Before the British Invasion of early 1964, it was rare to find skilled rock guitarists who were stars in their own right. There were a few—Duane Eddy, Chuck Berry, and Carl Perkins led the pack, with Link Wray and Lonnie Mack close behind— but as a general rule, singers were the stars and guitarists were sidemen.

In 1966 and ’67—when rock and roll came of age and became rock—the “guitarist as hero” was born. Some say this began with Eric Clapton, who was suddenly thrust into the spotlight with his incendiary work onJohn Mayall’s Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton(aka “the Beano album”). This LP introduced the world to overdriven Les Paul-through-Marshall tone and blew a lot of young guitarists’ minds, including a very impressionable Eddie Van Halen, who reputedly learned Clapton’s solos note-for-note.

It was a dynamic time for rock guitar, as players began emerging from the lead singer’s shadow. After Clapton left the Yardbirds to join Mayall, Jeff Beck stepped into the band and began recording some of the most imaginative, futuristic, and exploratory guitar the world had yet heard. Eventually, his friend Jimmy Page joined the Yardbirds and continued to push the guitar’s sonic boundaries before moving on to launch Led Zeppelin.

And then there was Jimi Hendrix—perhaps the ultimate rock guitar god—as well as Chicagoan Mike Bloomfield (who first made waves in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band), Pete Townshend, Keith Richards, and Peter Green and Mick Taylor (both of whom launched their careers in Mayall’s Bluesbreakers). Dave Davies of the Kinks, Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, and Mountain’s Leslie West were also among the first generation of ’60s guitar heroes. Most of them are still with us and musically active today.

But there are other guitarists who, for whatever reason, never received the recognition or glory they deserved. As we examine some of these unsung heroes, remember this is by no means a complete list. It would take an entire issue of PG to pay homage to all the pioneering players of this era.

Vinny Martell
As the lead guitarist in Vanilla Fudge, Vinny Martell electrified rock fans in the summer of 1967 with a dramatic, slowed-down version of the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”—a track many feel bridged the gap between psychedelia and heavy metal.

Vinny Martell onstage in April 2010 with his ’82 Les Paul Black Beauty. Photo by Bob Cianci

Martell, who was born in the Bronx, New York, joined the US Navy as a young man, and after his stint there he went on to play in bands in Florida before returning to New York. There, he formed a band called the Pigeons with Hammond B-3 organist and singer Mark Stein, bassist Tim Bogert, and drummer Joey Brennan. When the hard-rocking Carmine Appice replaced Brennan on drums, Vanilla Fudge was born. The quartet recorded five albums that consisted mostly of highly rearranged cover material. Their daring mix of soul, rock, and classical music influenced such bands as Deep Purple, Yes, and Led Zeppelin.

Initially, Vanilla Fudge’s music was dominated by Stein’s B-3. It wasn’t until the band’s fourth album, 1969’s Near the Beginning, that Martell came into his own as a guitarist. His playing on Beginning was punctuated by slashing chord work and impassioned blues-based solos that included the occasional Middle Eastern twist. Stein, Bogert, and Appice were powerful players and singers, so at first Martell’s role was to provide a musical foundation for the group. His bandmates also relied on him for moral support. “I was the spiritual guy in the group that held it all together,” says Martell. “I was the calm one who kept things cool. I think we would have splintered any number of times without my influence.”

Over time, Martell stepped into the limelight and also contributed to the band’s sophisticated arrangements. During the Fudge’s ’60s heyday, Martell played Gibson guitars— ES-335s, SGs, a big archtop L-5, and several Les Pauls, including a TV yellow Junior. For amps, Martell gigged with Magnatone, Fender, Standel, Kustom, Traynor, and Sunn models before settling on Marshall stacks. The Fudge split up in 1970, but since the ’90s they’ve regrouped many times for short tours, occasionally with all the original members. Martell also works local gigs with his own band. He currently plays an ’82 Les Paul Black Beauty, a Floyd Rose-equipped Kramer with a custom flame paint job, and several ESP guitars through Mesa/Boogie amplification. “ESP has been great to me,” says Martell. “When I go out on tour, I only bring two guitars—a red ESP that looks like a Les Paul and my Kramer.”

Vanilla Fudge’s progressive vision is documented in a four-disc box set from Rhino Records calledBox of Fudge.

Zal Yanovsky
One of the great characters of ’60s rock, Zal Yanovsky held the lead-guitar spot with the Lovin’ Spoonful for most of the group’s existence and played on all their hits, including “Do You Believe in Magic,” “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice,” “Summer in the City,” “Younger Girl,” and “Rain on the Roof.” An ex-folkie, Canadian-born Yanovsky teamed with Greenwich Village singer, songwriter, and guitarist John Sebastian to form the Spoonful in 1965.

The band’s good-time sound—a mixture of rock, blues, country, folk, and jug-band music—brought them immediate success and challenged the stranglehold that British groups had on the charts at the time. Yanovsky was an accomplished guitarist who could handle straight blues, raucous rock, sensitive chord work, country licks, and much more. He played for the song and delivered exactly what was necessary to make each one work. Yanovsky was also one of the very few guitarists who played the Gumby-shaped Guild S-200 Thunderbird solidbody. He had two—one with a sunburst finish and another with custom purple paint—which he played through Standel amplifiers.

After a drug bust in 1967, Yanovsky left the Spoonful and recorded his only solo album, the now collectible Alive and Well in Argentina, on which he sang and played most of the instruments. He returned home to Kingston, Ontario, where he opened a restaurant, Chez Piggy, followed by the Pan Chancho bakery. Both ventures were highly successful.

When the Lovin’ Spoonful were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, it was the last time all four original members would be reunited. During the end-of-festivities jam, Yanovsky took a solo on his battered S-200 that proved he had lost none of his youthful fire and drew smiles from Eric Clapton, an admitted fan, who was sharing the stage.

Yanovsky died of congestive heart failure in 2002, but thanks to the superb music he left behind, his legacy lives on.