Who was the best X? Repeating the same names over and over

As a 50-year-old guy who is squarely in the middle of the “classic rock” demographic, but who also goes out of his way to look for new music, I’m getting a little frustrated with the same names from the 1960s and '70s coming up each and every time somebody asks, “Who was the best…?”

Hendrix, Clapton, Moon, Bonham, and so on. Some of whom have been dead for nearly 50 years.

Seriously? In the last 40-50 years, nobody has been “better”? Rock music has been around for a bit more than 60 years, and all of the “best” musicians happened to show up in the first 10-20 years?

As a musician myself, I completely understand how subjective musical analysis and opinion has to be, but good grief. People can’t come up with more recent candidates for “best”?

It’s my belief that these names keep coming up for a few main reasons:

• These guys stood out in a relatively limited field, at a time when “rock” music was still trying to define itself.

• They appeared during a time when radio stations played everything, pop music-wise, so a much larger percentage of the populace at least had heard them, even if they didn’t like the style.

• Radio, particularly “classic rock” radio continues, to this day, to play these guys over and over and over and over so that now, everybody from people in their 70s down to teenagers still know who they are.

• Modern rock music is so fragmented into subgenres with (relatively speaking) limited audiences that the objectively greatest guitarist/drummer/singer alive in the last 30 year probably has an audience that is limited to the fans of their particular genre.

I was talking about this with my boss, the executive chef, and he likened it to people thinking that guys like Gordon Ramsay that they see on TV are the best chefs in the world, while the best chef in the world is probably some Italian grandmother nobody’s ever heard of, cooking in a little mom & pop.

What say you?

In most art forms, the ones acclaimed as geniuses were those who became famous toward the beginning. Shakespeare worked in the very beginning of English language plays; Chaplin worked in the very beginning of film, and the Beatles worked in the early days of rock.

That’s because the fewer people working in a form, the more room to trailblaze. People who come later have the earlier talents creating the way, and taking up most of the best new options. Thus you end up going over old ground. If you try to drum like Keith Moon, you’ll just be a Keith Moon imitator, whereas Keith Moon was doing something no one had ever tried before.

Art itself manages to find new geniuses by redefining art. Despite centuries of painting, Picasso was able to trailblaze in cubism, for instance. But popular music today is not all that much different from the music of the 60s, so there’s no redefinition (The development of hip hop was the last big new thing).

So name the new ones.

Not the point.

I’m starting to suspect that the actual problem is simple selection bias. The people willing to take the time to answer such questions simply happen to be older people who grew up listening to the artists in question and haven’t listened so much to more recent artists. Some evidence of this is that their answers often cite “Top 50/100” lists from magazines, like Rolling Stone or Modern Drummer. Do younger fans of modern rock even read magazines?

I also suspect a general shift in focus. Through the 1980s, most people’s focus when it came to a band were the lead singer and the lead guitarist, and bands themselves pushed that image. Since the 1990s, the focus has been more on the songs themselves, and the individual musicians are more willing to restrain themselves by playing just what is needed to “serve the song”, rather than showing off their chops.

Perhaps I’ve basically answered my own question, but I thought it would be cool to hear what other’s think.

Well Hendrix really does stand out for Guitar.

Best Drummer may not be a rocker but rather Buddy Rich from Swing. Gene Krupa was pretty amazing too. But I’ve heard a lot of great rock drummers point to Buddy Rich.

Keyboards probably would go to a Prog Rocker and I feel it is Rick Wakeman.

I thought your thread was going to be about hearing the same questions asked over and over by DJs on the air at radio stations.

Those guys Babble like Idiots with whose the best “this” or “that”.

I think it’s as straightforward as the artists you list are the ones that came into prominence early in a genre’s history while there was still great experimentation and wrote the vocabulary/influenced future instrumentalists in that genre. Were I to pick my favorite rock drummers, guitarists, bassists, they would mostly come from the 60s and 70s, too, even though I wasn’t born until 1975 myself.

I do NOT understand this, at all, and never have. Hendrix just sounds like muddy noise to me.

Granted, I can’t say I’ve listened to a ton of his work, other than what shows up on rotation on “classic rock” stations, but nothing ever stood out to say “this is the best you’ll ever hear!”

I like Clapton on guitar. I find Joe Satriani impressive. But Hendrix just seems kind of “meh” to me.

(Disclaimer: I don’t give two shits about music, so my opinion might not count anyway!)

I will maintain that Roger Daltry (at his prime, of course) is the best male vocalist that the rock genre has ever produced. Some vocalists have power. Some have range. Daltry had both.

