GETTIN’ THE AXE: 25 Guitar Titans

Your friendly
neighborhood BLURT presents 25 unsung titans of attitude guitar.

 

 

BY TIM STEGALL

 

 

Much to the chagrin of my grandmother, several Holy Roller
preachers, and possibly a few American presidents, the electric guitar has been
the sonic signature of rock ‘n’ roll since it slithered from the womb of its
unholy coupling of county music and the blues back in the Doris Day/Dwight Eisenhower
’50s. Sure, what drove it was the beat: That hardcore groove-n-whack of
the bass and drums. ‘Twas what got pelvises thrusting and legs shakin’ and
nether regions either tumescent or moist, apropos of the music’s linguistic
origins in ghetto slang for fuckin’. But the identifying noise was the
byproduct of the brainstorms of Les Paul and Leo Fender: Electronic pickups
bolted into wood and then amped to antennae-frying bliss, sonic signals to git
REEAL, REEAL gone for a change.

 

With this list, however, we’re concerned not with the typical
pantheon rock guitar heroes you will see in every magazine in the universe.
Honestly, haven’t you gotten sick of hearing about how genius either
Eric Clapton or Eddie Van Halen are? Yes, Hendrix was a god (and remains so
even as a certified dead guy). But what of the truly twisted? The guitar
manglers who really pushed some boundaries, and paid for it at the expense of
their well-earned glory?

 

This list is in no particular order: As the guy compiling
it, I loathe ranking people. Equally, it will be concerned less with
blinding technicians and more with guys who managed to convey a sneer into a
sneer, the classic middle-finger approach to rock guitar that really, truly
thrills and satisfies, that sounds definitively electric. And as stated
earlier, there will be no kowtowing to the official pantheon. Hence, even
though he truly belongs here (and his impact upon many of the axe-smashers
presented herein is undeniable) and might even be the Grand Poobah Of Attitude
Guitar, Keith Richards will not be on this list. However, have you ever truly considered the contributions of…

 

 

BRIAN JONES

Yes, in Charlie Watts’ typically dry assessment, Brian “was
an asshole.” An egomaniac who, if he wasn’t done in by pharmaceutical excess,
certainly was by health problems both mental and physical. Keith may now be the
rightfully recognized “Heart and Soul of the Rolling Stones,” with Watts the engine and Jagger the Face (and Voice). But
initially, it was all about Brian: He was the good-looking one, the sharpest
dresser (tight striped low-slung hipsters and white winkle picker shoes RULE!),
the one who taught the others their attitude. Look at how callow even Keith
looks in their earliest American TV appearances. Then watch Brian take charge
in a ’65 Canadian TV interview, sneering about harassment from southern cops
(which he witheringly describes as “typical Georgia idiots”), then responds to
an “any last words” question with, “Yeah: Goodbye!”

But, as a guitar player? He helped establish the
much-documented “four hands/one guitar” Rolling Stones approach to six strings.
And as Stooges riffmaster general Ron Asheton put it, “Brian Jones is man who
played all those weird little parts on the early Stones singles… that silly
three-note line that sets the whole song off.” Indeed: Witness the signature
opening riff of “The Last Time” (not played by Richards, as opposed to
standard Stones practice), or those crashing power chords at the end of “It’s
All Over Now.” That moment alone sounds like the coming of the apocalypse. In a
pop record! Then consider the New York Dolls’ own Keef avatar Johnny
Thunders playing Brian’s actual white teardrop Vox on their notorious
appearance on England’s
“Old Grey Whistle Test.” Not one of Keith’s guitars. Johnny knew who the
real punk rocker was in the Stones.

 

Killer Moment: Brian’s
slide solo on the Stones’ version of “I Wanna Be Your Man,” as harsh and nasty
as rock guitar playing got in 1963. John and Paul should never have considered bringing that song to a Beatles recording session after. Any other attempt
at the song was now simply anemic.

