Rebecca Gates: Ten Inspiring Guitarists

The former leader of The Spinanes shares her taste in guitar heroes with us before setting off on her European tour with Ted Leo

Today, Rebecca Gates sets off on a European tour (accompanied on the double header by Ted Leo) to present “The Float”, an album which marks her return to releasing her own music after a decade-long hiatus. As an introduction, she has chosen ten inspiring guitarists and commented on them.

Rebecca Gates has played an essential role in the development of American indie-rock, although ultimately her fame has shrunk in light of the popular acceptance of other artists who have ended up shaping the canon of the genre. From 1991 to 2000 she was on the Sub Pop label at the front of The Spinanes, where she sang and played the guitar, along with Scott Plouf, who played the drums. The Spinanes were a raw, direct duo that helped to increase the prestige of Olympia (Washington), still today one of the important cities in independent rock geography. In 2000, the band split up and Rebecca crossed over into other branches of art, from organising exhibits to publishing, while still being involved with music: since the end of The Spinanes she has collaborated with The Decemberists and Willy Nelson, as well as embarking on a solo career. Her latest album is called “The Float”, was recorded with The Consortium (a band with members of The Decemberists, Quasi and Tortoise) and released by her own label, Parcematone, in the United States and La Castanya in Spain.

Today, Rebecca Gates begins a long European tour – along with Ted Leo – that will take her from Madrid to Barcelona, as well as to Paris, London, and Berlin. In honour of the kick-off of the tour and the release of “The Float”, she has decided to give us an update on her tastes; making a list of ten guitarists who have left their mark on her. From here on out, the words are those of Rebecca Gates. An honour.


Choosing just ten of anything in music is difficult. The only easy list for me to write is ‘Great Moments of Cowbell in Rock Music’. In my opinion there are only two; that's for another conversation.

So here I offer “10 inspiring guitarists”. While they are all my favourites, it is not all my favourites—that list is too long. These are folks who made and make me want to pick up the guitar and play, and who provide context to think about playing. I’ve always formed chords and approached the instrument in a slightly strange fashion. These guitarists use it in a way I understand and/or incite the will to learn, especially when I first started playing live.

Attention: Only two ladies!! I know, there are many amazing lady axe-slingers in the world, (again, for another list) but I’m being very specific here. Some of the guitarists I’d like to include aren't to be found on the video internets, including many of those ladies and the players rocking it before there were cameras everywhere. And yes, I see, about half the names listed are gents associated (for better or worse) with the 1990s. Awkward. I guess as I started to attend shows and tour, they were who I saw live, and were part of the scene I travelled in. I note they all continue to play to this day.

Also, if you want to know more about those I’m listing, please look and listen, in record stores, on the web. It’s a challenge for me to talk about guitarists and why they’re great, other people do it well.

Everyone listed here taught me somehow; in dark clubs, house parties, small town theatres, or on living room stereo systems. I've been fortunate to learn about and hear hundreds of great guitarists, current AND olden days, but for here, for now, these ten giants of inspiration.

1. Kathy McCarty

Kathy was in a band from Austin, Texas called Glass Eye. I had weekly shows on local radio stations when they released their first records. “HUGE” is an incredible album to this day. The songs and her guitar parts are unique, sparse, angular and still, strong-spined but with a light touch. When I saw the band play live, her fingering made sense to me in a way that basic bar chords and stinging leads did not. Seeing her made me think I could play in a band onstage.

2. Keith Richards

Yes, Keith. Hallowed, hollowed, sneered at, venerated, not much to say that hasn’t been said. I love his Frankenstein combo of the rhythm guitar and lead, his insistence that the rhythm is lead. There’s a moment in the Godard film “Sympathy for the Devil” where he is sitting on the floor, noodling, thinking with his hands, that I find riveting. My father listened to a lot of R&B when I was young. Keith Richards would talk about those same artists and songs in interviews. Following the thread of his unapologetic commitment to the trade and history of R&B, country, blues, pointed me towards the role of guitar in daily life separate from folkies or pickers. His tone is always sweet and satisfying and I’ve been trying to write an intro riff as good as one of his for years.

