Jun 302010

I’m a bit shocked by the argument I’m about to make. I was listening to an album the other night with my close personal friend, Townsman Sethro. It was an album by a band I don’t consider among my Top 100 favorite bands but a band that, over the years, I’ve very slowly come around to thinking is occasionally great. A shocking answer to the following question came into my head:

Assuming that Jimi Hendrix is rock’s most-creative guitarist – and I cannot imagine anyone making a convincing argument otherwise – who us rock’s second-most creative guitarist?

The answer that sprang to mind was in the grooves of the $1-bin album that Sethro cleaned up and was playing me on his awesome tube stereo:

By golly, I thought, it’s Steve Howe!

I judge the creativity of rock guitarists against the creativity of Hendrix’s playing, which to my ears still sounds light years ahead of any other guitarist while also readily communicating easily felt clusters of notes that seemingly are an extension of the guy’s body rather than the mastery of some separate mechanical device. To add to that, Hendrix could play a lot of notes, play notes with great speed, support the songs, and make faces that perfectly supported his guitar playing. What more can you ask for out of a guitarist?

The more I hear Steve Howe over the years, ever since I was dazzled by seeing him play multiple guitars during songs while in the round with Yes in 1980 or so, the more I feel like his playing comes from another planet. Not as distant a planet as Jimi’s – no guitarist reaches Earth from that far away – but a more distant planet than most guitarists. Like Hendrix, Howe can play many notes in rapid succession. His parts are memorable no matter how unusual. His parts always support the frequently unwieldy music of Yes. He makes excellent faces that amplify this guitar parts.

Can anyone else rip off cool solos and then lay back with some weird, jangly groove the way Howe does – beside Hendrix, that is? Name that guitarist! And don’t give me some guitarist who sticks sewing needles in his guitar for an audience of 37 chin-scratching dudes like some of us. Rock’s second-most creative guitarist must command an audience.

I look forward to your thoughts on this matter.


  44 Responses to “Who Is Rock’s Second-Most Creative Guitarist?”

  1. ladymisskirroyale

    My first nominee would be Lindsey Buckingham. Here are 2 clips:



  2. 2000 Man

    I love that choice of Steve Howe. I loved Yes when I was a very young record buyer, and I felt pretty grown up and sophisticated saving all my bread for a triple album way back when. Steve Howe was always the thing I liked best about them. I still do like him, and I like a lot of old Yes, though my appetite for Tales From Topographic Oceans has kind of waned. I think that’s a nice choice for otherworldly guitar player.

  3. I’ll nominate Richard Thompson. He created his own immediately recognizable sound that put together multiple styles – jazz, Celtic, country – much the way Hendrix did. Equally adept on acoustic or electric. Even when you are watching him play live (and after having seen him live dozens of times) you still can’t believe it’s only one person making all those sounds. And yet there’s no hint of wankery like, for example, __________ (fill in the blank of your favorite wanker guitarist).

    He’s been imitated, sometimes very well (see Mark Knopfler) but nobody ever quite gets it right.

  4. The dudes from Slayer, or Rick Nielsen.

  5. misterioso

    If we are talking about soulless virtuosity then Howe is an apt choice for framing this discussion–so, too, is Buckingham. Howe’s playing definitely comes from a different planet than Hendrix’s. However distant from our world it is, humans live on Hendrix’s planet; not so sure about Howe’s. I’ll take a one-note Neil Young solo over any of Howe’s fretboard acrobatics any day, thanks.

  6. I’m not on board with Steve Howe.

    Richard Thompson and especially Lindsey Buckingham are good choices.

    I think Daniel Lanois should be on that list as well.

  7. BigSteve


  8. Mr. Moderator

    I considered Fripp, first, but doesn’t he have only two moves: the soaring space solos he played with Eno (and The Roches) and the twisting, “geometric” clusters that he plays on all of his own recordings (and with Bowie)?

  9. I too am on Team Fuck Steve Howe. Although my knowledge of both of their output is limited, I don’t think his bag of tricks is bigger than Fripp’s.

    I think there’s more to creativity than just chops. I’ve never heard any Howe that sounded like he was rethinking or stretching the capabilities of the guitar, other than the amount of notes one can play rapidly.

