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So who was best in 2021?

It’s about this time of year that music magazines come up with the “best” rock/blues guitarist of the year. Music Radar had Angus Young in 2020 (John Mayer 2nd), but Jake Kiszka wins in 2021 (Steve Vai 2nd). I wondered what suddenly happened to propel Mr Kiszka (above left) of Greta Van Fleet to the top, especially as he plays very like Jimmy Page, who is still alive (above right).

Then there is the “best” of all time. I recall some years ago Rolling Stone magazine did a huge consultation with leading guitarists and came up with Jimi Hendrix (Jimmy Page 2nd). More recently, Guitar World has Jimi and Jimmy 2nd and 3rd with Brian May surging to the lead. So what on earth is going on? Are the stars of yesterday fading and had their day? If so, why?

The problem, as any anal grammar school boy like me knows, is language. Just what does “best” mean? Most popular? Technically proficient? Best tone? Is it about stage presence? Without any kind of guide, or if voters ignore one, one can end up arbitrarily comparing apples to oranges, which is a pointless exercise.

So what happens if we say “best” = most innovative or influential? For there are (and were in his day) plenty of guitarists technically better than Hendrix, such as Jeff Beck, SRV, Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. Angus Young is still THE star guitarist on stage without the need to destroy guitars (sorry Jimi, Pete Townsend beat you to that.)

The reality is that Hendrix was not as innovative as people like to believe. He wasn’t the first to popularize distorted guitars (Chuck Berry/Muddy Waters); he didn’t play slide (Page/Clapton/Dwayne Allman); he wasn’t good at playing or integrating acoustic guitar (Page/Steven Stills); he didn’t use open tunings or finger pick (Page/Stills/Jansch); and Richie Blackmore and Page both developed a similar explosive guitar style quite independently (via Clapton probably).

It has to be said that Hendrix was a very one dimensional guitarist, an all too brief “flash-in-the-pan” who was hugely influenced by Cream and early Delta Bluesmen (just listen to both Jimi’s versions of Voodoo Child, JLH’s Hobo Blues and Muddy’s Mannish Boy and you’ll get the idea). Today Jimi’s four often rambling albums have to compete with masterpieces such as Led Zeppelin IV, The Joshua Tree (U2) , Back in Black (AC/DC) and A Night at the Opera (Queen). It’s no easy task.

So who is the best (= most innovative and influential) guitarist of all time?

I look forward to your feedback, but for me, sorry Jimi, yes you were terrific, but it’s always going to be that other Jimmy! (Muddy Waters 2nd)

HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE!

Andy Tong Dee

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