Wesman Todd Shaw started playing the guitar when he was 12 years old. He loves nothing more than to pick one up and pluck some strings.
Al Di Meola
There is no doubt in my mind concerning the question, who is the greatest living American guitarist? It's Al Di Meola, all day long, and every day of the week. No, Al Di Meola is NOT my favorite guitarist, American, or otherwise. I do not make the statement that Al Di Meola is the greatest American guitarist lightly, nor do I make that statement out of being a fan of his. I'm not a huge Al Di Meola fan, but I do have several recordings of his, and I do enjoy listening to them. None of those are nearly my favorite records, compact disks, or anything like that.
So why is it, you may wonder, that I consider him the greatest guitarist that ever came from the United States of America, Canada, or even Mexico? Very simple, Al Di Meola can play things that very few other artists are capable of playing. His technical ability is astounding, and goes far, far beyond merely the ability to "shred," i.e., that fad of playing a million notes per second. In addition to his near untouchable technical prowess, Al Di Meola, like any great artists of any artistic endeavor, has created his own, instantly recognizable artistic features, and in this case, of course, it's his sound.
Eric Clapton is one person who, it doesn't matter how many people, and there are probably millions, who try to emulate Clapton; when I hear Eric Clapton playing guitar on the radio, I instantly know that it's, in fact, Eric Clapton. I do not need to hear Clapton sing at all to recognize his music, and I do not have to have ever heard the song being played. I just KNOW Eric Clapton when I hear his music. Al Di Meola is just like that, but completely different. He sounds nothing like Eric Clapton, or any other guitarist that ever lived.
Let Me Tell You A Secret About Music
It's always so surprising to me that as a young redneck into rock and roll, I actually thought for a minute or two what so many under-educated folk actually believe; that Jimi Hendrx was really the greatest guitarist that ever lived. Nothing could be further from the truth. I do realize that what makes music great, or what great music is is primarily a matter of opinion, but there are definitely degrees and levels of quality and originality in music. People like Jimi Hendrix, James Patrick 'Jimmy' Page, and Jeff Beck were, or are certainly wonderful musicians and guitarists; but if one were to factor in originality, technical ability, and not popularity into their subjective ideals concerning musicianship; then those guys could never, and will never match up to someone like Al Di Meola.
When thinking about business, everyone knows location is a key factor in a given business' success. Timing is also very important in business; and perhaps, nowadays, with the advent of the net, location is not so important. Well, in music, timing is everything, and I'm not talking about the time in which a record debuts, I'm talking about the notes being played.
The primary factor determining what makes you feel a song, or a beat within a song is the location withing the song's dynamics of the notes being played by whichever type of musician is performing on any given record. Notes can be played within the beat, or time signature of a song, and they can also be played against the beat, or time signature of a given piece of music. When notes are played against the beat of a song, they seem to be special, or more notable to your ears, whether you've realized this consciously, or not. This phenomenon, and technique of playing notes against a beat, or even slightly out of time, is called syncopation.
There is no possible way that I could explain timing and syncopation as well as Al can. If you watch the video below, then maybe you'll see some of what I'm talking about.
Al Di Meola and The Nuances of Timing
Jazz, and Fusion
When you're Al Di Meola, you get talked about a lot, and in most any magazine concerning guitars, acoustic or electric. Al can play either as well as anyone, and there really are some very significant differences in technique concerning playing acoustic and electric guitar. Mr. Di Meola, and his powerful technique master all.
As the story goes, Al, growing up in New Jersey, had joined some rock and roll band as a teen, but was kicked out of the band, as he sounded nothing like Peter Green, or Jeff Beck, or anyone else who was then famous. Can you imagine that? What a poor eye for talent that band had. I'm willing to bet the farm that that little group never left the ground, never recorded anything that anyone wanted to hear twice, and forever curses their immaturity.
A thing which bothers me is when someone says something which seems to suggest being a musician isn't really work. Facts are, to be a professional musician you are required to spend every bit as much time and energy developing your craft as any professional or Olympic athlete. You have to dedicate your life to music in the same way a pro baseball player or football player has to dedicate his life to the sport.
