Judging from the response I got a few weeks ago to my column entitled "Binky's Revenge: My Own Damned List of Most Influential Guitarists" (over 1,000 Likes and over 200 Comments... thank you all!), I am clearly not the only one with a love/hate relationship with those foolish lists. Much more importantly, it was gratifying to see how many of you care about guitars and those who play them -- although I did get one sarcastic message: "I had no idea guitars are so important"... Yeah, well... They are!
Naturally, lots of suggestions arrived regarding those I'd left out. There were several really glaring omissions. Mea culpa, baby. I'll deal with some of them guys here. There must've been 100 comments suggesting I'd left out someone who was in no way qualified, other than "He's my favorite!" It was also amusing to hear from people who wanted to know how I could've possibly excluded someone that I'd actually written about. Fail! Also a few scornful posts regarding the blandness/predictability of my list. Hey, influence is, more often than not, a result of fame, notoriety, success... So, yeah, sorry. But, here come some obscure-o-rama wonders this time.
Frankly, there's so much crap crammed into my skull regarding Everything Guitar that I'm baffled as to how to organize the drivel I plan to spew here... Screw it. Don't think, type! Okay, boss...
I was given a guitar on Thanksgiving Day 1963, as an early Christmas gift, by a friend of my parents who worked for a musical instrument distributor. It was blond plywood with black paint accents, a piece of unplayable shit. But, it was a real 3/4 size steel-stringed guitar, not a toy. The country was in the thrall of a TV show called Hootenanny. It was the Folk Music precursor to rock variety shows like Shindig and Hullabaloo, not much more than a year down the road. In 1963, the folk flava was pervasive. The maudlin saccharine of songs like "Where Have All The Flowers Gone" by The Kingston Trio were all over my beloved rock ʻnʼ roll radio stations playlists. Dire dire dire. Out of nowhere, in a matter of months, America had fallen in love with "Folk Music."
Truly, the only actual common denominator for this music was that it was all played on acoustic guitars. Acoustic guitars were full-blown pop culture icons. Now, I had one. But, other than putting some decals on it from one of my AMT model car kits, I ignored it wholly. I simply hated folk music. Hence, I hated that gifted guitar. It collected dust in the corner.
In late December 1963, less than eight weeks before The Beatles hit Ed Sullivan and changed absolutely everything, I went to my very first live-performance rock 'n' roll show in the main ballroom of the Hotel St. George in Brooklyn Heights, literally around the corner from where I lived. Francis Coppola used the cocktail lounge in that hotel for the scene where Luca Brasi gets strangled in The Godfather. My hand hurts just thinking about it. Anyway, it was ridiculous show. Doo-wop groups like Vito & The Salutations ("Unchained Melody") and the Devotions ("Rip Van Winkle") lip-sync-ed to their 45s, with the record-player right onstage in plain sight, the needle jumping around if any of the acts had dance-steps that were the slightest bit aggressive. The one live band was an all-girl group called the Satin Dolls. At that moment, instrumental Surf music was The Other Rage, and one I had more affinity for than Folk.
At that moment, more than anything in the world, I wanted to be a Surf drummer. "Wipeout" was all that mattered in life. So, as the Satin Dolls played covers of current hits and oldies, I stared at the drummer with all the intensity I could muster. She was good and Stella Stevens good looking too, blond pixie haircut behind a pale pink champagne sparkle kit. But, as the show progressed, I found myself continually distracted by the electric guitar the singer was playing. The more I looked at that guitar, the more intrigued I became. By their fourth song, I was no longer paying any attention to the drummer. I was simply transfixed by the sunburst Fender Stratocaster six feet from my face. For the life of me, I couldn't figure out what 'the gearshift' did. After the show, I tried to screw up the courage to ask the singer what that was for, but she seemed so tough, I chickened out. It would be at least another year before I discovered what a whammy bar did. Ten years later, the Satin Dolls (along with a few members of Goldie & The Gingerbreads) had evolved into Isis, an all-female Blood, Sweat & Tears. One album on Buddah Records, I think, featuring a dance song called "Do The Football." They had the honor of being destroyed by KISS one night at the Coventry Club in Queens.
Anyway, 74 days after Iʼd been given the now tiny flames-and-STP logo-decorated Thanksgiving guitar, on the evening of February 9th, 1964, it became The Most Important Thing In My Life. A babyboomer waxing ecstatic and wistful about The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show is certainly a mental-emetic, inducing nausea-laced ennui. I will eschew the whole subject for now, other than to say, that when, at a Ringo's All Stars meet 'n' greet in 1993, I asked Mr. Richard Starkey if it was okay for me to be the 300th person that day to tell him that heʼd changed my life, Ringo's droll 'n' dry reply was...
By March, 1964, having made me agree to classical guitar lessons, my Dad, a viola player, bought a much better (acoustic nylon-stringed) guitar. With my Dad getting into the spirit of things, we both started seeing a tiny man (maybe 4'9") named Basil Cimino once a week, learning to play guitar from a genuine virtuoso Flamenco guitarist in a small studio decorated with framed black and white photos of bullfighters. He was cool. Made me use my pinky, the one true sign of someone who's taken lessons. Years later, a friend of a friend of my uncle's somehow convinced Hy White to give me lessons. In New York, in the 1960s and 70s, if you mentioned Hy White's name in the right crowd, you'd draw gasps. Mr. White was like the tennis coach who trains the Williams sisters. The stealth guru of jazz guitar in NYC. I saw grown men's eyes awe-glaze talking about Hy White. Of course, I blew him off after about three lessons, utter teenage schmuck that I was. About a year later, I tried to get back in with him. No dice, kid. You had your shot. I still use things he taught me in those three 30 minute sessions.
