Top Ten Most Underrated Guitarists
Published on 24 September 2020
We all love Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix. That scarcely needs mentioning.
There’s hardly anybody out there who’d say they don’t rate Eddie Van Halen or Stevie Ray Vaughan, even if they aren’t into the music, per se.
Lots of us love Prince and Joe Bonamassa, Steve Vai and Joe Satriani.
This much is self-evident: these people are some of the most widely acclaimed practitioners of the instrument we all love. Regardless of our personal tastes, some individuals rise above it all to become masters. For that, we give them our unfettered respect.
But what of the other guys? What about the players you personally love, but who are not necessarily household names? How about those who play on amazing hit songs that you’ve known forever, but haven’t sought out in order to hear more? What of those megastar musicians who don’t actually ever get any props for their fretboard abilities, despite being world-famous in other areas?
Well, that is what today’s blog article is all about! We’ve taken in a broad cross-section of opinions here, because we quickly learned that not everybody’s idea of ‘underrated’ is the same! It’s been tense at times, here at guitarguitar, but we think we’ve finally whittled the longlist down to a manageable top ten. Now, these are all based on relatively different terms, so be sure to read our entry for each artist, as we’ll explain our reasoning for their inclusion, and hopefully, you’ll agree with us on at least some of these entries.
In no particular order – because, how can you really? – here is guitarguitar’s Top Ten underrated guitarists!
Buck Dharma – Blue Öyster Cult
Our first choice is a class act who deserves to be a household name to rock fans everywhere. Donald ‘Buck Dharma’ Roeser is the guy responsible for (Don’t Fear) The Reaper! Not just the classy, lyrical guitar playing mind you, but the songwriting and lead vocals too! We can’t report whether he laid down that classic cowbell track, but he did most of the rest!
Blue Öyster Cult are the epitome of a classic band with a ton of great songs, all of which lie in relative obscurity, in mainstream terms, when compared with their one big monster hit! They deserve better and Buck Dharma’s playing is gorgeous on so many of their songs, so let’s hear something else here! Check out the rockin' intro riff and killer vocal harmonies on offer in this magnificent tune, as well as some masterful, tasteful, super-well controlled lead playing. Great Les Paul tone, elegant phrasing, not too much and not too little. Perfect.
What does ‘Blue Öyster Cult’ mean? No idea. What does ‘Led Zeppelin’ mean? Exactly.
Fredrik Åkesson- Opeth
Opeth are one of those bands who are huge in certain quarters, and highly respected in the areas in which their appeal crosses over. With a career that started as super-aggressive death metal and incrementally segued into a sort of epic Heavy-Prog with a certain Horror-Hippy aesthetic (there IS an association there, believe us!), Opeth have carved a very interesting and highly influential path through modern heavy music.
In certain ways, they share similarities with our previous choice of band: occult/esoteric references and a love of the darker side of life come to the fore with both bands, whilst Opeth’s referencing of the 70s concurs with BÖC’s ‘actual’ 70s vibe! They also share another similarity: a criminally underrated lead guitarist.
Fredrik Åkesson is one astonishingly accomplished player. For over 20 years, his dramatic leads have been a pitch-perfect addition to Opeth’s dynamic music, and you can hear the influence of both Rhoads and Gilmour in his insane playing. Even better, he knows when to really go for it and when to reign it in and play support to the majestic skills of Opeth frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt. These Swedish titans of modern progressive music are a force to be reckoned with, with a lead guitarist who is more than up to the task of meeting this grandiose music head-on.
For more on Fredrik, please click through to our exclusive Fredrik Åkesson interview!
Geordie Walker – Killing Joke
Anyone who plays enormous, chunky, ultra-distorted, choppy metal riffs with a 70-year-old hollow body Gibson ES-295 gets our respect for attitude at least! Talk about rule-breaking?!
Killing Joke’s Kevin ‘Geordie’ Walker has spent a career developing one of the most uncompromising guitar styles we’ve ever encountered. He has taken rhythm playing within a heavy context in an entirely fresh direction, blending Dub influences into his pioneering Post-Punk style and pouring on plenty of gain, volume and sheer swagger.
Killing Joke have a particularly potent sound that makes the most of each member’s volatile personality, but we think it’s fair to say that Geordie more than lays down the law in terms of how their songs end up sounding. Eschewing all thought of solos with a disdainful sneer, Walker prefers to stand stage-right, gold Gibson in hand, and crunch out pulverising riff after riff, with a studied ease and a sense of timing that is masterful. More like him, please!
Steve Rothery - Marillion
Is Steve Rothery the most underrated guitarist ever? Marillion’s axeman has a melodic sense that always complements the song and elevates it. His solos are heart-felt, emotive affairs and his tone is sublime, whether he is playing his famous old Squier Strats or his more modern Levinson Blades.
Fish-era fans will love tracks like ‘Lavender’, the huge hit ‘Kayleigh’ and the Beowulf-referencing epic ‘Grendel’, whilst Hogarth-era fans (many folks like both eras, but there’s always a debate...) would cite tracks like ‘Easter’ and ‘Neverland’ as proof of his underrated genius.
Read more about Steve in our exclusive Steve Rothery interview!
