Good, but 2nd-tier, rock guitarists vs. guitar legends ... what separates them?

One thing I often wonder about is what – in the reckoning of musicians – separates good, but second-tier, rock guitarists from guitar legends like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton? As I am not a musician, I can only evaluate rock guitar playing in terms of whether or not I enjoy the piece … and frankly, that’s pretty darn subjective. So I’m interested in what objective observations the Dope’s guitarniks can offer about folks like the following players (names followed by favorite guitar performance, IMHO):

Joe Walsh - “Funk #49”, “Walk Away”

Brian May - “We Are the Champions”, “Stone Cold Crazy”, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”

Martin Barre - “Locomotive Breath”, “Cross Eyed Mary”, “Teacher”

Tommy Shaw - “Renegade”, “Blue Collar Man”, “Come Sail Away”, “Suite Madame Blue”

Mark Knopfler - “Skateaway”, “Sultans of Swing”
What particularly, in the opinions of the musically knowledgeable, keeps these guys from being mentioned alongside the Hendrixes and Claptons? Is it raw skill? Opportunity – could any of these guys have been legends in another situation? Perhaps overshadowing by a bandmate in the cases of Barre and May?

It has very little to do with skill. Mark Knopfler can outplay most guitar hero’s with his eyes closed. Unfortunately, 90% has to with off stage antics.

Well, part of this is that it depends on who you’re talking to. I’m a (sort of ) guitarist, and I’d absolutely list some of these people as very skilled great guitarists! Mark Knopfler is one of my favorites, along with Gavid Gilmour, but neither are generally considered ‘guitar heros’ by the average non-musician. They may be known and recognized as excellent players without making that leap. . .
I think there can be various reasons for this. Some are upstaged by more flamboyant band-mates, as you mentioned. Some just have a more laid-back style and image (Knofler I think is in this category, even though you could argue that he essentially was Dire Straits). When it comes to the mainstream audience, non-musicians may not be able to distinguish among the virtuosity of top-level players. Then other factors come into play. To become a ‘guitar legend’, you’ll need recognition from a wide range of people. For that you’ll need not only talent and hard work, but image, charisma, looks, etc. . .
But when it comes to the musician community, many players who aren’t as well-known or ‘popular’ are greatly admired. A couple of years ago, a guitar magazine had a reader-voted ‘Top 100 Guitar Moments’ issue. Joe Walsh and Don Felder took the top spot for the guitar work on the song Hotel California. Mark Knopfler, Brian May, and David Gilmour were all represented serveral times in the list. Actually, there were a number of guitarists on that list that I’d wager most of the non-musician population had never even heard of.

Also, a lot of the “guitar hero” reps are earned by flashy, extended solos that alot of times don’t really add much to the song. The guys you list don’t really go in for that all that much.
Like Enigma42 said, most real guitarists respect other guitarists that are well outside the popular Hendrix-Clapton-VanHalen holy trinity of “guitar gods”.
I must say though, that Hendrix seems to be the most respected player of them all. I don’t think I’ve ever heard any guitarist, famous or otherwise, say anything other than the highest compliments about him.

Well, what makes a guitarist a “god,” as opposed to simply a great musician, is one thing, and one thing only:

Lightning-fast solos.

That’s what’s historically excited teenage boys, who are the ones that buy all the posters.

“Legend” and “2nd tier” are subjective and vary from person to person. Just because Clapton and Hendrix are regarded by many to be “legends” doesn’t mean I do. (I do, however…)

I think the answer may be popularity, as most people have heard of Clapton, Hendrix, Van Halen, and whoever else you’re calling “legendary.” However, Nuno Bettencourt of Extreme[sup]*[/sup] and John Petrucci of Dream Theater are two of the most “virtuosic” guitarists I can think of. Jim Matheos is the guitarist and 99% of the creative mind behind Fates Warning. It’s just that most haven’t heard of them.

[sup]*- OK, I know anyone who was in middle school in the early 90’s knows “More than Words,” but that’s hardly a showcase of his talents…[/sup]

I never fail to sing the praises of Brian May whenever I get the chance. His style, sound, and technique are as distinctive as his actual guitar. His songwriting skills tended to get overshadowed, but he’s often cited by many of today’s players as someone who influenced them (Bettencourt, for one). He always gets my vote as the most under-rated person in rock. Without him, there wouldn’t have been a band.

Brian May is one of my all-time favorite guitarists. Great sound and expressiveness.

That’s true. What I was getting at is that there is a very small group of rock guitarists who will virtually always get named when people speak of “The Greatest”. Then there are those who will virtually NEVER get mentioned when people speak of “The Greatest”. The latter group is what I’m calling the “second-tier” players.

I’m not making the assumption that these “second-tier” players are actually worse than the legends in actual musicianship. Think of it as “second-tier” in terms of reputation and wide-spread acclaim, as opposed to true ability.

On top of that, I’m hoping some musically-inclined Dopers can weigh in authoritatively on the musicianship, etc., of some of the second-tier guys I’ve named … as well as suggest other players to consider and discuss (as you’ve done with Bettencourt and Petrucci).

And yet I’ve found few guitarists in popular rock music can match May’s mastery of various MUSICAL styles. Hard rock, pop, rockabilly, funk … he could capably express them all.

Dieing young always elevates ones ‘guitar hero’ status. IMHO, Stevie Ray Vaughn was a better Hendrix then Hendrix, but of course, SRV is a certified (and quite dead) guitar hero as well. Hendrix’s untimely death didn’t hurt his status any.

