Of all the haphazardly applied labels none is overused more consistently than the term “overrated”. Everything is overrated. Do a quick Google search, and you’ll find that everything from apple pies and mac laptops to Jimi Hendrix and David Beckham are overrated. Somewhere, somebody in their infinite and unquestioned wisdom has labelled your favourite guitarist, sportsman or kitchen utensil overrated – and what’s more, thousands of people have agreed with them.
Despite this frankly ludicrous obsession with the overrated label, the fundamental concept has yet to be watered down. There’s something intrinsic in all of us, a deep-seated desire that makes us yearn to undermine sacred cows, to swiftly boot pedestals out from under the undeserving, and to question conventional wisdom. Hero worship is tiresome, and what’s more it’s subjective. For every churlish cry of “Bob Dylan is overrated”, there’s an equally morose defender claiming that Self Portrait is better than The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Metallica’s combined oeuvre.
Delusional praise annoys everyone, and now it’s Guitar Planet’s turn to take on a series of Guitar Gods and question the hushed reverent tones that surround their names.
Make no mistake this is not a childish exercise: every guitarist on our list is a good, even great player, in their own right. We’re not here to say: “this guy sucks” or to pen a hateful diatribe. This is a serious list of considered critiques that will acknowledge both the player’s strengths and weaknesses. There will be no style bias. We will not dismissing riff writers, Angus Young, Jack White and Keith Richards won’t be punished for a lack of solos, and likewise Eddie Van Halen won’t be slighted for tapping his way into oblivion. Guitarists come in a variety of forms, no one breed is inherently better than another, and Guitar Planet certainly won’t be calling anyone overrated because they can’t solo for eight minutes straight.
…but with that in mind, Guitar Planet presents the Top 5: Overrated Guitarists.
Zakk Wylde is an incredible guitarist. At the height of his powers on his two stunning debuts Pride & Glory (1994 solo) and Sonic Brew (1999 Black Label Society) he bucked transitory trends (the hair metal hangover, grunge, and nu-metal respectively) and persevered with his defiantly heavy sound. On “Bored To Tears” he grinds the listener into submission with dense but dexterous riffs, while on “Losin’ Your Mind” he overlays bruising guitars with a spiralling banjo line, all while developing a trademark look and a signature sound (pentatonic scales and hypnotic decals anyone?).
Unfortunately, Zakk never really broke through to that next level. He released a series of good but not great albums, and quickly became stuck in a very enjoyable rut. His sound, while never cliché, was predictable and new Black Label Society releases remained satisfying, but rarely thrilled.
No big deal right? Well wrong, after succeeding the great Randy Rhoads, and his then replacement, Jake E. Lee, as the lead guitarist for Ozzy Osbourne in 1988, Wylde was suddenly elevated to mythical stature. Despite playing guitar on two solid and one iffy Ozzy record, never truly excelling, suddenly he was spoken of in adoring tones. Perhaps he’s an unfortunate victim of circumstance and unquestioned devotion, but unlike his peers who settled into late career auto-pilot, Zakk doesn’t have an Appetite For Destruction or Master Of Puppets to hang his hat on.
This was a really tough one. It’s both incredibly hard and surprisingly easy to label Kurt Cobain overrated. There is a hardly a bad word to be said about Bleach, Nevermind, and In Utero, or Kurt as human being and what he stood for in terms of social inclusion (“If you're a sexist, racist, homophobe, or basically an arsehole, don't buy this CD. I don't care if you like me, I hate you.”). However, since his passing Cobain has become the subject of unrelenting hero worship, and sadly the praise for Kurt the songwriter has seeped over to Kurt the guitarist.
Guitar Planet fully appreciates the power of Kurt’s quiet-loud dynamics, infectious riffing, and that skyscraper tumbling down sound, but the idea that Nirvana’s effective but contained playing should earn him a place alongside Hendrix, Hazel and Vaughan is a little rich. Kurt is a legend in his own right whose playing should be praised, but not elevated above its station. Nirvana top enough polls already, they don’t need, or frankly deserve, total historical hegemony.
