Musics - The Guitarists

1 The British Blues Bloom

Cream - Fresh Cream
The guitar is the fundamental instrument of the Blues. From Charley Patton to Robert Johnson, and on through the electric, urban sound of Muddy Waters, Elmore James and B.B.King up to the British Blues revival of the 1960s. I met the Blues guitar as a lad of barely twelve through its first acknowledged master British master. This sound that spirited me away from the trivial novelty music of the ’60s belonged to Eric ‘Slowhand’ Clapton, on the breakthrough album Fresh Cream. It wasn’t that he was quick. There is none of the dazzling, wasp-in-a-jam-jar virtuosity of John McLaughlin here. But Clapton had a lean, penetrating style. Every note seemed to be considered, and exactly placed. And he touched my very soul.

Take the solo on Sleepy Time Time. the theme of the song is a perpetual addiction to the bedsheets, and Clapton finds precisely the languid feeling of the satisfied sleeper, before moving off into a veritable dream of a solo. Though how anyone could sleep through Jack Bruce's beautiful shouting is beyond me. Clapton’s careful, gradually constructed soloing justifies his celebrity. Some philistines cavil about Clapton, often in comparison to the incomparable Hendrix. They miss the point: Hendrix was actually a tremendous Clapton fan. It isn't about the schoolyard fight over who plays best. It’s simply a matter of who touches your heart.

dvd: Eric Clapton - 24 Nights
Music consists of two essentials — the expression of feeling, and the technical means to express that feeling. All too often music becomes so exacting that it becomes sterile (John McLaughlin is not an example of this — he unites unbearable brilliance of technique with profound feeling; wasp-in-a-jam-jar or not). Clapton allies feeling and technique beautifully. The DVD 24 Nights gives ample demonstration of his continuing power.

Fresh Cream abounds with fine guitar playing. Spoonful takes the earthy Willie Dixon classic, and adds a spine-chilling solo, proving again that a single sustained note can be more fulfilling than a flurry of 64ths.

John Mayall with Eric Clapton - Blues Breakers
My perfect guitar album would reach back before Cream, and begin with Clapton’s solo on Have You Heard? with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. This is one of those transforming moments where cultures merge. Rather than simply aping the Blues of Black America, a bunch of white boys manage to perfectly express the form, and to consolidate it in a new style. It also has some fine saxophone, courtesy of John Almond.

An Introduction to the Blues - 60 Blues Guitar Greats
For those in pursuit of the exotic, Jimmy Page quite rightly recommends an obscure Clapton/Mayall cut called Telephone Blues. This is available on a slew of compilations, which are only to be recommended if you can get them cheap. Introduction to the Blues gives you three discs and a good sampling of Blues guitarists for an eminently reasonable price.

Cream - Wheels of FireCream - Goodbye Cream
Cream - Live Cream Vol.1Cream - Live Cream Vol.2
Cream’s live recordings are necessities for any Blues guitar fan — the live disc of Wheels of Fire, the tracks on Goodbye Cream, and the two Live Cream albums Vol.1 & Vol.2. That gradual, unwinding exploration that so infuriates devotees of the brisk, pop song format is taken to its beautiful limit. Cream were the most successful improvising Rock band. Where many guitar improvisations are built over a constant bass figure and back beat, Bruce and Baker managed to comp as Bebop players do. Hear Spoonful on Wheels, for example. These extended pieces also bear comparison to the concerto form in Classical music. Fans of the brisk will prefer Howlin’ Wolf’s classic, Sitting on Top of the World, which is given stunning treatment on Goodbye.

Led Zeppelin I
Clapton is always placed alongside the other two Yardbirds front-men — Page and Beck. Jimmy Page was the first of the trio to be asked to join the Yardbirds — the first successful British Blues band — but provided them with first Clapton and then Beck before capitulating. It may be because of this that Clapton rather than Page is usually seen as the primary British Blues guitarist. Page is rightly legendary for his role in Led Zeppelin, again a band with deep Blues roots and tremendous Progressive imagination. Zep were also aware of folk music, and Page produced a virtuoso rendition of Black Mountain Side on Zep I. This is Page’s tribute to the great acoustic player, Bert Jansch. He called Jansch ‘My all-time favourite, a real dream-weaver.’

