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Let’s be brutally honest here. Most of us, myself included, are basically imitators. Before you go medieval on me, I don’t mean to say we never have an original thought—just that we take all we’ve heard and bend it to our own uses. Some will just be mimics. Others will make a personal style out of it. Very few will take what they have heard and forge it into something new and amazing that will change how the instrument or music in general is played.
Time to name some names! And, (disclaimer here) all of this is debatable. I think the most important musician in the last 100 years to influence everything was Louis Armstrong. The way he played changed the way every non-classical player played their instrument. In my humble opinion— and rest assured that no opinion could be more humble—number two would be Miles Davis. He was the catalyst of at least four jazz movements, from bebop to fusion, and the who’s who of great players that went through his band is unprecedented. Miles’ trumpet playing was influential, but in his case it was Miles the bandleader and visionary who affected music as a whole. Charlie Parker was also an innovator, stylistically. But without Armstrong, the others wouldn’t have happened the way they did.
From Innovators to Influencers
Sadly, there are no guitar players who even come close to Louis and Miles as innovators. There are players who innovate or influence other players of the guitar who are important at least to the rest of us guitar pluckers. Numero uno is Andres Segovia. He moved the guitar into the realm of being a legitimate instrument, and he was also the reason many composers wrote for the guitar. The next two are Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian. Django has followers who’ve made his style into almost a religion. It’s surprising how many people try to just play exactly like him. Few seem to take his style and build on it. I will credit Bireli Lagrene as a great player who takes Django and knocks it up a notch. Other Django-influenced players include Les Paul and Danny Gatton. Charlie Christian, on the other hand, inspired a generation of players such as Jim Hall, Joe Pass, Herb Ellis, Barney Kessel, and Tal Farlow, who in turn influenced the players that came after them.
That brings us to the ’50s and some genre jumping. Another guitar church founder is the great Chet Atkins. Chet’s picking influenced players in many genres, and I will go as far as to say he pretty much influenced all guitar players to some extent. Chet is also interesting because his playing not only spawned a mass of imitators, it also influenced many players to play fingerstyle and do it with their own flavors: Lenny Breau, Tommy Emmanuel, Tommy Jones, George Harrison, Leo Kottke, Scotty Anderson, and on and on—Chet was and is huge.
Rock’s daddy has to be Chuck Berry. I also think many people took up guitar because of Buddy Holly. Was Buddy an amazing player? Nope, but he made some great rock music and looked cool with his Strat. The Ventures were gigantic in their day, and I know a bunch of guys who started playing guitar because of them. Mike Bloomfield’s frantic blues playing got people running to play Les Pauls. Obviously, The Beatles also got people to buy guitars, though like Buddy Holly I think it had more to do with things other than their guitar playing. The two biggies of the ’60s are Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. The influence these two guys had is almost beyond description. Though both of them were very much based in the blues, their use of distortion, effects boxes, volume, and of course epic solos touched every bit of rock guitar that came after.
So you get the upshot here? There are innovators who change all of music, but it’s a small number, and there are players who innovate and influence the way the instrument is played, and there are many of them! Bottom line? Take all the things that you love and play from your heart. You may or may not change the world. I don’t think you can actually set out to change the world—but you can play as you play, and it will go where it goes. Listen to your heart when you play.
Pat Smith founded the Penguin Jazz Quartet and played Brazilian music with Nossa Bossa. He studied guitar construction with Richard Schneider, Tom Ribbecke and Bob Benedetto, and pickin’ with Lenny Breau, Ted Greene, Guy Van Duser and others. Pat currently lives in Iowa and plays in a duo with bassist Rich Wagor.