Guitar God Blues
For most rock aficionados, the sound of the guitar is the most identifiable quality about the music. The guitar riff gives the hook and drives the song, and the solos provide the feel and attitude. We have all had guitar heroes, the ones we graciously raise our lighters and bow down to. The classic rock era of ’60s and ’70s gave us Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, David Gilmour through to Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, Mark Knopfler in the ’80s and ’90s with Slash, Dimebag Darrell, Jerry Cantrell and Tom Morello amongst others.
Now, let’s find out what exactly makes a guitarist great. What qualities are essential in a ‘Guitar God’? “First, the songs. And then taste, tone, technique, imagination and inspiration,” says guitar player extraordinaire Warren Mendonsa (Zero, Blackstratblues). For Scribe and Exhumation guitarist Prashant Shah, “a great songwriter that plays with a combination of feel and technique, understanding the nuances of dynamics, tone, stage presence, and most importantly, the music that comes through the guitar has its own story to tell, and their signature over the music.”
“Guitarists like Eric Johnson, Michael Hedges, not only give the right feel, but are technically brilliant, so the permutations and combinations of guitar playing is vast,” believes singer/songwriter Gowri Jayakumar. Chandresh Kudwa (Dream Out Loud) feels that more than the technique, it’s the persona that you bring and the feel you can get from the instrument is what matters.
First, the songs. And then taste, tone, technique, imagination and inspiration.
Every era has thrown up a whole host of names that have been revered as ‘Guitar Gods’ in their own right. That is, up until the ’00s — or as some call them, “the noughties” — say it, it just doesn’t sound right, does it? This decade has, for some reason, failed to throw up guitarists that can be ascribed as ‘Guitar Gods’ — well, at least not ones that are as universally accepted as the names mentioned above. So, who are the worthy contenders from this decade?
Among new guitarists, Chandresh Kudwa finds Guthrie Govan and Chris Broderick of Megadeth to be the ones to look out for, with the potential of reaching ‘Guitar God’ status. Warren considers Derek Trucks (Allman Brothers, The Derek Trucks Band) to be an unreal guitar player. “You’d quite possibly mistake his playing was a woman singing.” Joni Mitchell fan Gowri Jayakumar picks Rodney Branigan and Keller Williams for their weird jazz twist. Bringing the metal perspective, Prashant lists Mathias Eklundh (Freak Kitchen), Andy Timmons, Guthrie Govan and Meshuggah guitarists Fredrik Thordendal and Mårten Hagström.
To add to the names mentioned we have the likes of Omar Rodríguez-López of The Mars Volta, Jack White of the White Stripes, Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph, Bill Kelliher and Brent Hinds of Mastodon and guitar virtuoso Kaki King. Clearly, there is definitely no dearth of talent in the modern era.
But, somehow, these guitarists don’t invoke the same type of reverence, nor do they have the mass admiration that is associated with a Guitar God. It probably has to do with the way music is consumed and distributed in this age of the Internet, where no one band or artist can claim to have the same sort of impact that the classic bands did. The variety of music and genres out there, the fickleness of music listeners with fleeting trends and all-hype-no-substance music in the mainstream media means that it gets harder for newer guitarists to attain critical appreciation along with mass appeal that is required to be universally acknowledged as a great.
Also, the music of the past has been drilled into our consciousness not only by various forms of the media, but also through folks because of whom we get into the bands in the first place. Every kid who learns to play the guitar almost always starts off by learning “Smoke On The Water” rather than “Seven Nation Army”. Ask your older brother or friend who might have introduced you to Black Sabbath, and he will insist that all metal riffs since are basically variations of what Tony Iommi made immortal with the mighty Sabbath. We are all guilty of holding our heroes up on a pedestal and can’t see somebody new taking their place. Maybe the future will judge these guitarists in a better light and then we might wonder about the Guitar Gods of the 2010s.