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Guitar Heroes

13 Conversations

A pair of hands making sweet music with a guitar
Marti Di Bergi: Do you feel that, in collaboration with David, that you are afforded the opportunity to express yourself musically, the way you would like to?
Nigel Tufnel: Well, I think I do, you know, in my solos. My solos are my trademark.
- This is Spinal Tap

Guitar heroes have been around for a long time. In Greek mythology there is the story of Orpheus1, who was the world's most gifted musician and could use his songs to charm wild beasts, and even inanimate objects. His talent saved the day when his music defeated the Sirens and prevented the crew of the Argo from being lured onto the rocks.

A few centuries later, and one of history's most famous bands - Robin Hood's band of Merry Men - realised that they wouldn't get anywhere without a guitar hero of their own. Thus, Alan a Dale was recruited and took his place in the history of guitar legends2.

So, if you want to follow in the footsteps of these pioneering guitar heroes, what qualities do you need? Is it simply the ability to buy a guitar and hang onto it without injuring yourself, or is there slightly more to it than that? Well, the first thing that would help is some...


Any viable candidate for guitar hero status must first have talent on the guitar. Antics may qualify one for 'entertainment hero' status, or perhaps 'novelty act' status, but not as a guitar hero. As an example, Bill and Ted had all the right moves and energy, but who'd go to their concert (pre-Rufus)?

Good guitarists show a mastery of the instrument, as if it's a tool, and the player has spent his whole life improving on its use. With a guitar god, it's impossible to determine where the person ends and the guitar begins - it's just an extra limb, and it's doing nothing but what it evolved to do.

You feel someone is a real guitar hero when you see them play. It's not just a case of listening to a solo and figuring out whether it's a hero playing or not. Guitar hero status is connected to the person, to the player of the instrument. You have to see and feel the performance. If you see a guitar hero playing you will notice this person enjoys playing and also has the talent to do so, and the ability to express a genuine feeling of emotion - anger, pain, love, happiness or any other - purely through the instrument.

'Guitar-hero-imitations' might be very skilled musicians and do 'bitchin' stunts but, in the long run, you'll figure out if it all came from the heart or not. Thus, a guitar hero's status should be something eternal, not just for the duration of a year or two.

Many believe, however, that a genuine guitar hero is more than that. He's not just a skilled performer, or creator of an unique style, but also adds another dimension to guitar playing. A guitar hero, first of all, has to be able to communicate through his guitar. If he does that via dexterity, melody, attitude, with his butt or on a classical guitar is of secondary importance.

The Talented

It should probably go without saying that all guitarists deemed worthy of a mention in this Entry should possess the required amount of talent, but a few examples chosen by h2g2 Researchers probably wouldn't go amiss.

Dave Gilmour or George Harrison did not produce the most 'bitchin' solos out there, yet the musicality of their solos makes them - for me - guitar heroes.

Dave Gilmour CBE3, guitarist with Pink Floyd, started out playing Beatles and Rolling Stones songs with future Pink Floyd colleague, Syd Barrett, while at Cambridge College of Arts and Technology. Sadly, it was not until some years later, when Barrett began to develop drug-related health problems, that Gilmour was invited to join the band, taking over much of the songwriting and vocal work, as well as playing guitar.

Gilmour's finest guitar work can probably be heard on the albums Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here. As well as his obvious technical ability, characterised by soaring guitar solos, Gilmour is known for his experimentation with guitar sounds and techniques, using a huge array of pedals and synthesisers to achieve the perfect sound for each song. Gilmour also has the distinction of owning a 1954 Fender Stratocaster with the coveted serial number 001.

Even if he was simply the lead guitarist with the Beatles, George Harrison's place with the guitar gods would be assured. But, as the man who wrote what Frank Sinatra has described as the greatest love song ever ('Something') who Brian Epstein felt was the most naturally musically gifted of the Beatles, who was largely responsible for introducing the sitar to western pop music, and who added his own memorable flourishes to much of the Beatles' work - such as the instantly recognisable guitar chord at the start of 'Hard Day's Night' - Harrison has more than earned his place in history. You can read a tribute to Harrison in this Edited Entry.

