Alec Downie’s take on Scotland’s greatest ever guitarists:
Sir Alex Ferguson works on a simple premise: get a strong defence, build from the back and allow the creative players to play. Applying that theory to music you’ll find that the foundation of all Rock ‘n’ Roll is bass and drums and everything else is art.
Think of a great winger like Willie Johnston going past three players and putting in a perfect cross for Derek Johnstone to head in and you get the idea why everyone loves guitarists and vocalists.
A great guitar player can step forward and bend a string so far it bends your heart with it and they can grind out a riff that can stir a primeval call to arms. Competing with and complimenting great singers, the best guitarists can hold a note high enough to take your breath away. Here is my list of Scotland’s 5 greatest artists.
1. Zal Cleminson – The Sensational Alex Harvey Band/ Teargas/Nazareth
This man is essentially two separate people: Alasdair and Zal. Alasdair is a quiet, unassuming, intellectual man who for the most part keeps Zal in check. But when Zal escapes, the results are frightening and electric, appearing on stage with camp war paint and playing an exhilarating blend of brutal riffs and wicked twists.
Funk, rock, metal and punk theatre, listening to SAHB is truly inspirational and it was Zal who agitated, caroused and caressed Alex Harvey into his magical performances. Watching Zal is a masterclass in playing during a lead singer’s vocal breaks and while every kid that picks up a guitar learns the riffs to Smoke on the Water and a good guitarist might be able to imitate Hendrix, nobody but nobody can copy Zal.
Recommended Solo – ‘Anthem’ from The Impossible Dream
Photo credit: Frodeoen
2. Stuart Adamson – Big Country/The Skids
I was once in Germany in the run up to Christmas and I stood in awe watching a happy Stuart Adamson pronounce he was going to play “Look Away” in the style of punk rock…then reggae…then rock…” etc etc etc. This interlude went on for about 20 minutes. Adamson was making the point – he can fecking play!
Along with Bruce Watson, Big Country were canny enough to come up with their own axe style. Instantly recognisable and entrancing, Stuart Adamson remains one of the most underrated guitarists of all time.
Recommended Solo/Riff – ‘Restless Natives’
3. Brian (Robbo) Robertson – Thin Lizzy/Motorhead/Frankie Miller
Where do you start? Robbo ran away from home at 16 to roadie for Mick Ronson. He once auditioned as a drummer for Thin Lizzy and, while he was waiting, he started playing guitar so well that he became their 2nd guitarist. Robbo then had the temerity to get sacked from both Lizzy and Motorhead for ‘substance related issues’.
In Cava Studios one day, with a bottle of Jack in tow, I watched Robbo play an incredible guitar solo in one take. I asked him how the feck he did it. He looked at me, put his hand on his heart, ran his fingers over his chest, along his arm and down to his fingertips as he confessed: “Well it starts here, and comes out here”. The greatest Les Paul feel player ever!
Recommended Solo/Riff – ‘Still in Love With You’ from Thin Lizzy Live and Dangerous
4. Bert Jansch – Solo
I went for years thinking that Bert Jansch was some sort of dud American blues dude and never really took the time to check him out, but then a friend of mine, Peter of PM Music in Glasgow, was running a series of shows called “The Acoustic Affair” which featured some of the most breathtaking unplugged acts on the Scottish circuit, and he got in touch with me.
Peter said to me: “You have to come along to this show, the man is legend”. Much to my surprise, I discovered the player regarded as an inspiration to Johnny Marr, Bernard Butler, Jimmy Page, Ian Anderson, Nick Drake and Donovan, actually originated from Glasgow.
Neil Young was quoted as saying, “As much of a great guitar player as Jimi [Hendrix] was, Bert Jansch is the same thing for acoustic guitar…and my favourite” and Page recalled, “At one point, I was absolutely obsessed with Bert Jansch. When I first heard that LP , I couldn’t believe it. It was so far ahead of what everyone else was doing. No one in America could touch that”.
Recommended Jansch claw-hammering – ‘Angie’ a Davey Graham cover from the 1965 album Bert Jansch
5. Dave Arcari – Solo/The Radiotones:
National Resonator guitars are a thing of beauty. They sit in guitar shops shining and shimmering while their presence sends a foreboding message to would-be guitarists, “do not touch me until you have had your soul possessed by Blind Boy Fuller”.
Dave Arcari heralds from the Southern trash punk blues swamps of deepest darkest Perth and plays this guitar like he was born on the Mississippi bayou. Seasick Steve said, “Dave plays like he got his skin turned inside out and pretty soon my skin was inside out too listening, and it was all good. That boy bleeds for you – he’s a real down deep player and a soul man…”
So if you’re Scottish, do not pick up a National until your soul has been somewhat possessed by our own Dave Arcari.
Dave Arcari Recommended swamp blues stomp: ‘Got Me Electric’, from the album Got Me Electric
Mentioned in dispatches:
• Iain Harvie – Del Amitri
Playing pop and making it special is an art in itself, though delve a little deeper into Del Amitri and you will find some of the finest guitar playing ever put on record.
Recommended Solo – ‘Crashing Down Twisted’
• Ally McErlaine –Texas
An instantly memorable guitar sound. As I type this Ally is recovering from a brain haemorrhage so please take a couple of seconds to pause and send him some positive vibes xx
Recommended Southside twang, ‘I Don’t Want a Lover’ from the album Southside
• Edwyn Collins – Orange Juice
Edwyn collects old valve recording equipment in his West Heath Studio and has used it to create some of the most wonderful guitar tones ever grooved into a piece of vinyl.
Recommended Solo – ‘After All I Live My Life’ – Frankie Miller Tribute
• Manny Charlton – Nazareth
How many Scottish guitarists can say they have had their riff covered by Slash, on Guns n Roses’ The Spaghetti Incident?
Recommended Solo/Riff – ‘Hair of the Dog’
• Simon Neil – Biffy Clyro
Solely responsible for originating a guitar style that has thousands of mascara-ravaged kids hidden in bedrooms all over the UK trying to be Biffy Clyro.
Recommended Thrashing of a piece of wood, ’57’ from the 2002 album Blackened Sky
• Charlie Burchill – Simple Minds
My own personal jury is still out on whether Charlie is a guitar god or not but he has to be on here just for that Waterfront riff.
• John Martyn – Solo
Listen to anything. The man is a legend.
• Iain Cook – Aereogramme
The most unassuming Scottish guitar genius.
Recommended enlightenment: ‘Barriers’ from the album My Heart Has A Wish That You Would Not Go
• John McFarlane – Sluts of Trust
We are all Sluts of Trust and this band should have been huge so check out ‘Piece of You’ from the album Sluts of Trust.