The four greatest career guitarists to have lived, composed, and played in my lifetime are (in alphabetical order, because the idea of ranking them in any manor makes me cringe): Eric Clapton, Jerry Garcia, Mark Knopfler, and Pete Townsend. Okay, now that I’ve made such a bold statement, I suppose I really must defend it, huh? (Oh the treacheries of making bold statements!) After all, I’m sure many of you read that sentence and thought, “What bias. First of all, those are all rock guitarists. What does she know?” Others thought, “Hey, hey, hey, what about [fill in the blank]?” Still others are wondering, “Why all male? Why all English/American?” All right, I’ll admit that I probably need to add a hundred qualifiers to my (ridiculously) bold statement. However, I’m not going to do it. I’m going to stick to my guns.
Here’s my first defense: I know absolutely nothing about music. I can’t read notes. I’ve never played any musical instrument (except the recorder, briefly, but those lessons at age fourteen were interrupted by our move to
My second defense is that, although I may not know much about music, I have certainly listened to my fair share of it all my life. There isn’t a child of my father who didn’t lie in bed at night “conducting” to the baroque and classical music that wafted upstairs from the living room stereo. Along with that were such things as Simon and Garfunkel and Eric Clapton’s Layla, to which my father’s students and colleagues were introducing him at parties at our house. Meanwhile, one of the greatest treats was to have my mother put on her waltzes and waltz us around the living room or to have the adults clear the floor at parties (later in the evening, after many bottles had been emptied and Simon and Garfunkel was done) to put on the Scottish bagpipe music and dance the Highland Fling. Soon to follow my parents’ influence (not on that stereo, but on the kids’ record player upstairs) was music off the albums my older sisters purchased. They taught me to love Donovon, Cat Stevens, Three Dog Night (was I the only first-grader in history to have a huge crush on Chuck Negron of Three Dog Night? Maybe that makes up for my four-year-old crush on Mr. Greenjeans), Steppenwolf, The Beatles, Jethro Tull, and (yes) The Who, among many others.
My third defense is that the reason I single out these four guitarists is their distinctive, unmistakable sounds. I guess that’s what impresses me so much about them. Play clips of most guitarists for a music dolt like me, and I can tell you that I either do or don’t like them. I can tell you such things as whether or not they sound better “plugged” or “unplugged.” I can tell you what’s melodic and what isn’t. However, most of the time, my untrained ear can’t possibly identify them, even if they happen to be people I listen to all the time.
These four are different. First of all, I guess I need to add that I do happen to have one major bias. I want anyone I claim to be a great guitarist to be someone who knows what it means to be able to carry a melody. I’m really not much of a fan of those who like to imitate the noise of a young puppy chewing on guitar strings. I don’t mind if my “greatest” guitarists occasionally slip in something that sounds like this, when it’s appropriate to do so, but I want them to be aware of the fact that the human brain, most of the time, appreciates things that follow somewhat soothing patterns. Excite it a little with edginess and surprise and puzzles, from time to time, yes, but don’t do that all the time, unless some sort of psychotic illness is the desired result.
So, these guys all know a little something about melody and how to shake it up to the appropriate degree without overkill. Their biggest plus, however, is that I can recognize them. Play me a riff I’ve never heard from any one of these four, and I’m 95% sure I could identify them. Nobody can really rock like Pete Townsend, right? Eric Clapton, no matter what he’s playing, just doesn’t ever seem to be able to divorce himself from the blues, even when they’re wearing fake glasses, nose, and mustache. I don’t care if Jerry Garcia was taking over Pete Townsend’s chords with Baba O’Riley (which I once caught him doing live), or the less rocking chords of David Grisman, or his own compositions for The Grateful Dead, the way he handled that guitar to produce those sounds he did is more distinctive than the way Renoir put paintbrush to canvas. And then there’s Mark Knopfler. How does he manage to make the guitar whine in such an extraordinarily pleasant way? Children could learn a thing or two from him if they really want to get their way when resorting to whining.
All this is not to say I don’t have other favorite guitarists. And it certainly is not to say I may not be completely wrong. But there you have it. I’ve said it. Now, argue with me if you will (or feel free to agree, if you’d rather).