Personal Icons: Who’s the Best?

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.

Enjoy!

7 Comments

  1. Beethoven or Mozart? Rembrandt or da Vinci? Jordan or LeBron?….pick any topic and you’ll find those same lists. Guitarists…for years, I thought Beck couldn’t be touched, (was back-n-forth between Beck and Van Halen) then in ’89 (from dead center Row 2 no less) I saw SRV open for Jeff…part of my jaw is still somewhere on the Miami arena floor. That changed everything…never again would / could I say someone was the best, because what I had thought all those years had just been blazed away…losing SRV at 35 (and Hendrix at 27)…those 2, along with Tommy Bolin (25) and Terry Kath (31) ….huge losses…all 4 could have been Greatest of all Time (GOATs)…if…

    …and IMO being the best player doesn’t necessarily correlate to consistently putting out the best music…we can both name Guitarists who can shred the frets off (Yngwie Malmsteen, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai)…and this is typed with all due respect…as good as they are…are they considered some of the best because they can play faster or fit in more notes? For some yes, for others no.

    PS – I’d have to throw Carlos in that Top 5 somewhere…

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  2. Too much to say on this topic…Ade Belew is also one of my idols…self-taught, original, and one of those few players that when you hear him play, it’s completely unique…you can pick out his solos every time no matter what band/song…Talking Heads, Bowie, Zappa, Paul Simon, Porcupine Tree…

    …And my now personal favorite Best guitarist (for the day…)….Guthrie Govan playing with Marco Minnemann, and Bryan Beller in the band “The Aristocrats”….(previously with Steven Wilson’s group)…cat’s got chops!

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  3. Enjoyed this take. Other than a passing curiosity in any kind of lists when I was younger I don’t subscribe. There is so much good music out there. It’s always good to get leads but when it comes down to it, it’s what my ear likes. I’ve heard some albums (watched movies) that make “The Best” lists and they just don’t do it for me. I have been listening to Adrian (Not as intensely as you) for a long time and all I can say is I like his music and his playing. Heard him with Crimson and have followed him since.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Nice when people we admire are just “cool people”. The way it should be. Like I said I have lots of Adrian’s music. Not a lot of recent stuff though. Is the book available to read yet? If not I’ll keep popping in here to see. I have a little creative endeavor you might find interesting.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’m working on it. Finding an agent/publisher is a LOT more intricate than it should be. Let’s just say I have a “small-time” option at the ready, but I’m being encouraged to go much bigger.

        Tell me about your endeavor.

        Liked by 1 person

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