There have been countless guitarists in classic rock history. Writing a top ten guitarist list(see this website)of the golden age of rock is always good fodder for discussion and debate, but a top ten underrated one is a unique undertaking that pays tribute to those six string wonders who had the talent, but not the right promotion or breaks to reside in the realm of guitar greats. Here is my list of under-appreciated guitar “slingers.”
1-Neal Schon (Santana, Journey and Bad English)-This founding member of Journey (pre-Steve Perry), was asked to play with Eric Clapton’s band Derek and the Dominos at the tender age of 15, but ultimately joined Santana and shone on their third album with his frenetic solos and melodic sense. His feel for his instrument is second to none and he continues to impress on Journey’s albums and in live performances. He is the only member of the band to have played on all of their releases. Schon has played Gibson Les Pauls (he currently endorses them), but has also used Paul Reed Smiths and his own line of Schon guitars. His tone and command of his instrument places him at the top of this list. Schon’s work with Journey notwithstanding, he also dazzles on his collaboration with Jan Hammer (1982’s “Here to Stay”) and solo albums including, the stellar “Late Nite”(1989).
2-Danny Gatton- This Maryland-born master of the Fender Telecaster had a hybrid playing style that combined Rockabilly, Jazz and Country. He had also been billed as the“world’s greatest unknown guitarist.” Guitarists who would share the stage with Gatton called him the “Humbler,” describing how they would feel after trying to engage in a guitar battle with this finger picking virtuoso. He could replicate Les Paul and Chet Atkin’s playing style, but also had his own unique signature sound that defies description. Despite this,he hated being away from his wife, daughter and farm while on tour.After signing a multi-album record deal with Elektra, Gatton’s touring and recorded output dwindled. Sadly, this groundbreaking guitar ace who suffered from depression committed suicide at the age of 49. Pick up 1991’s “88 Elmira Street” to hear unrivaled guitar brilliance.
3- Frank Marino (Mahogany Rush) – Born Francesco Antonio Marino in Montreal, Canada, this Jimi Hendrix disciple released Maxoom at age 17 displaying his talent and originality. Equally at home playing the blues, rock and jazz-fusion Marino along with Paul Harwood (bass) and Jimmy Ayoub (drums) made Mahogany Rush a must see concert attraction (listen to1978’s “Live”). Marino, who played B.B. Kings Blues Club and Grill on November 5th , 2010 still wows crowds with his fluid, tasteful guitar lines.His covers of “Johnny B. Goode,” “ I’m a King Bee” and original compositions like “Dragonfly” and “Buddy” are testaments to his versatility and unique style.
4-Roy Buchanan- When the Rolling Stones were looking for a guitarist to replace Mick Taylor (see below), Buchanan was on the short list. His tone and emotive playing style sends shivers up a listener’s spine.This Ozark, Arkansas born guitar ace was a “chameleon” on the instrument and felt at home playing the Blues, Rockabilly or Country Rock. He played his Fender Telecaster “all out” through a Vibrolux amplifier with the volume knobs turned all the way up. His “chicken pickin’” style brought forth otherworldly sounds out of his guitar. Danny Gatton (see above), Gary Moore and Jeff Beck cite him as a major influence. Beck even dedicated “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers” from his landmark Blow by Blow album to Buchanan. Listening to “The Messiah will Come” and its searing melody line from Buchanan’s self-titled third album (1972) will make you a convert. He was arrested for public intoxication related to a domestic dispute and subsequently found hanged from his own shirt in a jail cell in Fairfax, Virginia on August 14, 1988. The music world had lost a legend. Buchanan redefined the parameters of playing the electric guitar.
5- Uli Jon Roth (The Scorpions and Electric Sun)- This virtuoso has surprisingly flown under the radar despite supreme talent. Roth’s tenure with the Scorpions from 1974-1977, before their commercial success on the studio albums “Fly to the Rainbow,” (1974), “In Trance,” (1975) “Virgin Killer” (1976) and “Taken by Force” (1977)is legendary.After his stint in a later band Electric Sun, he composed four symphonies and two concertos.His unreleased “Requiem for an Angel” was dedicated to the memory of Monika Dannemann,(the woman who was with Jimi Hendrix at the time of his death) who Roth was romantically involved with.In 1998 he was part of the G3 concert tour with fellow Scorpion alumnus Michael Schenker and Joe Satriani. His incendiary solos and command of the fret board is staggering to behold.
