2016 Readers’ Choice Awards

2016 Readers’ Choice Awards
Hall of Fame inductees Carlos Santana and Joe Walsh. Carlos Santana: Larry Marano/Atlasicons.com. Joe Walsh: Rick Gould.

Each year, VG asks readers to select Readers’ Choice winners for Album of the Year, Artist of the Year, and Player of the Year in four musical categories, based on artists and recordings featured in the magazine between July 1, 2015, and June 30, 2016. Included in the annual vote are nominees for the VG Hall of Fame; each year, the magazine adds two players, an innovator, and an instrument. Hundreds of votes are tallied via the magazine’s traditional written ballot, while hundreds more participate at VintageGuitar.com. Here, we proudly present the 2016 inductees to the VG Hall of Fame.

2016 Players
27.5% Carlos Santana
22.6% Joe Walsh
22.0% Mark Knopfler
17.4% Danny Gatton
10.5% Roy Buchanan
2016 Instruments
34.2% Gibson Explorer
26.5% Gretsch 6128 Duo-Jet
26.4% Ibanez Tube Screamer
12.8% Mosrite Ventures
2016 Innovators
30.5% Tom Scholz
25.6% Roger Mayer
24.8% George Bauchamp
19.2% Howard Alexander Dumble
2016 Albums of the Year
30.0% Eric Clapton, I Still Do
26.3% Joe Bonamassa, Blues of Desperation
25.2% Jeff Beck, Loud Hailer
18.4% Santana, IV
2016 Featured Artists of the Year
32.9% Brian Setzer
21.6% John Jorgenson
17.0% Dweezil Zappa
16.3% Zakk Wylde
12.2% Jay Geils
2016 Rock Players of the Year
40.4% Jeff Beck
24.7% Derek Trucks
15.8% Slash
14.1% Angus Young
4.9% J.D. Simo
2016 Jazz Players of the Year
28.4% Robben Ford
27.7% George Benson
20.0% John McLaughlin
14.8% Bill Frisell
9.1% Julian Lage
2016 Blues Players of the Year
30.6% Joe Bonamassa
28.6% Eric Clapton
22.7% Buddy Guy
10.1% Kenny Wayne Shepherd
7.9% Walter Trout
2016 Country Players of the Year
43.3% Vince Gill
23.0% Albert Lee
12.4% Johnny Hiland
11.7% Jerry Douglas
9.7% Redd Volkaert

Carlos Santana: Gary Miller.

Carlos Santana

2016 Player

“I grew up in the ’60s, when the first thing you heard in music was feeling, emotion, and passion,” said Carlos Santana, discussing his Shape Shifter album in a 2012 interview with VG. “Now, that’s the first thing they take out!”

That disc and its 2014 follow-up, Corazon, were Santana’s vow to raise the proverbial bar of a modern music biz that is “…so shallow we have to take it to a place where you hear a song and it gives you chills or makes you cry and laugh.”

Such philosophical bits are among the elements that have long endeared fans to the music and life of Santana.

Born in Autlan de Navarro, Mexico, the music of B.B. King, Javier Bátiz, John Lee Hooker, and Gábor Szabó pushed him away from his first instrument – violin – to his true calling. In his 2006 VG interview with Dan Forte, he equated playing guitar to breathing, and cited its ability to help him convert universal energy to notes on a fretboard.

Not yet a teen when his band began jamming in Tijuana strip clubs, a few years later he moved to San Francisco with his family, but returned and (at age 15) supported himself with the guitar. At 19, he re-joined his family and jumped fully into the vibrant Bay Area music scene with the Carlos Santana Blues Band. Soon, though, Carlos’ playing and the band’s increasing use of Afro-Cuban rhythms put them outside any musical mold. Dropping the blues reference, they started going by “Santana” and quickly gained an audience at the Fillmore, then famously played Woodstock a few months before releasing its first album. The band’s set, as portrayed in the 1970 documentary film, Woodstock, fully displays the exuberance of his connection with every note. Fillmore owner Bill Graham once said there were only two guitarists he could pick out among a thousand – Santana and Albert King. The late J.J. Cale called him, “the most identifiable guitarist in the world.” And though the years since have seen him experience unparalleled commercial and critical success, it hasn’t dampened his spirit or enthusiasm.

