Coming up with the “Top 20” in any given category is sometimes an exercise in the obvious. If the subject is guitar players, we always see the same names — Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Duane Allman, Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Beck, Buddy Guy, Carlos Santana, Stephen Stills, Pete Townshend, Eddie Van Halen, Chuck Berry.
And that’s the problem: We exalt our icons, but underneath the radar are many dozens of incredibly talented guitarists who deserve to be noticed. This is their time.
This will be a list of the Top 20 unfairly unrecognized guitarists. Many of these names we’ll be exploring will be unfamiliar to most readers, I venture to say. In some cases, they’re anonymous session musicians who prefer to simply record their delicious solos and licks and go home. Or they may have long solo careers full of amazing albums that were largely ignored by radio and the public alike. And there are others who have served as guitarists in hugely popular bands but their names don’t register with most listeners (except other musicians).
You may not know their names, but you might recognize their work when you hear it. They operated mostly in the shadows, but their riffs and techniques made a big impact. Here are four examples: Offering that perfect guitar fill in Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne”; laying down some tasty guitar licks to fill out “Billie Jean”; contributing letter-perfect flamenco guitar to Al Stewart’s “On the Border”; taking “Smiling Faces Sometimes” to new heights with its flat-fuzz guitar solo.
My friend Gary recently gave me a book called “Unstrung Heroes” by Pete Braidis, in which the author offers his choices for “50 guitar greats you should know.” Granted, this kind of list is wholly subjective, reflecting the author’s tastes and time frame. Braidis is an unabashed fan of ’70s -’80s hard rock, so there is a preponderance of fast-and-hard rock guitarists I hadn’t heard of or didn’t know much about, like Pat Travers, The Scorpions’ Uli Jon Roth, Whitesnake’s Bernie Marsden, Thin Lizzy’s Eric Bell, Triumph’s Rik Emmett and Saga’s Ian Crichton.
I tend to favor a wider range of musical styles, and consequently, my list reflects that diversity. But by opening it up to so many different genres — blues, country rock, jazz fusion, hard rock, folk rock, R&B and more — it made my task of whittling down my list of “unsung guitar heroes” to just 20 names that much more difficult.
I sought the input of 15-20 acquaintances who are knowledgeable about music and have strong opinions about which ones deserve more notoriety. They fired back emails citing more than 70 different guitarists! I spent several satisfying hours on Spotify listening to selections by the ones unfamiliar to me (from Braidis’s book as well as my friends’ nominees), and was pleased to add a few of them to the list I’d already begun compiling.
With my selections, I hope to provoke a conversation that increases awareness of the many unheralded guitar players out there. One friend put it this way: “This list could go on for days, and the debate could last years.”
We could start by debating what is meant by “underrated” or “unheralded.” I submit that there are at least a dozen guitarists who play for internationally popular bands whose individual names are not as well known and are therefore not mentioned often enough in lists of top guitarists: Steve Howe (from Yes); Martin Barre (Jethro Tull); Mike Campbell (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers); Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits); Tom Scholz (Boston); Mick Taylor (The Rolling Stones, 1969-1974); Terry Kath (Chicago, 1969-1978); Brian May (Queen); Steve Hackett (Genesis 1970-1977); Don Felder (The Eagles, 1974-1999); Jorma Kaukonen (Jefferson Airplane); Andy Summers (The Police)..
And there are also talented musicians like John Mayer, Glen Campbell, Prince or Vince Gill who are mostly famous for their singing or songwriting, but their considerable guitar skills may not be sufficiently recognized (but should be).
I hope to coax some of you into exploring the guitar performances of any of the names mentioned here that are unfamiliar to you. I’ll wager you’ll be pleasantly surprised, maybe even bowled over. There’s a Spotify playlist at the bottom to give you a taste of each name on the list.
So here we go:
Played with the jazz fusion band The Crusaders in the ’70s and beyond; contributed succinct guitar solos on more than 100 rock LPs, including major albums by Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, Christopher Cross and Michael Jackson; and recorded more than a dozen solo records brimming with astonishing guitar solos. Check out: “Room 335” and “Point It Up” from his first solo LP (1977) or Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne.”
This Australian guitarist has been wowing audiences for nearly 30 years, giving eye-popping performances showcasing his command of the Chet Atkins musical style (“Travis picking”), in which he plays bass lines, chords, melodies and harmonies simultaneously. He and Atkins collaborated on Atkins’ last album, “The Day Guitar Pickers Took Over the World.” In 2008 and 2010, Emmanuel was named Best Acoustic Guitarist in a Guitar Player readers poll.
If you listen to the remarkable guitar passages White provided behind Al Stewart’s most popular LPs (and also in concert), you can clearly see how important a supporting role can be to quality performances. But White continued onward with a solo career in the ’90s and beyond, winning accolades as “best smooth jazz guitarist” in several different polls. Check out his work on “On the Border” from Stewart’s “Year of the Cat” LP.
