“Day Tripper.” “Back in Black.” “Sunshine of Your Love.” “Whole Lotta Love.” “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” You may not know a single lyric, but you know that riff in your sleep, and you can air-guitar through every note like nobody’s business (step aside, Bradley Cooper). To mark the close of International Guitar Month, we asked some killer guitarists from folk to heavy metal to share their personal guitar heroes and their favorite licks, and put together a playlist of their picks.
Meet the cast: Joe Bonamassa is a Grammy-nominated blues guitarist who, at 12 years old, opened for B.B. King. Anna Calvi is an English virtuoso guitarist and acclaimed songwriter known for strumming the guitar strings in a circular pattern rather than the usual up-and-down. Al Di Meola is a decorated jazz guitar virtuoso in the International Guitar Hall of Fame. Taylor Goldsmith is the lead guitarist and singer of Dawes. With T Bone Burnett at the helm, Goldsmith recently teamed up with Marcus Mumford, My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James and Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Rhiannon Giddens to bring unrecorded Bob Dylan songs to life for The Basement Tapes.
Blake Mills, formerly of Simon Dawes, is a solo artist and an in-demand session musician. Mills also produced Alabama Shakes’ recent release, Sound and Color. Former art teacher and screenwriter Joshua Radin is a folk songwriter and guitarist who taught himself to play guitar when he was 28 years old and began a successful recording career only two years later. Steve Vai is a seasoned guitarist, solo artist, and producer who has sold more than 15 million albums. Andrew Wessen is the lead guitarist of L.A. band Grouplove and an avid surfer. Zakk Wylde is the iconic former guitarist for Ozzy Osbourne and the founder of heavy metal band Black Label Society.
Who do you consider to be the most influential guitarist?
Joe Bonamassa: Best singer, songwriter, and guitarist for me is Eric Clapton.
Anna Calvi: Jimi Hendrix was the first guitarist I really got into when I was a kid. I loved his improvisation at Woodstock; it blew me away.
Al Di Meola: Well, there are guys that aren’t so popular that have become real major inspirations to me. Acoustic players like Ralph Towner and Egberto Gismonti. Now, Ralph Towner and Egbert Gismonti also play phenomenal piano in addition to playing phenomenal guitar. They also are very big inspirations to me for how they write. They’re great composers. They’re not popular in the mainstream, but they’re a trusted source of inspiration.
Taylor Goldsmith: [For me,] Blake Mills. We grew up together and he was light years beyond me with the guitar right away and always will be. So everything I learned about phrasing and touch and tone was just trying to learn what he was doing and how he was doing it.
Blake Mills: I think a more interesting question is “Who are some guitarists that are both influential but typically underrepresented in ‘Top 10’ lists?” One guy who I have only recently begun to appreciate is Oscar Moore. He was one-third of the Nat King Cole Trio. You hear him play so beautifully that it’s just hard to accept the fact that he was forced to work as a bricklayer after Nat began to sing standing up. Oscar Moore, Kokomo Arnold, and Teddy Bunn all sit at the “criminally under-appreciated” table.
Joshua Radin: Hendrix or Robert Johnson. But for me, I would say someone like Nick Drake or Elliott Smith, as they have taken what those two geniuses have done and turned it into something I wanted to emulate, though poorly, I must say.
Steve Vai: Given the period that I have been playing rock guitar, I would perhaps say that conventionally, Hendrix was the biggest game changer. But the most influential guitar player in my life was a young boy, age 7, who I believe was the first person I ever saw playing the guitar. I was perhaps 5 years old at the time and the moment I saw this kid I instinctively knew the infinite nature of the creative potential of the instrument and intuitively felt that the instrument would be my destiny. I then pooped my pants.
Andrew Wessen: George Harrison. He just played the perfect part every time. Humble guy.
Zakk Wylde: Jimi Hendrix is the Jesus Christ of electric guitar, resurrected seven years later as Edward Van Halen.
What are some of your favorite guitar licks?
Joe Bonamassa: John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers featuring Eric Clapton: “Steppin’ Out.”
Anna Calvi: I like bending the strings up a semitone to imitate the way I bend my voice. I like my guitar and voice to feel almost like the same entity.
Al Di Meola: Oh God, same as yours (laughs). How about “Daytripper”? I love The Beatles. They’ve got those signature licks.
