Music/Popular Culture

S&R succumbs to Listmania! Name the 10 greatest American musicians ever

The author of this post, who usually writes about national security and nuclear deproliferation, has decided that, for one day, he’d fiddle while Rome burns. No more immune to the passion for lists than any other American, he presents you, after a brief meditation on the phenomenon, with one of his own.

“Listmania” rules on Amazon. David Letterman’s Top Ten List is a long-time fixture on TV. Rolling Stone magazine has devoted issue after issue to best songs and greatest albums and guitarists. has even posted Top 10 Pop Artists for the Terminally Uncool.

But, on Earvolution, David Schultz scoffs at the whole concept in a preface to his piece about the ten best bands — that never existed (such as Spinal Tap and the Rutles):

“Some of the longstanding ‘who’s the best musician’ arguments are so old they’ve grown tiresome. Who’s the best guitarist that ever lived? . . . Best band ever to ever play live? . . . To this day, we have no conclusive proof as to whether The Beatles were better than The Rolling Stones.”

Besides the impossibility of presenting actual evidence that one musician or group is better than another, a best-of list suffers from other drawbacks. Say you’re rating the greatest American female singers ever.

Out of a desire to speak with the voice of authority, you choose Billie Holiday, despite not having listened to her for years, or Jessye Norman, although you’ve only heard her once or twice. You not only ring a false note, but come off looking pompous.

Rolling Stone, especially, is guilty of this. Sure, choosing by committee is fraught with hazards. But it’s all too apparent that, for the most part, the selectors pick who they objectively think should be on the list. Some of the choices are from left field, though, as if the list’s editor throws a bone to individual selectors with their quirks.

Second, the rater may choose Billie Holiday or Jessye Norman because he honestly thinks she’s the best. But his tastes run to Beyonce and Mariah Carey. What does it benefit us for him to contort himself like that?

To infuse your choices with passion, the list that was created below and to which we ask you to respond with yours, is not necessarily the greatest musicians, but personal favorites. Naturally the two will coincide from time to time, even while the list strays into eccentricity.

In the end it may prove not only more fun but more accurate than, say, Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.” On that list, rock icons like the Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour and Phish’s Trey Anastacio settled below the top 70, while marginal musicians like Johnny Ramone and Steven Stills were rated 16 and 28, respectively.

An astonishing guitarist like Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis didn’t even make the list. (Not to mention personal faves Allan Holdsworth, Reeves Gabrel, who played with David Bowie, and Eddie Martinez, who played on Run-D.M.C.’s groundbreaking early albums, as well as Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love.”) This only serves to undermine Rolling Stone’s credibility.


Why, you ask, just the best in America? Since it’s so close, why not the Caribbean, too? Puerto Rico and Jamaica, for instance, are home to some of the world’s greatest musicians. And what about Central and South America? Not to mention Canada.

If this list generates sufficient interest, we’ll move on to the entire Western Hemisphere. After that, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Later, Europe and the rest of the world.

Rules are few. A band can count as one musician, or, should you prefer, you may choose just one person in a band. If much of her success was achieved in the US, a musician from another country, such as Joni Mitchell or Shakira, is eligible. All music, from pop to classical to ethnic, is fair game. Your list can be either hierarchical or democratic; in other words, in order of preference or not.

Finally, you’ll soon find out how hard it is to confine yourself to ten. Feel free to add a paragraph at the end with up to five spillover choices.

Below is this poster’s seed list (more or less in order):

1. Eric Dolphy

2. Jimi Hendrix

3. Robert Nighthawk Johnson (not blues legend Robert Johnson)

4. John Lee Hooker

5. John Coltrane

6. Thelonius Monk

7. John Fahey

8. Miles Davis

9. Phil Lesh (the Grateful Dead)

10.Patsy Cline

Extras: Elmore James, Jasyn Bangert (leader of the industrial electronica group God Module), Lightning Hopkins.

Now kindly respond in the comments section below with your personal ten favorites.

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27 replies »

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  2. Had to pop in on this. The best thing about making lists is someone inevitably disagrees vehemently and mentions someone obscure to me, and voila, I’m totally checking out something new and fantastic.

    This one goes to eleven.

