2018 Readers’ Choice Awards

2018 Readers’ Choice Awards

Each year, Vintage Guitar asks fans to select Readers’ Choice winners for Player of the Year in four categories, Album of the Year, and Artist of the Year, which is drawn from artists featured in the magazine. Included are selections for the VG Hall of Fame, which annually inducts two players, an innovator, and an instrument. In 2018, nearly 5,000 votes were tallied via the magazine’s traditional written ballot and online at VintageGuitar.com. Here, we proudly present the 2018 winners. See prior inductees…

Pete Townshend: Baron Wolman.

Pete Townshend

2018 Hall of Fame Player

This distinguished British guitarist has led a career spanning more than 50 years, both as a member of the Who and acclaimed solo artist.

The Who were the power-rockers of the British Invasion, bringing ingenious songwriting and performances that mixed power chords with musical anarchy delivered via Rickenbackers, Strats, and SGs plugged into Marshall stacks often pushed to destruction.

Louder and ruder than its contemporaries, the band cut a swath for acts that would follow immediately and for generations – Hendrix, Black Sabbath, MC5, Sex Pistols, AC/DC, Van Halen, et al. And Townshend was its crux.

One way to gain perspective over his body of work is to look at the tools of his trade. He used just about every major plank and (inadvertently) became one of rock’s greatest amplifier innovators.

In 1964/’65, the High Numbers changed its name to the Who and a pale, skinny kid was wrangling Rickenbacker semi-hollowbodies including a 12-string 330 and six-strings from the Rose Morris era with names like 1997, 1998, and 1993. With a back line mix of Fender or Vox amps, Townshend raged through “My Generation” and “The Kids Are Alright” with a savagery hitherto unknown in rock and roll – all the more so when he smashed a few Ricks for onstage thrills. By the end of ’65, the 20-year-old had even gotten Jim Marshall – little-known owner of a West London music shop – to build him and bassist John Entwistle early 100-watt heads and big cabinets. These cranked-up tube amps precipitated a revolution in live and studio sound, and heavy rock would never be the same again.

One of the Les Paul Deluxes that became Townshend’s go-to axes beginning with the Quadrophenia tour in ’73. Townshend Les Paul Deluxe: Musical Instrument Museum.

With a hit under their belts, the Who toured for much of 1966, releasing singles like “Substitute” and the power pop of “I’m a Boy.”

During this time, Townshend had begun transitioning from Ricks to Stratocasters and Telecasters for reliability and, more importantly, repairability. Photos from the era show him with Strats fitted with Tele necks and vice-versa, showing how much he doctored the bashed-up Fenders. In ’67, the year of the Who’s first U.S. tour, he shifted to Gibsons including the EDS-1275 doubleneck and ES-345 and ES-355 semi-hollowbodies. And who can forget the landmark Monterey Pop Festival that June, and the legendary feedback from Pete’s Vox Super Beatle amps. After playing “My Generation,” he smashed a ’50s maple-board sunburst Strat in a plume of smoke and splinters – a tragedy for vintage lovers, but no doubt it launched the Who’s career in America.

By ’68, the fickle guitar maven began phasing out Strats and Teles for the instrument that would become his staple for the next five years – the Gibson SG Special.

One of the great utilitarian solidbodies, the SG Special was fitted with two P-90 single-coil pickups, which might seem odd for a guitarist who made such a racket. But strung with heavy Gibson Sonomatic strings, Townshend made his Specials roar through a variety of fuzzboxes and rotating back line of Marshall, a Sound City L100, and Sunn amps; listen to 1970’s Live at Leeds to hear the massive sound of this rig.

When recording the rock opera Tommy, Pete deployed the SG Special, ES-355, Jazzmaster, Fender Electric XII, and a Gibson J-200 that was his main acoustic for years – listen to “Pinball Wizard” to hear his rapid-fire strumming. Around this time, he fully converted to Hiwatt amps for live gigs, notably the CP103 and DR103W. And while he was key in getting the first Marshall stacks built, he only used them for a few years before finding his true tube love – these Hiwatt 100-watters – often overdriven by a Univox Super-Fuzz pedal.

