This list is not only very subjective but also restricted to guitarists which I have seen live on stage. Eliciting a general state of awe in me (and fellow concert goers) is the main criterion for being on this list. So here are the names of some guitar players – not the fastest, not the most influential ones, but to me the most outstanding ones.
Ritchie Blackmore – a clever player, an iconic song writer, and maybe most of all a charismatic character both loved and feared. He earned his chops playing on a whole lot of singles that were produced by Joe Meek. Early on in the history of Deep Purple he co-wrote the breathtakingly beautiful chamber classic-pop hybrid “April” and contributed terrific yet tastefull licks to the final part of the trilogy. Next on, he was instrumental in inventing hard rock (as in “Speed King”, “Highway Star”, “Fireball” etc.), followed by a period of excellent albums with Rainbow. The Deep Purple reunion album “Perfect Strangers” is a personal favourite of mine that has Ritchie’s unique guitar playing all over it. And just when his career seemed to get lost in further reunions und breakups, he re-invented himself as a modern folk bard with Blackmore’s Night. I saw him live three times now, and each time has been a fest of melodies and feelings. Sure, he appears to be a moody person, but he’s also supposed to be a cunning prankster who loves to vacuum.
Mark Reale – perhaps the most underrated guitarist in heavy metal history. From inventing speed metal back in the mid 70s to the last Riot album “Immortal Soul”, his playing was always spot-on, yet in a way soulful. Sure, the man could shred. But most often he was after creating catchy hooks and awesome twin lead harmonies. His partner in crime, Mike Flyntz, is a very talented player himself, make no mistake. Still, Mark wrote so many fantastic metal songs that I’ll never get tired listening to. I saw him live twice, two spotless and kind of laid back performances.
Dave Murray – my favourite Iron Maiden guitarist. I love his tone, I love his solos, and I love almost all the songs he co-wrote. Given the dominant role of Steve Harris in the band’s song writing, a Murray writing credit always indicates an original twist on the classic maiden sound. As for Iron Maiden – they were my first metal concert and boy did they rock the Schleyerhalle back in 1993!
Yves Passarell – at least when he was with Viper. (Capital Inicial leaves me cold, sorry.) His role in the band mirrors that of Dave Murray in Maiden. His song writing contributions provided a nice change to his brother’s ideas. Most importantly, however, he is one of those few metal guitar players who really make their instrument sing. His solos were never really showing off but integral parts of the songs. The first Viper album “Soldiers of Sunrise” already contains some terrific guitar playing. Still, the real highlight came in 1992 with the song “Wasted”, which contains one of the five most impressive guitar solos I’ve ever heard in terms of passion, melody, and – yes – shredding.
Felipe Machado – might have played the solo in “Wasted”. I don’t know which of Viper’s guitarists played the solo. When I saw the band live in 1993 (Rockfabrik Ludwigsburg) both were soooo active on stage, enjoying the heck out of the gig. Their show left a lasting impression on me with its raw energy and positive drive.
Frank Aresti – Fates Warning sound so much better with him. Jim Matheos writes most of the songs and is an excellent guitarist. Still, I adore Frank’s playing with its inventive take on leads and note mapping on the fretboard. His playing never looks/feels crude or athletic, just astheticly pleasing. His work on the “Parallels” and “Inside Out” songs is simply stellar, if you ask me.
Alan Morse – who sometimes wears very colourful clothes. Spock’s Beard is the perfect band for him to exploit his talent. I’ve seen the band live six times by now, and yes, there were one or two gigs where he had a “mediocre” day. Then again, he completely blew out my brain (or at least my auditory and visual cortex) during the 2000 concert in Ludwigsburg (Scala). Playing without a pick, he wasn’t so much playing his instrument, but toying around with it, extracting weird sounds, strong melodies and tasty solos. I’m sure he could play the songs 100% like they are on the albums. But I suspect he just enjoys messing around with them. His passion for his instrument appears to be limitless. Too bad his solo album contained too much shredding and not enough hooks.
Mike Oldfield – a master on his own right. Few guitarists can claim to have a unique sound. Mike Oldfield not only has his personal sound, but also a number of original styles he pioneered and/or refined over the past 40 years. He’s a genius with his elaborate instrumental epics and he also wrote some of the most beautiful pop songs (“Moonlight Shadow”, “Crime of Passion”, “To France” etc.), always with some tasteful guitar leads thrown in for good measure. I also love his acoustic work, in particular the folky “Voyager” album and his most recent (all orchestral) work “Music of the Spheres”.
Brendt Allman – Shadow Gallery‘s main guitarist who can shred like hell. Here, seeing him live during the band’s first tour in 2010 (18 years after their debut album!) made all the difference. Such a blast of energy! Brendt was quite sick at the gig in Essen. Still, he gave 100% and delivered a phenomenal performance.
Gary Wehrkamp – Shadow Gallery’s other guitarist (and keyboard player and part-time drummer and producer and all-around good guy). I wasn’t sure what to expect from Gary, but – as with Brendt Allman – seeing him live on stage made clear that this man has pure music flowing through his veins. His passion was obvious and his playing immaculate. I couldn’t help but feel joy at the wonderful sight of Gary juggling guitar, keyboard and singing duties with deceptive ease. I’m usually impressed when I see someone like John Petrucci on stage (first time in 1995), but Gary (and Shadow Gallery) left a deeper, more emotional mark on me.
Ron Jarzombek – a sick shredding guitarist on most of his recent releases. BUT: When he was playing with WatchTower, his technical abilities were just a skill that was used in a bigger picture. “Control and Resistance” is a masterpiece – and live on stage the band was just going crazy. I saw them back in 2000 and then again in 2010. Both times they blew my mind with their weird stage acting frency and their complex yet somehow supercool prog metal songs.
Mark Knopfler – a unique player. It’s hard not to recognize his playing whenever a Dire Straits song come on the radio. It’s something we don’t hear that often these days: a guitar that sounds like it’s being caressed, like it’s been glittering in the starlight, like it has the main role and the vocals are just some minor addition. Don’t get me wrong, I love Mark‘s singing. And he wrong a whole lot of great songs. Still, this list is about guitars, and there’s no one like Mark Knopfler. It usually takes me less than three notes to identify him.
Richard Shindell – a bit controversial. I love his songs and his voice is so intense that it’s difficult to shift my focus on his guitar skills. Said skills are impressive. Richard‘s playing often is sort of an understatement. It’s there to drive the respective song. Still, watching his fingers swirl and hearing the groove of “Stray Cow Blues”, the beauty of “Wisteria”, or his electric guitar solo take on “Reunion Hill” (on “Live at Randolph”!) just takes my breath away. Stunning!