Posted: 2 April 2019
Everyone has their own favourite players. We could all argue until we are blue in the face about the best guitarists ever. So instead of getting stuck into a squabble between Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton, or debating the genius of Jeff Beck versus the skills of Slash, we’ve decided to cast our net further afield.
One thing that’s not up for debate is that the very best guitarists each have one thing in common, and that’s the ability to take inspiration from all over. With this in mind we wanted to share 6 guitar heroes from across a range of genres, and the techniques they mastered that we can still learn from today.
Often known as the Father of Flamenco, Paco de Lucía was instrumental in bridging the gap between flamenco, latin, classical and jazz. His new flamenco style of playing helped him become one Spain’s greatest exports, and despite rarely leaving Europe, led to his take on the typical flamenco playing style becoming known worldwide.
His technique is characterised by a strong right hand and heavy use of picado strumming, which relies on alternating between the index and middle fingers to pick notes. However his legacy is renowned for his ability to fuse flamenco with other instruments, styles and players. As a songwriter he introduced electric bass and saxophone to flamenco, whilst also broadening its appeal by performing alongside John McLaughlin, Bryan Adams and a whole host of other musicians. As a player he was inspiring, but as an innovator he was second to none, and that innovation should be something you should aim to emulate in your music.
Known worldwide by the nickname “Mr Guitar”, Chet Atkins is an icon of country music and responsible for launching what is known today as ‘the Nashville Sound’.
Atkins' style was based largely on “Travis picking”, a technique named after the guitarist Merle Travis which used the thumb of the right hand to play the bass notes, whilst adding syncopated rhythms with the fingers. This technique allowed Chet to combine bass, harmony, and melody all at once, and the style is still regularly used today in songs that include fingerpicking from across a wide range of genres.
Atkins was also famed for using ‘double-stops’ in his playing, which simply required playing two notes at the same time. What made Atkins stand out however was his use of 3rd and 6th notes to harmonise with the original melody and his overuse of this technique throughout his career, becoming Atkins’ signature sound.
Perhaps the best-known jazz guitarist ever, Django Reinhardt is widely recognised as the first jazz musician to feature guitar as the lead instrument.
Originally a working musician in the dancehalls of Paris, a fire in his caravan lead to him losing the use of his fourth and fifth fingers on his left hand and being told he would never play again. Not to be put off, Django relearnt the guitar from scratch using only his left thumb and first two fingers, and used three note chords (effectively an early version of modern rock’s power chord) and barre chords. This distinctive and easily identifiable style later became known as ‘gypsy jazz’.
Django Reinhardt was not only a pioneer in establishing this form of jazz, but also managed to influence musicians from different genres even after his death in 1953. Jeff Beck described Django as "by far the most astonishing guitar player ever", whilst The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi each lost fingers but were inspired to carry on playing after seeing Reinhardt’s approach to relearning the instrument.
Equally adept on electric and acoustic guitar, Sister Rosetta Thorpe is perhaps best known for turning gospel into the earliest forms of rock and roll. Originally performing in churches across the American South, she took the brave step of taking her music into nightclubs and bars, causing her rural gospel style to mix with a seedy, urban backdrop and add a new-found swagger.
It's in these clubs that she became arguably the first American musician to use heavy distortion and chromatic riffs, way ahead of Little Richard, Elvis and Chuck Berry, who each name Sister Rosetta Tharpe as a huge influence. Not content with fusing gospel, blues and jazz, Tharpe was also one of the first musicians to tune her guitar down a minor third, creating a low-end sound whilst also making the strings easier to bend for monster solos. Don't just take our word for it, check out her live take on the 1948 single 'Up Above My Head'. It's unlike anything any other musician was doing at that time.
Tosin Abasi is perhaps not widely known just yet, however give him a few more years and he’s bound to mentioned in the same breath as Hendrix. As lead guitarist in the progressive metal band ‘Animals as Leaders’ Tosin shreds with the best of them, but it’s when you analyse his technique that your jaw truly drops.
Known for his ability to play slap guitar, Tosin does this by playing down-up muted grooves with his right thumb, then marries it with tapped chords and popped top strings. Each of these techniques are complex enough on their own, but when you see Tosin play them in all manner of time signatures on an 8-string guitar then you begin to understand why he’s highly regarded by guitarists around the globe.
Known as a kickass rock guitarist, Yngwie Malmsteen is arguably a classical composer at heart, and it’s this crossover between neoclassical and metal that makes him stand out.
In terms of technique, Yngwie makes heavy use of harmonic minor scales, but it’s his playing style that sets Yngwie firmly out from his contemporaries. By combining strict alternate picking and arpeggios, interspersed with plenty of pull offs and heavy distortion, he creates a modern take on Bach, who Malmsteen often cites as one of his biggest influences.
As a playing style this is very difficult to master. Often referred to as ‘sweep picking’, this technique usually takes years of practice, however Yngwie has a scalloped fretboard that has effectively ‘scooped out’ the wood between the frets allowing for a lighter touch.
Everyone aims to become a better musician, but playing the same styles over and over again isn’t going to challenge you enough to reach your full potential. By imitating some of these guitar heroes you can add their techniques to your own playing style. After all, every great musician was inspired by another great musician, so why not motivate yourself with the very best from all kinds of music?