Since he is widely considered the finest rock musician on any instrument, it's hard to be surprised that Jimi Hendrix won my guitarists poll quite handily. (Is that sound disgruntled Keith Moon fans smashing things in the background?) But there were some surprises along the way.
To review, this poll asked people for their favorites -- a house- burning-down grab, not the most important historically or otherwise. It came from a less formal poll I took among friends and on Facebook to determine the six finalists.
One of the surprises was the enigma of Hendrix. As I've made clear, he needs no defense for me, and he more than DOUBLED the votes of the runner up. But I was struck by the number of people -- musicians and music critics, not casual fans -- who told me that Hendrix's songwriting and singing took him down a notch in their estimate, or that his playing was too flashy. (I would retort with much of Axis: Bold as Love to any of those charges.) The fact that some people voted, for instance, for Neil Young over the mighty Hendrix slightly baffles me. I found myself, incredibly, having to defend the man's work!
I knew that the great white-blues-Boomers -- Clapton, Jeff Beck, Page and Richards -- might not fare terribly well here. In part, that's because many of my Gen X peers came of age at a time when these axe-men, however formidable, had been played to death on "classic rock" radio. (In some ways our ears have been "colonized" by Boomer taste in all kinds of ways.) All said, surprised to see Richards -- the least clearly virtuosic of this crowd -- yielding the most votes.
Surprising also was the strength of Richard Thompson, who came in second. There were certainly guitarists a little older, some a lot younger, some to the left of him (in terms of dissonance or experimental flair) and many to the center of him. But he seems to hit a sweet spot for the readers of this blog. As I've said before, he's a Boomer Xers love, a Brit at home on the American West Coast -- an oddly hybrid and genuinely wide-ranging artist.
(I was reminded of this last night by a very fine RT show at Largo last night. That was one set of Thompson with a band trying out his very British upcoming album, followed by a second set of classics -- going as far back as Fairport's "Time Will Show the Wiser," including an acoustic "Al Bowlly's in Heaven" which tempted me to stop playing forever, and closing with the full band augmented by Teddy and Kamila Thompson, singing along with their father in the parts originally sung by their mother, Linda. Thompson's soloing was stunning and unpredictable thoughout, with its weird blend of Django, Chet Atkins, Britfolk and Sufi modalism.)
Thompson was followed by Neil Young, who were followed by Young, with Richards and Robert Quine (who bridged punk and alt-rock with sessions for Matthew Sweet and Lloyd Cole) tied. Nels Cline, who did better as a semi-finalist than he did on the full poll, came in sixth. Not bad for someone who was only known to fans of avant-rock a few years back; thank Wilco for that.
And here I will come out of the closet re my own tastes. Here are my favorites. Of course, it's a list that changes a little every week:
Hendrix, Richard Thompson, Roger McGuinn, George Harrison. Robert Quine, Peter Buck, Johnny Marr, Kevin Shields, Thurston Moore, Stephen Malkmus, Doug Martsch, Django Reinhardt, Alasdair MacLean, John Fahey.
This poll was only for rock guitarists -- I may run another on folk, jazz or blues guitarists.
Comments, please, folks.