I was as guilty as anyone else. There was a time when I eagerly looked forward to some music magazine’s “Best” list. The best band. The best guitarist. The best albums. Rolling Stone, Spin, Prog, Mojo, Guitar Player, Modern Drummer … everyone had a best list. And I needed to read nearly all of them.
But here’s what I finally realized: “Best” lists are, for the most part, irrelevant.
Like the Grammys, being atop a “best” list amounts to little more than being the Flavor of the Month in a popularity contest. Magazine editors know their lists do nothing to stop arguments. Rather, they create them. While magazines fly off the shelves (in theory), music fans young and old rant and rave about who’s on the list, or who isn’t there but should be. In the end, nothing is really decided, and the argument grinds to a slow halt until next year, when the new list comes out.
Like the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, I’m not sure what purpose a “Best” list serves. But I know it ain’t going anywhere anytime soon.
As a part-time guitarist, I was always interested in whom magazine editors deemed to be the best at that particular instrument. Over time, I began to see a pattern. The top of the list would be dominated by the legends of classic rock. One spot in the top ten would be reserved for someone from the progressive/jazz/fusion/blues world, and one other spot would go to some new hotshot who just scored a hit album. Somewhere toward the middle of the list, I would find the two or three guitarists I admired above all others. Near the bottom, I would find a couple more. Inevitably, at least one of my favorites would be omitted altogether. I would spend the next couple of weeks fuming over what complete and utter bullshit the list was.
Finally, I had a revelation: NOBODY knows who the “best” is! And any such attempt to say so with authority is flawed, at best.
For a magazine to declare someone the best implies they have heard everyone play his instrument. Well, I already know that’s not the case. Nobody on earth has the time to visit every bar, club, guitar shop, and music school to seek out and listen to all the musicians there. That couldn’t be done with a 72-hour day. So how do you really know your selection is the best? He may be the best you’ve heard, but that’s it.
Secondly, a “best” list is horribly subjective. Not everyone likes every style of music. Jazz fans may rant and rave about John McLaughlin’s guitar abilities, but they may know nothing about the skills of Brad Paisley, because they don’t care for country music. A heavy metal fan may not give two hoots about the chops of a guitarist in an R&B band, because that music isn’t his cup of tea. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the list is tainted, due to a lack of objectivity.
Bottom line: nobody really knows what they’re talking about.
My friends know how much I love music. Still, I tend to frustrate them when they ask me who the best player of this or that is, because I answer that question with a question: “In what context?” Even then, I can’t provide a definitive answer, because I don’t have all the necessary information, and my point of view is just as subjective as anyone else.
I would prefer to look upon great musicians as “influential” or “iconic,” rather than simply being the best. Most guitar polls rank Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton, and B.B. King in their top five, with the order switching around a little bit every year. I love each and every one of those players. But I wouldn’t dare to deem any one of them the best, because they are distinctly different players. Yes, they all have a blues-based background. But there is much more to the equation.
I tend to see Hendrix as the most influential of the bunch. His name is checked the quickest by the majority of guitarists asked to cite their influences. I would call Jeff Beck the most “emotive” player I’ve heard, based on his ability to manipulate his guitar and create sounds which defy belief. Page is one of the godfathers of hard rock, which he reaches by way of the blues. This is much different than the approach of Clapton, who works the pentatonic box (aka the “blues scale”) like nobody’s business. King’s approach to the guitar was to treat it more like a co-lead vocalist. His single-note lines sang out along with his lyrics. B.B. did NOT do chords.
Five guitarists, five approaches, all awesome. All or none of them could be deemed the best.
At least six months out of the year, the best guitarist in my world is Adrian Belew (pictured above). But even as I use the word, I know it’s inaccurate. Rather, Adrian is one of the most innovative guitarists I’ve heard, as he can not only play notes and chords, but creates animal sounds, car horns, sirens and God-knows what else from his instrument, too. His abilities influenced me a great deal during my heaviest guitar playing days. But he’s not the best guitar player I’ve ever heard. (By the way, Adrian rarely cracks the top 20 in the “Best” polls. More than once, he’s been left off the list altogether. And I’m off to grumble again.)
I’ve said all that to say this: I will not use this page to tell you who I think is the best at anything. I will use this page to tell you about some of my personal icons, and why I think they are worth your time and exploration. Whether or not they are the “best” at what they do is entirely up to you to decide.