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Guitar greats

A tribute to 17 players who changed the six-string world

For musicians, it's easy to build a personal relationship with wood and strings and steel - to think of guitars as living things. But for casual listeners and fans, the player's the thing. And the 17 players covered here have changed the way we all hear the voice of the guitar. Some you'll know and think of as friends; the rest, we hope, will soon be charming new acquaintances.


Les Paul's never played rock and roll. In the late 1920s, when he began working professionally under the name Red Hot Red, the rise of rock as an art form was inconceivable. Nonetheless, at 80, there's something in his impish appearance, on-stage energy, and outrageously childish and prurient sense of humor that's kindred to rock's spirit.

For Paul, fatness and cleanliness of tone has been everything. No distortion, only the lushest extractions possibly attainable from wood and strings. Of course, that hasn't stopped those who've appreciated his work in designing the first electric solid-body guitar for production from cranking up to a very filthy 11. Jimmy Page's performances on classic Led Zeppelin records remain the definitive Les Paul sound for most rock guitarists. In fact, this year Gibson introduced a Jimmy Page Signature Model Les Paul, combining the instrument's inventor's original concepts with Page's refinements.

Coming up in the era of live radio broadcasts, Paul got his first important gigs backing up country artists in his native Wisconsin before he moved to New York to join Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians, where his chops and ready ear more than compensated for his inability to read music. By the '40s, Paul was American pop's first instrumental hitmaker. He and his singer/rhythm-guitarist wife, Mary Ford, cut romantic numbers like "How High the Moon" and "Vaya Con Dios," which turned them into entertainment-industry giants. Paul's curiosity and voracious appetite allowed him to master jazz and cut great versions of tunes like "A Night in Tunisia" and "St. Louis Blues." And he constantly tinkered in his studio workshop, inventing recording techniques like multitracking, constantly improving his patented humbucking pick-up designs, and cranking out gizmos like the delay device he called the "Les Paulverizer." Most Mondays he can still be found playing and telling jokes at Fat Tuesday's in New York City, and usually his Les Paul guitars are decorated with some new and unrecognizable light or switch - still tinkering, still collecting patents.

- Ted Drozdowski


As an Oklahoma City schoolboy, so the story goes, he built guitars out of cigar boxes. By 1937 he was playing an amplified acoustic guitar; in 1939, at the age of 23, he auditioned for Benny Goodman. The writer Bill Simon described Christian arriving for that audition wearing "a ten-gallon hat, pointed yellow shoes, a bright green suit over a purple shirt and - for the final, elegant touch - a string bow-tie." Reluctant at first, Goodman later accepted Christian into the band, and reportedly "within weeks" the young hotshot had become a sensation - the first great jazz soloist of the electric guitar.

In fact, all modern jazz guitarists come from Charlie Christian. Voltage gave the electric guitar not only volume that could compete with the horns on the bandstand, but also its singular musical feature - sustain. That was the quality that bluesmen like Lonnie Johnson had discovered before him, but Christian exploited it as no other jazz guitarist had. Manipulating that sustain made possible by electrified pick-ups, Christian made the guitar sing like a voice or a horn.

Listen to his solo on "Benny's Bugle," with Goodman and trumpeter Cootie Williams: it's a piquant mix of single-note runs and a couple of crucially placed whole notes propelling the line's swing. In comparison with today's big-amp guitar sounds and even the extravagant blues guitar of his own day, Christian's effects were subtle. He'd use bends, ornaments, and sliding chords to shift or offset the strings of eighth notes that poured from his fingers in beautiful, unpredictable phrases. And it was all supplemented by his rich, bell-like tone, also unprecedented in jazz guitar.

