Last week, my post attracted a number of comments that asserted that there was no such thing as a ‘better’ guitarist. This week, I’m going to show them why it’s not a good idea to argue with the guy who has a microphone.
Let’s say Hank the 30 year old drunk guy picks up a guitar, having never played one before, and beats on it. Let’s say that Linda has played guitar for two decades by the time she hits that same age of 30.
Linda is a better guitarist than Hank.
No, I don’t care that you preferred Hank’s passionate wailing on the guitar. No, I don’t care that you think it’s about art and expression of lofty ideals. No, words like “soul” have absolutely zero meaning and don’t belong in a list of criteria for determining the best.
This list isn’t about who’s the best artist. The list isn’t about who is popular or who appeals to you (or me) more. This list is about those who have mastered their instruments. You know, guitarists…
If I’d wanted it to be completely subjective, I’d have called it something like ‘best artists.’ I didn’t. I didn’t call it that for a reason. The reason is, it’s impossible to be objective. This list is as objective as I can make it and, frankly, I’m pretty damned qualified to author this list.
This list has guitarists on it that I absolutely don’t really seek out and listen to. As a general rule, I don’t listen to Malmsteen. As a person, I don’t even like him. I don’t even necessarily care for quite a bit of what he releases. However, he’s an absolute master of the guitar and plays that guitar with greater ability than Hendrix ever did.
So, let’s talk about Rolling Stone Magazine. They made a list (more than once) and called it things like “best guitarist.” I’d have not had a single problem with it had they called it “best artist.” When you call Hendrix the best guitarist, you’re doing me a disservice.
I am a guitarist. You know, like a pianist – except my instrument is much easier to carry on my back. I don’t say I’m an artist. I say I’m a guitarist. I’m skilled in the art of playing a guitar – but that’s a technical skill. I understand the theory and why the music works the way it does. I can express this understanding by demonstrating it. I have mastered the techniques and continue to master them. (Mastery is not a static place, but a process.)
Jimi was a great artist – one of the best. His performances, messages, persona, appeal, and passion are undeniable. However, his technical abilities with his chosen instrument were sorely lacking. That’s why, for you laymen, so much of his music sounds the same. He knew a half dozen chords and three scales.
If you don’t understand this, feel free to argue. You’re not just wrong, I’ve told you that you’re wrong fifteen times already. You can continue to be wrong. I don’t mind and I’m sure your peers are accustomed to it!
If you don’t understand, maybe you should consider writing for that collection of sophomoric, window-licking, keyboard-chewing, herd of emotionally stunted morons at Rolling Stone. They’d be happy to have you!
I’m happy to have you, as well. Why? Because I can call you wrong – all day long! I love calling people wrong. I usually even capitalize it. You’re WRONG!
This list is about those who’ve mastered the techniques, mastered music theory, learned to combine multiple disciplines, and innovated. It’s not about who you want to dance to. It’s not even about who you like. It’s about the term “guitarist” and what that term really means.
It is personal and I’m taking that word back! If you want to see a good list, skip the first few (because even guitarists are subject to cults of personality) and check out the list at Guitar World. They did a reader’s poll and, unsurprisingly the list has some great guitarists on it. They also did a 30 great guitarists list, that’s also not too terrible.
It’s almost as if maybe you’ll get better answers by asking people who are adept at their instruments? Again, they’re all subject to cults of personality and popularity ends up being the ruler of the day, but they’re much closer to being objective than the dirty bastards at RSMI!
Granted, it’s not easy to explain this unless you too are a guitarist or really into music. However, I’ve made every effort to put this into words and the folks who were actually complaining hadn’t even read the articles. In fact, one of them outright refused to read the article – but thought they had a valid opinion on the subject.
They’re just wrong! 😉
Hell, I don’t even much care for the next guitarist on the list. I don’t dislike them, but I’m a bit apathetic about them. They’re here because they zoom up the ladder when you take their innovation and versatility into account.
Let’s introduce ’em, shall we?
#16 Brian (Buckethead) Carroll
This might actually be one of the strangest people on my list. I’m not actually sure where to begin.
Let’s just start with that nickname… He is called Buckethead because… Well, he’s called that because he usually performs with a KFC bucket on his head.
Oh, and he likes to wear a mask.
No… No, he’s not deformed physically. He just likes to wear a bucket on his head and a mask.
No, I’m not shitting you. Nobody really knows why and I recall seeing an interview with him where he said he just put it on one day and it seemed like the thing to do. In other words, he doesn’t appear to know why he wears it. About a year ago, he revealed why he wore the bucket – but reading it makes me think he doesn’t actually know why he wears the bucket.
He has worn other buckets. For a while, it was a white one and, at one point, it had a “Funeral” bumper sticker on it.
In fact, he looks pretty normal when he’s not wearing the mask and bucket. So, I’m not actually sure what his motives are and, by all accounts that I can find, neither is he. He looks like this:
I guess I’ve been aware of him since the 1980s and it wasn’t until about six or eight months ago when I was told that I couldn’t replicate him. I hunted the tab down and set to work learning Buckethead’s Jordan.
This turned out to be a longer project than I expected. I managed, but it took quite a bit of effort and multiple tracks. At that point, I declared that Buckethead was just a pain in the ass to cover. He’s actually pretty good. So, I set about learning more about this strange creature.
The year 1969 is known for many things – such as wanton drug abuse and sex with everyone who was willing. The tide was starting to go out and the era would change, though some would remain changed by it permanently. It was also the year Buckethead was born. He’d be brought into the world in Southern California and would spend his early years there.