But, that summer (1964), at Camp Thoreau, the "red diaper" sleep-away camp I went to (How red diaper? Robbie Rosenberg, as in, Julius and Ethelʼs younger son, was my counselor... an intense but lovely lovely guy), an older kid named Billy showed me how to play "Stick Shift" by The Duals (a surf instrumental version of "Whatʼd I Say" by Brother Ray Charles). I was instantly beyond hooked. I had to play that kind of music (tough rock ʼnʼ roll) and nothing but! Then, a patient and talented girls' counselor named Rita showed me all the elemental chords, E, A, B, D, G, C, F... and their minor key equivalents. Oh, boy... Now youʼve done it!
By February, 1965, having utterly fixated on this one specific guitar in the local guitar shop on Atlantic Ave in Brooklyn, I was playing a Japanese copy of a sunburst Les Paul. I had seen my utter hero, Keith Richards playing a Les Paul on Shindig and I loved that basic shape from the get go, obviously, having owned a genuine 1959 sunburst Les Paul for over 40 years now. It was made by a small Japanese company called Zim-Gar. I was now playing that through a 15 watt Ampeg Jet amplifier with one 12" speaker, the first purchase ever made on my behalf at the world famous Manny's. Give or take, the ensemble cost a total of $120.00. (probably $1,000+ in todayʼs currency). A significant investment by my parents, for which I am eternally grateful. Eternally!
And so, at the age of 13, I graduated from miming to Rolling Stones songs in my bedroom, to actually trying to play Rolling Stones songs in my bedroom. As seminal as The Beatles were, it was The Stones I wanted to emulate by the time I could play with any proficiency.
The method of learning a song back then went like this... Play the cut on the album until you get lost, start over. I could easily spend two hours playing the same 30 second section of a song. The fact that my parents and sister didnʼt smash my guitar Pete-style is remarkable.
I named my first band September 92. I was manically enamored with "Decemberʼs Children" by The Rolling Stones at the time and just had to have an "___ber" month in the band name. September sounded smoother than October. I picked 92 because is was sooo farrr offf in the future.
My friend, David M, across the street, had taken up guitar about two months after me and within two months was distinctly better than me. Irksome! So, he was lead guitarist and I was rhythm. Best buddy, Andy P, later, the Planets' original bassist, was as close to gaunt-cheeked as a 13 year old boy can be, therefore, according to the Bill Wyman template, he was designated the bassist. Ben S, was the drummer using a pillow and two wooden spoons. Ben, a lifelong friend, was unceremoniously replaced when I found out that another pal, Jamie K, had a real snare drum, a real cymbal, and a pair of real drumsticks.
In that baby baby September 92 band, and in virtually every other setting where I wound up with a guitar plugged into an amp, there was always someone better than me. David, from across the street, was merely the first to torment me.
Consequently, I was always relegated to playing rhythm.
Consequently, I was often bored shitless and resentful.
Consequently, when I heard Pete Townshendʼs brilliant and angry chord-bashing on the first Who album, Iʼd found my Forever Hero.
In fact, the very last time a version of September 92 ever played together, it was as a trio. My dictatorial ways were finally too much for the equally headstrong David. He left in a huff and I used the opportunity to turn my amp all the way up for the first time in my life (plus, by now, I owned three Maestro Fuzz Tones! WTF!) and forced Andy and Jamie, the remaining rhythm section, to run through "Pictures Of Lily" about 15 times in a row. Then, they quit!
"The Leader" was always an oddly important and compelling concept for me, whether I was that leader or not. When, during The Beatlesʼ first Ed Sullivan appearance, they flashed the word "Leader" under John Lennonʼs name during the first or second song, he instantaneously became my favorite Beatle. I was, from that point on, directing my focus on being... The Leader.
I realized I was going to have to start pretty much from scratch. I also realized I had to be able to play exactly like Pete Townshend, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, et al. Notice, not 'wanted to'... Had! To! Notice the italics on "exactly". The amount of 'woodshedding' (the old jazz term for brutal self-torturing practicing) that I put in between 1968 and 1972... Well, fuck me, I wound up able to duplicate these guys... at the cost of a social life. To put it in the bluntest terms possible, I had devoted so much energy and time to guitar playing up in my bedroom alone (as well as obsessing over male guitarists), I was the last one of my gang in Brooklyn to lose my virginity. Later, after I was well established as Pam's boyfriend, a few of my pals confessed that they'd thought I was gay. No, I was gaytar!
I tried out a few different bands, nothing ever came of any of them. The only amusing and instructive moment from this period happened when I was "hired" two rehearsals before a show by a band in Greenwich Village that featured a four piece horn section (Blood, Sweat & Tears were, at the moment, and for another 20 hideous seconds or so, red hot). Someone I knew intersected with these guys. Within a phone call, I was designated Lead Guitarist. Two weeks later, after two smooth and fun rehearsals, we were ready. The high school's auditorium was actually packed. It just before school would shut down for the Summer of 1968 and these kids were stoked! Live Rock 'n' Roll!
As we prepared to walk on stage, the lead singer/bassist leader-of-the-band whoʼd hired me for this gig, turned to me and in a clogged and stricken voice squeaked that he couldnʼt sing. He w-w-was t-t-too n-nervous. "Y-y-you do it, Binky. Please!" So, on the spot, this gig went from a sit-in-and-play-lead-guitar situation to Please Welcome, Binkyʼs Band! I took over, sang all the songs, did all the stage-patter and was totally comfortable being thrown into the deep end of this pool. The bassist gave me several sheepish "Oh my God, thank you!" smiles throughout the five or six song set. Inside, I thought the guy was an utter dweeb. Fuck it, I'll steal your thunder, no problemo! Some kid in the crowd had heard about my psycho-passion for The Who. He yelled, "Are you gonna smash your guitar?!," I dutifully smacked my Gibson SG-Les Paul around and broke three strings at the end of the show.