The available recordings of Christian are few and precious (he died of tuberculosis in 1943). The most familiar collections are those on Columbia with Goodman, available for years on vinyl as Solo Flight, now on CD as Charlie Christian: Genius of the Electric Guitar. These are great performances in their own right, but there's other, grittier Christian to be had. There are some wonderful sessions from 1940 where he plays with members of the Goodman and Count Basie bands, including Lester Young (I have it on Jazz Archives vinyl). And there's also a famous 1941 jam session taped at the legendary bebop hangout, Minton's Playhouse, in Harlem (I have a CD on something called "Legacy International" out of Pismo Beach, California). Here Christian jams with boppers like Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Kenny Clarke. This was the very beginning of bebop, something his playing had been hinting at almost from the beginning. You get to hear him stretch out on long, blues-based improvisations and, on a tune like "Up on Teddy's Hill," not only reach for the harmonic outer limits but throw in a touch of rock and roll. If that's not enough, as Christian heats up you can hear Dizzy in the background, shouting him along.

- Jon Garelick


Linden, Texas, native Aaron T-Bone Walker knew a beautiful thing when he heard it. The electric guitar, that is, which Walker essentially transformed singlehanded into the flashy, horn-inspired critter that's become the leading instrumental voice of the blues.

Walker picked up guitar at 13, in 1923, playing at parties and family picnics, then leading acoustic virtuoso Blind Lemon Jefferson around Dallas. By the time he was 16, he'd developed a strong harmonic awareness and a broad scope that allowed him to play everything from fish fries to medicine shows and socials in the Dallas area. His first recordings were made in 1929 under the name Oak Cliff T-Bone, for Columbia, but sold poorly. By 1933, he'd struck up a friendship with fellow Dallas resident Charlie Christian, playing the streets for change. It was during this time he began to develop his flair for showmanship, dancing and pulling splits while he played, tossing the guitar behind his back and over his head while he pulled off dazzling single-notes solos rich in bent strings and stinging, stuttering leaps.

By the '40s, Walker was making hit records - among them "T-Bone Blues," "Mean Old World," and "Call It Stormy Monday" - and traveling with his own big band. It's the Walker of this era who inspired B.B. King, tossing off long, saxophone-like solos full of beautifully slurred and ringing notes with casual virtuosity. From Harlem to Los Angeles, Walker was a much-loved figure, dressed to the nines in sharp pinstripe suits with a fat, hollow-body guitar turned sideways across his stomach. By 1955, the declining popularity of his genre and the decline of his health led him to disband his orchestra. He continued playing - often seated at the piano to avoid the burning pain his ulcers caused when he stood for long periods - until 1974, when late in the year he was hospitalized for the pneumonia that killed him at age 64.

- Ted Drozdowski


Simply the most influential guitarist in the world, B.B. King has been entertaining since 1947, when he moved to Memphis from his home on a plantation near Indianola, Mississippi. By the time he relocated to that most musical of mid-Southern cities, King had already learned much about country blues from hearing performers like Robert Jr. Lockwood and Sonny Boy Williamson around his home; and he'd been exposed to recordings by Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, the Count Basie band, and his favorite, T-Bone Walker, while in the Army. His vocal style: a combination of his gospel upbringing and a fondness for singers like Jimmy Rushing and Louis Jordan.

In Memphis, Riley B. King found work performing at local clubs and on radio station WDIA, where he became known as the Beale Street Blues Boy - shortened to B.B. His first recording in 1948 featured the use of a horn section - uncommon for unestablished artists at the time, but reflective of King's love of the big, orchestral sound used by the likes of Walker.

King spent the late '40s and early '50s refining his guitar style - essentially expanding on Walker's vocabulary with frills like his trademark vibrato (achieved by shaking his entire hand from the wrist), extreme string bends, and a harder-edged amplifier sound that has gotten seemingly nastier year-to-year. At 70, King is still quite nearly at the top of his form, one of the busiest, most engaging, highly energetic blues performers around. And second to no one in a cutting contest. His album output remains prolific too; his latest is 1993's Blues Summit (MCA), which pairs him with other modern greats, including the late Tele-slinger Albert Collins and Chicago vocal powerhouse Koko Taylor.

"When I first heard a young man singing `3 O'Clock in the Morning' on the radio, this made me forget all about my little friends," recollects Buddy Guy, America's reigning blues performer. "B.B. King would be my biggest influence. B.B. is where I learned to squeeze the strings."

But King's influence can be heard well beyond the world of the blues, in the string squeezing and singing sustained tones of ax wielders from Jimmy Page to modern jazzman John Scofield.

