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William DuVall: These are the 11 guitarists who blew my mind

(Image credit: Yuliya Christensen/Getty Images)

Prior to this year’s One Alone, William DuVall had never recorded an album under his own name. The Washington DC-born singer/guitarist cut his teeth in bands like Neon Christ and Comes With The Fall, before joining Jerry Cantrell’s solo project and eventually stepping out as the new frontman in Cantrell’s main group, Alice In Chains

The three albums he has recorded with Alice In Chains has kept their great legacy alive, evoking the soulful honesty of their work with original singer Layne Staley, who sadly died in 2002, while also introducing new elements to the ‘Seattle Sound’ they helped popularise.

But as for William DuVall, the individual – this new release marks a brand new venture. By his own admission, debut single ‘Til The Light Guides Me, which was unveiled back in July, felt like the one of the most emotionally intimate and pure recordings he’d ever worked on...

This is my first solo record – if it works, it could be the beginning of more things to come, which will undoubtedly have their own sound and presentation. It felt like the perfect starting point

William DuVall

“That was the whole point – to make the music as reductive as possible,” he explains, in between concluding Alice In Chains’ co-headline run with Korn and his impending North American solo tour. “Let’s just strip everything down to the most basic essentials. This is my first solo record – if it works, it could be the beginning of more things to come, which will undoubtedly have their own sound and presentation. It felt like the perfect starting point. One Alone, here we are…”

As it turn out, there was an air of fortune and serendipity behind these songs coming into fruition. DuVall had originally booked himself into the studio to record the lead track and little beyond that. Finishing up early with creativity in full-flow, he decided to make use of the remaining hours on the session. The sense of inspiration, he recalls, felt incredibly powerful and immediate...

“I ended up finishing seven more songs that day,” continues DuVall. “They came together very well, I think. Some were songs that I’d previously done full-band versions of in Comes With The Fall, but I always felt they could present very well as solo acoustic pieces. So I started laying those down just as one voice and one guitar. Walking out of the studio, I knew I almost had enough for an album but not quite. So I went back, finishing the remaining songs in a single evening.”

The main guitar used on the 11 tracks was a vintage sunburst Gibson J-185, which can be seen in the video for the lead single. When asked about it, DuVall laughs as he reveals the instrument had in fact been loaned by an old friend from his teenage hardcore years. 

“That actually belongs to Jimmy Demer, the drummer from Neon Christ,” he says. “He also took the cover photo for the album, we’ve remained close all this time. That guitar is special – it has this rich, lush sound you can almost bathe in... the kind of weapon you need for something like this. 

“It didn’t need much EQ or treatment at all. Much like the record, it is what it is, and that’s all it needs to be. Since then, I went to the Gibson booth at NAMM and found a Hummingbird that speaks to me in the same kind of way. It’s in a cherry finish similar to the one I’ve played for years with Alice... I think it will probably end up being what I use for the solo tour.”

Offered with choice of dissecting his favourite singers or guitarists today with MusicRadar, DuVall chooses the latter – mainly because that was where his journey in music began, almost a decade before he started delving into the world of vocals. So here are the 11 guitar players who blew the Alice In Chains frontman’s mind...

1. Jimi Hendrix

“I have a very clear number one. James Marshall Hendrix, of course. I mean, he was it – the genesis of my wanting to become a musician in the first place. I guess it was a bit like starting at the top because there’s nobody better on electric guitar. That guy was a sorcerer! 

"I can still to this day watch the same films and footage I saw as a kid and they still blow me away. Almost even more so now, because I know more about how difficult it would have been to do what he was doing, harnessing all that power and noise into something not only musical, but also spiritual. 

It wasn’t just guitar playing, it really was an experience – the whole Vietnam War channelled through Marshall stacks

William DuVall on Hendrix

“I don’t know how anyone else can come close to topping that. There are greats from all the genres, so many amazing players, but no-one else could provide you with the whole package quite the way Hendrix did. Everything about him – the way he looked, the way he played, the way he moved – was the instrument. The guitar was just this tool he happened to pick to convey this really high-level, almost cosmic message. 

