Neil Young, the Canadian troubadour, has given us so many brilliant moments over the years, and with each passing day, it gets harder to rank his songs due to how much pulp they have. Moments such as 1969’s ‘Cinnamon Girl’, 1975’s Zuma and even 2010’s Le Noise have solidified his unquestionable status as the ‘Godfather of Grunge’ and undeniable confirmed his legacy as your favourite musician’s favourite musician.
A songwriter who isn’t exactly known for his optimism, the ’70s was arguably Young’s finest period, although the years preceding and following were also fruitful. His unmistakable voice and introspective lyrics have marked him out as one of the most unique musical artists of all time, and he has helped to soundtrack the lives of anybody going through a hard time, whether that be in 1975 or 2015. His work has a universal, timeless appeal, which has culminated in his massive legacy as one of the most enduring musicians ever to have existed.
His life and career have been full of so many ups and downs; they are begging to be made into a biopic. His efforts have permeated popular culture so much so that, when Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain tragically took his own life in April 1994, he referenced the Young song ‘My My, Hey Hey’ in his suicide note. Since then, the line “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” has taken on a life of its own. Additionally, Placebo referenced his 1972 song ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’ in their 2006 single ‘Song to Say Goodbye’, and for Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2014 flick Inherent Vice, Young’s 1970s appearance was used as the aesthetic basis for the wardrobe of the film’s protagonist, Doc Sportello.
Young is also widely lauded for his guitar work. One of the most influential guitarists of all time; he’s made a mark on practically every notable artist. Minimalist and driven by feeling, the moniker ‘Godfather of Grunge’ is mainly attributed to the overdriven and progressive work on the guitar that he did from 1969 to the late ’70s. Without his efforts on the guitar, many leading contemporary guitarists would not exist, and in many ways, the foundations of what became known as alternative rock were laid by Young.
Without his dark lyrics and brooding guitar style, alt-rock as we know it would be a very different beast. As a songwriter and guitarist, Young is also lauded by his contemporaries, with everyone from Jimmy Page to Johnny Rotten listed amongst his legions of fans. This got us thinking, as he is so revered on the six-string, who are the five best guitarists inspired by him?
Placing considerable weight on alt-rock guitarists, we’ve found five iconic players who owe a lot to Neil Young. Our list is subjective but should be used as a starting point for healthy discussion concerning the gargantuan legacy of Neil Young.
Five iconic guitarists inspired by Neil Young:
Trey Anastasio – Phish
Probably the most outspoken Neil Young stan is Trey Anastasio, the frontman and guitarist of the modern equivalent to The Grateful Dead, Phish.
In Rolling Stone, Anastasio once said: “If I was ever going to teach a master class to young guitarists, the first thing I would play them is the first minute of Neil Young’s original ‘Down by the River’ solo. It’s one-note, but it’s so melodic, and it just snarls with attitude and anger. It’s like he desperately wants to connect. Neil’s playing is like an open tube from his heart right to the audience.”
He concluded: “Traditional concepts of rhythm and keys are great, but music is like a giant ocean. It’s a big, furious place, and there are a lot of trenches that haven’t been explored. Neil is still blazing a trail for people who are younger than him, reminding us you can break artistic ground.”
Kurt Cobain – Nirvana
Neil Young was a huge influence on Kurt Cobain. This is reflected in the heartbreaking suicide note he left, and in the way that Cobain and his Seattle peers showered Young with so much love, that he earned himself the moniker ‘Godfather of Grunge’.
In Cobain’s guitar playing, Young’s influence rings loud and clear. Simple but emotive guitar solos, hitting the guitar hard, and an all-around minimalist sound, if you listen to the likes of ‘Danger Bird’, you’ll hear similarities between it and Nirvana classics such as ‘Something In The Way’ and ‘Marigold’, for different reasons of course.
Jonny Greenwood – Radiohead
At first glance, you wouldn’t expect Jonny Greenwood to cite Neil Young as an influence, but there are many similarities, in fact, Neil Young has had a defining impact on Radiohead in general. One would argue that the angular, minimalist style that Greenwood is known for takes many directions from Young’s playing.
Another guitarist not afraid of ‘one-note solos’, Greenwood is Young just with more FX pedals. Passionate and emotive, without Young’s playing, Greenwood’s style would sound very different. It’s not just in Radiohead where you can hear it either, his solo track ‘Amethyst’ from the Inherent Vice soundtrack, a gorgeous acoustic number, shares many similarities with some of the glorious playing on Harvest.
Noel Gallagher – Oasis
It turns out everyone’s favourite Gallagher brother is one of the biggest Neil Young fans out there. In 2011 he told MOJO: “I’ve seen him with Crazy Horse, with acoustic gigs, and he always comes from a place of truth. He’s invented a car that runs on fucking grass or something. The world can be split into two camps: people that like Neil Young and people that don’t. And the people that don’t are fucking idiots.”
Normally, you’d think that Gallagher was most inspired by John Lennon or Peter Green, but it’s Neil Young that takes the top spot on his list of inspirations. He said Young was the only musician he’s been “in awe of” after the meeting, and that the only musician he would love to jam with is Young.
“Neil Young and Crazy Horse would be fucking great,” Gallagher explained on his YouTube channel. ‘Just to kind of be on stage with them and skulk around in the background just playing loud, I’d love that. Or playing drums for Crazy Horse, I’d be a great Crazy Horse drummer. I’ll be Neil Young’s drummer all day.”
Thurston Moore – Sonic Youth
Legendary noise merchants, Sonic Youth, owed a lot to Neil Young. Yes, they were inspired by a lot of the avant-garde musical happenings in New York during the early ’80s, but in terms of guitar playing, Young has had a massive influence. His pioneering use of feedback and noise showed the New York legends that they too could use it as an artistic choice. Thurston Moore has talked at length about the genius of Neil Young at points in the past.
He told NBHAP in 2017: “Last time I saw Neil Young in New York City, he was playing all his great Neil Young songs, but in some of them he would get into these long noise eruptions. It was amazing and I would be really appreciative of it. People sitting in front of me got really upset because he wouldn’t stop doing it. One guy got up and started yelling. I thought it was interesting because he had no interest or consideration to what was Neil was trying to do in terms of free sonic expression. It’s all music, isn’t it? It’s all sound.”
Typically tacit in his understanding of artistic expression, Moore concluded: “The artist is working with sound as a painter is working with paint. That’s my feeling of it while this gentleman was all about the value of the song. He felt like it was devalued or his time was being wasted. You do have a certain responsibility and respect for people who pay money to buy your records and listen to your music. I do think about these things.“