Perfect Sound Forever

GUITAR HEROES?


Hendrix concert poster*

James Marshall Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Jimmy Page & the Cult of Personality
by Gary Gomes


As we get older and our society gets more frightened by change, I have noticed increasing ossification of rankings in who is considered the best guitarist who ever lived. Jimi Hendrix essentially tops every current list and one of the other three (sometimes Jeff Beck) is ranked number 2 and the order falls in line after that. I am just here to tell you that you are being lied to, misled, hornswoggled, or whatever other term you wish to use.

Hendrix was a pioneer--of that there is no doubt--but some of the things he is being given credit for inventing, like using feedback in a musical context, extensive use of effects, were already in use by guitarists of that era--my God, Clapton (unintentional pun), Bloomfield, Ritchie Blackmore, Dick Dale, Pete Townshend, the Blues Magoos, Zappa, the Yardbirds. and the Electric Prunes were releasing albums that relied heavily on feedback for musical purposes at least a year before Hendrix appeared. His tremolo bar abuse was exceptional, but so were Jeff Beck's bends.

Hendrix did lots of spur of the moment things that would be criticized by some modern audiences, such as changing the introduction to "Little Wing" every time he played it--but then again, the Doors never played "Light My Fire" the same way twice--and Cream definitely did not play anything in their repertoire the same way twice. Why? Well, both groups had strong jazz backgrounds. Hendrix would often-and recordings of live concerts verify this--play the exact same solo as the record and then improvise. His extemporaneous solos were great, but Clapton's were arguably better as Hendrix was largely in command of his bands and Clapton was something against two other soloists--and some of Clapton's best playing emerged from that environment. But there were times that Hendrix struggled to improvise- Isle of Wight is a good example- and Monterey Pop was more about the sensationalism of the performance than guitar wizardry. I still cringe when I hear "Wild Thing," as it is more about histrionics and noise manipulation than about Hendrix's guitar work. Also, compared to the average guitarist of the time- Hendrix had an array of effects. I can remember being impressed by the guitar solo on "Purple Haze" until I realized Hendrix had a device that could produce an octave pitch over the guitar. No one else was using it at that time. Eddie Van Halen once remarked that he chose Clapton as a model because he couldn’t afford the effects pedals that Hendrix used. Hendrix was intensely self-critical of his playing, and he mentioned several guitarists during his lifetime he admired greatly, such as Terry Kath of Chicago, Billy Gibbons (then in the Moving Sidewalks, later of ZZ Top fame) Jimmy Page and some say, Rory Gallagher, among others.

Clapton is in a unique position as he valued Hendrix's guitar work, was for a short while called God, and now there are legions of guitarists who say they can play everything he did. They are usually talking about his studio output when they say the latter--and it is true that most of his studio fare draws from a limited vocabulary. He was capable of much more than his studio recordings--one listen to the live version of "I'm So Glad" from Goodbye will convince doubters of his prowess. But he was extraordinarily sensitive to his environment and the players he was surrounded by; Steve Winwood managed to coax some unusual patterns from him on "Do What You Like" from the Blind Faith album. But unlike many critics, I find his guitar work after Blind Faith only captivating for short spells. Derek and the Dominoes was a good collection, not a great one, and Duane Allman's slide work was annoying at points. Clapton basically peaked with Cream and while he is still a fine guitarist, nothing he did later matched the creative fire of Cream.


Clapton's Cream-era gear*

Allman is another example of a great player, but whose reputation is out of proportion to his playing. How can I make this judgment? I actually saw the Allman Brothers original line up live twice. I live near Boston and they played there quite a bit. When I actually saw the band, the guitar work brilliance seemed to come more from Dicky Betts than from Duane Allman. Again, Duane was a fine guitarist, but I never heard him play better than Betts and--I hate to say it, because this was his great skill--his slide work was, to me anyway, boring and intrusive. The magic in the Allman Brothers came from two fine guitarists of basically equal rank, not one star and one back up. The first time I saw them, Betts was on fire--very inventive-but neither was Clapton level. Derek and the Dominoes was a fluke for Clapton, perhaps because of his worsening heroin addiction-but it was a sign that his peak had passed. This is why Allman looked good in comparison.

Jimmy Page is an extraordinary musician, but for me his peak playing was in the Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin's first album. When I heard Led Zeppelin II, I was shocked. The band was still good, but it was recorded between gigs in the U.S. and this was the album that started the Page reputation for sloppy playing, especially on things like "Heartbreaker"--that ambitious but spastic guitar solo! It must be he haze of nostalgia that makes everyone love LZ II, as the album was incredibly sloppy. I am far from a perfection addict, but the record just sounds thrown together. They did some great things after that, but I dare anyone to tell me Page played a better guitar solo than on "Dazed and Confused" on the first LZ album.


Jimmy Page's gear*

I think that as we age, our heroes from the past tend to become more and more important to us--this means we discount newer guitarists as technicians (Joe Satriani and Allan Holdsworth, and earlier, Robert Fripp come to mind). I saw one Zappa plays Zappa concert in which one fan wished Dweezil wouldn't play all that fast stuff.

But it's unrealistic and unfair to younger players to discount them. Many younger players have absorbed the vocabularies of these icons and gone beyond them in so many ways. Since the late 1980's, even into the grunge era, artists were experimenting with odd time signatures, expanded tonalities, and expanded instruments like eight string guitars--and, of course, enhanced technical facility, which comes from practice. There seems to be a perception ceiling in every generation-that is, that is, what is possible to do on an instrument. And then some new player comes along, like Hendrix, who opens up possibilities. That opening of possibilities does not make that individual the greatest instrumentalist ever--it just reflects an expansion of possibilities that other performers can build upon, not an end of the road. And the greatest-whatever instrument it is a trap that limits are positions and exposure to new ideas. I have seen Derek Bailey performances and looking at how he plays, he struck me as the most sophisticated guitarist I ever saw. But he was outside the mainstream of music, and is hardly noticed.

Hendrix, Clapton, and the others have made fine music through the years. But these constant polls and rankings-as well as being ridiculous- are doing a disservice to both guitarists as musicians and audiences as listeners. The main role of a critic, I have always believed, is to expose audiences to new talent. As composer Nicolas Slonimsky said, "Let's hear something new!"


NOTE: photos by Jason Gross, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll" exhibit, 2019


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