Well, then, I’d like to upset upset your pudding plate a bit then.

Although you have certainly said some reasonable things while trying to answer your own question, and though I agree with your suggestion that at least SOME people who answer who the best this-or-that is, are simply biased by their own lives; nevertheless, I do find that there are all sorts of musicians in particular, who really CAN be shown to have been the “best” in their area of art, independent of what era they were in.

Part of what I am thinking about with my objection, is that I had to go through a time of my own, of being certain that the only reasons for this or that person being said to be so talented, was faddism. But then I studied my own music collection after a long while, and I learned otherwise.

As my own education about music increased through various means, including producing and performing some of my own works as well as studying others more carefully, I found that many people who were always said to have been extraordinary, actually were so. You can’t appreciate how extraordinary, until you attempt to match them yourself, I think.

In addition, I saw how some music that I was extremely enamored of for one period of time, would later seem vacuous to me, while some other music would remain vibrant and exciting no matter how long ago I first heard it.

I do think that you are correct in what you’ve said on SOME level. After all, there are several words that have been created to describe people who adamantly demanded that only their own personal favorites should ever be seen as the best ever at something, because there are plenty of fans who refuse to listen to anything after they fall in love with one artist or another.

However, the fact that one person makes a mistake, does not logically prove that the opposite is true. The fact that there ARE die-hard Hendrix Uber Alles fans, doesn’t mean that Hendrix WASN’T really very good, and unique to more than just his own time.

Now, to more directly address the subject of Best Musicians. I would not myself, fight to keep people from my generation at the top of all the lists. But I do think that a strong REAL case can be made for certain individuals to be held to be overall better than anyone before or since, in some cases.

The main factor I look for in such comparisons, isn’t the facility with their instruments alone, that can always be bested, and usually was so, even at the time when the so-called Greats were still producing music. The reason why we still listen to music from hundreds of years ago is not JUST snobbery, it’s because that music really has shown itself to have unique expression in it, which later imitations could not match. And most of the artists who are said to be The Best, didn’t just play one particular piece extremely well, they produced unique work after unique work, each time tailoring their talents to make the new work stand up to scrutiny on its own.

On the subject of “brilliant but unknown grandmother cooks,” and the like in the music world, there may well be some unknowns in the past, or even in the present, who will never be seen or heard (or tasted in the case of the cooks), and so who we will never appreciate. But that doesn’t REALLY matter, because most of the time, what lists of the “Best” are really about, is “Best that we know of.” Not “best ever regardless.” After all, we CAN’T compare a Stradivarius violin to one made by Bump Riggleston of East not-that-bayou, unless we actually get a violin FROM Bump, to test. So it doesn’t MATTER if he made the best violin ever, because no one ever heard it played.

In closing, I just want to say that I do very much sympathize with your frustration with this, despite how long I spent trying to debunk some of your arguments. I frankly don’t LIKE a lot of the so-called “best” artists of all time that some put forward, and I, like you, can often be heard to grumble that if existence were truly Just, that this or that “King Of Whatever” would have been demoted a long time ago. It’s just that I also do think that there really ARE some people who have not yet been “bested” in the last fifty years or more.

Well, there’s all that and what the hell does “best” mean, anyway, when it comes to something as subjective as music? Art is not a contest. So it also makes sense to me that the musicians that have been in the popular conscience the longest and, like I said before, who helped in creating the musical vocabulary by which instrumentalists that followed were inspired by will be, overall, judged more highly by more people.

There’s also the reality that art often produces groups of all-time greats in short time periods, where everybody seems to know everybody else. The Impressionists are an example. Most of the great comedians that became famous in vaudeville, radio, and movies were born within a decade of one another, including the Marx Brothers, Mae West, W. C. Fields, George Burns, and Jack Benny. The Golden Age of Science fiction had Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, and a dozen others launch their careers from 1939 to 1941.

Great art is often a production of its time. When the time changes, that type of great art is often no longer produced. I’d include the great rock artists in that category.

Freddie Mercury.

I think it is as simple as being amongst the first in a particular genre, when that genre is small and self-contained.

Lots of people have both - hell, of relatively modern singers, I’d take Mike Patton, Serj Tankian and even Anthony friggin’ Kiedis over Daltrey. And that’s without even mentioning Freddie…

[ETA] ninjaed!

“Best” is subjective. And arguably meaningless. You have to ask a different question to get a different answer.

Who is great? Who really pushes your buttons and tickles your fancy? It’s great that you like the classics, but who else gets you going? That kind of thing.