“Listen to things like Star Spangled Banner or his improvisation on Machine Gun on the Band Of Gypsys record. That was the album that got me going. A few months after hearing that I saw the Monterey Pop thing where he did the whole wild thing and guitar sacrifice. I thought, ‘That’s it, I’m done, this is what I’m going to do with my life in some way!’ It wasn’t just guitar playing, it really was an experience – the whole Vietnam War channelled through Marshall stacks.”

2. Greg Ginn

(Image credit: Frank Mullen/Wire Image via Getty Images)

“I have to mention Greg from Black Flag. He was another flashpoint for me, not just in terms of his approach to guitar but also that idea of being able to start a band and write songs as a 13 year-old. Why wait? His playing is of an extremely high level. In early ‘81 I saw The Decline Of Western Civilization, which is such a mind-blowing film. It exposed me to the whole lifestyle of the early hardcore scene. Black Flag in particular blew me away." 

“That whole atonal noise Greg was making felt like something else, it felt ferocious. For anyone that thinks he didn’t know what he’s doing, it’s absolutely the opposite. He knows. His guitar playing had some connections to the free jazz music I’d picked up on too, like Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and the more outside stuff that John Coltrane was doing.

I actually bought the rig he used on the My War/Slip It In tours. I kept the original speaker grill with the Black Flag bars on it. I was a disciple back then!

William DuVall on Greg Ginn

“I still love Greg’s music so much, and I also got to know him. You could go watch Black Flag soundcheck and hang out. We even used to jam sometimes. That whole culture around Black Flag and SST Records – who were the label back then – was entrepreneurial and cultural. I actually bought the rig he used on the My War/Slip It In tours. I kept the original speaker grill with the Black Flag bars on it. I was a disciple back then!”

3. Jimmy Page

“He was and is the ultimate wizard. The production on those Led Zeppelin records is exactly how rock should sound. He served that whole band so well. He could have so easily made it all about him – ‘Well, it’s my band, I put us together, I got the deal!’ – and operated more like the Jimmy Page Show. But he very intelligently knew how to showcase every one of the members so beautifully. The drum sounds alone are stunning. He sacrificed his own sonic space to accommodate Bonham’s kit. That’s such a wonderful and relatively selfless gesture. 

“He had the whole picture in mind at all times, from beginning to end. It’s not like they took their time, finding the way. No, Led Zeppelin arrived fully formed. Then there’s all his innovation on guitar, from backwards echo, mixing acoustics with electrics, making it all heavier. He was responsible for so many great things. Like Hendrix, it was a package and he was a visionary.

“I was very honoured to meet him when we did one of Paul Allen’s benefit gigs in Seattle. Sadly he’s since departed, but he was the co-founder of Microsoft and he’d throw these these amazing benefit dinners. Jimmy was the honouree in 2015, so we put together an all-star band with Jerry Cantrell, Duff McKagan, Barrett Martin and many more. I was originally going to do two or three and then they asked for seven or eight more. I had sing those Zeppelin songs with him sitting ten feet away!

“I even joked with him saying, ‘Feel free to jump up at any time, dude, because is not nerve-wracking at all!’ And he actually did, joining myself, Paul Rodgers and John Hogg for Rock And Roll. We all traded vocals with Jimmy standing next to us on stage. I was blown away. He was such a lovely guy to talk to afterwards. He had to be in this list!”

4. John McLaughlin

“Another British fellow who is so, so powerful to me. Every note is like a bullet with him. If there’s somebody whose playing I totally envy, wishing I could do even 20 per cent of what they do, it would be McLaughlin. Beyond all that jaw-dropping technique, he also has that spiritual component. He’s on this quest for a higher elevation of consciousness. He’s very much a disciple of Coltrane in that regard. 

He is seeking something. That is what you are hearing, the journey and the struggle. He’s trying to get somewhere that he knows he’ll never fully get to until maybe that last note

William Duvall on John McLaughlin

“The way he’s made a life out of that quest is a beautiful thing, particularly that first Mahavishnu Orchestra album, it’s one of my all-time records. There’s another he did called Electric Guitarist around 78 or 79. I bought that record new… I still love it so much. It has all these different musicians on there, some Mahavishnu guys, Carlos Santana. It’s like a great record of friends getting together. 