Of course, you don't have to be in rock and pop to be a guitar hero. Styles such as American Blues or Country require a virtuosity of their own.

Robert Johnson - known as the 'King of the Delta Blues' - lived a short life, from 1911 until his death from pneumonia in 1938. In that time, Johnson recorded a mere 29 songs, which revolutionised the blues and influenced every guitarist you care to name.

Dave Bromberg is a guitar virtuoso who plays Cajun fiddle tunes, delta and Chicago Blues, bluegrass and folk, amongst others. Although he has a successful solo career, it is as a much in-demand session musician that he has made his mark. His distinctive fingerpicking can be heard on over 100 albums, by artists such as Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Tom Paxton, and Chubby Checker.

You don't have to be a lead or solo guitarist to be a guitar hero, either. Marcus Miller is a bass guitar player who many people will not have heard of, but will have heard playing in the background of, say, a Luther Vandross track. There is a story that Vandross once asked Miller whether he could make a bass effect that sounded like a fridge door slamming shut. He did, of course...

I don't think I was aware of hearing his bass guitar-playing so much as felt it through the soles of my feet at a party and had to go and ask the DJ who it was! When he brought out a solo album and I first heard those soaring lyrical improvisations above a bassline percussion that hit me in the solar plexus, I realised I hadn't heard anything like it before. He turns the bass from a guitar usually heard in instrumental solos into a solo instrument.


Talent on its own, however, isn't enough to qualify for guitar hero status. It doesn't matter if you can do any technical thing you want with a guitar, if it isn't original. The best guitarists have a unique style or technique, which can often be recognised instantly just by listening to a few notes they play. This is accompanied by true variety in the work they produce. No guitar hero would be satisfied with churning out the same solo, song after song.

The Innovators

One guitarist who invariably tops the polls in magazine and TV surveys of guitar heroes is James Marshall 'Jimi' Hendrix. Hendrix was a true pioneer of the electric guitar. Hendrix developed new sounds, using fuzz, feedback and distortion, such as on his famous, feedback-drenched version of 'Star-Spangled Banner' performed at the Woodstock festival. Hendrix also made use of revolutionary recording techniques, including altering tape speeds and layering guitar tracks. On top of all that, Jimi was one of the guitar's first over-the-top showmen, playing the guitar behind his head or between his legs, playing with his teeth, and even setting his guitar alight. You can read more about Jimi's life and tragically early death in this Edited Entry.

The man that best represents [originality] to me is BB King. His music and his techniques can be heard in just about every guitar great's best work for the last sixty years. Without BB and those of his ilk, there never would have been rock and roll.

Riley B King4 began his recording career in 1940 and is still playing today, at the beginning of the 21st Century. King fused traditional jazz and blues with swing and pop music to develop his unique style, and his use of guitar techniques such as string bending and vibrato have become an essential part of any modern gutarist's repertoire. King is also known for always referring to his guitar as 'Lucille', named after a woman who, so the story goes, was fought over in a bar in which King was performing. The fight escalated and a stove was knocked over, setting the building alight. King escaped from the burning building, but risked his life to go back in and rescue his precious guitar - truly the act of a guitar hero!

Paul McCartney revolutionised electric bass-playing. From a thankless treadmill, he transformed it into a nimble, witty and eloquent force. Fair play to you, Paul.

As is the case with Beatles colleague George Harrison, Paul McCartney's place in history has never been in doubt. McCartney took over the bass on the death of Stuart Sutcliffe; a quirk of history that put the group's most creative player on what was, until then, the least prominent instrument. He forged a new language, steering clear of the jazz influence he professed to dislike, and his fresh basslines became one of the indefinable yet unmistakable hallmarks of the Beatles' style.


