1. Jimmy Page. He will always be my first and biggest guitar hero. My father introduced me to Led Zeppelin at an early age, and I spent my first year as a serious guitar student learning every note on the first four Zeppelin albums (and much of the later ones, as well). I was in ninth grade when the How the West Was Won DVD set came out, and I absolutely devoured it—so much that I played “Dazed and Confused” at the high school talent show, complete with the violin bow solo. Page has it all—he writes timeless riffs, his soloing is memorable and melodic, he is a master producer and studio pioneer, and onstage, he epitomizes the rock star in every way.
Essential Track: “Dazed and Confused” from Led Zeppelin DVD (2003).
2. Eric Clapton. Much of what I said about Page holds true for Clapton. Whether it’s the opening riff of “Bell-Bottom Blues” or the lead lines from “White Room,” Clapton’s playing is so astounding because it’s so memorable. One has to mention his tone, too, which—especially in the early ‘90s—is just gorgeous. And of course his voice, which will always be one of my favorites to listen to. I happened into stem tracks from Layla a year ago and listened to the solo vocals on repeat for a long time. What a performance. What I always loved most about Clapton is that while he is a true guitar virtuoso, he was always a songwriter first. Sure, I can sing from memory or play every note of his solos, but far more people know him for his timeless lyrics and vocal melodies.
Essential Track: “White Room” from 24 Nights (1991).
3. David Gilmour. I risk repeating myself in that there are two clear themes to most of my big heroes, namely melody in their playing and songwriting. Gilmour also essentially owns the word tone. It’s an oft-repeated cliché that Gilmour can say more with one note than most guitar players can say with 50, but, like most clichés, it’s true. Gilmour could hold out one note for half an hour, and I’d listen to it, just to hear how he coaxes it from the amplifier. I spent so many nights in my best friend’s basement jamming through the PULSE DVD, which includes a live set of Dark Side of the Moonin its entirety. In keeping with themes, we actually ended up getting special permission to play Dark Sideall the way through at our high school’s “Big Day Off” event. I was lucky enough to see Gilmour live this year, and even now, he is a master in every way.
Essential Track: “Comfortably Numb” from PULSE (1995).
4. Eric Johnson. There are two types of guitar players. Some players are, say, 30 percent natural ability and 70 percent years of practice. Others are born to do nothing else but master the guitar, and years of practice hone their natural talent. EJ is the latter. He is the instrument. When I first heard Johnson’s “Cliffs of Dover,” my entire concept of what the guitar could do changed. He was Clapton’s smooth, effortless finesse, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s groove and fire, and David Gilmour’s command of creamy, distorted tones all wrapped into one, with the speed turned up to levels I’d never imagined. And that “speed” never seemed unnecessary or over the top.
Despite his mind-blowing playing, most guitarists don’t consider EJ a “shredder.” He somehow defies labels. Like with any of the others on this list, two notes, and you know it’s him. When I was 17, I couldn’t stop playing Ah Via Musicom and watching Live from Austin, TX. I wanted to learn every note, to get inside his playing and see what made it so unique. Still working on that mission.
Essential Track: “Cliffs of Dover” from Live from Austin, TX (2005).
5. John Petrucci. My second “JP” hero. I first heard Petrucci’s playing when I attended a summer performance intensive at Berklee College of Music in Boston. My next-door neighbor in the dorms was blasting “Overture 1928,” and it was unlike anything I’d ever heard. The rhythm playing was as heavy, precise, and riffy as Metallica. The lead playing was at one moment as melodic as anything Gilmour even recorded, and then the next moment would explode into flurries of notes that would make Eddie Van Halen bust into a huge grin.
If Jimmy Page was my biggest childhood guitar hero, Petrucci was certainly my biggest aspirational bar as a young adult. Like my other heroes, Petrucci is a part writer as much as he is a part player. His utter command of the instrument means that, despite his immense technical prowess, he’s never written a riff or line that isn’t as catchy, memorable, and melodic as it is challenging to play. He is an unrivaled virtuoso, in addition to being one of the kindest guys in the business.
Essential Track: “Scene Two: I. Overture 1928” from Metropolis Part 2: Scenes from a Memory (1999).
Born and raised in Atlanta, guitar wizard and YouTube sensation Cooper Carter delights audiences across the country and all over the world with his signature mix of songwriting and fiery playing. The creator of YouTube’s popular SoloAWeek channel, Cooper has been featured in Entertainment Weekly, Guitar World and Revolver, among others.
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