Led Zeppelin IILed Zeppelin III
Page’s own contribution to music is immense. He is not only a magisterial guitar player, but also a remarkable composer and one of the few electric musicians to realize the almost orchestral potential of the rock ensemble (ably assisted by the equally competent John Paul Jones). His playing is usually impeccable, and it would be wrong to suggest that any fragment could represent the whole. Having said that, Since I’ve Been Loving You, on Zep III, is a perfect Blues, full to the brim with frustrated longing. But the same is true of I Can’t Quit You, on Zep I, or Bring it on Home, on Led Zep II, or so many other Page solos. Page is also a great riff maker — Whole Lotta Love, Heartbreaker, Kashmir, No Quarter — there are many examples.

dvd: Led Zeppelin - The Song Remains the Samedvd: Led Zeppelin DVDLed Zeppelin - How the West was Won
Part of the allure of the electric guitar is its broad sonic range. The violin, the trumpet, the clarinet and the harmonica can reach the high notes and express a huge range of emotions, but they have a scant range of sounds when compared to the electric guitar. Listen to Page on You Shook Me (Zep I), and you will see what I mean. Nothing has the same pure, penetrative power. If you have a DVD player, then you have no excuse not to own Zep’s DVD output. The live CD set How the West Was Won is also classic.

Jeff Beck - Truth/BeckolaJeff Beck - Rough and ReadyJeff Beck - Wired
Jeff Beck - Blow by BlowJeff Beck - There and BackJeff Beck - Jeff
Led Zeppelin emerged from 1968 sessions with Jeff Beck, who had just left the Yardbirds. In its original form Zep was Page and Jones with The Who’s drummer, Keith Moon (who suggested the name, as in ‘it’ll go down like a lead balloon’). They all guested on Truth by Beck, which is a definite precursor to the Zeppelin sound. Beck thought that they were going to be his new band, but they had other ideas. Micky Waller, who played in the Beck group, is a fine drummer, though Zep is unimaginable without Bonzo. Rod Stewart, long before his vast pop success, provided tremendous vocals, but Plant will always be uniquely Plant. Truth is a masterpiece, though. I love the wah-wah guitar on Wolf’s Ain’t Superstitious, and Beck’s playing is stupendous throughout. Hear him live on Blues de Luxe, with a devastating piano solo by Nicky Hopkins. And where else can you hear Rod Stewart singing Old Man River? The second Beck solo album Beckola comes as a bonus, and it too has some fine moments. Beck continued to redefine the role of the guitar through a series of fine albums, including Rough and Ready, Wired, Blow by Blow and There and Back. He has kept up with the changing scene too, witness Jeff.

dvd: Jimi Hendrix - Jimi Plays Monterey
Cream played their first gig just before Jimi Hendrix landed in Britain at the end of September, 1966. He first joined them on stage on October 1st, scaring the living daylights out of Clapton with his double-time version of Howlin’ Wolf’s Killing Floor. Clapton had been boning up on the piece at the usual speed, and having problems. Page was to hijack Killing Floor for The Lemon Song, on Zep II. But no-one played it as fast as Hendrix. If you want to hear just how fast, catch him on Jimi Plays Monterey. And see how nicely a Stratocaster burns - the trick being lighter fluid. But, please don't try this at home.

The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions
As an aside, having mentioned Howlin’ Wolf twice, it seems proper to quickly mention the album he made with Clapton, The London Sessions; accompanied by Steve Winwood on keys, and the rhythm section of the Rolling Stones. Not beloved of purists — Wolf was ageing, and his Sun and Chess albums better represent the man, but it is a special moment in history, nonetheless.

With Hendrix’s arrival in England, everything changed. It is astonishing to realize that he had been unable to forge a solo career in the homeland of the Blues. He had played with a variety of legends — Little Richard, the Isley Brothers, Ike and Tina Turner among them — but his own band, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, could not find a contract. With the very able handling of ex-Amimals bassist-turned-producer Chas Chandler, that changed in a matter of weeks. There is a Hendrix bio on this site, along with a listing of his most significant albums. In my novel, Voodoo Child, I decided to bring him back to life, but that’s another story.

dvd: Jimi Hendrix - Jimi Plays BerkeleyJimi Hendrix - Are You Experienced
If the music of the time was all to be destroyed, and only one example could be kept it would have to be Hendrix’s Are You Experienced? It is the consummate statement of the psychedelic era. In its re-released CD form it also includes the three singles that propelled him to British stardom, along with their flipsides. Hendrix is the apogee of the electric guitar. Watching him in performance, it is evident that he is one with his guitar: he plays with his whole body. The finest filmed example of this is probably Jimi Plays Berkeley, which only became publically available in 2003. The version of Hear My Train a Coming is heart-rending.

