100 favorite guitarists

100 Favorite Guitarists: #1 John McLaughlin (Miles Davis, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Solo Work, Shakti)

I must admit, with all the great heavy metal and classic rock guitarists I had on the list before him, picking jazz fusion guitarist John McLaughlin is a bit anti-climatic. But when I sat down to make this list and thought of all the different things I love about guitar and whose music made me feel passionately about the instrument, it was John McLaughlin that I arrived at. Jazz on the whole is a genre I often have difficulty articulating my feelings on, as it seems to use a different system of logic than what I as a predominantly rock n roll listener am used to. At times this means that compositions fall into wild abstraction, noise that has difficulty making sense when put against itself, leaving you alone to feel either desolated by the experience or try and comprehend the totality. Yet, John McLaughlin is a wonderful ray of light for those wishing to find their way into the jazz world, as his guitar spans the circumference of the world, lighting tiny beacons of rationality among the different styles of music and showing the way in which all music can come together to express its primal purpose. His compositions are filled with beautiful little moments that reflect a deep passion for what music is supposed to be doing, making us feel something and rather than alienate one particular audience, he instead uses the jazz standard of variations of a theme to bring together discordant elements, trying out different generic conventions on the same idea. Frosty like a morning in the dead of winter, his guitar will bring us that wistful sound of the classical guitar, the nylon strings vibrating against still air in mechanical movement until to just out into a passion, burning firecely as chords as full as the ocean ring bright harmonic elements, that flamenco style coming into play and then dropping into a minimalist presentation, where each individual note takes on a special meaning because we are left alone with it, to meditate on the experience of arriving there. Everything from rock to Indian music to modern classical is possible with his music and it is exciting to hear the way these totally different styles can be brought under reign and then made to sound natural against one another.

I would also speak of just how great his technique is, as it is easily quantifiable by one of the classic measures: speed. Holy hell, I don’t think I can think of a guitarist faster than Mr. McLaughlin. Well… Rusty Cooley maybe, but he looses all sense of melody when playing so fast. McLaughlin manages to find that beautiful medium where the natural intensity of fast playing still manages to be imbued with the natural dignity of the notation and we can see the musical intention as something larger than its hubris. I love to bring up Friday Night in San Fransisco because of this, where he played with the great Al di Meola and Paco de Lucia, as it is mind blowing to hear guitar played just so fiercely and with such precision. I describe it as the perfect bit of guitar pornography, the moment where all we can do is appreciate and revel in the sound of the guitar, played so fast that only cheetahs can hear all the notes. The consequence of the fast playing seen on the album is this strange rhythmic sense, where the guitar’s melodic patterns begin to take on a natural backbeat, a kind of lopsided gallop in order to orient the audience towards following what they are doing without having to lose the natural expressive nature of the guitar’s sound. Note after note is torn screaming into the world, yet each is clearly voiced and paints a larger narrative picture. This style of music lends itself so well to story telling, as scenes can be set simply by occupying archetypal description, forests having slower paces with more varied and sparse notation, while discovery can be heard in sudden peaks in frequency of the notes and danger made with uninhibited speed, etc. etc. As listeners, we can understand the general descriptions coming from the music or simply get lost in the natural reaction to the lightning pace of the music, each giving us a different but totally worthwhile experience.