I somewhat agree about Hendrix. I mean, I can tell that he’s doing something completely revolutionary with his playing; different from all who came before, and not matched since. It just doesn’t move me musically. I have a friend who likes a lot of avant garde, 20th century classical music. I marvel at the originality, but that’s not all that I seek in music.

Clapton’s not bad, but I’ll take Mark Knopfler.

I was gonna mention Mercury as well. I’d put Daltrey as a solid contender for second, though.

My answer to the OP is that musical styles have changed to the point that those virtuoso talents don’t come to the fore. Mercury, Clapton, and Hendrix did not find their fame during the eras of punk or grunge. Does that make them better than Kurt Cobain? I think it’s just that the earlier music required great technical skill, and something like grunge seems seems to thrive on raw, primal energy. That may not be fair to Cobain, but oh well. I think every musician gives what’s needed to “serve the song”, but the needs of the songs have changed.

As others have said, it depends on how you define Best. If you judge it based on some technical proficiency vs who did it first, you will come up with different answers.

There are plenty of folks who would argue that Jack White, Derek Trucks, Julian Lage, even John Mayer as some of the best guitarists, worthy of discussions. I am not sure I agree with the OP’s premise.

As for the cluster theory: Clapton, Beck and Page grew up a short distance from each other in Surrey.

I’m not sure I buy that completely. Plenty of grunge-era music was as technical as the music you listed. I’d put the drumming of Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron up with rock’s all time greats, as well as the singing talents of Christ Cornell. Or the drumming of Jimmy Chamberlin in the grunge-by-association (but not really grunge) band The Smashing Pumpkins. Then, same general era, you had the guitar stylings of people like Frusciante with the Red Hot Chili Peppers (not to mention the drumming of Irons), Morello of Rage Against the Machine, both of whom would make my greatest rock guitarists lists, too. And Jack White started a bit later than these, so I’m not sure it’s an issue of earlier music requiring great technical skill and more recent relying on raw, primal energy. I think it’s always been a mix of the two in any era. What may have slightly changed is extended instrumental solos have become generally less popular than, say, in the 70s.

Thank you for understanding where my question was coming from.

I grew up on Bill Cosby. But my favorite comedian is John Pinnette (RIP). Fantasy and science fiction? I grew up on Tolkein and Asimov, but I think that Tad Williams is the best writer. But can I find a discussion about Tad Williams’ stories? No I cannot. All anybody wants to talk about is Lord of the Rings. Tad Williams writes absolutely brilliant stories that are as complex as anything Tolkein wrote … and nobody wants to talk about anything but Tolkein. Tad Williams is the Tolkein of our generation, and stillpeople ignore him and talk about Tolkein.

And I would personally say that the greatest bass player ever is Geddy Lee. After all, he’s the entire reason I’m a bass player. I would not have been interested in being a bass player if I hadn’t heard him back in 1980. But you want to know who has influenced my own playing? Influenced my own style the most? Steve Harris of Iron Maiden. I think that Geddy Lee is the best, but what Geddy plays is what works for Rush. What Geddy Lee plays wouldn’t work for what I play. But what Steve Harris plays works for what I play in the context of my group. No, I’m not playing heavy metal or prog rock, but Steve’s techniques can be adapted to what I do better than Geddy’s can. So I play what suits the particular song, and I find myself adapting Harris’ techniques more often than I use Lee’s techniques.

And yet, had I not learned Lee’s techniques, and interpreted Lee’s approach to music, I would be much worse at slipping Harris’ techniques into the actual music that I play live.

So who do I really think is the best bass player? My mind says Geddy, and my heart says Steve, and the two argue and can’t make up their minds, and then I listen to Nightwish and I fall in love with the music itself, and while I love the fact that this modern band has a bassist/singer who is almost exactly my age, and his playing is rather rudimentary, but is exactly what his band requires… GAH! What the fuck does “best” even mean? Judas Priest, another band that has had a HUGE influence on me, has a bass player that plays the most simple lines possible … and he has been doing that since long before the band’s 1974 debut album, and there he is, almost 50 years later, doing the same thing: locking down and anchoring his band’s music. Ian Hill is fucking GREAT.

Stay away from the live stuff, which is just muddy, tripped out noodling. Listen to his albums, especially his rhythm work as opposed to the solos. “Little Wing” is a classic. “The Wind Cries Mary”, “Axis Bold as Love”, etc. And the man can write great songs, too. Clapton and Satch are mediocre in comparison, IMO. Hendrix is God.