As a general rule, rock music and country music are often very simple forms of music. Some groups or bands, or even solo artists employee greater degrees of complexity than others. Jazz music, however, is typically one of the more complex forms of music there is. Fusion, if possible, is even more complicated, as it is Jazz mixed with practically any or all other forms of music found across the world. Al Di Meola has made his name as a jazz fusion artist, and he's incorporated many a genre from across the globe into his highly complex playing; but none more than he has the many forms of Latin music.
As a prototypical Caucasian, it's sort of demeaning; but the truth of the stereotype is real. Latin and African rhythms are often much more complicated than those common and waltz time signature tunes. Al Di Meola, like another fine artists, Paul Simon, isn't the least bit afraid of attempting to work within such musical formats. It's no stretch at all to say that either of those two have mastered them, as much as can be the case for anyone
Paul Simon, no slouch of a guitarist himself, featuring Al Di Meola on one of his solo records; specifically, the song "Allergies," from the 1983 album called Hearts and Bones .
The Super Trio, from Friday Night In San Francisco
The Super Trio
Perhaps the greatest single guitar album ever produced, Friday Night In San Francisco , by the Super trio of Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, and Paco De Lucia, is a beautiful, and exceedingly complex live piece that furthers the efforts, and expands on the album by those same three that was called, simply, Super Trio .
This is complex music, created by absolute masters of a very difficult instrument, an instrument that requires a lifetime of commitment in order to play. It's easy to see that with the Super Trio, you have not only the single greatest guitarist to have ever come out of the Americas, in Al Di Meola, but you also have the single greatest guitarist that ever was produced by the United Kingdom, in John McLaughlin. Paco De Lucia, it has been said, is the most advanced guitarist in the entire world, and maybe that is true, and if it is true, then it's beyond question that he is Spain's greatest guitar gift to the world, and also, the highest living and breathing expression of Spain's wonderful, and complex form of traditional music, Flamenco. It's also no small wonder that the trio, in the kick off song of the live album, perform an Al Di Meola composition known as Mediterranean Sun Dance
Al Di Meola
Al Di Meola is apparently ageless
Al Di Meola was born on July 22, 1954; but the man has absolutely failed to age a day since the mid 1980s. It's phenomenal, really, and I only wish that I understood it. I'm completely serious here, look at him! Look at his videos, and look at the freaking dates on them. Hehas apparently failed to age.. I don't get it, but my conclusions are playing the guitar between six to ten hours every single day, and learning complex Latin rhythms must simply put, be the fabled fountain of youth. Al Di Meola, besides being one of the world's greatest musicians, seems to be a timeless physical specimen.
Everyone has heard the old axiom concerning a sound mind within a sound body, well, we also know that keeping the old brain fresh, learning new things, etc, helps to preserve the abilities of the mind as an individual ages. Al certainly keeps his music evolving, but the man tours constantly, so jet lag, and airplane food can't be too bad for you. Perhaps the exhilaration that comes from performing well, and live, has never lost it's effects upon Al. Maybe he's just the happiest man in the world? I have not a clue, but I do know that he is the single greatest guitarist to have ever come out of the Americas, and I hope that this little presentation here has opened some eyes and ears for those of you who had not heard of the greatness that is Al Di Meola.
I've only scratched the surface here, but you should know that music is for all of us to enjoy, and me not being able to perform on the level of, or anywhere near that of someone like Al Di Meola should not in the least discourage anyone of any age from picking up a guitar, or any musical instrument. Musicianship is perhaps the most rewarding art that one can dedicate some of their limited time here on Earth to. I simply can not encourage anyone enough to turn off the damn television, radio, and all of the crap that mass media wants to program your mind with; and to find some honest, art form of real value, and lose yourself in thoughts and imagination that you'd never known of before. Peace out.
© 2010 Wesman Todd Shaw
Bendair Dundatt on June 08, 2017:
Al di Meola is one of the few guitarists on the planet that actually uses the guitar as a percussion instrument. Listen to his interpretations of Piazzollas tangos. He often solos in a percussionist rhythm. He is a musical genius.
