at the comments, the guitar fans are out in force "No Page? No Hendrix?" they wail, "The Editors should just kill themselves" they scream. The list compilers have hit a nerve in the guitar community and while those inclusions are patently ridiculous and do nothing more than underline how arbitrary and stupid these kind of lists are, there is also something refreshingly beautiful about it too.

How so? The typical go-to guys (Page, Hendrix, Van Halen blah blah blah...) deserve their place in history because they were great but they often get mentioned because they were first. These top 100 guitarist lists are always at the expense of anyone post-1980 because everyone is obligated to include those guys who set up the whole rock God thing. With Spin dispensing with these obligatory crowd pleasing antics, it has opened up a number of interesting possibilities which they've actually exploited (apart from the out and out controversy courting by listing Skrillex and Jam Master Jay). For example, at number 82 is Kristen Hersh who wouldn't get in cooee of a list like this normally but the Throwing Muses have always been driven by her nascent and spiky guitar lines which are at times as odd as they are beautiful. I can't remember seeing d. boon in any list like this and it's always a joy to see PJ Harvey mentioned because she is a great guitarist who uses simple structures in the most complex ways. Other interesting inclusions from my point of view are Rowland S. Howard and Mick Harvey, Bob Mould, Duane Denison and Doug Martsch. 

What distinguishes this Spin list from the usual guitar great lists is that it has:

a) moved beyond the historical element of guitar playing;
b) focused on contributions and innovation rather than pure shredding; and,
c) avoided blind current populism (if you ignore the Skrillex thing).

I think, in particular, b is most important. I mean while Kirk Hammet can shred, what has he really added to the vocabulary of guitar playing and do we need to see him again on one of these lists? That's not to say the list doesn't have its problems. It was obviously compiled by someone my age as it is weighs way to heavily on 90's indie players and there a number of innovative metal players who it would have been nice to have seen. But I enjoyed reading it and to be honest, seeing all those great comments ("Who put this list together? No, Malmsteen, Gilbert, Satriani, Petrucci, Eric Johnson, SRV, Hendrix, Clapton....") from the guitar head masses is actually very entertaining.Sure this list may have been generated to create controversy and page views but strangely, it gets a whole lot of stuff right. When the guitar nerds are offended, you must be doing something right.



  1. ha, baiting the wankers, it should be called. No bunch of musos are more self-righteous (except maybe hardcore classicists) than guitar-store wankers. I have a phrase for every one of them shredd/wanking in store: DiddlyDiddlyDiddly as they finger-tap their lame-ass VanHalenisms all over the place.

    What's that brilliant Far Side cartoon of a big gorilla shredding in a guitar store? Clerk to customer: 'Yeah, he's good; but there was an ourang-outang here last week who could *floor* him'.

    So, any sub-socio-group of people deserve to have their gods stripped and tasered away from them. And remember this all started with some wag acolyte spraying 'Clapton is God' on some wall in the 60s.

    There are many great technical virtuosi guitarists, banging their locks and kicking their picks into the audience, and some awesomely, alienly talented ones (Hendrix) but very few true Revolutionaries of the Axe. They tend to be hiding behind the scenes in great songs - leaving all this musical space for the music to flourish in, or playing only as much as needed. Not DiddlyDiddlyDiddly every note they can cram in like endless moneyshots.

    Anyhoo, I could bang on and on like a Page solo, cos I've seen my fair share of insane ego and silliness in guitar stores.

    But I'm learning piano.

  2. I think I could write a book on guitar store wankers, they are so obnoxious yet so easily lampooned and pitied. I hate guitar store workers though - condescending, Van Halen wannabes whose time came and went in 1987 yet they can't move on and take it out on the patrons of their stores. I wonder if this is an Australian phenomenon or all stores are like this around the world? Customer Service? Forget about it. Hey dude, I don't want to wait twenty minutes to hear you recount to your buddy about how you totally tore it up last night doing Hendrix covers at the Blaxland RSL, can I just buy these frickin' strings please?

  3. Well, I'm not necessarily a typical guitar nerd. Still, I didn't see a lot of logical choices in that list. Instead, there's a definite agenda. I mean, here's a basic- Tom Verlaine. What percentage of that list wouldn't have touched a guitar if not for Television? I mean, leave out my favorite players like Geordie, or Frankie NW Stubbs- both of whom have inspired several of the players on that list- it still seems way too much on trend. I suppose that's to be expected; it's a big glossy mag, I get it. But, that's why I'd side with the nerds on this one. As annoying as they are to outsiders, they have a real culture. I mean it's like a religion, or an ethnic group- if you're not part of the group, you feel alienated by it. But, I'll take that over an effort to sell me crap. While the list does send a few feelers into cultures I really would recognize, it truly engages in none of them, because the people behind it just want to use those feelers to create a false bond of identification, so's I'll trust 'em when they want to sell me stuff.
    Now, no offense meant to the fine art of marketing- I'm not some 20 year old glue sniffer crying sell out- but when we're talking aesthetics, mine are geared towards a more idiosyncratic bent....