Out of your list, I’d say Knopfler has the best overall chops, Martin Barre is a solid player but overlooked often due to his bands ‘gimmick’ (Ian Anderson). Tommy Shaw was mostly rhythm guitar in Styx, no? Joe Walsh is a solid ‘rock’ guitar player, and a good songwriter/singer, but not quite up to the stuff Brian May would play, and May wasn’t necessarily the innovative and original player that say, Jimmy Page (arguably a legend), Eric Clapton (certainly a living legend), or Jeff Beck (the reclusive legend). Sometimes legend status comes from the band being more then the sum of it’s parts; Keith Richards probably wouldn’t be a legend if he didn’t play for the Worlds Greatest Rock and Roll Band™. Sometimes they become legends due to being the first to do something (or perceived to be the first) like Ed Van Halen. Mostly it’s all about dropping dead at the right moment. People are already worshiping Kurt Cobain as a legendary guitarist. Songwriter, yes, arguably a genre creator, but guitarist? Give a Fender to a monkey and watch him play 'Smells Like…"

Here’s what I think…

There are 2 main factors that lead to “legend” status:

Were you the first to do something new?
Are you, without a shadow of doubt, the best at what you do?

No take for an examples Buddy Holley and Eddie Van Halen.

Eddie could kick Buddy’s ass at playing rhythem or any kind of solo, but I believe more people know who Buddy is because he was <i>first</i>.

Now you have people like Yngwie Malmsteen. He can shred the crap out of anything. The guy is phenominally fast, but he’d not too famous. His fan base isn’t as large as say Metallica’s fan base. However the people that listen to Yngwie LOVE him.

I think of the 2 factors that being first has the most impact. Jimmy Page is a truly good guitarist, but their are people out there who are better than him who remain nameless, in part because he was (in his time) <i>very</i> innovative in his playing

I’ve always enjoyed Styx’s guitar work on their late '70s albums … and it is silly to laud Shaw without praising James Young. Young did in fact play plenty of lead guitar for Styx. Thanks for the reminder.

The trick for me, though, is figuring out who played lead on what Styx song. My understanding is that Shaw got more lead work than Young upon joining the band, but that Shaw’s role was diminished over time.

One guitarist I’ve always enjoyed is Neil Giraldo. He always seemed to me to be a solid player who could throw in some tricks when required. Definitely not a guitar hero, but maybe deserving of more attention than he gets. However, when your wife is Pat Benatar, and your playin’ mostly '80’s cheese rock, how much attention are you really going to get?

>>>IMHO, Stevie Ray Vaughn was a better Hendrix then Hendrix

And Albert King was doing SRV before SRV was doing SRV or Hendrix.

>>>Were you the first to do something new?
Are you, without a shadow of doubt, the best at what you do?

I, OTOH, disagree completely with this. There’s not an original person on this list so for except for buddy holly. And for every guitar god…there’s plenty of folks who do it just as well.
>>>Eddie could kick Buddy’s ass at playing rhythem or any kind of solo, but I believe more people know who Buddy is because he was <i>first</i>.

Why Holly WAS a great guitarist, he was a phenomenal song writer and is really known (in musician circles) for his orchestration and recording innovations.

If you want to be a guitar god, here’s what you do.

  1. Become proficient at your instrument. You don’t have to be the best but really good doesn’t hurt.
  2. Be someone off stage too, whether it’s a raging alcholic, groupie whore, or cantankerous asshole. Just make the news
  3. Have a great marketing team.

That should be “while” Holly was a great guitarist

One of my favorite guitarists is Bob Mould from Hüsker Dü and Sugar. While he’s not considered a guitar legend, he was very influential in creating that “wall of sound” type guitar sound copied by many loud “alternative” bands, including the Pixies, Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins.

>>>Jimmy Page is a truly good guitarist, but their are people out there who are better than him who remain nameless, in part because he was (in his time) <i>very</i> innovative in his playing
Pagey never innovated anything and was mediocre/good at best (see the solo to Heartbreaker, flubs all over the place). Not only that, he stole almost every lick from earlier black blues artists…I mean that was the whole movement at the time: Brit’s doing Black American Blues. So, why is Zep so famous?, they had a lot of energy, was in the right place at the right time (UK in the 60’s), was contrary to what was going on at the time, played the ‘devil’ card, and had lots of press about their off stage antics.

Also, yes, it’s generally agreed left, right, and centre that Jimmy Page was notoriously sloppy - especially if he’d been on the drugs for a while and hadn’t been practising - HOWEVER - there can be no denying that John Bonham and John Paul Jones were amongst the best “engine rooms” in the business - like EVAH!

And this, combined with Pagey’s ability to be a very crafty songwriter with eerily fine tuned “pop sensibilities” made for some terrifficly memorable riffs and tunes.

Ultimately, I reckon that’s the ingredient. Invariably, the most “impressive” guitar playing is almost always set to a very famous song - and the notoriety attached to those songs elevates the “perception” that someone is a “legend” or not - and in reality, that’s all it is really, isn’t it? Perception, and punters like us talking about it…

Page was a great composer and had great feel. His songs are fun for other guitarists to play.

To answer the OP, I think that the “guitar god” status usually falls to those have both great technical ability and great riffing ability. In addition the guitar is usually featured more prominetly in the band. Guys like Knopfler, May, and Gilmour have great feel and technique, but their bands are more song-oriented than guitar-oriented.

You can also get hurt by being too guitaristic. Yngwie is an unbelievable technician but he can’t write a memorable song to save his life.

My all time favorite guitar-wank album is the Vinnie Vincent Invasion. Pure masturnbation set to music. it’s beautiful.