Many players in Santana’s position are said to have reached their true purpose. Along the way, many experience events that reinforce that belief; Carlos jammed with Jaco Pastorius on the night the esteemed bassist died, and also recalls a recording session late one night in the summer of 2001 when word reached the studio that John Lee Hooker had died.

“When I went home, [the answering machine] was blinking,” he recalled in 2012. “It was him: ‘Wh-wh-what’re doing young man? C-c-call me sometime; I wanna hear your voice.’”

Santana’s makeup is further revealed in the fact that like any true hero, he doesn’t put himself on a pedestal, but continually emanates respect for those he sees as great. In this case, that’s Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, B.B./Freddie/Albert King, Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, Hubert Sumlin, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Peter Green, Michael Bloomfield, and others.

“We all know who to go to and what to listen to so we can soak ourselves,” he told Forte. “We don’t want to sound like them, but we want to be drenched with the same things that they’re drenched with.”

Varied and diverse, his discography is marked by early work with the band, later by introspective solo projects interspersed with collaborations alongside icons in many genres – blues on 1969’s The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper, jazz with John McLaughlin (1973’s Love Devotion Surrender), classic rock covers on 2010’s Guitar Heaven: The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time, featuring high-profile vocalists of the genre. The aforementioned commercial success came via 1999’s Supernatural (which claimed nine Grammy awards including Album Of The Year and Record Of The Year and went 25 times platinum) and the follow-up, 2002’s Shaman. Afterward, Santana began to use his profile to shed light on social causes, as on Shape Shifter, which honored Native Americans and focused on instrumentals, and Corazon, a true Latin record on which his guitar drives guest vocals on covers and new material. Santana’s touch and tone are ever-present and unmistakable.

Santana has donated considerable time and energy to groups that aid the underprivileged. In 1998, he founded the Milagro Foundation to support underrepresented and vulnerable children and youth in the areas of arts, education, and health. All of the proceeds from his 2003 American tour went to Artists for New South Africa (ANSA), to help fight the AIDS pandemic, and he supports several causes including the Rainforest Action Network and Amnesty International. In late 2016, he teamed with drummer/producer Narada Michael Walden, singer/songwriter Jennifer Saran, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo on “Wake Up,” a song that appealed for the world to address inequality and impoverishment. – Ward Meeker

Joe Walsh: Larry Marano/Atlasicons.com.

Joe Walsh

2016 Player

The ability to adapt and grow – diversity – is a substantial element in the career of any musician whose career manages to span five decades. That rare ilk includes Joe Walsh, the guy who hardened the Eagles’ edge and in the late ’70s made rock fans aware of the coolness of a talkbox.

Beyond changes in musical styles and the company he kept while creating it, Walsh has continually pushed himself as a songwriter, composer, singer, producer, and player on his own work as well as that for others including Dan Fogelberg, John Entwistle, Don Henley, Ringo Starr, America, REO Speedwagon, Jay Ferguson, Andy Gibb, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Steve Winwood, and Richard Marx.

Walsh’s ball started rolling while he was a student at Kent State University in 1965, where his band, The Measles, started jamming in local clubs. In early ’68, he step-stoned into a Cleveland band called James Gang and within a few months his innovative playing was pushing it to newfound recognition. The band had a handful of hits before Walsh bailed in late ’71 to help assemble what was essentially a backing act called Barnstorm. Its self-titled ’72 debut album was followed by The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get and the single, “Rocky Mountain Way,” which reached the Top 40 in ’73.

In ’74, Walsh emerged as a true solo performer, releasing So What and the single “Turn To Stone.” In this period, Walsh was working with producer Bill Szymczyk, who had also taken on the Eagles; it was Szymczyk who introduced them, and in ’75 Walsh became the Eagles’ keyboardist/guitarist after founding member Bernie Leadon became disillusioned as the band drifted away from the country-rock that had brought it notable success.

