Debates about whether a guitarist is underrated often involve a lot of posturing and needless name-dropping—they don’t tend to go anywhere, in other words. This is not the case with Peter Green, founder and former singer, songwriter, and guitarist for Fleetwood Mac, who died this past weekend. He is, probably most definitely, “the most underrated guitarist in British Blues,” argues the Happy Bluesman, or at least he became so in the last decades of his life.
Green experienced a tragic end to his career with Fleetwood Mac when his mental health declined precipitously in 1970, and he was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. His legend lived long among musicians (and fans of the band who preferred their early work), but Green more or less disappeared from public view, even after releasing a handful of solo albums in a period of recovery.
Fleetwood Mac, the group he founded and carried to its first years of major stardom became, of course, “a household name, widely recognized as one of the best soft rock bands ever for hits like ‘The Chain,’ ‘Go Your Own Way,’ and ‘Everywhere’”—songs Peter Green had nothing to do with, though he had the soft rock chops, as the melancholy “Man of the World” beautifully demonstrates. Hear him in some of his other finest moments in the band, including a phenomenal “Black Magic Woman” at the top, before Carlos Santana made the song his signature.
The argument for Green’s most underrated-ness as a blues guitarist is more than compelling, with endorsements from B.B. King—who said Green had “the sweetest tone I ever heard”—and John Mayall, who said he was better than Clapton when Green joined the Bluesbreakers at age 20. After founding Fleetwood Mac, Green wrote “Black Magic Woman,” sent a guitar instrumental, “Albatross,” to the top of the British Charts in 1969 and, that same year, recorded at Chess Records with, among other blues legends, Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy.
Was he the “best” British blues guitarist? He was “the only one who gave me the cold sweats,” King confessed, which sure is something, even if you prefer Clapton or Jeff Beck. Is he the most underrated? Probably most definitely. “Within a few short years, Peter Green had achieved greater commercial success than two of the world’s most famous bands,” selling more records in 1969 than “both The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, combined.” Then he disappeared.
Green is receiving the recognition in death that eluded him in his last years, though fame never seemed to truly motivate him at any time in his life. Fellow musicians have spared no superlatives in online memorials, including Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, not known for going anywhere near an early Fleetwood Mac sound. But Green was a consummate musician’s musician (he named his band after the rhythm section!), and he earned the respect of serious rock artists and serious blues artists and serious metal artists.
A longtime friend and admirer, Hammett owns Green’s ’59 Gibson Les Paul (nicknamed “Greeny”). He recently covered Green’s last Fleetwood Mac song—“The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown)”—live onstage and was collaborating on new material with his idol. “Our loss is total,” Hammett wrote in tribute, perhaps the most succinct and devastating tribute among so many. Fleetwood Mac would never have existed without him. And his influence on the British Blues and beyond goes even deeper. See Green revisit his lovely “Man of the World” in a more recent performance, just below. He steps back from the fiery leads, playing subtle rhythm parts, but he still has the old magic in his fingers.