It was a dark and rainy night. The courthouse clock struck midnight; a stray dog howled. It was all too beautiful when the staff of Gear Vault convened for their semi-annual secret meeting with the confines of the beloved cinder block chamber they call their "office." Their agenda? To decide the 20 most important people in guitar.
Widely recognized as one of the most creative and influential musicians of the 20th century, Jimi Hendrix pioneered the explosive possibilities of the electric guitar. Hendrix's innovative style of combining fuzz, feedback and controlled distortion created a new musical form. Because he was unable to read or write music, it is nothing short of remarkable that Jimi Hendrix's meteoric rise in the music took place in just four short years. His musical language continues to influence a host of modern musicians, from George Clinton to Miles Davis, and Steve Vai to Jonny Lang. Hendrix was the revolutionary guitar god, enuff said!
Edward Van Halen once likened his guitar playing to "falling down the stairs and landing on my feet." Eddie's had thirteen albums' worth of such happy accidents and in the process has changed the way people play, hear and think about the electric guitar. With his unorthodox technique, dare-devil whammy bar antics and fearless experimentation, Van Halen revitalized heavy guitar after it had run its course in the Seventies. Espousing an I-just-play-that's-all-I-do attitude and favoring basic gear like stock Marshalls. Peavey 5150s, homemade, slapped together guitars and simple, minimal stop box effects, Van Halen became guitar's greatest hero by becoming its unassuming anti-hero.
From the jaw-dropping gymnastics of Van Halen's "Eruption" to the eerie, tidal crescendos of "Catherdral" on Diver Down, through his 1984 chart-topping synth experiments and spirit of 5150 and For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, Eddie has remained innovative throughout his career. Never one to wait around for the electrician, Van Halen prefers building his own gear-and if it doesn't always look pretty, well, beauty is in the ear of beholder. By "Frankensteining" his first striped guitar from $130 worth of parts, Van Halen launched his quest for the elusive "brown sound-"big, warm and majestic"-and gave rock guitarists a new holy grail of tone to seek in the post-Jim-my page era. His single-pick up and volume control innovation changed the way guitars looked and sounded, popularized the previously obscure Kramer Guitars, and inspired the do-it-yourself guitar gear industry. Eddie's custom-designed Peavey amps and his with Sterling Ball on his Music Man guitars prove that Van Halen still believes the artist should retain creative input on his equipment.
As a player, Van Halen single-handedly-well, dual-handedly-introduced millions of rock players such exciting techniques as two-handed tapping and harmonics. Before 1978, guitar just had to be loud and fast. Eddie's playing is also tasteful and always in context, a fact that distinguishes him from his legions of imitators. While he's unimpressed by the copycat syndrome, it cannot be denied that many players first picked up a guitar after Van Halen's dazzling licks. But none of them can fall down the stairs with such brilliance.
Eric Clapton has successfully reinvented himself dozens of times: Rave-Up King with the Yardbirds; Holy Father of the Anglo-blues with the Bluesbreakers; free-form improvisational genius with Cream; chameleon rises to every musical occasion.
By 1965 the 20-year-old Clapton was already a legend. He'd introduced the blues to the masses, interpreting and updating what had been a largely unknown form for the rock generation. Simultaneously, his lush, Les Paul-driven tone marked the absolute turning point in the history of rock, transforming what had been a good-time twang instrument into a vehicle for profound expression.
Ultimately, the most enduring image of the great guitarist will be of Clapton the bluesman, standing on a corner of a stage and exposing his psychic wounds to the masses. It is interesting, though, that, while "bluesy" in feel, his most memorable songs-"Layla," "Tears In Heaven"-do not utilize the blues structure.
While most of Clapton's contemporaries talk reunion and revival, he never retreats behind memories of his "good old days." His Unplugged album, which was enormously successful-both for him and acoustic guitar manufactures-included a radical remake of "Layla." Clapton is one artist who has learned how to grow up.