The Rights and Wrongs of Spin's Guitar List

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OK, Spin magazine, I’m rising to your bait.  You have clearly created your list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists for one purpose: to start a fight.  And a fight you shall have. 

Just not from me. 

Yes, I think this list is wrong… in so, so many ways.  But that’s the beauty of lists – they can never be right, and will always provoke discussion about who’s in and who’s not.  And I applaud Spin’s decision to go for musical, emotional content rather than flash and dexterity.  A lot of the usual guitar heroes do nothing for me on a gut level, even as my brain acknowledges that what they’re playing is very hard and probably very fast. 

Still, no Jimi Hendrix?  To his eternal credit, Jimi was a virtuoso who didn’t feel a need to prove it.  Listen to “The Wind Cries Mary.”  That is great guitar playing. 

But I love that Spin’s list includes John Fahey, the young Englishman James Blackshaw (who was threatening for a while to be saddled with the mantle of “the next John Fahey” but has now carved out his own unique sound), Annie Clark (who records as St. Vincent), and the still-underrated Mick Ronson.  Ronson is a great example of a great guitarist: in his best-known work, with David Bowie in the early 70s, his musical decisions are a marvel of good taste and his playing is impeccably clean.  Listen to the series of long, held, occasionally bent tones that passes for a solo at the end of Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream.”  (Correctly tabbed by Spin as Ronson’s “heroic moment.”) 

A few other reactions:  Robert Fripp is one of those rare guitarists who has been constantly imitated but never successfully copied.  He should be in the top 10, and for proof, listen to his solos on any of the following: “Hammond Song,” by the Roches; “Fade Away and Radiate” by Blondie; “St Elmo’s Fire” by Brian Eno; or “Heroes” by Bowie. 

I love the apparent cop-out ending of having two guitarists at the top of the list.  Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth are both fine guitarists, but in different ways; and Spin correctly points out that the two of them together are way more than the sum of their parts.  As a unit, they are astonishing. 

Who’s missing?  Well, apart from the Hendrixes, Claptons, Allmans and other usual suspects, I would make a case for Greg Leisz.  He’s an in-demand Nashville-based slide guitarist (but that counts, doesn’t it?) who has played with Bill Frisell (also not on the list) and whose solo at the end of John Doe’s “Grain of Salt” – always reaching for the resolving note and only attaining it when the underlying chord has moved on – is as emotionally charged as the famed solos on “Layla” by Derek & the Dominoes (Clapton and Duane Allman), but says it all in just about 90 seconds. 

Who is your unsung guitar hero?   Leave a comment.