- Ted Drozdowski


At the time of his ascendance in the late '50s and early '60s, Wes Montgomery was called by critic Ralph J. Gleason "the best thing to happen to the guitar since Charlie Christian." If you want to know where George Benson came from - the jazz guitarist George Benson, not the singer - this is it. Benson and a slew of other modern jazz guitarists learned at Montgomery's feet. Exploiting improvements in the electric guitar, the self-taught Montgomery used his thumb instead of a pick, making those soft, ringing octaves (something you can hear clearly in successors Benson and Pat Martino) a signature of his style.

But the average listener probably doesn't remember Montgomery for technical innovations. Although his thumb technique allowed for greater digital freedom, his melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic gifts were the product of more than guitar technique. He built his solos with an appealing logic, always with a clear sense of songform and the blues. In fact, there's almost a formula to his work: simple single-note statements of the theme, elaboration with unison octaves, then chordal passages, always with a driving sense of rhythm, great phrasing, and free-flowing melody.

Montgomery's beautiful tone and melodic sense made him a natural for jazz pop. So popular and influential was he that in The Jazz Book Joachim Berendt calls him, along with B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix, an igniter of "the '60s' guitar explosion." By the time of his death from a heart attack at the age of 43, in 1968, Montgomery was an overproduced star, with an emphasis on melody and lush orchestral and string backdrops rather than improvisational fervor, and hits like covers of Little Anthony and the Imperials' "Goin' Out of My Head" and the Bacharach/David "What the World Needs Now Is Love."

But there's a remarkable wealth of great Wes out there, including his trio and quartet sessions on Riverside, a famous live recording with the Miles Davis rhythm section of pianist Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb (Smokin' at the Half Note, on Verve), and sessions with organist Jimmy Smith. And if you want to know how good Montgomery can be, check "Unit 7" with the Kelly/Chambers/Cobb trio (on the Verve collection Wes Montgomery Plays the Blues). Here, at an easy medium uptempo, he runs through his entire arsenal of effects and technique, subtly building the quiet intensity of his solo in chorus after chorus, reaching into higher and higher registers. When he comes back to the theme, the lower register sounds almost like another voice, another instrument. That other sound must have been a man possessed.

- Jon Garelick


Hendrix dressed like a flag, and when he unfurled his cosmic thing, it flew like a rainbow. Bands of rock-and-roll aggression, new-age consciousness, black culture, liberation, druggy transcendence and paranoia, hippie jive, and sheer sonic courage twined to make him as colorful and fascinating and promising as the era in which he thrived. But like the days of "the love crowd," as Otis Redding called the late-'60s new-consciousness generation, that promise was negated by dissipation.

In his mere four years of making records, Jimi Hendrix changed the way we think about electric guitar. He moved the instrument away from notes, chords, and melodies to pure sonics - to howls of amplified warfare, cries of singing overdriven passion, to a rainbow of tonal colors that are still reflected in the music of innovators like Sonic Youth and Glenn Branca.

Born in Seattle on November 27, 1942, Hendrix had a fairly inconspicuous childhood save for his devotion to the six-string. By the time he joined the Army as a paratrooper, he was actually sleeping with his instrument, spending every waking and non-waking hour learning the nuances of its contours and harmonic vibrations. After leaving the military, he learned myriad variations on the blues by playing the chitlin circuit with a horde of R&B performers, including Little Richard. Those licks became the basis of his vocabulary, as you can hear on his earliest sides like "Hey Joe" and his definitive blues statement "Red House." But Hendrix believed in defying all categories, and all limitations.

Under the wing of Animals bassist-turned-manager Chas Chandler, Hendrix relocated to London, found Carnaby Street and the right rhythm section, and returned to America transformed from jacketed R&B man to exotic bird. His sonic explorations on the four albums he made during his life - Are You Experienced?, Axis Bold As Love, Electric Ladyland, and Band of Gypsies - expanded the ideas of virtually every great guitarist who'd come before: from Les Paul's multitracking to Guitar Slim's howling overdrive.

