A while ago I described something/someone as “guitar music” and was chortled at from all directions; there’s no such thing as guitar music. This is not a genre. This is no way to explain or define music. Andres Segovia and Derek Bailey and Jimi Hendrix and Django Reinhardt and Eddie Van Halen have all made amazing music by approaching the same instrument (or versions of the same instrument) in very different ways. Their music belongs to different genres and though they are all great players – or were – there’s really no reason for them to all be thought of under one banner. Ever. That seemed to be the thinking.
But I’m not so sure about that. I mean, yes, it’s obvious that Django and Segovia were doing different things, as were Jimi and Eddie – speaking to different audiences too; making music for different times. And there are different ways to hear the guitar – Johnny Marr is a great guitar hero to many and yet he’s so very much the sideman; as is Mike Campbell from Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. And that’s a very different approach to someone like Jeff Beck – a guitar hero for a whole other reason. He’s ended up moving from a sideman role, something he can still offer, to replacing the voice – the lead singer – with the ‘voice’ of his guitar.
I hardly ever listen to Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton these days but they were my first guitar heroes. And then, as an avid reader of Guitar World I started picking up on all sorts of names: Django and Robert Johnson, Allan Holdsworth and the guitarists from My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth. Through Clapton and Hendrix I got to Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert King and so many others. And as a Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin fan I was all about Richie Blackmore and Jimmy Page; Jeff Beck too and so many other names. Too many to mention.
But I was hooked.
The other big guitar-hero names for me were Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. Particularly Satriani. His first three albums meant so much to me. They’re still sentimental favourites. Vai, I really only liked one album – I admired his approach more than I ever enjoyed hearing the results. Ultimately.
And then there players like Frank Zappa, Carlos Santana and Prince – they don’t tend to feature high up on the list of guitar greats, but they deserve to. There’s a lot of similarity in the way they play, all three are so great at offering space in their solos, there’s something in their phrasing. I can’t listen to anything Carlos Santana has done in the last two decades (especially this) but vintage Santana – Woodstock-era, that incredible Lotus live album; that’s what I’m talking about.
So here are my ten favourite all-instrumental guitar albums – in no particular order beyond me recalling them; the ten albums that feature the guitar as the lead voice and have had a profound impact on my life – ten albums I couldn’t be without, even if some of them I don’t listen to all that often anymore.
1. Joe Satriani, Surfing With The Alien – I prefer Not Of This Earth and Flying In A Blue Dream now and even those are hard to sit through. I tried listening to Surfing With The Alien all the way through – that’s when Satch was last in town and I knew I’d be going along. Good lord it was awful. By the end of side one I could almost feel sick in my mouth. But I can’t tell my 13 year old self that. Well, I could try but – good boy – he just wouldn’t listen. This was a world-changer. Joe was my first guitar hero I could call my own. If I mentioned Hendrix or Clapton or Page or Beck or anyone then mum and/or dad would give me the patronising “we were there the first time” line. Which I hated. So I turned up Satriani instead. Which they hated.
2. Steve Vai, Passion and Warfare – This one I can still listen to. Only once a year or so. But this has a lot more to it than Satriani. I was 14 when I first heard this. Still on a massive guitar kick. And the movie Crossroads was what really sold me on Vai. Then there were the other – interesting – musical connections; I’d find out about those with time. He’d played with Zappa and PiL and Whitesnake. So all of those things – the good and the bad – made me keep returning to this album….and I keep returning. When I finally saw him live he played an amazing show and I was not really expecting to be quite so floored by the virtuoso Vai. And prior to that show I interviewed him and he was a really great chat.
3. Ry Cooder, Music by Ry Cooder – I’ve been a huge Ry Cooder fan since I was pretty young. I think it was because my folks had an album or two and there were a few songs on the radio when I was younger. I own pretty much every album that Cooder has released under his own name and most of the things he’s played on. It was one of my writing/interviewing highlights to speak with him. And I like that he’s still pushing it. Still pushing an agenda, still creating some great music. This collection of his film scores was crucial for me because I’d first really connected with Cooder via the Crossroads score and was interested in his movie-music career; the sideline gig that paid. And though not everything from his film score days features his guitar playing there are still plenty of choice pieces. And it got me thinking about how the guitar can be applied in a few different settings. And it also got me thinking about how a guitarist approaches non-guitar music; how a guitarist searches for sounds outside of the obvious ones to coax.
4. Jeff Beck, Blow By Blow – I was into Beck because he was part of the story of The Yardbirds, he rubbed shoulders – in that story – with Clapton and Page and that made me want to know more about him. I was 12 years old. I bought Blow By Blow on a whim. It was there. The only Jeff Beck tape in the store. I had to have it to find out what was on it; the cover had a man with a guitar. That was all I knew about the album before hearing it – that I was about to hear some guitar. And then I heard fusion music with guitar lines played as if they were bebop runs; Beck’s guitar the shining star. It’s quite possible that I’ve listened to this album more than just about any other record by anyone ever. And I still find new things in it whenever I play it.
