Back in my younger years, about 35 years ago, I was an avid skier. I lived for the sport and spent every red cent I had for equipment and lift tickets. To me, there was nothing like carving perfect turns down a slope; and as I got better, taking on challenging pitches that few would even think to attempt. I even did a bit of racing, as I had a competitive streak. In all those years that I skied, and even up to now, in my book, there was no better ski racer than Ingemar Stenmark, the Swedish legend, whose total World Cup wins has never been beaten and most likely will never be beaten. Here’s a compilation video of him:
The thing about Stenmark was that he was so good that for many years in the Giant Slalom and Slalom events, no one talked about who would be first, but rather, who would be second. And he was also so good that the Federacion Internacional du Ski (FIS), the governing body for all international amateur skiing, changed the rules such that he could not win the overall World Cup beyond the two titles he had won by requiring that to win the combined a skier also had to race the downhill event, which he did not; even though with his wins in both slalom and giant slalom he amassed more points than the winner of the combined!
For those of us who followed him, it was an injustice. But despite that, he will forever live on as the greatest skier of all time. So what does this have to do with playing guitar?
Think about how different groups or players completely changed the game in music history. When Dave Davies of the Kinks used a razor blade to cut up his speaker cone to create a distorted sound for “You Really Got Me,” that completely changed the game of rock and roll. I realize that that wasn’t necessarily borne out of skill, but it was a game-changer.
If you want to look to pure skill, then there are two guitarists in recent history that completely changed the game – at least in my mind. The first was Michael Hedges, the acoustic guitar god who sprouted a cadre of alternate-tuning, body-slapping, both-hands-players such as Kaki King and Andy McGhee. Watching him play was a transformative experience. Of all the players who had an influence on how I play, Michael Hedges is probably the biggest, as I learned to use percussive rhythm techniques in my playing that I carried over to electric guitar. They’re subtle, but they’re definitely derived from hours of watching Michael live and listening to his albums.
The other game-changer – and I think most will agree with me – was none other than Eddie Van Halen. When he hit the scene, he scared the living shit out of his contemporaries. Sure, it could be argued that Satch legitimized shred, but EVH showed the world what was possible with rock guitar, and rock guitar playing has not been the same since.
You may or may not agree with me with my choices of game-changers; it’s subjective, after all. But the point to all this is that those who are that good at what they do really change the game, and make everyone step up theirs to keep up. Thank God I’ve been able to witness masters in my lifetime!