Tommy is one of Townshend’s most influential compositions, and set a standard for any budding guitarist,” said Rush’s Alex Lifeson. “I recall sitting by my record player, spending hours trying to learn the entire album, and I’m still working on it! Pete was a major influence in how I viewed the role of rhythm guitar in a band context. His phrasing, strumming, and sense of dynamics combined to create some of the greatest guitar work in rock history.”

“One night in 1970, I tuned to WKAY and ‘Young Man Blues’ blared out of the speaker in my Ford Falcon. Townshend’s guitar instantly converted me,” recalled Greg Martin co-founder of The Kentucky HeadHunters. “And as much as I loved Tommy, it was Live At Leeds that made me a stone believer. Pete’s solos are melodic and to the point, and his rhythm and chordal work has always been a big inspiration to me. Anyone who has ever used power chords owes something to him.”

In ’71, the band recorded its second studio masterpiece Who’s Next. Here, Townshend had finally crafted his signature electric tone, using the most unlikely rig – a ’59 Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins hollowbody and a Fender 3×10 Bandmaster with an Edwards volume pedal – all gifts from buddy Joe Walsh. Most would call it a great setup for country or rockabilly, but here it proffered the crunchy power chords on “Baba O’Riley,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and “Bargain.”

Soon after, Pete recorded his first solo album, Who Came First. “Pure and Easy” is its best-known track, but Townshend used the J-200 and a Guild F-612XL 12-string for “Parvardigar” and “Sheraton Gibson.” At the same time, he was working with the Who on another rock opera, Quadrophenia. Here again, Pete used his secret studio weapons – the 6120 and Bandmaster.

A sea-change occurred on the Quadrophenia tour in ’73 with the arrival of Les Paul Deluxes into the Townshend arsenal. For the next decade, the Deluxe and its mini-humbuckers would be his go-to live axe. He had them modified extensively and numbered; the most notable tweak was the occasional addition of a full-sized humbucker between the two minis – an unconventional (yet now iconic) configuration. At the end of ’79, he switched to a black Tele copy made by Schecter with humbuckers and a maple fingerboard.

The Who chief also found a pair of original 1952 Telecasters for his Empty Glass album, beginning an era when his solo records often outshined Who platters. He grabbed a ’58 Flying V – another gift from Joe Walsh (what a pal!) – for the superb All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes.

Throughout the ’80s, both with the Who and in solo work, Townshend went back to the Schecters along with Roger Giffin Tele copies and actual Fender Teles (and Strats).

Readers’ Choice Awards is sponsored by The Official Vintage Guitar Price Guide. The Guide gathers input from 35 of the world’s foremost expert dealers, each of whom brings decades of experience in the business. That’s one of many reasons it’s the most-trusted source for values!

After a hiatus, the Who went back on the road in ’89, and Townshend grabbed the guitar that’s been his live plank ever since – a red Clapton signature Strat; many British axemen of Pete’s generation played red Strats thanks to the heavy influence of ’60s guitar hero Hank Marvin.

“Townshend is the most underrated guitarist in rock and roll, a fact overshadowed by his genius songwriting and ultra-ambitious musical exploration,” said Charlie Starr, chief songwriter/guitarist in Blackberry Smoke (VG, June ’18). “He is, without a doubt, rock’s original ‘angry young man’ – on one hand inspiring what would become known as punk rock, on the other inventing the rock opera. I see him as the earliest purveyor of extremely loud, wild rock-and-roll abandon. As for his incredible playing, just listen to Live At Hull.”

“Pete is one hell of a player, songwriter, and rock star,” added bassist/guitarist Joe Bouchard, who was a founding member of Blue Öyster Cult. “His huge chord flourishes define the Who’s best work.”

Townshend and Who frontman Roger Daltrey have remained vital and active to this day, and this year will release a new studio album and play 29 concerts from May through October.

