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Guthrie Govan: the 10 guitarists who blew my mind

Guthrie Govan
(Image credit: Future)

In a world awash with social-media virtuosos, Guthrie Govan stands alone as one of the electric guitar’s most visionary players - and that’s been the case since he was named Guitarist magazine’s Guitarist of the Year way back in 1993.

Given the awe-inspiring musical diversity coursing through Guthrie’s veins, we sought to uncover the guitarists that blew his mind - and he did not disappoint.

As per his playing, Guthrie’s choices range from the classic to the esoteric, but rest assured, dear reader, that each and every one makes for essential listening (bar, perhaps, no. 1)…

1. My dad 

Guthrie Govan

(Image credit: Daniel Work/North Texas Live)

“If this sounds like a slightly cheesy selection, I would urge the reader to consider this: I honestly don’t remember how old I was when I learned my first few chords (people tell me I was three) and yet I vividly remember who showed them to me!

“My dad was a thoroughly unremarkable guitar player, in retrospect, but he was the first person I ever saw who could sing and play a song from start to finish: it made quite an impact on my young brain when I realised that music could be made by ‘regular’ people, rather than being the exclusive domain of mythical figures like Elvis and The Beatles...”


2. Zal Cleminson

“I was exposed to a lot of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band when I was growing up (my dad hailed from Glasgow so perhaps this element in my formative listening diet was inevitable!) and pretty much everything about Zal Cleminson fascinated me - from his outlandish appearance (Marcel Marceau meets court jester) to his biting tone and (at times) wildly exaggerated vibrato.

“To this day, I have a particular soft spot for the Rock Drill album - what Zal played at the end of the title track expanded my young mind in all the right ways...

“I always enjoyed the zany and eccentric element of ‘surprise’ in Zal’s phrasing and note choices… he was definitely one of the earliest and most significant inspirations in terms of shaping my ideas about how an electric guitar should sound.”


3. Jimi Hendrix 

“A somewhat obvious choice, I freely admit, but there can be no escaping the fact that every aspect of what Jimi did was remarkable.

Quite aside from all the pyrotechnics (both metaphorical and literal!), I remember being particularly intrigued by his creativity in the studio

“Quite aside from all the pyrotechnics (both metaphorical and literal!), I remember being particularly intrigued by his creativity in the studio - all that fearless experimentation with overdubbing, weird sounds, backwards guitar - and the fluid sense of movement and embellishment in his rhythm playing.

“There was also a real sense of depth in his body of work, spanning everything from the loose, stream-of-consciousness approach heard in tracks like Voodoo Chile to the much more structured, ‘storytelling’ quality of the solo in All Along The Watchtower.

“Jimi really did seem to redefine every aspect of what could be done with an electric guitar.”


4. Frank Zappa 

“I vividly remember borrowing a vinyl copy of Zappa's Them Or Us album from the local library, back in my early teens, and being exhilarated and bewildered by my first listen.

To me, it almost sounded like Frank was intentionally striving for the polar opposite of the clinical accuracy exhibited by the rest of his band

“Some parts of it were vastly more complex than anything I had even imagined a rock band would be capable of playing and yet, at the same time, there was a pervasive sense of irreverent humour in the lyrics and arrangements which struck me as wonderfully at odds with the sheer level of sophistication in the compositions.

“And then, of course, there was the guitar playing... whilst the rest of the musicians were executing their ‘impossible’ parts with consummate precision, there was something defiantly raw and reckless about Frank's soloing: to me, it almost sounded like he was intentionally striving for the polar opposite of the clinical accuracy exhibited by the rest of his band.

“In a fundamental sense, I think that contrast was probably what made the biggest impression on me... that, and the way that Frank could apparently improvise over a simple vamp for minutes on end without ever repeating himself.”


5. John Scofield

“During guitar clinics, I sometimes find myself talking about the value of knowing why you're trying to learn something and, at least in terms of my own experience, John Scofield always seems to spring to mind as the perfect example.

Scofield was the first player I ever heard who was improvising crazy chromatic lines with a gnarly overdriven sound

“As a kid, I was vaguely aware that it was possible to play ‘outside’ notes, but I had always associated the practice with a certain kind of stereotypical ‘smooth’, hollow-bodied jazz tone.

“Scofield was the first player I ever heard who was improvising crazy chromatic lines with a gnarly overdriven sound and, coming as I did from a predominantly blues/rock background, I found that I could somehow identify with the way he attacked each note - not to mention his sublime sense of timing.

“Hearing those ideas coming from him made me think: ‘If I only knew how to do that, I can imagine exactly how I would want to apply it…’”


6. Steve Vai 

“Much of what I said before about Hendrix applies to the way I felt when I first heard Steve Vai - I have particularly vivid memories of hearing the pre-Passion & Warfare mix of Blue Powder on a flexi-disc which came bundled with a mid-‘80s issue of Guitar Player magazine.

Steve’s playing seemed to embody a real sense of humour along with all the obvious technical proficiency

“As it seemed to me, Steve had significantly expanded the vocabulary of rock guitar by taking all those bizarre noises which other players would have dismissed as unusable and somehow managing to find musically valid applications for them…

“Whereas many of the other rock guitar heroes in the ‘80s seemed to take themselves rather seriously and arguably helped to encourage an almost unhealthily competitive approach to the instrument, Steve’s playing seemed to embody a real sense of humour along with all the obvious technical proficiency.