    1. Brian Wilson
    2. Jimi Hendrix
    3. Miles Davis
    4. Marvin Gaye
    5. Stevie Wonder
    6. Stevie Ray Vaughan
    7. Chris Cornell
    8. Bob Mould
    9. Pat Metheny
    10. Frank Zappa
    11. Ty Tabor

    Man, was that tough.

  3. Separating musicians from composers is difficult. If you are talking solely about musicianship, and not the whole package, then the list becomes very different, IMO. And performers vs. musicians is yet another kettle of fish. I’m not a big fan of “musicians”, and I would go as far as to say that many of the best technical musicians are toiling in obscurity in the nation’s symphonies. Composer and improvisers are more my bag, and I like Russ’ list a LOT. I would ditch Lesh for someone with demonstrable talent, Cline for Mahalia Jackson, and Nighthawk for Muddy. Sorry for the Lesh slag, but really… You are leaving Mingus off (or LaFaro, or Manring, or Edgar Meyer FTM) and putting Lesh on? Even Phil must be scratching his head at that one.

    In the spirit of your list (no particular order):

    Sun Ra

    None need more than one name!

    I could have gone long on jazz/bebop players and gone all Parker, Gillespie, Roach, Armstrong, Ellington, Evans, Mingus, Dolphy, Sun Ra, and Ornette on yer list! Muha!

    Thanks for the cool post.

  4. On Lesh… I meant “more demonstrable”. I have tried and frankly I can’t hear a lot of what he plays. Maybe it is my many years toiling as a bassist, but when it comes to toting the rock I have a hard time putting Lesh in the top 10 American bass players, not to mention musicians. He has to contend with players like Mingus, Pastorius, Lafaro, Manring, Meyer, Duck Dunn, Jamerson, Claypool, Stu Hamm, Gary Karr, Ron Carter, Milt Hinton, Charlie Haden, Al McKibbon, Malachi Favors… talk about list mania!

    Just wanted to clarify. Nothing against Phil, really.

  5. No Dylan!!!!
    Bob Dylan
    Lou Reed
    Cole Porter
    Jimi Hendrix
    Randy Newman
    Tom Waitts
    John Lee Hooker
    Gil Scott Heron
    Paul Simon
    Chuck Berry
    The nearly made it group: Janis Ian, Buddy Holly, George Gershwin.
    Would have been in but they are Canadians: Joni Mitchell, Neil Young

  6. Damn, this is impossible. I guess I can construct some criteria to use, but even so I’m forced to evaluate people who were solo artists of visionary fronts for bands against people who were maybe just killer players IN those bands. Maybe the way the question is worded suggests that it’s about pure virtuosity, and if so I’m probably not going to have any luck at all comparing a Les Claypool to a Jimi Hendrix, especially when you start factoring in that in a lot of band contexts excellence isn’t about pure virtuosity. If you’re Max Weinberg, being a stellar player of the sort this question is after is directly counter to what your job is, so excellence is a function of being somewhat invisible.

    *sigh* I’m making my head hurt.

    And as I think about it, I realize that the “American” part is a problem, too. So many of the greats that spring to mind are from the UK.

    Great puzzler. I have to think some more.

  7. I guess the Singing Senators don’t qualify.

    Methinks I need the weekend for this…or maybe more.

  8. Great lists, Mike, Pete and Hamish. I’ll have to acquaint myself with the musicians I’m not familiar with.

    Mike, yeah, Stevie Ray Vaughn.

    Pete, figures I’d get a bass player who’d zero in on Lesh. Good luck with Doot. Will check out Zappanale. Like your bandwidith-friendly site.

    Hamish, I knew Dylan was conspicuous by his absence on my list. I’m a Dylan liker, not lover.

    To those considering posting, don’t overthink this. It’s just favorites.

  9. George Gershwin
    Frank Sinatra
    Joni Mitchell
    Rickie Lee Jones
    Laura Nero
    Leo Kotke
    Jimi Hendrix
    Jaco Pastorius
    Otis redding

  10. Let’s start off by mentioning that Buck Owens and Roy Clark did NOT make my list. 😉

    I can agree with the jazz musicians above.