I wrote a frickin' bleeding' book about the rest of my band days... It's good and juicy... and about 2.5 cents a page... http://www.rhino.com/article/my-life-the-ghost-planets-the-story-cbgb-almost
Over the following decades, guitars, especially electrics, became sacred objects for me. But, then, I'm a player and a collector. I have had and have some incredible instruments. But, sigh, the collecting part is over. These days, I can just afford strings for the ones I still have.
Okay, very enough about me...
The guitar's omnipresence is, after about six decades, still going strong, well after the wisenheimers of the 1980s declared all music not made by synthesizers dead and gone.
The guitar, especially electrics, is an infinitely expressive instrument. It is capable of playing whole chords, like "a little orchestra in your lap," as the semi-obscure guitarists' guitarists' guitarist, George Van Eps, once said. Or you can play single notes that can take solo flights as nimble and emotionally-charged as any trumpet, sax, violin, et al. More so, in my opinion. There's something about a string being bent and struck by a wrist's power, that has more emotional wallop than say, a horn bending a note like Louie Armstrong. The guitar is more analogous to the piano. But, pianos, and traditional keyboard instruments in general, are one tone instruments. They are more mechanical as well. You press a key and that key causes a tiny mallet to strike a string. Playing guitar is more purely physical, more connected. Your fingers shorten and lengthen the strings while your other hand's wrist and fingers create the rhythm, the feel, of the music. You can pluck, stroke, smack, rip, grab the string(s). I believe that the guitar, more than any other instrument, offers the musically-inclined the most potential for expressing oneself.
Electric guitars are, visually, far and away the most arresting and varied instruments in the world. The electric guitar is the most ubiquitous instrument on the planet. Whether you're in deepest Serbia, Thailand, Peru, Greenland, if there is popular contemporary music being played, homegrown even, you will hear an electric guitar.
The guitar offers real freedom of movement for the performer. It is easy to play in all sorts of postures and positions. As a prop, it really is second to none in the world of making music.
The guitar is also, relatively speaking, an easy instrument to learn... at least as far as being able to play recognizable songs is concerned. One must endure about six to eight weeks of minor physical pain. One, the tips of your fretting hand (the one that shortens and lengthens) have to press down fairly hard on steel wires. Soft fingertips do not like this at all. Until you've grown your callouses, this can be a deal-breaker for many. Plus, to your surprise, your fretting hand discovers it has all kinds of little muscles it's never used before as you start to make the shapes of chords on the neck. I recall wanting to kill myself trying to deal with the intense ache a G chord gave me throughout my left hand. But, once you get past that part, well, if you have any drive whatsoever, you can be playing your favorite Green Day or Rolling Stones or Nickelback (I'm kidding!) song within a couple of months. Any other instrument, you'll still be stuck doing the most rudimentary exercises for at least another 60 to 90 days.
I recently saw a guitar teacher's flyer that said, "You know that guitar-playing douche who always gets the girl? Be that douche!" Kind of a microcosmic secret of life right there...
As far as the all-important visual appeal goes, we can thank Leo Fender, yes, of Fender Musical Instruments fame, for that. In 1954, having gotten a great response to his first (and somehow, almost deadly perfect) solid-body electric guitar design, the Telecaster, a distinctly unorthodox design that nonetheless had a strong visual nod to tradition, Leo unleashed the Fender Stratocaster on the world. The impact was immense. Here was a musical instrument that had virtually no parallel lines, no straight lines anywhere, and almost completely asymmetrical to boot! A design with almost no roots. Something NEW! This one guitar instantly sparked a creative-design war that hasn't abated yet, almost 60 years later. There was no getting around it... Standing next to an upright bass, a trumpet, a saxophone, a piano, a set of drums, a Stratocaster looked as if it had been left behind by a flying saucer. If you can see Jimi Hendrix, Ritchie Blackmore, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Buddy Guy, Pete Townshend in the last decade or so, in your mind's eye, that's a Strat. That Leo Fender also decided to offer them in optional finishes with names like Fiesta Red, Lake Placid Blue, Metallic Charcoal, Sea Foam Green, Inca Silver... well, I mean, DUH!, huh!
Plus, and this was/is a monumental plus, Stratocasters possess a lethal tone and serious sustain. Also, the first guitar ever with an incorporated vibrato (whammy) bar. I mean... Whoa! The vibrato bars on Stratocasters were wildly flexible, unlike the standard at the time, the Bigsby unit that could be installed on most guitars. Would Jimi Hendrix have been Jimi Hendrix without the Stratocaster's vibrato unit and pick ups designed to sustain the note? It is a totally legitimate tidbit to ponder.
The guitar, now the easiest musical instrument to gimmick-ize visually and, more importantly, sonically, inevitably became KRAZY KOOL!
By the way, while Fender was the trendsetter, several other companies, Guild, Martin, Epiphone, Rickenbacker, were creating and manufacturing fine and unusual guitars. But, one company, Gibson, was making masterpieces. When they embraced solid body electric guitars, their inaugural model was the Les Paul, named after the most important human being in the history of modern music. If you read my last post, you know why Lester is just that. Anyway, while a musical instrument is an extremely subjective object, it can be said, the Gibson Les Paul models built between 1957 and 1960 are the finest electric guitars ever made.