Taylor Goldsmith: “China Cat Sunflower” by The Grateful Dead, “So Far Away” by Dire Straits, “Rebel Rebel” by David Bowie, “Midnight Rambler” by the Rolling Stones.
Blake Mills: Check out “Chinese Surprize” by Latin Playboys.
Joshua Radin: I don’t really know. I’m much more interested in fingerpicking styles that complement the vocal delivery.
Steve Vai: The ones that make me feel that life is good.
Andrew Wessen: Growing up a surfer in Los Angeles, I always loved the Beach Boys and the first 10 seconds of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is probably the closest thing to bliss I’ll ever know. Nirvana, “Love Buzz.” Dick Dale & His Del-Tones, “Misirlou.” Ventures, “Walk – Don’t Run.” Beatles, “Michelle.” Hot Snakes, “Plenty for All.” Elliott Smith, “Memory Lane” and “Son of Sam.” Nick Drake, “Cello Song.”
Zakk Wylde: Any riff by Jimmy Page, Tony Iommi and Ritchie Blackmore: the Bach, Beethoven and Mozart of riff writing.
What is your favorite guitar to play and why?
Joe Bonamassa: 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard. Why? ’Cause it’s a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard.
Anna Calvi: The [Fender] Telecaster has always been my favorite. I saw Jeff Buckley played one so I bought the same guitar when I was 16 and it’s still my main guitar to this day. It’s a very versatile instrument and it has a very pure tone that sounds great with reverb.
Al Di Meola: For the electric guitar, I’ve got two models: the Les Paul is really what I built my name on. And then Paul Reed Smith, otherwise known as PRS guitars. He kind of started his business with me and other guitarists even before Carlos Santana used them. For acoustic, it’s a Spanish made guitar out of Madrid called Conde Hermanos. And that’s what I’ve been using for the majority of 30 years. Before that it was an Ovation steel string.
Taylor Goldsmith: I have an old white [Fender Telecaster] that Jonathan Wilson gave to me. Aside from the obvious sentimental value, it’s so well built and the guitar I’ve spent the most time on. Guitars can be like shoes in the sense that sometimes you have to get used to them, but then they feel like they were made for you.
Blake Mills: I’m kind of excited these days about twisting the tuning pegs at random in hopes of finding a new usage or even a new instrument in something I already have. So in that regard, my Telecasters are my favorite sounding synth-drums.
Joshua Radin: I play a 1943 Gibson J-45. It’s called “The Workhorse.” It sounds incredible when I fingerpick but I can also bang away on it and lead the band. The versatility is what I find so wonderful.
Steve Vai: EVO. That’s my go to Ibanez Jem for the past 25 years, because she knows all my secrets.
Andrew Wessen: The one in my hands, because the other one is too far away. And the one in my hands now is a custom Telecaster Fender made for me on our last U.S. tour. It’s a special one. I love to play anything our guitar tech Jeff “The Snuggler” Galegher has just set up or “snuggled,” as we say. The only reason why our guitars are in one piece and still working is because of him.
Zakk Wylde: Wylde Audio guitars, of course.
Which guitar players out there are carrying the torch?
Joe Bonamassa: I like Gary Clark Jr., I like Josh Smith and Kirk Fletcher. All of these guys are the future of [the blues] genre.
Anna Calvi: I really love the guitar playing in Grizzly Bear. It’s beautiful.
Al Di Meola: Guys like Steve Vai, Joe Satriani. Those guys are doing some cool stuff, definitely carrying it.
Taylor Goldsmith: Blake Mills, Johnathan Wilson, Dave Rawlings, Matt Sweeney, Jim James, Jason Isbell, Adam Granuciel, Kurt Vile—too many to name. There are a lot of great guitar players around nowadays.
Blake Mills: Julian Lage and Anthony Wilson are such musical electric guitarists. I also believe St. Vincent and Mac Demarco are helping make guitar “cool” again.
Joshua Radin: Blake. Mills.
Steve Vai: Anyone that picks up the instrument and seeks to find their own unique voice on it. They are expanding the Universe for all of us.
Andrew Wessen: I don’t know, I always cared more about the songs.
Zakk Wylde: Synyster Gates & Zacky Vengeance of Avenged 7fold are doing a great job as today’s torch bearers for the next generation.