Nita Strauss picks 10 essential guitar albums
Back in the lo-tech days of the late '90s and early 2000s, then budding guitarist Nita Strauss discovered new axe albums the old-fashioned way, through magazines and – get this – going to record stores. "I was a regular at Tower Records on Sunset," she recalls. "The people who worked there always had great recommendations; they were really plugged in. And I read Mike Varney's Spotlight column in Guitar Player. Every month it seemed as if some amazing new talent was on the scene."
Both the Spotlight column and Tower on Sunset are no more, so Strauss, who last year snagged the enviable position of lead guitarist in Alice Cooper's band, now combs the internet for new guitar music. The easy access of the internet makes things both easier and harder," she observes. "It’s easier because anyone can just put their stuff online; everybody can be kind of equal and have the same shot at reaching an audience. On the other hand, there’s much of it, and nobody’s weeding through it. How can you figure out what to check out? It's kind of daunting."
And so when Strauss does stumble across a bold new talent online, as she did when she discovered Angel Vivaldi on Facebook recently, the experience is especially profound. "Hearing Angel Vivaldi took me right back to how it felt back in the day," Strauss raves. "He makes really exciting, creative, well-thought-out guitar music. It's important when somebody like that comes along. It makes you feel as though not everything’s been done before, that the guitar still has a long way to go.”
Strauss sat down with MusicRadar recently to run down her picks for 10 essential guitar albums (listed alphabetically by artist). One important caveat informed her choices, however: “I narrowed it down 10 instrumental guitar records," she says. "As opposed to band albums with vocals that feature lead guitarists, I feel as though you get a real undiluted sense of what the guitarist can do – the total expression of the player – when the instrument is the star."
Animals As Leaders - Animals As Leaders (2009)
“I would be remiss if I didn't mention this one, if for no other reason than to show that essential guitar albums are still coming out today. Animals As Leaders’ music has some of the most interesting guitar playing around, period. Tossin Abasi’s technique is just insane.
“They’re also a great band to see live. A lot of shred bands are great to listen to, but they’re not a lot of fun to watch. They kind of look down at their instruments and forget that there’s an audience out there; they don't make an effort to connect with the crowd. Animals As Leaders go all out and put on a fantastic show.
“Tossin Abasi is a groundbreaker, I feel. It’s exciting to see somebody expanding the vocabulary of the guitar and doing things in a fresh, new way. He’s his own guy.”
Jason Becker - Perpetual Burn (1988)
“I wrote down some notes for each of my selections, and for Perpetual Burn I simply wrote, ‘This album, this album, this album!’
“Even today, it still dazzles me. It’s such a complete artistic statement. At age 17, after already being in Cacophony, Jason literally defined his style with this record. Think about that accomplishment: At an age where most kids were just trying to figure out what they thought they might want to do in life, Jason was totally aware of who he was and what he wanted to say – and he executed everything beautifully. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever heard.”
Marty Friedman - Dragon's Kiss (1988)
“I’m only naming one album by each artist on this list, but I could easily pick five albums by Marty Friedman. I’m such a fan of his; he’s such an interesting guitar player. Dragon’s Kiss is an amazing shred album, but it’s one on which Marty took shred to a whole new place.
“There’s exotic scales and different techniques – it’s a real contrast to what some of the neo-classical guitarists were doing at the time. Marty’s had such a long and varied career, and of course, he did brilliant work with Megadeth, but on Dragon’s Kiss he really set himself apart very quickly from the pack of lightning-fast shred guys.”
Frank Gambale - Passages (1994)
“Like it is with many of the players on my list, it’s hard for me to pick just one Frank Gambale album. His contribution to the worlds of shred and fusion guitar is totally mind-blowing. He can play the fast stuff, he can play the low stuff and the funky stuff, but he does it all in a way that’s uniquely his own.
“Passages is an album that I can get lost in; in fact, I love to listen to it while driving at night – it just transports me to this great place. Frank has the shred element, the jazz element and the fusion element, but he mixes it all up in a way that it becomes its own thing. What he does sort of defies categorization, really; it simply becomes ‘Frank Gambale music.’”
Shawn Lane - Powers Of Ten (1992)
“I wrote down to myself, ‘Can’t talk about essential guitar albums without mentioning Shawn Lane’s Powers Of Ten.’ What do you say about Shawn Lane? He was such an incredibly gifted technical player, but he wasn’t showy. Music was just a true extension of his personality.