“I saw him tour a couple of years ago in Atlanta playing some of that Mahavishnu music, which I guess he’s doing as he might be semi-retiring from the road after some issues with his hand. Naturally, he wants to go out on a high-note while he can still really execute it. And that he did, I was sat on the second row completely transfixed. 

"He is seeking something. That is what you are hearing, the journey and the struggle. He’s trying to get somewhere that he knows he’ll never fully get to until maybe that last note."

5. Eddie Hazel

 “Funkadelic were one of my foundational bands as well. After Hendrix, it was like where do you go next? They were happening in the present, whereas Jimi had departed a few years before I was listening."  

You are not a rhythm or lead player. You are a guitar player. And if you are a guitar player, you have to do both

William DuVall

Eddie Hazel was somewhat of a disciple of Hendrix, but also had his own thing. Time and time again to this day I find myself playing licks or variations of licks that I learned from him on those Funkadelic records. And like Jimi, he made his guitar sound like it was talking to you… it wasn’t just riffs and licks, it was someone literally speaking through their guitar."

“Comin’ Round The Mountain off Hardcore Jollies is pretty much a clinic on how to do it. As is Red Hot Mama from Standing On The Verge Of Getting It On. Obviously Maggot Brain is a big showcase for him too. He was wonderful at both rhythm and lead, and to me those things are inseparable. You are not a rhythm or lead player. You are a guitar player. And if you are a guitar player, you have to do both. If you’re going to focus on one thing, you better make it the rhythm.

“Growing up, there were always the hotshot kids who fancied themselves as lead players, but they could never get a simple groove going. They’d just fall apart. A lot of Eddie’s licks were so beautiful and rhythmic, almost like sentences through which he tells his story. I have to give props to Michael Hampton who was his understudy/successor that joined the band as a teenager. Can you imagine being a teenager joining that circus?!”

6. Ace Frehley

“If you’re of a certain generation, and by that I mean mine, KISS were such a big thing. They came at just the right time for kids of a certain age. I couldn’t believe it... I loved comic books and rock’n’roll, then suddenly these guys turn up and offered both at the same time. They really fired my imagination. 

“Those early KISS records have this wonderful, hungry and dangerous quality to them. They still hold up, they really do. I know some people think Hotter Than Hell sounds weird but I love that record. It’s so crazy, and the sound of it is a big part of that. Obviously there wasn’t much money involved and the two guys who produced it might have been learning on the job just like the band was… but it’s awesome. I love the darkness and weirdness of it. Even the cover, this Bacchanalian orgy they’re having. I remember seeing it and thinking, ‘What the hell is going on there?’ 

“It also has two of Ace Frehley’s best songs on there, Parasite and Strange Ways, both of which have riffs and solos that are out of this world. He’s Space Ace, so it’s totally appropriate!”

7. George Benson

“He’s just such a total musician with great guitar playing and singing at the same time. The way he sings what he plays… nobody does it better than him. It’s so good you can almost take it for granted easily, maybe he doesn’t get enough credit. But he can only make it look so easy by being so great. Even compared to everyone else in this list, there’s no sense of struggle with him, it’s all polished and effortless. 

“One time Alice In Chains were working in the Henson Studios in LA. It’s an institution and everybody has recorded there at some point. It’s one of the few existing big-time commercial studios where you still have that hive thing. You could run into anybody in the hall. ‘Oh look, there’s Quincy Jones or Chaka Khan or Cher or Justin Timberlake in Studio A!’" 

He can only make it look so easy by being so great. Even compared to everyone else in this list, there’s no sense of struggle with him, it’s all polished and effortless

William DuVall on George Benson

“I went out to the back to take a break and the door across the hall was open. It was George doing a session. I couldn’t believe it. It felt inviting, some sessions are more closed off than others – you get a vibe not to go near, but this felt different. Something about that vibe made me think I could pop my head in and say hello to these amazing people. I got to meet him and hear a bit of music, it was a real highlight after loving that guy for so long. I used to scat sing to those records as a kid.”

8. Jeff Beck

“This is another one of those guys that’s so singular in his approach and attitude. I love the aggression in his early records with The Yardbirds and then Truth and Beck-Ola. The way he redefined himself as a guitar player in the '70s with Blow By Blow and Wired, plus that live record with the Jan Hammer Group and everything he’s done since. I remember buying the album There & Back in 1980 or whenever it came out, so I’ve been following him for a very long time right up until today. 

