2020 Readers’ Choice Awards

2020 Readers’ Choice Awards

Each year, Vintage Guitar asks fans to select Readers’ Choice winners for Player of the Year in four categories, along with Album of the Year. Included are selections for the VG Hall of Fame, which will induct three players, an innovator, and an instrument. Once again, nearly 5,000 votes were tallied online at VintageGuitar.com. Here are 2020s winners and inductees. See prior inductees…

Eric Johnson courtesy of Fender Musical Instruments.

Eric Johnson

2020 Hall of Fame Player

Eric Johnson’s name echoed in guitar circles for a decade before his first major-label album. To most, he was a mysterious axe slinger from Austin, playing fiery jazz-rock with Electromagnets. Later, he famously turned down prestigious gigs with Stanley Clarke and U.K., instead popping up on albums by Christopher Cross, Cat Stevens, Carole King, and the Steve Morse Band.

Just who was this elusive Texas cat?

With his 1986 solo album Tones, the world finally (if slowly) became acquainted with the guitarist, his pouffed mullet, Sgt. Pepper jackets, and shredtacular playing. The watershed moment came in 1990, with Ah Via Musicom and its signature instrumental, “Cliffs of Dover,” which became a unicorn in its time by getting plastered all over FM radio. The cut was described in the book Legends of Rock Guitar: “Opening with a trumpeting call-to-arms lick on his vintage Strat, Johnson launched into a brisk, major-tonality rocker that featured all his best attributes: fast eighth- and 16th-note alternate picking, a terrific sense of melody, and undeniable soulfulness.”

With “Cliffs of Dover,” Johnson – by then in his mid 30s – had become an overnight sensation. Later in the ’90s, he joined forces with Joe Satriani and Steve Vai for a series of tours that dazzled guitar fans and produced the hit album G3: Live in Concert.

Johnson with bassist Kyle Brock in the Electromagnets, 1976. Photo: Malco23/Wikimedia Commons.

Care to unpack the mechanics of Johnson’s style? For influences, he works from the ’60s psychedelic and ’70s fusion playbook, with dashes of Wes Montgomery, B.B. King, Django Reinhardt, and Chet Atkins, among others. This cumulatively invokes a wall of gossamer, chiming chord arpeggios balanced with terrifyingly fast solos. His tone is also unusual, avoiding the bright, bridge-pickup slash of many loud guitarists. Armed with ’50s Strats, old Marshall and Fender amps, and a variety of fuzzes, delays, and chorus pedals, E.J. summons what has been referred to as his “violin tone” – a warm, rounded sound with roots in Clapton’s “woman tone” of the Cream era, Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” and the bite of Jeff Beck’s fusion era. It’s a sound of unparalleled beauty, yet still fierce, loud, and dynamic – a balancing act only he seems able to pull off.

In terms of technique, the man possesses one of those picking hands from the gods, picking at the speed of hummingbird’s wings. Couple that with his fretting hand, which combines speedy pentatonic runs à la John McLaughlin with wide chord runs that land on interesting harmonic choices – evidence of Johnson’s jazz appreciation. Of course, there’s more to him than speed, tone, and gear fetishes. He’s a fine singer/songwriter who has explored the acoustic guitar on a series of introspective albums.

And then there’s the man himself. Known as ego-free, generous, and friendly, he has spent the 2020-’21 pandemic offering free “mini-lessons” on his website – and asking fans to donate to their local food banks. No wonder E.J. is a VG Hall of Fame inductee. – Pete Prown

2020 Hall of Fame Players
17% Eric Johnson
16% Jerry Garcia
15% Rory Gallagher
13% Albert King
13% Danny Gatton
10% Freddie King
8% Allan Holdsworth
8% Joe Pass

Rory Gallagher: Chris Nation.

Rory Gallagher

2020 Hall of Fame Player

Rory Gallagher enjoyed a career renaissance in 2020, including induction to the Vintage Guitar Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, the blues-rock guitar master, singer, and songwriter has been gone for more than 25 years.