    Here are guitarists I consider more creative than Steve Howe, who on the two Yes albums I owned sounded to me merely like a talented jazz- and Flamenco-influenced rock guitarist.

    Jeff Beck, Phil Manzanera, Eddie Van Halen, Prince, Mick Ronson, Blixa Bargeld, Johnny Greenwood, Graham Coxon, Nathan Larson, Joey Santiago, Neil Young, Richard Thompson, Mia Clarke, Billy Zoom, Carrie Brownstein, James Honeyman Scott, Partridge and Gregory, that PiL dude a lot of you guys like: Keith Levine, probably some Pere Ubu guy that Mr. Mod and BigSteve dig, Pete Townshend, and if I say Pete Townshend I really have to say Dave Davies too, Jon Brion, Rick Rizzo, Karl Precoda, Lou Reed!

    I would say historically Jeff Beck is the second-most creative guitarist. By my tastes, it’s Neil Young.

  10. Mr. Moderator

    Oats wrote:

    I too am on Team Fuck Steve Howe. Although my knowledge of both of their output is limited, I don’t think his bag of tricks is bigger than Fripp’s.

    I was afraid (not really) that Townspeople would take issue with my suggestion that Steve Howe may be rock’s second-most creative guitarist. The whole “soul-less” thing is BUNK, if you ask me. Yes fans are a very soulful lot. Howe’s guitar parts perfectly compliment Jon Anderson’s space guru lyrics. They may not be your cup of tea, but Yes is all about reaching out, far into the universe, and touching souls.

    As for Fripp, let’s get him off the table. I love Fripp, but I’ll wash the car of the first person who can name Fripp’s third move on guitar beside the soaring space solo and the geometric chord clusters. And DON’T give me his playing on that Giles, Giles, Fripp album or any of his League of Acoustic Guitar Zombie-Students albums.

    Oats, I thank you for suggesting other guitar greats who might “vai” with Howe for the second-most creative slot, but let’s consider some of them while you crank up a song like “Starship Trooper” and admire the fluidity and versatility of Howe’s playing.

    Jeff Beck: Probably the most likely candidate for second-most creative guitarist, but I say he pretty much abandoned ship when he ditched The Yardbirds and, eventually, rock ‘n roll to play Muzak versions of Beatles songs with Jan Hammer on keytar. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of stuff he’s done since he went fusion is impressive, but it’s not rock ‘n roll and it’s not as creative as he could be playing.

    Phil Manzanera: Excellent suggestion – the guy is definitely creative – although guitar heads would argue that his chops aren’t up to par.

    Eddie Van Halen: He kind of sucks, whenever I actually have to listen to him. I don’t care how groundbreaking his playing was, he broke sucky ground.

    Prince: Come on, he’s a very good player, but creative?

    Mick Ronson, Neil Young, Dave Davies, even Lou Reed…: Very cool, but rarely breaking free from the constraints of time and space.

    James Honeyman Scott: Did not play long enough to make his case. He was promising.

    Billy Zoom: Tremendous, but has only shown facility in one style.

    Partridge and Gregory and the Pere Ubu guys: Nice try to play to my tastes – and they are excellent – but they couldn’t play to the stars and then come back to inform Earthlings of life on other planets the way Hendrix, Howe, Beck, and Manzanera did. They’re more for the chin-scratching crowd at the Free Library.

    All those “new” guys: Lacking in archetypal solos and faces? I know the Bad Seeds guy and Graham Coxon best, and they’re good and creative, but I don’t see them as more advanced than other chin-scratching faves, like some of Beefheart’s guitarists (eg, Gary Lucas!) through the years.

    Richard Thompson and Lindsey Buckingham are very talented, creative players, but I’d say they tend to supress their creativity in the service of “taste” more than the most creative guitarists in rock should do. Using Hendrix as the model for this discussion, he never had to supress his creative urges. His playing carved out new territory in which his bandmates could play. He pushed his bandmates to new heights, whereas Thompson and Buckingham played to their bandmates’ strengths and worked their magic from the inside out.

    I know this is a difficult question because, for most of us, it’s asking us to look beyond our tastes. I’d rather hear the Television duo over Steve Howe, for instance, and lord knows they’re creative, but objectively I couldn’t argue that they are rock’s second-most creative guitarists or guitar tandem.

