Jimi Hendrix exploded our idea of what rock music could be: He manipulated the guitar, the whammy bar, the studio and the stage. On songs like "Machine Gun" or "Voodoo Chile," his instrument is like a divining rod of the turbulent Sixties – you can hear the riots in the streets and napalm bombs dropping in his "Star-Spangled Banner."
His playing was effortless. There's not one minute of his recorded career that feels like he's working hard at it – it feels like it's all flowing through him. The most beautiful song of the Jimi Hendrix canon is "Little Wing." It's just this gorgeous song that, as a guitar player, you can study your whole life and not get down, never get inside it the way that he does. He seamlessly weaves chords and single-note runs together and uses chord voicings that don't appear in any music book. His riffs were a pre-metal funk bulldozer, and his lead lines were an electric LSD trip down to the crossroads, where he pimp-slapped the devil.
Eric Clapton is basically the only guitar player who influenced me – even though I don't sound like him. There was a basic simplicity to his playing, his style, his vibe and his sound. He took a Gibson guitar and plugged it into a Marshall, and that was it. The basics. The blues. His solos were melodic and memorable – and that's what guitar solos should be, part of the song. I could hum them to you.
What I really liked was Cream's live recordings, because you could hear the three guys playing. If you listen to "I'm So Glad," on Goodbye, you really hear the three guys go – and Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were a couple of jazz guys, pushing Clapton forward. I once read that Clapton said, "I didn't know what the hell I was doing." He was just trying to keep up with the other two guys!
After Cream, he changed. When he started doing "I Shot the Sheriff" and this and that, and when he hooked up with Delaney and Bonnie, his whole style changed. Or at least his sound. He focused more on singing than playing. I respect him for everything he's done and is still doing – but what inspired me, what made me pick up a guitar, was his early stuff. I could play some of those solos now – they're permanently imprinted in my brain. That blues-based sound is still the core of modern rock guitar.
Listening to what Jimmy Page does on guitar can transport you. As a lead player, he always plays the right thing for the right spot – he's got such remarkable taste. The solo on "Heartbreaker" has such incredible immediacy; he's teetering on the edge of his technique, and it's still a showstopper. But you can't look at just his guitar playing on its own. You have to look at what he did with it in the studio and how he used it in the songs he wrote and produced. Jimmy built this incredible catalog of experience on the Yardbirds and doing session work, so when he did the first Led Zeppelin record, he knew exactly what kind of sounds he wanted to get.
He had this vision of how to transcend the stereotypes of what the guitar can do. If you follow the guitar on "The Song Remains the Same" all the way through, it evolves through so many different changes – louder, quieter, softer, louder again. He was writing the songs, playing them, producing them – I can't think of any other guitar player since Les Paul that can claim that.
I remember being in junior high school, hearing "Satisfaction" and being freaked out by what it did to me. It's a combination of the riff and the chords moving underneath it. Keith wrote two-and three-note themes that were more powerful than any great solo. He played the vibrato rhythm and the lead guitar in "Gimme Shelter." I don't think anyone has ever created a mood that dark and sinister. There is a clarity between those two guitars that leaves this ominous space for Mick Jagger to sing through. Nobody does alternate tunings better than Keith. I remember playing the chorus to "Beast of Burden." I'm like, "These are the right chords, but they don't sound anything like Keith." He had some cool tuning, a beautiful chord so well-tuned that it sings. That is the core of every great guitar part on a Rolling Stones record. Keith finds the tuning that allows the work – the fretting, muting strings – to get out of the way of what he's feeling.
Jeff Beck has the combination of brilliant technique with personality. It's like he's saying, "I'm Jeff Beck. I'm right here. And you can't ignore me." Even in the Yardbirds, he had a tone that was melodic but in-your-face – bright, urgent and edgy, but sweet at the same time. You could tell he was a serious player, and he was going for it. He was not holding back.
There is a real artistry to playing with and around a vocalist, answering and pushing him. That's the beauty of those two records he made with Rod Stewart, 1968's Truth and 1969's Beck-Ola. Jeff is not getting in the way, but he's holding his own. And he stretched the boundaries of the blues. "Beck's Bolero," on Truth, is un-bluesy, but still blues-based. One of my favorite tracks is the cover of Howlin' Wolf's "I Ain't Superstitious," on Truth. There is a sense of humor – that wah-wah growl. I don't know if Clapton plays with the same sense of humor, as great as he is. Jeff's definitely got that.
B.B. King influences were set at an early stage. Being from Indianola, Mississippi, he goes back far enough to remember the sound of field hollers and the cornerstone blues figures, like Charley Patton and Robert Johnson. The single-note phrasing of T-Bone Walker was another thing. You can hear those influences in the choice of melodies that he not only sings vocally but lets his guitar sing instrumentally.