Thanks to a recent film documentary on The Wrecking Crew, the anonymous musicians who made up this unofficial group of L.A. session players in the 1960s and ’70s aren’t as anonymous anymore. Still, Tedesco deserves to be more widely known, since his guitar work appears on hundreds of recordings by all manner of pop artists, and on film soundtracks for Jaws, The Godfather, The Deer Hunter and more.
So many of Elton John’s rockers would be found lacking if not for the biting guitar licks and power chords provided by Johnstone, who accompanied Elton on more than 80% of his albums. His finesse on acoustic guitar and mandolin is also in evidence on tracks like “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters.” He also recorded with Meat Loaf and Alice Cooper for a spell but never strayed far from John — he recently performed his 2,000th show as part of The Elton John Band.
The soaring lead guitar parts on the mid-’70s Jefferson Starship albums (“Red Octopus,” “Spitfire,” “Earth”) and the LPs by later incarnation Starship all come from Chaquico. He is also a Grammy winner for the work he has performed on numerous solo albums, featuring contemporary jazz, blues and New Age instrumental pieces. His abilities are on clear display on the 1978 JS hit “Runaway” and his own “Turquoise Moon” from 1999’s “Four Corners.”
His friend Bonnie Raitt is universally recognized as the queen of slide guitar, but she leaned the ropes from the late George, who was one of the pioneers of the slide technique as he was founding the great ’70s band Little Feat. Even though a self-indulgent lifestyle led to his premature death in 1980, George’s recordings, especially on the first four Feat albums, live on as ample proof that he deserves to be a legend.
Initially hailed as a prodigy of sorts when he emerged in a supporting role in Neil Young’s Crazy Horse band at age 19, then as a solo artist in the mid-’70s, Lofgren crafted a compelling style all his own. It attracted the attention of Bruce Springsteen, who brought him into the E Street Band during the “Born in the USA” tour, and he’s been a dependable mainstay there ever since.
Although he could summon only a cult audience in the US, Gallagher was far more successful and well-known in his native Ireland and in England, where he managed five Top 40 albums in the mid-’70s. He offered blistering hard rock and blues guitar, and not only inspired legions of more recent axemen, but has also been mentioned by the likes of Jimmy Page and Keith Richards as among their favorites.
An important member of the loose gang of session musicians known as The Funk Brothers, Coffey played inventive, memorable guitar licks on many of the classic tracks in Motown Records history, including The Temptations’ “Cloud Nine” and “Ball of Confusion,” the Supremes’ “Someday We’ll Be Together,” Edwin Starr’s “War” and The Undisputed Truth’s “Smiling Faces Sometimes,” and also his own instrumental Top Ten hit, “Scorpio.”
Los Lobos may be one of most versatile bands ever — “Chicano rock,” R&B, blues, zydecko, country, soul, traditional, they could do it all, and the lion’s share of the credit goes to singer/songwriter/guitarist Hildalgo. He is skilled at handling any genre, with perhaps blues and Americana being his strong suits. Check out “Blue Moonlight” and their version of Cream’s “Politician.”
Best known as the feisty guitarist for Toto, Lukather has also made an indelible mark as a California session guitarist, playing on more than 1,500 albums over a 35-year career. His solo albums in more recent years have leaned heavily toward jazz fusion, inspired by early greats John McLaughlin and Al DiMeola. He and Larry Carlton also grabbed a 2001 Best Instrumental Grammy for their satisfying collaborative LP, “No Substitutions: Live in Osaka.”
The celebrated guitarist from Stax Records’ house band, Booker T. and the MG’s, played on dozens of classic recordings by Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and others, and often produced and arranged records as well. He also figured prominently as lead guitarist in The Blues Brothers (“play it, Steve!”). Cropper is often mentioned in Guitar Player magazine as one of the best of all time.
Known as “the guitar player’s guitar player,” Lee’s background is in the country music arena, backing such luminaries as Emmylou Harris, The Everly Brothers and Willie Nelson. “Mr. Telecaster” also supported Eric Clapton in the 1980s (check out the interplay on “The Shape You’re In” from his 1983 LP) and has 15 solo albums to his credit between 1979-2014. Lee has a sweet style that at times can uncannily approximate the sound of a pedal steel guitar.
He was the guitarist behind Rick Nelson for the first ten years of his career, and then played in Elvis’s band from 1969-1977. In between and concurrently, Burton recorded lead guitar parts with Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Jerry Lee Lewis, Merle Haggard, Judy Collins, Elvis Costello and dozens more. Search YouTube for a 6/19/77 clip of him playing “Johnny B. Goode” behind his back as Elvis looks on.
