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The guitar has been the king of rock & roll instruments for more than half a century. What you are about to read are twenty reasons why the present and future of rock guitar are as exciting and explosive as its history. In attack, technique, lyrical ambition and experimental drive, these players are all descendants of the original heroes — including Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Duane Allman and Jimmy Page — who transformed the electric guitar in the Sixties and Seventies. As John Frusciante says, "For me, the genuine guitar heroes had a lot to say musically and put themselves out there. They tried to take the instrument to new places."
But Frusciante, Derek Trucks, John Mayer and the other guitarists in these pages are all heroes and gods in their own, often extreme, right. They are also proof that, long after Chuck Berry minted the fundamental twang and addicting joy of rock & roll guitar on his 1955 debut single, "Maybellene," there remains much to discover and study in the unlimited alchemy you get from wood, six strings, electricity and the highly personal poetry of touch and strum. The distinguishing mark of rock's greatest guitarists is, Mayer insists, "they're all stuck on what they're seeking, not where they are."
This celebration differs from our 2003 survey, "The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time," in some ways. The guitarists here are, by the measure of rock's extended history, new. Most are under forty, and all have made their impact in the last two decades. Also, there is no ranking. Numbered lists can be fun; we still get blowback from last time about who should have been up, out, in or down. But nerve and originality are not easily quantifiable, and that goes for record sales too. Frusciante and Mayer are among the few multiplatinum sellers here. Yet everyone in these pages is a true star of the instrument.
In one central way, however, this tribute to the guitar and those who play it is exactly like the 2003 issue: You cannot turn a page without a reference or a deep bow of gratitude to Hendrix. Frusciante, Mayer and Trucks all speak of him with informed reverence, and Hendrix's cataclysmic influence appears repeatedly in the sound and vision of the other players. In the Rock & Roll Guitar Hall of Fame, Jimi Hendrix is, by every standard, Number One. Everyone else -- including the hundreds of great guitarists who will be cited in the blizzard of letters and e-mails sure to follow — is Number Two.
Ask John Mayer if he is a guitarist or a singer-songwriter, and he replies immediately: "Always a guitarist." As a kid, he goes on, "I had this vision — sitting by a window on a rainy afternoon, just playing guitar. I said to myself, 'If I have enough strings and electricity, I can play guitar forever. I don't need anything else.'" Today, Mayer, 29, is more famous as a singer-songwriter. His first two albums, 2001's Room for Squares and 2003's Heavier Things, have sold a combined 6 million copies, and his latest record, Continuum, is nominated for five Grammys, including Album of the Year. But as a teenager, Mayer — who was born in 1977 in Bridgeport, Connecticut — was so obsessed with Texas guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan that, Mayer recalls, laughing, "in my mind, I was on my way to being the next Stevie Ray." Instead, Mayer is a pop star and a dynamic, accomplished guitarist with an electric-Chicago attack and melodic concision best heard on Try!, his 2005 live album with the John Mayer Trio. He is also a passionate apostle for the blues elders he loves so much, such as Buddy Guy, B.B. King and Eric Clapton. "I never practice," Mayer insists. "I'm always playing. I want to write songs people can just jam on."
In your Jimi Hendrix essay in our 2004 "Immortals"
issue, you wrote, "Who I am as a guitarist is defined by my failure
to become Jimi Hendrix." Can you elaborate on that?
If I could play more like Hendrix, I would. I'd want to do it all the time. But who I am is an amalgam of pop and something rootsier. It's not a choice. As for Jimi Hendrix, all guitar players feel that way: "I'm not him."
When did you get your first guitar?
It was January 1991. I was thirteen. My father rented a Washburn acoustic guitar from a music store. I took it to the bathroom, closed the door and sat there, thinking, "How do I find out what's in here? What are you hiding?"
I'm attracted to what I don't know. Everyone else I knew said things like, "I watched him play, and it made me want to quit." I never wanted to put the guitar down. I watched guys who made me want to pick it up. That's when you have the disease: You get your ass kicked, and you say, "I'm going to figure out why I lost that fight."