One of the amusing developments in recent years is the avid hunger for authentically beat up old electric guitars. I get it. All my actual vintage guitars have their dings and fading. This fad seems to speak to the desire for playing-cred... "Hey, if it's beat up, you might believe I've been playing it long enough and bad-assly enough to have done all the aging naturally." I'm old enough to have bought used Gibsons and Fenders when they were merely 'used guitars'. My 1957 Stratocaster cost me $50. My 1959 Les Paul cost me $650. Together, they are worth ummmmmmmmore these days. Anyway, you can have the big manufacturers and/or boutique brands 'relic' your new guitar, should you want that funky look. Usually costs at least a grand more to make it look trashed. Ha!
Anyway, as discussed, proclaimed, opined, in my last post, there turned out to be a slew of fellas who could play that guitar like ringin' a bell. Hearing real music, exciting music, passionate music, being played on an instrument that could convey that level of feeling was not just entertaining, it was viscerally inspiring.
So, who were some of my influential "glaring omissions" ?
Steve Cropper -- This is my own personal worst ooops! When several of you pointed out his absence, I was mortified. I had given a heavy nod to Curtis Mayfield in the Jimi Hendrix entry (Happy 70th, James!) as perhaps the premier R&B/Soul guitarist. Now, yes, indeed, the session-musician guys at Motown and the legendary Wrecking Crew in LA had influence over all of us, but, we never knew their names or saw what they looked like. That hurts the influential part a bit. But, with Steve Cropper, we knew what we had. In the middle of the hardest, blackest R&B being recorded in the 1960s, here was a white man who, frankly, looked like an off-duty cop in Dallas, creating a style of playing, economical, complementary, and ever so slightly nasty, that almost all of us picked up on, either directly off of Otis Redding, Same & Dave, Booker T & The MGs albums, or off of one of Cropper's acolytes, Pete Townshend, Keith Richard, Steve Marriott... Cropper and his rhythm section, drummer Al Jackson Jr. and bassist Duck Dunn, seemed to have a musical credo: Strip everything down to just the song. They taught the smarter of us baby musicians in the 1960s the musical example of Less Is More. Steve Cropper's brief and bitingly terse solo in the beyond-classic, "Green Onions" alone would land him in this article regardless. It cannot be overstated how influential the contemporary R&B was on the Brit bands. The fact is, a good number of recorded covers by Brit bands as big as the Beatles and Rolling Stones were the modern day equivalent of Linkin Park doing a Rhianna song. The Brit bands were openly agog and couldn't have cared less, thank you very much. And now and then, we got a version of say, "Hitchhike," a stunner by Marvin Gaye, made even better by The Rolling Stones, less than a year after Marvin's had been released. So, yeah, them gittar fellers on them R&B rackerds... Yes, yes, yes, influential, indeed.
Hey, I mentioned Steve Marriott up there... a semi-obscure guy worth a few sentences. Marriott was the frontman/guitarist for Small Faces, one of the few truly great English bands to never make it over here to 'conquer America'... which they surely would've done. Poor Stevie, to be the guitarist he was at the precise moment that Pete Townshend was erupting in London. One listen to his solo on the debut Small Faces single, "Whatchoo Gonna Do About It," is all you need to know. This little fella was guitar monster. When Jimi Hendrix first got to England in 1966, he told people that the guitar solo Steve took in "Whatchoo..." was his all time favorite. Jimi Hendrix's all time favorite guitar solo... let it sink in... Now, Steve was jumping Townshend's claim, but, it kinda didn't matter. It starts out with a badly distorted and buzzing guitar slowly having it's low E string detuned by a stiff Bigsby unit, an effect that evoked chaos and violence. Suddenly, the guitar breaks into a piercingly high bit of strangled riffing... Less music than almost aural cinema. Just evil! Take a listen and see for yourself.
Who else should have been mentioned or given more ink in my last column?
I faked the "I know nothing about Jazz" schtick a bit...
There are two basic types of jazz guitarists for me... Melody/Blues guys and Mathematicians.
I strongly favor the former. But, most tend to dip into both bags.
My suggestions for hearing good shit... Wes Montgomery (who seems to be a god), Tal Farlow, Kenny Burrell, Grant Green, Joe Pass, Jimmy Rainey, Herb Ellis, Terje Rypdal, Elek Bacsik (my fave!)... Yes, once again, I'm leaving out half a dozen giants. Start with these guys. You cannot go wrong!
By the way, Wes, who you can see on Youtube in footage from trips to Europe, where TV would feature an hour of live jazz at least once a week, could not only play with bluesy economy and feel but every now and then would switch to 'math' playing and hit you with such advanced calculus that your mind would go numb. Mine does, anyway. Mr. Montgomery holds the honor of the greatest quotation from any musician regarding the ongoing struggle that Excellence insists on... Wes said, "I never practice. I just throw some raw meat into the case now and then."
I also got yelled at by a bunch of people for leaving out Robert Johnson. In this case, it was deliberate. One, I really should have entitled the piece, "The Most Influential Electric Guitarists"... because that was what I was really discussing. Two, yes, his influence is almost akin to the cave dude who discovered fire. But, who the hell can listen to that ancient one-guitar w/moaning? Some can. I can't. It's noble to acknowledge, but, hardly pop culture reality, which, for better or worse, I deal and dealt with.
While virtuosity inevitably became the coin of the realm in rock music, too, some of the best, most evocative, guitar solos are dead simple... Three examples: The most famous, Pete Townshend's nose-thumbing one note assault in The Who's "I Can See For Miles." Just as the six-minute fancyschmancy guitar solo was coming into the limelight, Pete just plowed through your skull with that one staccato-ed E note (second fret, D string) and then, kind of let it decay and fall into disrepair, as if the guitar was falling apart, a neato musical metaphor for the wanton destruction his band was notorious for. Example Two: Another Who track, less noticed, but, hell, it obsessed me... the weird-ass murky one strangled note solo in "Substitute." It's like that doppler guitar in "How Soon Is Now" by The Smiths... What IS that?! Third, dig Neil Young's original take on his masterpiece, "Cinnamon Girl." Once again, an artist understood that what was needed was That One Note. Of course, the excitement conveyed by a wicked flurry of notes, is almost always even more effective.