As for Pete, it’s hard to think of another guitarist who used so many brands and models – from Strats and Teles to Les Pauls and SGs to all manner of Gibson, Rickenbacker, and Gretsch hollowbody and semi-hollowbody designs. He is a true guitar omnivore, as well as a bloody genius of a songwriter and rhythm guitarist. Who knew? – Pete Prown

2018 Hall of Fame Players
26% Pete Townshend
23% Peter Green
19% Rory Gallagher
16% Danny Gatton
16% Tommy Emmanuel

Peter Green: Tony Gale/Pictorial Press.

Peter Green

2018 Hall of Fame Player

Arguably the greatest torchbearer to emerge among British blues guitarists in the ’60s, Peter Green unblinkingly stepped into Eric Clapton’s spot in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers before making a profound musical statement in Fleetwood Mac.

Influenced by Bo Diddley, B.B. and Albert King, Les Paul and Mary Ford, the Beatles, and Stones – by 15, Green was playing bass on London’s rock and R&B circuit. He moved to guitar after learning Clapton’s solo in the Yardbirds’ “I Ain’t Got You.”

With Green aboard, Mayall released A Hard Road in early ’67. Following Clapton’s work on after the now-legendary “Beano” album. Though his style stood in contrast, he was up to the task as evidenced by “The Super-Natural,” “The Stumble,” and “Someday After A While.” Simpler and more-reserved, he truly was a blues purist in terms of mechanics and attitude, though he was also adventurous and unafraid to delve into uncommon modal melodies. Every so often, he made great use of feedback famously employed with help from a ’59 Les Paul Standard (later owned by Gary Moore and more recently by Metallica’s Kirk Hammett; VG, March ’18)

While Green’s work with Mayall instantly spurred a musical movement that pushed British blues guitarists to top status in pop music, he departed after less than a year to pursue more-authentic blues. At first, he considered a move to Chicago, but instead assembled a new band by sniping drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie from Mayall, then adding guitarist/vocalist Jeremy Spencer to the fold – Green was the flatpicking/single-note lead player while Spencer brought top-shelf slide playing influenced by Elmore James.

In ’68/’69, the band dubbed Fleetwood Mac released two albums and a string of singles including the instrumental “Albatross,” which became a #1 hit. But, being atop the scene didn’t fit Green’s personality. He’d always shunned the limelight (his surname was very intentionally left out of the amalgamated “Fleetwood Mac” moniker) and resisited any push to make mainstream pop. Already stressed by the stardom that accompanied the Mac’s rising status and experimenting with LSD, disaster struck while the band was touring Germany in March of 1970. As documented in the film Man Of The World: The Peter Green Story (see Dan Forte’s review in “Check This Action,” VG, April ’17), Green was lured to a party at a commune in Munich, where he took a large dose of LSD. Afterward, Green was changed, becoming fervently religious, disavowing the band’s growing wealth, and wearing robes as his preferred dress. He helped the band record Then Play On, then walked away from the group that May.

Through the next three decades, he battled mental-health issues (most notably schizophrenia) and surfaced very rarely to play onstage until ’96, when he formed the Peter Green Splinter Group and returned with acclaimed live performances including Time Traders, Destiny Road, and others mostly using an early-’60s Strat and a Gibson Howard Roberts through a Fender Blues DeVille or Vox AC30.

In 1998, Green was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Fleetwood Mac, and shared the stage that night with Carlos Santana to play the Green composition, “Black Magic Woman.” – Ward Meeker

2018 Hall of Fame Players
26% Pete Townshend
23% Peter Green
19% Rory Gallagher
16% Danny Gatton
16% Tommy Emmanuel

Roger Mayer (left) with the Jimi Hendrix Experience – Mitch Mitchell, Hendrix, and Noel Redding – in early 1968. Courtesy of Roger Mayer.

Roger Mayer

2018 Hall of Fame Innovator

As a young electrical engineer who studied acoustics for the Royal Navy, Roger Mayer’s free time in the early ’60s was often spent watching bands on the flourishing music scene in southwest London, which was heavily influenced by American music – and laden with flashy young blues-rock guitarists.

