The Top 10 Guitar-Playing Frontmen in Rock
Even though Metallica’s James Hetfield makes it look all too easy, there are countless guitarists who find it challenging to sing while doing anything on the guitar—besides strumming.
Some players (myself included) even get bent out of shape when they’re asked to provide the simplest of vocal harmonies while playing solos or semi-challenging riffs.
Which is why Guitar World has decided to honor the 10 worthy guitarists/singers named below. We feel they are—or were, since we’re honoring some artists who have passed away—10 of the best (if not undoubtedly the best) guitar-playing frontmen in rock history.
The criteria is simple: They must have outstanding voices—either technically impressive or pleasingly “warm,” unique or offbeat—and a heapin’ helpin’ of distinctive six-string badassery. Of course, since we’re talking about frontmen, they also need a touch of charisma, maybe a spot of quirkiness and/or what is commonly called “stage presence.”
Note that, while we don’t like to exclude such players as Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, this is a list of guitarists who don’t/didn’t share the frontman spotlight with anyone in the band. This is also why you won’t find the Beatles’ John Lennon or Paul “guitarist before he was a bassist” McCartney on this list.
With that in mind, here are our 10 choices. If you disagree with our picks or would like to suggest other players, let us know in the comments below. Note that these names are presented in no particular order. Once again, the names are presented in no particular order!
Frontman: Stevie Ray Vaughan
Band: Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble
With his electrifying prowess, the late Stevie Ray Vaughan refocused attention back to the essentials—guitar, bass and drums in a basic 12-bar format.
He had no light show to speak of, no dry ice, no fog, no lasers. He didn’t go in for leather-and-studs macho posturing. A longtime local hero in juke joints throughout Austin, Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth, Stevie Ray waved the Texas flag all over the country in one sold-out concert venue after another.
His secret? A soft-spoken, laconic man, Vaughan summed it up in three little words: “I just play.”
Of course, there’s more to it than that. Along with his unquestionable prowess on the guitar, Vaughan, who died in August 1990, had one hell of a voice, a voice that still makes every “SRV bandwagon” blues-er sound, well, incomplete. Although you wouldn’t have wanted to sit through a concert titled “SRV Sings Verdi” (or “SRV Sings Freddie Mercury”), there’s no denying SRV had his own thing, a voice that oozed authenticity and confidence.
Frontman: James Hetfield
Well, we mentioned Hetfield in the intro to this story, so his inclusion can’t be much of a surprise, can it?
Besides supplying the instantly recognizable voice of one of the most accomplished heavy metal bands in history, the Metallica frontman has always been lauded for his hard, fast and precise rhythm playing, a style that has had a massive impact on several generations of guitar players.
Hetfield, who often is said to have the best right hand in metal, once told Guitar World, “I’d much rather talk about guitar playing. I hate it when people ask me about my lyrics. I always feel like telling them to just go and read them.”
And who can resist a mid-song Hetfield grunt?
Frontman: Jimi Hendrix
Bands: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Band of Gypsys
When Jimi Hendrix first exploded onto the scene, attention was riveted on his radical reinvention of guitar-soloing vocabulary, technique and sound, which was inspired by a now-familiar roster of great blues soloists.
But Hendrix had another musical asset that set him apart from similarly influenced British blues-rock contemporaries: undeniable charisma and a voice that clearly stood out from the pack. In that sense, he was the complete package.
Although he wasn’t the most powerful singer in the world, his voice had a pleasingly warm tone and plenty of soul, as can be heard on “Bold as Love” and “Castles Made of Sand” (and so many other songs). He also added plenty of what could best be described as fun ad-libs (“Dig this, baby…”) that would be exploited by future generations of singers in every genre of popular music. Bootsy Collins, anyone?
Frontman: Jack White
Bands: The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather, Jack White
It’s pure magic when Jack White ascends to the vocal register of vintage Robert Plant—while adding AC/DC-style riffs with his depth-charge guitar playing.
“I always look at playing guitar as an attack,” White told Guitar Player. “It has to be a fight. Every song, every guitar solo, every note that’s played or written has to be a struggle. It can’t be this wimpy thing where you’re pushed around by the idea, the characters, or the song itself. It’s every player’s job to fight against all of that.”
White, who now tours and records under his own name, was (of course) once the more vocal half of the White Stripes. In the July 2002 issue of Guitar World, he explained how stage presentation plays a major part in a band’s success:
“Anything involved in presenting yourself onstage is all a big trick. You’re doing your best to trick those people into experiencing something good, something they haven’t thought about before or haven’t thought about in a long time. I’m doing my best to be that vaudeville trickster, to help that happen.”
Frontman: Dave Mustaine
Dave Mustaine’s story is something a good portion of our readers can relate to: He became his band’s singer by default after a series of unsuccessful auditions for vocalists.
At that moment, the former Metallica and Fallen Angels lead guitarist became the frontman for Megadeth, one of the world’s most important thrash metal bands.
The rest, shall we say, is history.
“I actually enjoy [singing] a lot of times, but it’s not my strong point,” Mustaine told Colorado classic rock station 103.5 the Fox in 2013.