Angus Young -- Before we get to details... Angus as an influence? More than anyone on the planet for the last 30+ years, with all due respect to the incomparable Reverend Billy "Z Z" Gibbons, Mr. Young has propagated and held the torch high, burning blinding bright, for the art of Blues Based Rock Guitar. As tasteful musically as he is (fabulously) distasteful visually, you really don't know what you're dealing with if you've never seen AC/DC live. I came to the party very very late, going-to-a-gig-wise. Let me tell you, when they start a song, it's usually bass/drums/twinbro Malcolm's lush yet sinewy rhythm. Ooo, that sounds good. Then, a 750 ton bulldozer crashes through the skull of everyone in the arena. Angus is now playing his rhythm part before he solos two minutes from now. Then... he solos. Is it possible for a dentist's drill, set on medium, boring into your forehead, to be almost sexually pleasurable? Okay, TMI, I guess...
There are guitarists, who, while virtuosos, are also, somehow, raw as well. Jimmy Page, the late and potential-drenched James Honeyman-Scott, of The Pretenders, Mr. Angus Young, Petey Who, are examples of that style. Jimmy Page, in particular, developed a stuttering attack that gives his playing an urgency, almost a desperation, that is intoxicating. For me, his solo and 'outro' riffing in the first song any of us ever heard by Led Zeppelin, "Good Times, Bad Times," is quintessential rip-you-head-off-and-poop-down-your-neck guitar playing. His one lick after, "I know what it means to be alone..." is like shiatsu! For a more obscure example, Jimmy plays one of my favorite solos by anyone ever on Joe Cocker's take on the old classic "Bye Bye Blackbird" from Joe's debut album. In the middle of a slow and stately gospel-tinged version, Page comes crashing in like a carousing drunk at a funeral service and proceeds to somehow NOT capsize the carefully built mood. A brilliant mess! It's an excellent example of a solo put together with pre-planned set pieces, tied together by burst of bluesy improvisation. The soundcheck version of Otis Rush's "I Can't Quit You" on Led Zep's Coda album is worth seeking out, perhaps the ultimate sunburst Les Paul through a Marshall amp tone ever (sorry, "Beano" fans). Oh, and absolutely off point, Eddie Phillips, the guitarist in The Creation, a very good Brit Who-wannabe in the late 1960s, is the guy that Jimmy Page stole the violin bow trick from. One theft acknowledged, quite a handful to go...
Richard Thompson, Neil Young, Jim (Roger) McGuinn, Adrian Belew, Johnny Marr, Ry Cooder, David Lindley, Daniel Lanois, Marc Ribot, and perhaps several player to be named later are The Eccentrics. These guys are fantastic instrumentalists and Rugged Individuals. Giving them shrift this short seems almost insulting. Sorry, I am. We all love them, are delightfully mystified by their chops and/or choices, but, their influence seems to be more along the lines of encouraging other individualists/oddballs to keep on keeping' on...
Then, there are The Primitives. Jack White sorta likes to pretends to be one, but, his chops and theoretical understanding of music are waaaay too learned. Marc Bolan of T Rex, Johnny Thunders of New York Dolls, Davy O'List from The Nice, Leigh Stevens of Blue Cheer, early Dave Davies in The Kinks, Syd Barrett, original guitarist in Pink Floyd, to name just a few, all created sheer ballsy brilliance by sheer ballsy accident.
Given his current visibility in the world of People magazine, I feel compelled to mention Glen Campbell. While he's beloved as a singer and 'all-round entertainer', the fact is, Glen is/was a guitar player capable of blowing a class act like George Benson clear out of the water. Saw him do it on The Midnight Special. And Glen was playing a twelve-string! Campbell could go up against anybody and hold his ground, or more likely, melt the other guy's face. I also find, that among the many bland technocrats in the Land of Nod that is contemporary "smooth jazz," Larry Carlton stands out as a guy with real feel, a man who can express feelings, as opposed to showing off on a crap cover of something like "I Heard It Through The Grapevine." Yuck.
B B King... In my last column, I stated, in a way that brooked no dissent, that B B King is the greatest blues guitarist of all time.. Whether you agree or doubt... Listen and swoon... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-j-RkjJV-8A Listen a few times. What do you notice? B B's phrasing on the guitar is purely vocal. He sings with his indescribably delicious voice and then with his nonpareil fingers. Folks, this is unassuming genius. And much as I love at least another dozen Blues Guitar Giants... Only B B King can play like this. You know how I know? Well, as Waylon Jennings said, "If we could, we'd all sing like George Jones."
Great one-off solos: For those of you who like to go hunting and find rare and/or peculiar gems... in no order whatsoever...
"Louie Louie" by The Kingsmen was a run through for the engineers to get sound levels. The band was half-assing it, loose as worn out t shirt, singer howling filth at the microphone hung above the drum set. In that setting, lead guitarist, Mike Mitchell, takes a blistering jumbled sour solo that at one point hangs over the precipice only to be yanked back into the song like Daffy Duck. The band was outraged when the producer told them they'd gotten it 'first take'. No No No... that was a run through! We were making mistakes and cursing and..." "Pack it up, boys. Thank you very much. Carl, show these boys out to their van..." In this case, the cheapskate know-nothing asshole in the control room also happened to be a genius. The Singing Nun and Bobby Vinton both kept "Louie Louie" from getting to Number One on the charts. Quite clearly, a manipulated outcome. Even if the groove hadn't been so strong, improvised lyrics like, "Every night around ten, fuck that girl, yeah, I lay her again..." would not have sat at number two for weeks and weeks on end, nomesane.
