Almost ten years ago, Rolling Stone magazine published a list of the top 100 guitarists of all time. Several famously accomplished guitarists were absent, Kurt Cobain was included, and Jack White showed up at #17. The list caused a storm of controversy, especially among aficionados, and in hindsight it seemed almost designed to do so. In March this year, Spin produced their list of the top 100 guitarists of all time, and the composition of that list and the ensuing reaction seem eerily familiar to what happened in 2003.
Before we continue, let me tell you how these lists usually go. There’s a definite subculture of people who identify as ‘guitarists’ – not musicians, but guitarists – and they buy more guitars than they’ll ever play, they’d rather acquire effects pedals than practice, and they talk about ‘tone’. Most importantly, they read magazines like Guitar Techniques, Guitar Player and for the teenager taking their first steps into the fandom, Total Guitar. The internet’s been completely overrun by lists because they’re easy to produce and read, but even back in ye olde magazine times, the editors knew the value of a good list. I might not give a damn what amplifier Zakk Wylde uses, but if that month they were going to tell me the top 100 guitarists, I’d pick it up just to see who was in the top 10.
There’s a problem, however, with practically every one of these lists: they’re mostly identical. If any of you reading this have ever read Total Guitar, I bet you could name at least 20 people that would be included without a moment’s hesitation. Not because you were familiar with their work and thought they deserved to be recognised, but because you’ve heard so many people drone on and on about how influential and incredible their playing was. Jimmy Page, Slash, Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Yngwie Malmsteen, Brian May etc. ad nauseum.
Spin and Rolling Stone took a different approach, which is fitting because they’re not specialist magazines. Instead of including musicians based on pedigree or the number of notes they could play per second, they included their favourites. The ones who made them go “Wow! Listen to that guitar!” As a result, many of the usual suspects were left out, and some of them weren’t even guitarists. The community was apoplectic with rage because whatever classic-rock guitarist they looked up to when they were a spotty teenager didn’t have Spin‘s seal of approval.
I think they did the right thing.
Look, guitar music isn’t doing great right now. Kids don’t really care much for guitars, even though they’re still used as a marketing tactic. Watch any modern pop music video and you’ll see people playing them when they’re not audible on the recording. Kids like digital music and new-wave soul singers, and you can’t blame them, because our notion of what the guitar represents is still stuck in the fucking 70s. Sadly, I can’t find a video of the Grammy awards performance from Paul McCartney this year, but the average age of the ‘supergroup’ was 56. This, according to the Grammys, is the best the classic guitar/bass/drum setup has to offer – a bunch of ancient white men trading smug tired riffs while congratulating themselves on how hard they still rock. Of course, that’s not the case pretty much everywhere else, but these are the people who have all the money and power in the industry.
To survive, I think guitar music has to keep pushing forward and stop chasing the so-called ideal of ‘classic rock’. Even today’s critical darlings occasionally seem a little too in thrall of past decades, as if evoking their memory and flaunting your muso-cred were more important than what’s happening now. For my money, I’d rather show up on Spin‘s list than Total Guitar‘s any day, because it would mean that my playing was important to everyone, not just other guitarists.