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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Rock Gods Spotlight #4: Axeman

So far in this Spotlight series, I've tackled the Frontman spot and discussed the Rock Gods of bass and drums, but before I dive into my personal list of top lead guitarists (which is very different from the standard Rock magazine Top 10 lists out there) I think it's necessary to recognize the ultimate Rock God, Les Paul.  For those of you who thought it was just the name of a guitar, take your spot beside Wayne and Garth and recite the following, "We're not worthy!".  Les Paul basically made Rock 'N' Roll possible as one of the chief pioneers of the solid body electric guitar, and his name was immortalized when Gibson named their signature guitar after him.

Back in Spotlight #2, I suggested thinking of your favorite Rock songs and imagining them without the bass, to appreciate just how much impact the Bass players have in their bands.  However, even more recognizable than the steady groove that the best bass players provide, that big Rock riff is what everyone is glued to on the biggest and most classic Rock songs of all time. 

If I were to think back about the first time I really took notice of a guitar player it has to be Joe Perry of Aerosmith.  As a child of the 80's I really got into them when their Permanent Vacation videos were playing on MTV, and then the videos from Pump, which remains one of my Top 5 Rock albums of all time.  I've always felt that Joe was like a Jimmy Page for the next generation and he's always been one of my very favorites.  
Of course, even before the 80's, I knew of Aerosmith from classics like "Walk This Way", which has one of the all-time greatest Rock riffs ever, and "Dream On" or "Sweet Emotion", with one of the best bass lines ever recorded.  Even on their latest album "Music From Another Dimension", Joe finds his stride in new ways and continues to impress me, even if the album overall was pretty mediocre.  As Blues/Rock guitarists go, Joe is way up there at the top.  Some of my most favorite Perry tracks aren't even their biggest hits but songs like "Hoodoo Voodoo Medicine Man" from Pump and "Hangman Jury" from Permanent Vacation.

I'm not one for conformity, so before I pick another mainstream guitar player, especially one as obvious as EVH, I'm going to take a turn and talk about the guitar hero in my favorite band, Pearl Jam, who is Mike McCready.  With every new Pearl Jam album, I become more impressed with him, and hear a few tracks that surprise me and prove that that this guy is an unsung guitar hero whose name is never among the ranks it should be.  Mike's playing has a fierce quality to it, and can be almost frantic, like those times when it's not as melodically captivating.  Honestly, I think his playing on "Nothing As It Seems" from the Binaural album could be listed as one of the greatest guitar pieces ever.  It's hard not do miss the influence of Neil Young in it, but the way Mike tears into it time and time again is simply mesmerizing.  There is a quiet calm in songs like "Given To Fly" that counter the kind of chaos he brings in "Reach Down" from the Temple of the Dog album, that to me shows a level of versatility that is not exactly commonplace among his peers.
Attending a Pearl Jam live show is an invasion of the soul in the best way possible, and watching Mike shred on their fast rockers and then take it down on "Black" can make any skeptic an instant follower.  If you really want to hear McCready show his inventive side, ignore that popular hits and dig into the deep album cuts like "Inside Job" from the "Avocado" album or the entire Yield album.  Every band has hits but Pearl Jam's strength is really found in the songs that don't make the top 40.

Tom Morello from Rage Against The Machine, more currently known as The Nightwatchman, is the kind of guitar player whose impact is felt whether he's on stage plugged in or not, but the power of his message comes across loud and clear either way.
There isn't a single song in the RATM catalog that doesn't get your adrenaline rushing to the point where you feel almost invincible.  Of course, all four members of that band contribute equally to the power of their music, but then you hear some of Tom's other music like the piece that plays during the final match from the film "Dodgeball", which was recorded as a favor for Tom's friend, actor Vince Vaughn, and you realize this guy is a powerhouse no matter what music he's creating.  Their debut album, as far as I'm concerned, is an absolute masterpiece, and stands up against every single debut album in the history of Rock, but then you hear the albums that followed and it's hard not to argue their potency as well.  His Nightwatchman alter ego focuses more on acoustic Folk than Rock, but don't let that fool you into thinking the music has no power behind it because the subtlety is what makes it speak louder than the actual volume of the music.