As always, Walsh made an immediate impact, jumping in as the band recorded its 1976 landmark, Hotel California, where on the title track he famously went lick-for-lick with lead guitarist Don Felder. Walsh also contributed the riff on Glenn Frey’s “Life in the Fast Lane” and brought the song “Pretty Maids All in a Row,” which he had co-written with Barnstorm drummer Joe Vitale.

Hotel California achieved the sort of success that can derail a band – and it did, as some Eagles fell into the traps conveyed by the album’s underlying theme. The follow-up, The Long Run, took nearly three years to record and produce. Walsh used that time to record But Seriously, Folks… and the single “Life’s Been Good,” which parodied rock stardom and the inherent pitfalls he’d recently witnessed and/or lived through. Amongst his other work at the time was “In the City” for the sound track to Walter Hill’s 1979 cult film The Warriors.

The Eagles broke up in July of 1980, pushing Walsh back to solo performance. In ’81, he released There Goes the Neighborhood with the single “A Life of Illusion,” which had also been written in the Barnstorm era eight years earlier and would become one of his most popular songs. Three more albums – You Bought It – You Name It, The Confessor, and Got Any Gum? were made before the close of the decade.

Walsh twice toured with Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band (1989 and ’92), and otherwise stayed busy exploring a mix of styles in various acts. He performed with a band called the Best, with keyboardist Keith Emerson, bassist John Entwistle, and guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. In ’93, he and Glenn Frey did their Party of Two tour, his ’94 single “Ordinary Average Guy” was originally recorded by Herbs, a noted reggae band from New Zealand that for a time counted Walsh as a member, and in ’96 he was part of a one-show James Gang reunion requested by then-President Bill Clinton.

Also in ’94, the Eagles ended their “14-year vacation” to reunite for the first of what would be several tours with the lineup from The Long Run. In ’98, Walsh re-tooled “Rocky Mountain Way” for ABC to use during its “Monday Night Football” broadcasts that season. Later that year, the Eagles were inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The 21st century saw Walsh perform at Eric Clapton’s first Crossroads Guitar Festival in ’04, reunite with the James Gang in ’06, and become a Carvin endorser in ’08. His 2012 album, Analog Man, was his first studio solo effort in two decades and was largely reflective of his life. One of its overriding themes involved Walsh’s battles with alcoholism, which for a time kept him away from music.

“I went out and explored [sobriety],” he said in an interview with VG at the time. “Until I had enough sobriety to be able to do music that way, I just didn’t want to mess with creative stuff or writing because there were still a lot of triggers.” Produced by Jeff Lynne and Walsh, the album included songs with co-writer Tommy Lee James, featured his brother-in-law, Ringo Starr, on drums for one track, and was named Vintage Guitar’s first Album of the Year.

Beyond fame, fortune (/misfortune), and all the great licks, Walsh’s cred in vintage guitardom is punctuated by the fact he sold to Jimmy Page the ’59 Les Paul Standard that would become iconic in Led Zeppelin. – Ward Meeker

(LEFT TO RIGHT) A mahogany-body Explorer from the ’70s. An original Explorer, from 1958.

Gibson Explorer

2016 Instrument

In 1957, Gibson President Ted McCarty took it upon himself to jump-start sales of his company’s electric guitars.

While his company firmly controlled the market for archtops and big-bodied acoustics, the kids who played rock and roll and the latest country music were flocking to Leo Fender’s solidbodied Tele and Strat; Ted’s crew needed to move beyond the Les Paul that had become so un-hip.

Inspired by the world in which he lived – Sputnik, concept cars, trends in music and fashion, etc. – he plopped himself down with pencil and graph paper, and swung for the fences. From this brainstorm emerged three designs – far-ranging departures he called the Flying V, Futura, and Moderne. Turned over to builders and marketing (which dubbed them the “Modernistic” line), a prototype Futura with a mahogany body emerged in time for that summer’s big Music Industry Trade Show (predecessor to NAMM). Though history doesn’t recount its reception at the event, within a couple months, Gibson was ready to start sending them to dealers.