Jimi Hendrix - Axis: Bold as LoveJimi Hendrix - Band of Gypsys
Jimi Hendrix - Voodoo ChildJimi Hendrix - First Rays of the New Rising Sun
As already noted, the guitar has a wider range of sound than any other acoustic or electric instrument (electronics are another, and all too often boring subject), and Hendrix defined the boundaries of the electric guitar. Strange to realize that he was partially deaf. By comparison to our own times, his leading edge effects were insignificant, though excellent. Andy Summers probably has a hundred times the range of effects on his rack. Hendrix lived the guitar and perfected its use. Robin Trower diligently acquired many of Hendrix’s sounds and puts them to good use. But no-one has ever mastered feedback as Hendrix did, transforming the guitar into a new instrument, a virtual chamber orchestra. He was able to generate sounds with great and jaw-dropping precision. His perfomance of The Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, and Machine Gun on The Band of Gypsys exemplify the potential of pure guitar playing. Both can be heard on the compilation album Voodoo Child, which is a good introduction to his work. His studio albums, Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold as Love, Electric Ladyland and the posthumous First Rays of the New Rising Sun are a necessity for anyone building a collection of great guitar playing.

Jimi Hendrix - Electric Ladyland
Any top ten Blues solos would include Hendrix’s Red House. It sounds like a traditional Blues, but was actually his own composition. The introduction is beautiful, and there are many fine versions. It was dropped from the original US release of Are You Experienced?, to Hendrix’s chagrin, because of the racy statement that if the woman addressed won’t love him, then he knows that her sister will. How times have changed since the introduction of Parental Advisory stickers. Voodoo Child (slight return), on Electric Ladyland, is the best-loved of all wah-wah pieces. We all understand that the guitar is talking, and somehow we all know exactly what it is saying. Hendrix defined the range of the Fender Stratocaster, adding a Gibson Flying V for his later, funkier tracks.

dvd: Pink Floyd - Live at PompeiiPink Floyd - UmmagummaPink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon
When Hendrix appeared on the London scene, the other guitar player that every musician wanted to see was Syd Barrett. Not because of his virtuosity, or his deep Blues sensibilities, but because of his capacity to pour forth weird noises. With Barrett’s tragic psychological withdrawal, Pink Floyd fell on their feet with David Gilmour, one of the finest of English guitarists. Gilmour can play Blues solos with the very best of them — for instance on Money, on Dark Side of the Moon, — but I still hanker for Floyd’s earlier, space-tinged, improvisational music — found at its peak in the live performances on the disc Ummagumma, and the DVD Live at Pompeii.

John Mayall - A Hard Road
Back to 1966, and with Clapton’s departure for Cream, John Mayall was in a predicament. How to replace the man known simply as God by his fellow guitarists? The answer was a Jewish Cockney butcher by the name of Peter Green, who proved to be every bit the match for Clapton. According to the sleeve-notes on Hard Road, Green told Mayall as much when he tried to oust Clapton prior to joining the band.

Fleetwood Mac - Fleetwood MacFleetwood Mac - Boston Blues
Fleetwood Mac - Greatest HitsThe Peter Green Splinter Group
Green can also boast one of the great voices of the Blues, and a peerless song-writing talent. He recorded Hard Road with Mayall, before skipping off to form Fleetwood Mac with fellow former Mayall sidemen Mick Fleetwood and John McVie. Green contributed a fine and deeply soulful sustain to the guitar repertoire, that was to be squeezed to the absolute by Carlos Santana in his own legendary sound, often called the cry. Hear Green developing the technique on The Super-natural on Hard Road. The sound is so sharp it almost cuts. The Stumble, another instrumental, definitely rivals such early Clapton standards as Stepping Out. Hard Road is quite simply one of the great albums of Blues guitar. Green played great solos with Fleetwood Mac, too, for example, the lovely Blues Need Your Love So Bad, or their only number one single, Albatross. The first album, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, was a huge chart success in the UK. I have a live album, Boston Blues, recorded at the Boston Tea Party, probably in 1969, that has some fine playing. Peter Green’s long retirement was a tragedy, and his return in the ’90s with The Peter Green Splinter Group is a triumph. If you buy and love the original Hard Road, eight more tracks were released after he left Mayall on Thru the Years. If you don’t love it, see an ear, heart and soul specialist. If you have the cash however, buy the re-release of A Hard Road with an additional 22 tracks...