Gallagher was born in 1948 in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, Ireland. He grew up in Cork and discovered Elvis Presley and other early rockers and blues artists on the radio. He taught himself to play the guitar as well as mandolin, harmonica, and saxophone.

In 1963, Gallagher bought a used Stratocaster – his heavily worn main guitar, with most of its sunburst finish stripped away by his sweat and years of playing – on a credit plan (VG, June ’20). His first performances were as part Irish show bands, where he learned much but ultimately felt stifled, musically.

Steadily breaking free from such constraints, in 1966 he formed the blues-rock power trio Taste, which allowed him to also exhibit jazz influences, including his saxophone playing. Taste released two studio albums before disbanding in 1970.

Gallagher began his solo career in ’71 with his self-titled debut. Ten more studio albums followed over the next two decades, including Tattoo, Calling Card, and his final effort, Fresh Evidence. Three live albums, most notably Irish Tour ’74, captured his exhilarating concert performances.

Gallagher’s electric style incorporated stinging, blues-influenced lines with an occasional hard-rock edge. His tone was often clean, but sometimes distorted to give licks a distinctive bite. He could shred as needed, or play soulfully. His acoustic and country-blues songs dripped with the folk influences in his blood as a native Irishman. Gallagher’s slide playing – electric and acoustic – was exceptional. This mastery of styles brought guitarists the world over to the realization that they didn’t have to be one-dimensional; some of the best-known have cited Gallagher’s brilliance and influence, including Hendrix, Clapton, Page, May, Frampton, and Satriani.

Appreciation for Gallagher’s legacy swelled in late 2019, when his ’61 Strat was part of the “Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll” exhibit at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, in Cleveland. 2020 saw two important releases; Check Shirt Wizard – Live in ’77 – reviewed in VG July ’20 – features previously unreleased performances. The Best of Rory Gallagher (VG “Hit List,” February ’21) is a great introduction for beginners.

Gallagher was just 47 when he died after a liver transplant in 1995. Heavy drinking, a lifetime on the road (often playing 300-plus shows per year), and medication taken to overcome his fear of flying ravaged his health before taking the ultimate toll.

Sadly, he did not live to see the building recognition, respect, and record sales reaching more than 30 million worldwide. In the United States, he never achieved breakthrough mainstream success worthy of his talent. – Bret Adams

Jerry Garcia: Mike Auchter.

Jerry Garcia

2020 Hall of Fame Player

Born in San Francisco, Jerry Garcia became one of his generation’s most-recognizable celebrities after co-founding the Grateful Dead. As an innovative guitarist and multi-instrumentalist, he pushed the dead to prominence during the hippie movement of the 1960s, serving as chief songwriter and vocalist. He later became philosophical figurehead to the jam-band movement.

Growing up with the sounds of rock and roll, country, R&B, and blues, Garcia (1942-’95) studied piano, banjo, and guitar. Heavily influenced by Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, he was also swept up by Lowell Fulson, Lonnie Mack, and James Burton. The bluegrass playing of Doc Watson was a significant influence, as were Don Rich (of Buck Owens’ Buckaroos), Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, and John Coltrane.

In 1965, Garcia formed the The Warlocks, which quickly changed its name while introducing pedal-steel and jazz improvisation to a long list of musical influences. He played virtuoso guitar – and did it with a missing finger after a childhood wood-chopping accident left him with a severed middle finger on his right hand; doctors could not reattach it. Undeterred, the challenge of playing guitar was the impetus to develop an unconventional technical skill and unique playing style.

Receiving his first guitar from his mother on his 15th birthday, Garcia had an affinity for the instrument and was soon playing in high school bands. By the early ’60s, he could be heard playing mandolin, acoustic guitar, bass, violin, and banjo in various folk and bluegrass configurations.

In ’65, the original lineup of The Grateful Dead was Phil Lesh on bass, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan on organ and harmonica, Bill Kreutzmann on drums, Bob Weir on guitar, and Garcia on guitar and vocals. The band became famous for playing a fusion of folk, rock, country, and psychedelic music with compositions that featured long-form improvisations. Garcia’s partnership with lyricist Robert Hunter resulted in some of the band’s best-known recordings, specifically, “China Cat Sunflower,” “Truckin’,” “Terrapin Station,” and “Dark Star.”