A player himself, Mayer made quick connections with locals including Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, and Eric Clapton, all of whom shared his fascination with Freddie King, James Brown, and other Americans. A true electronics buff, he’d been experimenting with guitar tones since high school, so when those backstage chats turned to the sounds made in the U.S., Mayer wanted to help his friends.

His first effects boxes were made for Page and Big Jim Sullivan; the latter used Mayer’s fuzz for the solo on “Hold Me,” by P.J. Proby, which became a #1 hit in ’64. It was the first such guitar sound recorded in England. Then, Clapton asked for one, and Beck followed with a request for a treble booster (Mayer recalls being told Beck would borrow Page’s fuzz for Yardbirds sessions), and he eventually built effects for Ritchie Blackmore, Steve Marriott, and Syd Barrett.

Roger Mayer: Dave Hunter.

In ’67, Mayer was introduced to the emigré Jimi Hendrix, who was in London working on his debut album and had his own idea for a fuzz. Together, they developed the Octavia, a frequency-doubling effect Hendrix immediately employed on “Purple Haze.”

“Jimi was up for anything,” Mayer told VG’s Dave Hunter in a 2005 interview. “If you came up with an idea and it appealed to him and he could imagine it, he’d say, ‘Let’s do it!’”

The two worked side by side right there in the studio, experimenting with guitar sounds by tweaking drive, gain, EQ, and voltage – the outcome always dependent on the songs, and sometimes their key (e.g. they’d tune a wah to a specific resonant frequency).

“Jimi would cut a solo and I might be sitting next to him when he’d say, ‘Go listen to that, Roger.’ So, I’d listen, and Jimi would get on the intercom and say, ‘How was that?’ Chas [Chandler] would go, ‘That’s great, Jimi, it’s a take.’ Then Jimi’d say to me, ‘What do you think?’ I’d say, ‘Take one more…’ Then he’d do the actual solo, and people’s jaws would drop.”

To make his pedals immediately identifiable, Mayer designed their famous rocket-shaped enclosure – the Octavia was the first to get it. For Hendrix’s next album, Mayer created the Axis Fuzz, but it was “Purple Haze” and the Octavia that created a tsunami of effects builders.

In ’69, Mayer moved to the U.S. and started making custom components for recording studios including consoles, limiters, and equalizers for the Record Plant and Electric Ladyland; at the latter, he built the analog synthesizer used by Stevie Wonder on Music of my Mind, Talking Book, and Innervisions. Initially uninterested in making pedals for the mass market, he continued to build one-offs including some for Ernie Isley, Junior Marvin, and Bob Marley.

After returning to England in ’89, Mayer began making pedals for wider distribution and did custom boxes for Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robin Trower, Joe Perry, and others. As the “boutique” pedal market expanded in the early 2000s, he lamented about builders he thought lacked innovation. While many boasted of using new-old-stock transistors and carbon-comp resistors, Mayer used modern components he saw as much improved. His mission was consistent – his devices had to sound organic. An updated Octavia, along with the Page 1, Concorde+ treble booster, Vision Wah, and Voodoo Vibe Junior stood as evidence of his success.

“I have a particular fondness for Roger as an electrical engineer who crafted circuits in a clever way to help guitarists create new music,” said Robert Keeley, founder of Keeley Electronics. “His Octavia design, with the use of a transformer and diodes to double the frequency, is simply and effectively executed. It’s just another example of his brilliant musical designs.” – Ward Meeker

Special thanks to Dave Hunter.

2018 Hall of Fame Innovators
28% Roger Mayer
23% Alexander Dumble
23% Freddie Tavares
14% Ray Butts
12% Joe Naylor

Turn to page 445 of The Official VG Price Guide 2019 to see the current value of the Fender Super Reverb and more! Don’t have access to The Guide yet? Learn how to get the print edition. Fender Super Reverb: VG Archive.

Fender Super Reverb

2018 Hall of Fame Instrument

Among the plentiful contestants vying for the fanciful crown of Most Versatile Guitar Amplifier, the original blackface Fender Super Reverb of 1963-’67 is a strong contender – and an undeniable classic.