“I’ve been working really hard at it the last few years. I wish I would have given it as much attention in the beginning as I do now … It’s definitely a unique voice sound. You know, you hear people like Axl [Rose] or myself or [James] Hetfield or some of the other people that are really easily identifiable, it’s scarce. Like Chris Cornell, you hear Chris, you know it’s him.”
Frontman: Steve Marriott
Bands: Small Faces, Humble Pie
We’ve read your pro-Steve Marriott comments on GuitarWorld.com “list” stories for quite a while now: “How could you possibly leave out the great Steve Marriott? He was one of the most talented singers of all time!”
First of all, we agree. We love Marriott, and there was pretty much no chance in hell he’d be left off this list.
We’ll get to his legendary voice in a minute. First we’ll briefly mention his stripped-down but aggressive guitar playing, the steam engine that propelled a slew of Small Faces and Humble Pie tracks, including “All or Nothing,” “Tin Soldier,” “E Too D,” “Get Yourself Together,” “What’cha Gonna Do About It” and so many more.
Marriott was the Small Faces’ Roger Daltrey, but he also was the band’s Pete Townshend, using a host of guitars, including an arguably too-big-for-his-body Gretsch White Falcon, to powerfully make his point in so many Sixties masterpieces.
And then there’s his voice, a voice that is still considered one of the greatest in classic rock. Can words do it justice? Why not just listen to “Afterglow” below? And below that, you’ll find Marriott in action on “What’cha Gonna Do About It” with the Small Faces.
Marriott, who would later front Humble Pie—where he joined guitar forces with Peter Frampton—died in a fire in 1991.
Frontman: Kurt Cobain
“We’re just musically and rhythmically retarded,” Nirvana’s guitarist, vocalist and chief songwriter, Kurt Cobain, told Guitar World in 1991. “We play so hard that we can’t tune our guitars fast enough. People can relate to that.
“We sound like the Bay City Rollers after an assault by Black Sabbath,” continued Cobain. “And we vomit onstage better than anyone!”
So imagine how comical he’d find it to see the mark he’s made on popular music. As Vernon Reid of Living Colour put it, “Cobain changed the course of where the music went … . There are certain people where you can see the axis of musical history twisting on them: Hendrix was pivotal, Prince was pivotal, Cobain was pivotal.”
Cobain, with his raw emotion and mélange of untuned metal, drunk punk and Seventies pop, slayed the beast called stadium rock. And no, he wasn’t a guitar virtuoso by any stretch, but his creativity, his crunch, his off-beat chugging and droning charm made him unique. It’s yet another reminder to create your own thing, your own sound, people!
Frontman: Eric Clapton
Bands: Derek and the Dominos, Eric Clapton
What else can be said about the amazing six-string gifts of Eric Clapton, one of the most lauded guitarists in the universe, 1966’s blues-breaking virtuoso who went on to blow minds in Cream, Blind Faith and Derek and the Dominos?
Still, If you need to read more, be sure to pick up the March 2014 issue of Guitar World magazine, which counts down his 50 greatest guitar moments — but doesn’t mention a word about his voice.
It’s a voice first heard on the Bluesbreakers’ 1966 version of Robert Johnson’s “Ramblin’ on My Mind,” a song Clapton was actually reluctant to sing because he didn’t think he was good enough.
He eventually shared the vocal duties in Cream with bassist Jack Bruce and went on to sing an endless stream of hits and classic-rock staples, starting with 1970’s “After Midnight,” “Let It Rain” and “Layla,” coasting through the Seventies with “Cocaine” and “Lay Down Sally,” kicking it up a notch in the Eighties with “Forever Man” and toning things back down again in recent years.
As he told Rolling Stonein 2010, these days Clapton is pretty fond of his voice. “It’s taken me to be an older guy, an old man, to have an old man’s voice. Because I only liked old men’s voices. As a kid, I didn’t like pip-squeaked singers. It was always someone with authority. And for a singer to have authority, they have to have some kind of social standing. Otherwise, it’s fake.”
Frontman: Trey Anastasio
Bands: Phish, Trey Anastasio Band
It just stands to reason that a band with an undying cult following has one hell of a frontman. Such is the case for Phish, whose guitar-slinging (and singing) Trey Anastasio—like the rest of the band—has built a magnetic rapport with the band’s fans.
Anastasio’s fluid lines are often wonderfully mind boggling—and can lead a 38-minute version of “Tweezer” to all kinds of new and exciting places.
“Musical inspiration can come from just about anywhere,” Anastasio told Guitar World in 2000.
“For me, so much inspiration comes from the rhythms of the natural sounds in the air. Walking out in the country, you’ll hear certain sounds—a train, a boat, or maybe a horse walking on the road—and each of these sounds has a rhythm. If your mind is open, the simple rhythms of those sounds can inspire you and spark new musical ideas.”
Frontman: Matthew Bellamy
As Guitar Player put it in 2010, Muse frontman Matthew Bellamy is on a quest for futuristic guitar sounds—to the point of designing his own guitars with built-in effects, wireless MIDI and synth capabilities.
Not surprisingly, he’s a huge fan of Tom Morello and Jimi Hendrix, and he tries to channel the spirit of their sonic explorations into technology-fueled approaches that work for him and his compositions.
Head on over to YouTube (Or just watch the clip below) to see how everything seems to come together for Bellamy: technology, composition and serious guitar chops: