Friday, April 25, 2014

Underrated Guitarists: The All-time non-listed.

Whenever someone takes a look at a long list of the 'greatest guitar players of all-time' there's always a few changes that any person would like to make. No one currently contributing to Very Us Mumblings thinks that Keith Richards belongs anywhere in the top ten, let alone fourth, as
he's placed by Rolling Stone Magazine, but there he is...ranked just behind Jimmy Page as one of the top five greatest guitar players ever. Perhaps if Keith ever puts down his bottle and re-learns how to play he might someday earn that position.
  We've also seen many lists of those thought to be 'underrated' guitarrists, and sometimes the 'underrated' lists seems just as flawed as those of the top-100. Many feel that several highly-skilled heavy-metal guitarists (most notably Dave Murray and Adrian Smith of Iron Maiden), have not been given their due after many great albums. Several progressive-rock guitar players have been overlooked due to many people's misunderstanding of the genre. Many people feel that their favourite innovative guitar player with a unique sound has been largely ignored simply because he or she is not a loud-playing virtuoso or perhaps not commercial-sounding enough to grab some critics attention (such as Robert Smith of the Cure or Daniel Ash of Bauhaus). Simply put, most of the 'underrated' lists on the internet are usually lists of guitar players that fans feel should be 'on the list', musicians who have been shunned or ignored for one reason or another, by some lousy music critics who have their heads up their arse.
  But this blog-entry is about some of those that likely won't make it onto the big list of greatest of all-time, no matter who listens. It's about some of those guitar-players that, although highly skilled, never quite had enough hit-singles or breakthrough albums to really get some attention from the list-makers of this world. So this blog is about some truly under-rated guitar-players. None of them are so under-the-radar that you couldn't or wouldn't have heard of them. But all of them are impressively skilled, all of them have had success although underrated, all of them are currently off-the-list and all of them are probably going to stay off-the-list (even if a critic or two pulls his head out of his arse), and all of them are worth a listen. And, guess what? They're some pretty interesting people, too.

Lita Ford: In the late 1970s Lita Ford played lead guitar for one of the very first all-female rock bands; an entirely teen-aged group called the 'Runaways'. When the band broke up, she spent most of the eighties forging a solo career as a female hard-rocker and a metal queen. In the 90s she'd left the music biz for family life and only recently has returned to rock again with a new album and tour in 2012.
If Lita Ford has been underrated as a guitar-player, it's at least partially her own fault. During the 1980s, and at the height of her fame, she made numerous videos wearing tight and/or revealing clothes that helped give erections to metal-head males in their middle teen years. Unfortunately most of these videos did not showcase her guitar skills or musical ability, though she did look good in leather.
   However, it should also be noted that, in 2010, when a movie about her former band 'The Runaways' appeared in theatres, that movie seemed to focus on Joan Jett and singer Cherie Currie, relegating Lita Ford to an unwarranted supporting role. The non-movie reality is that Lita Ford was not only an integral part of the Runaways, but clearly a skilled guitarist, capable of playing speedy solos and tricky rock-riffs. After Cherie Currie left the band in 1977, it was Lita Ford and Joan Jett that led the Runaways, writing and singing most of the songs and recording and touring together for nearly another three years before the band broke up.
   Lita Ford's solo career success is largely summed-up with her mid-eighties platinum-selling album titled 'Lita' featuring the hit songs 'Kiss Me Deadly' and 'Close My Eyes Forever' a duet with Ozzy Ozbourne. (Note: The little info-blurbs in the video are inaccurate. Cherie Currie is not singing lead vocal, she left the band before this appearance. The line-up is Lita Ford on Lead Guitar, Joan Jett on Lead Vocals/Guitar, Sandy West on Drums, Vickie Blue on Bass)

Joan Baez: On Rolling Stone Magazine's list of top 100 guitarists is Joni Mitchell, placed 75th as the best folk guitarist of her era. Well, if Joni Mitchell is the premiere folk guitarist, then Joan Baez has to be a very close second, if not as just as good.
Not known for flashiness, odd-tunings or eccentric-strumming, Baez playing style is straightforward and subtle and more complicated than it sounds. A true folk-player with great talent for emotional playing.
Part of the reason Joan Baez may be underrated as a guitarist is due to her activism in numerous causes, most famously against the Vietnam War. Singing at a protest doesn't lend itself to atmosphere and nuance and most famous protests songs have anthem-like choruses and require harsh, loud vocals. Joan Baez' own understated demeanour onstage may also contribute to an underestimation of her skills.  Baez's star was rising during the 1960's and into the 70s, but she was somewhat outshined by her former boyfriend and songwriter Bob Dylan. Dylan may have had more luck with songwriting and poetry, however, make no mistake, Baez was clearly the more skilled singer and guitar-player of the two, and sometimes she not only covered Dylan's songs but even imitated his vocal style for fun.
   Many of Baez' songs and arrangements have been covered or interpreted by other musicians, usually rockers wanting to take her music out of the folk/acoustic context and into some other genre. Baez' version of Babe I'm Gonna Leave You is the basis for the Led Zeppelin version and 'Diamonds and Rust' was covered by Judas Priest. Baez's most famous and recognizable guitar 'riff' of sorts is probably the introduction and bridge to the song Diamonds and Rust, written about her previously mentioned ex-boyfriend.
   P.S: Joan Baez is still known to appear at protests, most recently opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Charo: (AKA: María del Rosario Mercedes Pilar Martínez Molina Baeza) She originally became famous from her heavy spanish accent, her funny stories about assimilating to North-American culture and her sexy 'cuchi-cuchi' dance. Her bombastic personality made her a favourite special guest on comedy shows and late night television along with variety shows and even The Love Boat. But all of this extroverted charm hides a skilled flamenco guitar player. Charo had long claimed she was trained by the great classical Spanish guitarist Andres Segovia, and though many people suspected this might be part of her comedy and perhaps a joke, it was actually true. Segovia taught music and guitar classes to many people in the Murcia region of Spain and one of those was the girl who would eventually become known as Charo. She may have become famous for her 'cuchi-cuchi' dance, but Charo was also twice voted best flamenco/spanish guitarist by 'Guitar Player' magazine readers' poll and put out numerous albums since the 70s featuring her guitar playing and singing of both traditional songs and original music

