How can you distinguish between good and bad guitarists/solos?

How can an average music fan, with no knowledge of the guitar or how to play it, distinguish between a good guitarist and a bad one? I will use hair metal as an example. I am told that, for example, Nuno Bettancourt (sp?) from Extreme is a great player, and the guy in Poison is pretty crappy, but when I hear a solo by either one, I can’t tell bad playing from great playing. Is there a way for the untrained ear to tell, or is this something that only a musician can discern?

Personally I go by how much emotion they can invest into the music. But I will admit to mostly not being able to tell relative skill outside of that by ear.

If you see people playing though–for instance if you watch U2 Rattle and Hum and watch BB King playing versus the U2 guys, BB King is sitting there making love to his guitar while the U2ers are plunking with desperation. If BB hadn’t been standing there it may not have been as obvious, but watching the bit I felt immensively impressed by how far down the ladder a band as famous as U2 must be in terms of guitar playing.

Or at least so go my thoughts, though I can’t play the guitar nor any of it’s relatives so take it all with however many grains of salt as feels applicable.

That’s a trickier question than appears on the surface. Certainly there are players in rock and roll who are technically brilliant. But given that it’s a performance art (really) feel has one hell of a lot to do with public perception.

Geddy Lee once said (on the Exit…Stage Left video) something along the lines of ‘It’s great to have good chops and to play all those notes but in the end what it’s all about is feel.’ God knows he’s a great player but he’s also very concerned with conveying the emotion of the moment as well. And that comes from a member of one of the most anal bands (regarding technical perfection) there’s ever been (Drummer Neil Peart once wrote that he’s rejected takes because of ‘some damn millisecond’).

Technical perfection can consist of being on time and on target. Also being able to play on the fly and handle all the technical inversions and suchlike. But none of it will matter if you can’t deliver the proper feel. That’s why so many limited musicians make it…they can deliver what the audience can empathize with while only having limited chops.

Hell, check out all the guitarists who are limited to power chords and pentatonic scales. Those are great places to start but ultimately limiting.

And, to be perfectly frank, if you want technical perfection you’re better off wandering to the world of Jazz.

As for the BB King thing I’m of two minds. Yes, he’s more relaxed and a better lead. But also in Rattle and Hum he told the Edge ‘You’ll have to do the chords. I don’t do chords.’ And that sort of DQs someone from technical excellence.

I agree with Sage Rat’s comment about emotional investment- some of Carlos Santana’s guitar work is extremely expressive, for instance. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s something like the guitar solo in Katrina & the Waves’ “Walkin’ on Sunshine”- it’s one note repeated for two bars.

Since we’re having a BB King love in, I’ll through in this anecdote (hopefully I’m remembering it correctly). He was once asked what the difference between a good guitar player and a bad one was. He replied that it wasn’t about playing all the notes in the correct order, but what happens when you make a mistake. A bad guitarist will sound bad, but a good one will carry on making music, just not the music he originally intended.

One of the most important aspects of a guitarists (or indeeds any musicians) solo is phrasing. Something one hears almost all amateur/bad guitarists (Yngwie Malmsteem, I’m looking at you) doing is playing as many notes as they can, usually without much melodic content, but most importantly without thinking about where to put the breaks. If someone talked to you constantly without stopping you would get pretty tired of it pretty quickly. Music is the same way. Phrasing is almost the equivalent of speaking in musical sentences. That is why BB can get away without being particularly good from a technical viewpoint, instead his solos are constructed in such a way as to tell a story, with beginning, middle and end, and breaks in all the right places. Other guitarists who are great at this are Mark Knopfler, Frank Zappa, Jim Hall, Grant Green as well as plenty of others.

Another overlooked aspect of soloing is the use of dynamics. If one does not vary the volume of one’s solo the listener will again get very bored (think in terms of speech again).

An old musical adage: If you screw up, do it twice and call it ‘jazz.’

It’s all taste. To take extremes:

Johnny Ramone was a great guitarist, because he perfectly communicated the energy necessary for the Ramones. He probably couldn’t have outplayed the best guitarist in any given high school, but it didn’t matter.

Eric Clapton can play technical rings around just about anybody, but he misses the forest for the trees. His playing never moves me, except to think, “he wants everyone to be impressed.”

Glen Tillbrook (Squeeze) is both technically excellent and gets the right feeling, but is never noticed because his playing never calls attention to itself.

The Edge is technically excellent and gets the right feeling, and gets lots of kudos because how can you not notice he sounds like he’s playing two guitars echoing against himself?

And if you want a particularly good counterexample, check out the jazz/Americana guitarist Bill Frisell. He’s really good at playing the spaces between the notes.

Hey, don’t knock Kimberly, he’s one of the good guys.

