"OMG. The hours are incalculable. The first 10 years I played guitar 10 to 12 hours a day. For the next 20 years it was about two to four hours—nearly every day—but once you are an adult, with life responsibilities, it gets harder to stack up the sheer hours—so one has to learn to practice a bit more efficiently." This is what Karl Sanders told me. He's the guitarist of Nile—a very popular underground death-metal band. Sanders plays insanely technical speed-metal solos with complete virtuosity and a melodramatic Egyptian style—to make them sound more mysterious and evil.
At the opposite end of the six-string spectrum is Stephen O'Malley. He's a very prolific experimental guitarist with a minimalist approach to playing and a maximalist approach to tone and volume. You might have heard of his bands Sunn 0))) or Khanate. I asked him what the most difficult guitar technique is. He replied, "Memory." He also cited Keiji Haino and Mick Barr as being two guitarists who are really helping push the instrument to new limits.
Mick Barr shreds like nobody else. He plays in a duo called Orthrelm and by himself as Ocrilim. Barr plays really fast and generally never repeats a single note or pattern twice (except when he's playing the exact same pattern on a painful repeating cycle for 15 minutes or more). Either way, it's like nothing you've ever heard before and it's fucking impressive.
"I hated Hendrix for years," Barr told me, "until I mixed it with weed. But my biggest guitar influences were: for riffs, Piggy from Voivod. For solos, Dave Mustaine."
Outside of metal circles, there are still plenty of great guitarists. Less overt styles may reduce the sheer spectacle that a dive-bomb on a Flying V can produce, but good taste is a powerful tool as well. Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore isn't quite guitar god material, but the influence of his textural noise and freedom shines through the exceptional playing of Nels Cline. Mr. Cline plays in Wilco, but he's also played alongside a plethora of fantastic rock and jazz musicians. He is hailed by many (especially indierockers) as one of the greatest living guitarists. I asked him why he imagines guitar gods of yesteryear like Hendrix and Clapton were so popular and successful.
"There were fewer people playing and more room to grow because the electronic nature of the instrument was still being born. It's been years since Jimmy Page played [a guitar] with a bow. Now there's more of everything."
Guitar solos used to be a big deal. In the '60s and '70s, being one of the best players in the world on an instrument so popular with the kids could make someone into a household name—or a legend.
"Robert Smith from the Cure is as much a god as Eddie Van Halen. But if you look in the dictionary under guitar god, it still says, 'See: Jimi Hendrix,'" says Craig McGillivray.
He should know too since he made a documentary about a guitar god competition called Godathon. O'Malley concurs. When I asked him what the term "guitar god" means to him, he said, "It should be a proper noun: Jimi Hendrix."
But we don't have a new Jimi Hendrix that I'm aware of. Instead we have a pantheon of minor gods, people who deserve the admiration of the masses, but will likely never have it. Times have changed.
"It's never-ending, no matter how much you learn, there's always that much more to learn, and some guy who already does it better, faster, louder," laments Sanders.
He's right too. So the best guys out there are still making music. They're just not being paid much to do it. Maybe that makes it one step closer to art again. That doesn't seem like the worst thing.