He plays in shortened bursts, with a richness and robust delivery. And there is a technical dexterity, a cleanly delivered phrasing. This was sophisticated soloing. It's so identifiable, so clear, it could be written out. John Lee Hooker – his stuff was too difficult to write out. But B.B. was a genuine soloist.
There are two things he does that I was desperate to learn. He originated this one cut-to-the-bone phrase where he hits two notes, then jumps to another string and slides up to a note. I can do it in my sleep now. And there's this twoor three-note thing, where he bends the last note. Both figures never fail to get you moving in your seat – or out of your seat. It's that powerful.
When I saw Chuck Berry in "Jazz on a Summer's Day" as a teenager, what struck me was how he was playing against the grain with a bunch of jazz guys. They were brilliant – guys like Jo Jones on drums and Jack Teagarden on trombone – but they had that jazz attitude cats put on sometimes: "Ooh... this rock & roll..." With "Sweet Little Sixteen," Chuck took them all by storm and played against their animosity. To me, that's blues. That's the attitude and the guts it takes. That's what I wanted to be, except I was white.
I listened to every lick he played and picked it up. Chuck got it from T-Bone Walker, and I got it from Chuck, Muddy Waters, Elmore James and B.B. King. We're all part of this family that goes back thousands of years. Really, we're all passing it on.
Chuck was playing a slightly heated-up version of Chicago blues, that guitar boogie – which all the cats were playing – but he took it up to another level. He was slightly younger than the older blues guys, and his songs were more commercial without just being pop, which is a hard thing to do. Chuck had the swing. There's rock, but it's the roll that counts. And Chuck had an incredible band on those early records: Willie Dixon on bass, Johnnie Johnson on piano, Ebby Hardy or Freddy Below on drums. They understood what he was about and just swung with it. It don't get any better than that.
When I was 11, I was at my guitar teacher's place, and he put on "Eruption." It sounded like it came from another planet. I was just learning basic chords, stuff like AC/DC and Deep Purple; "Eruption" really didn't make sense to me, but it was glorious, like hearing Mozart for the first time.
Eddie is a master of riffs: "Unchained," "Take Your Whiskey Home," the beginning of "Ain't Talking 'Bout Love." He gets sounds that aren't necessarily guitar sounds – a lot of harmonics, textures that happen just because of how he picks. There's a part in "Unchained" where it sounds like there's another instrument in the riff.
A lot of it is in his hands: the way he holds his pick between his thumb and middle finger, which opens things up for his finger-tapping. (When I found out he played that way, I tried it myself, but it was too weird.) But underneath that, Eddie has soul. It's like Hendrix – you can play the things he's written, but there's an X factor that you can't get.
Eddie still has it. I saw Van Halen on their reunion tour two years ago, and the second he came out, I felt that same thing I did when I was a kid. When you see a master, you know it.
I grew up playing slide guitar in church, and the whole idea was to imitate the human voice: After the old lady or the preacher stopped singing, we had to carry on the melody of the song just like they had sung it. Just in those terms, Duane Allman took it to a whole other level. He was so much more precise than anybody who'd ever come before. When I first heard those old-school Allman Brothers records, it was strange to me because the sound was so similar to what I had grown up listening to.
Listen to "Layla" – especially when it goes into that outro. Duane is sliding all over that melody. I used to put that on "repeat" when I would go to bed. All of us guitar players sit and practice, but that's one of those records where you want to put the guitar down and just listen.
Eric Clapton told me he knew working with Duane was going to take guitar music to a whole new place; they had a vision, and they got there. Clapton said he was really nervous about two guys playing guitar, but Duane was the coolest cat – he'd say, "Let's just get down!"
Duane died young, and it's just one of those things. You could tell he was going to get 50 times better. But God works it out like that, and that's the legacy he left behind. In my iPod is everything Duane recorded. I listen to Allmans tunes every other day.
Pete Townshend doesn't play many solos, which might be why so many people don't realize just how good he really is. But he's so important to rock – he's a visionary musician who really lit the whole thing up. His rhythm-guitar playing is extremely exciting and aggressive – he's a savage player, in a way. He has a wonderful, fluid physicality with the guitar that you don't see often, and his playing is very much a reflection of who he is as a person – a very intense guy. He's like the original punk, the first one to destroy a guitar onstage – a breathtaking statement at that point in time. But he's also a very articulate, literate person. He listens to a lot of jazz, and he told me that's what he'd really like to be doing. On "Substitute" you can hear the influence of Miles Davis' modal approach in the way his chords move against the open D string. He was using feedback early, which I think was influenced by European avant-garde music like Stockhausen – an art-school thing. The big ringing chords he used in the Who were so musically smart when you consider how busy the drumming and bass playing were in that band – it could have gotten chaotic if not for him. He more or less invented the power chord, and you can hear a sort of pre-Zeppelin thing in the Who's Sixties work. So much of this stuff came from him.