Superheroes of Rock

It’s the oldest cliche: the orphan superhero; the Harry Potter/Bruce Wayne/Clark Kent dwelling in quiet exile amid the unsuspecting citizenry, secret possessor of magical talents.

It also turns out to be sort of true — well, at least with rock guitarists. While it’s possible to conjure up all kinds of bellyaching about the rankings of Rolling Stone‘s top 100 rock guitarists of all time (Les Paul 46th? Shouldn’t Mark Knopfler be a nudge higher than 27th?), it’s not possible to overlook a more revealing and important pattern: the top three lost parents at young ages.

Jimi Hendrix’s mother died when he was 16, shortly after he’d taken up guitar. Greg Allman’s father died when he was only three; B.B. King’s mother died when he was nine. (The pattern has some twists: No. 4 Eric Clapton was a teen when, in a “Chinatown”-worthy moment, he discovered that the woman he thought was his sister was actually his mother. Talk about playing the blues.)

As is usual with the truth, there’s a paradox at work here, which we can see if we can imagine a simple picture: a kid alone in his room for hundreds, thousands of hours, lost in a cool fury of mastering this riff, this song, this sound; carving out a new identity, proving that unspeakable tragedy can be transformed — literally, neurally, magically–into unspeakable beauty.

It’s not just guitarists, btw. Check out this list of orphan greats, which starts with Julius Ceasar.