While the band weathered changes in personnel and musical direction, its concerts outshined the recorded work; Grateful Dead live shows have become the stuff of legend, garnering a vast and loyal fanbase, even without hit songs. And for his part, Garcia wielded an eclectic soloing style that borrowed from folk, blues, rock, and modal jazz. Performances with the Dead and side projects show him playing 25 to 30 different guitars. Noteworthy instruments include a Fender Stratocaster with a ’63 neck and ’57 body gifted to him by Graham Nash. He also played the famous Wolf, Tiger, and Rosebud custom guitars made by Doug Irwin, and the Lightning Bolt made by Stephen Cripe – a replica of Irwin’s Tiger with additional appointments (VG, January, 2010, and vintageguitar.com/4958/holy-cripes).

Drug abuse and other health issues took their toll on Garcia; he suffered from obesity, addiction to nicotine, cocaine, and heroin, and yet continued to tour. In 1986, he went into a diabetic coma and nearly died. In ’95, he succumbed to a heart attack at the age of 53.

Today, Garcia is considered the Godfather of the jam-band scene, a community where music fans come together for brotherhood, earthy grooves, and fellowship. He will be remembered as a musical phenomenon whose music and peaceful vision brought love and humanity to the masses. – Oscar Jordan

Edward Van Halen: Igor Vidyashev/Alamy.

Edward Van Halen

2020 Hall of Fame Innovator

The gifted mind of Edward Van Halen fashioned not only the immensely innovative style that put him in the VG Hall of Fame as a player in 2013, it also hatched a new kind of guitar and a sound that inspired guitarists in ways nearly equal to his playing.

By the time his band entered Sunset Sound Recorders to record its debut album, Edward had cobbled a handful of guitars unlike any on earth, his favorite being one that made the sounds he envisioned as a teenager. With a $50 ash body from Wayne Charvel’s shop, $80 neck, a re-wound Gibson PAF pickup placed just so and wired straight to the Volume pot, and a Strat vibrato modded for down-only action and a bar bent to extend its range, his first “Frankenstein” adorned the album’s cover, gazed upon by millions of listeners for countless hours as the vinyl spun. The guitar’s sound and that image marked the birth of the “superstrat” guitar, marked by a double-cut body, humbucker near the bridge, locking vibrato, and showy custom finishes/graphics.

In 1981, Van Halen began using the newly developed Floyd Rose double-locking vibrato, and his endorsement pushed the device to must-have status on the superstrats seen in the hands of virtually every hard-rock guitarist for more than a decade, including Van Halen’s Kramer signature model introduced in ’84.

In 1991, Ernie Ball Music Man launched a signature guitar fully designed by Edward with all of his tried-and-true touches. Five years later, he moved to Peavey, which had been building his signature amps since ’92. A step up in terms of features and aesthetics, the Wolfgang proved popular until the endorsement ended in 2004.

Soon after parting with Peavey, Edward began talks with Fender, which enticed him by offering to build a brand bearing his name. The EVH line was introduced with the 5150 amp in 2007, followed two years later by the EVH Wolfgang guitar, which underwent months of design tweaks and an even longer period of pickup testing. It was offered with options including a set neck and non-vibrato tail.

Arguably more than any other rock guitarist, Van Halen’s tones were a 50/50 part of his irresistible musical alchemy – and it involved some voodoo. His early amp was a near-stock mid-’60s 100-watt Marshall Super Lead (a.k.a. “plexi”) and, like most players, his nirvana came from the harmonic overtones and tube saturation achieved when an amp is turned up. With a 100-watt plexi, that means eardrum-crushing volume. Looking to get that secret sauce with tolerable dB, he plugged his amp into a electronics-store Ohmite Variac voltage transformer and rolled it down to 90. It and a “dummy head box” (a.k.a. a large resitor) kept the amp’s power tubes dimed no matter how loud he needed to be. Other than a Univox echo he had modded to slow its delay effect, his pedals were minimal, used for only a touch of dressing – he used no overdrive devices.