But even with all this, I think I have missed the most important thing about McLaughlin’s playing: it is uncompromisingly beautiful. I know beauty is a totally subjective thing, yet I have little difficulty describing McLaughlin’s work as such, as both his tone and intentions with it seem dedicated towards giving us something that we will stop and marvel at. My first experience with John McLaughlin came when I bought Miles Davis’ seminal work, Bitches Brew, having heard of it on some music show and wanted to give jazz a try. Looking back on it, it is hard to imagine a kid like myself hearing this and thinking anything of it, as I freely admit that I have had my share of bad taste in music, and yet, it stuck. On the album, there is a track named after him, “John McLaughlin,” and listening to it, its at first strange to see why, as most of the track is made of keyboard, clarinet and drums, with the guitar only popping up every so often. But when you listen to it, you’re always drawn to the guitar, those little flare ups where notes fit right into the mix and then transcend everything around them, making them all drop off into oblivion to a moment before they snap back to reality. His playing is so stunningly brief and yet so captivating, like seeing a rare flower bloom and wilt all at once, leaving you wanting a chance to find more. In his other works, he seems to find those perfect moments where his sound becomes the center of the world, those perfect little moments when tone can crystallize and fragment or a burst of runs can leave us wondering what happened. It is especially easy to find these moments in his classical work because the instrument so easily lands in that emotional spectrum of joy and heartbreak, always recalling in crystal clarity tones that match our own world. Every time I hear his work I am awed at just how much order he can bring out of the chaos around him.

And so here we are, the end of my list of my favorite guitarists and John McLaughlin sits at number one. His is perhaps not the music for everyone, but he is an artist who encompasses so many things about what makes guitar playing great. All of the passion and emotion and technique that can bring the instrument to its fullest resides within his music and we fragile mortals need only listen to draw it out for ourselves.

The Equipment: His main guitar at current is a Godin Freeway Midi guitar, which allows him a great deal of choices in his instrumentation on stage, especially important as he is often prone to long improvisational moments. During the early years, I associate him most with the Gibson EDS-1275, the double necked guitar, which gave him the ability to switch from six to twelve string whenever so chose. Other guitars he has used have included the Gibson L4, the Fender Mustang, the Gibson ES-345 (with scalloped frets) and the Gibson Byrdland. I have no idea what classical and acoustic guitars he uses, aside from them maybe being built by Abraham Wechter. McLaughlin no longer uses amplifiers on stage, instead plugging directly into the PA, but had previously used Marshall Plexis in the 70s. His current pedalboard is pretty minimal, likely due to his guitar being MIDI, but includes a Seymour Duncan Twin Tube Classic, a MXR Carbon Copy Delay and a MXR Stereo Chorus pedal.

Key Track: Birds of Fire

100 Favorite Guitarists: #2 David Gilmour (Pink Floyd)

The guitarist from my all time favorite band who made my all time favorite album. Like much of my musical taste, my love of Pink Floyd’s lineage can be traced back to my father and that old truck with its limited tape deck selection. I don’t have a clear picture in my head of when the transition took place, when suddenly the clouds parted and I could see the visions of grandeur Pink Floyd conjures in my head now, but it is just one of those things that make sense to me: a perfect sense of album orchestration, a varied but strong sense of song writing with overall thematic concerns in mind, instrumentation that works both on a melodic level and for its own sake and lyrics that are able to jaunt in out of complex metaphorical construction and simple deliveries of honest emotion. Being as this is my guitarist list, I should probably stick to discussing David Gilmour, so here we go: David Gilmour is the artist who performed what I consider to be the best guitar solo of all time, “Time.” As an instrument, the electric guitar has this beautifully varied sound, seeminlgy capable of reaching any particular frequency through the use of effects and amplifiers without ever losing that natural characteristic in its delivery. Unlocked further with technique, I often times begin to hear different sounds in playing, those mimicries of human voices that become more powerful because there are no words, only abstract ideas that we are ourselves are putting on the tones and the way these tones are played allows us to add an emotional layer to the song. While certainly the fast, solely technical exercise is a possibility, my view is that the guitar solo is the most powerful place in the song because it is where we stop identifying with the music and simply become part of it, the sounds becoming the mirror we see our faces in. I had never thought of “Time” in this respect for many years, but there is one moment in the solo that always strikes, always draws my attention and forces me to shush those around me, found here. Up until this point, there is that subtle movement between notes, the point where distinction dissapears and the natural hum of the guitar masks any disunity, mimicking the forward march of time that the song laments, always building towards a peak, the notes growing higher in pitch and ringing longer and louder. But then that moment hits and all those wordless moments make sense as the firmament crumbles beneath our feet and leaves us within the world of our mind, the guitar having that painful, beautiful wail, that natural duality of progress and regret. It is such a simple tone, a high note bent to its breaking point and yet, it seems to stand in for all the different emotions that such a sound could come from, joy, anger, sorrow, etc.. Gilmour leads us by the nose and simply delivers to us a natural progression of idea, an abstract concept where you or I can understand pure untapped emotions that come solely from within ourselves.

