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...

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