Friday, 11 August 2017

Connoisseur's Choice: Hidden Treasure - Ten Neglected Guitarists Worthy Of Your Attention

The genre of music known as "rock" has always been driven by electric guitar. Accordingly, over the years numerous six-string heroes have emerged and been feted by the masses. Names like Hendrix, Beck, Page and Clapton are familiar to many, it's safe to say. Then there's that category of players who perhaps aren't big names in the mainstream, but are common knowledge to any serious rock enthusiast. The skilled likes of Robin Trower, Frank Marino, Michael Schenker, Rory Gallagher, Uli Roth and Pat Travers would feature in this bracket. 

But, as is the way of the world, there have been other highly accomplished players who remain somewhat overlooked. They rarely crop up in 'top ten' lists, music histories or even banter between fans. So, just for the record, let's have a look at some outstanding guitarists of the '70s and '80s who - quite simply - don't get mentioned enough.

1. Ollie Halsall (Patto) 

Hailing from Southport, northern England, Peter 'Ollie' Halsall's career in music began in unorthodox fashion, as a vibraphone player with late '60s psychedelic soul outfit Timebox. Before long he had taken up the electric guitar, causing astonishment among bandmates with the speed of his development. Out of the ashes of this group, Patto was formed in 1970.

Stylistically this was a very different proposition, focusing on a unique hybrid of earthy hard rock with progressive elements. With the full-throated rasp of Mike Patto on vocals and Halsall's fretboard pyrotechnics, the band's potential appeared limitless.

Hold Your Fire, their second album, is perhaps the best example of the talent on offer. Recorded live on the studio floor with minimal overdubbing, this diverse collection of songs is the setting for some outrageous electric guitar playing. The left-handed Halsall plugs his white Gibson SG into a small Fender combo and proceeds to dazzle the listener with stellar rhythm work and a barrage of innovative, unpredictable lead lines. Nobody played like this back then - and they still don't. 

Following three sublime LPs with Patto - not to mention an unreleased gem in the form of the widely bootlegged "Monkey's Bum" - Halsall moved on, briefly joining Jon Hiseman's Tempest and immersing himself in session work. A reunion with Mike Patto in 1975 led to two albums with the under-appreciated Boxer, but much of the next two decades were spent as a sideman with Kevin Ayers.

Ollie Halsall died of a drug-induced heart attack in 1992.

Recommended listening: 

'Hold Your Fire' (Patto, Hold Your Fire, 1971)
'Give It All Away' (Patto, Hold Your Fire, 1971)
'Loud Green Song' (Patto, Roll 'Em Smoke 'Em Put Another Line Out, 1972)

2. Danny Kirwan (Fleetwood Mac)

Peter Green, founder of the original Fleetwood Mac, is revered by many as the master blues-rock guitar player, a musician whose legacy is simply untouchable. And rightly so. But there was another massive talent in that band, one that has been overlooked to a bewildering degree. 

I'm talking about Danny Kirwan. A melodious singer and skilled songwriter in his own right, when the young Brixton lad picked up a guitar, his soaring lead lines and devastating vibrato spoke for themselves. An innate sense of melody and soulfulness permeate every piece of music he involved himself in.

He joined the Mac in 1968, in time to appear on the band's acclaimed third LP, Then Play On. After Green's departure, he led the band through three further albums then commenced a solo career where, oddly, his guitar playing was far from prominent. Guest appearances with the likes of Chris Youlden, Tramp and Jo-Ann Kelly were rare but welcome reminders of his prowess as a picker. 

Sadly, his presence on the music scene ended with the release of his last album in 1979. Since then, stories of alcoholism and homelessness have circulated. Nevertheless it seems he is still out there, somewhere.

Recommended listening:

'One Sunny Day' (Fleetwood Mac, Then Play On, 1969)
'Blues With A Feeling' (Fleetwood Mac, Live At The BBC, 1968-70)
'Only You' (Fleetwood Mac, Live At The BBC, 1968-70)

3. Pat Thrall (Pat Travers Band, Hughes/Thrall)

A veteran of such diverse acts as Cookin' Mama, Automatic Man and Stomu Yamashta, Californian Pat Thrall came to the world's attention as second guitarist in the Pat Travers Band. Together, the two musicians created a formidable team that set new standards for guitar players the world over. Whereas Travers favoured a gutsy style firmly rooted in blues, Thrall carved a niche for himself as a forward-thinking rocker with unique, jazzy phrasing.

During this time, Travers spoke of Thrall as "exceptional" and his "favourite guitarist in the world". It's not hard to see why. His cohort had an unerring ability to create moments of jaw-dropping surprise on blues-rock standards that, in the wrong hands, could have easily drifted into the safety zone.