Roy Clark: His earliest album-covers advertised him as a 'lightning' guitar player, but It's difficult to take a musician seriously when his most famous and well-known public appearances are hosting a silly television show where country-life meets vaudeville comedy called 'Hee-Haw'. Most of the cast of the show, if they had any talent other than sketch-comedy or looking-good-in-a-skirt, were usually relegated to singing novelty/comedy songs like 'Pfft! You was gone.' or old-fashioned and/or somewhat tame songs like 'Snowbird'. At the same time, viewers of Hee-Haw watched several celebrated country guitarists like Jerry Reed and Chet Atkins (along with a long list of country-music superstars) make highly-touted and spectacular appearances on this silly comedy show, then leave quickly to go on a big tour or to appear on some other, more serious television. His show may have helped to build the careers of others, and Clark may have been comedically-overshadowed as a guitarist, but it couldn't be said that he wasn't successful. Hee-Haw was officially cancelled by CBS in 1971, but the show continued on in syndication for a total run of almost 25 years! Roy Clark was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2009.

DJango Reinhardt:
In 1965, a 17-year old left-handed guitar player named Tony Iommi had a terrible accident at a sheet metal factory that chopped-off the tips of his middle and ring fingers of his right hand. He contemplated giving-up the guitar for good, but decided not to when a friend of his insisted that he listen to some recordings of the French Jazz guitar player Django Reinhardt.
   Django Reinhardt, born 1910 in Belgium was an illiterate French gypsy. The pinky and ring finger of his left hand had been paralyzed due to an injury sustained in a fire when he was 18 years old. And yet, by using only two fingers on the fretboard, he was able to perform some of the most elegant and quick improvisational jazz guitar solos ever. Together with his quintet, Django Reinhardt made a new type of French-style Jazz, sometimes called 'hot' jazz, incorporating lots of improvisation and interaction between different instruments, usually in small groups of five or six players.
  In Jazz circles, Django Reinhardt is still considered one of the greatest guitarists ever. But if Reinhardt is somewhat under-rated outside of his genre, it may be because after first his successful tour of North America post World War II, he returned to France and entered into a kind of semi-retirement where he resumed the gypsy lifestyle of his youth. His behaviour is reputed to have become unpredictable and his concerts became fewer and farther between. Reinhardt's final album was recorded in 1951 and he died at the age of 43 due to a brain hemorrhage.
  Currently, the place that many new fans discover Django Reinhardt is usually when his music is used to lend atmosphere to movies made by Woody Allen. And for many jazz lovers of the French style he is still considered to be the greatest. However, Django Reinhardt, perhaps unwittingly, also has had a great influence by inspiring those with injured hands and fingers to keep trying and not only learn to play guitar, but to achieve excellence with the instrument. Django Reinhardt played no small part in inspiring Tony Iommi, who not only continued to play guitar after his accident, but went on to become one of the listed players, placed 25th by Rolling Stone magazine.

Jeff Healey: While still an infant, Jeff Healey lost his eyes due to a rare form of cancer. His eyes were surgically removed and he had to 'wear' prosthetics in their place. Growing up blind, Healey learned to play guitar with the instrument sitting on his lap and his left hand making chords and pressing the strings onto the fretboard from above, instead of wrapped underneath the neck. It's believed that it's this face-up flat-on the lap position that gave Jeff Healey some of the unique characteristics and versatility in his playing and propelled him to become the powerful string-bending soloist that he was.
   In the late 1980s, together with bassist Joe Rockman & drummer Tom Stephen, they formed a trio called simply: The Jeff Healey Band and quickly earned themselves a reputation as the best Rockin' Blues band in Toronto. They were signed to a U.S. record label and toured the world quite successfully from the late eighties through the nineties, working with some of the most famous and celebrated guitarists and musicians from around the world, including Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, George Harrison and many others.
   Why is Jeff Healey underrated then? Well, although his albums sold well and his tours drew large audiences, especially at blues festivals, The Jeff Healey Band was playing before and through the height of the Grunge and Alternative-era and he didn't benefit from the amount of media attention that was given to some of those bands. Also, Jeff Healey turned towards a slower lifestyle for himself as the 90s drew to a close. He went several years between releases of new recordings and though he was still performing, in the 2000s he'd basically settled down in Toronto, where he opened and ran his own bar for years (Jeff Healey's Roadhouse). At this time, Healey turned his musical attentions towards Jazz and away from the Hard-rocking Blues that had originally made him famous.
    Jeff Healey died in March of 2008 due to cancer, and he may not make it onto any magazine's list of 100, but in Toronto, his music is almost part of the city scenery and he is considered to be one of the very best.

P.S: If you enjoyed this blog, you might like to check out our list of Slightly Underrated Singers.