Sonic Youth: Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore have split up

Sonic Youth: Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore have split upTop 10 non-guitar players

They broke all the rules, they made noises that no-one else had thought of and they never did the obvious stuff with the guitar. These are the the top 10 non guitar payers who stepped outside of the trad rock rut and reinvented the instrument. Of course there are thousands of more obscure guitar players than this list who also kicked the guitar into new territories and I’m sure someone will send some of them in but this list is about the ones who broke the rules and opened the door for others to follow…

1. Jimi Hendrix
Yes, he could do all the conventional stuff and maybe he is just too well known meaning that we forget just how much he went way over the boundaries but Jimi Hendrix did things with the guitar that no-one else had ever thought of. He just bent the electricity inside out and made noises that were unimaginable and have gradually became back of the six string parlance. Listen to him now years later and you still gasp at the ingenuity and plain rule breaking genius of what he did.


2. Keith Levene
Those early Public Image records still sound astonishing and having had the pleasure to sing for Wobble and Levene last year, I got a chance to have a close look at what Keith does with the guitar and I’m no closer to how he got that noise out of his instrument. With his hands tapping the neck and the strings, all manner of hypnotic chimes and sounds came out of the instrument. In Public Inage this restless creativity meant that every song sounded completely different and the rulebook was positively sneered at and cast aside in an astonishing display of virtuosity.


3. Syd Barrett
He could write great three-minute psych pop songs but Syd was also great at the Glissando- the spooky slide that made those spectral noises that decorate the early Floyd and sounded like nothing else. He was one of the great guitar players who went beyond the rules but unfortunately didn’t hang around long enough to leave a whole body of work.


4. Stephen O’Malley
There are many guitar players working in the area of drone but Stephen O’Malley with his work in Sunn O))) has taken the sound to an extreme- slowing noise down and working the noise/drone thing to its ultimate conclusion he makes the guitar sound like an avalanche of darkness and has broken every boundary left in creating soundscapes that are just, well, beyond.


5. Viv Albertine
Punk was tabloid famous for spitting and being naughty etc but it was also an opportunity for women to get a foothold in the trad male world of rock n roll. The Slits were one of those bands who sneaked through when the rugby club was not looking and made their way by creating music that made no attempt to follow the male rules of rock n roll. Viv was instinctively paying the guitar in a whole new way, combining the rhythm of dub and reggae with something else to make an innovative sound that redefined the instrument.


Part 2 of the top ten non guitar players is here (numbers 6 to 10)

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Award winning journalist and boss of Louder Than War. In a 30 year music writing career, John was the first to write about bands such as Stone Roses and Nirvana and has several best selling music books to his name. He constantly tours the world with Goldblade and the Membranes playing gigs or doing spoken word and speaking at music conferences.


  1. Personally speaking one of the greatest, unconventional and inspirational (non) guitarists was John Mcgeoch. Deserves a mention……

  2. I would add Rob Simmons of the original Subway Sect and the brilliant Fallen Leaves – sparks fly when he plays live

  3. Nice piece John. Obviously got my own ideas but agree with the thrust, but this along with the awful news about Wilco this week got me thinking about bill Carter, how about a reappraisal of screaming blue messiahs?

  4. I think this is a great list. The only real contention I have with it is the omission of Tony Iommi… all the more glaring given the inclusion of Stephen O’Malley and Greg Ginn, in particular, who would doubtless both confess his huge influence on their own sounds. Possibly the author deems him as a bit too close to that trad-rock rut but, certainly at the peak of their career, Sabbath existed well outside the boundaries of mainstream critical acceptance (pre the desperate, back peddling revisionism post Seattle). Just a thought…

  5. Totally agree with Bone White. Rob Symmons’ style is unique and mesmerising. If you haven’t seen The Fallen Leaves see them soon.

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  8. If there’s a guitarist out there…anybody…who can come close to recreating Keith Levene’s sound without a ton of effects, let me know. Keith deserves the number one spot.

  9. Keith Rowe, Syd’s experimental forebear. Plus any of the guys who appeared on the Guitar Solos albums on Caroline Records….Fred Frith etc. Lou Reed was as experimental and innovative in the Velvet Underground as Syd was in the Pink Floyd. Listen to the version of Sister Ray on the 1968 Boston Tea Party bootleg….and of course the first two VU albums. It’s all there. Then there’s Metal Machine Music…; whoever played guitar with Captain Beefheart circa Trout Mask Replica/Lick My Decals Off Baby. Hendrix was no non guitarist…he was a virtuoso, a blues player deep down but took the electric guitar as far as humanly possible at the time, and inspired much guitar music for decades to come. Great list of alternative guitarists, but many are indeed competent players…just in a world of their own, eg Poison Ivy…who took Link Wray’s riffs and twangy reverb and tremolo sound into the 80s and beyond. Bryan Gregory was the true non guitarist! Really! Listen again to those early Cramps records eg “Gravest Hits” and “Songs The Lord Taught Us”…who was doing all that fuzzy noise and random feedback that made those tracks compelling as Brian Eno did with his synthesiser in Roxy Music? I like to think of this as Mark E Smith once said of rock and roll…the abuse of musical instruments. The non guitarist is the antithesis of the conventional player…a player who does not adhere to the same patterns of behaviour, the same habits, the same manual. Many punk guitarists came from that background, from a position of being barely competent, but discovered their own technique and sound tapping away at their instruments, teasing out new vibrations. Eno’s “non-musician” stance had much influence. Also the belief in the idea that anyone could make music without formal training. There was a spirit and a will to create something new, and Punk certainly did throw up some unusual players. Who else for instance was playing like Vini Reilly in the Nosebleeds? Punk was probably Syd Barrett’s revenge.


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