Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Great Guitarists of Michael Jackson

Ever since he went solo, Michael Jackson managed to work with some of the world’s greatest guitarists. Do you still remember them?

By: Ringo Bones

One of the great bonuses of being older is the opportunity of enjoying Michael Jackson’s great musical works without being overshadowed by the various scandals that made him a case study for the US legal system. Though his untimely passing last June 25, 2009 probably made everyone around the world remember Michael Jackson for the musical legacy that he left behind, but how many of us – including his die-hard fans – still remember the great guitarists who worked with him?

After embarking on his solo career, many have wondered back then whether Michael Jackson can assemble a group of musicians that are as good – or even better – than his Jackson 5 stable-mates. And assemble he did – especially his scores of session guitarist – though good as they are, Michael Jackson did rescue some of them from relative obscurity. Not only that, Michael Jackson’s studio sessions probably – for better or for worse – revolutionized the way in which we put the sound of the electric guitar onto tape since the days of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Paving the way of the MTV-style Heavy Metal Music revolution of the late 1980s.

After Don’t Stop ‘Till You Get Enough from his Off The Wall album became a dance-floor staple during the “Golden Age of Disco”, Michael Jackson introduced a Gibson ES-355 wielding Jazz guitarist named Larry Carlton into the Billboard charts. Which also popularizes the recording studio practice of off-axis miking of guitar amps soon after Michael Jackson scored his first batch of funk / rock hits at the start of the 1980s. A technique mostly associated with one of Jackson’s primary recording engineers Bruce Swedien.

By the time Michael Jackson released his Thriller album – which eventually became the biggest selling album of all time on a worldwide basis. The guitar-heavy track Beat It only made 2 already successful guitarist even more famous. LA studio session ace and Toto guitarist Steve Lukather played the rhythm guitar parts while the scorching guitar solo was done courtesy of “then” Heavy Metal guitar god Eddie Van Halen. Van Halen’s particular tone on “Beat It” almost became the de rigueur timbral roar of the 1980s-style rock tunes championed by MTV back then.

At the time Michael Jackson released Bad, most of his fans began to notice and wonder about his “weird physical transformation”. Though bad can never equal the scale of success that Thriller managed to earn, it did gained the curiosity of some Heavy Metal music fans due to it’s guitar content. I mean it sounds like a FM radio-friendly pop album trying to compete with Castle Donington Monsters of Rock heavy metal musical extravaganza – i.e. Iron Maiden and Judas Priest.

Jackson’s Bad also introduced guitar mavens Steve Stevens and Jennifer Batten into the Billboard Chart radio airplay mainstream. Though Steve Stevens is well known to us guitar fans for tuning-down his guitar – i.e. the low E string is tuned down to D, while Jennifer Batten probably championed women who want to play guitar as good as Yngwie Malmsteen or Joe Satriani. Plus Batten’s flamboyant stage costumes and guitar playing probably influenced “some” Riot Grrl bands to play guitar with technical precision – i.e. Lunachicks.

Though Michael Jackson did follow Bad with Dangerous back in 1991, which he then took Slash – the then lead guitarist of the then infamous band Guns N Roses – in Give It To Me. Michael Jackson's judicious choice of session musicians - especially guitarists - is probably one of the secrets why his musical compositions are sure-fire hits. This is probably the last time when Michael Jackson’s excellent musicianship and stage performance were not eclipsed by his outrageous lifestyle choices. We can only hope that Michael Jackson will be remembered more for his musical contribution than the scandals that plagued him after September 14, 1993.


  1. I think you forgot to mention Santana who played guitar on Whatever Happens from Michael Jackson's Invincible album released back in 2001. But given that you're unfortunately "trapped" in the Thriller and Bad era Michael Jackson, it is safe to assume that you stopped caring about the King of Pop at this point.
    Plus, Jennifer Batten was recruited by Michael Jackson as a touring guitarist because she was the only one at the time to be able to "replicate" Eddie Van Halen's brilliant guitar solo on Beat It while also have enough time on her hands to go on tour with the King of Pop. Batten was way involved in Michael Jackson's musical journey way before the Bad album.

  2. You failed to mention Greg Wright - another really great guitarist to have worked with Michael Jackson. I've just recently found out about his Greg Wright's Left Hook (his band) album titled Round One. As a guitarist, Greg Wright is heavily influenced by Jimi Hendrix - and it shows.
    Given that Michael Jackson - like Jimi Hendrix - will probably have more posthumous releases. Maybe Michael Jackson's estate should release a special compilation album especially geared to guitar enthusiasts.

  3. Ah, Gregg Wright - the guitarist who almost upstaged Michael Jackson on stage. Not only Gregg Wright sound like Jimi Hendrix, his guitar - an upside-down white Fender Strat - looks like the one used by Jimi Hendrix too.
    On releasing Michael Jackson compilations geared at guitar enthusiasts, I'll probably be the first in line. Although Jennifer Batten might be found on most of the tracks.

  4. I've only managed to hear Gregg Wright's Left Hook album Round One just a couple of years ago. Saying that the man is "influenced" by Jimi Hendrix is an understatement. Although the CD is less than 30 minutes long, it did make me wonder what would have happened if Jimi Hendrix continued recording throughout the 1970s?
    As someone famously known for "almost" upstaging Michael Jackson on stage, Gregg Wright truly deserves the title as one of the greatest guitarist to have worked with the King of Pop. And by the way, I too hope that Michael Jackson's estate would release a compilation geared towards guitar enthusiasts - there are enough guitar laden Michael Jackson tunes to make this a double CD release.

  5. Even though Gregg Wright is more known for almost upstaging Michael Jackson on stage, Gregg Wright also does guitar playing sessions with Fleetwood Mac. I've only herd the Gregg Wright's Left Hook album Round One this year, but I've become a convert ever since. I think a guitar-oriented posthumous Michael Jackson release is inevitable.

  6. I think Gregg Wright is probably the greatest guitarist who worked with Michael Jackson. Wright's stage presence is about as good as Michael Jackson's.

  7. Steve Stevens was not only famous for tuning down his guitar - i.e. dropped-D tuning - but also for the "Ray Gun" picking technique. Though more notable for playing with Billy Idol, Steve Stevens is nonetheless made the guitar parts of Michael Jackson's Bad album shine. I think Steve Stevens is the best guitarist to have ever worked with Michael Jackson.

  8. One of Michael Jackson's great guitarist who never achieved the fame and fortune that he deserved is Gregg Wright who almost upstaged the King of Pop in one of their shows. Upstaging Michael Jackson is no easy feat by the way. Guitar playing wise, Steve Stevens is a subject in himself when it comes to brilliant guitar playing. I just love it when Stevens plays guitar that's tuned below standard tuning. And if ever Michael Jackson's estate ever release a music compilation aimed at guitar enthusiasts, I think Jennifer Batten will be all over the album given her tenure as the King of Pop's touring guitarist.