My Top 5 Most Inspirational Guitarists

This article was original published in Narc Magazine’s Bunch of 5’s Feature:

Most inspirational guitarists.

I’ve always wanted an opportunity to talk about some of the guitarists who have inspired me the most. 
I think with “top guitarist lists”, there tends to be a lot of bias toward ‘hairy rock’ genres, and whilst I’ve nothing against hair (or rock), I’ve always felt that there’s more to being an inspirational guitarist than one’s ability to play a scale really fast. The guitar players I like tend to be distinctive and easily recognisable by sound, either with their tone, style or execution. Choosing only five guitarists for this feature was really difficult, so I decided to base the list on who I found to be most innovative and influential. I had to (very reluctantly) leave out Blur’s Graham Coxon and Joey Santiago from Pixies but wanted to give them both an honourable mention in the foreword because as it turns out, the first guitarist on my list happens to be a big fan of both musicians. Without further ado then… 

Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead)

Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead) Top 5 Most Inspirational Guitarists

Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead) Top 5 Most Inspirational Guitarists

I simply love everything about Jonny Greenwood’s guitar playing; the creativity, the tone, the angularity, and all the mad, wildly inventive effects he uses. There’s an unpredictability about the way he plays, especially live.

I have a handful of Radiohead bootlegs from the 90’s era and it’s all the little variations in the live performances that really stand out. I’m a bit of a shameless fan girl, so about 10 years ago, I decided to get some modifications done on my Yamaha Pacifica – all of which were based on Jonny Greenwood’s Telecaster. I had a ‘kill switch’  installed, which momentarily kills the signal, producing a stutter-like effect, along with what’s now sold as a ‘Lace Dually Bridge Pickup’ that Greenwood and his guitar technician originally ‘invented’ by wiring two single coil pickups together. Jonny Greenwood is also the reason I own an ebow! 

Jonny Greenwood’s Standout tracks: Radiohead’s My iron Lung, Paranoid Android, Maquiladora (Live Astoria)


Anna Calvi

Anna Calvi - Top 5 Most Inspirational Guitarists

Anna Calvi – Top 5 Most Inspirational Guitarists

Anna Calvi is a highly flamboyant and passionate performer, someone I think you have to see live to fully appreciate. 

By her own admission, Jeff Buckley is the reason she (almost exclusively) plays a Fender Telecaster. Both artists share undeniable similarities, but I personally think Anna Calvi’s skills as a guitarist are on a whole other level. Anna Calvi’s signature technique is where she makes harp-like sounds through circular picking motions, best heard on an instrumental piece called “Rider to the sea.” Anna Calvi is right handed, but once stated that she has more strength in her left hand and therefore tries to compensate in various ways so as to use that to her advantage when playing. This actually makes a lot of sense because she does a lot of rhythmic things with her left hand; sweeping and sliding. Anna Calvi’s so called “weakness” definitely isn’t something that’s noticeable, which illustrates beautifully how possible it is for musicians to turn their weaknesses into strengths. In itself, that’s inspirational too. 

Anna Calvi’s Standout Tracks: Rider to the Sea, I’ll be your man, Indies or Paradise

James Dean Bradfield.
 (Manic Street Preachers)

James Dead Bradfield (Manic Street Preachers) Top 5 Most Inspirational Guitarists

James Dead Bradfield (Manic Street Preachers) Top 5 Most Inspirational Guitarists

What I find endearing about James Dean Bradfield is that he makes no secret of trying to emulate his own guitar heroes. His influences  include; Johnny Marr, [The Smiths] Andy Gill [Gang of Four] and even Slash from Guns n Roses. 
For me personally, James Dean Bradfield’s most outstanding (and ambitious) guitar work came out of the ‘Holy Bible’ era, which was the last album the Manics recorded with their bandmate and lyricist, Richie Edwards, before he went missing. Given that Richie’s ‘lyrics’ were more like lengthy essays without gaps, James Dean Bradfield had the unenviable task of breaking down those words and giving them a sense of structure so that the music could be built around them. I suspect that this will have made the music significantly more challenging to write because – as with the lyrics themselves – there’s also a sense of “cramming” angular hooks, riffs and solos into very tight spaces, which I think makes the guitar parts (and vocals) all the more impressive, and unusual. This might sound to some like a description of how music should never be written, but I personally think it makes for an amazing body of work. By James Dean Bradfield’s own admission, the guitars and vocals from that album are incredibly difficult to perform live. I twice saw them perform the album it it’s entirety however, and can definitely attest to how gifted a guitarist (and performer) he really is. It’s not just about the quantity of notes, or even their tight execution; James Dean Bradfield is (I find) at his best when he’s bridging the gap between post-punk and classic rock styles. 

James Dead Bradfield’s Standout Guitar Tracks Faster, Comfort Comes, This is Yesterday (Live from Cardiff International Arena ’98)

Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell - Top 5 Inspirational Guitarists

Joni Mitchell – Top 5 Inspirational Guitarists

Joni Mitchell might not seem like an obvious or expected choice for a “top guitarists” list, but I’ve included her with good reason. When I first started to take a real interest in music, I sought to find a female role model who could be held as an example of musical self sufficiency; someone who could write, arrange, sing and play (simultaneously) to a high standard, and I found all of these things in Joni Mitchell. As a teenager I was naturally drawn to her earlier folk albums, which are very melodic and pretty with interesting chord structures. Joni Mitchell has quite a distinctive finger-picking style which I tried my best to imitate when I first began to teach myself rudimentary chords on my brother’s acoustic guitar. I don’t think she gets anywhere near enough recognition for just how clever and innovative a guitarist she is. For the longest time I couldn’t understand why Joni Mitchell’s songs were so difficult to work out by ear, but it’s because of her unconventional approach to tuning; I read somewhere once that she uses a total of 51 different alternative tunings!!?

Joni Mitchell’s Standout Guitar Tracks: Ladies of the Canyon, The Priest, Roses Blue

Marissa Paternoster (Screaming Females)

Marissa Paternoster (Screaming Females) - Top 5 Most Inspirational Guitarists

Marissa Paternoster (Screaming Females) – Top 5 Most Inspirational Guitarists

Screaming Females are a band that are best experienced live, because they’ve an energy about them that can only come from having continuously gigged together for well over a decade. Marissa Paternoster is traditionally a bit of a shred-head guitarist (evidently a big Smashing Pumpkins fan), but in later years she’s dialled back a lot of those tendencies and seems to be more focused on crafting memorable riffs and hooks. She’s the reason I own a Boss Digital Delay DD6 guitar pedal and I’m very grateful for having been introduced to it because it’s turned out to be a very useful purchase. Marissa Paternoster ticks a lot of boxes for me as a guitarist, playing intricate notes and riffs whilst singing at the same time. For me, musicians who can do this (efficiently, and to a high standard) are the most exciting and engaging to watch live, because you’re getting to witness two separate instruments working independently of eachother, while still being controlled and synchronised by the same mind, which – I think, is quite special. It’s an aspect of musicianship that has always fascinated me, which is probably why four out of 5 of the guitarists on my list also happen to be singers too. 

Marissa Paternoster’s Standout Guitar Tracks: Red Hand, I don’t Mind it, I’ll make you sorry

Spotify Playlist: Most Inspirational Guitarists – A playlist on Spotify featuring most of the tracks mentioned in the article along with other guitarists and songs who I’ve found to be inspirational and influential. 

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