As you would expect from the world’s second-largest country, Canada has produced its share of great guitarists. From Newfoundland to The Yukon, it’s impossible to pinpoint a “Canadian” music style – just as it is with the U.S. – but from blues to folk to hard rock, there are certainly some great players, often legends in their native country but undervalued outside.
Here’s a rundown of 10 Great White Northeners. And before anyone complains about the absence of Lenny Breau, he was born in Maine and moved to Canada with his family when he was 16.
Add your own choices in the comments, as always…
10. Randy Bachman
From early days with The Guess Who to Bachman-Turner Overdrive to his diverse solo career, Winnipeg’s Randolph Bachman is a Canadian icon. He learned to play violin first, was then taught guitar by Lenny Breau and Les Paul, and demonstrated a smart ear for hits with “American Woman” and BTO’s “Takin’ Care of Business” and “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.” He’s a smooth soloist and has been cartoon’d in The Simpsons. Bachman even managed to swap a Mosrite for a ’59 Les Paul – that’s cool. There’s a fascinating Randy Bachman interview here, key quote: “It’s a thrill to be alive, and still rockin’ and rollin.”
9. Devin Townsend
British Columbia’s Townsend is hardly a household name, but “HevyDevy”’s fans regard him as a true guitar great. His death/thrash/industrial recordings as Strapping Young Lad gets the most attention, but Townsend can also play ambient, jazzy prog and he can also sing – Townsend was the vocalist on Steve Vai’s Sex and Religion album and tour. His proclaimed influences include Frank Zappa, Igor Stravinsky, Broadway musicals and Judas Priest. Mangle that lot and more, via technical ability and you have a highly able musician making jaw-dropping music on the margins.
8. Frank Marino
To some disciples of ’70s hard rock, Montreal’s Frank Marino is the most underrated axeman of that decade. His Jimi-like licks gave rise to an oft-repeated myth about Marino being visited by an apparition of Jimi after a bad LSD trip (Marino denies he ever intimated this), but Hendrix was an audible influence, alongside Johnny Winter, Carlos Santana, Duane Allman and many others. Marino’s own outrageous chops have been lauded by Zakk Wylde and Paul Gilbert. The SG-toting Marino and his band Mahogany Rush weren’t subtle, but when they rocked they really rocked. Marino is still a hero in Quebec, as this latter-day clip shows.
7. Jeff Healey
Toronto’s Jeff Healey was a force of nature. Blind since eight-months-old, he nevertheless took up the guitar at age three with no conventional notion of tunings or chords: he played guitar on his lap and eventually developing a fearsome slide and vibrato technique that was all his own. Healey was much more than a blues-rocker with a mullet, though: he was an expert on vintage jazz (owning over 30,000 pre-1940s vinyl records) and an acclaimed jazz player and radio presenter. The cancer that took his sight in 1966 eventually took his life in 2008, but Jeff Healey deserves recognition as a truly unique guitarist.
6. Rik Emmett
Emmett made his name in ’70s-’80s power trio Triumph, but he’s always been more than a hard-rockin’ shredder and has incorporated jazz, blues and flamenco styles in a rich career. He’s also been a techniques author, a columnist, and is also a funny guy. Yes, Emmett also currently blogs for Gibson.com but that’s because he’s never been a one-trick pony. As Steve Morse once marveled: “I’m amazed at what a great all-round musician he is. On top of that he sings so well. What’s in the Canadian water?”
5. Robbie Robertson
Robertson has been at the heart of American roots music for four decades, as a songwriter, sideman and genius player. His style is based on his picking-hand excellence: watch The Last Waltz and you’ll see flatpicking style, alternating bass picking, smart palm-damping, banjo rolls, pinched harmonics and great color from swelling volume and tone pots.
4. Bruce Cockburn
Cockburn is a Canadian treasure but has yet to become a truly international star. His guitar playing has drawn on blues, jazz and folk: he’s cranked ES-335s at times but is best-known as a masterful fingerstylist. “The fingerpicking was based on Mississippi John Hurt and Manse Lipscomb and other old blues guys like that, but I’d also learned how to play more complex chords,” he told Guitarist magazine. “When I went to Berklee, majoring in composition with guitar as my instrument, I thought I’d be a jazz musician but soon realized I wasn’t prepared to do the work needed to pursue it the way they were teaching it. But I still loved jazz and whenever there’s an opportunity, jazz creeps into my music.”
3. Joni Mitchell
Although acclaimed as a songwriter, Mitchell is also a special guitar stylist. Her use of open tunings and inventive chords makes her a “guitarist’s guitarist”: she may have joked about her techniques as just “Joni’s weird chords" but everyone from Johnny Marr to Prince to Slash has praised her playing. There are very few guitarists who would turn tunings of CGDFCE (“Sisotowbell Lane”) or BF#BEAE (“The Magdalene Laundries”) into alluring songs. Maybe Mitchell’s gender means she is never very high on best guitarist lists? Well, she is here. Go to JoniMitchell.com for 176 songs in 94 different tunings and see how you get on.
2. Neil Young
Some question Young’s “technical ability,” some say he has a weak/bad voice, but the fact is Neil Young plays guitar like no one else. His songwriting is his trump card, but when Young fires up “Old Black” (his favorite Gibson Les Paul) and hits the Bigsby you will hear a unique guitar player. Young rarely discusses his playing approach, gear or technique. Try and cop his signature – the “lazy” timing, those droning solos and chords, the Bigsby, and much distortion – and people will always say, “that sounds like Neil Young.” Take it is a compliment. Toronto’s Neil Young remains one of rock’s greatest guitarists. Doesn’t he?
1. Alex Lifeson
It must be hard being Alex Lifeson sometimes. Despite the fame and money, imagine having to match the drum and bass skills of Neil Peart and Geddy Lee for 37 years? Lifeson has done it, though. An undeniably great riff writer, he is also one of rock’s most idiosyncratic soloists, blending strong melodies with neo-jazz flurries across a Rush catalog that has leapt from Zep-esque slammers to acoustic ballads, from reggae-inflected pop to instrumental prog rock.
An advocate of blending raw tone with technology (see the Alex Lifeson Les Paul Axcess), Lifeson remains one of rock guitar’s relentless explorers of new sounds.
And Rush have even become cool again. “I think that younger bands look at us as perhaps a model that you can do it your way. You can play the music that you want to play,” Lifeson recently told Crawdaddy.com. “You can find your audience, you can grow.” Lifeson continues to do so.