But perhaps most important, Hendrix became the most potent cultural poet ever to speak through an instrument. His controversial Woodstock reading of the "Star Spangled Banner" was the kind of argument an orator like Abbie Hoffman could never make. Out of his guitar he tore the pages of American history, from slavery and Jim Crow to the burning rice paddies of Vietnam. He created an indelible sonic imprint of a tattered and scarred nation splitting at its seams. Once again, on New Years Eve's 1969, he spoke this eloquently in public at the Fillmore East, chopping muted strings with the mechanical attack of an M-1, conjuring night jets spraying napalm and choppers low-bellying Agent Orange from the sky, the voices of My Lai . . . In "Machine Gun," captured on the Band of Gypsies album, he dropped the tortured American soul, the Apocalypse of that terrible time, right into the laps of anyone who'd listen. Nine months later, he was dead.

- Ted Drozdowski


Londoner Derek Bailey is to guitar as Cecil Taylor is to piano: a master improviser who yields only to one voice - his own. Since the early '60s, when Bailey left the world of cabaret to find his own way through the labyrinth of creative music, he's broken all rules governing tonality, melody, harmony, and time. Through dozens of recordings and in his annual "Company" week-long performance series - for which he summons a tableau of some of the world's most interesting players to London and occasionally New York - he's inspired a younger generation of avant-gardists that includes such current cutting-edge innovators as Henry Kaiser and Fred Frith.

A serene man in his early 60s, Bailey believes in clearing the mind to make music, thereby avoiding clichés and other learned or assimilated patterns. He's a dedicated non-composer, and you'll never hear him play the same thing twice. "What's best for me is to sleep before playing, so I come to the stage in a sort of blank situation," he explains. "I never prepare for a performance, other than working on mike placement or a balance."

When it comes to improvising, Bailey is literally the man who wrote the book. Called Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice (Penguin), it reflects his own experimentation with volume, picking technique, and any sonic variation achievable with a nice, neutral amp and guitar. No effects, save for the dissonances, note clusters, and ringing pings he tears out of the strings with his fingers and homemade plectra, which he casts from rubbery, dental replacement material.

Bailey feels the magic of being a musician arises when communication between players reaches a pitch more feverish than any conversation, when ideas fly like the shards of a lightning bolt, striking the instrumentalists and their audiences with a furious, all-encompassing jolt. "It's like breaking a speed barrier, and all of a sudden you take off. It's nothing you can ever think about, but it's something I'm sure musicians have done as long as there have been musicians."

But his playing philosophy - an immense vocabulary of spontaneous combustion - is best reflected in his 60-plus recordings. They're all recommended, and the latest are available on his own Incus label.

- Ted Drozdowski


Sonny Sharrock was the first jazz guitarist to apply the harmonic leaps and expressionist attack of John Coltrane to his instrument. And as his vocabulary constantly expanded, he developed a palette colored by the delightful parade steps of New Orleans and the texturings of doo-wop as well as dark cityscapes and cosmic exploration. He skronked before "skronk" was coined; he built layers of distortion and unfurled sheets of screaming slide-guitar pathos when Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore was learning open chords.

And like so many great black American artists, Sharrock never received the acknowledgment he deserved. But - as much as it sometimes frustrated him - for more than 30 years he pursued his vision and fought to be heard.

Not that his music fell on deaf ears. Even when his debut as a leader, 1969's Black Woman (now out of print), announced as clearly as Coltrane had that jazz would be part of the erupting cultural revolution, he had a small-but-loyal cult of followers - mostly activists and hardcore free-music fanatics. But when the mainstream passed judgment on his early work, it was often with their feet.

Sharrock delighted in telling a story about an early-'70s festival in Florida, when he was in lite-jazzer Herbie Mann's band. "It was at a marina, and all these people had come in yachts. In the middle of Herbie's set, Linda [Sharrock, then Sonny's wife and vocalist] and I came out to do `Black Woman.' And they all sailed away. It was incredible."