As to the OP. On top of what others have said I think you have to have heard enough guitar players to know if someone is just churning out a load of cliches. I don’t know what the guy in Poison sounds like (and have no intention of finding out) but maybe he just uses licks that he’s nicked from Eddie Van Halen or Page or Kirk Hammett whoever.

If someone is really bad then their timing will be sloppy, their vibrato will be badly controlled (or non existent) and their bends may fall short or overshoot. You don’t need to be a musician to hear this stuff, just not tone deaf.

Meanwhile to complicate matters, for an example of playing that is technically bad in lots of ways but still works musically think of the unaccompanied solo in Heartbreaker

bup I wouldn’t call The Edge technically excellent, he’s a clever player who’s created his own style partially to bypass his limitations. Technically excellent rock guitarists are pretty rare, I would list (for example) the guitarists who have played for Steely Dan, Steve Vai, Satch. Guys like that.

For me it is all about personality and style infused in the playing. All of the technical competance in the world gets nothing if the playing comes across as programmed and robotic (e.g. Steve Vai).

The “great” players are the ones that you could pick blindfolded out of a line up based on their style, and the uniqueness that they can pull from a simple rudimentary instrument.

David Gilmour
Adrian Belew
Eddie Van Halen
Jimi Hendrix
Dick Dale
BB King
Roy Harper
Daniel Ash

As you can see from the comments so far, “good guitar player” is not something that everyone can agree about. I’m in the “chops + feel” camp myself. Vai and Satriani have the chops, IMHO, but not the emotion. Edge and many others have great feel and fit will in their spots, but aren’t someone I’d go just to listen to.

GargoyleWB will now be lambasted, by me, for not including Carlos Santana on his list of “pick blindfolded out of a line up” players. Carlos has chops beyond words, but only uses them when they are needed. His time is impeccable and his soul–which shows when he plays–is beyond words.

No offense meant, Gargoyle.
When I picked up The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill (after she won the Grammy), I was listening to the tracks and musing through the liner notes. It says “All songs written and performed by Lauryn Hill.” Then there was this incredible acoustic guitar intro on one of the songs. I went ripping into the notes to find out if this 22-year-old was playing like that. If so, I would sell all my guitars and become a hermit. It was Santana. I can live with that.

I have nothing to add to answer the OP, and I’m not a musician of any kind. I’m just curious, though – I’ve recently heard a couple of Stevie Ray Vaughn songs and enjoyed them quite a bit.

Those of you who seem to have an understanding of quality guitarists – where does he fit in?

Was that from “Zion”?

Dang typos.

Should be “fit well in their spots”–meaning they play the right stuff for the band they’re in.

To Zion…Lead Guitar: Carlos Santana

Good choice for a song to have Carlos play on!

Wonderful song…and the guitar is fantastic. I’d never given any thought to who was behind it, and I’ve had that album for years.

Of course, Santana himself is a big proponent of holding out a single note. I know fans who have seen him hold out notes for more than a minute in concert.

Ultimately, I think it’s about feeling and direction. If a guitar player gives me the sense that he’s expressing something in his playing instead of just playing a bunch of aimless notes or showing off, then he’s doing something right. He could play something simple or complicated, it doesn’t really matter.

Now now, Yngwie Malmsteen may be a complete ass (yes, I’ve met him; yes, the stories are true), I think its unfair to call him a bad guitarist; bad musician, definitely, bad guitarist… eh.

As far as soloing goes on any instrument, there’s really two aspects two it: technical skill, and the artistic/musical side to it. Someone like Yngwie Malmsteen can play just about any scale, just about as fast as anyone wants, but saying he’s a great musician is akin to saying the Micro Machines guy is an eloquent speaker. Technical talent can be difficult to discern to an untrained ear, at least on the level of the musicians of which we’re speaking. The other side of soloing is much like what has already been mentioned with the likes of BB King; he has above average technical ability, but superb musicanship.

What really impresses me, as far as a solo goes, is an player that has both the technical talent and the artistic knowledge to put together a solo that we, the audience, and “feel”. A couple excellent examples from my musical tastes would be Jeff Loomis and John Petrucci. To an untrained ear, they may not sound a whole lot better (if any) better than many other players. Of course, I can’t talk about guitarists without mentioning Mikael Akerfeldt, he’s not as technically talented, but easily makes up for it with his musicianship, much like BB.

On the other hand, a few of my favorite songs are deeply moving, but could probably be played by someone who’s only been playing that instrument for a short time (SoD, MDB anyone?). When it really comes down to it, unless you’re a technical talent freak (like Meshuggah), does it really matter how “good” someone is if they can get the feeling across?

Stevie Ray Vaughn is right up there with some of the all time greats, IMO. He has both good technical talent and musicianship.