Blackmore is at no 50 in the Rolling Stone list of 100 greatest guitarists*. I've seen Blackmore at least half a dozen times, the first in early 1970 at the Liverpool Phil. This was one of the first gigs I ever went to. A friend had picked up on the band, which had released four albums by then and I'd bought their first, Shades of Deep Purple. So off a bunch of us sixth-formers went to see them, not realising that Purple (as they were always known) had modified their line up - to what would become known as the "classic" line up - and had shifted their sound from hard rock to something quite a bit heavier.
This was an interesting maneouvre, as the band's just released fourth album was Concerto for Group and Orhcestra, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Malcolm Arnold (later Sir Malcolm Arnold CBE) and recorded live at Bert's Barn, no less. Purple's keyboard player, Jon Lord, was heavily influenced by classical music and scored the concerto. But I hadn't realised Blackmore also had classical leanings, at least according to Rolling Stone. And blues. But he found the blues "too limiting" and classical "too disciplined", so decided to thrash and smash his guitars instead.
In early 1970 Purple were touring In Rock, which would come to be seen as their definitive album and which was released a few months later. (It was done that way round then kids, no risk of bootlegging from the audience as the technology didn't exist. Early bootleg albums came from tapes blagged by a dodgy engineer, usually from the less controlled environment of a live recording). The first song was Speed King. The reason I remember that is because, after seeing them four more times in the next 18 months, they started the set with this song for quite some time. But also because, after Ian Gillan had announced it, within a couple of minutes the guitar and vocals dropped out leaving bass and then just drums. A drum solo in the first song - weird man, what did he say the song was?
What had actually happened was a power failure, so eventually Ian Paice stopped his impromptu solo and there was a degree of milling around while the problem got fixed. Re-grouping in all senses of the word, Purple played safe and restarted with Hush, their best known song which had been a big hit in the States but which, with the In Rock tour, became an encore song, if played at all. (Yes, we got to know the set that intimately. Before the days of setlist.fm of course!)
Anyway, we were all highly impressed with Blackmore, who gave us a show of guitar pyrotechnics before, in the last song and with strobe lighting, he spectacularly trashed his guitar. Even us naive teenagers had spotted a roadie creep on to exchange the Strat he'd been using for a patched up one, which was presumably ritually trashed every gig. Townshend and others had been doing this for some time so it wasn't that novel, but we still found it more than entertaining. Interestingly, Blackmore started out playing a Gibson, but switched to the Strat in 1968 and stuck with it. But none of us thought we'd seen the best guitarist in the world. Or even the best guitarist I'd seen up to then, having seen the Floyd and Gilmour a few months earlier.
I read a critique of guitar players much more recently in which the author derided some big names for "widdling". You know, where they lapse into going "widdly-dee; widdly-dee" towards the end of their solos. Presumably, while sounding reasonably impressive, these runs are easy and, well, lazy. It must be said, Blackmore was a consummate widdler. But anyone who comes up with the riff from Smoke on the Water and the guitar runs in Highway Star knows what they are doing.
So yes, Richie Blackmore was a great guitarist and I really enjoyed watching him play. But, like Carlos Santana, he's not on my final shortlist either.