The Axeman Cometh (Part One)


IN the early 1970s, young men in slightly damp RAF-surplus greatcoats with long, greasy hair and tragic cases of acne (the youths, not the coats) would gather for debate in smoky pubs nursing pints of fizzy, mass-produced keg bitter – this was before real ale made its comeback.

Item one on the evening’s agenda – why can’t we pull any birds? – would not take long since the answer was staring us in the purulent face. Item two, subject to the lack of any football developments, tended to be: Who’s the greatest guitarist in the world, Hendrix or Clapton? To choose wrongly Jimi/Eric-wise would invite ridicule, opprobrium, possibly an ineffectual smack in the teeth if enough Whitbread Trophy or Watney’s Red had been taken (even lager was an affectation in those days).

Many years on, the guitar-heroes issue is far more than a two-way choice but remains guaranteed to cause an argument between blokes (always blokes) in the pub or even in the office. I still cherish a senior Daily Mail colleague’s mortified look when, having invited his opinion, I chortled at his suggestion of Ritchie Blackmore out of Deep Purple.

Which brings me somewhat clumsily to this and next week’s project: My Top Ten Guitarists Ever. Obviously this is a subjective and maybe even provocative selection but that is partly the point – to find out who you, the readers, hold dear. I give selections 6 to 10 in reverse order, with the top five to follow next week, and hope you will send your own lists to my spiffy new email address

The best suggestions will be published on this site and those responsible will win a free walk of your choice between any two points in the British Isles.

Before we get to number 10, let me say who did not make the cut. For a start, my missus is not at all content that I am omitting Mark Knopfler. I agree that he has an attractive, fluid style but I think he lacks versatility. Honourable mentions to Tom Verlaine, Larry Carlton, Leo Kottke, Marc Ribot, Fred Frith and Bert Jansch. Every one well worth investigating.

Right, here we go. For technological dinosaurs like myself, remember to follow the link in blue type so you can hear the track for yourself.

Number 10: Robert Fripp (UK), born 1946. Founder and leader of the prog-rockers King Crimson but also supplier of amazing guitar accompaniment to others. What would Bowie’s Heroes sound like without him? Fripp’s collaborations with Brian Eno have always been productive. Highlight: I’ll Come Running from Eno’s fantastic album Another Green World.

Number 9: Neil Young (Canada), born 1945. Old Shakey, now 72, can still churn out the 20-minute solos but I doubt he’ll ever surpass his guitar work on the dark, anguished album On The Beach, this being the title track.

Number 8: Lowell George (US), 1945-79. Founder of Little Feat, named after his petite plates of meat. His slide guitar and voice were the sound of the band, which is why they tanked after his death in 1979. A column on Lowell and the Feat will follow eventually but in the meantime enjoy his delightful solos on Jackson Browne’s Your Bright Baby Blues.

Number 7: Nils Lofgren (US), born 1951. I was aware of Nils through his work with the soft-rock group Grin in the early 70s, and was sent a review copy of his eponymous first solo album in 1974. I liked it but thought it lacked edge. The next year I saw him on the BBC2 programme The Old Grey Whistle Test and was blown away. What an incredible performer. I watched him live soon afterwards in Manchester on the same bill as Joan Armatrading and Supertramp (ticket price a bargain 50p but I was still parsimonious enough to blag my way in with my press card). Nils, now Bruce Springsteen’s sidekick, was amazing – a true virtuoso not just on guitar but piano as well. And which other musician has ever bounced off a trampoline mid-solo, regaining complete equilibrium?

Number 6: Keith Richards (UK), born 1943. The human riff. The heart of the Stones. The man who will survive along with the cockroaches when nuclear bombs have wiped out mankind. If Keef had done nothing else, Brown Sugar would have assured his place in the rock pantheon. In one second, he supplied the most thrilling and instantly recognisable opening in rock and roll history.

So there I’ll leave it until next Monday. Keep flooding those emails to – my strictly politically correct team of white-coated boffins (four female, no male, two transgender, one still making his/her mind up, one pantomime horse, one cocker spaniel with learning difficulties) awaits you 24/7.

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