Where did all the guitar heroes go?

I recently watched a documentary called ‘Blood, Frets & Tears’ (props to whoever named it) and I had a bit of an epiphany: where did all the guitar heroes go? As this short film traversed all sorts of greats from over the years — Eddie Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteen, Jimi Hendrix and so on — it struck me that we don’t listen to bands these days for their standout strummers. 

Making music is more of a team sport where perhaps the vocalist might be the most well-known figure, rather than the guitarist. Riffs and chords are underpinning each of a band’s tracks, sure, but shredding solos aren’t as prominent. I’d even go as far as saying you don’t await a new release just for the six-string wizardry. 

Correct me if I’m wrong. This realisation has been nagging at me for more than a week though. I’ve been racking my brain to think of modern-era guitarists who steal the limelight. And I hope all guitarists forgive me for putting this out there, because I mean absolutely no disrespect, but I just don’t think we’re in a generation of defined ‘guitar heroes’ anymore. I think we listen to bands and celebrate their skillset as a whole, rather than just the gifted guitarist(s).

Of course, plenty have prominence. You’ve got the masterful, electronic guitar playing of Jess Allanic of Calva Louise, and you can also draw on the incredible indie chords provided by Bloc Party’s Russell Lissack as another deft example. Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys is also a guitarist you’d know instantly. And yeah, I can’t discount John Frusciante, the Red Hot Chili Peppers maestro, but he’s also not as ‘present day’ as some other guitarists I’ve noted. All I’m saying is it’s just really hard to think of a standalone guitarist within a current band that has the same presence and gets the same traction as Slash, for instance.

Quite simply, has there been an Eddie Van Halen type after Eddie Van Halen? No. There’s just no arguing with that position either. He was a borderline magician and an unrivalled expert in his field, who pushed the boundaries at every hurdle like it came all too naturally. That’s beyond commanding. It’s spellbinding, beguiling, fascinating — I could keep going with the ameliorative adjectives and I wasn’t even born when he was at his peak! That’s how much of an impression he’s made and an icon he continues to be.

If we switch subjects to Hendrix though, the closest likeness to the legend’s style, for me, is probably Gary Clark Jr. — don’t you reckon? His blues licks and effortless ability are fantastic. He has an ease with the guitar that I don’t think is quite comparable to another player that’s made it as big in recent years. If you can think of someone who contradicts that, please do share in the comments, but I feel he’s possibly the most similar to Hendrix that you’ll presently find.

But does that make him a guitar hero? Well, by definition, yes. In the same vein as the rockstars of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s? You could put a case forward either way, but I still don’t think I could say Gary Clark Jr. is quite in that same tier. I want to, but I just think guitar heroes in their classic sense might now be a piece of the past.

So, I challenge you to think of a modern guitarist — or one even that’s emerged later than Nirvana — who could go toe to toe with Eddie Van Halen in calibre. I think there are immensely talented guitarists all over the world — and there always will be — but the mould-breaking trailblazers of rock music might have had their time in the I’m-the-goddamn-guitarist stakes. And that’s okay. Gone are the days of just shining the spotlight on the players because they rise to the fore more; it’s about championing all band members now.

eddie-van-halen-guitar-hero-record-weekly
Image credit: Ebert Roberts/Redferns

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