Bill: The truth is Wyld Stallyns will never be a super band until we have Eddie Van Halen on guitar.
Ted: Yes, Bill. But... I do not believe we will get Eddie Van Halen until we have a triumphant video.
Bill: Ted, it's pointless to have a triumphant video before we even have decent instruments.
Ted: Well, how can we have decent instruments when we don't really even know how to play?
Bill: That is why we need Eddie Van Halen.
Ted: And, that is why we need a triumphant video.
Bill & Ted: Excellent!
- Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure

One way of defining a guitar hero is someone that makes people want to go buy a guitar and learn to play. Air guitar does not count.

A Little History

The first 'true' guitar heroes were probably the Hawaiian guitar players of the 1920s. They were followed by the singing cowboys and then commercial country. Charlie Christian was perhaps the first electric guitar hero, and he was well-known, playing with Benny Goodman of all people, in addition to Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.

Merle Travis and Joe Maphis influenced an entire generation of guitar players, including Scotty Moore, Chet Atkins, and Jerry Reed. Oddly enough Bo Diddley was one of the first flash guitar heroes who didn't really 'play' his instrument. Burl Ives was an early folkie who could not only play his instrument, but whose voice was of a high order. Lonnie Donnegan helped bring about the skiffle craze with his rendition of 'Sixteen Tons', and many of the current senior citizens of rock first learned their chords while playing skiffle.

The Ventures and The Shadows influenced a lot of young guitar buyers. Duane Eddy was responsible for many guitar books being sold. And just the photo of Buddy Holly with his guitar and glasses is supposed to have lit a lightbulb in two generations of geeky twangers.

When you got into the sixties it becomes too close to call. Practically every vocalist had a guitar or a guitarist close by. At one point, Japan and Italy were selling more guitars than America. Jazz had a hundred virtuosos, commercial rock had four dozen session musicians working overtime in the studios, and country had '1352 guitar pickers in Nashville'5.

The guitar hero phenomenon had such an impact that virtually every song of every band until the mid 1990s had to have a guitar solo. A typical band had to include a crazy dancing frontman, strange clothes, and at least one guitar-hero-surrogate (in case they hadn't got a real one). Even those bands who didn't have guitar-based sounds had those (ouch!) pink new-wave keyboards with necks; keyboardists in guitar hero looks!

The Influential

As with talent, influence on the generations of guitarists to follow is probably an attribute possessed by every guitarist in this Entry. So, again, a few examples will have to suffice to illustrate the point.

'King of skiffle' Lonnie Donegan is often credited with inventing the 'cheap and cheerful' form of home-made music known as skiffle, but that is a slight overstatement. Lonnie (born Anthony Donegan in Glasgow in 1931) may not have invented it, but he was responsible for popularising skiffle in the 1950s. He started as banjo-player, but it was his performances with guitar, accompanied by tea-chest bass and washboard, that made his name. Donegan combined brilliant guitar playing with humorous lyrics and a likeable personality to brilliant effect. The popularity of skiffle, and the fact that anyone could pick up household objects and make music, led to many of those who were to become household names in the 1960s, notably the Beatles, first taking to live music.

Chet Atkins has played such an important part in the development of guitar music that he has earned the nickname 'Mr Guitar.' Atkins is widely claimed to be the the most recorded solo instrumentalist in music history, and has worked as a session musician with Elvis Presley, The Everly Brothers, Hank Williams and pretty much anyone who is anyone in country music. His appeal is not limited to country music, however, with his style an important influence on rock and pop guitarists such as Mark Knopfler, Duane Eddy, George Harrison, George Benson and Eddie Cochran.

In the early 1980s, one band was central to the development of the new genre of thrash metal, a response to the influx of much derided soft-metal bands that had started to erode heavy metal's fanbase. Metallica were fronted by the guitar pairing of James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett. Together they produced works that moved heavy metal away from blues-oriented songs, with complex, multi-layered guitar lines played at relentless speed. Through their work with Metallica, Hetfield and Hammett paved the way for later developments in the metal genre, such as speed metal and, eventually, the nu-metal bands of the late 1990s.

