Earlier this month I posted a reference to Paul Murin’s excellent essay on Memorizing Music. Paul is the curator of the guitar instruction site High Country Guitar. Among the info on that site is Paul's list of Great Guitar Players. Being a sucker for lists, I checked out his favorites and was happy to see that 3 of my 5 favorite guitar players were represented!
Here’s how Paul describes Trey Anastasio, the guitarist for Phish.
Trey is known for long, extended improvisations as well as avant-garde instrumental compositions. Trey is a technical and creative master of the instrument.
The key element of Trey’s sound is overdrive followed by compression. You crank up that overdrive, and then you get a grip on it by running it through a compressor. It creates a warm, soaring sound with seemingly (and sometimes literally) endless sustain. A key element of his picking style has to do with palm muting - when you play with a lot of overdrive, palm-muting becomes essential to keep things under control. By making constant (and, at this point, presumably unconscious) adjustments to how the palm of his hand sits near the bridge, Trey is able to coax a lot of different sounds out of his guitar.
If you watch Trey's right hand, you'll notice that it doesn't actually move much when he is soloing. His palm tends to hover just over the strings, near the bridge. This allows him to make those constant, minute adjustments so that some notes come out as more staccato, while others ring out fully. It also helps create a tight, focused sound.
Many of Phish's big jams are primarily modal. Mixolydian tends to be the most common for major key jams, and for minor keys, Dorian seems to be the go-to mode. In most of these situations, the mode is mixed with a healthy dose of pentatonic/blues licks.
Trey commonly uses chromatic licks approaching chord tones. Perhaps because of his compositional skills, Trey tends to build solos using motives - little melodies and/or rhythmic patterns that get repeated, moved around the neck, displaced, etc. These motives give his solos a sense of coherence. Personally I think Trey is better than just about anyone (in rock and roll) at this kind of thing. His solos almost always feel very deliberate, and rarely sound like he's just "noodling" in search of an idea.
Many of Trey's more complex compositions feature a "theme and variation" approach, where he takes a lick or melody and moves it around through different keys, sometimes extending it, other times truncating it. Most of Trey's complex compositions, regardless of how complex they are, are oriented around a groove. They keep the crowd dancing as they wind through all kinds of weird musical places.
Next on my list would have to be Jerry Garcia. Here’s what Paul has to say about ol’ Jerry:
Founding member of the Grateful Dead. Known for long, extended improvisations. Strong foundation in American roots styles - blues, country, and jazz. An incredibly passionate and creative musician, and a virtual walking encyclopedia of American music.
Here are some descriptions of Garcia’s playing by others:
The essence of Garcia's sound came in the way he attacked the notes with his pick.
Jerry could weave colorful passing tones into his lines like no other rocker.
He had a clear, “well-spoken” tone and a strong and precise connection to the string.
Garcia picked almost every note and seldom used hammer-ons or pull-offs.
Thirdly is Bill Frisell. I’m so glad that Paul included him on his list. About Frisell, Paul says:
Bill Frisell is a great player who is difficult to categorize. Usually categorized as a jazz player, he really blends a strong helping of country/folk/bluegrass in his music. Known for his restraint and use of space. I once heard someone say that he plays guitar the way Miles Davis played the trumpet. One of my favorite players, period.
In a recent article for No Depression, Jake Schepps described Frisell like this:
Frisell is so distinctly American, creating music that is at once jazz, country, blues, and noise. His music is unique, yet incredibly familiar, and at times sweetly dissonant (like no one else can be). It has me questioning so many musical preconceptions about how music can work, what makes something compelling, what can be a song, what is soloing, and more.
With Frisell’s approach to music, when playing folk tunes, Bob Dylan songs, original country twang ditties, and old swing standards the beauty is so pronounced, so touching, melodic, at times so directionless yet with such inevitable and perfect forward movement. It is jazz, and so “not jazz” (which is actually very jazz).
Surprisingly absent from Paul Murin’s list is Norman Blake, although to his credit Paul didn’t entirely omit all flatpickers, but chose to list David Grier, Tony Rice and Doc Watson among his favorites in that style. However, I’d put Norman Blake up there as well.
Others have described Norman Blake like this: His melodic lines are direct and elegant, without the pyrotechnics often associated other flatpickers. Blake’s music has an air of authenticity and basic honesty few can achieve. Blake’s music is of an elemental sort that transcends technological change and the tides of pop culture. Blake’s music takes you back home to the porch and the living room, where, symbolically and literally, it was born.
Norman is not the fastest flatpicker in the world - but he brings the wood of the acoustic guitar to life. He doesn't play very much beyond the first five frets of the instrument, but that is why he makes one acoustic guitar sound like an ensemble! The drone of the open strings picked here and there provides an anchor for the tune he picks, so that one acoustic guitar, without any backup, is complete in and of itself. His crosspicking techniques add to the fullness as well. (The Flatpick Post)
Lastly, but also missing from Paul’s list is Grant Green, a perpetually underrated jazz guitarist who recorded prolifically for the Blue Note Label throughout the 60’s and early 70’s.
Grant Green had a "dark-blue", instantly recognizable sound that was influenced by horn players. He rarely comped, choosing to drop out when trading off with other soloists rather than doing any backing. When asked why he didn’t play chords Green is said to have responded “Charlie Parker didn’t play chords”.
Jazz Times described Green like this:
Grant Green was among the most disciplined yet imaginative soloists of his generation. His single-line statements were rhythmically brilliant, and his use of staccato notes equally intriguing. Green’s earthy melodies were clean and fluid, his voicings impeccable and he was especially captivating on ballads. Though his initial fame came through his participation in soul-jazz and organ-combo sessions, Green eschewed blazing speed and notey forays for deft harmonic response, funky rhythmic dexterity and nimble melodic interpretation.