Brian May, the legendary guitarist of Queen, has got quite an interesting back story. Born in London in 1947, Brian, like Tom Morello, is quite the Brainiac. He’s got a degree in Astrophysics! There are many jokes about how Queen took people into outer space with their music, but we’ll leave that for another time.
Musically, May gifted us with “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Stone Cold Crazy.” The guitar he used to play these epic tunes was actually built by him and his father! He used firewood to create his “Old Lady” or “The Red Special” – clearly, the guy is a genius. He’s also a multi-instrumentalist – check out his song “Doing All Right” to hear him tinker on the piano!
This Canadian singer-songwriter was born in Alberta in the 40s and is our first female on the list. Mitchell's very singular tuning style helped maximize the sounds in each and every chord. Drawing from a mixture of genres, she enjoyed folk, pop, rock, and jazz, and her songs often focused on social and environmental issues, as well as her personal take on love, confusion, disillusionment, and joy.
Towing nine Grammy awards and an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, she’s been hailed as “one of the greatest songwriters ever.” What makes Mitchell so unique is her ability to write songs with the same chords but in different tunings – one song had 50 different variations! Would you believe that at her age, she’s still performing? What a legend!
Born in London in 1965, next up is the legendary guitarist Saul Hudson – famously known as “Slash.” Considered one of the greatest guitarists in rock history, Slash made a name for himself by being Guns N’ Roses' lead guitarist. But like many great musicians, Slash struggled with illegal substances and alcohol for a number of years. Eventually, he left some of that behind and went on to pursue a very prolific solo career.
His talent is undeniable – have you heard the solo in “November Rain?” If you answered no, please excuse yourself to go and listen to it. While you’re there, add “Sweet Child O’ Mine” to your queue. He took his star power with him, starting Velvet Revolver, which was successful in its own right. But since 2016, Slash returned to Axl Rose, and the band continues to rock to this day.
Eddie Van Halen
Dutch-American musician, songwriter, and producer Eddie Van Halen is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable guitarists of his time. The main songwriter and co-founder (alongside brother and drummer Alex Van Halen, Mark Stone, and David Lee Roth) of the American hard rock band, Van Halen. Born in Amsterdam in 1955, this pioneer of rock music was born to a father who was himself a clarinetist, saxophonist, and pianist. No wonder, it runs in his blood! His middle name, “Lodewijk” is the Dutch equivalent of “Ludwig” – and yep, you guessed it, he was named after the esteemed composer Ludwig van Beethoven.
As for his guitar-playing style, well, it was anything but classical. His unique pick-holding style sees him gripping it with his middle finger and thumb (as opposed to the traditional index-thumb combination), which allows him to drag his fingers across the strings. Some artists have likened this to sounding like he’s added another instrument to the mix. Tracks like “Eruption,” “Ain’t Talking ‘Bout Love” and “Hot for Teacher”, not to mention “Jump”, really have made rock history. And apparently, only when played by Van Halen. Mike McCready of Pearl Jam once said of Van Halen “You can play the things he’s written, but there’s an ‘X-factor’ that you can’t get.” Well said!
“The King of the Slide Guitar”, music critics and guitarists all know that anyone who puts a slide on their guitar owes Elmore James a debt. His lick defined blues rock, with his stylistic, swooping, full-octave opening figure on the slide guitar becoming a signature move. The Mississippi-born guitarist practically invented blues rock, and with unparalleled intensity, the multi-instrumentalist was set to become a star. He started with the “diddley bow” before progressing to the guitar.
His playing style influenced many musicians – one guitarist once said they practiced his signature slide until his fingers bled – it was at this point he realized that James, in fact, used a slide. Classics by way of James include the blues songs “Shake Your Money Maker,” “Talk to Me Baby,” “It Hurts Me Too” and “The Sky Is Crying.”