Moving on to collaborate with Glenn Hughes on the ill-fated Hughes/Thrall album, he became interested in keyboards and guitar synthesiser, but still found time for impressive soloing when the fancy took him. High-profile activity with the likes of Tina Turner and Meat Loaf followed, but in recent years he has tended to focus on studio work as both an engineer and a producer.

Recommended listening:

'Boom, Boom (Out Go The Lights)' (Pat Travers Band, Live! Go For What You Know, 1979) 
'Snortin' Whiskey' (Pat Travers Band, Crash And Burn, 1980) 
'Muscle And Blood' (Hughes/Thrall, self-titled debut, 1982)

4. Snuffy Walden (Stray Dog)

American-British power trio Stray Dog signed to the Manticore label in 1973 and secured the services of Greg Lake as producer. Their debut album remains a classic of its kind. This dazzling collection ranges from straight-up riff-rock to somewhat varied, left-of-centre stylings. Guitarist W.G. "Snuffy" Walden was the epitome of the swaggering, blues-heavy Les Paul player, a man whose fat tone and rude licks still resonate powerfully with devotees of this musical era. 

Friends and fans who witnessed early Van Halen performances have attested that the band covered material from the first Stray Dog LP during their formative years. Regrettably, Walden and co. lost momentum with a radical line-up change and ill-advised commercial approach on their second album. Along the way, Snuffy guested on the final Free album when Paul Kossoff was otherwise indisposed, made various high-profile session appearances and later went on to tour with the likes of Chaka Khan and Eric Burdon. 

Nowadays he is an award-winning composer and performer of film and television soundtracks, including The West Wing, Thirty Something, and The Wonder Years. Interestingly, all of this music has been written and recorded on acoustic guitar, an instrument Walden had rarely touched previously.

Recommended listening: 

'Speak Of The Devil'
 (all tracks from Stray Dog's self-titled debut, 1973)

5. Nono (Trust)

Norbert "Nono" Krief can surely lay claim to being the most significant guitar player in French rock history. But one could easily go further than that. In the zone where hard rock meets heavy metal, he has few peers anywhere. With the Parisian band Trust, he created a sonic identity that was unstoppable. While frontman Bernie Bonvoisin ranted about injustice in a vocal style that verged on punk, Nono busied himself with crafting some of the most indelible six-string moments of that time. 

A true all-rounder, his riffing was tight and disciplined. When it came to soloing, he played for the song. Devoted to strong, memorable phrasing that locked in with the band, Mr Krief was not a man to waste notes.

Trust disbanded in 1984, but have reformed several times over the years, while Nono has also appeared with highly regarded French artists like Johnny Hallyday and Fabienne Shine. He still performs live regularly and recently collaborated on an album with his son, David.

Recommended listening:
'L'Elite' (Trust, self-titled debut, 1979)
'Mr Comedy' (Trust, Repression, 1980)
'Repression' (Trust, Marche Ou Creve, France, 1981/ Savage, UK, 1982)

6. Paul Chapman (UFO)

Most hard rock fans are thoroughly acquainted with the work of Michael Schenker across the UFO catalogue of the 1970s. Unfortunately, it seems far fewer are aware of his successor, Welsh guitarist Paul "Tonka" Chapman. This is a genuine shame - the man's playing was superb. 

The task of following the German virtuoso might have been daunting to many, yet Chapman appeared unfazed, confidently laying out a style all his own with impeccable tone and moments of blinding speed. The band's albums from this period tend to be derided by those who favour borrowed opinions, but to this writer's ears, the music simply oozes class. 

Prior to his time in UFO, Chapman recorded two albums with the undervalued Lone Star. Later he appeared in a couple of different line-ups of Waysted, and is now said to be teaching music in Melbourne, Florida.

Recommended listening:

'Mystery Train' (UFO, No Place To Run, 1980)
'Long Gone' (UFO, The Wild, The Willing & The Innocent, 1981)
'We Belong To The Night' (UFO, Mechanix, 1982)

7. Mike Kennedy (Horsepower)

Little is known about the band Horsepower, besides one hard-to-find single, 'Outrageous', and an appearance on the second Metal For Muthas compilation in 1980. They were an American outfit who found themselves associated with the NWOBHM movement after relocating to the UK in the late seventies. If you stumble across a copy of their 7", I suggest you make a purchase - it's brilliant.