 

 

JOHNNY RAMONE

The leather jacketed barre chord heard around the world.
Actually, the barre chords: Johnny’s entire whatsis was based around
exactly two barre chord positions played up and down the neck, downstroked
mercilessly. It was this reductionism that enabled generation upon generation
to yelp, “Hey! I can do that TOO!” Thing is, not everyone could: There’s a
certain groove to how the former John Cummings pounded those power chords that
not everyone could capture, as well as neck-snapping time signature shifts that
rendered Ramones music far more complex than cursory listens suggest. (“Yeah,
it’s like some retarded math rock or something,” I can recall ex-D Generation
bassist Howie Pyro cracking on the phone one night.) As with anything, it’s all
in the details. The main one being that downstroke. It powered Buddy Holly’s
music, and then The Ramones’. Ask notable post-Ramone downstroker James
Hetfield, who once told some guitar mag or other, “It’s cleaner.”

 

Killer Moment: The
insanely quick-changed plethora of chords that power “Teenage Lobotomy.” Who
said this was THREE chords and an attitude?

 

 

MICK RONSON

Insanely gorgeous tone. Sustain that lasts for days. The
most beautiful vibrato in the history of bent strings. And a sick imagination. As David Bowie’s axe-smashing Spider From Mars, Ronno was what
happened when you took the amphetamined blues abuse and sheer sonic invention
Jeff Beck offered as a Yardbird, chained it to the bumper of ’71 Mustang, and
dragged it kicking and screaming into the ’70s. Then gave it a coat of
lipstick. Surely, more than a few Les Pauls got their tops stripped of their
finish because of Mick Ronson. Revered, but not as much as he should be.

 

Killer Moment: Really
hard to choose: The vicious slides up the neck of his Gibson on Bowie’s version of “Let’s
Spend The Night Together?” The big, banging, twanging notes that decorate “Suffragette City?” The beyond-gorgeous riff that
powers “Ziggy Stardust?” The one-handed arpeggios dissolving into plucked
harmonics that end the same song? The sick soloing that echoes the title of Lou
Reed’s “Vicious?” Mick’s killer moments are like Lay’s potato chips: You can’t
eat just one!

 

 

PAT HARE

Howlin’ Wolf apparently knew insanely good guitar playing
when he heard it. He had two gut primitive geniuses in his band at various
times. Auburn “Pat” Hare was the first of these. Some of the first recorded
instances of overamped, screaming electric guitar caught on record were the
result of Hare worrying a busted speaker in his crappy tube combo behind the
Wolf. He didn’t play a lot of notes, but what he played would always be the right notes, and they would always sound vicious. How vicious? Well, he
lived out his own recording of the ’40s blues obscurity “I’m Gonna Murder My
Baby,” doing just that to his wife. And to a cop sent to investigate! That got Pat 16 years in the pen for keeping it so real.

 

Killer (Sorry!)
Moment:
The entirety of Howlin’ Wolf’s first Chess single, “Moaning At
Midnight.” How any plaster was left on the ceiling of Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio
(where it was cut) after Hare got through is beyond my comprehension.

 

 

HUBERT SUMLIN

Speaking of Wolf’s guitar players, the undisputed king was
Hubert Sumlin, the man who played with Wolf longer than any single musician. He
was with Wolf almost continuously from 1955 to Wolf’s death in ’76 (save for a
year he spent backing Muddy Waters). In that time, he hewed a path far note-ier
than Hare’s, unleashing spews of chattering, shattering notes all over Wolf’s
records, soaked in a thick, screaming tone. He also held another dangerous
weapon in his arsenal: Silence. Hubert knew – sometimes, it’s what you don’t play that matters the most. A few too many guitar players working many genres
could stand to learn that lesson.

 

Killer Moment: The
funky, edgy riffing he weaves all through “Killing Floor,” the abrupt
aforementioned silences more dangerous than the tortured lead lines Sumlin
eventually unleashes. Hubert’s work here puts the “tense” in the word
“intense.”

