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by Justin Farrar

February 15, 2010

Classic Rock Crate Digger: The Guitar Gods of Understatement and Tasteful Restraint

by Justin Farrar  |  February 15, 2010

Welcome to another edition of Classic Rock Crate Digger, a (near) weekly column wherein Rhapsody nerd Justin Farrar wanders the never-ending maze that is our catalog in search of classic rock's forgotten gems. If you're new 'round these parts, then also check out the Crate Digger's archives.

For the most part, the accepted guitar gods of classic rock are dudes who shredded, wailed and shredded some more. Understatement and tasteful restraint were never options for the likes of Hendrix, Mike Bloomfield, Santana, John Cipollina, Alvin Lee and Duane Allman. However awesome, they would always let it rip, and that's just how it had to be. Even Slowhand, during his "I just heard Music from Big Pink and it blew my mind" phase (i.e. Derek and the Dominos), played a lot of notes and had a knack for filling space with too many needlessly complex blues licks.

The reason why classic rock fans champion the show-off is simple: folks like flash. It's the same in baseball. Fans revere the swaggering power-hitter, who often strikes out more than any other player on the team, over the trusty hitter who parlays singles and doubles into a .330 batting average season after season. Tony Gwynn, I'm looking at you.

There do exist guitarists who have been embraced for the notes they didn't play. The Band's Robbie Robertson is one. Of course, he was once all about six-string shenanigans as well, that is until he started listening to Curtis Mayfield and Steve Cropper of Booker T. & the MGs. Not to jump off topic, but this brings up an interesting point: from whom did rock 'n' roll contract this thirst for overplaying? I'm no roots-music historian, but it certainly didn't come from rhythm & blues (Ike Turner excluded) or country. These genres have always preferred solid rhythm chops and economical solos. That leaves electric blues and (interestingly enough) bluegrass, both of which are traditions notorious for producing pickers who refuse to let a good song get in the way of their long and winding noodles.

Outside an obvious pick like Robertson, who is else in classic rock mastered the unheralded art of restraint? Well, below are 10 badasses whom I believe fit the bill quite nicely. And as you're about to find out, understatement and tasteful restraint come in myriad shapes and sizes, from moody blues rock to thunder metal to psychedelic funk.

Peter Green (Fleetwood Mac)

Peter Green is the Classic Rock Crate Digger's all-time fave guitarist. The mercurial founder of Fleetwood Mac also boasts the distinction of occupying both camps: the shredders and the tasteful restrainers. His solo debut, 1970's The End of the Game, is a lysergic mind dive into fusion-soaked psychedelia built from screaming ax solos. Amazingly enough, Green never produced sonic waste. Even when the Mac expanded to a three-guitar lineup and drifted from brawny British blues to extended free improv, he placed a premium on rhythm. The 25-minute version of "Rattlesnake Shake" found on Live in Boston, Volume 1 is a pinnacle in groove research. But when all is said and done, there is just a single piece of evidence required when proving Green's mastery of playing as little as possible: "Albatross."

Paul Kossoff (Free)

Sadly, Paul Kossoff's lack of classic-rock renown has more to do with addiction, not his under-appreciated guitar style. Dude died in 1976, at age 25 -- what a shame. When the mighty Free came together in 1968 Kossoff was like every other skinny Brit with a guitar. He desperately wanted to prove he could wail on the thing as if he were born and raised to record at Chess studios. But then something happened: his playing grew sparse and wiry, at times brutally so. When Free released their masterpiece, Fire and Water, there was almost nothing left for Kossoff to extract. The album contains entire stretches where he doesn't play a single lick or riff or solo -- nothing. But when he does, it's like a muscle flexing around your heart. There's something beautiful in the weight and simplicity of his playing. Plus, he's the guy behind the groovy perfection that is the "All Right Now" riff. 'Nuff said.

Rick Nielsen (Cheap Trick)

When Cheap Trick arrived on the scene in 1977, Epic Records had no idea how to market the band. Were they rock, punk or heavy metal? On the Trick's self-titled debut, they certainly rocked as hard as just about anybody, yet they also knew how to craft sharp hooks that betrayed a genuine love for icons like the Beatles, the Move and Big Star. This fusion of power and pop forms the foundation of Rick Nielsen's guitar style. The dude rips, often tossing a little "Helter Skelter"-styled atonality into the mix. But all the cacophony and fireworks are always in the name of a fantastic and extremely hummable tune. What a cool dude. Prime-cut Nielsen: "The Ballad of TV Violence."

Billy Gibbons (ZZ f'n Top)

Yes, the beard is cool, so are his cameos on Bones and those novelty videos from the '80s. But let's not forget something: Gibbons is a guitarist -- one of the greats, in fact. On the post-Hendrix hard-rock landscape, the man was an anomaly who believed in playing two, maybe three, notes tops. This he learned from John Lee Hooker circa "House Rent Boogie" and "Boogie Chillen." Kossoff was equally minimal, but where he sounded grave and austere, as if his life actually depended on holding back the storm, the soulful Gibbons feels like warm pig grease slowing dripping from the grill. (I'm a vegetarian, by the way.)

