April has been the designated celebration of International Guitar Month since 1987, so before the calendar tiptoes into May, we’re going to hail the instrument most often played in invisible form in front of a mirror or behind a steering wheel (who is that so artfully tearing out the riff — sans instrument — to Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way?” Oh, certainly not I!).
Of course, those we’re applauding today actually know what to do with strings and a fretboard — something I never managed, so I’m sticking with my drums — and ascended to music royalty.
As with any list, this one could number in the hundreds. But before my editors wince at that prospect, I’ll reassure you that my deeply pondered roll call of 10 is solely a reflection of some of my favorites.
Without question, we bow to these guitar gods (and goddesses): Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Brian May, Angus Young, Chet Atkins, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Pete Townshend, Chuck Berry, Jeff Beck, Nancy Wilson, Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson, Keith Richards, Vince Gill, Jonny Lang, Steve Vai, Duane Allman, Tom Morello, Randy Rhoads, Mike Campbell, B.B. King and Susan Tedeschi.
And there are many, many more, such as the insanely versatile Steve Lukather — known for his decades-long production in Toto — who has also played guitar on more than 1,500 albums ranging from Michael Jackson to Cher to Kenny Rogers; and Tommy Tedesco, an ace session guitarist who also appeared on thousands of recordings (The Beach Boys, Linda Ronstadt and Barbra Streisand among them).
This is a topic I could deliberate on for hours, so before this list gets any longer, behold these axe-slinging virtuosos.
Eddie Van Halen
Always and forever my guitar hero, and what a loss to have said goodbye to him in 2020 at the age of 65. While everyone cites the groundbreaking “Eruption” (from 1978′s “Van Halen”) as the defining showcase of EVH’s innovation, check out the layered, complex guitar dancing in “Little Guitars” (from 1982′s “Diver Down”) for a master class in stylistic virtuosity.
Often referred to as “the godmother of rock ‘n’ roll,” Tharpe not only established the ferocity of a distorted electric guitar (listen to “Rock Me” for proof) but also served as an early inspiration to the inimitable Little Richard. When the music landscape moved away from her brand of guitar-driven gospel and blues, Tharpe made a move — to England, where she cultivated an appreciative fan base.
Because of his tenure in Bon Jovi, a band that will never be taken seriously enough despite a heap of muscular work (see: 1988′s “New Jersey” album), Sambora’s chops are often overlooked as well. But as his 1991 solo album, “Stranger in This Town,” proved, Sambora’s affection for blues is genuine.
For years, she’s been the conspicuous female on the male-dominated “Experience Hendrix” tours. But the Serbian blues woman silences any skeptics the moment her left hand starts dancing down the neck of her Fender Stratocaster — and she does it all in stilettos.
At 15, she played with Steve Vai. In her 20s, she was set to tour the world with Michael Jackson on his “This Is It” tour before his untimely death; she rebounded with a saucy pop-rock hit, “According to You.” Cute, catchy stuff. But to watch Orianthi — a former Sambora muse — play live with Alice Cooper, Dave Stewart or simply on her own is to witness melodic ferocity.
Probably the coolest guy in rock ‘n’ roll next to his Aerosmith frontman, Steven Tyler (and OK, Keith Richards belongs in that sentence, too). Equally influenced by the Beatles and Hendrix, Perry is also a wicked blues player, shades of which casual fans hear on “Sweet Emotion” and “Same Old Song and Dance.” But his depth — evidenced on “Hangman Jury” — was on impressive display during the band’s pandemic-shortened residency in Las Vegas.
Most people will tag the solo in “Purple Rain” or perhaps the joyful cacophony at the end of “Let’s Go Crazy” as peak Prince. Personally, the fuzzy guidance and zippy notes in “Computer Blue” and the alternately jangly and howling guitar lines in “U Got the Look” are far more appealing. And if you really want to wallow in Prince’s absence, cue up the legendary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performance of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty and Steve Winwood as a beacon of perfection.
Underappreciated for decades, the flame-haired maven is undeniably one of the greatest-ever slide guitar players. Her 1989 “Nick of Time” album, propelled by a snappy version of John Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love,” introduced her to a new generation, while her 1991 follow-up, “Luck of the Draw,” and its megahit, “Something to Talk about,” solidified the acceptance of blues guitar on pop radio.
Without the man born Dave Evans, there is no aural sunburst to usher in “Where the Streets Have No Name.” No chunky guitar bites as a precursor to Bono’s “uno, dos, tres, catorce” intro to “Vertigo.” No hazy distortion and sonic exploration in “Until the End of the World.” Basically, no signature sound that shouts, “THIS ... is U2.”
On “Bad Reputation,” “Light of Day” and “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” Jett’s guitar sneered as much as her vocals. Steeped in the art of punchy rock, she nonetheless can make her taut chords soar — just take a listen to her cover of “Love Is All Around,” the theme from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
About the Author
Melissa Ruggieri has covered music and entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 2010 and created the Atlanta Music Scene blog. She's kept vampire hours for more than two decades and remembers when MTV was awesome.