  11. Emmet Ray

  12. misterioso

    Mod wrote: “Yes fans are a very soulful lot.”

    Hands down, the funniest thing I’ve read all week.

    I think it fair to say that Yes fans a shade more soulful than Emerson, Lake, and Palmer fans and quite a bit less soulful than, say, Spooky Tooth fans.

    Just to put it in some perspective.

  13. 2000 Man

    Hey, I consider myself a Yes fan, and I got soul!

    Sort of.

    Jeff Beck is out for exactly the reasons Mod brings up – he found earth, liked French Fries and pizza and quit rocking, so he’s outta there. Phil Manzanera came to mind but he isn’t enough of the focus. When you bring back goods from space, you can’t let the singer or sax player take so much spotlight. Yes made a lot of noise and Rick Wakeman’s travelling room of keyboards was impressive, but live, Steve was the show and he result of most of that noise. Sure, Chris Squire mugged for the fans on The Fish and Wakeman and even Alan White took solo’s (I enjoyed White’s bashing of tympani drums on the Going For the One tour), but Howe was always the one that could just stand onstage, by himself and bring the house down. With an acoustic guitar, no less. In the late 70’s those weren’t the most popular kind of guitars, that’s for sure.

    I’m taking some Yes in the car with me today.

  14. alexmagic

    I don’t know that I necessarily agree, but I get where you’re coming from re: Howe’s relative versatility.

    Among the “New Guys”: Johnny Greenwood has as much skill and range as anybody and a fair share of what should qualify as archetypal moments, if not solos. I’m not sure if it’s a point for or against him that his band followed his talent so far afield that he’s had periods where he doesn’t seem to even be playing a guitar anymore, instead kneeling on stage messing around with what looks like pedals attached to computer guts or a kitchen cabinet or some shit.

    I think Graham Coxon’s work from 1997-1999 in particular should keep him in the discussion for creativity. Even though he apparently didn’t want to, he proved quite adept at changing up his style and pulling some unique sounds out of his guitars, not only of the interplanetary nature, but also some strangely robotic and murkily subterranean.

    I can’t, however, speak to Coxon’s collection of Rock Faces off the top of my head to compare him with Howe. I’d need some research time if that’s part of the equation. Greenwood, for his part, spent much of his career specifically cultivating a Look that would obscure his Guitar Face, almost as if he was anticipating this very thread.

  15. Mr. Mod, I can’t argue with your assessment (dismissal?) of Richard Thompson as it echoes some of the problems I have with him. He is too deferential to his sidemen and he too rarely strays from his comfort zone. It’s a creative zone he’s created but he hasn’t left it for a few decades now. We’ll never know,of course, but I don’t think Jimi would have stayed in one place too long.

    In an alternate world somewhere, Thompson is looking up Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker and telling them “Come with me, I’ll make you forget that Clapton guy.”

  16. Wait, we’re supposed to dismiss Jeff Beck for lack of latter-day rock bona fides in favor of Steve “Heat of the Moment” Howe?

  17. ladymisskirroyale


    The Royale family is also enamored with Marc Ribot. If we are also considering musical creativity as reflecting an ability to play in many different styles, Ribot should be considered. He has a great solo career, but has also played with T. Waits, R. Plant, J. Zorn, D. Sylvian, Medeski/Martin/Wood, the Black Keys.

    I like the “newbies” nominated, esp. J. Greenwood and G. Coxon.

  18. ladymisskirroyale

    And speaking of throwing aside taste, Thurston Moore has delved into some “interesting” applications and phrasings.

  19. I thought about mentioning Marc Robot. He’s in my top 3 or 4 guitarists. But I think he really just does the “Marc Ribot” thing really well. That’s not intended as a slight to Ribot.

  20. Mr. Moderator

    Oats wrote:

    Wait, we’re supposed to dismiss Jeff Beck for lack of latter-day rock bona fides in favor of Steve “Heat of the Moment” Howe?

    Beck abandoned his brief, furious space explorations after what, 2 or 3 years? Howe’s prime with Yes lasted through the ’70s before he and his mates crash landed.

