As a guitarist myself I’m often thinking about my favourite guitarists and how my ranking seems to change depending on what kind of mood I’m in. I thought it’d be fun to put a top 10 list together. Remember, the key word here is favourite. Enjoy.
1. Eric Clapton
At the top of my list sits God himself, Eric Clapton. When I was putting together this list I realised I couldn’t have anyone else at #1. Clapton for me has everything. The tone, the style, the explosiveness, the skill. His work with Cream was what brought me to him initially, a band where his name was cemented as one of the greatest guitarists in the world. Over a half a century later nothing has changed. Before Cream of course he was a member of both The Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, where he forged his craft and laid down countless unforgettable guitar riffs. It was with the Bluesbreakers where that Gibson through a Marshall tone was born, forever changing the sound of electric blues. But with Cream he took guitar playing to another level. In my opinion no other guitarist has played with the same amount of energy, style and passion that Clapton did with Cream. It was improvisation at its very finest. You’ll never find anything better.
After Cream he formed Blind Faith with Steve Winwood which saw his playing become more modest and laid back, playing only when needed. From there, after a short spell with Delaney & Bonnie, he formed Derek and the Dominos. By then his Gibson phase had come to and end and his guitar of choice was a 1956 Fender Stratocaster, Brownie as we all know it today. His work with the Dominos solidified his status as the best guitarist in the world at the time. His playing on the Layla album alongside Duane Allman is second to none in my opinion.
Clapton’s solo career from 1974 onwards has seen the release of countless classic albums including 461 Ocean Boulevard and Slowhand, but it’s perhaps in 1994 where Clapton returned to the blues on his album From The Cradle that really hits home with me. His return to Gibson guitars inspired me to play an ES-335 myself and the live tour that accompanied the album showcased Clapton’s abilities as a blues guitarist, showing the world he definitely still had it.
2. Duane Allman
Second spot on my list goes to Skydog, Duane Allman, founding member of The Allman Brothers Band in 1969. Prior to 1969 he played with bands including The Hour Glass and The Allman Joys, as well as having a very successful stint as a session musician, but it’s his work with The Allman Brothers Band that makes him so enjoyable to listen to. When it comes to slide guitarists there is probably only one other person I can think of that surpasses Duane and that is the great Elmore James, although their styles are very different of course.
In 1971 The Allman Brothers Band played three nights at Fillmore East in New York with the shows all being recorded. A few months later a live album would be released called At Fillmore East which captured The Allman Brothers Band in top form. The opening number is Statesboro Blues which continues to blow me away to this day. It’s a work of art with Duane’s slide playing, especially the intro, leading the way. His use of a Gibson Les Paul whilst playing with The Allman Brothers Band was certainly instrumental in the achieving that gorgeous tone he had.
Duane also joined Derek and the Dominos in the studio in 1970 to help record their album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. His slide work compliments Clapton perfectly and it was actually the first time I heard his playing, before I’d even stumbled across The Allman Brothers Band. Duane features on eleven of the fourteen songs that feature on the album with my favourites being two blues standards, Key To The Highway and Have You Ever Loved A Woman. Whilst every song on the album is incredible, these two capture Duane’s playing brilliantly, especially alongside Eric Clapton.
Duane Allman would tragically die in a motorcycle accident in October 1971 but thankfully his music will live on. His slide playing will forever be an inspiration to me as a guitarist, his technique and tone second to none as a slide guitarist.
3. Jimi Hendrix
At #3 lands Hendrix, how could he not? Part of me was debating on whether he’d actually be #2 instead of Duane Allman, and while it was close, Allman’s work with Derek and the Dominos secured the spot. But Hendrix couldn’t be any lower than #3. Along with Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience cemented the fact that a blues trio is the only way to go as a band configuration which has resulted in me playing my own music as part of a trio.
In terms of music, Hendrix’s style and playing on those first two Experience albums is absolutely incredible with my standout tracks being The Wind Cried Mary, Red House, Hey Joe, Remember, Purple Haze, Bold As Love, One Rainy Wish and Little Wing. But my favourite album by far is his 1968 album Electric Ladyland which saw him take a more leisurely approach to both writing and recording music. Hendrix really experimented a number of ways on that album, especially when it came to taking advantage of the stereo music format with different textures he’d lay down, having them flow between the speakers.
Every time I listen to Hendrix I get an instant warmth inside that I cannot describe. The song Red House in particular from the album Are You Experienced features Hendrix at his very bluesy best. The notes pour out of him and it’s the way he puts the notes together as well and which notes follow on from what he has played before that makes his playing so enjoyable. A lot of people will say Purple Haze is Hendrix at his best, and while I agree it’s excellent, I firmly believe that Red House performance portrays the best of Hendrix.
4. Freddie King
I’ve been asked the question “who is your favourite King?” countless times, with my answer always being “Freddie King.” The Texas Cannonball has been an influence on my guitar playing since I first heard the blues and his use of a red Gibson ES was one of the reasons I have one as well. His attacking style is sublime with a tone to die for and I’d go as far as saying that he’s the all time best electric blues player.
His 1962 album Let’s Hide Away And Dance Away is an education into electric blues, and one of the albums that heavily inspired Eric Clapton at that point in his life. The album has been hugely inspirational to me as well as I’ve taken every opportunity to study his guitar tone on that album and the unique way he attacked the strings to achieve the sound he made.
His 1971 album Getting Ready… is another favourite of mine. The ten songs that feature on that album are absolutely sublime and will always be one of my “go to” albums when it comes to inspiration. Freddie King was a master, and the true KING of the blues.
5. Stevie Ray Vaughan
Following closely behind Freddie King is Stevie Ray Vaughan at #5. Looking back he is probably the closest person to Hendrix when it comes to imitating that style of music, but what made Stevie Ray Vaughan so good was that he harnessed that influence and came up with his own style of guitar playing. Calling it fluid doesn’t do him any justice, I find it hard to think of another guitarist who plays so effortlessly while at the same time being so loose. There are a number of other guitarists on this list who are just as fluid as Vaughan but their playing is more calculated delivery wise. Vaughan came across as more relaxed and laid back, the notes pouring out of the fretboard from his fingertips. A very Hendrix way of playing. Both ways are excellent.
His debut album is exceptional in every sense of the word with the song Lenny being not only one of his finest songs, but one of the finest sounding and executed songs of all time. There are no words that can describe the beauty of Lenny but when you hear it you can feel it inside. The delicateness of that song, the intricate nature of his playing cements him in my top 5.