The 10 best unsung guitar heroes, by Joe Bonamassa
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Joe Bonamassa pays tribute to the some of the guitar heroes who may not have been given their due in their own time, but whose influence is still being felt by the in-the-know six-stringers that have followed.
The opening track of the Super Session album is a great showcase for Mike Bloomfield, who played a Les Paul and was a traditional Chicago-style blues player. He’s never referred to in the same breath as Beck, Page or Clapton but his playing was fantastic. People laud the Super Session album, but the stuff he did with Buddy Miles in The Electric Flag is also incredible. The problem was that, like a lot of guys from that era, Mike was too self- destructive. By the end of his career he seemed set on snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
He's a great songwriter, but tends to be undervalued for his talent as a guitar player. He’s the flip-side of the guy we’ve just been talking about, Mike Bloomfield. Stills is known mainly as an acoustic guitar player, which does him a disservice. Stills and Bloomfield are both on Al Kooper’s Super Session album , but unfortunately Side A [featuring Bloomfield] tends to get more attention than Side B [which Stills played on]. Last summer, when I did an all-acoustic tour, I wanted my guitar to sound like Stephen Stills’s. But he also likes to play that old Gretsch [electric] guitar.
To some, The Band's Robbie Robertson is better-known as a songwriter, an activist and an inductee to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame – when he really should be praised as a guitar player. Robbie has an absolutely beautiful style. He’s almost like a soul player. Life Is A Carnival was on The Band’s fourth album, Cahoots, and it’s in the movie The Last Waltz. What he does is deceptive – it looks simple but involves some tricky chords. Once, just for fun, I tried to figure them out. It took hours to really get them right.
My introduction to Tommy Bolin was not via his spell with Deep Purple, I knew him first through his playing with [fusion drummer] Billy Cobham. I bought Cobham’s Spectrum album, and when I heard its title song it absolutely floored me. In many ways, Bolin was in a no-win situation when he replaced Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple. A challenge like that would overshadow just about anyone. But if that’s all you know him for, then there’s an embarrassment of other riches out there just waiting to be discovered. I’m picking Stratus from that same Cobham album.
Bill Nelson is definitely under the radar as far as guitar players go. This song, which appeared on the Be-Bop Deluxe album Futurama, is one of my all-time favourites. I’ve just spent hours looking for some good YouTube footage of it – that’s when my ADD really kicks in – and there’s some great film of his [solo] band The Gentlemen Rocketeers playing Sister Seagull, but very little of Be-Bop Deluxe. But if I’ve learned anything during my time, it’s that the artist’s favourite songs and those of the fans are always different. However, I love this song.
You could never describe Ry Cooder as an unknown, but he’s not one of those guys whose name comes up at the pub during those discussions about the greatest musicians. He’s just not hip enough. But, along with Rory Gallagher, Ry is my all-time favourite slide guitar player. To really understand his appeal you should see him playing Feelin’ Bad Blues in a scene at the end of the movie Crossroads, starring Ralph Macchio. That’s how I was turned on to him as a kid. What Ry did there is the deepest, most soulful slide playing that I’ve ever heard.
Danny Gatton is now dead, unfortunately, but he was always the guy with the coolest Telecaster – a real player’s player. He came from Washington DC and could play blues, jazz, rock, country and rockabilly. Nitpickin’ is from a record called Unfinished Business, and it really sums up his style as a player. I was lucky enough to have been mentored by Danny when I was a much younger musician. He’d always let me sit in with him. There’s some real neat YouTube of our first encounter when I was only 12 years old. He was a special guy.
This San Franciscan guy has the voice of BB King and the chops of Albert King. He’s an absolute blinder of a guitar player and singer, but here’s the unbelievable thing: he plays to about 50 fucking people a night. I don’t go to gigs as a rule, but he recently played this small club in the Valley [in Los Angeles]. We walked in and I thought: “Where is everyone?” But he played great. His vibrato is superb and his records are consistently good – it’s not like he made one great album and then couldn’t follow it up. I just don’t understand it.
Sonny may call if he reads this, going: “Hey, I do well.” But any press is good press, right? Native Stepson comes from an album of his called South Of I-10, which features Mark Knopfler. Now, I’ve played guitar for the last 32 years. I’m not an original player, but one of my talents is watching and listening to others and figuring out what they do. With Sonny Landreth I have no concept of where he comes from. He’s a beautiful player and a great singer, and South Of I-10 is a lovely fusion of American and Creole. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Back in 2000, I opened for Chris at a shithole venue in Indianapolis. Until then I’d never heard of him. He was playing as a solo act – just him alone. We did fairly okay with our power-trio show to maybe 80 people, but then he went on and absolutely flattened the place. He sounded like four guys playing... and that’s before getting into the lyrics, which were like Dylan. He played for 75 minutes without saying a word and then walked off stage. No encore was needed. Indian Summer is from his album Dirt Floor. But you really needed to see him live.
Joe Bonamassa's new live album, Live at Radio City Music Hall, is out now via J&R Adventures.