  21. Mr. Moderator

    Yes, Ribot’s creative and innovative within his parameters, but he’s one of those guitarists geered toward the 37 variations on this guy:


  22. misterioso

    Obviously, the elephant not yet in the room is one J. Page. Open the door and let ’em in. Then the ritualistic dumping on Zeppelin can commence, although that usually centers on Plant, no?

    Beck is huge, deservedly so, even though the idea of listening to anything he’s done in the past, roughly, 40 years does not interest me in the least.

  23. Mr. Moderator

    I’m glad someone brought up Page. He’s a tremendous arranger and player of arranged parts, but he’s a lousy soloist/improviser.

    Does Zappa or Adrian Belew factor into this discussion?

  24. I’m glad someone brought up Page. He’s a tremendous arranger and player of arranged parts, but he’s a lousy soloist/improviser.

    How is being a lousy soloist/improviser a knock on Page’s creativity? How familiar are you with Howe’s improvising skills? I’m guessing you’re relying on your large collection of Yes live bootlegs.

    If anything, Page is more creative for, despite his limitations, becoming a worshipped guitar god by using his arrangement/productions talents, not to mention his riffage genius.

    Zappa and Belew are better candidates for second-most-creative because they rethought the capabilities and reach of the rock guitar sound. I’m still not sure of Howe’s qualifications. He’s got chops; His playing is vaguely “otherworldly” (a completely undefined term); and he makes o-faces. That makes him creative how exactly?

  25. Mr. Moderator

    Oats, I think the ability to improvise – or create in the moment, in response to stimuli – goes with the territory of being rock’s second-most creative guitarist. That said, an EXCELLENT comeback re: my Yes boots!

    I know “Starship Trooper” is still reaching the coda as we discuss this. I urge you to ride it out to the end before I try to further define what makes Howe so creative.

  26. misterioso

    Zappa….Maybe one day I’ll get the joke. No, I don’t think so.


    I got a good 2 minutes into this, that’s some sort of record. If it helps to note that, yes, the guy can play guitar, then by all means, duly noted.

  27. Best answers so far would be Ronson, Zappa and Greenwood.

    I don’t think noisemakers with one major trick (like Belew) quite qualify. I eliminated Kevin Shields on this basis.

    No deal on Page. His live stuff is always sloppy. If you are going for composing / arranging skill, where he stands out, you can make that same argument for The Edge.

  28. alexmagic

    I thought about throwing Belew’s name into the mix earlier, but I truthfully like his stuff better when he’s writing/playing more straight-ahead songs, which he’s sort of secretly talented at doing.

    I like to think that right now, Peter Frampton is sitting at a computer at his local library, mouse hovering over the REGISTER link, trying to come up with a user name.

  29. I like this thread — people bringing up Spooky Tooth and James Honeyman Scott!

    Page’s co-stars of “It Might Get Loud” Jack White and The Edge deserve some consideration. In the movie, The Edge was the most interesting of all of them IMO.

    I’ve seen U2 (too) many times and The Edge’s echoey sounds can really “bring the house down” — or the arena in his case.

  30. ladymisskirroyale

    Um, Mr. Mod, in response to your link re. Marc Ribot, who was that guy? I recognize the text he is reading, tho…

  31. ladymisskirroyale

    Everyone might want to check out the film, “It Might Get Loud” which interviewed and showed great live footage of Jack White, the Edge, and Jimmy Page. They have very distinct ways of approaching their music-making.

  32. BigSteve

    I suggested Fripp as “creative” in the sense of creating his own identifiable style(s), in other words taking the guitar places it had not previously gone. The description of Hendrix in the original post made it sound like ‘does many things equally well’ was the definition. That would be more like ‘rock’s most versatile guitarist,’ which he may well be.

    And Fripp definitely had other moves. There’s the big, almost atonal riff, as on Red. There’s a floating chordal thing he does sometimes, like on the song North Star Daryl Hall sang on Exposure. And excuse me Frippertronics? The looping technique has given him access to a broader range of sounds than many people realize, and it’s different from the soaring Heroes-type solo. And the all-fifths tuning he sometimes uses gives him wider intervals to play with and is kind of the definition of a creative application of the guitar.

    There have been lots of other good suggestions. I’m going to make another one I expect will get shouted down because his band is on the rock nerd shitlist. The Edge.