Tony McPhee (Groundhogs)

First time I cranked Who Will Save the World? The Mighty Groundhogs, the darn thing utterly confounded me. Fellow fans of British blues told me Tony McPhee and company were one of the greats, yet what I heard sounded more like a proto-Minutemen: agitated and nervy, with an emphatic love for hard-bopping swing. It wasn't that McPhee didn't solo, it was that his solos felt wonderfully arty in all their gnarled glory. In a weird way he shared more in common with Captain Beefheart or even Ornette Coleman than John Mayall. So yeah, I was hooked! McPhee was punk.

Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser (Blue Öyster Cult)

Buck Dharma's talents aren't easy to pin down. Heavy metal's early years produced more superficially impressive six-stringers for sure. But very few of them had Dharma's knack for working far-out ideas into rock anthems that were radio-friendly. A song like "ME 262," off Secret Treaties, contains a blitzkrieg of sonic (and lyrical) weirdness, everything from manic prog-riffage to squalls of avant-garde feedback, but none of it ever overpowers what is essentially the perfect soundtrack to the Friday-night blowout. Dharma could also write great pop; "(Don't Fear) the Reaper" never gets old. I guess you could say Dharma's style kinda-sorta foresaw the emergence of Rick Nielsen, who would go even more pop.

Robby Krieger (The Doors)

I doubt Robby Krieger is taken seriously as a guitarist by anyone. His shredder skills were extremely limited. But I love the Doors, and I love his role in the Doors. Since Ray Manzarek's keyboard served as the band's primary instrument (excluding Morrison's voice, of course), Krieger busied himself coloring free space with an array of robo-effects, undulating reverb and raga-inspired runs. A lot of these tricks are barely audible, but that's what's cool about them. Krieger was stridently modern in the way he created a droning psych-pop wash that didn't often sound like an actual guitar. When he did pop out for a solo it was always something special, like the writhing electric goo in the middle of the epic "When the Music's Over." Yes, he never turned his amp up to 11, but make no mistake: he influenced everybody from the Stooges to wall-of-sound space rockers like Spacemen 3 and Loop.

Eddie Hazel (Parliament-Funkadelic)

It's hard to argue that the musician behind "Maggot Brain," a 10-minute guitar solo, didn't have a terminal case of the neo-Hendrix noodles. But much like Fleetwood Mac's "Albatross" (only way more out there), the composition stands as a prime example of how space and texture are just as important as the actual notes being played. Yes, Jimi's innovations in feedback, distortion and volume deeply inspired Eddie Hazel, yet throughout his turbulent tenure in the Parliament-Funkadelic empire he never abandoned funk's devotion to the groove (however warped). Economy and a full integration of melody, rhythm and power were always on his mind. In this sense, "Maggot Brain" is a more advanced piece of music than just about anything found on Electric Ladyland. Of course, the flip side of all this is that Hazel also helped spawn Chili Peppers-approved funk rock, but hey, nobody's perfect.

Lindsey Buckingham (Fleetwood Mac -- again)

It hasn't been until the last decade or so that Lindsey's genius is finally getting the recognition it deserves. Though more revered as a composer, there's no overlooking the guitar's role in his songwriting. And here we have to turn to his 1979 masterwork, Tusk. In addition to taking everything West Coast rock innovated between 1962 and '75 and pushing it into the age of New Wave, Buckingham transformed the guitar into a paintbrush, one capable of laying down a million different shades of quirkiness. Possessing an ear for the symphonic, he also played with a decidedly percussive edge. It's very Robby Krieger when you get right down to it, only more visionary.

Tony Iommi (Sabbath, baby)

A lot of you must be thinking I'm stone-cold crazy for including the father of heavy-metal bombast, Mr. Tony Iommi. And you'd be right, had Sabbath disbanded after their first two albums. In the group's infancy, the guitarist nicked more than a few tricks from the jammy ways of Cream, Hendrix and Vanilla Fudge. In other words: too many solos that care little for advancing the group's collective momentum. But much like Free (only way, way heavier), Iommi trimmed the fat and in the process helped design a group sound that at its absolute peak, 1972's Vol. 4, just might have been the most well-oiled and finely tuned rhythmic force on the face of the planet. (Note: I pushed Iommi to the back of the line because none of Sabbath's Ozzy-era albums are available digitally. L-A-M-E.)

Honorable mentions:

Angus Young (AC/DC)

Zero records available through Rhapsody = zero time for you.

Jimmy Page (Zep)

For sale only? Not good enough.

Paul Rudolph (The Deviants, Pink Fairies)

I will get to you soon, old friend.

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