Despite years of rejection - even a period in which he gave up playing music professionally - Sharrock stayed faithful to his muse. When he trumpeted his return to the jazz scene in '87 with his twin-drum-kit Band - a powerhouse featuring Pheeroan akLaff and Abe Speller, and bassist Melvin Gibbs (now with the Rollins Band) - and the release of their Seize the Rainbow (Enemy), I suggested to him that the heavy-riff orientation and monstrous rhythmic wallop of the material might seduce the rock audience. Serenely, he shrugged it off. "I've never thought about that. I know my wife wishes I would, but I can't think about what's gonna make people get along with my music. They can stay the fuck home, for all I care. That's the only way I can feel about it. After all this, I can't turn my back on what I am, what I've been."

Sharrock's final recording, Ask the Ages, was a heavenly reunion for him and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, nearly 20 after his stint in Sanders's group liberated his playing. Now it will stand as Sharrock's masterpiece, a return to his '60s free-jazz roots filtered through 1001 nights of inspiring, high-intensity concerts - not the least of which were performed with the improvising supergroup Last Exit, which he joined at Bill Laswell's invitation in the mid '80s.

Sharrock's music told truths about the strength of the human spirit, about the places in the heart and soul that music comes from. And until May 26, 1994, when he died at age 53 of a heart attack while exercising at his home in Ossining, New York, he shared them unselfishly in a career of pathfinding recordings and performances that had just culminated in his first major-label record contract.

- Ted Drozdowski


Quick, who fronted the Yardbirds? You're not alone if you couldn't remember the name Keith Relf. He may have been the star of the show back then, but he's long since been eclipsed by three guitarists who started their careers in London's hottest blues band: Clapton, Beck, and Page. Together they formed rock's holy trinity of British guitar gods in the mid '60s, laying the groundwork for rock's cult of the guitar hero.

First came Eric Clapton, the blues scholar. When the Yardbirds got too pop, he left and set himself up at the crossroads of blues, jazz, pop, and rock with Cream, the world's first power trio and the blueprint for the wave of acid rock and heavy metal that would carry over into the early '70s and beyond. Even amid the raging storm of Cream live, Clapton was a smooth operator, wielding staggering control over his Strat, staying true in spirit to his blues muse as his band pushed well beyond. It's hardly a surprise that's he's emerged looking and playing like a tenured professor of bluesology in the '90s.

Then there's Jeff Beck, the wildman who didn't mind the Yardbirds' pop direction as long as they left him plenty of room to show off his considerable chops. With "Jeff's Boogie," Beck's signature Yardbirds number, he opened the doors to psychedelia with previously unheard guitar textures and out-there noodling. With Ron Wood (bass) and Rod Stewart on board, he made what turned out to be an aborted attempt at Zeppelinhood with 1968's Truth. But he never really shone again until Blow By Blow (1975), a masterful instrumental disc that fuses Beck's impeccable command of rock guitar with George Martin's jazzy arrangements.

And finally, Jimmy Page, with his wizard's bag of tricks and his violent, sexy, jarring barrages of notes that shot like so many needles from the pick-ups on his amped-up Les Paul. Page filled the shoes of Clapton and Beck in the Yardbirds with a fury that only hinted at what he would later accomplish with Zeppelin. Perhaps the least technically skilled of the Yardbirds triumvirate, he was the one most willing to put emotions before chops, to immerse himself thoroughly in the black magic of the blues, to spiral down to the depths of Hades in "Dazed and Confused" and march like a Titan through "Misty Mountain Hop."

- Matt Ashare


John McLaughlin was probably the first jazz electric guitarist to take Jimi Hendrix to heart (Sonny Sharrock was buzzing along to Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders a few years before Hendrix took flight). As Hendrix had done, McLaughlin, in his work with Miles Davis, Tony Williams, and his own Mahavishnu Orchestra, went beyond six-string wizardry into a manipulation of pure electronics. At his most fiery, he placed his virtuosity at the service of the Sound. In the Tony Williams Lifetime, his voice meshed with that of organist Larry Young. In Mahavishnu, his soaring high-note sustains and rapid-fire runs worked with and against Jerry Goodman's violin. For the band, solo lines were at the service of jagged, up-tempo unison themes - McLaughlin, Goodman, and keyboardist Jan Hammer chasing the spirit fire. The blending of sounds complemented the Mahavishnu Orchestra's spiritual mission: they were several voices as one.