  33. 2000 Man

    Oats, I can’t hold it against Howe and Wetton for Asia. It made them Rock Star rich, and they paid their dues. I actually saw them and they were a pretty sweet free show (then again we were super close, right in front of Steve Howe). It was big and dumb, but I’ve been to shows that were supposed to “cool,” and they sucked balls, so they had something going for them.

    I have some Yes bootlegs, and they really kind of stick to the script. Howe’s creativity is probably as much in writing his parts as anything else. I bet their live albums were real cheap to make, because they probably don’t have to overdub anything. They sound like they practice a lot.

    I don’t play guitar, BigSteve, but doesn’t The Edge always play the same thing over and over? It sounds that way to me but I have to admit that I generally ignore them.

  34. BigSteve

    No, the Edge does not always play the same thing. He has a characteristic rhythm strum (eg “Where the Streets Have No Name”) that he displays a lot live, but if you think back through their records remember that pretty much all of the sounds that aren’t bass or drums are him. There’s a lot of strange sounds that are guitar put through various processes, and they’re used compositionally not just as window-dressing.

    Now if you have to be able to rip off a twiddly solo on demand and make faces, then he’s out.

  35. Mr. Moderator

    Good case made for Fripp, BigSteve, and I did leave out Frippertronics, but still…many of the “other” styles you refer to are variations on what I call the geometric chord clusters. Remember those plastic interlocking wheels that you could stick colored pens in and make cool, multi-colored geometric designs? To me, that’s basically what Fripp does on guitar. I love it, but the guitar is more like a bionic implant than the natural appendage that is the guitar for Hendrix.

    2K brings up a great point about Howe sticking to the script that deflates one of my claims about his creativity. OK, here’s what I’m really getting at in this somewhat silly thread: I still don’t think anyone’s close to Hendrix, and I honestly think Steve Howe should be appreciated by rock nerds more than he is.

    To tell the truth, no one suggested a turd in this thread, well, except for Eddie Van Halen.

  36. sammymaudlin

    Why does Fripp require a 3rd or 4th move when the moves he has are so amazingly creative? I’d stack the following creativity over Howe easily:

    Fripp, Belew, Thompson, Van Halen (you heard me), Levene, Snakefinger, Manzanera. Man I’ll even throw in Dick Dale over Howe.

    And I’m totally reaching with Oats on Precoda, Rizzo and Neil Young.

    Here is my rationale for knowing that Howe is not memorable- I’m not remember anything by him.

  37. alexmagic

    Once we settle this, can we address the very specific similarity in hair-related issues that Fripp, Belew, Howe and perhaps others have faced over the years? Coincidence, or is there an undiscovered medical condition at work here?

  38. junkintheyard

    Hey, long time no see.

    Stevie Ray Vaughan FTW! Can’t believe he has not received a nod.

  39. Mr. Moderator

    junkintheyard, good to have you back! I was afraid Sandford and Son got their hands on you.

  40. junkintheyard

    No abductions for this big dummy, Mr. Mod.

    I’m sticking by SRV but find Zappa an interesting toss in. My only issue creatively with Zappa is that he only really played for one earthling- himself. He was also pretty cold emotionally and soul comes into play when we are trying even for second best to Jimi. Hence my nod for Stevie.

  41. I’m not the biggest SRV fan but I will acknowledge he was a great guitar player. But I don’t think he was especially high on the creative side. Just a really good classic rock/blooz player.

  42. Andy Summers?

  43. Bootsy’s brother, Phelps Collins. He was to Funk what Hendrix was to the blues. Helped take the whole genre to a new level.

    As uncool as this is, Ive got to also come to the defence of Mr Van Halen as a contender. 80’s relic, yes, wino, yes, king dickhead, yes – but you can’t deny what he did was WAAAAY out there for its time and motivated more kids to pick up guitars in the 80’s and 90’s than just about anyone else I can name. I have nearly every edition of “Guitar Player” from 1983 to 1991 and there’s not many issues without a pic of him somewhere in it. Compare him to Satriani and Malmsteen who were also technically brilliant, but played with the soul of a wet sock (sorry guys).

    How about a thread on the most creative bass player? It’ll let me crap on endlessly about how good Lemmy is again….;)

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