The Most Underrated Guitarists in Rock ‘n’ Roll

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We were rather chuffed to note the presence of a new record by Ry Cooder in the release schedule for this week. We’ve long been fans of Cooder’s work, both because he’s a great songwriter and because he’s a fantastic guitarist — we’re constantly disappointed to find him missing from the Greatest Guitarist Ever lists that crop up from time to time. (And his version of “Cancion Mixteca” from Paris, Texas is still just the most sublime thing ever.) Anyway, he’s far from the only one constantly overlooked for these “honors,” such as they are, so here are some other thoroughly underrated guitarists from the world of rock ‘n’ roll — your suggestions, as ever, are entirely welcome.

Nick Drake

The general tendency is to associate “great guitarist” with “flashy solo skills,” which means that some pretty impressive rhythm guitarists and/or accompanists get forgotten. Take, for instance, Nick Drake, whose intricate finger-picking parts — often in strange time signatures and/or with curious offbeat rhythms — are just as demanding as getting the intro to “Sweet Child O’ Mine” sounding right.

PJ Harvey

Now that she’s spending most of her time wielding an autoharp and sounding kinda medieval, the world seems to have forgotten that Polly Jean Harvey can make some pretty nasty-sounding music when she puts her mind to it. A great part of the appeal of her early records was her guitar sound, as rasping and arid as her vocals — and she can still tear it up, as anyone who saw her live shows a couple of years back will attest.

Rowland S. Howard

Regular readers may well have noticed that we’re big fans of the late and great former Birthday Party guitarist. But still, seriously: go and get a copy of Teenage Snuff Film. Thank us later.

Kristin Hersh

Regular readers may also know that Kristin Hersh is a constant Flavorpill favorite, but we’re not sure that we’ve penned any sort of paean to her guitar playing in the past. Still, we’ve always been impressed with the way she covers so much territory in Throwing Muses (particularly today, now that the band is a three-piece) and in 50 Ft. Wave, ripping out both deft rhythm parts and killer solos with ease — but, as with all our favorite guitarists, always within the context of the song.

Dean Ween

Ween qualify for the “underrated” label in all sorts of contexts, but even when people enthuse (rightly) about the fact that there’s more to Gene ‘n’ Dean than “Push the Little Daisies” and “The HIV Song,” they tend to overlook the latter’s guitar skills. The band’s, um, eclectic approach to music meant that Dean played in all sorts of styles over the years. (We’ve just gone and embedded the whole Quebec album above, because we found it on YouTube and we reckon it’s the band’s finest moment.)

Steve Albini

As with several others on this list, Albini’s guitar playing seems to get overshadowed by his other talents — is his case, making records sound like someone is drilling them into your head with some sort of esoteric pneumatic device. His guitar playing sounds broadly similar, only with extra priapic angst. Excellent.

James Dean Bradfield

Fact: James Dean Bradfield can play guitar better than you can.

Richard Lloyd

Tom Verlaine tends to get all the plaudits in Television, and indeed his former bandmate Lloyd isn’t even involved in the current-day incarnation of the band. But we’ve always preferred Lloyd’s solos (and, like a jazz band or something, Television always helpfully pointed out who played which bit) — they’re generally less obtuse and more melodic than Verlaine’s work, with nothing lost in the way of technical virtuosity.

Dr. Know

No one before or since has really sounded like Bad Brains, largely due to the musical world of Dr. Know, occupying a strange place in which reggae meets heavy metal. No, wait, kids… It’s better than it sounds!

Prince

The fact that he’s a multi-instrumental songwriting genius (and apparently a killer basketballer) means that Prince has never quite got the plaudits he deserves for his fretboard wizardry. So we’ll leave you with “Purple Rain,” the home of one of the man’s finest solos and the most sumptuous outro ever.