A Note on Guitar Gods

Rolling Stone Magazine’s “Greatest” lists infuriate me for countless reasons. They’re a shameless attempt to create controversy and their feigned objectivity is aggravating. I’ve always had a distaste for “Greatest Guitarist” lists of any kind, specifically those that cater to one genre of music alone (usually rock and roll). So I think there are a few things that need to be straightened out when determining criteria for being a great guitarist. I’ll pick on Rolling Stone because they have the most clout, even though countless periodicals make the same errors in judgment. Just as a disclaimer though, I am a huge fan of all the guitarists I’m discussing and the music they created.

Jimmy Page (Rolling Stone’s 9th Greatest Guitarist of All-Fucking-Time)

First off, being a great composer/songwriter/riff-writer doesn’t necessarily constitute proficiency on the instrument. Jimmy Page, as the driving force behind Led Zeppelin, has undoubtedly written and co-written some of the greatest rock songs ever pressed to vinyl. The fact that any 12-year old can play “Black Dog”, or “Stairway”, or “Over the Hills and Far Away” doesn’t mean that these tunes aren’t amazing, but it can be relevant when determining the skill-level of the composer as a guitarist.

I’ll admit, Page was probably on some kind of Jack Daniels/Heroin cocktail at the time of this performance, but it absolutely makes my case (the five minute mark is a pretty good place to start):

…a seven-year old:

Robert Johnson (Rolling Stone’s 5th Greatest Guitarist of All-Fucking-Time)

Robert Johnson recorded twenty-nine songs 75 years ago and has somehow made his way into the hearts and minds of every blues/rock guitarist since. How he became the archetypal Mississippi Delta blues man, and the subject of vaguely religious folk-lore is debatable, yet his influence on rock and blues music is undeniable. Influence, again, does not require virtuosity. Robert Johnson is an unbelievable songwriter with an amazing voice and ability to interpret classic songs and make them his own. He is a very good guitarist, but not as good as his followers make him out to be.

…blues guitar by the 5th greatest guitarist of all-time:

…or blues guitar by Joe Pass:

Johnny Ramone (Rolling Stone’s 16th Greatest Guitarist of All-Fucking-Time)

Jesus Christ, I don’t even know where to start. Love or hate punk music, to me it is impossible to call Johnny Ramone one of the greatest guitarists in history. I wholeheartedly believe if Johnny were around today he’d deny it, too. The Ramones were a necessary relief to the narcissistic rock of the late 70’s, but strumming a guitar like it insulted your mother doesn’t make you a brilliant guitarist. Kudos to inventing a music genre, though.

…and that was just the top 20. The rest of the list is a shit-show of blatantly shocking inclusions (Joan Jett) and exclusions (too many to name). I’ll steer clear of what guitarists I think could have been added or omitted to make the best list because the point of this article, if there is one, is that these lists are ludicrous. No matter the state of the record-industry, it isn’t likely that kids will stop learning to play guitar to impress the opposite sex. But perhaps it’s time to stop shoveling piles of superlatives on Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton just to sell magazines.

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