Both songs, the A-side and the flip, 'Highway Robbery', are infectious, gritty slices of heavy rock 'n' roll. The recording is as raw as you like, which only enhances the urgency of the material. You're drawn in by Steve Richter's commanding voice, then lacerated by the incisive lead work of Mike Kennedy. His phrasing is flawless, and underpinning it all is a knack for concise, catchy songwriting. 

The following years are murky to say the least, but it appears that Horsepower returned to their native Pennsylvania before long. An arcane cassette album, Stoked, was recorded and released, which later re-emerged on CD as part of a compilation simply entitled Mike Kennedy & Horsepower. It's clear that Kennedy's abilities as a writer and a soloist had not diminished even slightly.

Kennedy was also known as an avid collector of vintage guitars and amps, particularly Hofner and Vox. Sadly, he passed away in 2006 following a battle with cancer.

Recommended listening:
'Highway Robbery' (Horsepower, single, 1980)
'Outrageous' (Horsepower, single, 1980)
'She Gives Me Candy' (compilation track, Metal For Muthas Vol.II, 1980)

8. Paul Quinn (Saxon)

Paul Quinn (right) with Biff Byford.
While Saxon is hardly what you'd call an obscure band, the low-key demeanour of Paul Quinn has meant that he remains something of an underestimated figure in the guitar world. During the heyday of the NWOBHM, photogenic contemporaries like Dave Murray or Phil Collen were attracting plenty of media attention, while Quinn's labours were seemingly taken for granted. Strange, really, as the man has contributed some of the most enduring guitar work of that time. 

Whether it's his iconic, melody-driven lead lines or the occasional free-form flurry of notes, Paul Quinn rarely puts a foot wrong. It would be fair to say that the tones he laid down on these classic early albums have stood the test of time magnificently.

Recommended listening:  
'747 (Strangers In The Night)' (Saxon, Wheels Of Steel, 1980)
'Taking Your Chances' (Saxon, Strong Arm Of The Law, 1980)
'And The Bands Played On' (Saxon, Denim And Leather, 1981)

9. Floyd Radford (Johnny Winter)

Floyd Radford (left) and the Winter brothers.
There are those (this writer included) who consider Johnny Winter's seventies output to be the absolute pinnacle of rock guitar. Granted, everything he did was steeped in the blues, but the energy he brought meant that his music also appealed to hard rockers the world over. Perhaps the most remarkable phase of his career involved the addition of a second guitarist, something he'd tried a few years earlier with Rick Derringer. On this occasion his foil was the relatively unknown Floyd Radford.

This was a combination that yielded some amazing results - and for once, we're not using the word "amazing" lightly. Winter was generous enough to allow Radford plenty of time in the spotlight, the two pushing each other to ever greater heights. 

Listening to Captured Live, it is easy to differentiate between the two players. Johnny Winter was using a mild phasing effect, whereas Radford's tone remained relatively clean and direct. To say that the pair of them were "going for it" on this album would be something of an understatement - both sound supremely energised. The playing is heartfelt and swings hard, always remaining wedded to the band groove.

Anyone curious to hear some of Radford's other work can seek out the stand-alone album by his band Tin House (1971) and his fine recordings with Edgar Winter's White Trash.

Recommended listening:
'Roll With Me' 
'Bony Moronie'
'Rock 'n' Roll People'
(all tracks from Johnny Winter's Captured Live, 1976)

10. Laurie Wisefield (Wishbone Ash)

It's never easy replacing a popular guitarist - and Ted Turner in Wishbone Ash certainly had a keen following - but Laurie Wisefield was self-assured to enough to push the group forward into a new era of music making.  He had previously made a name for himself with the band Home, but his tenure with the Ash saw the man's style mature to a remarkable degree.

Taste and restraint were the order of the day. Wisefield was capable of scaring fellow guitarists with daunting lines when the occasion demanded, but primarily he focused on enhancing the band's vibe with timeless, elegant soloing. 

Like fellow guitarist (and band founder) Andy Powell, he understood the value of economy in music, both in terms of the notes played and the type of tone used. The result was a beautifully uncluttered sound that allowed the songs to breathe and gave the guitar parts maximum impact.

Following his departure from Wishbone Ash in the mid eighties, Wisefield went on to perform with Tina Turner, Joe Cocker and Roger Chapman. More recently, he has played guitar for the "We Will Rock You" musical, and established a new band, Snakecharmer.

Recommended listening:
'When You Know Love' (Wishbone Ash, New England, 1976)
'Persephone' (Wishbone Ash, There's The Rub, 1974)
'Midnight Dancer' (Wishbone Ash, Front Page News, 1977)

Listen to the playlist on Spotify.

Writer: George Colwan

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