Yesterday marked the 40th birthday of Jack White, perhaps the most influential individual in the modern rock market. We've been following him since he burst onto the scene with The White Stripes, the self-titled debut album of his most popular band, and he hasn't lost a step in the last 14 years and numerous bands and solo projects. It may be too bold a statement to label him as the greatest symbol of rock music in the 21st Century, but we have no problem labeling him as the most important guitarist of the last 15 years. It's tough to find a song from White's catalogue where his six-string doesn't command attention, but Music Times reached in to choose just six of our favorite guitar cuts. And yeah, we left the door open for argument. If you feel we ignored a particularly mean riff or solo, by all means...let us know in the comments.
06) "Red Death At 6:14" by The White Stripes
Our first selection is also the one where you'll need to dig deepest. "Red Death At 6:14" wasn't released on any LP from the White Stripes but still has a well-regarded status within the community of White fans well-accustomed to his penchant for 7" records and rarity releases. The song first saw the light as an exclusive available through Mojo Magazine in the UK, perhaps thanks to the Stripes spending most of its career on London's XL Recordings, and then made a return as the B-side to "Hand Springs" for a Record Store Day exclusive during 2013. Although we've gotten used to White's testing what's "allowed" with the blues guitar circa 2015, "Red Death" serves as an early look at White testing what he can do with little concern for keeping things clean. Odd audio samples pop in and out, his accent solos for the hook shift the balance dramatically and he takes Meg's place as an unusually emphatic enforcer of rhythm. The final solo is short, but about as traditional and slick as anything you'll hear from his instrument.
05) "Salute Your Solution" by The Raconteurs
Brendan Benson was a brave man to accept a role in White's side project The Raconteurs. Benson, of course, has a background as a vocalist and a guitarist, and only the most ignorant of individuals would assume that they would be anything but second fiddle to White at either role. "Salute Your Solution" inadvertently points out just how tough it is to live up to a bandmate like White. After the star of the show handles verse one, Benson grabs verse two and the guitar disappears—perhaps as an attempt to keep the spotlight on the lesser known musician—but then White returns again for the solo, which would stand just fine by itself, except the guitar star keeps shredding as he continues to sing the third verse. Essentially the latter half of the song is just chock full of White. And you felt bad for bassists who had to work with White. We don't mean to suggest that Benson is unqualified (nor do we buy into the clichéd argument that Meg was a bad drummer)...we just want to demonstrate how demoralizing it can be to play guitar with this guy.
04) "Dead Leaves and The Dirty Ground" by The White Stripes
White is best when his music is sweaty and spastic, a combination of the blues and rock 'n' roll worlds that he worshipped coming up as a player. That said, he's written plenty of songs that illustrate his appreciation of ballads and other gentle forms. "Dead Leaves and The Dirty" walks a very fine line between the two. Although some might break the song's refrains and verses into black-and-white loud-and-quiet moments, that would be too simple. The volume of White's guitar may be turned down during the latter but it's hardly quiet-the lack of chords doesn't make the verse's riff any less intense than the brash and heavy hook (White has a knack for writing refrains that require no words), as his fingers find a tone just dark enough to match the impassioned mindset of the narrator. The only disappointment with this single is that it gets its best passage out of the way first, as White's instrument wails its way into a brief overture. Then again, imagining the song opening any other way seems sacrilege.
03) "Ball and Biscuit" by The White Stripes
The White Stripes released Elephant to critical acclaim, and upon first listen, everyone raved about the album's successful singles, such as "The Hardest Button to Button" and of course "Seven Nation Army." Upon second listen however, "Ball and Biscuit" established itself as a godsend to both alt-rock devotees and old-fashioned blues fans alike. White sticks to the traditional 12-bar blues format, a rarity, and punctuates the verses with levels of distortion that would Make Neil Young and J Mascis proud. The song was never issued as a single, probably due to its length of more than seven minutes, the longest studio recording by the band. If there's a disappointment to be had with the discography of the Stripes, it's that they don't have more lengthy jams like "Ball and Biscuit." White took his cues from garage bands and old world bluesmen, who didn't indulge in Allman Brothers-style jam sessions, and perhaps White himself questioned whether quality was sustainable across such a stretch. We trust his consistency, especially in light of track such as "Ball and Biscuit."
02) "Seven Nation Army" by The White Stripes
Maybe you've heard of this one. The greatest part of "Seven Nation Army" is that the audience familiar with it only expands from year to year...and perhaps more than 50 percent of that audience has never actually heard the song before. Turn on any soccer game and there's a chance that the home crowd will break out in a chant, universally known with no language barrier: the riff to the most successful single in White's catalogue. We realize that by ranking "Seven Nation Army" ahead of "Ball and Biscuit," every guitar snob is going to come down on us. Is the single more impressive than White's blues opus on the whole? No. But there's something to be said for writing a riff so memorable and effective that its become a stadium standard that, like many blues standards, may be instantly recognizable in 100 years, even if no one remembers who the original author was. No one chants "Smoke On The Water." No one chants the introduction to "Crazy Train." Those are great riffs, great guitar moments to be sure, but just don't translate like "Seven Nation Army." When you consider White's talent for writing instrumental choruses, nothing can beat this song.
01) "Death Letter" / "Grinnin' On Your Face" by The White Stripes
We admit...we cheated. Although the White Stripes did record a version of Son House's "Death Letter" for De Stijl, there was never an official release for "Grinnin' On Your Face," another track from the legendary Mississippi bluesman, and there certainly wasn't a mashup of the two released. So we had to go to a performance from the Livid "Live In Sydney" concert video from 2003 for the performance...and we feel no shame for ranking it at no. 1 among White's best guitar performances. Blues is a genre best live thanks to the improvisational nature of the songs, and White lives up to the demands. He plays traditional blues licks, punctuates with angry bursts of distorted fuzz and even accelerates to thrash-metal speeds while playing the medley. "Death Letter" sounds more like what you would expect from the Stripes otherwise—a "St. James Infirmary" tale of a dead lover (see "Red Death at 6:14" above)—but White has noted "Grinnin' In Your Face" as his favorite song of all time. The ironic part? House's original version of the song was done a cappella...with no instrumental help.