The orders trickled in.

Maybe their shapes were too odd and their finishes – left natural over the korina wood chosen to further separate them from anything else – didn’t strike mass fancies. Whatever the reasons, fewer than 100 Flying Vs were ordered along with even smaller numbers of Explorers (19 in 1958, three in ’59). One of guitardom’s great debates revolves around whether even one Moderne ever left the factory.

Uncle Ted’s concept was a resounding failure, and by ’59, none of the korinas remained in the line (in ’63, it shipped a handful of Vs and Explorers using leftover bodies). If there was solace to be found, it was that McCarty’s other big idea at the time – the semi-hollow ES-335 – proved immediately popular and is now a drop-dead classic.

In the mid ’70s, Gibson reintroduced the Explorer, looking to capitalize on rockers’ desire to play something different. It has been offered in many forms ever since. The original, meanwhile – once an ugly stepchild of the guitar community – today bathes in the limelight of “golden era” Gibsons, and because so few were made, its status has been elevated to that of “preeminent collectible,” commanding a half-million dollars. – Ward Meeker

Tom Scholz courtesy of Tom Scholz.

Tom Scholz

2016 Innovator

There’s a healthy dose of do-it-yourself grit involved in learning to play an instrument, write songs, and create music. Search far and wide, you likely won’t find a bigger DIY guy than Tom Scholz.

After his 1969 graduation from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) with a Master’s degree in mechanical engineering, Scholz became a product-design engineer for camera/electronics maker Polaroid. A big-time tinkerer, his free time was spent writing and recording songs; and it wasn’t just him and keyboard or acoustic guitar. No. Scholz played guitar, bass, and keys, then recruited local talent to play drums and sing. By ’74, he had a half-dozen songs ready for screening by record labels; CBS/Epic helped turn the tapes into Boston’s self-titled debut and follow-up, Don’t Look Back.

While making the albums, Scholz grew to appreciate the sounds made by a 100-watt Marshall amp turned up to its “sweet spot” – that place where tubes and transformers produce magical overtones that are such a part of loud rock and roll. But those tones come at a price, mainly ear-damaging sound-pressure levels. His fix was the first “power soak,” a.k.a. an attenuator – a device that allows an amplifier to produce full-volume tone while sending less output signal to a speaker, thus making for a quieter studio/environment. It would be the first of many devices he’d create in the pursuit of consistent, usable tone.

In 1982, Scholz founded Scholz Research & Development to manufacture the gear he was developing, including amps (the best known of which are the Rockman series of headphone amps) and later, the Rockmodules line of modular/rackmount effects. All told, Scholz’s name is on the patents of 34 devices. The company produced gear until being acquired by effects/accessories maker Dunlop in 1995.

And while some would see irony in the fact that, when asked his thoughts on modeling amps as part of his 2012 feature in VG, Scholz surprisingly described them as, “Useless,” it’s easy to appreciate that while the Rockman amps had a certain “cleansing” effect, their intent was inspired by a desire for every player to be able to consistently re-create their perfect tone.

Today, Scholz continues to play almost every instrument while writing and recording Boston songs. When time allows, he takes the band out for summer tours. – Ward Meeker

Eric Clapton, I Still Do

2016 Album

Emerging in a year that saw genuine, legit efforts issued by fellow legends Jeff Beck and Carlos Santana along with contemporary heavyweights like Joe Bonamassa, Eric Clapton’s 23rd solo album stands out in part due to his reconnection with famed producer Glyn Johns (whose resumé includes the Stones and Zeppelin in the heyday, and Clapton on Slowhand in 1977). Nearly four decades on, they created sounds and songs that adoring fans simply ate up.

More mature than Slowhand, it offered deep blues, pop, a Bob Dylan cover, and closed with an impassioned version of “I’ll Be Seeing You” that recalls old friends and good times.