James on January 27, 2017:
It's almost an exercise in futility to discuss the "best". I completely agree with the authors point that from a purely technical (as someone who plays a little bit) standpoint, Al's shit is freaking amazing. But what about what Bo Carter and Blind Blake were doing in 1933? Or how can one say that Segovia or any number of classical guitarists shouldn't be coniderd. Or for that matter as some have said Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen or even my favorite Todd Rundgren. Music so much deeper than "who is better" than who. The author makes the point in the first of the article saying Al isn't even one of his favorites; just the best. You know? Tomorrow I might be listening to Frusciante playing on a Chili Peppers album and decide "He's the best". Or it might be Stephen Miller rendition of an old blues classic or the lead on Comunication Breakdown or Clapton with Cream.
Let's put to rest this idea that one is better than another. Let's say that today, in this moment, my favorite is.....fill in the blank. After all, that's all that really matters; wtf turns you on at this moment. Right now? I'm going to put on an old Savoy Brown record. Hell. I don't even know the guitarist's name. Do any matter though, does it?
Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on August 21, 2013:
BGGB, I stood next to Cody Kilby at Walnut Valley flatpicking contests back when I was actually taller than him, and then I stood next to him at later contests before he was making the final rounds, and I sat in the audience and watched Cody when he was one of the best, and then I bought Ricky Skaggs live records when Cody took Brian's place, because though I can't say I actually KNOW Cody, I can say that I've LITERALLY rubbed shoulders in a crowd with him.
You might be a bit surprised to know who I know and who I don't :)
BGGB on August 20, 2013:
I just flipped by and noticed this post, and it's author suffers from what many others suffer: A limited sphere of exposure to music and players. The same old people are mentioned, like Paco, McLaughlin, Clapton, Beck, Page..and Al Di Meola. And Al is great. But the discussion is like a kid arguing that his father is the strongest person in the world...until he lives a little.
I once thought like this, too, until I met, in person, bluegrass players. Do you know who Cody Kilby is? How about David Grier? Kenny Smith? Bryan Sutton? And those are only some of the best-known ones. Take a trip to Nashville at IBMA in September and you will see kids, say 14 and up- girls and boys- who will blow away most great adult players- and I mean famous players that people in the north think are out of this world. Then explore the players in their 20s and 30s who play with established bands, but you've never heard of. I guarantee you will be humbled, and you will walk away feeling embarrassed that you were so adamant that you knew what good guitar is. For ex, Look up Jake Workman playing Big Mon on youtube. I think Al would admit he couldn't come close to that level.
In that first video, Al says alternate picking changing strings is impossible, which is my he goes down down up or up up down. In fact, alternate picking, or cross picking as the bluegrass players call it, is a routine technique that kids learn as beginners. And this tremendous focus on alternate picking is what allows them to be great players eventually. People up here, including Al, don't know anything about it, which is why he says it's impossible.
I have great respect for Al and his contributions, and he's still a great guitarist. But the bluegrass stuff is at another level. Moreover, most BG players use medium steel strings AND picks that are 1.4-1.5 mm thick, yet they still pick most of the notes. Try that out for yourself and you'll see.
But in the end, a great guitarist is not just about technique or speed- these are just vehicles to express yourself. Al's great because of his musicality; listen his rendition of Black Bird by the Beatles. It's great.
Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on February 23, 2012:
James A Watkins - I'll bet some of that studio magick wore into all of you and your work!!!!
There's another file sharing download for me to seek out, i.e., "Romantic Warrior."
I've not heard that one - and I'm at a place to where nothing can hurt me. I'm no longer frustrated by hearing someone so far advanced from me playing! Years ago stuff like "Friday Night In San Francisco" could make a fella CRY!
James A Watkins from Chicago on February 23, 2012:
I have been a huge fan since I first heard "Romantic Warrior" album in what, 1976? I think he was 21 when he recorded those awesome tracks. That is still my favorite album of recorded music of all time. I do not think it can be topped.
