Is a List of Greatest Guitarists Without Jimi Hendrix Worth Talking About?

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Yes. Not that it'd stop anyone from talking about it if it weren't.

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Jimi Hendrix is the greatest guitarist to ever play rock and roll. He exploded the instrument to the point of reinvention, and no one after him has escaped his influence. The second-greatest guitarist is Prince, the most versatile player the music has ever heard, a man who had mastered entire traditions ranging from disco to heavy metal by his late teens. The third-greatest is Duane Allman, a musician of such expressive depth that every note he played in his too-brief career seemed to contain miracles.

Rankings force us to talk about music. Instead, they should help us to talk about music.

I believe every word in the above paragraph, but it's also one of the stupidest things I've ever written, and anyone who's just read it is probably irritated or worse. Music fans love rankings and lists, in spite of ourselves: We love to read them, to talk about them, and above all to loudly proclaim to anyone within earshot that we never, ever agree with them. A small corner of the internet was recently set ablaze when Spin published a deliberately heretical ordering of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. Spin's list was presumably—if implicitly—countering a similar list of 100 guitarists published by Rolling Stone last year, a magazine so deep in the list game it will soon release a coffee table book ranking its 500 greatest lists (foreword by Bono).

Spin's list is equal parts provocation and re-theorization. Taking the Velvet Underground as its Adam, Spin trumpets an "alternative canon" that rages against the tyranny of lead-guitar bombast in favor of "making guitar solos gauche and using instruments as sadomasochistic tools for hammering out sheets of white heat." Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page (two and three on the Rolling Stone list, respectively) don't appear on Spin's list at all. Spin's co-number ones, Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, barely make half an appearance in Rolling Stone (Moore is No. 99).

There's probably not a single person in the world who entirely agrees with either of these lists, but they're interesting in that they represent competing philosophies of rock and roll. The RS list celebrates heroic virtuosity, for which Hendrix is the archetype. The Spin list celebrates a DIY collectivism and sublimation of the individual, for which there is no archetype because even the suggestion of an archetype is overly hierarchical. They are polarized and polarizing positions, and the truth, of course, lies somewhere in between. If great bands were actually wholly cooperative spaces free from individualism, great bands would never break up, when in fact great bands always break up. And if Jimi Hendrix were so extraordinary an individual guitarist that context and collaboration made no difference in his playing, he would never have fired anyone (which he did, often).

But "somewhere in between" is pretty boring, and what in the world am I doing here if not taking the bait? While it might be just my own weariness with rock-radio hero-worship, I find myself pretty sympathetic to Spin's side. Joe Strummer or Mick Jones aren't the masters of the instrument that Eric Clapton is, but I will reach for a Clash record over a Cream record 100 times out of 100, and Clapton's made a career out of playing amazing solos amid music I otherwise don't much like (with one Lake Superior-sized exception). Spin's approach also leads to some cool risk-taking. I can't pretend to understand why Skrillex, an electronic artist, pops up at No. 100, but I love any list that puts Bad Brains' Dr. Know at 35 while ushering Eddie Van Halen to the curb.

The "canonical" take on rock also tends to be about as diverse as Augusta National, and from a gender standpoint Spin's list is commendably egalitarian, a welcome development in discussing an instrument whose phallic dimensions have been overimagined at least since the Eisenhower administration. Rolling Stone's list boasts all of two women—Joni Mitchell (75) and Bonnie Raitt (89)—both of whom should be ranked higher, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe's omission is inexcusable considering that Rolling Stone includes guys like Joe Perry and Bruce Springsteen, who aren't even the best guitar players in their respective bands (although if Rolling Stone was ranking the Top 50 state capitols, Springsteen would somehow find his way into the Top 15). Spin, on the other hand, includes PJ Harvey, Kim and Kelly Deal, Sleater-Kinney/Portlandia's Carrie Brownstein, and a host of other worthy ax-women.

Of course, there are some hiccups in Spin's ordering of guitar history as well, namely race. The famous remark that only 10,000 people bought The Velvet Underground and Nico but every one of them started a band tends to leave out that probably 9,900 of them were Caucasian, and the post-Velvets "tradition" that Spin's delineating is whiter than a Wes Anderson biopic of David Brooks. To its credit, Spin seems to realize this, but its attempts to compensate are often a little weird, such as when Jam Master Jay pops up at No. 10 under the rationale that Run-DMC used a lot of guitar samples. That choice is a little insulting to both the turntable as an instrument and the session guitarists who actually played on Run-DMC records. And while I love Jimmy Nolen, his inclusion here is a little baffling; feel free to consult my invisible list of Velvet Underground songs that sound like James Brown.

Which brings us to Spin's most glaring omission, where fun counter-intuition gives way to straight trolling: Jimi Hendrix. If you're going to rank one hundred guitar players and not rank Hendrix first, that's your prerogative. Leave him out of the Top 10, even, if you want to make some weird and mildly psychotic point. But leaving him off entirely is just dumb, particularly when two members of your Top Ten—Prince (6) and Eddie Hazel (9)—practically owe him royalty checks. I have no quarrel with Spin's omission of Clapton, Jeff Beck, or Stevie Ray Vaughan, all of whom are fine players and none of whom are remotely underappreciated. But to dismiss Hendrix is to dismiss the one person who connects Jimmy Nolen to Thurston Moore, Frank Zappa to Kurt Cobain—in other words, the one person who might make this list start to make sense.

I'm all for creating a new canon. And Rolling Stone's list is dull, risk-averse and more narrow than it ought to be. But Spin's is overly narrow in a different direction. Too much fandom is rooted in oppositionalism and assertions of difference, and some classic-rock lover who heard half of Daydream Nation 20 years ago and decided he hated it is going to take one look at Spin's list and feel his opinion validated. Which is a shame, because Daydream Nation is a great record, and with a few more listens he might come to like it as much as he likes Led Zeppelin IV, which is a great record too.

In other words, let's make the list that puts Kevin Shields in dialogue with Jimmy Page, Marnie Sterne in dialogue with Randy Rhoads, and, why not, Skrillex in dialogue with Jimi Hendrix, and let's make it more than 100 people long, and maybe give up on the rankings. That would be the difference between making us talk about music—which these lists unfailingly do—and helping us to talk about music, which is what we should aspire toward. Just as long as it's not helping us talk about Van Halen, which I'd still rather not do.

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Jack Hamilton has written for Slate, NPR, and Los Angeles Review of Books. This fall, he will be a postdoctoral researcher at the Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  

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