Some people put Jimi Hendrix at the top of their lists of great guitarists. They’re wrong. They’re not just wrong, they’re very wrong. In fact, I’ve told you how wrong they were 17 times already.
Reputable (for some definition of the word) magazines such as Rolling Stone have put him in first place, more than once. They’re not just wrong, they’re the wrongest wronger to ever wrong! I usually refer to them as a variety of names and herd animals, but I’m pretty satisfied with that one!
They do you, me, and all other guitarists a disservice when they weigh intangible traits and assign greatness based on stupid metrics like popularity, or how much they like their music.
Jimi was a great artist. He was a fantastic performer. He was creative. He was inspiring. He was able to write songs that were both meaningful and enjoyable to listen to. But, he was not a great guitarist.
You want a great guitarist? Pick any second year flamenco student. Pick any classical guitarist of note. Pick any modern neo-classical metal guitarist that actually knows what they’re doing instead of relying on speed. Find one that understands music theory. Find one that innovates. Find one that establishes a genre. Find one that starts a whole school of music.
Those types of people have been on my list – and this trend is going to continue. Why? Because there’s a whole bunch of guitarists who were more technically adept at playing the guitar than Hendrix ever was. Hendrix couldn’t even play the same song twice. Go ahead, go listen to his live stuff.
Feel free to like his music. Many of the guitarists on my list aren’t actually people that I seek out and listen to. I do seek them out, but that’s to learn and to try to understand the complexity and process of creation. The people on my list are masters of their instruments while Hendrix was mostly just a layman with a limited repertoire, poor technique, sloppy playing, and full of inconsistencies.
That’s just reality. That’s why Jimi wasn’t a great guitarist.
On the other hand, our next guitarist is consistent, has mastered the discipline, has authored masterpieces, has forwarded the art, and has demonstrated a very, very thorough knowledge of music theory. And, sadly, they’re pretty much unknown…
#18 John Petrucci
If you’re not a guitarist, you’ve probably never heard of John. Even if you are a guitarist, it’s quite possible that you’ve never heard of him. That’s unfortunate, because he’s truly a mind-blowing guitarist.
He’s seemingly one of the most underrated guitarists on the planet. That’s a bit surprising, considering how many budding guitarists he’s taught. We’ll get to that later.
Where did RSM place him on their list? They didn’t. Where did Guitar World readers place him in their Reader’s Poll? He lost in the early rounds – even though he’d written for the magazine on a regular basis. John doesn’t really play a Gibson, but the Gibson website has him in the top ten list of metal shred guitarists.
It is too bad, too. He’s truly fantastic and has the extra benefit of being an excellent teacher. Like I said, we’ll get to that.
So, who is John Petrucci?
… an individual who possesses outstanding technical ability in a particular art or field such as fine arts, music, singing, playing a musical instrument, or composition.
Which, now that I think about it, is a pretty generic and vague definition and can be used to describe pretty much every person yet on my list and every person who will be included on my list.
John was born July 12, 1967. He was born in Long Island, New York. When he was a wee lady, his sister was allowed to stay up late so that she could practice her piano lessons. John, being a typical young lad, also wanted to stay up late. So, he decided to take up guitar playing at the tender age of just eight.
Unfortunately, his plan was unsuccessful and he was still unable to stay up past his assigned bedtime. Seeing as it didn’t work, he quit playing guitar and probably came up with new and creative plans to stay up as late as his older sister.
Fortunately for the world of rock, John would pick up the guitar again when he turned twelve. He’d not just pick up the guitar, he’d discover that he was now very passionate about playing. Guitar had become his obsession and he committed himself to practicing for six hours a day.
Note: For those paying attention to the other things I write, I’d like to point out that the benefits of practicing are many. Even at my level of experience, I still practice with dedication. That guitar isn’t going to learn to play itself, after all.
John would play in a cover band with a pair of childhood friends, Kevin Moore and John Myung. He’d cite early influences of bands like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and AC/DC. He’d later be influenced by progressive rock bands such as Rush, Iron Maiden, and Metallica.
John would eventually stumble off to Berklee College of Music (along with Myung), located in Boston, Massachusetts. For those that don’t know, it’s quite a prestigious school, is very hard to get into, and has a reputation for turning out fantastic musicians. Astute and regular readers might recall that Steve Vai is also Berklee alum.