As both player and innovator, Edward Van Halen never rested. Infamously dynamic, he never settled for subpar, and his impact will forever live in the numerous “Frankenstein” guitars, Wolfgangs, and 5150/EVH amps that put players as close as possible to his sound. – Ward Meeker

For more Edward Van Halen’s life, music, and gear, see our comprehensive memorial, “A Legend Has Left Us,” along with Wolf Marshall’s “Fretprints” column and “Virtuoso Version: The Peavey Wolfgang,” all in the December ’20 issue.

2020 Hall of Fame Innovator
73% Edward Van Halen
9% Alexander Dumble
7% Nat Daniel
7% Semi Moseley
4% Joe Naylor

1958 Les Paul Special. Click to enlarge.

Gibson Les Paul Special

2020 Hall of Fame Instrument

The Special shared a page with the original Les Paul model in the 1955 catalog

After Fender introduced the Strat in 1954, Gibson’s lone solidbody electric, the Les Paul model, suddenly seemed stodgy, heavy – and expensive. And in a nascent market offering only a handful of choices, every sale lost because of price – whether to Fender or Silvertone or Danelectro – was a failed opportunity to establish brand loyalty in a new buyer.

Gibson’s response to those early price wars came in the form of a slab-bodied axe called the Les Paul Junior (inducted to the VG Hall of Fame in 2014). Its strategy was basic – offer a guitar without the Les Paul’s fancy carved top, gold finish, humbucking pickups, Tune-O-Matic bridge, fancy fretboard inlays, or binding, but still built to the company’s quality standards and at a price easy to reach for youngsters’ parents and adult beginners. Introduced in 1954 for $99.50 (when the original LP goldtop was $225), it delivered on the promise, with a full-length scale, set neck, and great-sounding P-90 pickup. It soon became Gibson’s best-selling instrument.

The Special, introduced the following year, was a response to the Junior’s success – and a bit of dealer/player input. Offering identical material and specs save for its new “limed mahogany” finish (collectors know it as “TV Yellow”) it met the demand for a tonal step up, with its second pickup and four-knob control scheme borrowed from its big brother. 

Gibson didn’t net much profit from each Special (or Junior) sold, but the sheer number of units made it more than worthwhile to produce. Today, players and collectors see the Special as a screaming beast unto itself – a stand-alone classic. – Ward Meeker

2020 Hall of Fame Instruments
43% Gibson Les Paul Special
23% Ibanez Tube Screamer
18% Epiphone Casino
16% Martin 000-28

Joe Satriani Photo: Joseph Cultice.

Joe Satriani, Shapeshifting

2020 Album of the Year

Certain guitarists are just better at keeping things interesting. Satch is one, and his 2020 album, Shapeshifting proved how consistency matters, even when one is hyper-prolific.

For this purely instrumental effort, Satch enlisted Kenny Aronoff to drum, and his instantly recognizable sound works its magic. Satriani, meanwhile, set about trying to sound like different guitarists, sporting Hendrixian bluesy licks to intro the title track, employing bits of Blackmore and Malmsteen influence in “All For Love,” old-school power chords in “Big Distortion” and the no-disguises approach to “Ali Farka, Dick Dale, an Alien and Me.” In his July ’20 review, VG’s Bret Adams called the track, “…a headspinningly exotic mash-up including Dale-inspired tremolo picking and Satriani’s nuclear shredding.” 

Further homages include a dabble in slow blues (“Teardrops”), another whiff of Hendrix in “Falling Stars” and a dose of Edward Van Halen mixed with surf and appropriately contemporary rock in “Nineteen Eighty.” Shapeshifting is a set with no weak spots. – Ward Meeker

2020 Album of the Year
30% Joe Satriani, Redemption
23% Eric Johnson, EJ Vol. II
18% Marcus King, El Dorado
17% Larkin Poe, Self Made Man
12% Jason Isbell, Reunions

Edward Van Halen

2020 Rock Player of the Year

With his passing, Edward Van Halen was fittingly memorialized on the cover of every guitar magazine and website as players the world over recalled how “Eddie” impacted their lives.

