It's nigh on impossible to narrow this down to five (I could easily choose 20) so I’ve picked five who continue to be an influence on me while avoiding the more obvious ones whose best-ever creds are bulletproof (Jimi Hendrix, Van Halen etc.)
1. Kenny Burrell
I love it when musicians have their own instantly recognisable voice, and Kenny Burrell absolutely nails this for me. Everything he plays just sounds good, and you can tell it's him within a fraction of a second. His tone, timing and feel are exceptional, and he has a really unique phrasing that's somehow more vocal than any other jazz guitarist I can think of (at least off the top of my head). To my ear, his sense of harmony is incredibly sophisticated, but he somehow never sounds like he's doing anything that's crazily out-there because his sense of melody is so strong. Actually he was the first jazz guitar player I ever got into for exactly that reason - I liked the groove and the general bluesy vibe, long before I understood the first thing about what he was actually doing (I’m still working on that 15 years later).
A good parallel to describe what I mean would be one of those songs - maybe Tiny Dancer is a good example - that most folk can easily sing along with, but when you try to learn to play them you realise the chord changes are all over the place, and the song is actually way more complex than you thought. A lot of Sting's songs are like that, too - actually Rick Beato's YouTube channel has a great series of videos where he picks out songs and analyses what's actually going on, which I quite regularly binge watch if I'm in the mood to nerd out about music theory.
Anyway, Kenny is the king. He's incredibly musical, and has the ability to make complex music accessible and incredibly listenable. Here's a link to a chord melody piece of his that I continue to play to absolute death:
Midnight Blue is the classic Kenny Burrell album, but I also like the one he co-led with John Coltrane (I think it's just titled 'Kenny Burrell & John Coltrane'). Actually, I think he may have been the only guitarist ever to record a duet with John Coltrane, which is on that album.
2. Blake Mills
I find Blake Mills interesting for various reasons: as a slide guitarist, an acoustic fingerstyle guitarist, a songwriter, a producer; and, finally, as a user of alternate and interesting guitar tunings. I think the story went that he recorded his debut album Blake Mills as some kind of calling card in order for him and his accomplices to get studio work (he's one of those guitarists who can play pretty much anything) but it ended up being so well received that it launched a solo career and a hefty recording budget for a second album, Break Mirrors, which is also excellent.
Anyway, what I find particularly interesting about Blake Mills is that despite having the kind of ability that most guitar players would kill for, he's pretty much sacked off the guitar hero thing in favour of just making interesting music. True, it's often pretty weird - that midi guitar album Look and the collaboration with Pino Palladino are both quite out there - but it's incredibly interesting and different, and extremely un-boring.
There's an improvised Cuban-style bit at the end of this interview that blew my mind:
And this cover of a Lucinda Williams song, replete with baritone guitar and absolutely baffling right hand technique:
Here’s a live show at the Greek (supporting Alabama Shakes, whose album I think he produced):
3. Luiz Bonfá
My friend Daniel, an exceptional musician who has spent a good amount of time in Brazil, once told me that he considers Brazilian music to be one of the greatest and least recognised art forms. There are so many incredible musicians and songwriters who are practically unknown outside the country, it's kind of crazy. I've barely scratched the surface, but one guitarist I absolutely love is Luiz Bonfá, who was a classically trained samba style player who I think had some involvement in the creation of Bossa Nova, or was perhaps one of the key figures in whatever style predated it. He also wrote a load of songs that went on to be standards (Black Orpheus was one of his, I think).
Anyway, he's was a fantastic musician with an amazing sense of time, incredible technique and a complete mastery of dynamics. I listen to his solo guitar pieces and it still sounds to me like there's at least two people playing, if not three; rhythmically, some of the stuff he did was just nuts. He has all these counterpoint lines going on, each with its own set of dynamics, each interlocking in complex ways, and he somehow makes it sound kind of effortless despite its being almost unimaginably difficult. Fortunately there are a ton of recordings of him out there - Solo in Rio 1959 is a classic - but I've been unable to find that much video footage of him playing, or at least not enough that I can figure out how the hell he's doing what he's doing with his right hand. I'm sure are probably thousands of guitarists in Brazil who could teach me, if I ever get around to tracking them down and getting a lesson.
Here’s Luiz on the Perry Como Show:
4. Yamandu Costa
On the Brazilian theme, here's another guitarist/composer I love, who's known for playing a seven string classical style guitar and shredding the absolute bejesus out of it. I know very little about him, but I've listened to a ton of his stuff and would absolutely love to see him play live - he seems like quite the showman.
Actually, a few days before I moved away from Portugal my friend Daniel (who I mentioned earlier) told me that Yamandu actually lived in Lisbon for most of the time I was there, and had been playing almost weekly at some club not one mile from my house.
I love this recording - there are points in it where even he looks amazed by how good he is (or possibly just terrified of his own technique):
5. J.J. Cale
If ever there were a master in the art of not overplaying - tricky for guitar players, since we don't have to stop playing to breathe - it has to be J.J. Cale.
I have most of his albums on vinyl and have pretty much worn them out, especially Naturally and Troubadour. They're just so good! If I stop living out of a bag for long enough to get my stuff out of storage and put it in an actual house, I'm going to treat myself to new copies of those two.
So, you've probably heard the joke about how all of Status Quo's songs have only three chords in them; well, I can think of plenty of J.J. Cale's that have only two. It's pretty amazing what you can do with two chords (or at least what he could).
As well as writing and singing all the songs, playing almost all of the guitar parts and pretty much inventing a unique style of music along the way, I think he also produced everything himself, from an Airstream trailer in Oklahoma that he'd converted into a studio. In addition to being full of excellent songs and fantastic musicianship, his records also just sound great. I also love his guitar solos - they're always quite reserved, incredibly tasty, and fit whatever musical situation they're in perfectly.
A few years back when he passed, I seem to remember Neil Young (incidentally another master of not overplaying - check out his solo on Cinnamon Girl) coming out with a statement about how he thought J.J. Cale was one of the best guitar players of all time. I also seem to remember hearing Eric Clapton describe his first live guest appearance with J.J. Cale as one of the most nerve-wracking things he'd ever done, to the point where he could barely control his hands (though I've watched that footage and he sounds pretty good to me).
Listen to the accompanying playlist below: