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Guitarist Guide
AXE GRIND

Anyone who knows anything can tell you that heavy metal is about the guitars. The Hair Hole had a guide to guitarists but, er, it sucked. Here's the truth, the whole truth, and… you get the picture. Yes, I know there are a lot of shredders on my top 5 list and faster isn't better, but the '80s were about being bigger, faster, and louder. You send me a list of five '80s metal guitarists who were slow, soulful, and passionate and I'll put them on here. As it is, the shredders on the list are ones who, as well as being technically mind-blowing, were also tasteful, stylish, and melodic. Honourable mentions go to Paul Gilbert, Reb Beach, George Lynch, and Warren De Martini.

Five of the Best:

#5 Steve Vai. Earning his stripes with Frank Zappa, surely it was only a matter of time before Vai teamed up with larger-than-life frontman David Lee Roth for two platinum albums. From there it was on to Whitesnake for (it was rumoured) a million bucks. Steve Vai's individuality, mad-scientist creativity, and all-out weirdness meant that eventually he would have to go it alone. In the end, Passion and Warfare went Gold (which for a guitar instrumental album is like going triple platinum) and even cracked the Top 10 in the UK. Steve Vai is infamous for his religious guitar practice regime of 12 hours a day. His virtuosity was barely human. Sure, there were plenty of good players out there, but Steve Vai seemed in a class of his own. His detractors called it soulless, but the humour, wackiness, and moods invoked by his solo work meant that at his best Vai was as adept at conveying emotions as he was at dropping jaws. OK, sometimes it was nothing more than astonishing virtuosity, but don't pretend you wouldn't play like that if you could. Which you can't. No one can. Defining moment: "For the Love of God", from Passion and Warfare, 1990.

#4 Steve Clark. Before his untimely passing in 1991, Steve was the man who made sure Def Leppard never strayed too far from their hard rock roots; it's doubtful that X would have surfaced if he'd been around to have a say in the matter. With his low-slung Les Paul and exaggerated shape-throwing, Steve was always twice as cool as anyone else in Def Leppard could ever be. His off-the-cuff approach and hard riffing had more to do with Jimmy Page than Mutt Lange. The drawn-out Hysteria sessions and resulting super-slick album were not really the Clark style. Never a technical player, he had a combination of melody, feel, and classic rock cool, sloppy blues-rock licks that blew mindless widdling out of the water. Steve shines on pre-Hysteria Def Leppard albums and the B-side collection Retroactive. Defining moment: "Bringin' on the Heartbreak/ Switch 625" from High 'n' Dry, 1981.

#3 Nuno Bettencourt
. Keen as they were to show off their prowess, the typical widdling hair metal guitarist was little more advanced than the average grunge dude. Nuno, however, was in complete control of his instrument. Most guitarists will focus in on one aspect of playing -- Eddie's tapping, Yngwie's picking, Satriani's legato -- but Nuno found himself equally proficient at tapping, legato, picking, and string-skipping arpeggios. His rhythm playing was always massive. All the funk he'd listened to had paid off, and his offbeat rhythms collided with infinitely complex parts. Nuno's idea of a backing part was often more complicated than your average solo, and yet such impossible virtuosity never detracted from the songs. When it came time to solo, Nuno dug into the guitar with fat pinched harmonics and enough power and attitude to make sure he always sounded totally rock. Defining moment: "Get the Funk Out", from Pornograffiti,  1991.

#2 Edward Van Halen. Many will tell you that Eddie invented tapping. Well, that's a bit like saying Les Paul invented the solid-body electric guitar; it's not true but there's good reason for believing it. With his insane whammy bar trickery, never-before-heard high-gain guitar sound, and impossibly fluid tapping, Eddie did what guitarists for the next ten years would try to do: shred. Unlike the others, however, he never sound scrappy or tasteless when doing it, his awesome, behind-the-beat sense of groove and mega feel as well as his ear for melody setting him apart. What really makes Eddie cool, though, is the slow stuff. Sure, he was incredible creative to be the first to do all that tapping stuff, but when twenty years of hindsight, the technique behind it isn't all that phenomenal. When he plays a solo like "Love Walks In", however, his use of the whammy bar, hammer-ons, and slides give it a subtle feel and style that is all his own. Anyone can play that melody; no one else will ever sound half as cool. Defining moment: "Eruption", from Van Halen, 1978.

