The term “guitar hero” is often reserved for the member of the group that is dedicated to the role of six-string slinging. They might have to sing a backup or two at times, but overall, they are free to fully indulge in their instrument. Of course, there are a few bands in which the lines between frontman and featured guitarist are blurred. In the realm of frontman guitar heroes, we have some legendary kings that come to mind; Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Hendrix, Neil Young, Billy Gibbons, Mark Knopfler, Prince, Hetfield, Mustaine, Cobain and countless other obvious frontmen guitar gods, but today’s feature is going to focus on frontmen who are not typically revered as genius players in the mainstream media.
As one half of the synergetic ball of fabulous guitar friction that is Television, Tom Verlaine reigns as a total game changer in the art of guitar strangulation. His sinewy singular style can be recognised in an instant as notes are vibrated into the cosmos. The tonal tapestries spun together by Verlaine and his equally genius partner-in-chime Richard Lloyd are beautiful to behold, but when Verlaine trails off into one of his dirges and takes a solo, the results are jarringly beautiful and somehow simultaneously brutal in delivery. Surf staccato picking on one single note can hold the listener hostage as his fretting hand rubs the string into oblivion, coaxes it with relentless urgency into giving up new musical information. He interrogates the guitar and he always gets it to talk. Unlike many guitarists, no extraneous effects are needed to garnish his speaking strings. In fact, effects would just obscure the message, which is delivered in perfectly clear diction. Listen to the lead breaks of “Foxhole” and “The Fire” to get a straight shot of Verlaine’s unique approach to the guitar.
Band: Talking Heads
Speaking of sinewy guitar players from the early CBGB’s scene, we must mention the less-talked-about guitar genius of David Byrne. Here is one of the most electric and engaging frontmen of all time and he plays the guitar like an absolute animal the all the while, literally without blinking an eye. There is nothing normal about the man’s music, even in the physical realm. As a lefty who plays right-handed guitar, there is some speculation that his ambidextrous approach to the instrument might be the reason he can effortlessly switch from impossibly tight rhythmic funk, to serpentine loose legato leads that defy logic in their delivery. Whatever the case may be, many of the leads I thought were Adrian Belew (another hero of mine) where Byrne, which I found out by watching the timeless classic “Stop Making Sense” for the hundredth time. To add to this phenomenon, Byrne was an early Boss devotee and pedal head. Sometimes, you can see him reach down occasionally and play the DM-2 as an instrument itself. This is a timeless and ground-breaking artist that deserves guitar hero status more than most.
Listening to the guitar playing of Greg Sage is like listening to a mystical story teller spin a timeless yarn of wild wonder by the fire. The emotional content in his chords and notes is as heavy as the pregnant clouds that hang over the Pacific Northwest—a region he helped define with his sonic sorcery. Sage’s tales and tones are all his own and one-in-the-same, not only because of his unique playing style, but because he forges his sound from scratch. As a teenager, he had access to a record lathe and spent as much time looking at sound waves and he did making them. He even cut his own vinyl for early Wipers releases. He is also known for building his own tube preamps to further forge his own elemental sound. The crackling boom of his blown-out SG is terrifyingly beautiful and his dark melodious tunes are strangely comforting and foreboding all at once. Wild complex chord structures and distorted deviations saturate and electrocute the listeners as if they are tied to a lightning rod on a hill top in a lightning storm. This is shock treatment for the soul and you can get a jolt or two from choice cuts such as “When it’s Over” and “Youth of America.” You might also find out where Cobain learned a few tricks.
Band: Meat Puppets
I love the revolutionary guitar playing of J Mascis and he would have been a perfect candidate for this piece, but he has been rightfully recognised as a guitar genius time and time again, so I will keep to the theme and not go with the obvious choice here. Instead, I will detail his former SST label mate and unsung guitarist extraordinaire, Curt Kirkwood. I have been a long-time Meat Puppets fanatic, but when I saw them at an intimate venue in my hometown of Knoxville, TN a decade or so ago, it rekindled my deep admiration for Curt’s guitar prowess. The things he does with a guitar and a Roland Space Echo defy genre or categorization. He is a finger-picking genius that blows his mutated Americana sound into the stratosphere with high-grade doses of style and technique in equal measure. His tripped-out melodies hover like UFOs over the complex arpeggios and chords he coaxes out of his axe. Like many mentioned here, it seems as if he has brains in each finger as tells his twisted folk tales in voice and string simultaneously. It was a hard choice between Curt and his equally revolutionary old label mates. Honourable mention goes to Bob Mould and D. Boon.
The hedge-headed Melvins frontman needs no introduction, but I personally think that his guitar playing deserves more recognition as the game changing phenomenon that it is. This is a vital player that not only changed the face of music, but also changed how the world approached the guitar. This is the drop-D Deity that strikes fear into the hearts of so-called “heavy” players the world over. His playing is elephantine not only in sound, but in memory. If you listen to the rhythmic arrangements that he and drummer Dale Crover lay down carefully, an underworld of twisting, churning complexity is revealed. What’s more is the fact that Buzz is often phonetically countering these vast filthy prisons of sound with his voice simultaneously, which is unfathomable to behold. For my money, Buzz’s arrangements can be compared more to King Crimson or Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, than to Sabbath, but chuck in a little Black Flag to those mentioned and we are getting hotter. If you haven’t heard the Melvins live yet, you haven’t heard (or felt) heavy. One thing is certain, the Melvins are one of the most enthralling, prolific and vital acts going today and I pity anyone that goes on after them.
Though Tommy Victor is still vital today, I am taking it back to 1994 with this choice. To me the classic line-up of Prong was with Paul Raven on bass and Ted Parsons on drums. This unstoppable three-piece delivered metronomically perfect slabs of meticulously engineered groove metal and death disco, primed for primordial destruction. Besides Helmet (another addition I would happily go on about) I can’t think of a tighter heavy three-piece. Tommy V can chop down a New York skyscraper with his laser-like rhythmic precision and then drag a slide all over his Jackson Surfcaster, opening bleeding wounds of sound that haemorrhage liquid metal voltage. Like his contemporaries, Page Hamilton and Justin Broadrick, Tommy Victor made my ‘90s adolescent blood boil with his razor sharp riffage.