Bert Weedon holds the claim to fame as the first guitarist to have a solo record in the 'hit parade'. It is for his 'teach yourself guitar' book, Play in a Day that he is most famous. Published in the UK in 1957, it has been used by some of the instrument's most famous names, including John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Brian May and Pete Townshend.

Showmanship and Gimmicks

Part of being a great guitarist is making people think you're a great guitarist. Part of making people think you're a great guitarist is looking like a great guitarist

For true guitar hero status, it's no good simply being a technically proficient guitarist. Guitar heroes have to be entertainers as well as musicians. For a select few, the level of virtuosity in itself may be enough to keep a crowd mesmerised, but it doesn't hurt to have a few idiosyncracies thrown in...

The Showmen

Take Angus Young from AC/DC, for example. He's a good guitar player, but his trademark schoolboy uniform elevates his status. Along with his crazy antics, rolling on the floor, etc

The focal point of Australian heavy rockers AC/DC, Angus Young's guitar ability, combined with his incredible energy, have kept AC/DC albums selling steadily for the last 30 years. Working with his older brother Malcolm, the group's rhythm guitarist, Young creates instantly catchy guitar hooks and solos that are an integral part of the music rather than the tacked-on afterthought that some guitarists achieve. Young is a master of melody in a few notes, and proved that you don't need lightning fast solos and intricate guitar work to make music that is classic and instantly recognisable. Invariably appearing on stage in a schoolboy uniform, with cap, tie and shorts, Young never stops moving, often continuing to play while carried through the crowd, lying flat on his back, or hopping around using Chuck Berry's 'duck-walk'. The adulation of his fans is unmistakable - on the rare occasions that the hectic pace lets up, the crowd instantly start chanting 'Angus, Angus' until the next riff storms into life.

Only a true guitar hero could pull off playing a double-necked guitar without looking silly.

Jimmy Page, originally of the Yardbirds and, more famously, Led Zeppelin is probably one of the few guitarists who could wield a double-headed axe and still be the epitome of style. Page was always at the forefront of what a guitar was capable of, pioneering all sorts strange sounds, tunings, just about everything, including playing the guitar with a violin bow as an example. Perhaps more than any other guitarist, and any other band, Page and Led Zeppelin made the guitar such an omnipresent sound and image that you couldn't think of them without seeing an SG or a Les Paul clutched in the hands of the lead player.

One time I was coming home from a gig and bumped into a group of Kevs... I thought there was going to be some confrontation, but I ended up chatting to one of them about Steve Vai! Incredible!

Although Steve Vai has played guitar with Whitesnake, David Lee Roth and Frank Zappa, amongst others, it is for his solo work that he is most widely known. Growing up in the 1970s on a diet of progressive rock, Vai's albums and stage shows are spectacular, guitar-led extravaganzas, in which Vai has been known to play the guitar with his tongue, teeth, feet and, ocasionally, his hands. While perhaps not as well known to the general public as Hendrix or other guitar heroes, Vai is a guitarists' guitarist and hardly a month goes by without him featuring in a guitar magazine somewhere in the world. Steve Vai has about as much showmanship as one can find.


I find it most unfortunate that a lot of 'popular' artists, athletes and musicians are considered heroes, when they do not represent anything that we would want our children (current or potential) to emulate. Jerks should never be raised to the level of hero, even if they achieve stardom. A hero is a person who, if emulated, would make the fan a better person too.

While sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll may be an integral part of some guitarists' lifestyles, it is certainly not a prerequisite. For many guitarists it's more about making music using their obvious gift, rather than amassing money or fame.

The Personable

The quiet, unassuming, be-spectacled guitarist called Hank Marvin - referred to in Guitarist magazine as 'one of the nicest guys on the planet' - was born Brian Rankin in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1941. Marvin came to prominence as lead guitarist with the Shadows, who not only acted as Cliff Richard's backing group in his heyday, but were also a tremendously successful band in their own right. Marvin is credited as the man who introduced the Fender Stratocaster guitar into the UK, inspiring a new generation of guitar heroes to emulate his clear tones and expressive use of the tremolo arm.

