The 10 Most Underrated Guitarists in the History of Rock

Joni Mitchell: One of history's most underrated guitarists.
Joni Mitchell: One of history's most underrated guitarists.
By Asylum Records via Wikimedia Commons

While traveling from Denver to Texas a few weeks ago, I could not stop listening to Mutiny on the Bay, the searing collection of '80s Dead Kennedys performances released in 2001; East Bay Ray, it occurred to me, is one of the most underrated guitarists in the history of rock.

To me, being underrated doesn't mean that a musician has missed out on accolades and commercial success. It means that, for whatever reason, millions of music lovers probably haven't been exposed to a certain musician's talents and thus haven't had the chance to enjoy him or her. So here — up for potential enjoyment and probably heated discussion — are ten guitarists I believe are history's most underrated.

10. Frank Zappa

That Zappa, arguably king of the iconoclasts of popular music, is virtually never listed among even the top twenty greatest guitarists in the history of rock is due mostly to the fact — unfortunate or amusing, depending on your point of view — that many of his transcendent solos occurred in songs like "Conehead" and "The Muffin Man." It often seems like 45% of music fans won't listen to Zappa because they don't want their rock 'n' roll with a touch of satire and 45% won't listen to Frank Zappa because, in the words of my first music editor, "It was all downhill once Zappa realized how good a guitar player he was." The lucky 10 percent of us who are open to it all — from the blazing extended Gibson SG workout on "Willie the Pimp," which is my favorite guitar solo of all time, to the absolute shred-fest that is "Rat Tomago" — get to enjoy a bona fide guitar god who not only makes us bow down Wayne's World style. but also laugh and think.

9. Dean Ween

Dean Ween (nee Mickey Melchiondo) has always suffered an underrated fate not unlike Zappa's, in that his most beautiful, jaw-dropping guitar solos are often in songs that include lyrics such as "Look at your lips/They're like two flabs of fat" and "Let me lick your pussy/Let me lick your cunt." Also like Zappa, much of the best "Deaner" guitar work comes on a Fender Stratocaster, the searing sound of which — in the hands of one of rock's most creative and cutting soloists — can only be compared to an axe. That Dean Ween wasn't even listed in Rolling Stone's Top 100 Greatest Guitarists deserves at least one spin of "You Fucked Up." Eric Clapton, my ass.

8. Joni Mitchell

Listen to Joni Mitchell's unique guitar work carrying a song like "The Dawntreader," or her brash, tasteful jamming with Jaco Pastorius on the experimental 1977 album Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. Not all guitar gods are what you'd call lead guitarists. Sure, Mitchell's phenomenally original rhythm-guitar prowess inspired a lot of annoying '90s imitators, but she's the real deal.

7. East Bay Ray

The polarizing Jello Biafra, with his funhouse voice, is a great spoken-word artist, and a great lyricist. Back in the day, he also had some of the best stage presence in punk rock. But for me, the Dead Kennedys are all about the vastly underrated East Bay Ray. Some people's go-to guitar-god tracks are "Layla," "Dark Star" or even "Sister Ray," but I could listen to about a hundred live versions of "Holiday in Cambodia" (the studio version is great, too) with East Bay Ray's guitar isolated (like Freddie Mercury's "Under Pressure" vocals famously were last year) and never lose my sense of awe. The truly progressive and exciting music of the Dead Kennedys — often lumped in with straight-ahead, three-chord punkers — is systematically overlooked because of Biafra's unforgettable eccentricity and political obsessions, but East Bay Ray's intermittently fluid and explosive lines on tracks like "Moon Over Marin" make him, to me, the quintessential lead-guitar voice of punk.

6. David Hidalgo

No, Los Lobos is not just the dudes who played "La Bamba" in the classically cheesy (and amazing) '80s Richie Valens bio-pic. The L.A. greats have been around for 40 years, partly because Hidalgo is an underrated beast of a lead guitar player — one who can make a jam band hero like Trey Anastasio sound like any other dude noodling at Guitar Center. A humble multi-instrumentalist and long-revered singer/songwriter, Hidalgo can nary be found on a list of the top 100 guitarists in rock, and that's a shame. Hidalgo can do it all, from traditional Latin flourishes on classical guitar to face-melting rock. On live versions of "Wicked Rain," for instance, he can impressively alternate between "Willie the Pimp"-esque psychedelic blues-rock soloing to Sonic Youth-worthy blasts of distortion.


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