He’s a bit of a sorcerer himself... he can play in between the notes. Even if he goes out of tune, you wouldn’t know it. He will bend everything accordingly as he’s going

William DuVall on Jeff Beck

“He’s still amazing. I saw that new documentary that came out, when you see it all displayed and discussed in one film, it’s mind-boggling what this guy has done and is capable of doing – how vital and energetic he remains to this day. There’s just nobody that sounds like him. There are very few people with as many records across different genres and that can hold my interest through such unusual sonic signatures. Yet he retains this singularity throughout it all. 

“I saw him play with Santana in the '90s, they did this co-headlining thing, and I was right down the front. What an experience that was, seeing him do that stuff close up. He’s a bit of a sorcerer himself... he can play in between the notes. Even if he goes out of tune, you wouldn’t know it. He will bend everything accordingly as he’s going. He’s developed a foolproof way of using a tremolo bar because he has the technique to back it.”

9. Les Paul

“He influenced a few of the players in this list, like Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. He was an incredible player but also the inventor. We have him to thank for the electric solid-body to multitrack recording and overdubbing. So he’s not just a guitar player, he’s a visionary and inventor. If you want your mind blown, listen to those early records with Mary Ford. Then he did those duets with Chet Atkins, Chester And Lester, which were beyond in terms of technique. 

“Watching guys like that, and Glen Campbell, you see them smiling and riffing. Literally picking and grinning, with this kinda off-hand laugh! Yet what they’re playing is so devastating. It’s funny yet humbling. It puts you in your place, seeing those guys play this impossible stuff with very clean tones. They weren’t about distortion, it was about articulation. 

“It’s the total opposite of how I came into guitar playing. The older I get, the more appreciate what those guys were doing – even if they were laughing it off, they’d clearly put in the hours and hours of work. The ease with which they do it belies the dedication.”

10. Django Reinhardt

“It was jawdropping what this guy was capable of, even more so bearing in mind he only had two working fingers on his left hand to fret with after being injured in a gypsy caravan fire. He had the index and middle finger, his ring and pink fingers got melted together so he used that as a quasi-third finger but it was mainly on two. He found these complex chord voicings and ripping solo lines on acoustic. 

“Even without the whole story background, he’d be one of the greatest to pick up the instrument. Factor in the injury and how he had to adapt his techniques. It’s similar to Les Paul, who had a car accident which left his arm unusable. They thought he’d never be able to play again, so he got his arm permanently fixed into position and bent so he could keep playing. Those guys really were the music. It shows in their recordings and playing.”

 

11. The Beatles

“This has to be John, George and Paul in one go. They’re the greatest songwriters of our lifetimes. What they did with the guitar and for the guitar really can’t be overstated. The put the guitar on the amp as the instrument of its time. Of course, players in the '50s, like Chuck Berry, put rock’n’roll on the map and inspired all the cats in the '60s, including The Beatles. But when you’re talking about an actual band, who were able to get their points across is so many ways, both commercially and artistically, they will also be the biggest and the best. 

This band were more responsible for guitars getting sold than anyone. They inspired generations who inspired the next generation and so on…

William DuVall on The Beatles

“Even someone like George Clinton from Funkadelic will tell you his favourite band is The Beatles over Sly Stone or James Brown or Hendrix or Miles Davis. But no, it’s The Beatles. You can ask so many musicians across all the genres and they’ll all tell you the same thing. This band were more responsible for guitars getting sold than anyone. They inspired generations who inspired the next generation and so on… the ripple effect is quite literally endless. 

“Being able to go from Yesterday or Blackbird to Helter Skelter or that suite at the end of Abbey Road. Even looking at the chords in some of their teeny-bopper pop songs like I Want To Hold Your Hand or She Loves You, no-one else was doing that at the time. They were more sophisticated than any of their peers and by lightyears, incorporating showtunes, trad jazz, bossa nova… they were doing it all pretty much from the beginning because that’s what it took to be a working band, playing all those hours in Hamburg. What a run. They went out on top… it’s all fucking perfect.”

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