One of those who longed for a red Hank Marvin-style Stratocaster as a boy was Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler. Knopfler started his professional life as a journalist and also worked as a teacher, before finding success as a guitarist. Knopfler learned his technique by studying bluegrass and other acoustic guitar music, giving him a style that is almost unique in the world of rock and pop guitarists; while most axemen play with a plectrum, Knopfler has a fingerpicking style that allows him to effortlessly produce the right phrase at the right time. Away from the stage, Knopfler is naturally shy, preferring to spend time with his family rather than indulge in the rock and roll lifestyle.

Some Honourable Mentions

Obviously, it is impossible to list every guitarist that might ever have been considered a guitar hero in one way or another, and the examples above are those suggested by h2g2 Researchers. It is also worth noting that, just because a guitarist is listed in one category, doesn't mean they don't possess all the other qualities of a guitar hero; no-one is trying to pretend that Mark Knopfler, for example, is simply a nice chap who plays the guitar.

The following is a selection of guitarists who also merited a mention during the compilation of this Entry:

  • Carlos Santana - not really a mainstream rockstar, but one who has been on the periphery for ages. He has a style that is unique, therefore hitting high on innovation. He is an inspiration to many guitarists, yet is modest in his approach. Iconic status for sure is what Carlos has.

  • Frank Zappa - a prolific and innovative rock musician, and campaigner against censorship. Zappa's legacy is being kept alive by his son Dweezil, himself a highly-talented guitarist.

  • Paco de Lucia - Flamenco guitar genius, with a career spanning 40 years.

  • Steve Howe - highly-respected rock guitarist and member of Yes during their most successful years.

  • Stanley Jordan - a jazz player who uses a unique two-handed 'piano' technique to produce solos and rhythm work. While many guitarists use 'tapping' to embellish solos - Eddie Van Halen is renowned for his use of two-handed tapping, for example - Jordan produces entire pieces using only his 'touch' technique.

  • Nancy Wilson - proving that being a guitar hero isn't only a male pursuit, Wilson is a prolific guitarist and songwriter. She originally teamed up with sister Ann to form multi platinum-selling rock band Heart, and has since had success as a solo performer.

  • Eric Clapton - the only musician to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame three times: as a member of the Yardbirds and Cream, and as a solo artist.

  • Billy Gibbons - guitarist with ZZ Top. Honest music, hot riffs and a helluva lot of attitude.

  • Joe Satriani - described by Kerrang magazine as 'the greatest living exponent of the electric guitar', Satriani has also worked as a guitar teacher, counting fellow guitar heroes Kirk Hammett and Steve Vai among his pupils.

  • Slash6 - with his top hat and unruly hair, Slash was the unmistakable guitar hero behind the success of Guns N' Roses.

  • Mississippi John Hurt - the earliest guitarist featured in this Entry, Hurt was born in 1893. His songs, recorded in the 1920s, were rediscovered in the 1960s, leading to a second career, albeit a short one, for this outstanding blues guitarist.

  • Django Reinhardt - born in Belgium of gypsy parents in 1910, Reinhardt taught himself to play the guitar and began his career at the age of 12. When he was 18, he was badly injured in a fire, which damaged his left hand. Undeterred, Reinhardt developed a new fingering system that allowed him to play jazz guitar as well as, if not better than before.

  • Burl Ives - guitarist, folk singer, author and actor, Ives has been described as 'the mightiest ballad singer born in any century'.

  • Pete Townshend - guitarist with 'The Who', famous for his 'windmill' style of playing, and for smashing up guitars and amplifiers at the end of gigs.

