Almanac Music: Classic Rock’s most underrated lead guitarists

The beauty of great rock guitarists is they manage to leave an indelible, unique mark on the genre despite having the same six strings and the same twenty-odd frets as every other player to work with.

However, we’ve had a lot of legends, and in this age of streaming it’s all too easy to get stuck in a loop listening to the out-and-out gods – Hendrix, Clapton, Slash etc – and miss out on a plethora of other awesome players.

Here are some suggestions if you’re keen to inject a little variety into your next air guitar session.

 

Scotty Moore 

Just who deserves to be considered Rock’s first true lead guitarist is heavily contested (Les Paul, Duane Eddy, Chuck Berry,) but the man doing the plucking while The King gyrated has a pretty strong claim.

Moore was every bit the revelation to six-stringers Elvis was to pop culture more generally, emphasising the need for a good tone above all else and proving as a guitarist, you didn’t have to sing as well to be a talented, indispensable part of a rock band.

His second solo on “Hound Dog” is one of the earliest instances of a rock guitarist abandoning orderliness in favour of fierce, glorious improvisation.

Paul Kossoff 

Like Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore, people tend to focus heavily on Kossoff for one riff (“All Right Now”) and not enough for everything else he did. Free’s Les-Paul-Standard-wieding axeman had plenty of competition as a Heavy Blues-Rock guitarist at the turn of the seventies, but was up there with the best of them (Side note: Jimi Hendrix once came into the guitar shop he worked at).

He grew up idolising Eric Clapton only to impress Slowhand himself with his vibrato technique all before he was 20, and his wrenching solos on “Fire and Water”, “Moonshine” and “Walk in my Shadow” are moments of pure electric guitar euphoria.

Mick Ronson 

Before David Bowie began changing genres as frequently and effortlessly as he did aliases, he was a Glam Rock darling in the style of T-Rex’s Marc Bolan. It was in this phase of his career he first found success, and it’s with this in mind Ronson deserves a big nod.

A multi-instrumentalist, Ronson was behind many of the arrangements on the ‘Hunky Dory’ and ‘Ziggy Stardust’ albums. He also developed a distinctive blaring tone with his white Les Paul Custom and a CryBaby wah pedal cocked halfway, pushing classic tunes “Moonage Daydream” and “Suffragette City” to the next level.

 

Pete Wells 

“No one attacks a guitar like an Australian,” Angry Anderson once said. We need look no further than his own band for proof.

Rose Tattoo’s co-founder Pete Wells started off on bass, but quickly switched to playing slide guitar, giving the band its signature sound in doing so. Though he’s often overlooked as an Aussie guitar hero next to the Young brothers, Ian Moss and Chris Cheney, Wells is a big part of the reason Rose Tattoo’s been such a big influence on the LA rock scene of the 80s, linking slide riffs with being bad to the bone long before George Thorogood.

Mike Campbell 

Every Heartbreaker – original or newer – probably deserves more credit than they get: they’re all superb musicians who gel together insanely well, but are often overlooked next to the late Petty’s songwriting prowess.

But Campbell especially deserves recognition for being such a loyal lead guitarist. Always understated in his stage presence, Campbell’s consistently churned out riffs and guitar solos that perfectly suit the songs Petty’s written. Some examples are below…

Ace Frehley

KISS have written some of the most memorable rock anthems ever, and are arguably the most instantly recognisable rock band of any ever. But let’s be honest, they’re not amazing musicians.

Frehley’s the exception: With a penchant for exaggerated string bends and blazing pentatonic runs, he turned pretty standard rock tracks into something kids everywhere wanted to learn how to play.

The first two albums are favorites of Frehley’s disciples – Pantera’s Dimebag Darrell Abbott and Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready among them – while his hot little lead break on “I was made for lovin’ you” is surely a contender for Best Short Solo Ever.

 

Brad Shepherd 

Along with Dave Faulkner’s unmistakable voice, Shepherd’s fat Grestch guitar tones helped make the Hoodoo Gurus one of Australia’s best rock bands of the eighties and early nineties.

The ascending guitar-battle outro on “Like Wow Wipeout” is an iconic moment, while “The Right Time”’s arguably his best riff.

 

Bonnie Raitt

Another badass slide player, Raitt’s been effortlessly fusing Blues, Rock, Country and R’n’B since the early seventies, developing a cult following which became mainstream after some Grammy-winning albums in the late eighties and early nineties.

She’s got no shortage of heavy don’t-mess-with-me blues licks, but can also nail a tender love ballad thanks to her singing voice – one of the most genuine you’re likely to hear.

 

John Squire 

Though they’d only release two albums, the Stone Roses would ultimately have one of the biggest impacts of any band on BritPop bar The Smiths.

Squire’s ringing chorus-effected hooks on their eponymous debut LP were hugely influential on fellow Mancunians Oasis in particular. He then changed gears to become the Jimmy Page of the nineties with epic riffs on follow-up album Second Coming.

 

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About Alex Darling

Melbourne-born, NSW-based footy fan, lover of the Saints, classic rock guitar and good writing on each of these topics.

