Musics - The Guitarists

2 White American Blues

Stephen StillsCrosby, Stills, Nash & Young - 4 Way Street
The States produced a slew of fine guitarists. Many of whom I have been blithely ignored for decades. It is ironic that the record companies only went looking for White Blues in the US after the success of Cream, who had made the Blues commercially viable. Stephen Stills rose to ultrastardom with CSNY after his stint with Buffalo Springfield. His first solo album is a fine work, including the unbelievable live acoustic piece Black Queen, as well as some fine electric guitar. It always surprises me that so many instrumentalists are immediately recognisable. In a few breaths, Jan Garbarek is readily distinguished from Ben Webster or Trane, but fine guitarists also have a recognisable sound. Stills has a bubbling, mellifluous quality. His first solo album also hosts guest spots by both Clapton and Hendrix, which says something about the regard they felt for him (he also contributed a few piano notes to Hendrix’s My Friend). Stills’ guitar work on the live CSNY Four Way Street is also glorious.

The Butterfield Blues Band - East-West
Mike Bloomfield is a legend of White American Blues. He featured in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in the mid-60s, a time when both a White Blues guitarist and a racially integrated band were still shocking in the States. He shared guitar credits with Stills on Al Kooper’s Super Session, and played on Dylan’s first electric album, Highway 61. His co-worker in The Butterfield Blues Band was another fine White Blues guitarist, Elvin Bishop. Hear them together on East-West.

The Greatful Dead -Anthem of the SunThe Greatful Dead - Live/DeadThe Greatful Dead -American Beauty
Jerry Garcia is the only guitarist to have a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream named after him. He was the lodge-pole of the Greatful Dead from its inception — as Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters’ house band — until his death in 1995. If there ever really were any hippies, then these were they. Unlike most of the great electric guitarists, he played banjo, and had a Country rather than a Blues background. Consequently, the psychedelic Dead often have a Country lilt. Try Anthem of the Sun and Live/Dead from their early outings. American Beauty heads more to that country lilt.

Frank Zappa - Hot RatsFrank Zappa - Guitar
Frank Zappa was surely the grandest, sneeringist satirist of American Rock. He created band after band of exceptional musicians, ranging from English drummer Aynsley Dunbar — who lost the Hendrix gig at the flip of a coin to Mitch Mitchell — to Indian supervirtuoso string player Lakshminarayana Shankar — a co-founder with McLaughlin of the original Shakti. Apart from his ability to see the bad in everyone, Zappa was also a highly gifted guitar player. Listen to Peaches en Regalia on Hot Rats, if you don’t believe me. Or spend a couple of hours in his guitaring company on Guitar.

The Doors - In Concert
The Doors’ Robby Kreiger was capable of the finest of riffs. His solo on Light My Fire on The Doors In Concert is exemplary. Few guitar players can sustain an extended solo. Even a luminary such as Jimmy Page occasionally runs out of notes, but here Kreiger builds perfectly, never losing pace or excitement.

Captain Beefheart - Safe as MilkRy Cooder - Music by Ry Cooder
No survey of guitar players would be complete without the legendary Ry Cooder. He says that he guested on Captain Beefheart’s Safe as Milk because the Captain had driven his Magic Band’s guitar player, Doug Moon, over the edge of distraction. According to Cooder, Moon came to a session one day armed with a machine crossbow rather than his axe. Cooder’s sessions for the film Music by Ry Cooder brings together some of his soundtracks, including the great slide acoustic on Paris Texas. Gentle, intelligent and enigmatic. Cooder unites smooth technique with a real Blues feeling, but he also drank in TexMex along the way.

Captain Beefheart - The Spotlight Kid & Clear Spot
Beefheart may have driven his guitarists mad, but they contributed some dangerous playing along the way to the sanatorium (or Mallard, as the Magic Band featuring Zoot Horn Rollo, aka Bill Harkleroad, became when they felt the Captain had turned commercial). Zoot Horn is fabulous on The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot (available on one fine CD). But don’t take my word for it, here’s what the Captain himself said about his guitarist: ‘A triangle fed on a wool table and the velvet home of seven closets chewed zees mended ’n moved junk ’n caught fur combs over hair caravans, carnivals klans ’n cracked a clay crimped horn on calico cloister.’ Which pretty much puts it all into focus.

Mountain - Live (The Road Goes on Forever)
Felix Pappalardi produced and played on both the marvellous third Cream album, Wheels of Fire, and the fourth and eventual Cream project, Goodbye Cream, and this inspired him to form Mountain. The clear, pure tones of the Les Paul give substance to the playing of Leslie West. On Mountain Live — The Road Goes on Forever, West plays great metal on Crossroader, and provides lyrical soloing on Nantucket Sleighride. West and Mountain drummer Corky Laing later teamed up with Jack Bruce, in those heady days when bands pretended to be law firms, taking on clients as West, Bruce and Laing.

The Chicago Transit Authority
Hendrix heard Chicago Transit Authority, and immediately hired them as his support band. With his usual modesty, Hendrix even said that Terry Kath was a better guitarist than himself. This is explained in part by Terry Kath’s feedback finesse on Free Form Guitar. The whole of the album Chicago Transit Authority bodes a new music that never really resolved, although as Chicago the band became an institution and made some good music. But this album has a steaming energy throughout, along with the trademark excellent arrangements. Kath is fantastic throughout, and his early accidental death — playing with one of his guns — was a horrible tragedy.

SantanaSantana - Abraxas
Carlos Santana gave his surname to a band that he didn’t actually lead, but that’s another story. The band Santana certainly had an exceptional sound, not limited to but fronted by their fabulous guitarist. The first four Santana albums are true works of art. The second, Abraxas, is perfect in every detail, giving Peter Green’s beautiful Black Magic Woman, the Latin arrangement it deserved, and also housing the lovely Samba Pa Ti. The Civil Rights movement of the ’60s was attended by amazing cultural fusions. It is incredible to think that until the 1930s Black and White musicians did not dare play in public together: until the likes of Teddy Wilson and Benny Goodman dared to break the taboo. Latinos were similarly discriminated against in Anglo America. Santana united races and musics to create an exhuberant fusion between Blues, Rock and Latin; Black, White and Latino.

Santana - IIISantana - Caravanserai
Shortly after Abraxas, a fifteen-year-old Neal Schon started to hang around Santana’s rehearsals, and, to Carlos Santana’s initial dismay, was invited to join the band for the third album. The resulting battles are at times exquisite. By the fourth album, Caravanserai, the bliss propulsion comes from religious fervour rather than weed. This is often a formula for saccharine-edged failure, but if you ignore the lyrics (sorry) the music actually is transcendent, and uplifting without being twee. And the rhythm sections on those four albums remains unbeatable, with Michael Shrieve always at the heart. But I’m distracting myself, as this isn’t about drummers.