6- Terry Kath (Chicago)– Another guitar great whose life ended too soon (age 31) in an apparent suicide (self-inflicted gunshot wound) on January 23 1978. After legend Jimi Hendrix heard Chicago play in 1968 at the Whisky A Go-Go, he told band member Walter Parazaider, “Your guitar player is better than me.”Hendrix was so impressed that he used the Kath and his band as the opening act for his and Janis Joplin’s European Tour of the same year.This testament to Kath’s abilities was shared by many in the classic rock world. Kath’s “Introduction” on Chicago Transit Authority’s (the name was shortened to Chicago later on) self –titled debut is an amazing composition. His scales and speed were exceptional (he didn’t read music) and he possessed incredible technique. Kath used a Fender Stratocaster, a Gibson SG Standard,a Gibson Les Paul and a Fender Telecaster Custom as his main guitars.His “tube amp”sound was legendary on such gems as “Free Form Guitar,” “Poem 58,” “Mississippi Delta Blues,” “25 or 6 to 4” and the band’s remake of “I’m a Man.” His use of hammer-ons and distortion influenced countless guitarists who followed in his footsteps.
7- Mick Taylor (John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and The Rolling Stones)-This bluesy player has a sound that’s timeless. His work on the classic Rolling Stone’s albums, “Sticky Fingers,” “Exile On Main Street,” “Goats Head Soup” and It’s Only Rock and Roll” mark a golden age in the band’s history. His melodic tone and fluid guitar lines on his Gibson Les Paul was an interesting contrast to Keith Richard’s Chuck Berry influenced guitar lines. Listen to their live album classic “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out” (1970) and watch the recently released “Ladies and Gentlemen-The Rolling Stones DVD (review on this website) which documents their 1972 tour, to see and hear a master at work.
8-Duane Allman (The Allman Brothers Band)-His improvisational skills and slide playing are legendary, but he is still overlooked when it comes to ranking guitar greats. Allman was a session guitarist who worked with Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Herbie Mann and King Curtis. His playing on Derek and the Dominos “Layla and Assorted Love Songs” helped make that album one of Classic Rock’s benchmarks and “Layla” a rock standard.He played a Gibson Les Paul through a Marshall amplifier and had an earthy, bluesy tone that was gritty yet sonorous. “Skydog” (his nickname) plays his heart out on “The Allman Brothers- Live at the Fillmore East” on Allman Brothers gems, “Whipping Post,” “Mountain Jam”and “One Way Out.” Allman was killed on October 29, 1971 at the tender age of 24 in a motorcycle accident months after that album’s release. The posthumous recording “Eat a Peach,”which includes live performances of Allman with the band, cemented his amazing legacy with further guitar “magic.”
9-Michael Schenker (Scorpions , UFO and McAuley-Schenker Group)-Though Schenker appears on Reviewfix.com’s Top Ten classic Rock guitarist list, he has never received the public recognition he deserves.He played his first gig at 11 with his brother Rudolph’s Scorpions who he became a member of at the age of 17 on their “Lonesome Crow” album in1972.His guitar of choice was a Gibson Flying V (he has since switched to a Dean guitar) played through a Wah-Wah pedal and Marshall amplifier.His lightening fast runs up and down the guitar neck and his heart-wrenching,crying solos with The Scorpions, UFO and on his solo work, are landmark moments in recorded and live music history.
10- Paul Kossof (Black Cat Bones,Free and Back Street Crawler)- His vibrato, mellifluous sound and sustain impressed Cream’s Eric Clapton at a Free concert in New York City so much so that he complimented Kossof about it after the show. Despite adulation from his guitar idol and the rock world, Kossof was quite insecure about his playing ability. Beyond his magnificent lead guitar break on Free’s anthem “All Right Now,” Kossof shines on “The Stealer,” “Mr. Big,” “I’m a Mover” and “The Hunter” to name a few.His sound was perfectly suited to the Gibson Les Paul guitar and its sweet “fat”sound.The dissolution of Free led to his ultimate demise as he became increasingly dependent on drugs and died from heart related problems on March 19,1976 at age 25 on a flight from Los Angeles to New York.His band mate Paul Rodgers (Free, Bad Company, The Firm and Queen) said “Kossof was a real soulful player.” Truer words have never been spoken.
Honorable Mention: Martin Barre (Jethro Tull), George Harrison (The Beatles and The Traveling Wilburys), Malcom Young (ACDC), Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits) and Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath and Heaven and Hell).