 

 

WILKO JOHNSON

Get a pudding bowl haircut and a cheap suit. Add a
beaten-to-shit Fender Telecaster and a solid state amp. Take loads of speed,
then play fucked-up, aggressive, noisy blues guitar while stomping around the
stage like an out-of-control robot. Dr. Feelgood were menacing as hell and
delightfully back-to-basics in their approach to R&B in the mid-’70s, and a
little-spoken-of punk rock precursor in the UK. And they were never the same
after Wilko left the band, taking his disjointed simultaneous lead/rhythm
guitar violence with him. But an entire generation of British guitar players
owes him everything, and are not afraid to admit it. Ask Paul Weller, Andy Gill
of Gang Of Four, and even the Buzzcocks’ Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle. Blues
guitar as a blunt weapon of aggression.

 

Killer Moment: Any note Wilko played with Dr. Feelgood. Literally.

 

 

CHRIS SPEDDING

The go-to session guitarist in 1970s Britain
was also a paragon of attitudinal guitar-playing. He was first call for John
Cale and Brian Ferry, true. But he also produced the first Sex Pistols demos
(and DID NOT sub for Steve Jones on Never Mind The Bollocks, contrary to
an undying rumor that Spedding has denied to the point of his own annoyance),
did a classic punk single backed by The Vibrators called “Pogo Dancing,” and
matched his own neo-rockabilly look (of which he was a pioneer) with some
thumping ’50s-drenched rock ‘n’ roll of his own (including the European hit
single “Motorbikin'”). He also was one of the coolest wielders of a Flying V
ever.

 

Killer Moment: “Guitar
Jamboree,” in which he accurately reproduced the guitar styles and sounds of
Hendrix, Keith Richards, Albert King, Clapton, Jeff Beck, Chuck Berry, and many
more! And all with one guitar and amp!

 

 

JOHNNY MARR

Strange-but-true: There are many of us who love The Smiths,
but Morrissey has nothing to do with it. It was the guitar playing:
Johnny Marr was a master of subtlety and rhythm and nuance, and every juicy
note he wove through those Smiths records was just candy. Many critics love to
make Marr Keef to Morrissey’s Mick, but they really shouldn’t do that to poor
Mr. Jagger. Still, Johnny Marr was the heart and soul of The Smiths in a
similarly Keefian manner, and one of the few genuine guitar heroes ’80s UK
indie rock produced.

 

Killer Moment: Without
a doubt, the wall of Fender amp tremolo that defines “How Soon Is Now.” Those
shrieking glissandos he adorns the record with also are spine-tingling. But
THAT TREMOLO! I know for a fact a lot of vintage Fender tube amps got sold
because of that one record. Verily.

 

 

HOUND DOG TAYLOR

Talk about PRIMITIVE! This six-fingered slide grunter with
the broken-down Japanese guitar and under-powered tube amp with a busted
speaker can make The Shaggs sound like the Mahavishnu Orchestra! Only Hound Dog
is STILL way more musical! This is the blues a la Elmore James reduced
and reduced and reduced until all that’s left is joy and noise and party time
spirit. And Hound Dog’s the Johnny Thunders of the blues: Unleashing primitive
voltage thrilling enough to make you wanna play just like him. Hound Dog
summed himself up better than anyone, and with typical economy and wit: “When I
die they’ll say, ‘He couldn’t play shit, but he sure made it sound good!'”

 

Killer Moment: The
entirety of the Beware Of The Dog!  live album, especially “Give Me Back My Wig,”
the “Blitzkrieg Bop” of the garage blues set.

 

 

JOHNNY THUNDERS

More Gibson Les Paul Jrs. Have probably been sold because of
Thunders than anyone this side of Billie Joe Armstrong. Television’s Richard
Lloyd once joked to me that Thunders “was like a slide guitarist who didn’t
play with a slide: He had the lick that went up the neck, and the lick that
went down it!” Yes, and he also had the Chuck Berry double-stop, the hammer-on,
the “Pipeline” run down the neck, and the best power chords ever downstroked.
And a raunchy-but-sweet tone that displayed the vulnerability beneath his tough
Queens wiseguy front. It’s quite tempting to
classify the New York Doll/Heartbreaker as the entire 25 years of rock ‘n’ roll
up to his advent rolled up into his tiny, shock-haired frame. And you probably
wouldn’t be wrong.