"You're A Better Man Than I" by The Yardbirds was the world's first taste of a Jeff Beck solo. Utterly stands up today as a killer-diller solo. Without a doubt the most dramatic guitar playing I'd heard up until then.
"I Feel Free" by Cream is perhaps the best example of how you can play absolute melody using the blues idiom. To begin with, this is a brilliant piece of songwriting and arranging. Hugely unorthodox in structure, the guitar solo starts after one verse and one bridge. In fact, Eric Clapton takes his solo precisely where convention places the hook/chorus. To add to the WTF-ness, they play a fantastic little trick on us. Clapton's first note, an A at the 10th fret, using the mellow-toned neck pick up matches up exactly with Jack Bruce falsetto-singing the one word "Freeee..." on that same A and then disappearing into the guitar. It is impossible, even after hundreds of listens not feel that "Freeee..." as the start of a sung hook. It amazes me that this trick hasn't been on dozens and dozens of hits.
On "Love In Vain" by Rolling Stones, Mick Taylor's slide is superb. There are all kinds of examples of great lead work on Stones tracks. n this case, I am just reminding you all that once upon a time, there was a Stone, who, if we're being blunt, didn't fit, but, my God, the boy could emote through a guitar.
"Sabre Dance" by Love Sculpture was Dave Edmunds ("I Hear You Knocking," Rockpile with Nick Lowe) first brush with fame. He has been delightfully forthcoming about where the power, speed, dexterity, endurance, endless invention, came from for this insane version of the famous acrobats-on-Ed-Sullivan classic. Crystal meth! Whether you play guitar or not, listen to this and just try to move your hands as fast as this on a frickin' air guitar! One of the most exciting power trio instrumental of all time. Lunatic!
"Cincinnati Fatback" by Roogalator, particularly the 45 version, is a testament to Danny Adler, an American who went to London for fame and fortune. Unlike some of the git-tar super-heros like Buchanan and Gatton, Danny improvises like wild totally away from blues licks. A true original.
"Loud Green Song" by Patto has lead guitarist, Ollie Hallsall, getting as close to true jazz-rock as I've ever heard. The sound of mania! Ollie basically takes a good hi-chops jazz solo while just wrenching his whammy bar throughout. It's sounds akin to driving 120 mph while bombed on bourbon.
"The Snake" by Pink Fairies is one of those tracks that, if you're in the right mood, you'd want it to last for days. Hell, I was at some jam sessions in the early 70s where a 20 minute version was par for the course. A heavy fuckin' riff just slammed into the ground with a brutal solo. The earliest example of Stoner Metal. Scorching!
"Heart Of Stone" by Rolling Stones was the first time I realized the higher frets on a guitar weren't just decoration. I'm serious. I'd never noticed anyone ever playing above the 5th fret or so before. When the Stones did this song on Shindig, they showed Keith in close up playing this solo on his sunburst Les Paul. I watched, with amazement, as he crawled up the neck to above the 12th fret! A super-human feat!
"Hang On, Sloopy" by The McCoys, where Rick Derringer blazes about three years ahead of his time. I'm dead serious, one of the hottest solos of the '64-'66 period. Man, that teenager could play!
"I Think You Know" by Todd Rundgren, always underrated as a guitarist because he's so jack-of-all-trade-sy. But, one listen to this playing and your eyelashes are singed. Like Page's "Bye Bye Blackbird," Todd takes a frantic almost desperate solo that shouldn't work in the languid setting, but, does, heavenly! Revelatory!
Okay, "Hot Blooded" by Foreigner, not to be insulting, but, this band leaves me cold. That said, Mick Jones just utterly rips one here, featuring the wrongest note ever played on guitar in a hit record. A full-on clam. I was once at a press junket for this band. I asked Mick if he'd had half a bottle of Jack just before cutting this solo... or... the whole damn thing. He laughed, "Bingo!"
"Tobacco Road" by Blues Magoos, is where about 100 percent of psychedelic rock comes from. To be just, they'd started with the template of the Yardbirds' live-jamming side of their Havin' A Rave Up album. But, the Magoos, with lead guitarist Mike Esposito leading the charge, went straight into truly uncharted waters. I saw, with my own eyes, quotes from Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett and Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia, both acknowledging that the Blues Magoos pointed the way for them, the two biggest psychedelic bands in history. I once met Mike E. He said, "I don't care whether anyone believes me or not, but, there were nights at the Night Owl when John and Paul and George [Beatles] and Mick and Brian [Rolling Stones] would be sitting at tables practically taking notes." Listen to "Tobacco Road." You will not doubt Mr. Esposito.
"Mystic Eyes" by Them, Van Morrison's first band, and "C'mon Children" by Small Faces, aren't so much songs or guitar showcases as captured magic. The groove, vibe, singing, and playing on these cuts feel like spontaneous outbursts of the purest possible moments of bliss achieved through electric guitars. You're gonna flip!
"See Me In The Morning" by Hound Dog Taylor, a monster slide player, with six fingers on each hand! On this track, one can hear a guitar tone that Jimmy Page would sell his sou... oh... ummm...
"Crosscut Saw" by Albert King and "Honey Hush" by Albert Collins are a classic examples of the less-is-more approach of the Alberts that let the notes breath, emote. I choose these tracks almost at random, their catalogs are so strong. Listen for the tone of a big strong thumb's attack. Neither of these blues behemoth used a pick. This is as close as you can get to aural nirvana.
Speaking of Nirvana... "Scentless Apprentice" and "Breed"... check out those two lesser-known tracks. They breath FIRE!
