Lists of top guitarists of all time will often rattle off the big names in rock music, usual suspects including Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Mark Knopfler. Without intent to take anything away from these extraordinarily gifted musicians, the “guitar hero” label is often thrown disproportionately in favour of guitarists who rose to worldwide fame in pop music of the late 20th century.
In conversations discussing top guitarists, we tend to hear a list consisting almost exclusively of electric rhythm and blues lead guitarists. The finest example within this criterion is Hendrix. His ability to cover all areas of the fretboard almost instantaneously with perfect form was utterly mindblowing. That said, where’s the love for the acoustic or jazz guitar virtuosos?
In a similar critique of the usual “guitar hero” lists, Eric Clapton himself has grown tired of the unfairly narrow criteria by which top guitarists are measured, even within the criterion of electric rhythm and blues.
“I was tired of the ‘guitar hero’ thing,” Clapton wrote in his autobiography, recalling his transition to a lower-key style on his first solo album, “And I was starting to follow the example of JJ Cale.” On another occasion, Clapton said, “I was tired of gymnastic guitar playing, and when I listened to JJ Cale records, I was impressed by the subtlety, by what wasn’t being played.”
Despite his love for JJ Cale’s unsung aptitude for blues guitar and songwriting, Clapton has a particularly soft spot for the American jazz guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and once revealed that he wished he had the ability to emulate his style.
In an interview with Uncut in 2015, Clapton was asked if he has ever looked at other guitarists and said to himself ‘I wish I could do that’. “Oh yeah! God, yeah,” Clapton replied. “One of my heroes is Kurt Russell. [Laughs] What!? Not Kurt Russell, Kurt Rosenwinkel. He’s a jazz guitar player. Very fluid. He’s a genius, he really is, and a lovely man.”
He continued: “[Rosenwinkel] has the ability to play directly what he hears in his head. I can’t do that. I go to the same old phraseology, or I have to work things out in advance. He’s a proper jazz musician, and I’m in awe of that. He’s got up to play with me a couple of times, we’ve played a blues, or ‘Cocaine’, and he just flies like a bird. I think, man, that’s a wonderful thing to be able to do.”
The interviewer, shocked at Clapton’s revelation, then said, “But it often looks like that’s exactly what you do onstage. There’s no filter; it’s coming straight to your fingertips.”
“I’m not saying I’m completely calculated,” Clapton said. “I can lose myself, and then I don’t know what I’m doing. Something seems to happen of its own volition, and I just try to get out of the way. But it’s not frequent, shall we say. It happens now and then.”
The interviewer then asked whether it was the same for writing; was it about graft or “bolts of lightning?” Clapton responded: “No, it’s both. ‘Wonderful Tonight’ came fully formed, just like that. So did a song of mine called ‘Golden Ring’. If it’s that quick you don’t even give it any value. You think, ‘This is too easy, it can’t be any good.’ ‘Layla’ was a labour of love. Writing that took a long time, bits and pieces stuck together. It was a collage. So it’s both.”
Watch Kurt Rosenwinkel do his thing alongside Eric Clapton in the video below.