 

Killer Moment: Hard
to pick. But if you needed to sum Johnny up in one song, you couldn’t go wrong
with the first thing the world heard by him: The New York Dolls’ “Personality
Crisis,” which is the ultimate distillation of Johnny’s sound and approach. It
should be what you play the next alien invader asking what rock ‘n’ roll is.

 

 

SYL SYLVAIN

Johnny Thunders may grab all the glory, by dint of his
personality as much as of his playing. But in reality, not enough credit is
given the other guitarist in the Dolls. Syl was a punchy little Queens blues man with a spiffing line in pop hooks, and
one of the steadiest rhythm guitar right hands in the business. And when called
upon, he could play lead as authoritatively as Thunders: Witness the first solo
on “Vietnamese Baby,” which is Syl’s. Or the bombastic dueling guitar
blitzkrieg Sylvain and Thunders set off against one another in “Jet Boy.” You
start to hear that Syl’s claims are not wrong: He taught Johnny much of what he
knew. And could play a lot more, besides.

 

Killer Moment: A
recent one: Syl’s screaming blues break in “Dance Like A Monkey” from the Dolls’
comeback CD, One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This. It’s
screaming, true guitar heroism of the first order, and every bit as effective
and memorable as anything Johnny did. Forget giving the drummer some: Give the
guy with the Gretsch some!

 

 

EDDIE HAZEL

A suggestion of My Editor, and one I’m admittedly having a
hard time verbalizing. But the Funkadelic axeman is almost a mirror of Ernie
Isley (who probably should be here, too): Black men who had their blood boiled
by Hendrix, and got inspired to mistreat a Strat similarly. Both are more rock guitarists than funk, yet their sonic excesses and fat-ass fuzz define funk’s
progress from James Brown guitarist Jimmy Nolen’s chank. Here’s the
guitar going beyond it’s strict rhythm role in funk and given license to TEAR
SHIT UP! Solid.

 

Killer Moment: “Maggot
Brain,” probably the single-longest arpeggio in recorded history.

 

 

POISON IVY RORSHACH

If The Cramps are what happens when The Stooges get mixed
with Sun Records-era Elvis, this makes Ivy the band’s Ron Asheton/Scotty Moore
to Lux Interior’s Iggy Presley: She stands stock-still, exuding icy/sexy cool
as Lux goes into full shrieking histrionics. Which ignores the former Kirsty
Wallace’s innate understanding that you play better when you have killer tone,
and that the most kill city tone you can achieve is via taking a small,
low-powered amp and cranking it all the way. As opposed to cranking high
wattage amps. Necessary, especially with the Gretsch hollowbodies she favors.
This also makes no mention of her economy, her sick imagination, thick reverb
and deft use of a Bigsby whammy bar. Ivy is simply uncommonly good.

 

Killer Moment: “Can
Your Pussy Do The Dog?”, where Ivy singlehandedly revives every lesson Travis
Wammick and his whammy bar tried to teach the world, as the world looked
elsewhere.

 

 

RON EMORY

The man manning the six strings for long-running Long Beach punk heroes
TSOL is one of the sadly most-underappreciated guitarists working the genre.
His ringing chorus-driven sound is akin to PiL-era Keith Levine going back to
playing straight punk rock, while his melodic imagination and sonic aggression
are partly what’s helped TSOL be the closest thing America has had to its own version
of The Damned. Emory really should be getting q-and-a’ed by Guitar Player right now, rather than being mentioned on this list. Wake up, to the True
Sounds Of Emory!

 

Killer Moment: The
rampaging “Terrible People,” which is the most post-punk-gone-punk guitar
playing Emory unleashed.

 

 

STERLING MORRISON

Lou Reed steals most of the thunder in the Velvet
Underground, and he is sick, noisy, and twisted enough that he should be
here. Thing is, we all know about Lou. What of Sterling? He does have one of the steadiest
right hands in rock ‘n’ roll, and his own lead guitar playing is tight, funky,
and righteous. Sterling Morrison is basically a great R&B guitarist with a
skewed imagination.

