The Ten Most Underrated Guitarists in the History of Rock

Nov 17, 2014 at 3:25 am

Asylum Records/Wikimedia Commons
Joni Mitchell: One of history's most underrated guitarists.
While traveling to Texas a few weeks ago, I could not stop listening to Mutiny on the Bay, the searing collection of '80s Dead Kennedys performances released in 2001; East Bay Ray, it occurred to me, is one of the most underrated guitarists in the history of rock.

To me, being underrated doesn't mean that a musician has missed out on accolades and commercial success. It means that, for whatever reason, millions of music lovers probably haven't been exposed to a certain musician's talents and thus haven't had the chance to enjoy him or her. So here -- up for potential enjoyment and probably heated discussion -- are ten guitarists I believe are history's most underrated.

10. Frank Zappa

That Zappa, arguably king of the iconoclasts of popular music, is virtually never listed among even the top twenty greatest guitarists in the history of rock is due mostly to the fact -- unfortunate or amusing, depending on your point of view -- that many of his transcendent solos occurred in songs like "Conehead" and "The Muffin Man." It often seems like 45 percent of music fans won't listen to Zappa because they don't want their rock & roll with a touch of satire, and 45 percent won't listen to Frank Zappa because, in the words of my first music editor, "It was all downhill once Zappa realized how good a guitar player he was." The lucky 10 percent of us who are open to it all -- from the blazing extended Gibson SG workout on "Willie the Pimp," which is my favorite guitar solo of all time, to the absolute shred-fest that is "Rat Tomago" -- get to enjoy a bona fide guitar god who not only makes us bow down Wayne's World-style, but also laugh and think.

9. Dean Ween

Dean Ween (nee Mickey Melchiondo) has always suffered an underrated fate not unlike Zappa's, in that his most beautiful, jaw-dropping guitar solos are often in songs that include lyrics such as "look at your lips/they're like two flabs of fat" and "let me lick your pussy/let me lick your cunt." Also like Zappa, much of the best "Deaner" guitar work comes on a Fender Stratocaster, the searing sound of which -- in the hands of one of rock's most creative and cutting soloists -- can only be compared to an axe. That Dean Ween wasn't even listed in Rolling Stone's Top 100 Greatest Guitarists deserves at least one spin of "You Fucked Up." Eric Clapton, my ass.

8. Joni Mitchell

Listen to Joni Mitchell's unique guitar work carrying a song like "The Dawntreader," or her brash, tasteful jamming with Jaco Pastorius on the experimental 1977 album Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. Not all guitar gods are what you'd call lead guitarists. Sure, Mitchell's phenomenally original rhythm-guitar prowess inspired a lot of annoying '90s imitators, but she's the real deal.