“He also had an important impact in the way he (and indeed Joe Satriani) ‘legitimised’ the idea of a rock player being well-versed in the more esoteric aspects of music theory: before that point, I sensed that perhaps the rock ’n’ roll community had attached a certain stigma to the concept of actually knowing what you were doing!”


7. Allan Holdsworth

“I’m sure every reader is already somewhat familiar with the mighty Allan, but I still feel that his contribution to music in general has been criminally underrated: I consider his work to be every bit as revolutionary as that of jazz legends such as Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.

Allan seemed to regard the guitar not so much as his ideal or ‘chosen’ instrument, but rather as a problem which needed to be solved

“Evidently not content with redefining what was technically possible on the guitar, he also managed to rewrite pretty much the whole of music theory, coming up with all manner of chord voicings which had never been heard before and then concocting brand-new scales to complement them.

“His tone has always fascinated me, too - perhaps its uniqueness stemmed from the fact that he seemed to regard the guitar not so much as his ideal or ‘chosen’ instrument, but rather as a problem which needed to be solved.

“To me, Allan’s playing is a rare example of a guitar player exhibiting no kind of ‘family tree’ whatsoever - when you listen to most players, you can hear at least some evidence of their early influences, and yet with Allan, the most logical explanation for what you’re hearing is that the this guy must have arrived very abruptly and unexpectedly - if not from another planet then, at the very least, from the future!”


8. Ron Thal, aka Bumblefoot

“Many years ago, I remember reading about Ron in Mike Varney’s Spotlight column in Guitar Player magazine: somehow, I just sensed instinctively that this was a player I needed to hear... so I wrote to him and we somehow ended up trading cassette demos!

“This was, of course, a long time before the era of YouTube, so all I could really do was listen to what Ron was playing and try to imagine how he might be executing all that crazy stuff: all I really knew for sure was that it clearly involved something far beyond the conventional repertoire of guitar techniques. Also, it was particularly intriguing to hear someone coaxing so many new things out of an electric guitar without resorting to any kind of fancy effects processing.

“There’s so much individuality in Ron’s playing: I remember when his Adventures Of Bumblefoot album came out, and it just felt so utterly different from everything else which was emerging from the Shrapnel label at that time: it was clear that this was a musician with a fully-formed vision, entirely independent of everything else which was going on in his field. I love the sensation of being startled by players like that…”


9. Ted Greene

“I think Ted‘s name is most commonly associated with his book Chord Chemistry (a generous dose of humility for any guitar players who think they know a thing or two about their instrument!), but I somehow felt an urge to use this feature as an excuse to draw readers’ attention to his solo album (appropriately entitled Solo Guitar.)

“I remember hearing this album for the first time and being genuinely shocked: I had been perfectly happy to accept that Ted must have been an eminently wise teacher with an extensive knowledge of chord shapes and voice leading, but I had no idea that he was such a musical player.

“Transforming dry, theoretical knowledge into something of genuine artistic value isn’t the easiest thing to accomplish and yet Ted managed to do just that, with an apparent effortlessness…”


10. Debashish Bhattacharya

“Indian classical music is something which I’ve always found fascinating.

“Whereas Western classical music has always placed a lot of emphasis on the importance of harmony, the Indian approach seems to be based much more on the premise that there’s nothing wrong with listening to a static powerchord for 60 minutes, so players in that tradition are encouraged to focus much more on rhythmic and melodic ideas - and the results can be truly remarkable.

As a guitar player, I find that there’s something extra-special about hearing someone conveying their decades of experience within a different musical culture, using the very same instrument that I play

“As a guitar player, I find that there’s something extra-special about hearing someone conveying their decades of experience within a different musical culture, using the very same instrument that I play… part of my brain always seems to respond by wondering, ‘Why won’t my guitar do that?!’

“The question is, of course, somewhat rhetorical - with a player like Debashish, the magic comes not from any particular technical trick but rather from the musical mind within: all the music he’s heard and studied over the years has enabled him to imagine his guitar sounding that way… and then all the rest is a matter of dedicated practice, just as it is with any other form of music.

“When I hear a player like Debashish, I can’t help but be reminded that I have absolutely no idea how to sound anything like him, even though technically we‘re both guitarists… For me, this reinforces the rather pleasing notion that guitarists are limited more by their imaginations than by their gear.

“I remember seeing Debashish playing live at the Adelaide Guitar Festival a few years back and he truly transcended the instrument. I really didn’t feel aware that I was hearing ‘guitar’ - I only heard music. It’s always good when that happens!”

Michael Astley-Brown

Mike is Editor-in-Chief of GuitarWorld.com, in addition to being an offset fiend and recovering pedal addict. He has a master's degree in journalism, and has spent the past decade writing and editing for guitar publications including MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitarist, as well as a decade-and-a-half performing in bands of variable genre (and quality). In his free time, you'll find him making progressive instrumental rock under the nom de plume Maebe.