 

Killer Moment: The
sweet lead break in “Sunday Morning,” which aches like a great Billie Holiday
vocal. Pain never tasted so good.

 

 

EDDIE COCHRAN

The most punk rock of all rockabilly artists, Edward Ray
Cochran and his hot-rodded orange Gretsch were capable of not only the sub-Chet
Atkins/Les Paul melodic invention of a Scotty Moore, but of sheer bluesy raunch
that would have done a Chuck Berry proud. But Cochran will forever be noted for
the relentlessly pedaled, palm-muted I-IV change that has riffed through punk
classics from the Ramones to the Damned and even the Sex Pistols (albeit likely
filtered through David Bowie’s “Hang Onto Yourself”). Here’s where guitar
chunkiness begins.

 

Killer Moment: “Summertime
Blues,” where the chunk is highlighted by doubled acoustic 12-strings – not a
single electric guitar on this track (Fender bass aside)!

 

 

CHEETAH CHROME

The Dead Boys’ red-headed lead guitar foil to Stiv Bators’
slapstick Iggy Pop routines, Cheetah managed to translate Cleveland’s
industrial roar and pollution into a massive guitar signature. He has chops
good enough to be in Blue Oyster Cult, but he chose to use them to savage effect
in a straight-up punk band. Here was where ’70s Midwestern hard rock first
intersected with the Blank Generation: In Cheetah Chrome’s hands.

 

Killer Moment: “Sonic
Reducer,” hands-down – that riff, the Marshall bombast, and Cheetah twisting a
handful of notes into one of the most intense screamers of a guitar solo punk
rock has ever seen.

 

 

WALTER LURE
Johnny Thunders’ other guitar foil, given more co-starring credit in The
Heartbreakers than Syl Sylvain got in the Dolls. Waldo’s lanky frame and long,
long fingers absorbed more from the Beck/Page/Clapton Yardbirds axis and Mick
Taylor than most punk guitarists would care to admit, but he didn’t make a big
deal out of it. He just made Johnny look good, and transformed their
partnership into some of the best dueling lead guitar excursions seen since the
MC5: Never as ornate as Television, more raw and basic, with Walter’s insane
chops leading to some truly dazzling displays when stepping out from under
Johnny’s long, iconic shadow.

 

Killer Moment: “One
Track Mind,” where Waldo follows Johnny’s own break with a screaming, squealing
solo that wouldn’t have been out of place on Raw Power.

 

 

JACK WHITE

One of a handful of modern guys who understand what rock ‘n’
roll truly is. White is practically a one-man Led Zeppelin, shrieking like
Plant and page occupying one body. He has skills and imagination well-beyond
his chosen field of garage rock, and a brilliant conceptual mind. There’s a
good reason he shared the stage with the Stones in Shine A Light: They
recognize a true blues-soaked kindred spirit when they see/hear one.

 

Killer Moment: “Seven
Nation Army’s” solo, in which slide guitar meets Digitech Whammy Pedal and goes
thermonuclear.

 

 

PETE SHELLEY AND
STEVE DIGGLE

The Buzzcocks are so revered for having written some of the
most perfect pop songs ever, their guitar team almost gets overlooked. But both
Shelley and Diggle not only know fat tone and a well-placed power chord when
they hear it, but perfectly complement one another: Shelley’s single note
excursions being minimal, melodic, and abrasive enough to belie the Krautrock
fan he is, with Diggle providing a sub-Thunders/Mick Jones rock ‘n’ roll
counterpoint. The Buzzcocks would be nowhere near as raw and powerful without
how these two locked their Gibsons.

 

Killer Moment: “Ever
Fallen In Love,” where the key riff is doubled, called-and-responsed, and given
subtle shadings the whole tune long.

 

 

LINK WRAY

A half-Native American who lost his lung to emphysema early
on and was told he would never be able to sing again, Wray would take his
frustration out on his equipment. Chiefly, he would punch holes into his amp’s
12-inch speaker with a pencil. The raspy, raw tone this elicited out of his
hamfisted approach to chords would result in the first instance of fuzztone and
power chords in rock ‘n’ roll. Thus is born hard rock, punk rock, heavy metal,
and every other rock subgenre involving distorted, overamped guitar. Not a
small achievement.