  • Les Paul7 - designer of the second most popular guitar of all time, and player of a style which is totally old-fashioned and alien to the rockers of today, being a sort of cross between hillbilly and 1940s dance band. He also invented multi-tracking without multi-track equipment; he used two disc-cutting lathes, playing live a second (and third) part to be recorded along with the playback of the first track(s). Since the quality decayed in each subsequent taping, the top line had to be recorded last. He broke his right arm in a car smash and lost the mobility of his elbow; he then had it set to an angle that still allowed him to play. His drinking threatened his career (and life) and his salvation was his angelic other half, the equally multi-tracked Mary Ford.

Then, of course, there are all those 'unsung' guitarists who are undoubtedly fine players, but never made it to hero status. For some, this was because they worked as session musicians, never hitting the limelight as a solo player or in a major band. For some, it was just because they were in the 'wrong' band. Players such as Alex Lifeson (Rush) or Andrew Summers (The Police) had to compete for glory with strong rhythm sections and were often content to sit in the background and make odd wailing noises and strange growls leap forth without the obligatory solo.

The Ultimate Guitar Hero?

When compiling this Entry, one name was mentioned more than any other. But does this guitarist have all the qualities, listed above, to be a true Guitar Hero?

  • Talent - this guitarist has created some of the most well-known guitar solos in rock music, and can also play (amongst other things) the banjo and the harp. He has also written or co-written some of rock's most anthemic songs, and has had hits as a solo artist.

  • Originality - this guitarist is noted for his polyphonic arrangements. Treating the electric guitar almost as a classical instrument, this musician uses layers of guitar lines to build up orchestral sounds, in contrast to the 'rhythm guitar/lead guitar' pairing of many other bands.

  • Influence - this guitarist's songs have been recorded by many other singers and bands, including Def Leppard, George Michael, Elaine Paige, 5ive, Shirley Bassey, Metallica, Macy Gray and The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. In addition, this guitarist is cited as an influence by many other younger guitarists, such as Slash, Nuno Bettencort, Billy Corgan and Ty Tabor.

  • Showmanship and Gimmicks - as part of a band often referred to as history's greatest live rock band, this guitarist's showmanship is not in doubt. He has a distinctive appearance, with wild, curly hair, that has changed little since he first became famous in the early 1970s. He also has the distinction of being one of the few guitar heroes who have built their own guitar from scratch.

  • Personality - would you want your children to grow up to be this guitar hero? Well, he is highly educated, possessing a PhD from Imperial College, London, that he completed later in life after being interrupted by fame and fortune, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Hertfordshire. He has also managed on the whole to keep his private life out of the newspapers, except for a brief spell in which his long-term relationship with a soap opera star was the subject of press interest.

So who is this undoubted guitar hero? As one Researcher puts it:

Brian May has to be high in the Guitar God stakes. Anybody who saw him at the Queen's Birthday Pop Concert a year or two ago will agree. May stood on the roof of Buckingham Palace in his white suit and played 'God Save the Queen' in classic Queen style. A moment to remember.

With his 'Red Special' guitar, and a string of songs such as 'We Will Rock You', 'I Want It All', 'Fat Bottomed Girls', 'Who Wants To Live Forever' and 'Driven by You', Brian May is, perhaps, the perfect example of everything a guitar hero should be.

One Last Thing

But perhaps, when it comes down to it, maybe all you need to be a guitar hero is the right guitar...

Nigel Tufnel: It's perfect - 1959, you know. It just... You can... Listen.
Marti Di Bergi: How much is this...
Nigel Tufnel: Just listen for a minute. The sustain - listen to it.
Marti Di Bergi: I'm not hearing anything.
Nigel Tufnel: You would, though, if it were playing...
- This is Spinal Tap
1Technically, a 'lyre hero'.2Or 'lute legends', in this case.3Commander of the Order of the British Empire - an honour bestowed by the Queen for 'services to music' and charity work.4The name 'BB' is short for 'Blues Boy', a nickname developed for his early radio performances.5As claimed by John Sebastian in the song 'Nashville Cats'.6Real name, Saul Hudson.7Pronounced 'Less' (short for Lester) not 'Lezz'.

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