Top Ten Guitarists Who Left Us Too Soon

Alan Bryson By

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Ranking musicians is a hopelessly flawed endeavor. It's about as meaningful as having a list of the top ten best tasting foods. Taste is highly individualized, influenced by mood, familiarity, and the way in which multiple variables interact. One person's escargot is someone else's slice of Chicago style pizza. I just took a break and searched the web for the top ten best tasting foods, and of course CNN has tackled this difficult issue. Potato chips, Peking Duck, and buttered popcorn made their list, but sadly my grandmother's blackberry cobbler and cornbread baked in an iron skillet didn't. That's the nature of such lists, they're fun but certainly not definitive. My list below should been seen in that light.

To narrow it down, any guitarist who reached the age of fifty was excluded from consideration. That eliminated two of my personal favorites, Ronny Jordan and Hiram Bullock, who otherwise would have been on my list. Even with that I still couldn't find room for Robert Johnson, or Mike Bloomfield, another one of my all time favorite guitarists. The list is not intended as a ranking, my selections are simply arranged according to the age each guitarist reached.

1. Duane Allman, age 24, died as the result of a motorcycle accident in 1971.

His early recordings from the period 1966—1968 with the Allman Joys and the Hour Glass weren't particularly noteworthy. It was in 1969 as a session player in Muscle Shoals, Alabama that the unique talent of Duane Allman began to emerge. His recordings with Wilson Pickett, Boz Scaggs, King Curtis, Aretha Franklin, Clarence Carter and others captured the attention of recording stars and influential music insiders. This resulted in a label putting its trust and resources behind him, and giving him the freedom to form the Allman Brothers Band.

In an age of preening and prancing rock musicians with super star egos, Duane Allman established a musical brotherhood where the first commandment was to serve the music. Stand and deliver—with a workmanlike attitude and street clothes—that was the band's calling card. With them he recorded two studio albums, and At Fillmore East, a legendary double live album produced by Tom Dowd. Tragedy struck before the third studio album, Eat A Peach,was completed; as a result he only appears on three of its studio tracks. Fortunately there was a wealth of unused material from the live recordings at the Fillmore East, and Eat A Peach was released as a double album in order to include some of these treasures. These recordings, along with his collaborations with Eric Clapton represent a substantial share of a musical legacy he recorded in less than three years.

Not only did the band he founded survive over four decades after his death, but his influence and playing continue to inspire musicians and fans around the world. In terms of technical proficiency he might not have been the equal of some others on this list, but he was an extraordinary soloist. He had a unique and emotive musical soul, great sound and tone, and a fluid sense of time that took the audience on a spellbinding journey to other realms. Musically he was on fire during the final year of his life, remarking that his hands were finally catching up with his mind. He was a left-handed guitarist who played right-handed and revolutionized the sound and role of slide guitar in modern music—an innovator who left an indelible mark on the music world. Think back to the slide guitar prior to Duane Allman as you listen to this "Mountain Jam" solo.

2. Charlie Christian, age 25, died of tuberculosis in 1942 and was buried in an unmarked gave in Texas.

There have been a few inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who seemed a bit of a stretch, but Charlie Christian certainly earned his spot. When you listen to Danny Cedrone's epic solo on "Rock Around the Clock" from way back in 1954, it sounds truly revolutionary. But if you then listen to a 1941 recording of Charlie Christian playing "Stompin' at the Savoy" at a small club thirteen years earlier, you begin to understand why he is such a towering figure among guitarists.

His career took off in 1939 when Benny Goodman hired him for his sextet. He was a true pioneer of the modern electric guitar. Jimmy Smith would later liberate the Hammond B3 from big chord solos by emulating the approach of horn players, but long before him Charlie Christian had done the same with the electric guitar playing single note solos.


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