This list is not scientific. This list is not comprehensive. This list was, like most things that have ever been written, born of a drunken conversation. As a guitarist who started playing at the dawn of the 1980’s, this is a reflection of some of the slingers who shaped my sound and taste. For each player I will present one track as proof of their shredability. Here we go…
1. NEIL ‘SPYDER’ GIRALDO
First off, how can I not honor a guy nicknamed “Spyder?” Although even 1980’s music freaks mostly don’t know his name, they know that of his longtime spouse Pat Benatar, the diminutive spandex-clad chanteuse with a voice like thunder. Benatar absolutely ruled the airwaves in the early 1980’s, with her first 5 albums going platinum. Today she is mostly remembered for her pop tracks like “Love is a Battlefield” and “We Belong,” but on her first two or three albums she consistently brought The Rock, thanks in a big way to her hubby Spyder. One of the things I respect most about this guy is that he did whatever the Benatar hit machine required – if a song needed a big solo, he could do that, but if it required him to wear a Hawaiian shirt and play a 12-string acoustic he would do that, too. I should also note that, in addition to his work with Benatar, he helped Rick Springfield do “Jessie’s Girl,” which is one of the best rock songs of the early 1980’s; no, shut up, it is. AND, Pat’s “You Better Run” was the second video ever played on MTV, which means Spyder was the first lead guitarist ever shown on the channel. Most importantly, his playing was always sublimated to the song, as it should be. In support of Spyder’s case, I give you “Promises in the Dark,” the leadoff track from their third album. It’s a great 1980’s epic rock song, starting off with a Springsteen-esque piano-and-vocal intro, and then veering into almost Iron Maiden territory on the verse. If you’re short on time, you can click ahead to about 2:40, when you get one of Neil’s (relatively) rare solo workouts, which starts off melodically and then gives you a nice array of wanktronics without staying overlong. Tasty and to the point; the guy’s a pro.
2. JAMES MANKEY
One Saturday afternoon in 1986 I turned on MTV and caught the last half of the video for “Still in Hollywood,” the first single off Concrete Blonde’s self-titled debut album. I was hooked. I bought the cassette ASAP and it was actually the album to which I (finally) learned how to play guitar by ear. However, I only learned to play the basic chord progressions by ear, because there was NO WAY I, or most other guitarists, could imitate what guitarist Jim Mankey was actually doing. For one thing, he played with his fingers instead of a pick, which was extremely odd for a guitarist in a pretty heavy alternative rock band. For another he rarely played barre chords or any of the standard rock tropes you would expect to go with the relatively simple 3- or 4-chord songs on the album. He was just out there doing his own thing, creating an atmospheric, swirling sound that perfectly complemented Johnette Napolitano’s aching, powerful voice and twilit songs about Los Angeles and its denizens. I was having an absolute hell of a time deciding which song to use for Jim, so I decided to just sell out and use the one Concrete Blonde song non-Blonde fans have probably heard: “Joey,” off their third album ‘Bloodletting.’ While it’s not his weirdest or most technically impressive solo, the song as whole shows off his repetoire well. There are the slinky, reverbed-out flourishes during the verse, the ringing melody line going into the chorus and best of all (at 2:49) the fluid, sinuous solo, just 15 seconds long, achingly pretty and all the more perfect for its brevity.
3. STEVE BARTEK
Ah, Oingo Boingo. Since I moved to California I’ve encountered a lot of Boingo fans, but back in Texas they were so unknown I had to go to their ‘Alive’ concert tour by myself. Those that did know them had John Hughes film soundtracks to thank, or maybe just hearing “Dead Man’s Party” on the radio around Halloween. I was introduced to them by some older friends who were deep into punk rock and ska and general weirdness and soon discovered their double album “Boingo Alive.” This was a sort of victory lap record, celebrating their 10th anniversary, for which they rented a sound stage and re-recorded a bunch of their best songs live without an audience. To my ear the “Alive” versions of these songs are absolutely superior to the original album cuts, many of which suffer from 1980’s over-production-itis. Those that know anything about Boingo know that it was the brainchild of brothers Richard and Danny Elfman, the latter of whom went on to be Tim Burton’s musical, erm, muse… and one of the preeminent (if frequently annoying and self-repeating) soundtrack composers in Hollywood.
However, what most of those suckers don’t know is that Boingo guitarist Steve Bartek was the translator that methodized Elfman’s madness. He charted the musically illiterate Elfman’s songs for the band, and later served the same purpose for the movie scores. On top of all that, and despite the fact that he usually dressed like a copier salesman, he was one of the nastiest, damaged-jazz-metal guitar players around. To wit, check out the ‘Alive’ version of “No Spill Blood.” The funk licks between verses are super tasty, but… damn, the solo (starting around 2:10) is just vicious. Sweep picking, whammy madness, dissonance… it’s a sampler platter of mayhem, all coming from the fingers of a guy who looks like one of your Dad’s friends.
4. STEVE STEVENS
I debated whether or not Steve really belongs on this list, since anyone who watched MTV in the 80’s (i.e. anyone paying attention to pop and rock music in the 80’s) would be somewhat familiar with the tiny, patent-leather-clad Q-tip that was (and still is) Billy Idol’s lead guitarist. However I went ahead and did it because a) I only had four people on my list and b) I don’t think people give him the credit he’s due as a guitar player; he’s more of an extra in the videos, part of the visual record.
And, well, shit, if I’m being honest, really the only reason he’s on here is “Rebel Yell.” To me it’s a top 5 80’s song, and the solo (at about 2:28) is hands-down my favorite solo of that decade. Yes, above anything Slash or Eddie or anyone else did. Why? Dunno, exactly. It’s just… rock n roll. Its 50% straight-up Chuck Berry and 50% space lasers. It’s stupid and brilliant and a little sloppy and it’s the perfect solo for this particular song, which is one of the all-time great songs to hear on a summer night in the car with the windows down. It’s just… rock n roll.
5. DR. KNOW
And now we get to the paradox – Bad Brains, by far the least popular AND most influential band on this list. Jazz-fusion players from D.C. who discovered reggae and punk and melded them into something no one else could do. They played faster and better than any punk band ever and were constantly changing, breaking up, inventing new sounds and seem forever doomed to have their legacy guarded and passed down by far too few fans. On the other hand, the Foo Fighters brought Dr. Know and Darryl (bassist) out on stage at a recent concert and Dave G. praised them and played a couple of their songs so maybe they’ll get their due, finally.
In any case, Dr. Know’s playing was always far beyond my abilities but provided one of the guideposts for me as I was developing as a player, the loose-but-tight chug of his rhythm playing, the angularity and fire of his soloing, the inversions, the open, ringing chords. He’s got it all. As an example, here’s the title track from their “I Against I” album, which marked the moment where they slowed things down just a bit and in doing so added “reinvented metal” to their mantelpiece alongside “created hardcore punk” and “invented the Black Rock movement.”
At this point I wish to point out that the title says “5 OF the most…” not “THE 5 most…” Hopefully I’ll get some thoughtful rebukes in the comments section and we can do another of these soon.