How many guitarists do you know by ear? You know, those players that you recognize after hearing three or four notes, even if you’ve never heard the song before. Most serious music fans have at least a couple and, I think, that if you play an instrument you are more likely to recognize the sound of others who play the same instrument. There are probably 1 or 2 trumpet players, sax players or piano players that I can recognize by ear. As a guitar player, there are probably 5 or 6 guitarists who I can recognize within a measure and a bunch more within 30 seconds or so. The 5 or 6 have some combination of identifiable tone, phrasing, touch or note selection.
In many ways these guitar sounds are as identifiable as a voice. When you think about, it is pretty remarkable that there are as many recognizable players as there are. With the human voice, we all are born with a pretty unique one. The things that can be brought to bear to create a unique guitar sound are much more external – pick-ups, effects, amplifiers, the instruments themselves, particularly with acoustic guitars. But, you could hand the same Les Paul or Stratocaster plugged into the same Fender amp to Kenny Wayne Sheppard, Carlos Santana, Mark Knopfler and George Benson and have them all play the same phrase. Then if you turned your back and closed your eyes I would bet that you would be able to identify which player was which.
Developing your own voice as a guitarist is a noble goal that many players pursue fervently. Listening to the things that make other players recognizable is a major component to developing that individual voice. While it is understandable that some of the ‘guitar heroes’ are the once that populate our lists, there are a lot of players whose names aren’t generally known, but who are recognizable just the same. Their styles and sound works so well as an accompaniment to other singers and players that they become the player of choice. They end up on many people’s recordings in an accompanying role and become a recognizable force. There are many ways to make one’s mark as a guitarist.
For the record, my top immediately identifiable guitarists, in no particular order, are Mark Knopfler, Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Doc Watson and Wes Montgomery. Who are yours?