I mentioned EVH earlier, as if anyone needs me to elaborate on who that really is, but rather than talk about him I have to talk about the first guitarist who was not part of any band when I first learned about him, and that is Joe Satriani.  Much like how I learned of Stu Hamm on bass, a solo artist, I heard about Satriani and my first listen of his Flying in a Blue Dream album had me hooked.  Fast forward a couple decades and he's in one of my favorite supergroups of all time, Chickenfoot, alongside Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony and Chad Smith.  Honestly, note for note, I think he's among the absolute best guitar players out there.  I think Eddie has his signature sound and his tapping and all that, but Joe puts so much more soul and melody into every album he's played on, I think Eddie's legend does more work for him than he ever has to.  Joe has a catalog of albums and he can shred every bit as much as Eddie Van Halen ever has on any Van Halen album.  Everything Joe does on "Up Next" from the Chickenfoot III album is ear candy, and several tracks on his albums Surfing With The Alien or The Extremist can stand up to anything EVH has every played.

I'm not begrudging EVH his rightful spot among the top guitarists of all time, because no list I create will ever dismiss the fact that he just belongs there, so I'll continue shining my spotlight on the players who don't get the attention they deserve but whose impact is every bit as huge in Rock music.  

Next up is someone whose guitars and vocals are equally vital to the sound of his band Alice In Chains, and that is Jerry Cantrell.  His style of playing walks a very thin line between Grunge and Metal, while his voice is eery and melodic making his vocal style a perfect match for their late original singer Layne Staley.  Considering that he was the only guitar player in the band, his sound had a very layered effect to it, especially on the later material.  I think some of his best playing to date comes on their last album Black Gives Way To Blue, the first they recorded after Layne's death, with new vocalist William DuVall.  Songs like "Acid Bubble" and "Check My Brain" showcase a style rarely heard since "Dirt" and a raw edge to his sound that is a welcome return to form.  The band is currently putting the finishing touches on their next album, due out tentatively this year.  There is no doubt in my mind that it will further showcase why Cantrell is one of the last great guitarists of the Grunge era and of Rock in general, whose sound is as melodic as it is brutally raw.

I've yet to see the name Adam Jones mentioned on any list of Rock's premier guitarists which is not only disappointing but completely shocking to me on many levels.  For those who don't know, Adam is the guitarist in the Progressive Metal band Tool, and he provides some of the most fierce guitar parts ever.  His power is reminiscent of Tom Morello but may even take things a step further.  Listening to tracks like "Eulogy" or "Aenima", both from the Aenima album, you can feel it in the deepest part of your gut, the raw energy brewing in his playing.  Tool is one of those bands, like Rage Against The Machine, whose music has a signature sound to it that is almost instantly recognizable.  Many of their songs have a long intro before the song breaks, and I can tell within seconds that I'm not only listening to Tool, but that within a minute or less I'm about to have all senses attacked.  Being that their drummer Danny Carey is among my all-time idols on drums, I attribute a lot of their power to his playing as well, but when Adam's guitar gets into a deep pulsing rhythm it unlocks somewhat of a beast within me that not many bands can tap into.

There are way too many lead guitarists, or guitar players in general, worthy of the kind of praise that these have received but I feel a responsibility to keep my posts at a respectable length.  I will say that there are many who may not have been mentioned in this post because they are already among the most celebrated out there who don't need my endorsement, not that any of those I've mentioned do.  Honorable mentions for the late legends Dimebag, Randy Rhoads, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jeff Healey, as well as Zakk Wylde and James Schaffer of KoRn.

This concludes my Rock Gods Spotlight series, and I realize that there are many names who've been excluded in each category but as I mentioned before in each installment, this is not what I consider the definitive list of the very best in every category but the ones I feel deserve more recognition than they've received thus far and my personal favorites.  I hope you've enjoyed this series, and welcome any feedback.