Comments

  1. I think the sound of UFO when https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Schenker was on lead was incredible

  2. Interesting list Alex. Great seeing Peter Wells there. His slide guitar was the key to Rose Tattoo. The band, the name were his ideas. Good solo career after that, though he’s no longer with us.

    One I can’t leave out is Barry Lyde, aka Lobby Loyde. Wild cherries, Purple Hearts, Aztecs, Coloured Balls, our first local guitar hero. I saw him and Thorpey out at Doncaster in 2006. We knew he was dying; he’s be up on stage, play 2-3 songs then go off for a breather: literally. He never lost the dexterity in his fingers. Great.

    Glen!

  3. John Butler says:

    I’ll second those Pete Wells comments, Glen.

    Strong, varied list Alex.

    I don’t know if he’s underrated, but Richard Thompson certainly isn’t as famous as his skills warrant.

    I’d also throw in Eddie Hazel for his Funkadelic work.

    Also Robert Quine for his work with the Voidoids, Lou Reed, and others.

    For a local nomination, John Nolan did mighty service in the Powder Monkeys, Bored and others.

    So many other potential candidates. Good topic.

    Cheers

  4. Phillip Dimitriadis says:

    Fair list Alex, I would add:
    Gary Moore
    Johnny Marr
    Eddie Van Halen
    Ian Moss
    All could play and their bands would sound lost without them. Cheers

  5. Paul Harradine says:

    I would add one aussie name.Kevin Borich who played with just about everyone including I think every variant of the party boys.Very under rated in my humble opinion

  6. Luke Reynolds says:

    Great list Alex, glad Brad Shepherd got a mention, wonderful guitarist, spot on that his riffs on “The Right Time” were his best, hugely underrated rock classic.

  7. I have long held the belief that the most under-rated lead guitarist in all of rock music is George Harrison. He played in a band called the Beatles. His versatility, from rock n roll to blues, was amazing.

    Also, when I saw Chris Cheney from the Living End play live, I just could not believe how good he is.

  8. Rick Kane says:

    Some very worthy players cited. Even though the essay is titled “under-rated” most raised are very highly rated. Here’s my two bob’s worth.
    1. James Burton
    2. Maybelle Carter (She kinda started the whole country guitar thing and Scotty Moore was a big fan).
    3. Peter Buck
    4. Bob Stinson (The Replacements)
    5. Joni Mitchell
    6. Joan Jett

    Cheers

  9. Great article. Lots of excellent suggestions. Two locals I’d nominate are Courtney Barnett and Julia Jackson.

  10. *Jacklin.

    Duck you, autocorrect.

  11. Luke Reynolds says:

    With the few mentions of Chris Cheney, I saw The Living End on Saturday night (for the 5th time), don’t think I’ve seen a better live guitarist than C.Cheney

  12. Duane Allmän and Dicky Betts. Sadler Vaden. From Oz Ian Moss. Junior Kimbrough.
    Who played the intro to Sweet Jane on Lou Reed Live? J Mascis. Steve Gaines. Steve Cropper.
    And the best of recent times… Gary Clark Jnr.

  13. ajc- J Mascis every day of the week. Saw Dinosaur Jr on their recent tour and he was Easter Island on stage, but quieter, saying only “Hello” and “Thank you” all night, but in between his guitar was astonishing as this silver ghost, with an absent of theatrics, created a sonic planet.

  14. Ellen McIlwaine,played with Hendrix in the 60s, the best in your face lead/slide guitarist I’ve ever heard..Loves her Guilds.Around five years before Raitt ,using a wah-wah and an amp to great effect.
    Check out her”Everyone wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die” for a sample

  15. John Butler says:

    AJC, Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner did guitar duties on Sweet Jane, and the rest of Rock And Roll Animal.

    Junior Kimbrough is a great get. Oh to have seen a steamy gig at his juke joint in the Mississippi hills.

    Gregor, Ellen McIlwaine also a great name from the past. She was genuinely unsung.

  16. Good list. A few more…

    Red Rivers.

    Waddy Wachtel.

    Can we include pedal steel and/or slide guitarists as well like David Lindley and Larry Campbell?

  17. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    Ed Kuepper still goes alright. My daughter met Taylor Swift last Friday night. I saw Ed (and the Aints!) at a Bentleigh East bowling club. I won.

  18. G’day Paul H.

    Kevin Borich was a Kiwi coming over here with the La-De-da’s circa 1964. He spent a decade with them, then a few years he had his own Kevin Borich Express. I saw them in 1977 @ Calder Race Course one of 5 bands on a big bill headed by Fleetwood Mac.

    Yep he played in most,if not all, incarnations of the Party Boys.

    Glen!

  19. Paul Harradine says:

    Thanks for reply Glen.I didn’t know he was a kiwi. Just goes to show that you can learn something new every day. I must confess my favourite party boys recording was live at several 21st,with James(indecipherable)Reyne handling the vocals and also because the track content was very heavily guitar oriented which gave Kevin Borich a stage to show his talents.So again thanks.

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