I believe it was 1976 when I saw "Return to Forever" in concert in Kalamazoo. I saw them again about four years ago at the Hard Rock Cafe in Orlando and I got to meet the guys, including Al, and go up on stage with them. :D
I have "Perhaps the greatest single guitar album ever produced,Friday Night In San Francisco , by the Super trio of Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, and Paco De Lucia."
Thank you for a fabulous article. I loved it and your reportage is pitch perfect.
Oh, by the way, when me and my boys went into the studio to record our fifth and final album, we entered the studio immediately after Al had finished two weeks of sessions in it.
Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on February 17, 2012:
Thanks very much Kurt Beerline and Cortini!
I'm pleased you all like my article on Al Di Meola, maybe I'll write another one sometime.
This has been my most successful article on a musician, but of course I only write about musicians that I like...and typically those aren't the ones promoted in American Media.
At least Al's musicianship and "chops" are well known among guitarists of any genre - so that's a good thing.
I'm impressed, of course, with his sheer technique in regards to velocity...but his timing and unique appreciation and fusion of various styles are what I like the most.
Cortini on February 08, 2012:
great work my friend and yes Al Di Meola is the best American Guitarist by far and away, his right and left hands are untouchable and his technique is leeps and bounds above everyone in the U.S. Now there is way more competition in other countries such as Spain, with Paco De Lucia, Tomatito and Vicente Amigo... And France has Django, Bireli Lagrene and Stochelo Rosenberg.... NOW THAT'S SERIOUS GUITAR PLAYING.....
Kurt Beerline on January 22, 2012:
Thanks for your comments Tony. I believe the question geatest or best is quite absurb of course, such as the best person who ever lived. It depends on the criteria of course. But still it is a great question because it sparks appreciation. I agree Al is absolutely the most unique and on the face of it with creativity and talent and uniqueness with diversity I have to state that if there was a question of greatest it would likely be Al. I am not a guitarist but I have been a lover of the greatest question all my life. I remember in high school obtaining a copy of Elegant Gypsy and being amazed at the speed of Running with the Devil on a Spanish Highway and the talent and beauty of mediterrian Sun Dance. Wow. I consider this the Rachmaninoff III of the guitar. I love Rodrigo and his concerto for guitar but it is more about composition and beauty than difficulty or athleticism on the guitar. I have listened to many and agree there is that distinct sound a guitarist can make which identifies him or her from all others. Stevie, Jimmy, Erik, Jeff, Carlos, John, Paco, Michael Schenker, Sharon Isbin, Phil Keagy, BB,Michael Oldfield, Al Dimeola. I would love to see a guitar competition, done low key, and professional, artistic, no hype, where we have some songs as staples by all the greatest guitarists, pieces by the above those that are alive and gone, and Al's great pieces and then see who can stand out as able to play the others. I have no doubt Al Dimeola could do a mean Kashmere, or Erik's blues, but I can't imagine, them doing the same of some of Al's speed and timing. Just my opinion. Wouldn't that be grand. Viva la Guitar!!!
Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on December 20, 2011:
It's not my every day kind of music, and Al's style isn't what I could play if I wanted to, but I do like it.
Tony iyke on December 19, 2011:
Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on November 03, 2011:
Hey Paolo!!! Of course I agree with you that there can be no real "best" guitarist - but the title was meant to create this discussion!
Paolo on November 03, 2011:
I still do not know why why why people always have to pick one best something.. the best guitar player of the world, the best phone, the best drummer, etc, etc.. At least when it comes to music, nobody can say who is the best, but we can only say who WE like the most, and I found even that to be difficult.. so do not pick for all of us please.. BTW Al di Meola is to ME one of the best, I consider him a genius, but that is my opinion
Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on December 24, 2010:
Thanks Mac! Yeah, now Stanley Jordan, of course, I know; Merry Christmas! I've got some new names to look into; and some more still from Justom up above.
Mac on December 23, 2010:
Yeah, same here. Surrounded by the "born again". LOL!!! If more would only take up PLAYING...
Not to digress, as Al was The One who opened my eyes & ears to technical proficiency, but two others deserve mentioning: Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal whom I think OWNS the house of guitar, and Stanley Jordan who may just be it's interior designer.