And having led off with that, let me down shift a bit and talk about my view on Gilmour’s guitar within composition, as I feel he is a guitarist who plays “enough.” This might be a misleading phrase, as I don’t mean it to be sarcastic in any way, but rather as a celebration of the face that he leaves no musical stone unturned within the songs he is working on. As a band that typically works with a centralized concept during the orchestration of a song, the guitar finds itself a bit out of place within rock music, as typically rock music utilizes a guitar as a repetitive delivery system of melody, forming chords and lines that are pleasant to us and we can here repeated enough to get a kind of baseline of thematic delivery. But Pink Floyd wouldn’t be the band they were if Gilmour had not had a more free ranging hand, seemingly finding ways to engage all the different levels of a song to make it seem as if he just stopped the minute he ran out of good ideas. Sometimes he might tease us with a chord structure, only to boil it down into individual root notes, that begin to juxtapose against themselves in an odd jazz way. Other times, he might find tone to be his uniting element, pulling in all the different systems of his rig to build explosive new sounds, from visceral grunts to beautiful rain drops of clean steel string vibrating over solid wood. As songs move forward, you never seem to really seem to hear the same thing twice, as he is always slightly modifying or upheaving in order to bring about the different layers of an idea, that revolution can be a world of complacency or of violent chaos, or that drug use is both our way of alienating ourselves, becoming beings of pure imagination or the final release of pain. Always Gilmour is weaving in and out of the mix to create different effects in relation to his bandmates and it is always a difficult venture and an intriguing one to follow him.

If ever there was a guitarist to point to for his prominent use of effect pedals, it would be David Gilmour. While I love the natural sound of the guitar, I think adding effect pedals builds an extra dimension of sound that brings in different constellations of thought, as a chord pattern heard with phase becomes more futuristic and knife edged in comparison to its clean counterpart. Throughout his recording career, Gilmour seems to find that one specific sound for that one specific song, mixing and matching his pedals to great degrees. The ultimate effect of this is this weird melange of distance from humanity while bringing us closer to humanity by emulating the disjointed nature of the human experience. I don’t want to belabor here, as this plays into both my previous points, but his use of effect pedals is one that stems from thematic content that needs a different form of expression. I would go even further than this and say both his use of acoustic and steel guitar helps to build this, as he seems to find those places where the austerity and fluidity, respectively, of each instrument is the root of the narrative conflict within the songs he is playing.

Along with Billy Corgan and Matt Pike, David Gilmour completes my trifecta of guitarists that have had the biggest influence on my own playing. But more than that, David Gilmour has shown me just what the guitar is as an instrument and how each thing we do with it plays into the larger message we are trying to deliver.

The Equipment: I remember Guitar World did a feature on David Gilmour’s pedalboard once. It had like, 300 different items from over the years. So I’m gonna leave you to your own devices if you want to find out what kind of pedals he has used. Gilmour is primarily associated with the Fender Stratocaster, having his own signature model available which features a black pickguard on black body and vintage tinted maple neck, like his main guitar Blackie, a shortened tremolo arm and a Seymour Duncan SSL-5 Custom Staggered in the bridge. The bad news is that this guitar is quite expensive and it would be cheaper just to mod an American strat in this manner. He has other strats, including a 2 tone sunburst equipped with his signature EMG set and the mysterious 0001 Serial number strat. He is known to use a Goldtop Les Paul with P90s and a Bigsby on occasion as well. He has a signature model Hiwatt out, but this seems to be a recent thing, using a Fender 56 tweed in addition to this.

Key Track: Shine on You Crazy Diamond

Tune in tomorrow for our final post on this list and my favorite guitarist.