Anton spent 3 years working at an online music magazine as a writer, interviewer, photographer, editor, and eventually co-editor-in-chief.
The beginning of any guitar player’s musical journey can be a rather complicated time. Not only is it confusing and exhausting, but the introductory stages of learning an instrument can also be quite intimidating.
When you pick up the guitar for the first time, you most-likely do so because you can no longer simply bask in the rays of inspiration that resonate from your idols—you have to create your own music. You decide that no more will you simply exist in between the ear-muffs of the stereo. No, you shall climb that stage yourself and take over the world chord after chord. And yet, as you sit there, clutching your first axe in your hands (listening to the powerhouse solos and technical panache of Steve Vai, Paul Gilbert, and Alex Skolnik), you quickly realise that the road ahead is very long, and very intricate.
Now, all this can either be very inspirational, or ‘wash-my-hands’ daunting (or both), but if you’re still holding your aching fingers on the strings, then you’re on the right track. You see, everyone wants to excel at something that they’re passionate about as quickly as possible, but looking at an Yngwie Malmsteen tab-book when you’ve only just learned the opening riff to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” can put a damper on that child-like enthusiasm.
Of course, you can stick to playing in a punk band (there is nothing wrong with that), but I would suggest a somewhat different approach. Whilst listening to your most treasured of influences is an important part of improving your musicianship, when it comes to learning songs as a beginner, you might want to opt for the more entry-level of your heroes.
Therefore, in this article I’ve decided to compile a modest list of great guitarists who—whilst remaining highly skilled legends in their own right—may be more appropriate for a beginner axe-slinger to study before moving onto virtuoso territories.
Now, this list does not suggest that any of these artists are lacking in any degree when it comes to skill or performance, quite the contrary. These guitarists all posses certain individual know-how that will help build the fundamentals of a budding guitarist while they are learning their favourite licks. So, without further ado, let's plug in.
Guitarists a Beginner Can Learn From
- Jimmy Page
- Robben Ford
- Tony Iommi
- Eric Clapton
- John Frusciante
- Kim Thayil
- Adam Jones
- Jerry Cantrell
1. Jimmy Page
Born: January 9, 1944 (age 75 years)
From: Heston, Hounslow, United Kingdom
Associated Acts: Led Zeppelin
Starting off this list is Zeppelin’s driving force himself. Page’s riffs have spawned countless generations of six-string heroes, and have aged as fine as the most vintage of wines. The pentatonic master has always had a peculiar ability to create addictively eclectic licks with the most accessible of approaches—and that is the beauty of his wisdom.
Whilst a lot of jaded guitar enthusiasts may slam Page for his often “sloppy” execution, they would still be the same guys playing ‘Black Dog’ and ‘Whole Lotta Love’ in the houses of the holy.
Therefore there is no doubt that any beginner can learn a thing or two from Page, especially when it comes to exploring the full potential of the pentatonic scale. His extensive riffs and acute use of hammer-ons and pulls-offs is a great way to get comfortable with that wooden neck and have some fun in the process.
(The Ocean is one of the first complete riffs that I learned, and remains to be one of my favourites.)
2. Robben Ford
Born: December 16, 1951 (age 67 years)
From: Woodlake, CA
Associated Acts: Yellowjackets, L.A. Express, Phil Lesh and Friends, Jing Chi
Get your text books, for class is in session.
Robben Ford is what you may call a ‘guitarist’s guitarist’—and he carries that title with admirably humble intentions. Ford’s extensive knowledge of theory and multiple styles has allowed him to play with anyone from Miles Davis to KISS, and his blues-driven solo work is some of the classiest in the genre.
Robben’s licks may not be overly complicated in comparison to many other blues greats, but his flawless execution, soulful dedication, and overall attitude towards music is something that any budding guitarist should try to emulate.
Walking the fine line between fundamentals and greatness, Ford’s smooth command of the fretboard possesses an endless know-how of what a good guitarist should strive for. From varied chords to tasty leads, his playing is an education.
(It is from Robben that I picked up my love for Jazz chords and their incorporation into popular composition.)
3. Tony Iommi
Born: February 19, 1948 (age 71 years)
From: Handsworth, Birmingham, United Kingdom
Associated Acts: Black Sabbath
The Godfather of Metal, the originator of the heavy riff, and the lord of the power chord, the Black Sabbath axe-man continues to be one of the most prolific riff writers in rock. You’d be hard-pressed to find a modern guitarist that hasn’t tried to imitate Iommi’s sludgy, and delectably dark musical stanzas.
Iommi’s approach may be simple, but it is his ergonomic use of power chords and punchy attack that make him stand out amongst his peers as a Heavy Metal monolith. As the originator of down-tuning, he is one of the single most important influences on modern Metal, and continues to sound just as heavy today in the midst of the drop-tuned generation.
Songs like ‘Iron Man’, ‘Snowblind’, and ‘Paranoid’ shall introduce you into the sledgehammer world of heavy chords, and the accessible tempos of Sabbath songs will allow you to get comfortable with their positions before speeding things up.
4. Eric Clapton
Born: March 30, 1945 (age 74 years)
From: Ripley, United Kingdom
Associated Acts: Cream, Derek and the Dominos
If you’re looking to polish those licks and spruce up your fret work, then Mr. Slowhand is your guy.
