If I was asked to list the finest guitarists of all time, I might idly rattle off the usual roster of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Mark Knopfler and so on. My guess is that you would do something similar. However, without taking anything away from these extraordinarily gifted musicians, the “guitar hero” label is often thrown disproportionately in favour of guitarists of a particular style.
Most top ten guitarist lists will usually be almost entirely made up of electric rhythm and blues lead guitarists. The finest example within this criterion is Hendrix. His skill 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.
“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.” In another interview, 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.”
Clapton noted that while speed and agility were important, there’s much more to guitar virtuosity. Knowing when to strip back a solo and pick out the right notes with flawless form and effect would seem underrated.
While JJ Cale doesn’t feature toward the top of many top guitarist lists, he has been frequently endorsed by peers. Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young also weighed in on JJ Cale’s underappreciated capability.
In Young’s biography, Shakey, he went as far as to place Cale at the very top alongside Hendrix. “What is it about JJ Cale’s playing? I mean, you could say Eric Clapton’s the guitar god, but… he can’t play like JJ,” Young told biographer Jimmy McDonough.
Adding: “JJ’s the one who played all that shit first… And he doesn’t play very loud, either – I really like that about him. He’s so sensitive. Of all the players I ever heard, it’s gotta be Hendrix and JJ Cale who are the best electric guitar players. JJ’s my peer, but he doesn’t have the business acumen – he doesn’t have the idea of how to deal with the rest of the world that I do. But musically, he’s actually more than my peer, because he’s got that thing. I don’t know what it is.”
Young returned to the subject of Cale in his more recent autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, writing, “‘Crazy Mama’ by JJ Cale is a record I love. The song is true, simple, and direct, and the delivery is very natural.” [The song was the closest thing Cale had to a hit single, peaking at number 22 on the Billboard chart in 1971.] “JJ’s guitar playing is a huge influence on me,” Young continued. “His touch is unspeakable. I am stunned by it.”
As well as being one of the more subtly gifted guitarists of his generation, JJ Cale also struggled with the business side of music. He enjoyed playing, but he was self-effacing and didn’t have an eye for the bigger picture. It was only after he was discovered by Clapton, who covered his song, ‘After Midnight’ in 1970, that he began to receive more widespread credit for his work. Clapton also released a better-known cover of Cale’s song ‘Cocaine’ in 1977.
Listen to JJ Cale’s ‘After Midnight’ below, one of the many great hits composed by the guitarist’s guitarist.