5. Marc Ribot, Rootless Cosmopolitans – I got pretty hooked on Ribot’s music for a while there. I knew his name (and playing) from his great contributions to Tom Waits albums. And his name popped up here and there (Elvis Costello). But it wasn’t long after first becoming aware of his sound that I was off to pick up this album. And from there a handful of others. Even now, many years on from when I first heard this, Ribot is a name I’ll regularly take to YouTube. There I’ll find all sorts of things, the work with John Zorn and his great stuff from this period. And new clips of him playing live. But I still keep Rootless Cosmopolitans as my nostalgic/sentimental favourite. Hearing him mangling rock and jazz classics; re-examining them, redefining them, cutting them open and stitching them back together in the way that suits him. He’s an incredible player and this album has served me so well as a great introduction to his musical world.
6. Ralph Towner, Diary – He plays piano too so this album is half piano pieces, half guitar. But I’m counting it because Towner is best known as a guitarist. He hides in the shadows between jazz and classical and hints at both with just a twist of a folk feel. And I went back to Towner recently after realising that he must have been an influence – some sort of spiritual connection at least – for James Blackshaw. I’m a huge fan of Blackshaw (also a guitarist and pianist working in the shaded areas between jazz and classical; also offering a folk twist). And my love of his playing has taken me back to earlier Ralph Towner music. Because I first heard Towner through his 2001 album, Anthem. Also a favourite still – but Diary is the one.
7. Derek Bailey, Ballads – Around the time this album was released (2002) I had been getting my head around improvised music, free-jazz, noise and drone pieces, outsider art and outsider music. I’d heard a lot that I hated and bits and pieces I loved. But it all started to make sense after spending some time with Derek Bailey’s music. Here he makes standards his own, stunning solo guitar versions that question the original, that reshape and remake. And though there are other Bailey albums (and his book Improvisation is a must-read, I reckon) this is the one I go back to. This was a gateway to a new world. And I like that it was also a bridge back to an old world; to the jazz ballads I grew up listening to. It made sense, straight away, hearing them deconstructed, rebuilt, reworked, lit from new angles.
8. Buckethead, Colma – I never really liked anything else by Buckethead. And as far as I can tell a lot of Buckethead fans never really liked this album. But to me this is his masterpiece. It’s a strange mix of late-night guitar shred and Bill Laswell loops and productions that are buoyed by the drummer Brain. This album has soundtracked so many movie-thoughts in my mind; accompanied me on so many car-trips and flights. It’s been a friend for many years. And it’s never let me down. In that case its closest companion, in my music collection, is Blow By Blow. But they’re vastly different. Where Beck bursts through in bright colour this is pensive, maudlin and feels a bit like Ottmar Liebert-gone-goth. Yes, that’s not supposed to make you feel instantly comfortable. And nor does this album. There’s something just a little unsettling about it, intriguing, weird, wonderful. I’m always baffled by people that write this off as kooky flamenco-wannabe rubbish. I’ve lived lives inside this album. This album has taken me to so many places – and at the least it’s always come along for the ride.
9. Grant Green, Live At The Lighthouse – I’m not sure how I got onto Grant Green but once there it was hard to stop. I bought up albums, searched for appearances from him as a sideman and basked in his sound. This album came recommended sometime after I first was hooked. It was a different sound, slightly funkier, more R’n’B flavoured when compared with his bop outings. But that sound is unmistakable, his tone, his touch. And I could also mention Alive! and Solid and of course Idle Moments when talking about Grant Green but I mention this because it’s the album that had the biggest impact; the one I played the most and it’s also an album I haven’t listened to in a long time. I lost my copy of it. I need to get hold of it again. I can of course already hear it in my head. So great.
10. Lyle Workman, Harmonic Crusader – A few years back now, a friend played me this album. It took me back to first hearing Blow By Blow and Colma and Passion and Warfare. It was brilliant and baffling and beautiful; it was the work of a very great player. I knew that instantly but I didn’t know anything about the album. I became obsessed with it, playing it over and over across the weekend when I was first introduced to it. I kept hearing it after it finished. I kept wanting to hear it again. I knew Workman’s name as a hired-hand, a session gun. He’s played w He’s also done a lot of work making movie soundtracks. But I’m glad I got to hear his own album – this one from 2009 – was one of my favourite albums of 2012. I just kept playing it. I still play it a lot. There are references to all the great guitar music I loved as a teenager and there are interesting pieces that go beyond “guitar music”.
In a sense that’s what I’ve tried to mention here – the instrumental guitar albums that I feel go beyond guitar music. That are more than just the sound of the guitar. The ones that cast their spell, sucked me in, got me hooked.
What about you? Do you have favourite instrumental guitar albums? Or do you have to hear the guitar as part of a band with a lead singer? Can you not hear it as the lead voice, the lead instrument, the feature role?
What are your favourite “guitar music” albums?
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