Freddie King put out two albums of guitar instrumentals right around the beginning of the 1960's. They sold well enough amongst the black audiences in the US. But, half a decade later, thanks to John Mayall recording Freddie compositions like "Hideaway" and "The Stumble" with talents like Eric Clapton and Peter Green, countless white boys like me got a huge dose of dovetail joint blues guitar instruction from Freddie. But, the son of a bitch played with fingerpicks! Great, just make it harder for us, Mr. King!
"Dr. Love" by KISS, is Ace Frehley doing ME! Sounds absurd, but, it's true. Being a fellow New York boy, I was old pals with KISS back then. The engineer that had done my band's demo for Warner Brothers in 1976, was the engineer on what was to become KISS's "Rock'n'Roll Over" album. One morning, my phone rang, it was engineer (and lovely bloke) Corky. "Hey, Binky, I had to let you know... Last night, we were cutting solos with Ace. When we got to a track called 'Dr. Love', Gene's instructions to Ace were, 'Do a Binky solo!" and Ace knew exactly what he meant. Wait 'til you hear it!" A few months later, Gene came to one of my band's gigs. I asked him about Corky's story re: "Dr Love." He smiled and said one word, "Yes." Ace's wildest solo, and my own favorite of his, big-headed twit that I am.
"Round & Round" by Ratt is a total anomaly. A LA hair band, with the plausibly the single snottiest dipshit voice in history (Come on, now, that's saying something!), coupled with some actual songwriting ability and a weapon named Warren DeMartini. By the time Ratt debuted, an Eddie VH-style lead guitarist was fucking day ray ghore. I was already bored with the whole deedleee-deedleee-deedleee-vrooooom trip. But, like almost every guitar player I've ever talked to about this, 'cause we all heard it, this fucking W DeM kid was hotternshit. Seriously sculpted solos, played with a swagger that should have taken him another decade to acquire. There is this one damn note he hits towards the end of the song that hits the small of my back like an arrow dipped in vinegar. Along those lines, Pete Townshend throws in about five of those pungent sucking-a-lemon notes after the bass solo in "My Generation." You woulda noticed if you weren't trying to recover your senses after Ox's baroque depth charges.
"Crossroads" by Cream was, for me, and at least a million other budding Claptons, not a song, but a manual. In recent years, I was disappointed to hear that this recording from Cream's Wheels of Fire is actually the best chunks of three solos stitched together. Still, Clapton played all of it, and probably supervised the stitching. A highest-quality compendium strung together like pearls.
"Dogs Part Two" by The Who was the instrumental B-side of our first glimpse at Tommy, "Pinball Wizard" back in March, 1969. Before I go there, just a reminder, "Young Man Blues" on Live At Leeds needs to be listened to at least once a year. The adrenaline rush will keep you in good stead for a good long while. In addition, The Who's cover of James Brown's "I Don't Mind," recorded in early 1966 is not only one of the very best R&B covers ever done by any rock band, it features Pete playing an ultra-classy-almost-jazzy blues solo and then ends it all with a set of descending chords ripe for windmilling [sigh]. But, back to this (semi-buried) track... "Dogs Part Two" is what every old Who fan long dreamed/hoped of being captured, that bloody tornado onstage, destroying all in its path. Here it is, folks. Close as you'll get. Each Who gets a mini-solo at various moments throughout the manic slamming of a killer descending riff by Pete that Entwistle countered with an ascending riff. Very hip! When it's Pete turn to riff on his own... well, I once read in a Jimmy Page interview where he said while Pete wasn't a great lead player, much more a rhythm monster, he, Page, had absolutely no idea what Pete was doing at that moment in this track. Neither do I. Neither will you.
"It's Only Rock 'N' Roll" by The Rolling Stones is not necessarily one of my Top Ten Stones tracks. But, having read Keith and Ronnie Wood talking about 'guitar-weaving' for decades, it is this track that gives you the best example of how these two combine for maximum effect. Weaving? It's more a frictional texture that creates the aural equivalent of a massage getting dangerously close to foreplay.
"Friday On My Mind" by The Easybeats is one of the most sophisticated and daring guitar arrangements in any song of its late-60s era. Like the Keef/Ronnie interplay, guitars are flying around, doing snazzy 'ethnic' melody lines, all grounded by thoroughly inventive chord changes. The fact is, one could claim this for the entire Hollies' catalog, brilliant guitar arranging to match their exquisite vocals throughout that underrated band's career. But, this ultra-clever Easybeats track, extolling the glory that is the beginning of the weekend, sounds as unexpected and grabbing as it did 1000 years ago. By the way, George Young, one of the Easybeats guitarist/songwriters/producers, has twin baby brothers, Angus and Malcolm.
"The Sky Is Crying" by Elmore James is a title I pulled out of my butt. The fact is, Elmore had pretty much one song with different sets of lyrics. Some better than others, but, the weakest shit he ever recorded is massively powerful, harrowingly raw. Slide guitar in blues started on a plantation no doubt. But... Elmore... is... The Master.
"Reconsider, Baby" by Lowell Fulsome is an example of how a guy in the last 1940s figured out how to make a guitar sound the way we would all want them to about two or five decades later. The taste and tone of aural ambrosia.
"Four Day Creep" by Humble Pie (Hey, there's our Steve Marriott again!) is possibly the greatest marriage of blues and rock ever recorded. Massively heavy and sexy. WTF?! By the way, drummer, Jerry Shirley has a memoir out called "Best Seat IN The House." A delightful down-to-earth read.
