Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Criminally Underrated Guitar Gods - Part II

Heyo! Got another half hour to kill? Great! This week's installment of Criminally Underrated Guitar Gods focuses on the more proggy/fusion style players that have fallen by the wayside of widespread recognition. Prepare to have your face melted by some serious fretwork, and you may learn a thing or two in the process...

Jeff Beck

Having graduated from the same school of British blues-rock as Clapton and Page (all three played in the Yardbirds at one point, Page and Beck together for a time), Jeff Beck seemed to be the black sheep of this graduating class. While his chops were on par with his soon-to-be-more-famous cohorts, Beck's musical vision proved to be less accessible than his peers. Beck never strove for the bombast and arena-rock showmanship on the caliber of Cream or Zeppelin, and instead carved out his own legacy of instrumental music, churning out quality albums of blues-rock and jazz fusion over the years. He did score a couple of platinum albums in the mid-70s (back when the public actually listened to jazz fusion), but fell out of the mainstream eye in the ensuing years. His unique playing style (vibrato bar, no pick, finger tapping, etc) is instantly recognizable, and is known to pull sounds out of a guitar that boggle the mind. It's reassuring that Beck has had a resurgence in recent years thanks to a new-found musical relationship with Clapton. He is a true virtuoso, and deserves all the praise he can get.

Jeff Beck - "Scatterbrain"

Terry Kath

Kath was the lead guitarist of The Chicago Transit Authority (soon shortened to just "Chicago") from 1968 until his death at 32 in 1978. His amazing talents were often obscured by Chicago's big-band format, which had a large horn section often taking the lead. Despite this, Kath managed to attract the attention of Jimi Hendrix, who once told Chicago saxophonist Walter Parazaider, "Your guitar player is better than me." Kath struggled with addiction and weight problems throughout the 70s, and has perhaps the most tragic death on this list. Kath was playing around with a supposedly unloaded pistol at a party, and put it to his temple and pulled the trigger. There was a bullet in the chamber, and Kath died instantly. His solo on "25 or 6 to 4," from Chicago's second album, is legendary:

Chicago - "25 or 6 to 4"

Steve Howe

Howe has seen his share of mainstream success as lead guitarist of Yes, and also had a stint with Asia in the early 80's. Yes was a giant in the music world through the 70s, and Asia scored a few pop MTV hits in the 80s, though few actually know Howe by name, and few know that he is equally remarkable on classical guitar as he is on electric. Prog rock has garnered an ugly reputation since its peak of decadence around 1974, and Yes has lost much of its street cred since, save for a rabid cult following that it maintains to this day. Howe still tours with Yes regularly, and with all his chops intact, taboot -- his otherworldly technical mastery is second to none. His acoustic skills warrant their own track, on top of some classic electric Yes freakout-rock:

Yes - "Mood For A Day"
Yes - "Sound Chaser"

Robert Fripp

Fripp founded King Crimson in 1969, and proved to be the only consistent member of the group, which saw drastic musical and stylistic shifts over its long history. He pioneered prog rock and heavy metal with his dissonant stylings and heavy riffage, and later dabbled in electronic soundscapes with Brian Eno, on top of many, many other side projects. What's notable about Fripp is that his guitar style takes nothing from the blues-based tradition, instead containing more of a European avant-guarde/classical influence. His music is certainly not accessible in any sense of the word, nor is it meant to be. Fripp has consistently challenged the ears of his fans over his long career, though he never ceases to amaze with the weirdness he conjures up with six strings. Case in point? The searing shards of sound he lays down on this Brian Eno track:

Brian Eno - "Baby's On Fire"

Ritchie Blackmore

The lead guitarist for Deep Purple from 1968-75, Blackmore was a master of the hard rock riff, having written one of the most recognizable riffs in the history of rock ("Smoke on the Water"). Though this alone should be enough to cement his legacy, it doesn't scratch the surface of what he was capable of with a guitar. After quitting Deep Purple, he formed the since-forgotten band Rainbow, his own project which featured Ronnie James Dio on lead vocals for a time. Rainbow became legendary for its epic live performances, and with Blackmore's lightning-fast fingers at the hem, they crushed audiences night after night. He retired from hard rock in the 90s, and now plays exclusively folk music. Blackmore also warrants two tracks to show his prowess both in the studio and live. His flawlessly executed solo at 3:50 of "Highway Star" is one of the greatest ever laid on wax, while the live Rainbow track is sprawling in its messy virtuosity. Both are awesome, in completely different ways.