Is The Edge overrated? Most sensible critics see the iconic U2 guitarist for what he is: a great sonic pioneer who turned out to be the perfect receptacle for Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois’ sonic experimentation. At his best The Edge used effects to help his sly riffs soar across huge open spaces colouring the moods of thousands and inspiring almost every stadium sized superstar that has followed in his wake. Ultimately, The Edge lurks in the background painting with a limited but enlivening palette while Bono stands front and centre stage.
Sounds pretty good, right? Unfortunately, when it comes to U2 very few fans and critics are level-headed. The band are either wretched devil spawn making soppy middle of the road music for painfully inoffensive blockbusters or they’re rock gods, inexplicably gifted five star reviews (*coughs* Q Magazine *coughs*) who shall not be questioned, only praised. Perhaps the love-hate dynamic balances out and the truth is found somewhere in between, but as long as there are delusional fans telling the world to listen to “The Fly” and quake in the face of The Edge’s brilliance, he will always be overrated.
n.b. Super fans it’s okay to love your favourite band. It’s cool to think they’re the best in the world, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have to have the best singer, guitarist, drummer, caterer, and florist in music history.
When Rolling Stone labelled Eric Clapton the 4th greatest guitarist of all time David Fricke wrote:
“Just turned twenty…Clapton was already soloing with the improvisational nerve that has dazzled fans and peers for forty years…Clapton soloed with daggerlike tone and pinpoint attention to melody.”
Oddly, despite placing Clapton high on this list there is only one minor phrase that irks me in that otherwise excellent write up: “for forty years”. No one questions that on Rave It Up and Disraeli Gears the young Clapton played with both an effortless sauntering swagger and a luscious melting tone that could pierce one moment and ooze seductively the next. This, after all, is the man who put the finishing touches on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” - his calibre is unquestionable.
There is nonetheless a disconcerting theme. His glory lays in the distant, distant past. The halcyon days of youth, when his sound was a revelation, and it seemed he could take an old staple like “I’m A Man” in an unknown but brilliant direction.
Regretfully, after a spritely start to his post-supergroup career, Clapton quickly began to wane, and Slowhand set about an arduous three and half decades of meandering jams, indulgent and unspectacular live performances, and innovation free LPs. Clapton has consistently deflated fans’ expectations since the early 70s with racist outbursts (“Enoch was right”), second hand ideas, and the mind bogglingly frustrating restraint that has defined his playing in the last two thirds of his career.
A top 100 guitarist? Almost certainly. The 4th greatest ever? Now that’s pushing it.
Everyone likes something that’s a little embarrassing - that society, or your chosen peer group, considers lame at best, and cringe inducing at worst. Equally, there’s something fundamentally entrenched inside every human being that leads thousands of fans to attempt to rationalize their guilty pleasures. Rather than saying: “it’s stupid but I like it”, or simply, “your wrong, and I’m right”, we attempt to justify the unjustifiable. Sometimes it’s better to just admit it. Hell as a gesture of good faith, I’ll do it right now, I like “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen, honestly who cares? I won’t attempt to point out some hidden subtleties in her song writing, because they don’t exist. It’s silly but I enjoy it.
Unfortunately, when it comes to Limp Bizkit and their tubthumpingly addictive, but decidedly crass nu-metal, fans go out of their way to justify their love. Over the years one line of reasoning has surpassed all others, and served to elevate the band’s enigmatic guitarist: Wes Borland. A bizarre mythos emerged: “Limp Bizkit suck, but Wes is a quality guitarist” and the rallying cry quickly became “I like them because of Wes”.
Throughout the late 2000s, right up to this very day (he was hailed as a saviour upon his return to the band in 2005 and 2009 respectively), the guitarist who has played basic bombastic nu-metal chords with little or no imagination and complexity has become a “modern great”. Let’s face facts, “Breakstuff” is catchy as hell, but thrilling repetition does not scream “all time great guitarist”. Limp Bizkit may be much maligned, but irrationally elevating the band’s lead guitarist in response is foolhardy, it does a disservice to the truly legendary guitarist and places unwarranted expectation on Wes’ shoulders.
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