He learned to play guitar at the age of 12, from an unknown elderly man who lived just up the street. The man died and Buckethead would move not long after. It was after moving Claremont that he began to take his music seriously. He’d take private tutelage and his music skills would improve greatly.
One of those teachers would be a Mr. Paul Gilbert. Gilbert is known for shredding and being fast, more than anything else. It’d be an influence that would impact Buckethead’s style and, to no surprise, those same claims are made about Bucket.
I tried to pin Buckethead to a particular genre but that’s not possible. I’m hard pressed to think of a genre he hasn’t at least touched on – he’s played everything from metal to bluegrass to avant-garde. People call his music “ambient” sometimes. I’m not sure one can passively listen to him, but I don’t make the rules or definitions.
The man is prolific. Like, seriously… What’s wrong with him? He’s got like 350 albums of just his own – and has collaborated with, well, everyone. You probably own some of his music and don’t even know it!
From 2000 to 2004 he was with Guns and Roses. Of course, that meant only one album and a few stage appearances. Still, many folks may know him from that. He was the lead guitarist for Chinese Democracy which, frankly, was a pretty shitty album – but it did get him some fame. This, of course, didn’t stop him from happily turning out albums.
Trying to define him, and his style, isn’t easy. I think it’s best to just say that he’s a busy guitarist. He’s usually playing with loops, effects, more loops, and making a goodly amount of the sound all by himself. He pulls this off in live performances. Strangely, he’s skilled enough so that he pulls them off pretty much the same way every time. Anyone can improvise but his live tracks all have great similitude. That’s kind of impressive when you think about the vast amount of material he has to have memorized.
He went a whole year releasing an album an average of every six days. I don’t actually know why. It’s just what he does, I suppose.
One might scoff at that, but they’re actually pretty good. He didn’t release albums full of simple garbage, but released albums full of musical complexity, stylistic changes, and innovative techniques. (He’s way too fond of muting, way too fond. You will be busy if you try to cover him.)
He’s also weird… He was too weird for Ozzy Osbourne. Check out this quote:
“I tried out that Buckethead guy. I met with him and asked him to work with me, but only if he got rid of the fucking bucket. So I came back a bit later, and he’s wearing this green fucking Martian’s-hat thing! I said, ‘Look, just be yourself.’ He told me his name was Brian, so I said that’s what I’d call him. He says, ‘No one calls me Brian except my mother.’ So I said, ‘Pretend I’m your mum, then!’ I haven’t even got out of the room and I’m already playing fucking mind games with the guy. What happens if one day he’s gone and there’s a note saying, ‘I’ve been beamed up’? Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great player. He plays like a motherfucker.”
When you’re too weird for Ozzy, you’re definitely weird.
If it weren’t for Buckethead’s busy aspects and his innovation, he might only be on the list (but much lower) for his speed and shredding ability. But, he has those qualities and his ability to produce vast bodies of work in multiple genres shows that he truly understands theory, composition, and has mastered a number of techniques that are above average in difficulty levels.
As I’ve been writing this list, there’s a few guitarists that I say I’d like to jam with. Buckethead is actually not on that list. I don’t want to jam with him ’cause it’d be a lot like work and, besides, he’d embarrass me.
Like me, he’s often seen with a Gibson Les Paul. Unlike me, there’s a Buckethead Signature model. I don’t actually own one. This is it:
You see those buttons? Those are mute buttons, or kill switches. You push ’em in and the current is stopped. Current can continue to travel after the button is released. If you want to cover Buckethead, that’s going to make it easier. Otherwise, you’re going to want a third foot and you’ll need it for your foot-activated mute. In other words, it’s a pain in the ass.
It’s such a pain in the ass that I’m never going to cover Buckethead again. Well, I might – but I expect payment upfront for it. It’s a lot of work. I often try to “get into the head” of the people I cover, but don’t even bother with Buckethead. It’s not easy and I’m not sure I really want to know.
So, let’s hear why he’s on the list. That seems like a good thing to do.
This is probably where he really got his first fame from and, I’d like to introduce it, but I can only introduce it by saying, “Yeah, it’s Buckethead. Yes, he dances. Yes, those are nunchaku.”
Why yes, yes he is quite a fan of Micheal Jackson. How’d you guess?
No, really… He’s quite a fan.
Alright, I admit that one isn’t very good and I have absolutely no idea why he thought it was appropriate to go right into the Star Wars theme, but the audience seems to be really enjoying it.
This next one was the song that I covered for a fella we’ll just call SexpertHitposter (not his real username). And, frankly, it’s just a pain in the ass to play. I tried to figure out what he was thinking during the composition phase, and I came up with nothing.
Put it this way, it required a chair and that’s because my feet were almost as busy as if I were seated behind a drum kit. I’m not actually sure I want to know what his mental process was. How he went from one end of that to the other is just something that I can’t figure out. It works, but I’m not sure how he thought it up.
And, there you have it… Rolling Stone completely ignored him on their list of guitarists and yet he’s far more adept than Hendrix ever thought of being. I may not particularly like much of what he plays, but I can’t deny that he’s an absolute genius guitar player. His true understanding of the guitar is why he’s on this list, as well as his technical mastery, his composition skills, and his innovation. He’s also on here ’cause he’d damned prolific – which counts because it means it wasn’t just luck, but is actual skill.
As is normal, I like to leave you with one for the road. This one is a bit long and is titled Soothsayer, it’s probably one of my favorite of his songs. It starts off a bit slow and not particularly skillful, but wait for it – it’s coming. Until next time…
Now shut up and play us a song!