For every guitar player that music fans consider underrated, there is one that is equally overrated. Honestly, most often a guitarist who is underrated to one fan may be overrated to another. It’s all so subjective; it comes down to personal taste.
There are probably a thousand extreme heavy metal guitar players that can play circles around almost any guitarist in any other genre, but to most listeners their music sounds like noise. Likewise, how many phenomenal blues guitarists go unnoticed simply because someone doesn’t give blues music the time of day? Also, how do you even go about judging a guitar player? Technical ability? Creativity? Songwriting? All three?
Some of the most famous, and creative, guitar players of all time, namely guys like Jimmy Page, Slash and Jimi Hendrix, to name a few, have also been accused by many of being significantly overrated. It’s impossible to say, really, what constitutes an overrated musician, especially when the vast majority we’re talking about have had massively successful careers, but for the sake of argument, here are 10 guitar players that could be (and have been) accused of being overrated.
10 Jimmy Page
Ok, fire away. Jimmy Page is a rock and roll icon, and a fantastic guitar player. But, is he really the third greatest guitar player of all time, as Rolling Stone suggests, let alone the greatest of all time as many others have proclaimed? Originally known as a blues guitarist, who eventually started playing the blues faster, Page developed his style over his career, and by the time he was the main man in Led Zeppelin, Page had diversified his style, adding more acoustic elements, as well as some proto-heavy metal elements. And Page was also a really good songwriter when Led Zeppelin weren’t re-working old blues standards, but… he was also notoriously sloppy live, and after Led Zeppelin, hasn’t written much of note, suggesting the power of Led Zeppelin as a whole was instrumental in Page’s creativity and best work. Jimmy Page is a great guitarist, ok? He’s just not the greatest of all time.
9 Keith Richards
It is debatable as to whether Keith Richards has ever even been the best guitar player in his own band. The Rolling Stones are probably one of the most overrated bands of all time, so it makes sense that their guitar player would make this list. Richards can play some bluesy solos, and his rhythm guitar playing is good, but he’s never been great at either, and he’s not a fantastic songwriter by any stretch. The best early Rolling Stones material mimicked the Beatles, their best output in the early 1970s was spotty, with a few great songs and a lot of filler, and there’s been nothing noteworthy since. Richards is a good player, but he’s not as influential or talented as many critics suggest. Not that my opinion matters much; the Rolling Stones (Keith Richards and Mick Jagger in particular) are as famous as famous can be. Obviously, he’s done something right.
8 Eric Clapton
7 Carlos Santana
6 The Edge
Admittedly, The Edge is an important guitar player, particularly when it comes to the use of effects. When he starts playing, the listener instantly knows it’s a U2 song because of The Edge’s very recognizable, effects-laden guitar tones. You can’t really take away from The Edge’s ability to craft a strong melody, and utilize an effects board, but at the same time, his “signature sound” was developed in the studio with the help of no less than two producers, and a lot of trial an error. Furthermore, while U2 has had a few decent songs over the past 20 years, much of their critical success, backed by The Edge’s strongest songwriting and most innovative guitar playing, ended after Achtung Baby in 1991. By no means a virtuoso, The Edge has maintained great guitar status on the strength of the success of his band more than the strength of his abilities.
5 Zakk Wylde
I’m a Zakk Wylde fan. I admit it. The initial albums that he recorded with Ozzy Osbourne in the late 1980s and early 1990s contained some great metal riffs, powerful ballads and some extremely tasteful and (more often than not) melodic guitar solos. The guitar solo in “No More Tears” ranks among the best in hard rock. Zakk’s first ‘solo’ album, the southern rock-influenced Pride and Glory and the country flavored follow up, Book of Shadows, are both examples of how amazing this guy can be on the guitar. Great songwriting, top notch technical ability, creativity… all hallmarks of early Zakk Wylde guitar playing. And then, it all just kind of stagnated, and Zakk got settled in Black Label Society, where recycled riffs, and speed-for-speed’s-sake solos became the norm. His playing became complacent and boring for the better part of 20 years, and a near homerun for a guitar legend became a great example of someone resting on his laurels. Thankfully, the last few Black Label Society albums have been a touch more diverse, hinting at some more dynamic music from Wylde in the years to come.
4 Angus Young
As important as AC/DC may be in rock and roll history, and as large a role as Angus Young has played in the Australian band's success, his guitar playing and songwriting have been a one trick pony for over thirty years. “You Shook Me All Night Long” is a great song, sure, but thirty years worth? Not so much. Angus is a great showman, and has had an indelible impact on rock music, but he’s an overrated guitar player, there’s really not much to debate. Like The Edge, you know it’s Angus Young playing and you know it’s an AC/DC song, but there’s really not much else of note to warrant Angus Young’s classification as a great guitar player, or his inclusion on many greatest guitar player lists.
3 Yngwie Malmsteen
Playing a style known as neo-classical heavy metal, Swedish virtuoso Yngwie Malmsteen is one of the most technically proficient, and fastest guitar players out there. And not much else. Speed for the sake of speed; over the course of a 20-year solo career Yngwie hasn’t strayed much from the style that put him on the map in the first place, keeping long-time fans happy, but sacrificing musical growth and diversity in the process. Ultimately, listening to a guitar player at warp speed the vast majority of the time gets old fast. Malmsteen may have helped invent and define a genre, but his guitar playing is akin to sitting next to the most beautiful plastic mannequin in the world and wishing you could just have a conversation with her.
2 Kurt Cobain
This is probably too easy, and not really even fair. Cobain himself probably wouldn’t have even considered himself a guitar player, so much as a singer and songwriter. Though grunge music isn’t everyone’s favorite genre, Kurt Cobain wrote some great songs. He also helped invent a genre, never mind define an era. So, Kurt Cobain was talented at what he did, sing and write songs, but he was no master on the guitar. Since his suicide, his talents on the guitar have been debated, with many being overly kind in their evaluation of his talent and giving him an almost revered place amongst guitarists when there’s nothing to suggest he should be, or would even want, to be there. His use of effects was tasteful, and he played power chords and single note licks that complimented the songs he wrote, but there’s nobody with a semi-beginner relationship to the guitar that couldn’t replicate them. As a songwriter, Cobain deserves many of the accolades he gets. As a guitar player, most definitely not.
1 Jack White
Everybody’s favorite rock and roller at the moment, there’s no doubt Jack White is a great musician. He’s a decent songwriter too, but the pop culture man of the hour is also highly overrated as both a guitar player and songwriter. Every one of his projects sound very similar, and all sound very much like White’s influences. Jack White has made a career of playing blues-tinged rock and roll, which is fine in and of itself, but most listeners seem to think this type of music is new and that White’s style of playing is a revelation. Likewise, the band that White is probably most responsible for, the Black Keys, are viewed similarly as pioneers of a ‘new’ form of music. Listen to Peter Green’s guitar playing, early Richie Blackmore, even some classic, early Clapton to hear rock and roll versions of the blues. If anything good can come from Jack White’s highly visible and highly overrated music career, it’s that some intrepid listeners will seek out the originators of the style he plays.