Eric Clapton needs no introduction—his career speaks for itself. What is most notable about the British blue legend is how he has embodied the tasking incarnation of a guitarist/songwriter and excelled in it from both sides.
Clapton’s fluid, legato-laden touch and exceptional songwriting make him a genuine musical force—one that is deemed to inspire without overwhelming. His exquisite tone is sure to get your creative juices flowing.
(Check out Cream’s ‘Disraeli Gears’ to experience Eric at the top of his game.)
5. John Frusciante
Born: March 5, 1970 (age 49 years)
From: Queens, New York, NY
Associated Acts: Red Hot Chili Peppers
Prick those ears the funk up, or you might miss a true genius at work. John Frusciante may indeed be overshadowed by the overall success of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but that is perhaps how he intended things to be in the first place.
John’s ‘less is more’ approach and focus on the melody are the characteristics of a true band member. By divulging his heart and soul to the overall composition, Frusciante often accentuates the music instead of owning it, and plays off other band members to make the entire collective sound better—a good example would be the trade-off riff in ‘Californication’, which he shares with bassist Flea.
By dismantling chords into melodies, his simple, albeit memorable lead lines have become the earworms of multiple generations, and his rhythmic, 'chicken-scratch' style inspired by the likes of James Brown’s Jimmy Nolen, has brought funk into a an entirely new epoch.
If you’re looking to expand your guitar pallet with some straightforward, yet endlessly creative playing, then look no further than John.
6. Kim Thayil
Born: September 4, 1960 (age 59 years)
From: Seattle, WA
Associated Acts: Soundgarden
Being underrated in the guitar world is not necessarily a bad thing—for it makes you an enigmatic force in your own right.
Too often do Soundgarden find themselves on the bill as just another grunge band. For, much like their peers Alice in Chains, the group have indeed transcended the aforementioned label and become one of the finest and most eclectic rock outfits of their time (there like Zeppelin for Generation X). Their success is perhaps testament to how tight and musically competent they are as a whole. That's why the standout talents of the individual members—save for the pipes of the late Chris Cornell—are often overlooked.
Kim Thayil may not be a shredder in the classic sense of the word, but his ear for riffs, and his curious exploration of time signatures make him a very atypical and fascinating player. Thus, if you’re looking to step out of your comfort zone without getting your feet too wet, Kim’s use of alternate tunings and odd meters should lay a good foundation in your playing for when/if you decide to venture into progressive rock/metal territories.
(Whilst I’m a huge fan of ‘Badmotorfinger’, ‘Superunknown’ should perhaps be your go-to for Kim’s finest work.)
7. Adam Jones
Born: January 15, 1965 (age 54 years)
From: Park Ridge, IL
Associated Acts: TOOL
You know that old scenario of a shipwrecked individual who is left stranded on an uninhabited island with only the most basic of survival tools at his disposal? Well, Adam Jones is Robinson Crusoe.
It takes a special kind of talent and musical constitution to turn a drop-tuned Les Paul Custom into an instrument of transcendental sonic exploration, but Mr. Jones manages to do so on every TOOL record since the band's inception.
Whilst I’m not the most devoted of TOOL’s fans, I am always left in awe of how Adam’s seemingly simplistic playing style manages to create 10-minute worlds of varied dimensions. His ability to build effective dynamics with limited tools (no pun intended) and turn straightforward Drop-D riffs into extensive, musical mantras, mesmerises and mystifies. His tightness in the face of the band’s monstrous rhythm section is beyond compelling.
If you’re stranded on your guitar journey—whether you’re a beginner or even a seasoned player—than Adam Jones shall be your guide on the road through exotic time signatures and polyrhythmic backgrounds.
(Take a listen to TOOL’s ‘Lateralus’ to experience Adam’s phenomenal grip on reality in the face of progressive overload.)
8. Jerry Cantrell
Born: March 18, 1966 (age 53)
From: Tacoma, Washington, U.S.
Associated Acts: Alice in Chains
I may be somewhat biased here, for Cantrell plays in my favourite band, but I’m rather certain that I am not the only one in thinking that he is one of the most “slept on” guitarists of his generation.
With Sabbathian roots in tow, and a country attitude, Jerry crafts some of the most basic riffs into ravenous metal juggernauts. With his 2x4 approach, he hammers his nails into the music and pins down an emotional resonance that not many musicians can transform into sound. As the menacing riffs reflect his darkness within, his use of complimentary lead harmonies adds melodic layers that a look of bands often overlook, and provide a playful, tongue-in-cheek touch to AIC’s music.
Whilst you will have plenty of fun learning Jerry’s unforgettable riffs and Wah-pedal lead lines, his love for acoustic guitars should also inspire to pick up the old dreadnought and tune into some soulful songwriting moods.
(Apart from listening to the fan-favourite ‘Dirt’, check out ‘Sap’ and ‘Jar of Flies’ to explore Jerry’s ability to combine electric and acoustic guitars into a fine blend of country-tinged heavy rock.)
So there you have it, axe-slingers. A nice, friendly list of some of rock’s most esteemed professors who are ready to send you off into the world of shredding with the finest of educations. Now all you have to do is pick up that guitar, listen, and practice to no end.
Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on November 12, 2019:
I think rock music would be much better were the guitarist more focused on creating the perfect riffs, rather than shredding. So for me it is Page and Iommi for the win!