Powerful, with bountiful lows coupled to a sweet and detailed high-end response, yet easier to push into breakup than a Twin Reverb, and blessed with that gorgeous tube-driven reverb and opto-cell tremolo, it really is a do-it-all combo for many players. Indeed, plenty would argue that its own particular bundle of features come together in a more-blissfully toneful end result than other Fenders of the era – if your gig can take the volume (and back can take the weight!).

The Super Reverb is often referred to as “a tweed Bassman with reverb and tremolo” due to its 4×10″ speaker configuration and 45-watt power house driven by dual 6L6GC output tubes. Certainly what these classic combos do have in common counts for a lot; the big-bottle tubes, the big output transformer, and four tight 10″ speakers that yield fast, detailed and articulate response while remaining arguably the sweetest platform for “that Fender sound.” Yet, like any medium/large blackface or silverface Fenders, this combo possesses significant differences in the preamp and other stages that actually make it quite different from its ’50s predecessor in everything other than speaker complement.

When compared to the thicker midrange and creamy grind of the tweed amps, the Super Reverb boasts a little more articulation overall, tighter bass, and a more-scooped midrange voicing segueing toward glassy, crystalline highs. Push it hard enough, though, and it’ll sweeten considerably, making it a singing, tactile soloist amp.

Its big, expressive voice and dynamic clean-to-mean range has appealed to a plethora of blues players over the years, including Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray, Muddy Waters, Derek Trucks, Mike Bloomfield, Ronnie Earl, Robben Ford, and near-countless others, but the Super Reverb has also turned delightful tricks from punk to pop to prog and most points in-between; Fred “Sonic” Smith and Wayne Kramer of the MC5, Alex Chilton of Big Star, Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd of Television, Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, Jimmy Herring of Widespread Panic, and rockabilly ace Reverend Horton Heat (a.k.a. Jim Heath) have all tapped the sonic splendors of this mighty combo.

A deserving classic, then, and an amp for all seasons by any standards, the Fender Super Reverb is a combo that every player really should try to plug into at least once… or perhaps as often as possible. – Dave Hunter

2018 Hall of Fame Instruments
39% Fender Super Reverb
24% Martin D-18
19% Rickenbacker 4001
18% Epiphone Casino

Eric Johnson: Max Crace.

Eric Johnson

2018 Featured Artist of the Year

In the September issue of VG, Eric Johnson discussed the big year that was his 2018 – a new album, playing a favorite album front to back by fan request, and helping create a version of the Stratocaster that had players enthusiastically asking, “What took so long?” Truly, E.J. was rollin’.

A decade before his major-label debut in 1986, Johnson was an Austin-underground sensation with Electromagnets. With the band and his early solo work, Johnson blew minds with a Jeff-Beck-meets-Mahavishnu guitar attack – he even constructed the dramatic solo on Christopher Cross’ “Minstrel Gigolo” in ’79.

It would take another seven years for this perfectionist to get Tones out the door, but Johnson’s timing couldn’t have been better, as ’86 was the Big Bang of shred guitar, with critical releases featuring Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and Yngwie Malmsteen.

Johnson’s approach was different, as his album was neither hard rock nor jazz-rock fusion. Deploying a fat tone, he delivered intricate licks based more on chord arpeggios than straight-up modes or blues scales. Better yet, he did so without the overused ’80s frying-bacon tone or (to coin his humorous term for playing fast), a nonsensical blur of “waffling.”

In 1990, he released Ah Via Musicom and its instrumental single “Cliffs of Dover,” which detonated on FM radio, propelling Johnson into the first rank of modern guitar heroes. The track began with a dazzling, almost-baroque solo containing up/down alternate picking that can’t be faked by legato or sweep picking. Guitar nuts around the globe freaked over his technical wizardry and, at long last, Eric had arrived.

His fastidiousness for gear is also renowned, choosing his guitars, pedals, and amps with almost clinical care. Eric is known for playing vintage ’50s Strats and has his own signature Fender Stratocaster, recently tweaked as a chambered model with a single f hole. Add Marshall, Fender, and Two Rock tube heads with a mix of analog and digital outboard gear, and you have some of the warmest electric tones in history. Johnson is also a fine singer and songwriter, displaying deeper skills common in players from Clapton to Knopfler.

