Guitar gods, part one

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Shawn Sensiba
Wednesday, June 27, 2012

This is the first of a three-part series between Shawn Sensiba, Dave von Falkenstein and Andy Beaumont on their favorite guitarists and what makes them great.

Click here to read part two.

Click here to read part three.

My criteria for picking my favorite guitarists is selecting the players that I go back to again and again. These players succeed at making the instrument expressive. They play with style, soul, wit, and perhaps most importantly, they know how to swing. I donít mean swing in the sense of the musical style, I mean they play with verve, with fire.

I also emphasize versatility and longevity. Being the best at anything requires a track record, preferably a long one. Most of my choices have had decades in the recording studio to hone their craft. They played solo, in bands, and as hired hands. They played acoustic and electric and have played in many genres. One of the things I have learned over the years is that not all greatness speaks to you. I recognize that there are great musicians whose styles do not hit me at my core.

Keep in mind that Iím not a musician. I made my selections as a devoted listener.

Hereís my list in no particular order.

Richard Thompson. RT has been recording for almost 46 years. He can play acoustic, electric, rock, folk, jazz, country. His range is huge and his playing can take your breath away.

Django Reinhardt. I get teased by colleagues for being a Django fan, but if you want to hear music that swings, nothing tops Django and Stephane Grappelli and the Quintet du Hot Club de France. And when you realize Django played guitar with a severely burned frethand, you admire his brilliance even more.

Pat Metheny is a contemporary whom I have enjoyed from his careerís beginnings in the 1970s. His unique harmonics and bell-like sound speaks volumes to me, but he is also a restless creative spirit. He is always seeking new musical avenues. Heís a modern jazz treasure.

Adrian Belew has also been a longtime solo artist, but his reputation is founded on his studio work with Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Talking Heads as well as his work in the bands King Crimson and The Bears. Heís a musician who can play any style, in any setting.

Ryland Peter ďRyĒ Cooder. Is a master of the slide guitar, but he can basically play anything with strings. He has played folk, blues, Tex-Mex, and through his work with Buena Vista Social Club, world music. Truly a master.

Lester William Polsfuss or Les Paul. The Wizard of Waukesha was an extraordinary fountain of creativity playing the guitar as well as playing a key role inventing and re-inventing the electric solid-body guitar. The modern electric guitar and overdubbing were basically invented by this man. But if you listen to him play, in addition to his corn-pony sense of humor, there is an extraordinary skill and expressiveness.

Leo Kottke. A master of 6- and 12-string guitars, Kottke is among the best fingerpickers the musical world has seen. His style is a gumbo of folk, jazz and blues. His music has the power to lift you up and sweep you along.

John McLaughlin. Also known as Mahavishnu, McLaughlin brings a spirituality (as well as blinding speed) to the guitar. His work with Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti is classic fusion jazz, but going back to his roots with Tony Williams and Miles Davis, he a jazz player of great power and delicacy.

Charlie Christian. Christian died at the age of 25 of tuberculosis but in just a few years in the bands of Benny Goodman, he revolutionized jazz guitar. He was influential on the sound of Grant Green, Wes Montgomery and scores of other jazz players. He elevated the guitar in jazz, bringing it to the forefront, paving the way for the wave of rockers to come. And Charlie Christian could swing. I defy someone to listen to Christian play and not be impressed. Awesome, in the truest sense.

David Gilmour. Gilmour isnít about speed or spellbinding technique. Heís about tone. The sound of his guitar, with its bent notes and spacey motifs, is the heart of the band Pink Floyd. As such, it is instantly recognizable and evocative. His music creates a mood that washes over listeners.

Others? Well, I have to mention Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Mark Knopfler, Wes Montgomery and George Benson, just because. Letís just say there is no lack of brilliant guitar players in this world.

Click here to read part two.

Click here to read part three.

Last updated: 10:06 am Wednesday, August 28, 2013

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