The lead singer is, of course, the focal point of most bands, whether he’s a true singer like Mick Jagger or an instrumentalist doubling up, like Geddy Lee of Rush. The guitar player, though, competes for the spotlight and often draws it away. Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore all are as big a star on the stage as their respective lead singers. Some, like Blackmore, have even driven out multiple lead singers. Others, like Richards or Eric Clapton, take the vocals on themselves.
Then there are the guys who don’t need no steenkeeng lead vocalist. Sometimes, they’ll perform with one. Occasionally, they’ll take a stab at the vocals themselves. But vox isn’t what they’re all about. They’re all about the fretwork. So who are these guys who are perfectly happy to plug into a nearby amp and just play? And why do they give more respect to the keyboard player or the bassist (and the should respect the bassist more, but I’ve made my position clear on that) than the lead singer or even the drummer?
Mr. Guitar, one of the creators of the Nashville sound. The Les Paul had been around for some time when Chet Atkins first appeared in 1942. Atkins started his career in the swing era. At the time, country music was more about the vocals, often Gospel-based or featuring a single twangy vocalist such as Hank Williams, who came about a few years later.
Atkins picked his guitar and played slide, a technique picked up from country’s blues roots and something rock would fully embrace in the 1960’s, thanks largely to Brian Jones, Syd Barrett, and Eric Clapton. But if Atkins owed his career to the invention of Les Paul’s Gibson, Les Paul adapted Atkins’ delicate picking style. Before there was Richards, Clapton, Beck, or Hendrix, there was Atkins. And almost all the sixties blues rock legends, including Eddie Van Halen, doff their hats to the man from Lutrell, Tennessee.
Part of the Holy Yardbird Trinity that is Clapton, Page, and Beck. Jeff Beck took over for Clapton when Clapton’s friend Jimmy Page was unavailable. Like Clapton, he proceeded to eclipse the rest of the band to the point where it essentially became the first incarnation of The Jeff Beck Group.
Beck added fuzztone to the Yardbirds. He was a blues man who liked using jazz riffs in his music, foreshadowing prog and his own jazz fusion by about half a decade. He tried to form his own group, the actual Jeff Beck Group, first around Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood, then around a handful of respected jazz and rock musicians, including the legendary drummer Cozy Powell. He was also on everyone’s wish list when a guitar slot opened up. Pink Floyd wanted him. The Rolling Stones courted him twice, once when Brian Jones was spinning out of control, and later when Mick Taylor was ready to leave the band.
Instead he went solo, almost always without a vocalist. Beck blended jazz and rock into what’s called fusion. It only sometimes sounds like a porno soundtrack. In the eighties, his output slowed, but he always kept it interesting, occasionally regrouping with Wood and Stewart (and even taking a couple turns on vocals himself). Probably his best eighties effort is Guitar Shop. It’s just Beck being Beck, not even bothering with defining his music because, hey, he’s Jeff Beck. Equally comfortable as the star or playing alongside the likes of Roger Waters and even Rod Stewart, Beck pretty much owns the instrument in a way even some better guitarists can’t.
I discovered Satriani around the time I graduated high school, when his breakout LP Surfing With the Alien debuted. Beck had made a decent career as a guitarist without a band or regular vocalist. Satriani basically was the Second Coming of Hendrix, only without kidding anyone he could sing. Oh, wait. He started singing on Flying in a Blue Dream. And he’s not bad, but it’s not his regular thing.
Satch is often paired with Steve Vai in people’s minds. Not surprising. They have similar styles, and Vai not only took lessons from Satriani, he became one of Satch’s closest friends.
Satriani not only is one of the greatest guitarists to come out of the 1980’s, but a whole generation of guitarists out of SoCal owe their careers to him. Satriani probably gave lessons to more legends than any single noted guitar player in rock history not named Esteban. You know one of them as Metallica’s Kirk Hammett.
Satriani also did what the late great Tommy Bolin failed to do: make hordes of Deep Purple fans go, “Ritchie who?”
Often paired with Satriani in people’s minds as they have similar styles, Vai himself is a musical prodigy. Frank Zappa hired him for his ability to sight read music. Vai is a chameleon. He out-Zappa’d Zappa on a couple of albums as second guitarist, most notably Jazz From Hell. He made David Lee Roth’s first full-length album sound like the classic Van Halen had never split. When Adrian Vandenburg broke his wrist before Whitesnake recorded their Slip of the Tongue, Vai came in and amped up an already strung-out and wired sound for the now-shrieking David Coverdale (who, imho, should have stuck with blues rock. Whitesnake would have lasted longer).
But none of those sound like Vai. His playing sounds like Satch, and the two frequently tour together on the G3 Tour. But his music is his own, as I discovered on his debut album, Flx-Able. Perhaps his best work (and snarkiest, judging from the voice overs) is Passion and Warfare.
Vai is wilder than Satriani, more self-contained than Beck, and light years from what Chet Atkins was attempting. But then again, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? What else can you say about a guy who replaced Yngwie Malmsteen, Mr. Metal himself?
[All photos are screenshots from the artists’ own web sites except the first, taken by SF author TS Hottle]