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The seven best guitarists of Pakistan

February 01, 2012

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“In case you’re wondering who’s the best … ?” Borrowing a line from Top Gun, most of you musicians and music lovers out there have probably had many a heated debate about this.

As a bedroom guitar player myself, I’ve had this conversation one too many times. Given the timeless nature of these debates I thought we might as well hash it out with of all of you out there.

In the past 15 years or so, Pakistan has seen an explosion in musical talent. These days it’s hard to swing a dead cat in a room without hitting someone who plays guitar. So I figured I’d put my own two cents out there and see where the chips fall.

It’s a tough assignment, for art is as subjective as anything can be. Just for this reason, using the immense resources here at Dawn.com, I’ve devised a secret but scientifically calibrated formula to weigh each guitarist according to a few criteria of technique, musicality, body of work and the oh-so-essential intangibles.

So without further ado … here goes nothing!

7. Omran Shafique. Lovingly known as ‘Momo’ by his peers, Omran made his bones with his Texas-based band Mauj and their funky tune Peheliyan. With his star rising, he found himself as a permanent fixture for the Coke Studio house band as well as a stint with Uth Records. He’s one of a long line of new comers cementing his name as a solid guitar player with a penchant for funky, bluesy licks. From what I’ve heard he’s a great pocket player, but at the same time possesses the good sense of when to restrain himself. In addition there’s a lot of personality in his playing, which is refreshing given the ocean of distorted guitars that make up our music scene. Given what he's done so far, I'm looking forward to what he has in store for us in the coming months and years.

6. Shallum Xavier In many ways Shallum is somewhat of a veteran of the Pakistani music industry. He’s climbed his way up working as a hired gun for the likes of Hadiqa Kiani, until he hit the big time with his band Fuzon. As a guitar player, he’s easily one of the most technically complete players in Pakistan. He’s capable of all the guitar pyrotechnics that one can imagine and his work in Fuzon is still his best. Ankhian, probably Fuzon’s greatest hit was a catchy track with a great riff and a quick-fire solo that’s perfect for the song. That said I do find his playing to be a touch too mechanical. It’s almost clinical to the extent that you could replace it with a computer and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

5. Faraz Anwar. One of the true shredders of the country, Faraz is the quintessential guitarist’s guitarist. It’s clear that he’s spent a lot of time listening to the likes of shred kings Joe Satriani and Allan Holdsworth. His stints in Mizraab and Dusk were great efforts in getting a true heavy metal scene going and garnered a decent cult following. Mizraab’s single Insaan is a really well-written hard rock song. But over the years I’ve lost the appetite for the kind of guitar playing that once made me tear up when I was simply trying to figure out Barre chords. Sure virtuosity is great to a certain extent, but what I look for is heart. And sometimes a few sweetly played notes are more expressive (think B.B. King) than blazing through the guitar neck at superhuman speed. But there's no denying his ability, which is why he's on this list.

4. Amir Zaki. I can already hear the Zaki-philes screaming bloody murder. For the past 20 years, Zaki has been regarded as the best guitar player the country has produced. He is without doubt one of the most talented musicians around. His breadth of knowledge about music is the stuff of legend. His skill ranges all genres from rock and blues, to jazz and classical and everything in between. He’s the kind of musician you’d want to hang out with and watch him as he impresses your socks off. But sadly it seems that his reputation has far exceeded his body of work. There’s been little music after his debut album Signature was released in 1995, and whatever I’ve heard since has been disappointing by his lofty standards. Hence, it’s a bit of a stretch to anoint him king when there’s not much to show for it. Most of what I have heard of his music was at a concert I went to a few years ago. He’s by far a tremendous guitar player on stage, which shows that he’s more of a seat-of-the-pants guitar player than a songwriter, and to be fair, there’s nothing wrong with that.

3. Asad Ahmed The long-haired axeman from Awaz and Karavan, and more recently the resident guitar player for Coke Studio is probably to most fun guitar player on this list. A true and blue rocker by heart, Asad doesn’t fret (!) too much about technique or playing a gazillion notes per second. His mainstay has always been pedal-to-the-metal, riffy and bluesy rock ’n’ roll. To be honest, Awaz were a tad too poppy and Karavan just never hit the mark for me. But I’ve never doubted Asad’s integrity. He’s always done what he enjoys when it comes to music. Give him a nice groove and he’ll hammer out some bluesy and crunchy guitar parts. With his current stint at Coke Studio he’s been able to show his versatility and maturity as a musician, proving that he’s not just another guy with a Les Paul and a few pentatonic licks in his quiver.

2. Mekaal Hasan Here’s a guy who really doesn’t dilly dally around. Having spent some time at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, there’s no questioning his musical knowledge. In essence Mekaal is a musician’s musician. With his critically acclaimed Mekaal Hasan Band, he managed to take a genre of fusion and made it palatable to generations of music lovers all over Pakistan. There’s an academic air to his playing — it’s almost like watching a mathematician play guitar. Everything he does is deliberate and seems completely calculated, even when it’s not. Despite his facility with the guitar, you’ll never see him over play. His solos and compositions all reflect a philosophy that regards the song more highly than its individual parts.

1. Salman Ahmed Salman, along with Ali Azmat and Brian O’Connell, basically changed the face of music in Pakistan. Junoon’s brand of Sufi Rock struck a chord in people all over the country making the band the biggest rock act in Asia. And the reason is simple. Junoon had the ability to craft beautiful and catchy songs without compromising their musical integrity. I’ve recently rekindled my inner Junooni and listening to them with a more discerning ear, I’m amazed at how great all their compositions are. As a guitar player Salman has been the only one in my book who’s been able to walk the fine line between technique and musicality. Case in point is a song like Bheegi Yaadein. Starting with the simple but gorgeous acoustic riff, the solo to the song is one of the most well written solos I’ve heard. It’s beautifully phrased and lyrical to the point of almost being a song within itself.

Salman Haqqi is a reporter at Dawn.com