A master guitarist who’s also a very humble guy, Johnson remains a loved figure; Chet Atkins once introduced him onstage as “…the #1 rock guitar player in the world and he deserves all that – because he really is.” – Pete Prown

2018 Featured Artists of the Year
32% Eric Johnson
28% Steve Cropper
16% Walter Trout
13% Al Di Meola
7% Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal
4% Philip Sayce

Jeff Beck: Armando Gallo/via ZUMA.

Jeff Beck

2018 Rock Player of the Year

The six-string career of Jeff Beck is the stuff of legend – think about those stints in the Yardbirds and Jeff Beck Group, all before launching a stratospheric solo career that has raged for more than 40 years. But, the most interesting thing about rock’s deadliest lead player is that he’ll turn 75 this year and is still playing his tail off.

Many agree Beck has actually gotten better in the past two decades, documented in dizzying Strat versions of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and Puccini’s opera aria, “Nessun Dorma.” The man is unstoppable. And, looking back, there’s so much prime Beck to choose from.

Among Beckologists, some prefer his Brit-psych lead work of 1965-’66, while others opt for the proto-hard-rock of Truth and Beck-Ola – even Hendrix was a wild fan of early Beck. He conquered the realm of jazz-rock fusion in the mid ’70s, and in ’85 scored the mainstream hit, “People Get Ready,” with Rod Stewart. He has played ’50s rockabilly (1993’s Crazy Legs), molten funk-rock (Rough and Ready), and experimented with electronica and hip-hop textures. The 2001 release, You Had It Coming, was one of the best guitar albums of his career and earned a Grammy award for the track “Dirty Mind.”

Part of the thrill with recent Beck is watching him play live or via video online. He rarely uses a pick, but when he grabs one for “Scatterbrain,” it’s hard not to be blown away by that shreddy right hand. Most of the time, he plays with just fingers, constantly massaging the vibrato on his Strats, or tweaking the Volume and Tone knobs mid-phrase. Sometimes it even sounds like slide, but it’s just Jeff and those uncanny digits.

Another facet of the Beck mystique is that few can duplicate the subtlety of these techniques, as he imbues his solidbodies with dynamics one might normally associate with, say, classical violin. Ever since “Definitely Maybe” and “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers,” instrumental ballads have been Jeff’s calling card, but he’s even brought that to new heights in recent years. When it comes to this quieter stuff, no one touches El Becko.

All told, there aren’t many guitarists who remain as relevant at 75 as they were at 25, yet that’s the simple legend of Jeff Beck. If you’ve ever wondered who’s the world’s greatest electric guitarist, the title of his 1999 album might give us a clear answer: Who Else! – Pete Prown

2018 Rock Players of the Year
42% Jeff Beck
22% Warren Haynes
15% Greg Koch
14% Jake Kiszka
7% Rik Emmett

George Benson: Marco Glaviano.

George Benson

2018 Jazz Player of the Year

Even within the category of jazz, it’s hard to pin down guitar wizard George Benson. In a career lasting over a half-century he has played straight-ahead standards, post-bop, soul ballads, and danceable funk-pop featuring his silky, soulful vocals.

As a soloist, he’s no less explosive, blending a picking attack of burp-gun staccato with phrasing that ranges from classic swing to altered-scale hard bop. Like a modern Nat King Cole, Benson became one of the top “crossover” artists of his day, taking jazz into the pop universe and winning fans around the globe.

Before his platinum heyday, the Pittsburgh-born guitarist made a name for himself as a serious jazzer, working with organist Jack McDuff. His 1967 solo cut “The Cooker” is a great example of George’s early archtop flash, harkening to the chops of Tal Farlow and Pat Martino with his brilliant articulation. Benson recorded with trumpeter Miles Davis, appearing on the ’68 cut “Paraphernalia,” and later experimented with funk and soul-jazz during his years on the CTI label. “No Sooner Said Than Done” from 1974’s Bad Benson might be a precursor to what we call “smooth jazz,” but his slick, masterful soloing cannot be denied.

