Still searching for the next guitar hero
Last weekend's Crossroads Festival celebrated the guitar greats - but where are the young players?
Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan. For just about any rock fan, these guys define the term "guitar hero." Countless kids all over the world have stood in front of bedroom mirrors pretending to be one of them, or their brethren: B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Carlos Santana, Pete Townshend, Keith Richards.... The list goes on but it's fairly short because somewhere after the emergence of Eddie Van Halen and the super-speed "shredders" of the 1980s, the long line of instantly recognizable guitar heroes seemed to end as abruptly as a shriek of amplifier feedback.Skip to next paragraph
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That was very much evident at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival in Dallas this past weekend. The three-day charity event gathered a who's who of guitarists from around the world, most of whom were well over the age of 40. True, there were a few younger players such as Eric Johnson and Jonny Lang, but they represent the many players who made a big splash, then failed to grab the world with the intensity their forebears did.
That's not to say that guitar music is dead. It's just that guitarists - and guitar solos - are devalued in mainstream pop music today, and many young players in bands prefer not to be singled out from their bandmates.
"There's two things operating here," says Michael Molenda, editor in chief of Guitar Player magazine. "You have to have guitarists that are seeking fame, and you have to have a public that gets excited about a guitar. Right now doesn't seem to be that time."
The festival featured plenty of string bending, sweet vibrato, and fretboard gymnastics by veterans such as Brian May, Joe Walsh, John McLaughlin, Steve Vai, Pat Metheny, and Vince Gill but it also highlighted up-and-coming players including John Mayer and Robert Randolph.
But those new guys (every featured performer during the three-day festival was a guy) don't exactly fit the definition of a traditional guitar hero.
Mayer is renowned for his chart-topping pop songs, not his excellent guitar-playing. Guitar Player once featured Mayer on its cover, Mr. Molenda says, but it didn't sell because readers didn't buy into Mayer as a guitar god - partly because his nice-guy image seems to lack the sense of danger and swagger exuded by ax-slingers. J.J. Cale, who also played in the festival, has his own theory why pop star Mayer hasn't been accepted as a six-string decathlete. "He plays a lot of acoustic guitar on a gig. People think guitar heroes play electric guitar."
Randolph, the phenomenon most likely to be anointed as the next "guitar god," is hardly a guitar player in the traditional sense. The wunderkind doesn't play a Stratocaster or Les Paul, he plays pedal steel guitar and began his musical education with a little-known church music style called "sacred steel."
Randolph, who claims the late ax-slingers Vaughan and Duane Allman as his biggest influences, says anyone who aspires to guitar hero status has to recognize his talent, but stay humble.
"Look within yourself and play from your heart at all times," he says.