Eric Clapton: Dave Kaplan.

Shaking off the questionable opening track – a take on Leroy Carr’s “Alabama Woman Blues” that plods, backed by accordion – the album offers several highlights. A couple of J.J. Cale songs remind the ears of classic Slowhand-era E.C. – “Can’t Let You Down” and a version of “Somebody’s Knockin’” replete with a relentless groove reminiscent of “After Midnight.” The pop tune is “I Will Be There,” and it’s a lovely bit written by Paul Brady. In Clapton’s hands, it’s heartfelt and full of soul.

His Dylan cover, “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” gets a full-on gospel treatment that jumps with new life. Finally, Skip James’ “Cypress Groove” and Robert Johnson’s “Stones In My Passway” feature Clapton most definitely plugged-in; the latter blends classic Mississippi Delta blues with gritty, overdriven guitars (though not to the extent of Cream on “Crossroads”).

Listed among the guest musicians is Angelo Mysterioso, on the E.C.-penned “I Will Be There.” George Harrison used that pseudonym while guesting over the years and there was a bit of media frenzy speculating Harrison indeed had made an appearance. Alas, the part was played by Harrison’s son, Dhani. At least the DNA was present.

I Still Do was reviewed by Michael Dregni, Music Editor, in the October ’16 issue.



Brian Setzer

2016 Artist

For 35 years, Brian Setzer has embodied American retro rock, whether with the Stray Cats or his roots-rock solo work in the ’80s, the jazzy/big-band tinge of the Brian Setzer Orchestra he started in 1990, his annual Christmas forays, or the recall in his recent work.

Brian Setzer: Russ Harrington

When the Stray Cats hit the American scene in 1982, the music biz was unsure how to react, so it slapped the band with the “punk” label because, ya’ know… “rock” bands didn’t wear pompadours. Little could they know the band’s front man was a true devotee who would ultimately prove that when it comes to old-school guitar-driven music, there’s always an audience.

Setzer proved that with his most recent album, Rockabilly Riot: All Original, on which he proudly reminded us of his roots, playing scorching rockabilly on his trusted vintage gear. Pure from start to finish, the disc was, VG’s Michael Dregni wrote, “some of the most inventive, far-reaching rockabilly ever cast in wax – all with his trademark twang and high-octane fretwork.”

Setzer is unabashed in his appreciation for Scotty Moore, Eddie Cochran, George Harrison, and other guitarists who paved the path. But he’s far from stylistically stuck – never constrained by I-IV-V blues structures or traditional arrangements, throughout his career, he has incorporated influences alien to the ’50s, as exhibited on everything from “Ugambi Stomp” from the Stray Cats’ 1981 debut album to songs like “Stilleto Cool” on Rockabilly Riot.

“If you turned that up really loud, you could make that a heavy metal song,” he said. “But me playing it the way I do, with stand-up bass and all that, it becomes rockabilly.”

The album’s sound and approach also benefitted from the patience and attention of producer Peter Collins, which Setzer likened to Dave Edmunds effort on the first Cats album.

He still records and performs with his treasured ’59 Gretsch 6120, ’63 Fender Bassman amp, and a Roland Space Echo. When a different sort of tone is desired or required, he keeps a late-’50s Magnatone or some such close at hand. His collection includes nearly 40 guitars, most vintage and including his first two 6120s along with a super-clean ’59, a Silver Jet, and a White Falcon or two.

That authenticity is part of the reason why every time Setzer takes the stage or a turntable needle drops on one of his albums somewhere in the world, his style, tone, and showmanship send 6120s flying off store hangers. – Ward Meeker

Vince Gill

2016 Country Player

For decades, Vince Gill has stood as one of a handful of contemporary country stars (Brad Paisley, Steve Wariner and Keith Urban being the others) blending vocal and guitar virtuosity with powerful, eloquent songwriting. Despite changing trends, Gill, a Grand Ole Opry member since 1991, retains a steadfast belief in the enduring power of traditional, basic country.