Benson’s career took off in 1976, when the Breezin’ album went triple platinum via the single “This Masquerade.” Paralleling the rise of soft rock, the guitarist’s infectious blend of pop, soul, and jazz was a direct hit with the hot-tub crowd. The instrumental title track was based on guitarist Gábor Szabó’s earlier arrangement and, with just four chords, provided a perfect base for Benson’s gloriously melodic improv. For much of the next decade, the vocal-oriented hits came coming, such as “On Broadway,” “Give Me the Night,” and “Turn Your Love Around” – the latter co-written by Toto’s Steve Lukather and studio ace Jay Graydon, with Chicago frontman Bill Champlin.

Benson also worked with Ibanez to release one of the earliest signature guitars, the GB line of small-body and traditional archtops. The acclaimed axe has been in production for more than 40 years, which says something about both the guitar and the staying power of this jazz-pop sensation. No surprise, George Benson is also a multiple Grammy winner, including the prestigious Record of the Year award in 1976. – Pete Prown

2018 Jazz Players of the Year
30% George Benson
29% John McLaughlin
18% Bill Frisell
12% Pat Martino
11% Julian Lage

Joe Bonamassa: Rick Gould.

Joe Bonamassa

2018 Blues Player of the Year

Joe Bonamassa can be safely filed in the “force of nature” category. Thirty years ago, he was a 12-year-old guitar prodigy who once opened for B.B. King. While youthful players like this rarely grow into mature artists, Bonamassa proved the exception – his playing got faster and more-refined, while he also grew into a surprisingly powerful vocalist. By the time he launched a solo career, JB was a blues-rocker with soul, stunning chops, and a polished frontman persona.

Dissecting the Bonamassa phenomena reveals a guitarist who did his musical homework. While his high-volume style falls into blues-rock, his influences are eclectic, from old-school Clapton, Page, and Mick Abrahams to contemporary Eric Johnson and Gary Moore. No doubt, when you listen to Joe burn up the neck of a vintage ’Burst, it’s hard not to think of the late, great Irish guitarist, as well as another Celtic bluesman, Rory Gallagher. Joe also diversified his career, forming the Zeppelin-influenced power quartet Black Country Communion and working with blues shouter Beth Hart, a partnership that earned a Grammy nomination.

Another important side of Joe B. is that of gear endorser and guitar collector. His collection is beyond comprehension, as he owns several of the most important ’59 Les Paul Standards (including the famed Skinner ’Burst) and two ultra-rare late-’50s Flying Vs (VG, December ’18). There’s also a trove of vintage tube amps including plenty of old Marshalls and a stellar assemblage of pre-CBS Fender tweed and blackface boxes. As an endorser, he also lends his name to a bevy of Gibson and Epiphone signature axes, bringing out fresh models every year.

The larger success of Joe Bonamassa owes much to the evolving tastes of today’s blues fans. Here in 2019, the notion of “the blues” covers everything from Charley Patton to Eric Gales, with Joe at the vanguard of modern blues-rock. Once upon a time, his hero, Gary Moore, got flack for playing blues with a saturated distortion tone, but now that’s business as usual, and few do it as well as Mr. Bonamassa, who has become a living blues ambassador critical to helping the genre survive. For that, we are eternally grateful. – Pete Prown

2018 Blues Players of the Year
35% Joe Bonamassa
31% Derek Trucks
18% Samantha Fish
10% Eric Gales
6% Rocky Athas

Albert Lee: Rick Gould.

Albert Lee

2018 Country Player of the Year

Known primarily as a virtuoso sideman, over the past half-century, Albert Lee journeyed from British country-rocker to international fame as an innovative, explosive guitarist, working alongside country and rock legends and doing his own solo projects.

