Great guitarists put the stamp of their personality on the instrument: you can immediately hear the signature style of Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, Allan Holdsworth, Stevie Ray Vaughan or any of the other giants of the instrument.
So what are the elements that make for a great player?
Most great guitarists have mastered the basic techniques of the guitar. They are adept at hammer-ons, pull-offs, string bends, and artificial harmonics.
They also often layer over their technique either a staccato (choppy) or legato (smooth) feel. Al DiMeola, John McLaughlin and Yngwie Malmsteen are classic examples of staccato players; John Scofield, Joe Satriani and Allan Holdsworth are legato players.
Perhaps the most important thing about technique is that it should never be an end in itself, but a foundation that lets the player express what is inside. Allan Holdsworth and John McLaughlin have superhuman technique, yet they always use it to express something musical—instead of just a blizzard of meaningless notes.
Great players have an incredible sense of musicality and phrasing—meaning how they play what they play. Jeff Beck is a shining example of this: he can play four notes in a way that is drenched with feeling and expression. Just listen to Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers from Blow by Blow, or Goodbye Porkpie Hat from Wired to hear great musicality and taste.
David Gilmour, Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, Steve Howe, and Carlos Santana are other examples of guitarists who play with incredible passion, taste, and feeling. Comfortably Numb, All Along the Watchtower, and Europa are just a few solos that are etched in the mind of every guitarist because they are packed with emotion.
Anybody can learn their scales and practice techniques endlessly, but it is a master who makes magic with them.
—To be continued.