"Smokey Joe's Cafe" by Buddy Holly is a cover of a lesser-known Leiber-Stoller adventure, back in 1959. Buddy attempts to inject some bad-ass guitar lick into the end of the hook. What he came up with is, without a doubt, the single most illiterate guitar riff ever committed to tape. Hysterically awful, I insisted on learning it. Took awhile to figure out, until I realized... Buddy changes from the key of B to the key of D halfway through the lick! Like a musical intereptation of a Kristen Wiig character. Just another reason I preach the Greatness of Eddie Cochran so emphatically. The same few months that Buddy laid down this travesty, Eddie cut "Milk Cow Blues." His lead guitar work sounds good in the 21st century!
The I Can Tell album by John Hammond, released in 1967 on Atlantic, with a back up band made up of guys like Levon Helm, Bill Wyman, Robbie Robertson, Mike Bloomfield, is a one of the very few outright blues masterpieces by a white guy. This album is molten. Hammond himself is an excellent guitarist, harp player. But, his voice, which for a moment seems like a parody quickly ripens into an almost disconcertingly authentic commitment to sing the blues the way it's supposed to to be sung. The amount of cool subtle guitar playing on every cut is astonishing. "If you wanna hear some boogie like the boys are playin'..." Find this album!
The first Van Halen album is extremely instructive for one huge key issue. Ninety percent of what you hear on this record is one guitar/bass/drums. NO overdubs! It is this fact, not just Eddie's flashy single note crap, that astounds and humbles mere mortal guitarists.
"Waterloo Sunset" by the Kinks is not just one of Ray Davies' masterpieces of evocation, it also has one of the most novel guitar sounds in the Brit Invasion oeuvre. Dave Davies is playing Ray's Telecaster and snapping the strings the way an overenthusiastic, under-talented, beginner guitarist would play it. Clunky and harsh. Against the song's misty wistful backdrop, it pops like taxi headlights coming through the Big Smoke's fog. Magically counter-intuitive. This is my Dad's all time favorite song by a rock band.
"Purple Haze"... "Manic Depression"... "Hey Joe"... There are probably less than 60 seconds on the "Are You Experienced" album that aren't flat-out riveting. The solo in "Hey, Joe" remains one of the most well organized yet pure-flow blues solos for all time. The guitar solos and general atmosphere Jimi creates in these three masterpieces are fucking Rembrandts. And if you've ever seen a Rembrandt in person, you know exactly what I'm talking about. Inhuman vision and talent. I did not include "I Don't Live Today," the dark horse in the entire Hendrix canon, because I want to point you in the direction of a live version that destroys the studio take; May 24th, 1969 in San Diego, available on Warner Bros. The Jimi Hendrix Concerts double live album. Jimi is at the peak of his power, his ability to control a rampaging Stratocaster akin to the grace of a bullfighter with a black belt. The Noel 'n' Mitch band take the song at a lunatic clip. The intro is way too long, a real mess. Like a punk band, really. Then, after the verses and hooks, the Brits move over and let Jimi take over. You are then ear-witness to a genius, a savant, at play, at work, chasing dreams, demons, angels. I don't write corny fucking horseshit like that. That... is... what... is... happening. Jimi's effortlessness in changing raw brutal roaring screaming noise into gorgeous heart-twisting Wagnerian orchestras from some other fuckin' galaxy is revealed in this track. Live. One guitar. Using equipment simply not designed to do any of this. His legend was sullied for awhile with the posthumous release of garbage-jamming Jimi would done the lighter fluid trick on. But, that's dust now, blown into the sea. We are blessed that he stopped by on his way to his next embodiment of pure light, joy, love. Fuck you, I mean it!
And, finally, because, while there are hundreds of examples of unacknowledged brilliance, after almost five decades to obsessive devotion to the cause, one guy, and one solo, stick out as The All Time Most Overlooked... ever...
"Slow Down" by Young Rascals was recorded in 1965, the opener for their debut album. The Beatles had released an absolutely steamin' version less than six months earlier. This seemed an odd, possibly self-defeating choice... until you heard it. Mother of God, the pace is torrid. You can hear them start, and they hit the ground at about 110 mph! The energy level is straining on the edge of losin'-it. And, now dig this, it's 1965, and the song opens with a guitar solo! And what a devastating motherfucker of a solo! Now, Gene Cornish was/is a world class guitarist throughout the Rascals' career. He'd clearly taken jazz lessons at some point. He was a gifted disciple of Cropper and the Motown and Wrecking Crew guys, his complementing parts and execution on par with those standards. But, really nothing can explain why the solo he takes at the top of "Slow Down" isn't in it's own glass case at the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. Gene's guitar solo in the monumental "I Ain't Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore," the Young Rascals' debut track, is a stone classic, and one that has been copped from by generations, even if they don't know it. But, in "Slow Down," Gene takes on the entire legion of British Invasion's lead guitarists and... fucking just smacks them... Fucking hard! This is truly one of the most exciting and chop-sy guitar solos in R'n'R history. Utterly timeless, an eternal dazzler. And you do NOT have to be a guitar player to hear it as such. That Gene was playing with one of the Top Five greatest rock drummers of all time, Dino Danelli, probably helped inspire Mr. Cornish no end.
Since Youtube had to take down tons of copyrighted major label music this year, I guess Spotify or Pandora are the places to find these recommendations of mine. And... If you go here... http://www.huffingtonpost.com/binky-philips/ you can read all about my 1957 Stratocaster and the CREAM case I bought from Eric Clapton for it, how I got my 1959 Les Paul from Rick Derringer, how Jeff Beck tried to intimidate me into selling it to him, how I caught a Gibson SG Special Pete Townshend threw me at the Metropolitan Opera House on June 7, 1970, how my Fender Telecaster got stolen and how I got it back, my eulogy to the greatest music store of all time, Manny's... and...