If you’re a guitarist, you probably already know where I’m going with this. But I’ll bet you haven’t heard everything I have to say. If you’re an outsider looking in, I’m going to provide you with some information that is sure to make you think twice every time you read the now infamous headline, “The Greatest Guitar Player Ever.”
About once a year, most guitar-related publications come out with a “Greatest Of All Time” (G.O.A.T) list for the plethora of guitarists who are currently rocking and who have come rocking before. Sometimes we get them more often than that. But every time, guitarists the world over roll their eyes. You see, if you’re not “in the know”, you think that these lists are scientific, foolproof, full of empirical, unbiased facts. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong.
It’s hard to rank guitar players
The majority of the time, these articles are filled with the subjective whim of the writer. In the best-case scenario, they are a survey of as many guitar players the writer could find to poll in relation to their top guitar hero. And that’s where the problems begin. Allow me to explain…
These lists are hardly comprehensive. There is no quantifiable, measurable standard with which to compare guitar players. There is no average performance level to eliminate any apples to oranges comparisons. What we end up with is a whole lot of opinions, as experientially informed as they may be. Sometimes the writer has a background in guitar. But often, they don’t. And even if they do, they may not be as well learned as Johnny the server at IHOP or Jenny the barista at the local coffee shop.
You see, there’s just no consistent, uniform method for rating all guitar players from all eras. The closest things we have are competitions. But even those are not effective as they give you several performances at best, for comparison and analyzation. Additionally, they don’t account for players from years past.
The truth about the greatest of all time lists
So, if we take it on face value that we cannot confidently crown the champion of the guitar playing world, on what grounds can we actually say that our list is definitive?
We can’t. Therefore, ranking lists tend to poll these factors:
The preferred genre of music of the respondents or the writer
The most influential player, not the most skilled player
The confirmation bias of the general guitar playing public.
As guitarists, we have to realize that there are players from different genres with legendary skills that can play circles around our guitar “heroes”. We also need to understand that guitar playing and our preferences for guitar driven music is a personal taste that unfortunately does tend to get tainted by bias and ignorance of other guitar players in existence.
It’s ok. No one is required to know everything. In fact, not knowing everything means there’s something still left to be discovered and that’s a very exciting prospect. This article isn’t a condemnation of these famous lists, but more of a way to add perspective. There’s more to guitar playing than what we personally love to hear. What is wildly influential might not be the most proficient.
Though there’s still no perfect way to rank guitarists from best to worst, a better method would be to break it down by genre. For example, “The 10 best jazz guitarists of the past 20 years” would be a far easier task than “The Greatest Guitar Players Of All Time.” Alas, we’re probably in store for many more of these for years to come.
I find these lists to be inadequate, I also see a use for them. I think they’re good for turning people on to other musicians, even if they tend to lean heavily on one genre or style of playing. At the end of the day, remain hungry to learn about new guitarists, even if they aren’t operating in your preferred style. Zakk Wylde plays classical music. Brad Paisley plays jazz. Rodrigo y Gabriela can play heavy metal. A thirst for musical knowledge is the greatest gift of all. Exercise that gift, and you’ll be able to appreciate music on an entirely new level.
Thanks for reading! As always, my goal has been to inform, illuminate, and inspire. If you enjoyed this article, feel free to like it and share it on our social media and with your friends.
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