Johnny Thunders was the quintessence of punk, years before anybody thought of applying that word to a style of rock music. An Italian-American guy (born John Genszale Jr.) from the boroughs of New York, Thunders took the rock and roll of his Sixties youth—the London raunch of the Stones/Who/Kinks, the bratty belligerence of American garage bands, the sloppy drama and sexual tension of the girl groups—and rolled it all into a slashing, trashy guitar style that redefined rock music for all time. Thunders, who died under mysterious circumstances in 1991, condensed rock guitar down to its essence: switchblade open chords and razor-sharp leads that cut to the quick. His playing was the spark that ignited the New York Dolls’ gutter-glam histrionics. And without the Dolls, punk never would have happened.
Thunders was a profound influence on the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones, who repaid Johnny for leading him to a life of punk rock deviance by playing on Thunders’ first solo album, So Alone, in 1978. Thunders also performed with Richard Hell in the Heartbreakers and with Sid Vicious in the short-lived, but aptly named, Living Dead.
Chronic heroin use made Thunders’ career a hit-and-miss affair. Sometimes the notes were off, but the attitude was always dead-on. And attitude, not notes, is what rock is really all about.
SIGNATURE TRACK “Born to Lose”
RECOMMENDED ALBUM So Alone
Guitarist Ben Weinman’s combination of mind-boggling tempo changes, jazzy freak-outs and rhythmically dense prog- and jazz fusion–based signatures defies convenient terminology. So a new term was coined—mathcore—to describe the style of hardcore music Weinman performs with Dillinger Escape Plan, the New Jersey–based band he formed in 1997 and of which he is the sole remaining original member. Since the group released Calculating Infinity in September 1999, Weinman has become something of an underground phenomenon for his calculated, but chaotic-sounding, blend of razor-sharp riffs, polyrhythmic beats and surprisingly subtle layers of tone and musical texture.
His own source of inspiration comes from some advice Helmet’s Page Hamilton once gave him: learn theory, then throw away that knowledge and just play. Weinman says it’s a practice he has always followed, and it’s one that has kept fans of technically adventurous guitar playing following him ever since.
SIGNATURE TRACK “43% Burnt” (Calculating Infinity)
RECOMMENDED ALBUM Irony Is a Dead Scene (The Dillinger Escape Plan with Mike Patton)
Clarence White is the towering figure standing at the crossroads where rock guitar and country guitar meet. His hard-driving flat-picked acoustic style and supremely twangy electric work were integral to the birth of the country rock genre, and he is regularly cited as a hero by present-day country pickers like Tony Rice and Marty Stuart.
The son of a French Canadian fiddle, banjo and guitar player, Clarence performed traditional bluegrass in his youth. But in 1966, he hooked up with one of the era’s greatest folk rock/psychedelic bands, the Byrds. White’s sparkling guitar contributions helped push the Byrds in a country direction, an impetus that culminated in the 1968 cult classic Sweetheart of the Rodeo, generally hailed as the first country rock album and the disc that became a blueprint for subsequent L.A. cowboys like Gram Parsons and the Eagles.
White’s passion for fusing country with rock also led to his co-invention, with the Byrds’ Gene Parsons, of the B-Bender, a retrofit device that allows a standard electric guitar to emulate the weepy sound of a pedal-steel guitar. White’s B-Bender is standard equipment for country players today. And where would the Stones’ Ronnie Wood be without it?
Alongside White’s work with the Byrds, he was a first-call L.A. session player, contributing to discs by Jackson Browne, Randy Newman and others. He was just hitting his prime when his life was cut short in 1973, killed by a drunk driver while loading his gear into a van after a gig.
SIGNATURE TRACK “The Christian Life” (The Byrds)
RECOMMENDED ALBUM Sweetheart of the Rodeo (The Byrds)