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Book Review: Guitar Player Presents Guitar Heroes of the ’70s, Edited by Michael Molenda

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Given the more pop oriented climate of today, it seems like a million years ago that guitar heroes like Hendrix, Clapton and Page ruled the musical landscape. Yet, in the late sixties and continuing throughout the seventies, the guitar reigned supreme in popular music.

This was due in large part to the enormous popularity of guitar oriented hard rock bands like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple in the seventies, later followed in the eighties by Van Halen and an endless slew of metal bands. But with technique being as important an element as style back then, jazz guitarists like John McLaughlin and Al DiMeola also enjoyed considerable success, as well as influencing more traditionally rock oriented players like Jeff Beck and Carlos Santana.

All of these great musicians, and many more are represented in Guitar Player Presents Guitar Heroes of the ’70s, a compilation of interviews which originally appeared in the pages of Guitar Player magazine. Not surprisingly, all of these interviews focus primarily on the guitar — this is Guitar Player magazine after all.

In that respect, the interviews here might seem a little dry to readers who don’t happen to be musicians themselves. Pages upon pages here are devoted to subjects like fingering and picking techniques, and what strings, picks, and amplifiers are used by the interview subjects. Occasionally this proves interesting, such as when Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi describes the protective plastic tips he uses on his fingers (he lost two of them in an electric welding accident). But if you find musical tech talk at all boring, this may not be the book for you.

However, once all the gear gab is dispensed with, Guitar Heroes of the ’70s is an often fascinating read, and one which offers up a surprising number of new insights into what makes some of the greatest axe-wielders on the planet really tick.

When it comes to influences for example, many of the names one would expect to see, do in fact come up repeatedly. Among the veteran rock guitarists, early rock pioneers like James Burton and Scotty Moore and blues greats like Muddy Waters and B.B. King are mentioned often, while guys like Clapton and Hendrix are name checked by second generation guitarists like Eddie Van Halen. More surprisingly, the comparatively lesser known Leslie West is cited by no less than Pete Townshend and Jimi Hendrix as a guitar player they admired.

The book also occasionally sheds light on the human side of these great musicians, and not always in a flattering way. Robert Fripp — who pioneered the progressive rock genre with both King Crimson and in various solo and collaborative projects with people like Brian Eno — comes off as both prickly and self absorbed, for example. In his interview, Fripp says that most guitarists don’t interest him and he describes the work of Eric Clapton as “mostly quite banal.”

In addition to the hot-shot rock players, the book also effectively covers the remaining genre bases, from jazz (McLaughlin, DiMeola, Larry Coryell, Pat Martino) to blues (Mike Bloomfield, Johnny Winter, Bonnie Raitt) to folk and acoustic music (Leo Kottke, Ry Cooder). In short, a book about guitar players, for guitar players, that will be read mostly by guitar players.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.