Trent Reznor - Nine Inch Nails
Trent Reznor? The Emmy and Oscar-winning force behind Nine Inch Nails? He’s hardly underrated, is he? He’s one of the most successful and celebrated musicians around! So why is he on this list?
Well, because nobody ever talks about his guitar playing, that’s why! Well known for his abrasive rhythm programming, Debussy-style piano playing, apocalyptic synth parts and sepulchral vocals, it’s often something of an afterthought that Reznor himself plays almost all of the guitar parts of all of Nine Inch Nails’ music. His open-minded attitude to effects use and manipulation (think: disgustingly frazzled, gonzo noises that were once a simple guitar part) put his sounds at the forefront of contemporary rock & metal, and his ferocious riffing is responsible for a great deal of the barbarous attitude NIN puts across.
Perhaps it’s because he often delegates the live guitar playing to top players like Robin Finck, but on record it’s pretty much all Reznor. For a man who’s multi-hyphenate abilities are so obvious and well-known, we think his merits as a guitar hero – because what else is he, if not that too? – need to be spoken about more.
Here’s another megastar who never gets much credit for his playing. Rightfully celebrated for his superlative, game-changing songwriting, too many people overlook Paul Simon’s intricate, beautiful fingerstyle playing. It bubbles away in the background, as those two delicate voices intertwine in glorious harmony, never drawing attention to itself but also being impossible to leave out.
If in doubt, try taking one of Simon & Garfunkel’s classic tunes and, instead of using the type of specific, deliberate fingerpicking pattern that Paul Simon would, try playing it with nothing but simple strums. You instantly realise what’s missing from the song, and why some of the magic is gone. Now, that’s a player!
Chris Shiflett - Foo Fighters
As one of the biggest bands in the world, you’d think the members of Foo Fighters would all be pretty well known and celebrated. Well, maybe they would if everybody didn’t just talk about Dave Grohl all the time...
Don’t get us wrong, the man’s a force, but so are the other people in the band! Granted, they weren’t also in Nirvana, which is always a difficult card to beat, but we think Chris Shiflett is majorly underrated. Over the years, Shiflett has more that proven his worth, as well as having the good taste and dignity to let his lead singer be the star of the show, mostly...check out this video below of Chris trading sweet licks with his boss!
Julien Baker’s incredible, confessional songwriting is unforgettable stuff. She writes with feeling, but also with compassion and regret, and it strikes deep! Her guitar playing, which is often her only accompaniment, is quietly breathtaking, too. She’s all about the Telecaster, the delay and the looper, and with these tools, she easily manages to bring a sense of subtle ambient magic to her heart wrenching songs. Her playing is the perfect platform for her voice and is amazing in its own right. Read more about what she has to say about her art here in our Julien Baker Interview.
Omar Rodriguez-Lopez – At the Drive-In, the Mars Volta
How many thrilling guitar moments must a player commit to a body of work before he gets a little recognition? This adventurous, wild guitarist has brought explosive riffs, psychedelic textures and furious solos to the fore for over 20 years, in both The Mars Volta and At the Drive-In. How come people don’t shout about him more? We don’t get it. In an age when modern day guitar playing often amounts to retro twanging and timid chord-bashing, Lopez’s visionary, gung-ho playing feels like a fresh, glorious burst of colour.
Even the iconoclast, Lopez often says that he doesn’t consider himself a musician. We wonder what that makes all of us, frankly, because Omar is one of the best around. Getting stuck in a rut with your own playing? Listen to this guy for an hour and emerge fully re-enthused!
Javier Reyes - Animals as Leaders
It can’t be easy to play guitar in a band with Tosin Abasi. It takes a brave and confident man to trade licks with one of the most gifted rising stars in contemporary guitar music. Luckily, Javier is quite an exceptional player. Animals as Leaders are made of up two 8 string players and a drummer, so the scope for tones, range and space in their music is pretty wide. Javier makes the most of it, with his expert sense of timing and drama, as well as chops to die for. Far more than you’d expect from the typical 8-string metal player, Reyes is helping to recontextualise the extended range guitar for a new generation of artists.
There were a lot of near-misses on this list, for those cult heroes and Silver Medal stalwarts who have contributed fantastic things to the world of guitar in ways that should be more celebrated. Whether in terms of sound, song or style, here is a short list of those who nearly made our top ten.
- Bruce Springsteen (how many folk realise that he is the lead guitarist on nearly all of his records?)
- Daniel Ash – Bauhaus
- John Lennon
- Rivers Cuomo – Weezer
- Noodles – Offspring
- Jerry Cantrell – Alice in Chains
- Todd Rundgren
- Marc Ribot – Tom Waits
- Samantha Fish
- John Sykes – Whitesnake
- Ed O’Brien - Radiohead
Who did we miss? If they are ‘alternative’ but already pretty well known for being awesome, we didn’t include them. So, whilst Billy Corgan, for example, definitely deserves more respect for his playing than he gets, he’s still very highly regarded and so is too appreciated to make our list! That goes for a lot of people, really. Indie heroes like Joey Santiago and Kevin Shields are, in our opinion, quite admired these days, so their time of obscurity is well and truly over. Have a think, and do let us know who we missed out there!
Thanks for reading, and be sure to tune in next time.