His beginnings, however, were far from rural. Born in Norman, Oklahoma in 1957, Vincent Grant Gill’s father, a Federal appellate judge, started his son playing golf and guitar. At age 10, his parents gave him a new Gibson ES-335. As a teen, young Vince absorbed the region’s eclectic music scene, encompassing country, Western swing, bluegrass and rock. He played with two local bands – Bluegrass Revue and Mountain Smoke. He recorded with the latter in 1975, the year he graduated high school, turned professional, moved to Louisville, and joined the Bluegrass Alliance.

A year later, he moved to the band Boone Creek, playing alongside Ricky Skaggs, and was part of Sundance, led by bluegrass fiddler and Oklahoma native Byron Berline. The late ’70s saw him with the pioneering country-rock band Pure Prairie League, singing lead on their 1980 hit “Let Me Love You Tonight.” In ’81, he joined Rodney Crowell’s backup band (the Cherry Bombs), which included bassist Emory Gordy and ex-Elvis/Emmylou Harris keyboard player Tony Brown.

When Brown joined RCA Nashville’s A&R department in ’83, he signed Gill as a vocalist. His earliest Top 10 hits came with “If It Weren’t For Him” (’85) and “Oklahoma Borderline” (’86), but his stature as a guitarist loomed large; he turned down Mark Knopfler’s offer to join Dire Straits. Brown’s move to a top A&R position at MCA Nashville brought Gill to the label and launched a run of Top 10 and #1 singles that began with “When I Call Your Name” (1990) and spanned most of the decade. Most were songs he wrote or co-wrote.

Simultaneously, Gill’s fame as a player exploded. Amid his many Grammy Awards, he won five for instrumental work on albums by Asleep at the Wheel (two of their Bob Wills tribute albums), Randy Scruggs, Earl Scruggs, and Brad Paisley’s 2008 all-star jam “Cluster Pluck.” His four-CD box set, These Days (2006,) allowed Gill to explore his diverse musical passions – vocal and instrumental – in unprecedented depth with various guests. Five years passed until the Guitar Slinger album.

Over the years, Gill accumulated a formidable stash of rare vintage equipment. Despite heavy losses (including around 50 guitars) in the 2010 Nashville flood, he reconstituted an arsenal. Feeling great older gear is meant to be played, he uses his holdings in the studio and at concerts, switching instruments several times during a performance. In a 2012 interview, he joked how some in Nashville nicknamed him the “Guitar Whisperer” for his ability to find older instruments and press them back into active duty.

Amid all this, while recording solo albums like the wildly eclectic Down To My Last Bad Habit (2016), he has used his voice and guitar to honor sounds and players of the past. On Bakersfield (2013), he and pedal-steel great Paul Franklin had fun with the music and twang of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Since 2010, he has been part of the Nashville-based Western swing band The Time Jumpers, whose 2016 album, Kid Sister, earned two Grammy nominations.

But leave it to a fellow picker and friend to summarize Gill. Guitarist Al Anderson told Songfacts, “I’m intimidated by Vince. He’s a great guitar player and a great mandolin player. He’s great at everything.” – Rich Kienzle

Jeff Beck

2016 Rock Player

The eight-time Grammy winner and hot rod enthusiast embodies the philosophy of the forward-thinking guitarist, continually moving on to fresh avenues of self-expression and arresting sounds.

Jeff Beck: Larry Busacca

Born in Wallington, England, on June 24, 1944, Beck was at the epicenter of the British Invasion. With a passion for blues, rockabilly, and jazz guitarist Les Paul, Beck performed with The Rumbles before joining The Yardbirds to replace Eric Clapton. He left his mark on songs like “Over Under Sideways Down” but was eventually fired. He later formed the Jeff Beck Group, featuring Ron Wood on bass and Rod Stewart on vocals. The album Truth was released in 1968 but Stewart quit after Beck canceled their appearance at Woodstock.