McLaughlin's most notable (and notorious) contribution has been to the invention of jazz-rock fusion (alongside the likes of Miles and Weather Report). But in fact, he's always done everything. He was a '60s English blues-band dude with the likes of Alexis Korner, Graham Bond, and Eric Clapton. He studied Eastern spirituality early on; he studied Indian music first-hand with Ravi Shankar. He plunged into the jazz avant-garde with Gunter Hampel and created a jazz classic, Extrapolation (1969), that was a model not only for jazz rock, but for the collectively improvised chamber jazz that would become the paradigm for what followed on ECM (in fact, two members of that session, saxist John Surman and drummer Tony Oxley, are ECM stalwarts). The album also featured an original composition, the ballad "Follow Your Heart," that shows his great talents as a composer and should be a standard. That piece turned up again on 1970's My Goal's Beyond, an ensemble recording that included a side of influential solo acoustic guitar.

Even when McLaughlin was in Lifetime, he stopped in for pathbreaking recording sessions with Miles Davis on In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. There followed his great power-chord and extended improv contributions to Davis's A Tribute to Jack Johnson (to which Sharrock also made a contribution).

Since his original fusion days, McLaughlin has continued to work in all formats. He played acoustic both solo and with his Indian music ensemble Shakti. He's written a guitar concerto on commission from the LA Philharmonic. He's played in more traditionally minded jazz-guitar/organ combos with young Hammond B-3 ace Joey DeFrancesco. And most recently, he's alluded to his Lifetime days with After the Rain, a Coltrane tribute album with DeFrancesco and Coltrane collaborator Elvin Jones on drums.

Perhaps my sentimental favorites are still Jack Johnson and the brief work with Lifetime. Here's the blazing speed and dirty tone, the self-creating lines with the piled-up riffs, especially on the opening cut of Lifetime's horrendously recorded Emergency! (Polydor). In those dirty, unpredictable grooves you can hear jazz-rock fusion before it became a dirty word.

- Jon Garelick


Truth be told, I've never been a fan of the Pat Metheny Group. You can argue that these guys were the next step for progressive jazz out of jazz-rock fusion dreck, or that Metheny was able to combine jazz phrasing with the folk-like melodies of his native Missouri and, later, Brazilian influences. To me, it's always been a tad too sweet, a tad too pretty.

And yet, Metheny is one of my favorite guitarists. In some respects this has to do with his virtuosity and innovations. His use of electronic chorusing devices and guitar synthesizer fulfilled the projective range promised when Charlie Christian first plugged in, and the rich palette that was suggested by Wes Montgomery's octave technique. It's a sound that's influenced every guitarist to come out of Berklee since Metheny's tenure there in the '70s. Most important, his kit bag of melodic ideas is bottomless.

He's adaptable to an infinite number of musical contexts, and not merely by means of rote facility. Whether it's his fine trio set with Dave Holland and Roy Haynes (Question and Answer, Geffen, 1990), his collaboration with the likes of Charlie Haden and Dewey Redman (80/81, ECM, 1980), or his great summit conference with Ornette Coleman (Song X, Geffen, 1985), Metheny is always on. Not in the sense of guitar-hero showboating, but in that he always zeroes in on what the music requires: folk-like delicacy, power-chord blasts, sheer exhilarating speed. And always that tunefulness. It's no wonder that he and Ornette are such natural soulmates. When Metheny collaborated with Joshua Redman a couple of seasons back, it was another lovefest. Metheny never compromises; he brings all of himself to every gig.

Although jazz nerds like myself grumble about Metheny's Group projects, seeing them as facile pop albums, it's interesting that he himself finds them more difficult to produce. Ornette's music, guitar trios - these come from an established tradition, he once told me, with clear precedents. When Metheny steps in to make his own music, he faces a blank slate. He's completely ingenuous when he says that the (to some) confounding 1994 skronkorama Zero Tolerance for Silence (DGC) was a summation of everything he's done. For Metheny, there are no boundaries. Now that's a guitar hero.

