Who is the BEST guitarist? The BEST Bass Player? The BEST Drummer? The BEST Vocalist? I hear these comparisons all the time, and I have for years and years. In fact, I heard it again yesterday, and who knows about today because it's not over yet.
Musicians often have musical heroes, those they aspire to play like. They may spend years listening to and trying to sound like these artists. There is nothing wrong with that, and we who play can learn so much by emulating the musicians who inspire us. Does that make them the "best”?
We may have opinions, but is there an actual measure that one can use to calculate who is the "best" on any instrument? Is it fame or wealth? I would think not. Would it be who has mind-blowing technique that is so fast we have to slow it down to try to learn it? Does fastest equal best? Is it determined by who uses the most obscure chord changes and solos over those chords? Is that better than a ballad that can tug at your heart and bring real tears?
As both a professional musician and educator for decades, I've weighed in on many social media arguments where people start comparing who the greatest (fill in the blank) is. I have my favorites, but do my own years of scholarship and practice or the number of gigs I do make my opinion worth more than anyone else's? I prefer to call them our “favorites.” They might have many characteristics that can lead one to believe they are the best. Perhaps they can pull off some things on their respective instruments that you've never heard anyone else do, but maybe there's a guy or girl sitting at home who's just as good, though they may not be famous yet.
Did I say FAMOUS? Does fame make someone better than an artist who few have heard of? Is Taylor Swift one of the best because she is worth more than most? Honestly, I have met and seen women in Nashville who arguably write better songs, have a better sounding voice, and also look like supermodels (not that looks matter). Taylor isin fact extremely talented and driven. Though does that make her best? That kind of fame is like winning the lottery; the odds are almost the same. That does not mean one can’t have a thriving career. I know countless musicians who have great careers, and the majority of the world has never heard their names. Doing what you love for a living is a wonderful thing, and in my long career I've come to view it as the 1%. Those who get to do music for a living equal about 1% of the population that owns or plays instruments.
I'll leave those who compare musicians as to who might be BEST with this advice: There is only one best that you need to be concerned with: your own personal best. Just work on that. It's a far better use of your time, and you'll enjoy the results much more!
Dave Stark is a professional musician, educator, and clinician who has been teaching for over 30 years. He's currently a member of the Percussive Arts Society Education Committee, and had previously served on their Drum Set Committee.