10 Great Canadian Guitarists

By Martina Fasano

Canadian Music Week descended upon Toronto once again from May 2-8, 2016, and it got me thinking about some of the best guitarists Canada has produced over the years. As a Canadian, I often hear a lot of quips about how we say “aboot,” “eh,” love hockey, and are constantly surrounded by ice and snow up here in the Great White North. (That last one is a myth by the way!) The truth of the matter is, Canada is ripe with musical talent and has consistently contributed to the musical landscape in North America. In fact, some of those Canadians have become rock icons and have gone on to inspire millions. Not bad for a country with the population of the state of California!

While it’s always difficult to name the “Top 10” of anything, I believe that the list below is a great start if you’re trying to discover Canadian guitarists.

Alex Lifeson

The guitarist of the mighty prog rock icons (and pride of Toronto) Rush, Alex Lifeson was born in Fernie, British Columbia and raised in Toronto, Ontario. His riffs and solos are legendary, and they have to be: he has had to work in front of iconic drummer Neil Peart for his entire career. Alex has played a variety of guitars over the years, but is probably most associated with his Gibson Les Paul. Gibson has made several Alex Lifeson signature models and being the tone-seeker that he is, he’s not afraid to try different pickups, pedals, guitars, and accessories to get the awesome sounds he gets on so many of our favorite Rush albums.

Essential Listening: “La Villa Strangiato”, “Closer To The Heart”

Neil Young

Think rhythm guitar is not as flashy and awesome as playing searing leads? Hand Neil Young a Les Paul with a Bigsby tremolo and you might disagree once you hear the signature sound that he manages to coax out of it. Neil Young’s voice is as recognizable as Bob Dylan’s, and his songwriting capability is just as prolific. The time he spent in Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young allowed him to create music that many have as the soundtracks of their young lives. Once he went solo, the music didn’t suffer. One listen to “Keep on Rocking In The Free World” will prove that.  The organizers of Coachella thought highly enough of him to include Mr. Young amongst the six  rock legends headlining a killer music festival, the other five being Bob Dylan, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, and Roger Waters. That’s some pretty great company.

Essential Listening: “Helpless,” “Keep on Rocking In the Free World,” “The Needle and The Damage Done.”

Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell was born in Fort McCleod, Alberta, and later played busked in the streets of Toronto before moving to the United States in 1965. “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” While those famous song lyrics from Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” refer to the songwriter’s first trip to Hawaii, not many people know that the “big yellow taxi” is sometimes said to refer to the police cars in Toronto, which used to be painted yellow. But forget that bit of trivia and analyze some of the very unique open tunings Joni Mitchell used to create some of the most political and powerful songs of the late 1960’s and 1970’s. Rhythmically exploring with jazz, folk, rock, and pop melodies, Mitchell is one of the most prolific and influential songwriters of her time, regardless of where she hails from.  Some of our readers may remember a little song she wrote about arguably the most famous outdoor concert ever: “Woodstock.”

Essential Listening: “Woodstock,” “Free Man in Paris,” Big Yellow Taxi.”

Liona Boyd

While Liona Boyd was born in London, England, she became a Canadian in 1975 when her parents immigrated to Toronto. Some of our classical fans may find it interesting to know that Liona’s mother was from the same Spanish city that can also claim a very prestigious native: Andres Segovia, who just happened to write her a kind note approving of her formidable New York debut at Carnegie Hall in 1975. Ms.Boyd is best known for classical guitar playing, and has played for the likes of presidents, prime ministers, and even the sequestered OJ Simpson jury. She’s recorded with the likes of Chet Atkins, Yo Yo Ma, David Gilmour, and Eric Clapton. Quietly, she’s become both a national and international treasure. Not to mention that you’ll feel somewhat inadequate right before being completely inspired by her playing abilities.

Essential Listening: “The Guitar Artistry of Liona Boyd”

Frank Marino

When we say “underrated” many of us think of the very talented people that don’t get the recognition they deserve. In a nutshell, that describes the talents of guitarist Frank Marino of Mahogany Rush. Most often compared to rock god Jimi Hendrix, Mr. Marino’s talents are not as widely known as many of his contemporaries, but anyone who knows their stuff knows that Frank Marino is definitely an inspiration to many of the heroes that do get a lot of attention. His Gibson SG and blues-inspired brand of pscyhedlic riffage is what makes Marino one of Canada’s best guitarists.

Essential Listening: Anything off of the album Child of the Novelty.

Rik Emmett

“Lay it on the line…” There isn’t a single person that was raised anywhere in Canada in the 1970’s-1980’s that doesn’t know that iconic radio hit and equally iconic guitar intro. Rik Emmett is widely recognized as one of the best guitarists ever, not just in Canada. I had the distinct honour of learning how to play guitar from one of his touring guitarists, fellow Canadian Sil Simone. Rik’s riff writing ability is matched only by his songwriting and singing abilities, and if you’ve ever heard him play, you know how high of a bar I’ve set with that statement. Emmett started out as the guitarist and lead singer for Canadian rock band/power trio Triumph before heading out on his own for a solo career that began in the 1980s. Rik is often seen with his Gibson Les Paul and you may or may not know that for many of those hits, he had a Seymour Duncan JB humbucker in the bridge. Rik has also formed the acoustic duo Strung-Out Troubadours with fellow guitarist David Dunlop. Whether it’s flat-picking, finger-picking, or just plain rocking out, Rik Emmett is one of music’s elite guitarists.