- Jon Garelick


When Stevie Ray Vaughan died in a helicopter crash in August 1990, the blues' most brilliant modern light was snuffed. Not that he was an innovator; there's was nothing he played that Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, Albert King, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, or Jimi Hendrix hadn't done. It's just that Vaughan combined this large vocabulary with a panache and a perfection of tone and technique unlike any other player of our generation. And he did it with soul - with just the right, sensitive squeeze of the strings, the right silent pause, the right growl or snarl raked out of an old Stratocaster so played that its veneer was stripped right down to the wood. And with the fire that made the music translate to the largest, rock-and-roll-raised audiences.

The album released a year after his death, The Sky Is Crying (Epic), remains a fluid portrait of his blues mastery. It's a kick listening to Stevie run through the funny rhymes of Willie Dixon's "Close to You" in that hoarse bray that only improved with stagework, or wind his way along the sharp bends and wicked vibrato he lays on the licks he plays in Howlin' Wolf's moaning break-up song "May I Have a Talk with You." About two and a half minutes into the latter, Stevie starts one of his trademark solos, full of screaming multi-string bends, short lyrical phrases, and crunching bombs produced by bent strings sighing their way into the ease of release.

But the best cut's the title track, the Elmore James classic that Vaughan turns into a tribute to his mentor Albert King. His translation is an idealized version of the Stax veteran's style. The guitar responds to the call of his voice with King's relaxed vocabulary of keening bends and dips, and sharp, pealing notes snapped from the strings with great force. If Vaughan were alive today, King would doubtless be among the blues greats who'd be eager to thrust into his hand the torch that Stevie - who'd be turning 40 - was just beginning to grasp.

- Ted Drozdowski


The Horatio Algers of rock are few, but the music's history is peppered with ambitious attempts to transcend the genre. If anyone can rightfully lay claim to transcendence it's Glenn Branca; no one else has so successfully made the transition from rock to "serious" music, expanding the boundaries of both while selling out neither.

After a short Boston residency, Branca moved to New York City, involving himself in the then-burgeoning No Wave scene. In his first band, Theoretical Girls, you can hear indications of what was coming: pounding but intricate rhythms, an expansive dynamic, and a controlled use of dissonance and note clusters. Branca formed his own ensembles with a larger and larger number of guitarists: four to six, eventually more. He played retuned guitars - often with just two notes tuned at different octaves (similar to Stephen Stills or John Fahey) at top volume, allowing extra-musical phenomena like overtones to ring clearly. In his pieces, guitars would play one of several tones constituting a single note with strum patterns moving in and out of synch with other players; by sheer force of repetition and density, the ear bands the sounds together by prompting you to hear horns or voices where they don't actually exist. If nothing else, the sound alone was influential: thundering and all-encompassing, like a supernova transcribed.

But it was two of Branca's acolytes who've made the biggest splash. Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo were early members of the composer's ensemble, forming Sonic Youth at the end of their stay. From their mentor, they took the tunings and incidental effects and meshed those together with shorter songforms; between 1980 and 1988 they were one of the greatest bands going.

Where Branca was rigid and disciplined, Sonic Youth were loose and frenzied; amps were smoked, the feedback was piercing, and if the music wasn't a churning cluster of noise, it was intensely moody and atmospheric. The title of their first LP, Confusion Is Sex, pretty much summed it up. Soon a trademark guitar sound emerged - a ringing, gritty, wide-open, slightly dissonant moan - that was aped by more indie bands than one person can count: Helium, Pavement, Blonde Redhead, and hundreds more owe their souls to the Moore/Ranaldo oeuvre, especially the noise-pop tropes from 1988's Daydream Nation.

Branca's attention is now focused on the traditional symphony orchestra (though he'll recruit guitarists when the commissions come in); Sonic Youth's allegiance strays more toward the alterna-minions than the avant shock troops. Regardless of how far this trio roam from home base, their reassessment of the guitar was radical enough to almost make a new instrument out of it - one that no one else has mastered anywhere near as well.

- Jonathan Dixon


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