Six Influential Guitarists Who Were Mediocre Players
Most of us have a guitarist or two we especially admire, someone who inspires and motivates us to achieve our guitar goals. Our musical influences help keep us committed to playing and moving forward when we feel like giving up.
When you think of influential guitarists, names like Robert Johnson, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, Eddie Van Halen, and Stevie Ray Vaughn come to mind. Influential, however, doesn't always mean best. For those of us who may not be one of the fastest or most dexterous players on the planet, this is welcome news.
The following are six guitarists who weren't exactly masters of their instrument, but who prove that there's more to being an accomplished guitarist than nailing complicated riffs. Some of the names included here may surprise you.
1. Kurt Cobain. His may not be the first name to pop into your head when you think of influential guitarists—all right, it may not even be the fiftieth!—but Kurt Cobain was a legendary guitarist in his own right. With his do-it-yourself ethic, Kurt was an example to many that you didn't have to have the technical skill of a Jimi Hendrix to make your mark in music.
As an adolescent, Kurt reportedly took a few weeks' worth of guitar lessons, just enough to learn the riff to AC/DC's "Back in Black" and to figure out "Louie Louie" by the Kingsmen and "My Best Friend's Girl" by The Cars. According to Nevermind producer Butch Vig, Kurt couldn't play Eddie Van Halen speed scales or incredibly complicated jazz chords, nor did he have an interest in trying to learn to play them, but Vig says Cobain was a great player with an instinct for writing really great, hooky, rhythmic, riffy chord patterns.
Kurt's rudimentary style inspired a whole generation of kids to pick up the guitar. Through his use of power chords, moving the simple shapes up and down the fretboard, new guitarists who might not have otherwise picked up the instrument learned to play some of the most popular rock riffs on the planet in the course of an afternoon. The ability to play the first few chords of Lithium or "Smells Like Teen Spirit" without having to go through the entire Mel Bay catalog first kept many a newbie in the game.
2. Joni Mitchell. In a 1969 article for the Oakland Tribune on her debut performance at U.C. Berkeley, a somewhat underwhelmed Russ Wilson called Joni Mitchell "young and mediocre as a singer and guitarist," and theorized that she captured her audience by communicating the thought, 'Gee, I could do that myself.' Wilson found her performance "pale and unconvincing," and noted Mitchell's "out-of-the-ordinary use of tone and meter."
Joni Mitchell is not a technically brilliant guitarist, but she is one of the most inventive players of all time. What makes Mitchell a standout is her creative use of tuning. Almost every song she has composed on the guitar uses an open, or non-standard tuning, a unique playing style she devised to make up for a left hand that was weakened by a childhood bout with polio. Joni has written songs in some 50 different tunings, which allows more varied and complex harmonies to be produced on the guitar while using very simple chord shapes.
Mitchell also uses a highly rhythmic picking/strumming style to create a rich and unique sound. Her picking-hand technique has evolved over the years from an initially intricate picking style, typified by the guitar songs on her first album, to the looser and more rhythmic style, sometimes incorporating percussive "slaps," of her later work.
3. John Lennon. Although rarely singled out for his prowess on guitar, John Lennon is the man behind many Beatles acoustic classics, including Norwegian Wood, "Julia," "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" and "Dear Prudence." John knew he wasn't a technically good player, but any guitarist can throw a few chords together that work. The trick is making magic out of those chords.
Lennon's guitar work was simple. What set him apart from the others was his ability to put quality meaningful lyrics to basic chords. "Working Class Hero," for instance, uses only Am and G, two chords that every beginning guitarist knows.
The fact that he was rhythm guitarist in the greatest band that ever was makes everything John Lennon ever did influential. He is a perfect example that you can be as technically brilliant as you like, but if you can't make decent sounding songs, you're screwed.
4. Bob Dylan. The fact that he wasn't very skilled in either guitar playing or singing didn't stop Bob Dylan on his road to superstardom. Dylan stands firmly as one of music's ultimate icons, despite guitar skills that are a bit meh.
Like Lennon, Dylan's strength lies in his songwriting ability. Some of the greatest songs ever written were by Dylan—"All Along The Watchtower," "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," "Master's of War," "The Times They Are a-Changin," "Blowin' in the Wind," "Like a Rolling Stone"—and stem from simple chord progressions that make them totally accessible to even beginning players.
Despite the fact that Dylan isn't a guitar god, he has inspired countless guitarists over decades, including some of the world's best, like Hendrix and George Harrison. Some say Dylan is actually something of an anti-musician, deliberately rough and unpolished so as not to let artistry get in the way of his message.
5. Johnny Cash. Cash was a rhythm guitarist who played simple chord progressions. This sparse sound was perfect for rock 'n' roll and eventually became part of the DNA of country music, a genre Cash would revolutionize then symbolize for 40 years.
As one third of Johnny Cash & The Tennessee Two, along with Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant, Cash played a distinctive boom-chick beat that sounded similar to the fast, stomping tone from a freight train in motion. He also used Carter-style picking, where the melody is played on alternating bass notes (usually low E, A, and D strings), while the rhythm is strummed on the treble strings (G, B, and high E). His signature sound launched songs like I Walk the Line, Folsom Prison Blues and "Ring of Fire."
Although he wasn't necessarily known for having mad guitar skills, Johnny Cash most definitely had a unique playing style. He remains an iconic musician, and likely will for decades to come.
6. B.B. King. Say it isn't so. The great B.B. King, King of the Blues, on a list of mediocre players? What blasphemy is this!
While it may be a bit of a stretch to question the abilities of someone who is without doubt considered immensely influential, I turn to the man himself. B.B. King once said he is like a cook who only has three or four ingredients to work with, but he knows how to use those few ingredients very well and in interesting combinations. And about the frequent criticism that he is a one-note wonder, King agreed with that assessment, saying but it's my note! B.B. may not play complicated licks, but he found his note all right and played the hell out of it.
King's calling cards were his phrasing, his vibrato and bends, the timbre of his notes, and his deep, soulful voice, all of which led to his ranking as one of the all-time greatest of the guitar gods. Like the others on this list, B.B. King has a sound that is instantly recognizable as his own.
As you have read, music can be made hugely influential with very little technical skill. For those of you out there who think that just because you can't shred like Stevie Ray or tap like Eddie, remember that a great guitarist is created out of more than just complex riffs. There are more pieces to the puzzle than that, and other ways than speed and precision to make your mark. The challenge is finding your way.