Guitar giants as Eddie Van Halen, Angus Young, Billy Gibbons and Pete Townshend possess outsized personalities that shine brightly when the spotlight is cast on them. At the other end of the spectrum, however, are superb players who’ve made their mark in a more understated fashion. The following players, several of whom passed away far before their time, deserve more public recognition than they've received thus far.
Terry Kath (Chicago)
Terry Kath was the backbone behind Chicago’s innovative jazz-rock style during the band’s ‘70s glory years. A pioneer of hammer-on harmonics, Kath powered the classics "25 or 6 to 4," "Make Me Smile" and "I'm a Man" with skills that, years earlier, had earned him rich praise from Jimi Hendrix. Besides his SG, Kath often played a rare 1969 Les Paul Professional. Gibson manufactured less than 1,000 Les Paul Professionals, all between 1969 and 1971. Tragically, Kath died in 1978 from unintentional self-inflicted gunshot wound.
First with the ‘70s cult band Patto, and later as a sideman with countless top-tier artists, guitarist Ollie Halsall forged a progressive style that deeply impacted that likes of Alvin Lee, Allan Holdsworth and Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen. Even The Rolling Stones briefly considered recruiting him as their replacement for Mick Taylor. Halsall’s legendary white SG – a 1967 “Type 2” three-pickup Custom model -- has been a source of fascination nearly on par with interest in Halsall himself. You can check out Gibson’s in-depth profile here.
Grosvenor was a founding member of Spooky Tooth and later played in Stealers Wheel, but it was during his brief tenure with Mott Hoople – performing under the pseudonym, Ariel Bender – that he made his most enduring mark. Stepping in as the band’s guitarist after Mick Ralphs left to co-found Bad Company, Grosvenor graced Mott’s 1975 Live album with his sensational six-string work. After leaving Mott, Grosvenor went on to co-found the short-lived but acclaimed U.K. band, Widowmaker.
June Millington (Fanny)
The Runaways, The Go-Go’s and The Bangles all owe an incalculable debt to guitarist June Millington. Co-founding the all-female rock band Fanny at the turn of the ‘70s, Millington used her ever-present 1956 Les Paul to forge a template that all women-in-rock could aspire to. In 1970, Fanny became the first all-female rock band to release an album on a major label. No less an expert than David Bowie once said that “[Fanny was] extraordinary. They are as important as anybody else who's ever been, ever. It just wasn't their time."
Phil Manzanera (Roxy Music)
Bryan Ferry (and, early on, Brian Eno) got the bulk of attention, but nothing was more integral to Roxy Music’s sound, in all its myriad phases, than Phil Manzanera's stylishly innovative guitar work. Often playing his iconic red-and-black Gibson Firebird VII – one of his go-to guitars to this day – Manzanera has always exhibited remarkable range on his instrument. From wild, free-from improvisation to subtle, sophisticated soundscapes, seemingly nothing is beyond him.
Randy Bachman, who studied guitar under Lenny Breau, once said those lessons marked “the beginning of [his] life as a guitar player.” By his early ‘20s, Breau had perfected a style that incorporated jazz, flamenco, country and classical music. Guitar Player once pointed out that Breau had the uncanny ability to play bass lines and chords with his thumb and first two fingers, while superimposing single-note lines with his third and fourth fingers, often augmented with mind-bending octave harmonic arpeggios.
If funk guitar can be said to have a father, that person would be Jimmy Nolen. A key sideman for the notoriously demanding James Brown, Nolan developed his famous “chicken scratch” style by focusing on light chops and rapid strumming, and playing near the bridge. Nolan often used an ES-175 hollowbody or a Les Paul, set up with extremely low action and heavy gauge strings, to achieve his distinctive sound. That sound can be heard in all its glory on tracks like “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “I Got You (I Feel Good).”
Anyone who’s heard Randy California’s stellar guitar work understands why Jimi Hendrix was such an ardent fan. Versatile beyond measure, California could reel off soaring jazz-rock instrumentals, stinging Chicago-style blues and otherworldly pyrotechnics in the manner of Hendrix himself. Much of that music was recorded within the context of Spirit, one of the most sophisticated ensembles to emerge from rock’s psychedelic era. From the mid ‘60s until his tragic death, at age 45, in a 1997 in a swimming accident, California played (and often composed) some of the most transcendent music ever delivered on a six-string.
No punk-oriented guitarist was more intent than Robert Quine on using his guitar to serve the song at-hand. Even at its most fractured and discordant, Quine's playing served as a backdrop against which a composition could shine. His work on Lou Reed's underappreciated 1982 classic, The Blue Mask, is one of rock's best examples of the marriage between great guitar work and great songwriting. Tragically, Quine took his own life in 2004, at age 62.
Bob Stinson (The Replacements)
The late great Replacements owe much more than their rambunctious image to founding guitarist Bob Stinson. A devoted student of the instrument – he counted Steve Howe among his influences – Stinson’s playing was hardly just about speed and volume. Lyrically expressive moments like his solo on “Sixteen Blue” flew in the face of the buffoonish character he himself helped cultivate. Stinson’s banishment from The Replacements in 1986 left a hole in the group’s chemistry that was never properly filled.