While at Berklee, they’d meet a fella named Mike Portnoy and form a band called Majesty. That was a bad idea, because another band already had that name. So, they changed their name to one which you might recognize. They became known as Dream Theater.
John, as mentioned, also wrote regular columns for Guitar World. Those articles have now been compiled into a book known as ‘Guitar World Presents John Petrucci’s Wild Stringdom.’ It’s a very well written book and one that I highly recommend.
He’s also released a DVD that’s actually remarkably good. It has a number of different stretching and warm-up exercises to help you prevent injury and to enable you to achieve your maximum potential for hand dexterity and precision. It’s called Rock Discipline and it has been used by many, many people to learn guitar and to improve on what they already know.
John also has a project band called Liquid Tension Experiment and you may have heard him performing on albums from other people. He’s been on the G3 Guitar Tour with Steve Vai, at least a couple of times. You might even know him from the Sega Saturn video game – he did two of the tracks on Digital Pinball: Necronomicon.
He’s fond of a seven string guitar and makes frequent use of the alternate picking technique. He’ll often have the main body of the song be a bunch of shredding madness and then actually slow down and create a more passionate solo. He has many influences, and is a fan of, a number of excellent guitarists – some of who are on the list and some of whom will be on the list.
John’s also really passionate about his effects. He’s usually got a pedalboard stacked with a variety of things you may recognize, including the infamous Ibanez Tube Screamer, Frampton’s A/B box, a Dunlop Crybaby, and many more. While those may change, those are pedals that I’d consider essential for every guitarist to own – or be able to adequately replicate with a multi-effects pedal.
There are also a number of his ‘signature models’ in the usual categories. I don’t actually own any of them, so I can’t really give you a personal opinion. He’s usually found playing a Music Man or Ibanez guitar and those are excellent brands. He uses a lot of the standard effects, but makes use of a lot of them – as in has a great variety. Some of them have his name on them, as far as I know. I really can’t opine, because I never have to cover him and have no reason to buy his signature models.
Back to his DVD. I’m not normally a huge fan of DVDs as teaching tools, but this DVD is actually pretty good. It’s not just one that I’d recommend a new player watch, it’s one that I’d recommend many experienced players watch – as it’s a very good tool for finding and spotting your own bad habits so that you can correct them. I’ve actually given away quite a number of copies and still have several copies in my collection.
What really makes him stand out, and to be put here on the list, is his ability to teach – and willingness to do so. He’s surprisingly good at it and while many guitarists are willing to teach but they usually actually suck at it. Coming from a background in classical guitar, I haven’t really been able to find anything he teaches that I’d argue with.
Those DVDs have been seen by millions of people who will someday be masters themselves. One of the reasons people like to cite for putting Hendrix near the top of their lists is his influence on later musicians. Well, Petrucci is still influencing and teaching young people right now. Even more importantly, he’s giving them good instruction and discipline, and he’s teaching people who will write the masterpieces of tomorrow.
But, being a teacher isn’t a good enough reason to be on this list. In fact, there’s the adage; “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” That’s a pretty stupid adage, because there are some people who can do both. John is one of those people.
Let’s hear why he’s on the list, shall we?
I often start off these demonstration videos with something that’s not so great and then work my way to a peak. This week, we’re going to do something different – we’re going to rock your socks off with the very first video.
That’s right. I wasn’t kidding when I said he was fantastic. It just oozes Rush influence, by the way. If you’re paying attention, you’ll see him doing something that many musicians don’t do on stage. He’s carefully watching, and paying great attention, to what his fingers are doing. Why? Because of the syncopation required and the complexity needed to perform that flawlessly.
I want you non-musicians to understand something. That’s hard. That’s not just hard, that’s damned hard. It’s hard enough to pull that off in a studio, and damned near impossible to do flawlessly in a live performance. Yet, I’ve processed that three times (just today) and can’t even hear a single string that was muted by mistake, a bend that didn’t hit the right tone, or a slide that hit the wrong fret.
If you don’t appreciate that, I’m not sure what to tell you. I get that the music might not be something you appreciate and it may not be your favorite genre, but the talent this man has is amazing. I have a lot of words, but I don’t really have adequate words to put it into perspective and to explain it to someone who isn’t very, very fluent in technical guitar playing.