His first cover was the April, 1980, issue of Guitar Player, at a time when media saturation didn’t exist – especially for guitarists – and being “the cover” of the only such publication was a huge deal. He would go on to grace many others in a lifetime spent not only making music as guitar-god supreme, but as a driving force in moving the guitar forward as an instrument (see his Hall of Fame entry as Innovator in this section).

While his musical output wasn’t tremendous – just 12 studio albums over a 42-year span – it had unparalleled impact not only on guitarists, but on rock-and-roll music as a whole. After emerging as the unstoppably imaginative shredder in a rowdy L.A. hard-rock band in 1978, Eddie chaperoned the group through myriad stylistic tweaks and overt changes. He handled the 1985 departure of lead singer David Lee Roth by bringing aboard Sammy Hagar, who’d achieved stardom on his own and brought a heavy-pop approach to songs that helped the band become the biggest act of its era.

The high points for Eddie and company included watching their 1984 album achieve 5x-platinum status, the single “Jump” become their first (and only) #1 pop hit and first Grammy nominee, followed by a Grammy win in ’92 for Best Hard Rock Performance with Vocals for the album For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. In 2007, they were inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

The final Van Halen album, A Different Kind of Truth, was released in 2012. Highlighted by a reunion with Roth, it was followed by the band’s penultimate world tour; its final jaunt was a 41-date bit in ’15, supporting Tokyo Dome Live in Concert.

By 2019, Van Halen sat 20th on the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) list of best-selling artists, having moved more than 80 million units worldwide. Along the way, they scored 13 #1 hits on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart and ranked seventh among the top 100 hard rock artists of all time.

Eddie’s status as a rock star and husband of TV celebrity Valerie Bertinelli put him at the forefront of pop culture throughout the ’80s, which in turn made a public spectacle of his battles with drugs, alcohol, and bandmates. But, he persevered even after undergoing hip replacement surgery in 1999, followed by two years of treatment for throat cancer that included removing a portion of his tongue. In ’14, he began another battle with the cancer (again of the throat but also the lungs) that eventually took his life.

Edward Van Halen was 65 when he died October 6, 2020. – Ward Meeker

2020 Rock Player of the Year
52% Edward Van Halen
17% John 5
14% Eric Johnson
12% Joe Satriani
5% Vinnie Moore

Joe Bonamassa: Jim Herrington.

Joe Bonamassa

2020 Blues Player of the Year

A fascinating aspect of blues music is that it moves, constantly evolving into new forms and styles.

After World War I, the fledgling genre grew into a Southern acoustic approach championed by guitarists Sylvester Weaver, Lonnie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Robert Johnson. During World War II, T-Bone Walker electrified it, while the ’50s brought us Chicago’s Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, and Elmore James. Hard on their heels were six-string innovators like Otis Rush, John Lee Hooker, Mississippi John Hurt, Buddy Guy, and Rev. Gary Davis.

The ’60s also introduced the omnipotent Kings – B.B., Albert, and Freddie – along with the first generation of white blues guitarists: Mike Bloomfield, Stefan Grossman, Danny Kalb, Peter Green, and an English kid named Eric Clapton. With the later innovations of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Gary Moore, the question “What is blues guitar?” became virtually unanswerable. One only had to point to early Rolling Stones, Paul Butterfield, and Yardbirds LPs to see how closely the two genres were aligned. Were the Stones playing blues – or was Howlin’ Wolf playing rock? You decide.

Today, the fact that Joe Bonamassa has won VG’s Blues Player of the Year category speaks volumes about this evolution. From his 2020 album Royal Tea, “Why Does It Take So Long To Say Goodbye” is a torchy ballad, equal parts soulful vocal, hard-rock riffery, and scorching Les Paul licks. When Joe picks up an acoustic for the brooding “Beyond the Silence,” he adds the right blue notes to heighten the mood.

In the past decade, Joe B. has continually forged this marriage of electric blues and heavy rock, in the process changing the definition of blues guitar yet again. With Royal Tea, he’s now one of the most important blues players alive. Congratulations, Mr. Bonamassa. – Pete Prown

2020 Blues Player of the Year
40% Joe Bonamassa
16% Marcus King
16% Eric Johnson
16% Christone “Kingfish” Ingram
12% Eric Gales

Brad Paisley: Jeff Lipsky.

