Whether or not you were a fan of the self-proclaimed "King of Pop", you can't dismiss Michael Jackson's ability to do things right. Even on his earliest recordings, Jackson's albums featured the best musicians money could buy. Although the album credits on even his last releases still read like a who's who of top session musicians, Jackson's philosophy of choosing guitarists to work with changed post-Thriller. More specifically, Jackson's approach became: identify the most popular guitarists on the face of the planet, and hire them to play on your record.
Jackson's 1979 release Off the Wall, featuring studio pro guitarists like Larry Carlton and Phil Upchurch, was the album which introduced Jackson to the world as a solo artist. That album marked the last recording Jackson would make with more obscure musicians. By the time Jackson released the landmark Thriller in 1982, his star-seeking approach to choosing guitarists was firmly in place. Guitarist Eddie Van Halen, a musician who had turned the rock world on it's collective ear, appeared on the recording, contributing a stunning solo on the song "Beat It".
It was a full five years before Jackson, a perfectionist in the extreme, managed to release his next album, 1987's Bad. Amidst the usual cast of studio musicians (including veteran Eric Gale) was guitarist Billy Idol's guitarist Steve Stevens. Thanks to Stevens' work on Idol's 1986 success Whiplash Smile, the guitarist could be found on the cover of almost every guitar magazine that year. Listen for Stevens' contributions to the Jackson hit "Smooth Criminal".
True to form, it was another five years before Jackson released his next album, 1992's Dangerous. For this release, Jackson decided on Guns n' Roses guitarist Slash (a move that left a lot of GNR fans scratching their heads). You can hear Slash wailing on "Black or White" and "Give it to Me".
The almost decade long stretch between Dangerous and 2001's Invincible has been well-documented, and needs no further analysis here. On a musical level, Jackson struggled in the studio for much of that time, trying to find a sound that would push him back to the forefront of the pop music world. While Invincible clearly failed in this regard, it did feature some nice contributions from Carlos Santana, who added a guitar and whistle solo to the latin-tinged "Whatever Happens".
Invincible proved to be Jackson's last attempt to live up to his self-appointed status as the "King of Pop". And, although he never managed to recapture the magic of Thriller, guitarists should still be able find something to appreciate in his later records.