When he says he dedicated himself to playing six hours every day, I believe him. That’s the kind of performance and composition that only years of dedicated practice can create. However, I’m not done – nor is he.
Here’s something recent, from a tour he’s currently on:
That’s early on in a tour that has him playing with people whom he’s not constantly rehearsing with. However, I think that particular segment is just the Dream Theater people – but the unfamiliarity and stress have to be enormous. Again, pay attention to the concentration he’s putting into playing his instrument.
How about a real solo? You know, one where it’s just him playing? The other musicians join in around the 2:00 mark, but you get to enjoy a solo for a couple of minutes and truly appreciate his ability to create a full sound with just the singular instrument. Do, please, listen to it entirely. There are other parts of the song where it’s just him playing and you can really get a feel for how good he truly is. I’d never steer you wrong, at least not intentionally.
Unfortunately, you don’t get to see what he’s doing during that. I think it’s a safe bet to assume that he’s concentrating heavily and you can hear him incorporate a variety of effects and make smooth changes as he attempts to express complex musical thoughts.
With that song, I hear a bunch of Black Sabbath and a touch of Eric Johnson, some Eddie Van Halen, some blues, and a touch of Rush and some classical influence, specifically the piece known as Flight of the Bumblebees. Strangely, I’m not actually sure where that recording came from and the YouTube comments are not even remotely helpful for doing more research.
But, there you have it. There’s yet another guitarist who’s much better than Hendrix ever was. Worse, he’s so overlooked that almost nobody knows about him, unless they themselves are guitarists. Even worse, there’s many guitarists who don’t even know him – when he should be damned near a household word.
Because of this, I’d like to hope that this article sends you off on a tour of discovery. He doesn’t have a giant catalog of work but he has some very good work. What is even better is that you can scour YouTube and find a bunch of his videos that are EXTREMELY educational.
I don’t care if you’ve been playing since 1969. They’re still worth watching. I have been playing for a long time, technically since 1968 but with formal instruction beginning in 1969, and I still find his videos educational and worth watching. Even more importantly, I sometimes revisit the videos to find new ones and to learn more from the old ones.
You know, it makes me a little sad to see Hendrix getting the praise when people like Petrucci are far more deserving of accolades concerning their technical ability. It is disheartening to see someone called the greatest guitarist when, at best, they were a journeyman with their chosen instrument. Petrucci should be a household name, familiar to all those who play guitar, and looked upon as the guitar god he really is.
As is typical, I like to leave you with one for the road. However, this week is going to be special. If you’re a guitarist, I want you to watch this. I did some YouTube scouring and was able to find his Rock Discipline DVD already uploaded and made available for free streaming.
If you’re not a guitarist, I still highly recommend watching this video. It’s a bit cheesy with the format – but it’s very educational and I believe that even a non-player can watch it and actually learn from it. I think that it’s a good idea for you to watch it because it will help you understand some of the complexity involved and help you understand why it is that I have chosen the guitarists that I have and why I rate them as being better guitarists than Hendrix.
I know, it’s pretty long. It doesn’t really have a very interesting plot. The production value is pretty low. The special effects don’t really compare to the latest Uwe Boll movie. It’s also not in 3D and there’s no bloopers reel. But, I’d still highly recommend watching that – and I’ve not steered you wrong yet.
It’s something I recommend viewing – even multiple viewings – for guitar players both new and old. For those playing the home game, I’ve watched it with the eldest hoodlum – not just once but twice, in just the past two months. We go through it slowly and discuss the reasoning and techniques used. It’s a fantastic tool and it’s very exciting to find this available on YouTube (probably pirated and without permission) to be freely watched.
And, again, even people who don’t play guitar can watch it and get something from it. If you’re even considering playing a guitar, I’d recommend watching it – as it will help you learn correct habits AND it will let you see the amount of work you’re going to need to put into learning. It will show you, right off the bat, how much time you’re going to want to dedicate to the art.
So, this week we have a very special video for the road. I hope that you’re all able to take something away from it. I’m also really grateful that you took the time to read this and that you’re continuing to visit the site and share your experiences, thoughts, and goals with the rest of us. Without you, this would just be a pile of text. With you, it’s a more living thing. Until next time…
Shut up and play us a song!