Brad Paisley

2020 Country Player of the Year

Country singer, songwriter, author, and guitarist Brad Paisley began his rise to fame in 1996 with the hit song “Another You,” written for David Kersh. In 1999, he made his album debut with Who Needs Pictures. The record garnered him two #1 hits, “We Danced,” and “We Didn’t Have To Be.” The following year Paisley was named Best New Male Vocalist by the Academy of Country Music.

A Grand Ole Opry inductee and prolific artist with 11 solo albums to his credit, Paisley was raised on the music of Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, Johnny Cash, The Eagles, and Huey Lewis and the News. His grandfather was a significant influence on his guitar playing, but he also embraced the guitar artistry of John Jorgenson, Hank Garland, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck.

Paisley’s tools of the trade include amplifiers by Trainwreck, Dr. Z, Vox, and Fender. He regularly plays his signature Fender Brad Paisley Road Worn Telecaster among other guitars, including a few Gibson J-45 acoustic guitars. In 2011, Paisley authored the book, Diary of a Player: How My Guitar Influences Made a Man Out of Me. The book details his journey through the world of guitars, life, and the music industry. In ’15, Paisley became a mentor for Blake Shelton’s team on season nine of the TV series “The Voice.”

Paisley is a mainstay on the touring circuit, having participated in many successful world tours. His last album, Love and War, was released in 2017 and went to #1 on Billboard’s Country Album charts. It featured John Fogerty, Timbaland, and Mick Jagger. The album contained the hit singles “Heaven South,” “Last Time for Everything,” and “Today.” In 2019, Paisley released the single, “My Miracle,” a heartfelt ballad dedicated to his actress wife, Kimberly Williams-Paisley. – Oscar Jordan

2020 Country Player of the Year
34% Brad Paisley
22% Chris Stapleton
19% Billy Strings
18% Johnny Hiland
7% John Osborne

George Benson: Greg Allen.

George Benson

2020 Jazz Player of the Year

George Benson boasts 10 Grammys and 16 albums that have topped Billboard’s Jazz chart, with 1976’s triple-platinum Breezin’ reaching #1 in Jazz, Pop, and R&B.

The Pittsburgh native has been recording for 68 of his 77 years – a child prodigy debuting with an R&B single at nine. “My stepfather played nothing but Charlie Christian records with Benny Goodman,” he told VG in March, 2010.

He was later drawn to the jazz side of Nashville session great Hank Garland, saying, “He was the first person I heard after Charlie Christian who had that kind of energy and that kind of swing.”

After cutting his teeth with organist Brother Jack McDuff, his 1964 album as a leader was auspiciously titled The New Boss Guitar Of George Benson.

After several instrumental albums for CTI, it was his sole vocal, “This Masquerade,” that shot Breezin’ into the stratosphere. “The great thing that happened to me was that I didn’t become a crossover success until I was a mature man,” he told VG. “I was 33 years old when Breezin’ came out.” 

“Haughty jazz purists refuse to exalt Benson as a jazz guitar icon like they do Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, and Wes Montgomery, but I believe he should be included in this bunch,” said jazz picker Bobby Broom. “I can say unequivocally that George should rank among jazz music’s most-supreme stylistic innovators on his instrument and as one of the music’s elite improvisers.”

Scottish jazz legend Martin Taylor calls Benson “the greatest straight-ahead jazz guitarist in the world.”

Over the years, Benson recorded with luminaries such as Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, Miles Davis, and Chet Atkins, and Ibanez has issued Benson signature models since 1977.

The Hall of Famer’s latest studio album, Walking To New Orleans, pays tribute to Fats Domino and Chuck Berry. Dan Forte

2021 Jazz Player of the Year
27% George Benson
21% Al Di Meola
21% Pat Metheny
18% Bill Frisell
13% Julian Lage

This article originally appeared in VG April 2021 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

See the entire VG Readers’ Choice Awards history, scroll to the bottom of HERE.

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