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.
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.
The pedal-steel player may not wear a guitar or pose in a classic lead guitar stance, but the buzz about the player could be heard even over the cacophony of riffage at the trade-show area where concert goers eyed rows and rows of six-string instruments.
There was also plenty of fuss over Jedd Hughes, a 22-year-old Australian native who got a job playing with country star Patty Loveless two weeks after landing in Nashville four years ago.
"I've been working really hard and I still continue to work hard because you have to," says Hughes.
Originality and dedication was the mantra repeated by most players, including Michael Kelsey, who won the "Guitarmageddon" playoff at one of the smaller stages outside the Cotton Bowl stadium. He also won a new fan in Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, of Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan fame.
"People are going to see more of him," Baxter says. "This man is going to have the opportunity to communicate."
Surveying the broader musical landscape, Molenda is confident that other young guitarists will make a name for themselves.
When he attended Ozzfest, an annual tour of heavy-metal acts, he was astounded how good the youngest players were.
"If you look at the second stage at Ozzfest ... last year, it was like nu-metal bands that really couldn't play that well," he says. "This year, every single kid on that stage could just absolutely shred."
Rock music is missing someone who can wow crowds with his prowess, he notes. "Who knows what could happen in 2010? I think that there's stuff bubbling under the surface."
For the most part, the veterans at the Crossroads festival were enthusiastic about supporting new talent. Clapton personally chose most of the players invited to the festival, a fundraiser for his Crossroads Center for drug and alcohol addicts in Antigua.
Clapton also hired Randolph to perform as the opening act on his current tour, and gleefully watched from the wings as Randolph awed a large Saturday night crowd. Randolph later came out to perform with Clapton, Jimmie Vaughan, Robert Cray, Buddy Guy, and Hubert Sumlin.
Sumlin represents the old, old guard. Like James "Honeyboy" Edwards and Robert Lockwood Jr., he's one of the blues boys who helped popularize electric guitars, and who served as the inspiration for Clapton, Beck, Page, and Richards - pioneers of the the British blues boom who adapted their sounds from American blues players and became guitar heroes in the process.
Dave Weiderman, director of artist relations for Guitar Center International, says he saw Clapton in the audience Friday night watching Edwards and Lockwood, so he plugged in a guitar and told Clapton it was ready if he wanted to use it.
But Clapton responded, "Oh, I couldn't do that. I would be embarrassed to do that. Those guys are legends."
J.J. Cale, for one, sees room for similar gatherings of guitar heroes well into the future.
"I don't think the guitar star is gonna go away," he says. "But who knows? I don't know nothin' about the future ... it might be piccolos next."