“He was blisteringly fast, of course. If I remember correctly, he was the fastest guitar player ever recorded; he could play something like 18 notes per second. Think about that: In one second, he plays 18 notes – that’s insane! How can a person do this? How is this possible?
“All the lightning-fast licks are on this record, but what’s even more remarkable is how tasteful the playing is. For the most part, it’s a very restrained, well-thought-out and listenable album. You might not even think ‘This is the fastest guitar player in the world' when you hear it, because it just comes across as great music. He was sensational."
Liquid Tension Experiment - Liquid Tension Experiment (1998)
“I love the personality that comes across on this album – or personalities, I should say. It’s totally unrestrained and showy, but in a good way. The joy that all the players are feeling just jumps right out at you.
“These are some of the finest musicians in the world getting together and simply having a blast. You can tell they're enjoying themselves from the song titles. They have five songs called Three Minute Warning, so there’s part one, part two and so on. That came from Tony Levin: He was getting frustrated because the other guys wanted to sit down and compose music, whereas he wanted to jam. He said, ‘If we don’t start jamming in three minutes, I’m gonna leave.’ And they used it as a title – that’s so cool.”
Tony MacAlpine - Maximum Security (1987)
“There’s so much to love about Tony’s playing, but what’s really fantastic about this album is the interplay between the guitar and the keyboards. In addition to being a brilliant guitarist, Tony is a phenomenal keyboardist – he’s played with Vinnie Moore, Steve Vai, and so many people – and the way that he weaves both talents together here is breathtaking.
“’Playful’ is another word that comes to mind. You can tell he’s having a great time making this music, because there’s a lightness within the intensity. I think it’s because he’s written complete compositions that utilize other voices as well as the guitar; there's different voices and flavors, different moods. Not that he doesn’t shred – he’s a monster shredder, especially this album.
"There’s so much musicality and joy to his entire approach. You can’t help but smile when you hear it.”
Vinnie Moore - Meltdown (1991)
“I kept switching between this record and Mind’s Eye. Both are incredible, but Meltdown feels like more of an essential guitar album to me. Vinnie has been a member of UFO, and of course, he’s played with Alice Cooper, too. For anybody unfamiliar with his work, this is a great album to start with.
“One of the striking things about Meltdown is how many great hooky, catchy guitar riffs it has. That’s something you hear all the time in vocal-oriented music, but instrumental guitar rock is traditionally a little light on riffs. I never understood that, really: You get the backing tracks and the beats and the soloing, but where’s the big riffs?
"I guess they're on Meltdown. [Laughs] It's packed with monster riffs."
Joe Satriani - Surfing With The Alien (1987)
“It’s some of smoothest, most fluid and catchiest guitar music ever recorded. It doesn’t just rock your world from a guitar standpoint; it takes you on a complete journey of melody and sound. You find yourself singing along to it, almost as if the songs had lyrics. They remind you of songs with lyrics – that's how strong the melodies are.
“Not Of This Earth, Joe’s first album, was on my list initially, but that record is a little more show-offy, more showboat-y. Surfing is a more emotional and sustained experience, and I think that's because the songs are more than just vehicles for great guitar playing.
“Of course, from a guitar standpoint, it's all mind-blowing. This was such an important record when I discovered it. I had only been playing guitar for a year or so, and my reaction to Surfing was pretty dramatic. But unlike some people, I didn't think ‘How can I compete with this?’ It was more like, ‘Wow, you can do that on the guitar?’ It really inspired me and gave me something to shoot for.”
Steve Vai - Passion And Warfare (1990)
“What can I say about Passion And Warfare? It's just one of the greatest albums ever – in all ways. As anybody who is familiar with me knows, I’m a huge Steve Vai fan. I discovered the guitar by watching Crossroads and then by hearing Steve on the album. He dazzles me to no end.
“More than just his guitar playing, though, it’s the whole package – his attitude, his charisma, the way his brain works. It all comes together on Passion And Warfare. The impact that it had on me is incalculable. Every guitar player in the world, whether they know it or not, has been influenced by this album.
“Steve’s commitment to his music is so great that he fasted for 10 days before recording For The Love Of God. That’s incredible. I tried it myself, but I only got to three days, and I was drinking juice, so I don’t think that counts. [Laughs]
“When we’re talking about essential guitar albums, any number of Steve Vai records could easily make the grade. But Passion And Warfare just sums up everything that’s great about both the guitar and Steve Vai. It’s full of spirit, love, joy – it's like an explosion of expression. The world wouldn’t be the same without it.”