One of the most in-demand session guitarists in New York throughout the ’70s and ’80s, providing just the right rhythm guitar and occasional lead solos on albums by artists like James Taylor, Paul McCartney, Donald Fagen, Paul Simon, Roberta Flack, Eric Carmen, Carly Simon, Aretha Franklin, Billy Joel and Hall and Oates. Widely admired by record producers and session musicians everywhere.
Glass Harp was a promising rock band out of Northeast Ohio in the early ’70s, thanks to Keaggy’s phenomenal guitar playing. Just as they were building momentum, Keaggy gave up the rock and roll lifestyle for Christian music, and switched from electric to acoustic without sacrificing quality, garnering many awards for instrumental music. Glass Harp reunited for a show in 2008; check out the recording of “Children’s Fantasy.”
One of the two or three “go to” guitarists among L.A. session musicians, Parks has recorded with nearly 50 different artists, including Bob Seger, Neil Diamond, Steely Dan, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Elton John and Madonna, and has toured with Bread and Crosby & Nash. You might take a closer listen to Jackson’s megahit “Billie Jean” to hear Parks’ creative guitar work.
While The Smiths were hugely popular in their native Britain, they never really caught in here in the US, so most American listeners have never heard of their lead guitarist Johnny Marr, recently named “Britain’s last great guitar stylist” in a recent BBC poll. Marr went on from that creative peak to add his righteous riffs to the music of Electronic, The The, and Modest Mouse as well.
A newer one to watch for: Anthony Thogmartin
This guy plays for a highly polished band called Papadosio, whose music “falls somewhere between rock, jazz and electronic mayhem” in a genre they call space rock. While much of the band’s repertoire is keyboard driven, Thogmartin’s incredible guitar work plays a crucial role, adding melodic, cascading fills that show jaw-dropping dexterity and technique.
George Harrison; Pat Metheny; Ottmar Liebert; Leo Kottke; Michael Landau; Michael Hedges; Robin Trower; Eric Johnson; Bob Mould; Peter Buck; Adrian Belew; Johnny A.; Tom Morello; Roy Buchanan; Nile Rodgers; Johnny Winter; Toy Caldwell; Warren Haynes; Richard Thompson; Bill Nelson; Paul Kosoff; J.J. Cale; Randy California; David Spinozza; Derek Trucks
Great post (as always) and incredible research — been reading them regularly, but have been absent on comments for some time (apologies). Today’s post can lead to A LOT of discussion, debate and deliberation, since, as you rightly say, guitars (lead, rhythm and bass) are at the heart of R&R. Couple of suggestions to consider when rating different guitarists:
First, can they stand on their own? Are they great in their own regard, or do they need a great band to surround them? Yes, most great bands have great guitarists, but does that make the guitarist great in his (her) own right? IMO, the best example of someone who can stand on their own talent would be Clapton. He endured from band to band, as well as on may solo projects; he plays virtually any style, although he excels at blues; and, he has serious song-writing chops which feature his guitar-playing talent — both electric (Layla) and acoustic (Tears in Heaven).
Secondly (related to above), is their work genuine, or is it mostly supported by the chord, lyrics and song structure of another? There are hundreds of memorable guitar “licks” (intros, bridges, etc.) but that does not necessarily mean a great guitarist is behind them. Interestingly, you don’t mention George Harrison anywhere above, unless I totally missed it. Now, I love Harrison’s work, and he was clearly underrated, (who wouldn’t be in his position), but most of his “Beatles” work, including solos, were part of a McCartney and Lennon composition. Even when you listened to his own concerts, his solos are good, but not great. He often had Clapton, Knopfler, or other guitarists backing him up.
Lastly, IMO, as they versatile? Can they move easily between hard rock, R&B, and pop (only if necessary)? A true love of the instrument means you have explored many ways to make music with it. Electric solos drive so many rock songs, but how much of that is the finesse of the artist versus the dial on the amplifier (this one goes to “eleven”) or the setting on the foot pedal? There are many guitarists whose fame was based on a short-lived gimmick or fad (e.g. Alvin Lee, the “fastest” guitarist on the planet), but who failed to broaden their appeal because their skills were too confined. Can they handle straight-up acoustic? This is often the real test, since it is just the artist, his (her) fingers, and the strings. Maybe “acoustic” should be topic for a different post, but when you include that style, you probably need to include James Taylor, Jim Croce (and Maury Mehleisen) and even McCartney.
Anyway, great post! Loved the song list. Sorry for rambling.
p.s. Hendrix called Terry Kath, the greatest guitarist he had ever heard. Lost both way too early!
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Great comments/questions/ideas here, Phil, many thanks. Don’t know how Harrison was left out. He was in an early draft… I’ll be correcting the omission… Yes, maybe an acoustic guitar essay/list is in order at a later date! Rock on!