It’s a debate that rages endlessly between friends, musos and snobs worldwide and one that’s wheeled out in magazine publications repeatedly. In fact, one recently by Guitar World has driven me to pen this missive because they’ve had the audacity to publish what is quite simply, a ludicrous list. So if your bag is Eddie Van Halen, Joe Satriani and Brain May, then please move along to another post, there’s nothing for you to see here.
This list is an alternative to the phony-machismo-blues-noodling-offensive-nonsense, so beloved of many ‘best ofs’ and regurgitated endlessly in guitar stores worldwide (See! Anyone can play a bluesy pentatonic lick over and over).
So if you like a little bit more subtlety and invention, Buckets Of Moonbeams is the right place to be. Read on:
5. Nick Drake
So our first entry is already one that goes against the ‘best of’ grain, in that Drake primarily played acoustic guitar. With an unobtrusive delicacy, mindbending dexterity and use of inventive and exotic tunings, Drake’s mastery of the instrument had few rivals.
Principally a singer and songsmith, Drake never forced his genius fret-work to the fore which is admirable and far more appealing than the ego-centric nature of most guitarists. This may simply be a reflection of the nature of the man himself, because as his career progressed he withdrew more and more into his shell culminating in the stark, minimalist and at times harrowing album Pink Moon.
The story of Drake is a sad one and Patrick Humphries biography of the great man is essential reading. From Buckets of Moonbeams‘ favourite album (from a tiny canon) Bryter Layter, here is the great man at his finest with Hazy Jane I:
4. Kevin Shields
Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine is considered quite the enigma. After 1991’s seminal and genre-defining album Loveless there’s been, well, very little since. A soundtrack here, a brief reunion tour there… like a duff firework display, Shields’ sporadic sparks seem to be over before they reach their zenith.
But it’s his work on Loveless that Buckets of Moonbeams, ahem, fell in love with. Shields doesn’t have the technical proficiency to shred away through blues scales on guitar at 100 mph, so thankfully experimented and harnessed his talent in a much, much better way. His obsessive fascination with tone – down to barely audible sound frequencies, and his time-consuming perfectionism is well documented.
A pioneering attitude to effects combined with his innovative use of the Jazzmaster’s whammy bar (nicknamed ‘glide guitar’) makes Shields’ style instantly recognisable, so much so that if anybody uses this technique, it’s instantly dismissed as ripping off his style. Shields took the guitar to new places at a time when things were getting stale.
To Here Knows When highlights this technique the most:
3. George Harrison
What left is there to say about one of the greatest guitarists ever, from the greatest band ever?
From grappling with telegraph-line strings on cheapo guitars in the early Hamburg days, through the Gretsch-toting Beatlemania period, a dabble with Eastern mysticism and sitars, slide guitar white Strats and a stint as Nelson Wilbury, Harrison always experimented with what he could do with a set of strings on a block of wood.
Note how during The Beatles‘ earlier live performances in the US, Harrison can be seen flicking and turning the myriad of switches on his Country Gent, pre-empting the introduction of the effects pedal to alternate tones and sound mid-song. This is the attention to detail that elevates guitarists over their contemporaries.
Harrison was active over such an extensive period and his style evolved so much right in the public eye, it’s hard to define one technique in particular as the ‘Harrison Style’, however as soon as you hear it, you know that it’s him. Marwa Blues, taken from his final album Brainwashed, condenses everything Harrison had in his arsenal into one song:
2. Vini Reilly
Well, quite. It’s criminal that Vini Reilly and his alter-ego The Durutti Column are not better known. But so is the shy nature of the man himself and his uncompromising attitude to making “just daft tunes”.
He does himself something of a disservice with that description, as Reilly’s extensive canon (44 albums and counting – including compilations) is just so consistently good. He transposes classical guitar technique onto the electric guitar (in the main) and eschews heavy distortion, preferring the emotion that can be drawn from clean or slightly overdriven tones combined with slapback delays and reverb.
Reilly was Factory boss Tony Wilson’s pet act on the roster, indeed they were great friends. Looking at sales alone Wilson didn’t need Reilly, but he loved The Durutti Column’s music so much that he just had to get it out there. After his passing, Reilly paid tribute with the heartbreaking fully-instrumental album Paean To Wilson, respecting Wilson’s (justified) criticism of his singing voice.
As a guitarist alone Reilly’s talent is unquestionable. Most budding musicians will listen to an artist and think “I can do that”, but when it comes to Reilly, one thinks that this is a less-likely occurrence. Indeed, John Frusciante declared Reilly “the best guitarist in the world”, and has been known to cover this gem from the confusingly-titled debut The Return of The Durutti Column, Sketch For Summer:
1. Johnny Marr
Johnny Marr plays guitar, as they say. And play it very well he does indeed. There may be some that may think they know Marr’s work and may wonder what the fuss is all about, because all he does is jangle away, right?
Wrong. The simple fact is that Marr is one of the most versatile guitarslingers and inventive songwriters around. By the time of second album Meat Is Murder, Marr had already begun to leave his post-punk arpeggio-heavy Smiths work behind and on The Queen Is Dead perfected his method of cramming layer upon layer of guitars in the studio. Contrast the overdriven wailing wah feedback of the title track, the sprightly High Life rhythms of The Boy With the Thorn In His Side and the fatalistic melancholy of I Know It’s Over.
Every Smiths track is heavily layered but there’s a space between for the songs to breathe, Marr never buries other instruments nor voice to the detriment of the song. And the songwriting aspect cannot be ignored, for Marr consistently avoids the simple verse-bridge-chorus format yet still creates accessible music – note William It Was Really Nothing‘s relentless cavalcade of choruses.
And this is just his work with The Smiths, the band where he cemented his reputation as one of the best in the world. Thing is, when he left the band, he was just 23.
So following this Marr has avoided anything that can typecast him as just a jangle-merchant; working with a myriad of artists, an abridged list includes acts as diverse as Billy Bragg, The The (who he was a member of almost as long as he was a Smith), Electronic (his duo with Bernard Sumner of New Order), Modest Mouse, The Cribs and his on-off solo(ish) project The Healers.
His style can be described as orchestral. This, a result of learning his trade playing along to Motown tracks, attempting to incorporate each and every instrument all in the right hand on the guitar. There’s the rejection of the overt-masculinity of the ‘rock’ guitarist status quo, the endless soloing, the distortion and the posturing. There’s the purposeful diversion from this route, adopting such quirky and effeminate guitars as Rickenbackers, Jaguars, Gretsches and Jazzmasters. There’s the appreciation of funk (Nile Rodgers), folk (Bert Jansch) and jazz (McCoy Tyner) all amalgamated into his own style as he decorates each track with delicate brushstrokes rather than a heavy-handed roller.
This track has been the most difficult for Buckets of Moonbeams to pick, and rather than selecting one as dextrous as say, Girl Afraid, the one chosen is The Smiths’ Paint A Vulgar Picture from Strangeways Here We Come. This song is as bafflingly ambitious as it is successful in its execution; its off-kilter chord progression seems to rise and rise up the fretboard on every key change, yet actually only swaps between two: B and D. “It was very clever” commented producer Stephen Street, “but very odd as well”. And interestingly, for a track on The Smiths’ final album, it contains Marr’s first and only guitar solo committed to tape with the band.
Special mentions: Jimi Hendrix, John Martyn, Gabor Szabo, Wes Montgomery, early John Squire, Nick McCabe, Tom Verlaine and Eric Clapton.