3. Barbara Lynn

My friend Liz Lambert hostesses the Trans-Pecos Gathering of Music + Love at El Cosmico in Marfa, Texas. I’ve been fortunate to play it several times. In 2007 Barbara Lynn performed. I knew her song “ You’ll Lose a Good Thing” and looked forward to hearing her. I didn’t anticipate having to pick my jaw up off the floor. Lefty, upstroke style, it seems like she’s just passing her palms over the neck of the guitar, you barely see her fingers touching the strings pouring out magic. She’s been composing and leading bands since she was a teenager. Pure 1000% inspiration.

4. Stephen Malkmus

I am not a fan of a ripping lead, never really done anything for me. Guitar solo? Yawn. But I can listen to Malkmus shred all day long; singular, melodic, ace, really a beautiful player, surprising choices sound completely natural. We opened for The Jicks in Paris this year and shared equipment. He’s a fantastic tech. I plugged my guitar into the amp he’d set up and was good to go, no adjustments necessary.

5. Duane Denison

When I first saw the Jesus Lizard, I went home and tried to figure out how to play like Duane. This is not normal for me. I have years of instant improvement in my future once I begin dedicatedly studying other guitarist’s techniques. Usually I sit down to listen and then proceed to make my own mess, get caught up in writing. I didn’t make much progress with his style either….it’s difficult to approach the command of the incisive, groovy surgeon.

6. Jim Hall

One of my favourite guitarists. I learned of him from Sam Prekop (The Sea and Cake) who thought I would like Jimmy Giuffre’s early 1960’s trio, the cleverly named Jimmy Giuffre 3 (Hall was a member); he was right. Hall’s playing is hypnotizing, a simple mystery. I love the space, the quiet, the elastic time navigation. He’s played with jazz giants, is a jazz giant, continues to record. Check out his subtly BADASS 2008 album with Bill Frisell, “Hemispheres”.

7. Guy Picciotto and Ian Mackaye in Fugazi

Each of them amazing on their own, the four-armed-uni-sound they form together is incredible. (Hard to talk about them outside of the context of the rest of the band but we’re not listing great bands here, right?). Capable of shifting, in a moment, from melodic, delicate subtlety to an onslaught of sheets of sound and back to a silent stop on a dime. The foundation. We toured with them and I was schooled every night, not only in the possibilities of the guitar but reminded of the specific joy at the intersection of personal expression, vocabulary of the past, and the illumination of sonics. Ask MacKaye about Hendrix sometime.

8. Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore

What to say? Another pair of exceptional players who combine forces towards a greater power. I was working in a record store in Portland, Oregon when I came across Sonic Youth EP. It was a turning point for me. One of those magic times you hear something and it just absolutely sends you in a different direction, while at the same time affirming un-nameable senses already present. That feeling still exists when I hear them play. Constant embedded conceptual, melodic, rhythmic, textured contrasts and oxymorons. They mix a simple punk mess aesthetic with an elegant command of the possibilities of the wood and wire. Lovely.

9. Jeff Parker

Parker. When I lived in Chicago (many years ago) I used to go sneak in on the jazz gigs he’d do in suburbs and strange supper clubs. “Aww Gates, man, you didn’t have to come, so nice to see you.” So much pleasure in watching and hearing him play, whether with Tortoise, his trio, Brian Blade, anyone. He also loves Jim Hall (or he did, I haven’t asked him lately). I equate the limnal mysterioso of Hall’s playing with Jeff’s. I could sit in a room, and watch him play, solo, for hours. Serious. School.

10. Joe Perry

Odd man out? Perhaps, but a king of the riff and I include him solely because one day just as I was starting to play live, I heard “ Seasons of Wither” on the radio and decided to cover it for a show I was playing with Lois Maffeo. I wanted to hear her sing the Steven Tyler part. But, you never know when what we in the US currently call a “learning moment” might present itself. In trying to figure out the song (it’s quite simple really) I discovered a way of picking that became a kind of default setting for me.


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