Five Amazing Rock Guitar Performances

by | Aug 22, 2017

Guitar fans are overly familiar with lists of great guitar solos and great guitarists. There are hundreds of these on the Web with the usual suspects, “Stairway to Heaven,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Comfortably Numb,” and my personal favorite, “Kid Charlemagne.” These lists are fun to debate and often motivate to review some great music.

I, too, have had a go posting my list here. That was a list of “overlooked” solos.

The other day my iTunes shuffled up Eric Clapton playing Freddie King’s “Hideaway” from the John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers album. Every note Clapton hits on that track is a winner – from start to finish. His tone is biting, playing fluid, melodic and bluesy, and his bends and vibrato are all effectively emotional. It is a fantastic piece of guitar work he might never have duplicated in his career.

It certainly helped to have Freddie King’s roadmap – but what Clapton does on that tune is original. I can best describe it as an “iconic” performance. Point to that one tune, and you should “get” Clapton as a guitarist. You might even forgive him for so much of his later uneven material.

So I thought, what other performances are similar? What performances would someone listen to and say, “wow, I get what the fuss is about!”

Now on to the performances.

Jimi Hendrix – “Pali Gap” – Anytime I hear later Hendrix, like this tune from Rainbow Bridge, I can’t help but think what might have been having he did not die at 27. His playing here is so fluid, inventive, and unrelenting it simply boggles my mind. This is a track most people have not heard of, and if you play it for them, they might not know it is Hendrix. It represents an advancement in his playing beyond the Hendrix of Smash Hits. His use of chromaticism and melodic runs over feedback represents the early maturing of his playing. What might have been is one of the significant losses for guitarists. While “Machine Gun” on Band of Gypsies is his tour-de-force, this track, without the psychedelic whammy bar interlude, is more accessible.

Steve Howe – “Yours is No Disgrace” – While Howe is not the most soulful lead guitarist, his tone and vibrato are always a bit off for me. His versatility as a guitarist may be unparalleled in rock. He can play classical, Travis fingerstyle, jazz, and his distinctly Steve Howe amalgam. Some may claim that progressive rock is not rock, they are right – it isn’t. But no one, including Robert Fripp in King Crimson, played better prog-rock guitar or won more guitar polls. Why? Check out this song from the Yes Album. Eight minutes of complete guitar mastery. He changes tones, adds echo, plays solos in different styles while driving the music forward with tasty chord voicings, changing tempos, and the occasional dose of controlled feedback. This song is a clinic.

Jeff Beck – “Good-bye Pork Pie Hat” – A match made in heaven – Beatles producer George Martin, Jeff Beck playing the Charles Mingus jazz standard. No one before or since has appropriately captured Beck’s genius for tone, intonation, and space the way Martin did on Blow by Blow and this tune from Wired. You wonder, over and over, how does he get those sounds out of his guitar. No one has such mastery over tone as Mr. Beck. Hints of feedback throughout the song that breaks free at just the right time, then move quickly again to background – create what may be one of the most emotional performances captured on vinyl. The sound is so rich here. Later self-produced records by Beck would almost always disappoint. It wasn’t until last years’ Appearing this Week at Ronnie Scott’s would Beck’s mastery was so clearly and fully on display.

Eric Johnson – “Cliffs of Dover” – This composition, and it is a composition, accomplishes a rare feat for an instrumental featuring a guitarist – the song remains accessible despite being incredibly complex. Like many composers do when asked about their best songs, Johnson indicated that Cliffs “came from another place,” writing it all in five minutes. Five minutes, you have got to be kidding me! Its intro, opening riff, and impossible string skipping melody all perfectly blend into each other into one outstanding performance. Johnson is known for his “thousand electrified violins” tone, but he nicely integrates the classic clean Little Wing-Strat tone throughout the composition. A deceptively complex song to play, an iconic performance of the highest order.

With his Berklee School of Music degree and Zappa internship Steve Vai might be one of rock’s most technically accomplished musicians. He certainly pushes the Van Halen model further than anyone else did, with right-handed tapping and pyrotechnic whammy bar antics. Some may argue Vai takes the electric guitar further than EVH – which he sometimes does while still invoking the blues – something EVH struggles with. I suspect this is due to Hendrix’s profound influence on Vai. “Tender Surrender” is Vai’s masterpiece. It is partly based on Hendrix’s “Villanova Junction” it mildly introduces the melody through tasty octaves then slowly builds, providing no hint of the low to high E spanning runs that come midway through the pieces. This is highly accomplished finger work of the highest order, and despite being a technical marvel, manages to remain tuneful, and I dare say, even soulful.

As much as I would like to say this list is complete, it isn’t. There are dozens of other “iconic performances”. These are my favorites.

What do you think? Do you agree? What do you think fits this category?

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