Looking beyond the enormous and frequently purely instrumental world of classical and jazz, one tends to find that just about every album classed within the hugely-encompassing label of 'popular music' features a vocalist at the forefront. Even Hendrix allowed his idiosyncratic voice to frequently intrude on the SERIOUSLY idiosyncratic noises coming from his guitar - not that we're complaining, obviously!
But there are exceptions to every casual generalization. So, here's a list of five essential albums that make the guitar the star...
Surfing with the Alien – Joe Satriani (1987)
One thing you'll have noticed about most hit recordings flooding the radio airwaves day-in, day-out, is the vocal line leading each tune. But perhaps the year 1987, a peak moment in the era of shredding, was the perfect time to allow rock guitar soloing to replace the singer. Enter Joe Satriani, whose admittedly showboating debut Not Of This Earth had already made quite an impression on guitarists one year previously. But Surfing With The Alien added one key ingredient - a melodic quality akin to that found within the finest vocal lines recorded on just about every other chart topping song before or since.
You didn't need to be a guitarist to enjoy this incredible folio of music, tempering Satriani's legendary stunt-guitar skills into a poetry we could all appreciate. And this was evident in its performance on the Billboard 200, peaking at #29 and remaining on the chart for 75 weeks (the longest any of Satch's releases), long after the Grammy award ceremony where it was nominated for both 'Best Pop Instrumental Performance' AND 'Best Rock Instrumental Performance'. Proof, if proof were needed, of the sheer diversity contained within these ten incredible tracks. Subsequently certified Platinum in 1992, remastered in 2007, and 33 years old this month, it remains one of the greatest guitar-led albums of all time, cementing Satch's position as a guitarist’s guitarist at the top of more guitar-related magazine polls than we could list...
A Go Go - John Scofield (1998)
There are many seriously good reasons why John Scofield made the cut into our recent article, and this collaboration with Medeski, Martin & Wood is yet another perfect example. You'd have always expected incredible results from combining possibly the world’s greatest fusion jazz guitarist with one of the funkiest keyboard-led trios to fall out of Brooklyn in the early '90s, but this was truly something special.
Scofield's melodies have rarely sounded this happy, neatly bouncing in and out of the water-tight groove that takes you from the Manhattan backstreets to Californian beaches (or basically wherever else the party is), but with every musician involved showing a graceful level of restraint - particularly for jazz players! This in no way diminishes the exceptional talent that always flows from Schofield's fingers, which is evident in bucketloads, but rather highlights his skills even further through keeping unnecessarily lengthy solos in check. The result of this elegant approach to melody is a concise and hugely entertaining ride that never comes close to boring the listener - any guitarist hearing this compilation will have as fun much as Scof probably did recording it.
Art of Motion - Andy McKee (2005)
Despite describing himself as "just this guy from Topeka, Kansas, who kind of blew up on the Internet about a week before Christmas...", Andy McKee had already been blowing up audiences worldwide since 2001. Not least of all during various instrumental contests in the USA and Canada, where his contemporary acoustic fingerstyle mastery was already gaining him a substantial reputation, and captured beautifully on his first two solo albums. But it was the release of Art of Motion in 2005 that neatly tied in with his explosion on YouTube, carrying much of the audio from his performances on the video-sharing platform. Three of which were, for a time, the most concurrently-viewed in the world.
Just a brief listen to any of the twelve tracks contained within this album easily explains the enormous international interest, even without experiencing the jaw-dropping sight of McKee carrying off his virtuosity on-camera. Despite the variety of intricate finger styles used to dance across some spine-tingling harmonies, the melody is always woven flawlessly into the mix - above, within and sometimes even below those gorgeous arpeggiated chords. A variety of altered tunings and innovative use of partial capo positioning, along with some magnificent harmonics and a cheeky dose of stunt guitaring (hey, tapping isn't JUST for the rock shredders) simply add to the other-worldly feel of McKee's performance, making the listener question how just one mere mortal can make an acoustic guitar sound this good...
Erotic Cakes - Guthrie Govan (2006)
Many guitarists speak fondly of their old guitar teachers, those stalwart and patient souls that guided us through our first experiences with chords, strumming, and painful attempts at the Sweet Child 'O Mine riff. But a few lucky souls owe their education directly to possibly the worlds coolest instrumental tutor - British virtuoso Guthrie Govan, a man who has shared his 6-string skills with students at colleges and masterclasses worldwide, through two of his own books, and regularly in the pages of Guitar Technique Magazine.
Of all the many musical examples that Govan's lucky, lucky scholars could use to impress their friends (including work with Asia, The Aristocrats, Steven Wilson, the list goes on...), one of the finest has to be his Erotic Cakes album of 2006. This is progressive/fusion playing at its absolute finest, a superb collection of eleven tracks rooted around the power trio of Seth Govan on bass, Pete Riley on drums, and Guthrie himself flawlessly letting rip over a variety of styles, time signatures and techniques - sweeping, tapping, you name it. Inspiration for such a compilation could have come from Nile Rogers just as easily as Steve Reich, but it's the sheer diversity of the music combined with the utterly flawless execution that makes this eccentrically titled folio a must for guitarists everywhere.
Remarkably Human – Nick Johnston (2016)
Possibly the least-high-profile artist and album on this list, which is why we feel it’s essential to spread the word!
Remarkably Human is a truly inspired compilation that, unlike every other album we've looked at in this article, really shouldn't be regarded as a collection of independent compositions. What we have here is essentially a single work, divided into eight sections, but absolutely best enjoyed in its entirety. The simple four-piece line-up of guitar, piano, bass and drums take the listener on an enjoyably dark journey at a variety of speeds and through a cocktail of time signatures, with Johnsons magnificent melodic guitar voice skilfully taking centre stage. This is like a soundtrack for an otherworldly, Hollywood-standard movie that's yet to be filmed. But all you need do is simply close your eyes and let this wonderful music fill in those cinematic blanks.
Wrapping it up
And that's your lot - five superb guitar-lead compilations by undoubted masters of the 6-string which, if you're not already familiar with, we strongly suggest you investigate immediately. So, until next week’s dose of guitar wisdom...