Beck was planning his next move in ’69, when he was involved in a car accident. Two years later, he unveiled his new lineup and a fresh sound. Rough And Ready and The Jeff Beck Group explored a blend of jazz and funky R&B, wrapped in Beck’s quirky, idiosyncratic style. The untimely disbanding of this project saw Beck joining drummer Carmine Appice and bassist Tim Bogert to form the blues-rocking Beck, Bogert & Appice. That group ended in ’74 due to lack of commercial success, but yielded a memorable version of Stevie Wonder’s classic “Superstition.”

Beck turned down the Rolling Stones for a second time and enlisted the help of Beatles producer George Martin to begin work on another turning point in his life. Blow By Blow marked the beginning of his foray into fusion and remains a highpoint in his career. Influenced by Jan Hammer and Billy Cobham’s Spectrum, this dovetailed into his next album, Wired. It’s interesting to note that whatever his musical context, Beck has maintained a stylistic base of blues, rockabilly, and unique musicality, that continues to this day.

Beck toured with Return To Forever bassist Stanley Clarke, recorded “There & Back” with Jan Hammer and Tony Hymas, and appeared in concert with Eric Clapton on The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball in 1981. He fully embraced the sounds of the ’80s on Flash, featuring “People Get Ready” with Rod Stewart, and sent guitar freaks running to the woodshed on Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop, where he became a full-time fingerstylist.

The ’90s produced the soundtrack Frankie’s House, the Cliff Gallup tribute Crazy Legs, and the electronica album Who Else! with Jennifer Batten. He also participated in projects with Tina Turner, Paul Rodgers, Mick Jagger, and Roger Waters, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame as a part of the Yardbirds (as a solo artist, he was inducted in 2009). Weary of mainstream music, the late ’90s marked Beck’s electronica phase. He won a third Grammy for “Best Rock Instrumental Performance” for “Dirty Mind” from 2001’s You Had It Coming, and his fourth Grammy in the same category for “Plan B” from 2003’s Jeff.

Beck continues to be an innovative artist conjuring surreal textures and melodies with a Stratocaster and his hands. While his muse may divide fans, he never fails to drop jaws in concert. His set lists traverse the history of rock and roll and he remains one of the most influential guitarists in history. 2010’s Emotion & Commotion and 2016’s Loud Hailer continue that legacy as he resists conformity and ushers in new sounds with the help of talented women and people of color. – Oscar Jordan

Robben Ford

2016 Jazz Player

During a standing-room-only guitar clinic a few years ago, Robben Ford was asked, “How do you come up with guitar licks?”

“I don’t play licks,” he responded. “I make music.” Occasionally terse but always compelling, Ford has built a career following a compass of artistic integrity. A five-time Grammy nominee who fashioned his melody-rich corner of the universe mining the sweet spot between sophisticated jazz harmony and traditional blues.

With a reverence for B.B. King and Mike Bloomfield, and a deep admiration for John Coltrane and Paul Desmond, Ford has mirrored these influences without mimicking them.

Raised in Ukiah, California, his first instrument was saxophone. After high school, he formed The Charles Ford Band (named after his father) with his brothers Patrick and Mark, and toured the U.S. with harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite. Ford’s feel and harmonic dexterity expressed through a Gibson Super 400 later garnered him employment with blues vocalist Jimmy Witherspoon, and eventually saxophonist Tom Scott of The L.A. Express. Switching to a Gibson 335, his association with Scott dovetailed into high-profile performances with George Harrison on the Dark Horse tour, and Joni Mitchell on the albums The Hissing Of The Summer Lawns and Miles Of Aisles, and on tour to support Court And Spark.

Ford’s journey through the shark-infested waters of the music industry brought him to Elektra Records, which produced his first official solo record The Inside Story. Released in 1979, backing musicians for the project included Russell Ferrante on keys, Jimmy Haslip on bass, and Ricky Lawson on drums. This group ultimately became The Yellowjackets, who released their first album in ’81. For many disciples, this was the introduction to Ford’s harmonious blend of soulful blues combined with smart intervallic fusion lines. The compositions “Matinee Idol” and “Imperial Strut” are particularly noteworthy.