Deep Purple - "Highway Star"

Rainbow - "Catch the Rainbow"

Frank Zappa

While most know him for his crude humor and absurdly challenging compositions, Frank Zappa was also an absolute monster on the electric guitar. No one has or ever will play the six-string anything like he did, as he brought his own twisted musical sense to every guitar lick he ever played. When improvising, Frank attempted to create spontaneous compositions with his solos. No one ever knew what he would play next, and he set his band up so that they would respond to what he played. This often resulted in new "songs" being created on the spot. The results were often bizarre and avant-garde, and sometimes sublime. I would recommend picking up the 3-disc set Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar for more on this technique, which is comprised solely of live guitar solos. As with the rest of his music, his guitar work exists in its own musical universe, free of influence from nothing but the genius in his own head (and maybe some Stravinsky).

Frank Zappa - "Easy Meat"

Is this list to your liking? Do you notice any glaring omissions? Feel free to comment...

Monday, June 20, 2011

Criminally Underrated Guitar Gods - Part I

Hey there, got a half hour or so to kill? Great! To start summer off right, we're going to shine a spotlight on some of the lost heroes of Rock-n-Roll -- namely, those guitar gods who never got the real recognition their talents truly warranted, and instead resorted to holding cult status for the entirety of their careers. For every millionaire Page or Clapton out there, there are scores of equally (or more) talented axe-men who never achieved mainstream success for any number of reasons - whether it was musical inaccessibility, refusal to sell out, addiction, or death. Here are a few of the best guitarists you may have never heard of: today's edition focuses on bluesy virtuosos lost to time...

Eddie Hazel

This master of searing, freak-out, funk-metal guitar excursions was Funkadelic's first (and best) lead guitarist, and helped to lay down the band's defining masterpiece in 1971, the soul-wrenching "Maggot Brain." But he disappeared into relative obscurity after that album for various reasons, including a prison stint for assault and drug possession. He died in 1992, and "Maggot Brain" was played at his funeral.

Funkadelic - "Super Stupid"

Ry Cooder

This is a musician who has never bothered with mainstream success, and instead choose to always follow his muse, wherever it may take him. As a result he is impossible to pin to any genre, as he has dabbled in everything from folk, blues and gospel to Cuban and African music. Though he has released many great solo albums, he is best known as a studio session man, having played with every act you can name, including Captain Beefheart, the Stones, John Lee Hooker, and most recently, Buena Vista Social Club. Rest assured, whatever he touches turns to gold, as he is a true master of his craft.

Ry Cooder - "Feelin' Bad Blues"

Peter Green

The leader and founder of the original Fleetwood Mac, Green has been lost to time as one of the most gifted guitarists to come out of the British blues explosion of the 60s. It has been nearly forgotten that while Clapton was being called "God," they were calling Green "The Green God." He was really that good. Tragically though, like Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett, he was an LSD casualty who dropped out of the band by 1970 due to schizophrenia. After years of obscurity, he's started performing again in recent years. At his peak, though, he rivaled anyone in the world with his searing, soulful guitar work.

Fleetwood Mac - "I've Got A Mind To Give Up Living/ All Over Again"

Roy Buchanan

Buchanan was an American blues guitarist with a tone that could break your heart. A true virtuoso, he recorded a couple of albums that went gold, but never achieved any type of real breakthrough success. He struggled with drinking problems and got sober at one point, but could never shake his demons. In 1988, after being arrested for public intoxication, he committed suicide in his jail cell.

Roy Buchanan - "Sweet Dreams"

Rory Gallagher

An Irish blues-rocker, Gallagher was a hometown hero in his own country. He achieved some success in the UK, but never really broke through outside of the British Isles, though he maintained a loyal cult fanbase throughout his career. His clean, furious playing is a joy to listen to, on par with Clapton at his dirtiest. Gallagher died in 1995 due to liver failure, at 47.

Rory Gallagher - "Walk on Hot Coals"

John Cipollina

A Bay Area hometown boy and the lead guitarist of Quicksilver Messenger Service, Cipollina is considered one of the fathers of the San Francisco psychedelic sound - that classic vibrato twang is his signature tone. For years he was considered the Bay Area's best kept secret, and was content to play around locally in a number of bands after Quicksilver broke up. He often sat in with the Dead during hometown shows, and was beloved by local fans and musicians alike. He died tragically at age 45 in 1989 of chronic emphysema.

Quicksilver Messenger Service - "How, Which, Who Do You Love"

Check back next week for Part II in the "Criminally Underrated Guitar Gods" series...