With early influences ranging from Cliff Gallup, James Burton, Jerry Reed and Scotty Moore to Nashville session ace Grady Martin and Buddy Holly, Lee played lead guitar with rocker Chris Farlowe. After a brief period with the band Country Fever, he came into his own leading the pioneering Brit country-rock band Heads, Hands and Feet from 1969 to ’73, where he recorded his original vocal-instrumental “Country Boy.” Driven by his throbbing, twanging Telecaster, it became a signature song (and a #1 country hit for Ricky Skaggs in ’85).

After HHF disbanded, Lee moved to L.A. and established his country and rock credentials. Replacing James Burton in Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band in ’76, he stood out by breathing fire into Harris favorites like “Luxury Liner.” YouTube performances of the band at its peak reveal Lee’s consummate ability to uncork intense breaks on Harris’s upbeat tunes and graceful, eloquent breaks on her ballads.

Leaving the Hot Band for five years (1978-’83), Lee helped Eric Clapton orchestrate the Everly Brothers’ 1983 reunion. He toured with them over the next 20 years, revealing his mastery of their timeless rockers and ballads. On the road with Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings, he injected passion into their decades-old rock, blues, and jazz repertoire. Winning a 2002 Best Country Instrumental Performance Grammy for his contributions to Earl Scruggs’ performance of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on the all-star Earl Scruggs and Friends tribute further ratified his stature.

Lee’s solo debut album, 1979’s Hiding, set the standard for subsequent solo efforts by blending country, rock and rockabilly-flavored originals with vintage standards. 2014’s Highwayman was both a departure (being all-acoustic) and served as homage to his heroes as he covered everyone from the Everlys to Glen Campbell and Bobby Darin. In recent years, he has performed alongside Vince Gill and on Everly tribute shows with Peter Asher.

Having turned 75 in 2018, Lee, who released an entire live album last year, continues touring the world, unleashing his country passions and inner rockabilly on vintage material and other originals. Toting his Ernie Ball Music Man SSS, the twang and pyrotechnics are a given. – Rich Kienzle

2018 Country Players of the Year
25% Albert Lee
21% Brad Paisley
21% Vince Gill
18% Keith Urban
15% Johnny Hiland

Ry Cooder, The Prodigal Son

2018 Album of the Year

Ry Cooder has often turned back in time to old music as a way of making sense of the present. For The Prodigal Son, he resurrected and embellished vintage gospel tunes from the likes of Blind Willie Johnson, the Stanley Brothers, and Blind Roosevelt Graves of the Mississippi Jook Band to create a musical prayer for sanity amidst economic, political, and cultural collapse. And it just may be one of his best albums ever, winning the VG Readers’ Choice Album of the Year for 2018.

As noted in our review (September ’18), the music is deceptively simple. Cooder is backed by a basic (yet tight) quartet. His son, Joachim, lays down the beat on a range of percussion instruments including an Array Instruments Mbira expanded thumb piano. The sound is rounded out by saxophonist Sam Gendel and bassist Robert Francis.

But on this effort, it was Cooder’s guitar leading the choir, his seemingly simple slide licks played with complex, idiosyncratic rhythms. He employed his famed Coodercaster with its glorious gutbucket tone thanks to an old goldfoil pickup, and picked other guitars including his Martin D-18 formerly owned by street preacher Ralph Trotto.

“Straight Street” – a classic of ’50s California gospel by the Pilgrim Travelers – opens the album with a kind of warning. “Shrinking Man” shows Ry’s wry sense of humor, telling of the common man’s shrinking powers. And who thought a song about “Gentrification” could ever work?

On the crown-jewel title track, Cooder twists a traditional tune as his prodigal son finds solace not in religion, but in Bakersfield and its famed country music. Cooder’s lyric asks a waitress if this is a new teaching: “She said, ‘There is no God but God, and Ralph Mooney is his name.’” Hallelujah.

The album will wear well in years to come, not only because of its proud vintage vibe, but its prayerful message. – Michael Dregni

2018 Albums of the Year
37% Ry Cooder, The Prodigal Son
34% Greta Van Fleet, From The Fires
20% Samantha Fish, Belle of the West
9% Rocky Athas, Shakin’ The Dust

This article originally appeared in VG April 2019 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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

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