Essential Listening: “Lay it on the Line” (by Triumph), “When a Heart Breaks,” “Saved By Love.”

Devin Townsend

As the founder, guitarist, and songwriter for the extreme metal band Strapping Young Lads, Devin quickly developed an international reputation for his unique melodic approach to the guitar. A native of New Westminster, British Columbia, Townsend has provided vocals for the likes of Steve Vai, and played in bands with Jason Newsted, all while maintaining his own vibe to whatever project he created or joined. Whether it’s with The Devin Townsend Project, Casualties of Cool, Strapping Young Lad or simply as a solo artist, Townsend has made his mark in the heavy metal world and has influenced countless guitar players. Devin ha
s been known to use Seymour Duncan pedals including the 805 Overdrive and the Studio Bass Compressor.

Essential Listening: “Epicloud”, “The New Black”

Jeff Healey

As a Torontonian, I remember the heavy heart that formed over the city when Jeff Healey’s death made the headlines. The sidewalk in front of Jeff Healey’s Roadhouse – a bar and club venue that bore his name but was not owned by Healey – was full of flowers and tributes for the man that had contributed so much to the blues and jazz community in such a short time. As many of you may know, Jeff Healey was blind and his unique way of playing the guitar made many sit up and take notice. The first time I saw him play I was absolutely stunned. The tone he managed to coax out of his guitars was one that so few of us ever achieve. His playing was sublime and he created was a true testament to the legacy he left us with. Jeff’s custom built Fender Stratocasters had a variety of pickups in them, but an often-included pickup was the SH-5. Coincidentally enough, he also had a role in the Patrick Swayze film Roadhouse and wrote a few songs for the soundtrack. Ah, to be in 1989 again.

Essential Listening: “Angel Eyes”, “I Think I Love You Too Much”, “Cruel Little Number”, and his cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”

Kim Mitchell

True Story: Max Webster, a Toronto-based rock band in the 1970’s would have been a much bigger deal had their record label decided not to promote and finance a follow-up tour to the band’s platinum-selling “A Million Vacations”. Why is that relevant? Because the eventual demise of the band led to it’s singer/guitarist, Kim Mitchell to penning some of the 1980’s most recognizable hits. I could go on. My summers were often filled with the sounds of Kim Mitchell’s guitar solos and masterful phrasing, and later on late night drives from my summer job, Mitchell’s voice would keep me company on the local rock radio station. Kim Mitchell has one of the best clean tones in the world. I’ve often tried to get my Strat to sound like his, but alas, it’s all in vain. A down to earth legend who hails from Sarnia, Ontario, Kim is a well-loved figure in his adopted home of Toronto and still has the killer chops that make me wish my Fender sounded just like his does.

Essential Listening: “Easy To Tame”, “Might As Well Go Out For a Soda”, anything from the Max Webster album “A Million Vacations”

Randy Bachman

For over three decades, Randy Bachman has been taking care of business. (Sorry. I just couldn’t help myself!) Bachman started out as the guitarist for Canadian band The Guess Who, famous for “American Woman” and “These Eyes”, but he was also the riffing force behind Bachman Turner Overdrive, which brought us “Takin’ Care of Business.” Not one to rest on his laurels, Randy Bachman has continued to grow as an artist and as a Seymour Duncan artist (he loves his P-Rails!), we’re super proud to call him family.  Bachman has often said his early studies in violin helped influence his lead guitar playing, and that is surely evident in a lot of his work. A rock, blues, and jazz “triple threat,” Randy has gained the respect of fellow musicians Neil Young, Peter Frampton, Joe Bonamassa, and the late Jeff Healey, all of who’s guitar work appeared on Bachman’s 2015 album Heavy Blues. You can also catch Randy hosting a weekly CBC Radio show called “Vinyl Tap.”

Essential Listening: “American Woman” by The Guess Who, “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” by Bachman-Turner Overdrive

Honorable mentions go to Ian Thornley (Big Wreck), Bryan Adams, Nick Johnston, Robbie Robertson (The Band), Bruce Cockburn, Jeff Martin (The Tea Party) and to the countless others that have served as session and/or touring musicians and happen to call Canada home. See? We are great at things besides hockey, maple syrup production, and craft beer brewing. Although, we are pretty darn great at hockey aren’t we?

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13 Comments

    1. Lenny Breau was born in Auburn, Maine, making him an American-born guitarist. I’m not sure if he held dual citizenship?

  1. I highly disagree with much of this. I know a bunch of the people you mention, but no. Just no.

  2. And what about Pete Lesperance from Harem Scarem? Take a listen to his “Mood Swing” album if you don’t know him.

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