Smile Politely

The votes are in

(”Hooker’s Hands,” pen and ink by Roy Newton, [email protected])

As y’all know by now, I’ve spent the past four or five days at the Ellnora Guitar Festival asking people “Who was the greatest guitarist in the history of the world?”

To make it perfectly clear: the question is bollocks. Yet considering that it’s an unanswerable question, it’s very interesting that so many people spend so much time trying to answer it, and arguing over the answers.

This is true not only around the Krannert Center but all over the country, especially since Rolling Stone published its list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time, causing flame-wars to burn all over the Internet and the guitar community to take sides as never before. Everyone has an opinion, even the sedate citizens of Illinois. I’m amazed fistfights didn’t break out in the lobby.


As I say, pretty much everyone around the festival was smart enough to realize that any answer they gave to the question was irrational. The way people chose to interpret it, as is perfectly fair, was “Who is my all-time favorite guitarist?”

This morning I’ve been tabulating the results, and the sheer range is astounding. Nearly 100 musicians received votes, and even though some of them may have been sentimental (my dad, my son, me) it’s a sign that the Krannert attracts an eclectic and informed audience.

The “winners,” then, are simply personal favorites existing in clusters, but the names are very interesting. Hendrix wins by a whisker, clearly such a personal favorite that I had to throw out five votes as they were all written in exactly the same handwriting. As to why Hendrix won, Mark Rubel has some very interesting views on the subject. You can check out his interview on the Ellnora Festival web site and on YouTube.

After that, though, the field broadens rapidly. Right behind Jimi come Richard Thompson and Leo Kottke — surely a sign that the Ellnora audience is less prejudiced in favor of electric guitarists than the Rolling Stone fanbase.

Tied for next place come Clapton (no surprise), Jeff Beck, BB King, Django, Les Paul and Adrian Belew. Jazz barely appeared at all in the Rolling Stone pantheon, but again Ellnorans are more open-minded.

Right behind them is Segovia, one of half a dozen classical guitarists nominated. Once again….

Some of the players chosen as Greatest were actually at the Festival (Junior Brown, Jim Campilongo, Jerry Douglas, Ai DiFranco), which may just be the effect of the most recent impact, but also says something about the quality of the Festival, especially as others (Buddy Guy, Pat Metheny, John McLaughlin) have been at previous Wall to Walls.

As always, one of the most fascinating aspects of the poll is the issue of who was not named.

Hank Garland, one of the great innovators of all time, ain’t there. Roy Buchanan got only one vote, which is clearly a sign that, even in the blues-rock genre, the most amazing players are not always the best-known. And there’s nobody at all from before the twentieth century, a sure sign that the guitar is the instrument of the now and the immediate. As I discovered when I started researching my book Guitar: An American Life and went looking for musicologists who knew what they were talking about, “guitar history” is an oxymoron.

Perhaps the most benign and constructive value of this whole exercise is that it introduces people to new names, new musical opportunities and frontiers.

With that in mind, so now I’ve got some names for you — names of people who weren’t mentioned in the poll but, had they been better known, might have blown the socks off everyone else: Yamandu Costa. Andreas Kapsalis. Joscho Stefan. Stochelo Rosenberg. Fapy Lafertin. Marcus Tardelli. Sergio and Odair Assad and their amazing sister Badi. Leo Brouwer.

Just realized I did this all wrong. The question should have been, “Who is the most amazing guitarist I’ve never heard of?” Ah, well. There’s always next time.

Tim Brookes is the author of: Guitar: An American Life and the forthcoming The Greatest Guitarist in the History of the World. He’s in town to act as emcee, interviewer and man-on-the-sidewalk for the Ellnora Guitar Festival at the Krannert Center. Check out his blog at

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