    I’ll add these too (in no particular order):
    Artie Shaw
    Frank Sinatra
    Louis Armstrong
    Ray Charles
    Bruce Springsteen
    Louis Jourdan
    Duke Ellington
    Cab Calloway
    Glenn Miller

    And for good measure
    Thievery Corporation
    Billie Holiday

    And there are soooo many others who aren’t from the US such as
    Barry Adamson

  11. OK. I couldn’t resist. I’ll be strict and stick to Americans only and musicians or composer/musicians, but I don’t know if I can get to ten because I don’t know anything about classical music.

    From jazz:
    For almost twenty years they have been the foundation for my interest in jazz. There are others I like but these I return to.

    John Coltrane
    Charles Mingus
    Thelonius Monk
    Bill Evans

    From rock/pop:
    Grateful Dead strings collectively (Phil Lesh, Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir)
    Jimi Hendrix
    Rich Robinson (Black Crowes rhythm guitarist)

    Counting voice as an instrument:
    Billie Holiday
    Marvin Gaye

    And I’ll mention one British rock guitarist who still blows me away but is obscure because the band he was in imploded after only two records: John Squire, of the Stone Roses.

    So I only made it to nine.

  12. Well, this is pretty damned near impossible. So far, people have left out entire genres. Here are 10 random names out of my top 100 or so. 🙂

    Miles Davis
    Leonard Bernstein
    George Gershwin
    Scott Joplin
    Louis Armstrong
    Brian Wilson
    Frank Sinatra
    Tom Petty
    Muddy Waters
    Ray Charles

  13. Great lists, 9, 10, 12. Quirky, like I hoped. Especially Dom Pierre with Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw on one hand and on the other Prince, Barry Adamson and Thievery Corporations

    Glad Billie Holiday made it on to Dave H’s. Ubertramp, your taste is impeccable.

  14. Personal Favorites, not “Greatest” eh Wellen?

    John Coltrane
    Bob Dylan
    Eric Dolphy
    Muddy Waters
    Billie Holiday
    Thelonius Monk
    James Brown
    Mahalia Jackson
    Ella Fitzgerald
    Al Green
    Frank Sinatra

    I could go 5 more second tier if I had to… Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, Patsy Cline, Professor Longhair, Stevie Ray Vaughn

    (Tragic to leave out Billy Joel but you only allow 15)

    Next time the Brits, okay Listman?

  15. Russ, I have a very long list of music and artists I love to listen to today. That list comes from internet radio stations like SomaFM and Radio Paradise. Without internet radio, I wouldn’t have know about any of them. I tend to hang in the eclectic and abient categories mostly, but also jazz.

    I was watching a program “The Joint is Jumpin” on the Documentary Channel and it takes the viewer from beginnings of swing today.

    So, as with news, most of my sparse tv viewing habits are from alternative sources.

  16. Dom, I’ve listened to Soma. I’ll check out Radio Paradise. Yeah, I don’t know what I’d do without Internet radio. Called my representative and senators when it looked like it was going down last month.

  17. Jacob’s Top Ten. I am 12.

    1. Motley Crue
    2. Guns n Roses
    3. Van Halen
    4. James Gang
    5. Red Hot Chili Peppers
    6. Frank Zappa
    7. Bad Brains
    8. Love
    9. The Doors
    10. Gene Vincent

    Extra: Elmore James and Spirit and Sex Pistols.

  18. R.Crane is right to have Muddy waters in there. The joy of listmaking is that one inevitably misses out one of the big ones. I have to bump someone so Randy Newman goes back to the bullpen and Muddy goes in.

  19. DomPierre:
    If you like internet radio another good site is
    It works a little different than Soma but it’s worth a look.
    And I thought of a tenth to fill out my list. The Flaming Lips.
    It’s not that they’re virtuosos individually. It’s that together they’ve been making interesting music for over twenty years.
    And I’ll amend my Grateful Dead entry. I have to say the Grateful Dead taken collectively as musicians.

  20. Ubertramp, I listen to all the time. Its Goa Psychedelic Trance station is the perfect music to blog (or just write) to!

    I’ll try too. Thanks.

  21. 1) Bob Dylan
    2) Duke Ellington
    3) Hank Williams
    4) Paul Simon
    5) Ray Charles
    6) Aretha Franklin
    7) George Gershwin
    8) Robert Johnson
    9) Leonard Bernstein
    10) Stevie Ray Vaughan