Six-String Masters (Part 1)

As a guitarist, I am both fascinated and frustrated by other guitarists. When I listen to a guitarist I love, I can be inspired, astounded and mesmerised – but I can also be envious and disheartened. It’s such a unique craft to do well. There are guitar players everywhere, but it’s very easy to separate the good from the great. I’ve listened to primarily guitar-based music my entire life, and much to my own annoyance at times, I’ve relentlessly studied what they do and how they do it. I’ve watched countless videos, been to an endless amount of live performances – and am still hungry to discover more.

Some of these heroes ultimately stand out above the rest. The ones who just constantly arouse inspiration and motivation. The men who make me put down the guitar and shake my head in disbelief (in a good way!). These are the guitar players I want to pay tribute to, in no particular order:

Tommy Emmanuel – Every guitar player will know him, but the general public may not. He is just phenomenal. The technical ability, the emotion, the sheer cheekiness and over-exuberance in his style is just mesmerising. I laugh when I listen to him play, because it’s just unbelievable what he is capable of. He will forever be the world’s greatest guitarist to me, there is nothing he cannot do. Bow down, we are not worthy!

Mike Einziger – Best known for being the oddball guitar player of rock stalwarts Incubus, I discovered Incubus in 8th grade via cassette player in Mrs Laing’s Tech class (when I should have been sewing a bucket hat – where were my priorities?). Einziger is an absolute genius – his completely unique style of play, fed through a mountain of guitar effects, is something rarely heard in modern guitarists anymore. More importantly, he writes a darn good guitar hook. Songs such as ‘Drive’, ‘Wish You Were Here’, ‘Pardon Me’ and so on just typify the classic riffs that are known even to the casual fan. What can sometimes be lost is just how technically sound he is – check out the guitar break in ‘Priceless’ and be amazed (skip to 2:20 below). One of my first guitar heroes, who never fails to impress me. 

John Mayer – Too easy? The guy who made me want to play acoustic guitar seriously. ‘Room For Squares’ is just full of harmony goodness, and those jazzy chord shapes still resonate with me today. For years he was palmed off as the next ‘flavour of the month’ pop star, but slowly gained respect as a fantastic blues player over the coming years. You can’t mention Mayer in a ‘favourite guitarists’ column without stopping at ‘Neon’. That main riff, and the finger style he adopts throughout will give you nightmares. A legend, and always a pleasure to watch. 

Stevie Ray Vaughan – Some people say, you’re either a Hendrix fan or a SRV fan. I’m not sure I agree, but if it’s true – it’s +1 SRV. For whatever reason, I enjoyed Hendrix, and he undoubtedly inspired basically every guitar hero that came after him (including SRV), but I was always drawn closer to Stevie’s playing. Blues through and through, with rarely much deviation, but it was always played with such ferocity and intensity. To this day I still can’t listen to him without busting out a guitar and playing along in some manner. ‘Lenny’, ‘Pride and Joy’, ‘Texas Flood’, ‘Life By The Drop’ and ‘Scuttle Buttin’ are some of the best examples. And yes, I tried to be cheeky putting him just after Mayer.

Eric Clapton – Slowhand. For many, his electric guitar playing in Cream, Derek and the Dominoes, and The Yardbirds are what makes him a hero in their eyes, but for me it will always be Unplugged. The history and significance of that album is huge – much more than I can write in one paragraph. Whilst some of his best live work for me was in the mid-80s when his band consisted of Phil Collins, Nathan East and Ray Cooper (to name a few), it’s still always going to be that one album which will be enough for me to put him in this list now and always. Enjoy.

I could undoubtedly go on forever (hence the ‘Part One’). These 5 guys would be at the top of my ‘Wow’ list, where the technical ability impressed me at a young age and continues to even to this very day. In Part Two, I’ll look at the more conventional guitar players I love. Guitar players who may not be as technically brilliant as those on this list, but are fantastic melody writers and that’s what makes them memorable to me.

As I searched for the right track to add for each artist, I found myself forgetting what I was actually searching for and just enjoying hearing the artist play – I hope you do too. 

P.S. Here’s another of Tommy, just ’cause. My favourite guitar piece of all time – and fittingly, a cover of one of the greatest songs ever written.

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