Cheers for the New Year and your Mahavishnu publication!
Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on December 22, 2010:
Ah, now Phil I knew of; and for the born again reason. I'm always surrounded by such, . . .the born again, not the amazing guitarist!
I got VERY excited the day I found "The Lost Trident Sessions!"
Dude, that stuff wasn't "lost," who are they kidding!
Mac on December 22, 2010:
WTS, I look forward to your Mahavishnu piece. I believe I also have all of their releases, including some obscure bootleg audio CDs and DVDs from Japan. Meanwhile, I kick myself for not mentioning Phil Keaggy/Glass Harp, especially since this is a tribute to a great American guitarist. Phil's from Ohio and you may find his music an acquired taste (born-again Christian-themed) but I'll sell my soul to have a 3rd of his technique.
Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on December 21, 2010:
Hey Mac, I'm a huge Mahavishnu Orchestra fan, I'm going to see if I can create something good enough to publish here about them. Thanks for the link!
Mac on December 21, 2010:
Oops! I almost forgot to share this with you and everyone interested:
It's got a TON of great music, mostly pure FUSION guitar. Cheers!
Mac on December 21, 2010:
They're some of the most technical proficient guitarists of our generation.
I grew up with music all my life. Zeppelin made me want to play and DiMeola's "Electric Rendezvous" as well as his tenure with Return to Forever made me want to fly.
Granted there are innumerable artists who play the guitar which makes us lesser beings woodshed more (Satriani, Vai, Petrucci to name some) but only a few play with so much intensity (McLaughlin) that we lesser beings are actually subject to life-changing moments, you know what I mean?
Anyway, I urge you to seek out the names I dropped in my first post then give these few more a spin: Stan Lassiter, Preston Reed, Oz Noy, Greg Howe, Mike Keneally, Steve Topping, Brett Garsed, T.J. Helmerich.
As a wrap up, I agree: Satriani, Vai, Petrucci, etc, can't be all that - had it not been for Al.
Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on December 20, 2010:
Hey Thanks, Mac; who are the names? Guess I've the power of Google!
Mac on December 20, 2010:
I love DiMeola's output, one of the major reasons I started woodshedding myself. I've all his releases, including DVDs. There can be no doubt about his supreme technique however:
Wayne Krantz? Alex Machacek? Kiko Loureiro? David Torn? Steve Tibbetts? Joel Hoekstra? Et al.
Great post, BTW.
Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on December 13, 2010:
Thanks for reading and listening Micky Dee!!
Micky Dee on December 13, 2010:
Great hub! Thanks for the music!
justom from 41042 on December 10, 2010:
It's Hendrix, James Marshall and yeah check them out this guy Gabrels might just be the best guitar player you never heard of (and you wouldn't be alone, he's a bit obscure.
justom from 41042 on December 10, 2010:
I didn't know that you did it I thought you just copied it from somewhere else and was havin' some fun with you. You really should check out Fripp, he's with King Crimson and while you're checking him out the other guitar player in that band is a guy named Adrian Belew. He grew up right down the road from me and I've been listening to his bands since the mid 60's and have met him several times. In fact I have a couple of photos with him and one of his wall of guitars at his house in Nashville. Here's another guy that I think will blow you away his name is Reeves Gabrels, he's from England too and played in David Bowie's band Tin Machine. Check them out and let me know what you think. I forgot to mention, nice work man it's good to see someone even know Al Di Meola! Tom
Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on December 10, 2010:
Holy Shit Tom! I can't believe(actually, I do believe it. . . .) that I mis-spelled Hendricks like that!
Tom, I need to hear some more Fripp, I literally know NOTHING about that guy. I've only heard of him.
justom from 41042 on December 10, 2010:
There may be no doubt in your mind but there sure is in mine. I love Al and have I think 5 of his albums and agree that he's a fabulous guitar player but when it comes to picking one it's like picking your nose (you just keep doin' it). FYI, you got to fix that cut and paste that spelled Hendrix-Hendricks. Also as much as I love John McLaughlin Robert Fripp is the best from the other side of the pond! Just my opinion. Peace!!