 

Killer Moment: “Big City
After Dark,” from Norton Records’ Missing Links series of Wray rarities,
where between whammy bar abuse and inside-out blues burst, Wray practically
invents the whole notion of Johnny Thunders 20 years early.

 

 

DAVE DAVIES

The Link Wray of the British Invasion. Ray’s younger brother
gets pissed off at the tiny green practice amp he used and the puny tone it
offered. He takes a razor blade to the tiny speaker. He plugs back in. The amp
now roars and bites beyond what it should be capable of. He brings it into the
next practice he has with the struggling R&B combo he and his brother helm,
The Kinks, and plugs it into his concert and recording amp. The resultant
blitzkrieg has older brother Ray thinking this may be the thing to drive his
new song, “You Really Got Me,” someplace special. He was right. And the Gospel
Of Fuzz gets spread farther and wider.

 

Killer Moment: “You
Really Got Me,” of course: That riff, that sound, and a spastic
solo that almost sounds like he dropped his pick in the thick of.

 

 

KEITH LEVINE

Levine’s ringing harmonic overload was a primary ingredient
in the stew which made PiL so bracing and invigorating. Unfortunately, a guy
named The Edge took Levine’s sound and made it more pop, and filled stadiums
with it. Levine, for his trouble, got a smack habit.

 

Killer Moment: “Public
Image,” in which the world first heard just what a chorus box can do.

 

 

PAT SMEAR

For a guy who literally could not play when The Germs
formed, Smear developed awfully fast. And in a completely naïve fashion, he
developed a style and presence that was light years past punk rock standards,
even if his idiosyncratic and speedy riffing was one of hardcore’s building
blocks. (Someone should ask Greg Ginn if he was listening to “We Must Bleed” as
he wrote the riff to Black Flag’s “Rise Above.”) It’s hard to really encapsulate
how brilliant and intuitive his playing is: He claims he never learned a scale
in his life, which might explain how coolly odd his rare lead breaks
are.

 

Killer Moment: The
quote from Yes’ “Roundabout” that slams straight into the best high-speed Stooges-style
ever at the beginning of The Germs’ “No God.”

 

 

***

 

With Ron Asheton (see our feature on the late Stooges
guitarist elsewhere on the BLURT site) this makes 25. So, what of Fred “Sonic
Smith (MC5), Kid Congo Powers (The Gun Club, The Cramps, The Knoxville Girls,
etc.), Brian James and Capt. Sensible (The Damned), Andy McCoy (Hanoi Rocks),
Izzy Stradlin, Ron Wood, Fast Eddie Clarke (Motorhead), James Williamson (Iggy
And The Stooges), Marc Bolan, Nick Zinner (The Yeah Yeah Yeahs), Carl Barat (The
Libertines, Dirty Pretty Things), every guy who ever played with Captain
Beefheart (Zoot Horn Rollo, Antennae Jimmy Semens, Gary Lucas, etc.), Bob
Mould, Bob Stinson, etc., etc.? All highly deserving, all should be here, too.
And I’m sure we could spend an afternoon coming up a thousand billion more. And
every last one should be an inspiration to throw away that Guitar Hero
controller and pick up a guitar. After all, we’re gonna need names for the
follow-up lists in years to come, aren’t we?

 

 

Tim “Napalm” Stegall, when he isn’t penning the
occasional piece or hosting the weekly “RADIO NAPALM” program Wednesday nights
at www.woodyradio.com, can be
found in rock clubs trying to earn his own spot on this list, leading his
self-named band. His blog can be found at www.myspace.com/officialtimnapalm.

 

 

[A slightly
different version of this feature can be found in the premiere print issue of
BLURT, on newsstands now.
]

 

 

 

[Photos Credits: Johnny Thunders, by Michael Berg;
Poison Ivy, by Steve Jennings;
Johnny Ramone, unknown

 

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