His prowess as an authentic blues guitarist with an ear for jazz harmony led him to become an in-demand session cat and helped him land a deal with Warner Brothers. It was around this time trumpet legend Miles Davis was given a tape of Ford’s playing while searching to replace Mike Stern. Ford soon found himself onstage in New York with Davis and a full band – without having rehearsed. This trial by fire – and the blessing of Davis – has stayed with Ford. Criticisms have no value in light of the high praise received from jazz’s greatest icon and innovator.

Ford’s second album, Talk To Your Daughter, launched his solo career and earned a Grammy nomination. He then led a number of projects including the popular power trio The Blue Line with Tom Brechtlein and Roscoe Beck.

Through the years, Ford has continued to successfully straddle the line between blues-rock, jazz, and fusion. Highlights include the critically acclaimed Tiger Walk, Supernatural, Soul On 10, City Life, and 2015’s Into The Sun. Also significant is his fusion project, Jing Chi, with Jimmy Haslip and Vinnie Colaiuta.

His use of space, time, hip chord voicings, diminished passing tones, and heartfelt songwriting are earmarks of Ford’s sonic blueprint. In addition to creating an inspiring body of work, he continues the blues tradition by sharing his knowledge with new generations via video, DVDs, online lessons, and clinics, all of which have proven invaluable to millions of guitarists. – Oscar Jordan


Joe Bonamassa


2016 Blues Player

Old-school genres like the blues are about tradition – make an album every couple/three years, tour, take a break. Joe Bonamassa don’t play that.

Joe Bonamassa: D. Mileson/Wikipedia

In 2015/’16 he added two new sets of music to the already long merch page on his website – the all-original Blues of Desperation for which he enlisted session cats and Nashville heavyweights to play heavier blues-rock with a ballad or two. In his review, VG’s Oscar Jordan commended its “tonal succulence, masterful licks, and stories…” For the CD/DVD package Live At Radio City Music Hall, Bonamassa offered 75 minutes of his best using his acoustic and electric bands. Guitarheads will especially appreciate the DVD, which fully exhibits the range of hard-core vintage instruments and high-end amps he takes on the road. Plus, each band’s unique chemistry lends terrific accompaniment. Amongst the highlights noted in Jordan’s review were covers of Willie Dixon’s “Hidden Charms” and Muddy Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied” along with Bonamassa originals “Dust Bowl” and “Black Lung Heartache.”

Even most of today’s biggest musical acts don’t get to rest on the laurels of anachronisms like “million-selling albums” and “hit singles.” Instead, they make a living by regularly releasing songs offered via stream and download, drawing fans to social media, and most of all, hitting the road. Hard. Bonamassa does it all and never cuts corners in terms of personnel, presentation, or production.

Anyone raised in a family that owns a music store likely has an appreciation for players and instruments that extends beyond typical. Such was Bonamassa’s life; he got into gear and guitar heroes before the age of 10, and at 12 was opening shows for B.B. King. Under the tutelage of his gear-hunting father, he learned the difference between a tweed Harvard and blackface Deluxe, and today suffers from one of the world’s most severe cases of Gear Acquisition Syndrome (G.A.S.). It’s part of what motivates him, professionally, and with few exceptions, the pieces in his truly remarkable collection earn their keep in the studio and on the road.

The recipient of accolades including nominations for a Grammy, Blues Music Awards, a double-digit string of #1 blues albums on Billboard, heaps of notoriety from the guitar (and broader music) press, he also heads his own label (J&R Adventures) and oversees the non-profit Keeping The Blues Alive Foundation, which he founded to promote music education in schools.

Joe B. fans and VG readers alike can attest – nobody in blues today is injecting the genre with as much life, spirit – and sweat. – Ward Meeker

› › For entire VG Readers’ Choice Awards history, scroll to the bottom of www.vintageguitar.com/category/readers-choice

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