#1 Richie Sambora. Alice Cooper commented to Guitarist magazine that if he could choose just two guitarists to be in his band for the rest of his career, Richie Sambora would be one of them. "Richie is one of those guys who can play just anything you say", he enthused, "he can play Jimi Hendrix, he can play George Harrison, and he can play his own style." Richie's total versatility made him perfect for Bon Jovi. Most hair metal players were just rockers, but Richie has the blues flowing in his New Jersey veins, giving tremendous soul to his guitar solo outbursts in lovesick power ballads. So great is his grasp of the blues, in fact, that Eric Clapton guested on his first solo album. Sambora chooses interesting runs within the standard blues framework, meaning his note choice is rarely clichéd. His appreciation for the Beatles shines through in most of his solos: very short, melodic outbreaks which compliment the song perfectly and are usually almost as catchy as the chorus itself. To top it all off, his fat, screaming harmonics, exciting tapping, and whammy bar madness mean that he also includes the best bits of Eddie Van Halen's style. To cap it all off, Richie's one of the best songwriters you'll find. Being in a commercial band like Bon Jovi means that he'll never get the acclaim he deserves from critics or musos, but the owners of the 100 million Sambora-related albums sold worldwide know how great he is. Defining moment: "Dry County", from Keep the Faith, 1992.

And Five of the Worst:

#5 C.C. DeVille. If this possibly makes any sense, CC was also a contender for the "Five of the Best" list. How is this possible? Well, in the Rock Hole review of Poison's Greatest Hits, an endearing crappiness is alluded to. CC's aimless widdling is as amusing as it is bad, and his stock of rock & roll clichés is cool and criminal all at once. He's also capable of injecting melodic guitar hooks and penning a classic riff, just as he is of putting some shockingly tasteless whammy bar dive in a sensitive power ballad. Whatever he's up to, it's always entertaining. Defining moment: "Unskinny Bop", from Flesh & Blood, 1990.

#4 Joey Allen. In spite of Joey Allen's best efforts to make it otherwise, Warrant were a good band. Unfortunately, endless whippings from Metal Sludge have used up all the good Joey Allen jibes and rather taken the fun out of bashing him. Defining moment: "Downboys" from Dirty Rotten Filthy Stinking Rich, 1989. Joey didn't play on it. 

#3 Slash. OK, so Slash really isn't that bad, but then he really isn't that good either and when half the world is shouting the name of some undeserving nobody from the rooftops, someone has to set things aright. For a start, who names themselves after a bodily function?! Jizzy Pearl, yeah, cool. Slash? Anyway, he really ought to at least learn the major pentatonic scale because sometimes when he plays minor licks over major chords the clash is just painful. Cool he may be, but a great guitarist he ain't. He desperately wants to be Jimmy Page and Joe Perry, but Steve Clark is the true spiritual successor of those guys, not Slash. Defining moment: Getting dropped from Geffen!

#2 Kirk Hammett. Kirk really should have stuck around for a few more lessons with his teacher Joe Satriani. Sure, his technique is alright, but couldn't Joe have imparted some taste or melodic sense into him? Kirk, if you're reading this, try listening to what you're playing over before soloing. Kirk's incessant use of the (Spanish-sounding) phrygian scale and complete ignorance of what chords he's playing over lead to agonising clashes of harmony. The man is clearly deaf. Defining moment: "One", from ...And Justice for All, 1988.

#1 Kerry King. Slayer's bald guitarist makes Kirk Hammett look like a wonder of taste possessing a Mozart-like sense of harmony. If Kirk merely doesn't listen to what he is playing, Kerry consciously tries to sound as horrible as possible. There's no other explanation for it, except for possible demonic possession or crippling stomach cramps. No matter what he is playing over, King plays random notes as fast as possible, punctuated by mindless whammy bar dives. Please. Defining moment: It's all exactly the same! In the recent past, his guest appearance with Sum 41 on "What We're All About" is his best-known piece of sonic desecration.

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