In a blurb in the December 2010 issue of Vanity Fair, Jack White was asked whether he prefers playing guitar or drums. He replied, "The guitar is a strange bird for me. I never really had a desire to be a guitar player-- it just fell on me. The drums would be an actual passion of my life." Fans the world over probably sat frowning and scratching their heads over that one. The man plays as if the guitar is both a natural extension of himself and at the same time some alien creature that he's dead set on beating into submission.
In each of his three bands (the three that most people know about, I mean), there's been one song that became a showcase for his bizarrely contradictory relationship with the guitar. One song played at pretty much every show, during which he seemed to turn himself inside out and wrench forth a part of his soul. All three are impressive enough in their studio versions, but became something definitive when performed live.
In the White Stripes, that song was Death Letter. The choice is fairly obvious-- originally performed by Son House, this is what the Stripes were all about. Jack has stated that everything about the band, from their child-like demeanor to the color scheme, all of the "gimmicks", were intended as a distraction from the fact that they were two white kids from Detroit playing the blues. In some of the best performances of this song, Jack would segue into House's Grinnin' In Your Face or Blind Willie Johnson's Motherless Children at the end of his solo, but this version from the 2005 Glastonbury Festival contains no extras. It doesn't need them.
Much has been made of the scene in the film It Might Get Loud in which Jack smears blood all over his guitar during the solo of the Raconteurs song, Blue Veins. It's certainly amazing to think he'd be so possessed as to keep shredding after slicing open a finger. My own personal favorite performance of this song is one in which he's so overcome that he stops playing and stands transfixed at the mic for an entire, electric minute. But the performance that most people would direct you to, the one so intense that Jack demolishes his guitar, a monitor, three mics, and then stalks off the stage a jittery mess, is the one from the 2008 Bonnaroo Festival.
Though he went back to the drums for the Dead Weather, any fan will tell you that the highlight of that band's shows was the moment each night when he stepped out from behind the kit to play guitar on Will There Be Enough Water. The song is sparse lyrically but gives Jack multiple opportunities to open up on the guitar. Even on one occasion when he was seemingly trashed to the point of needing to lean against a speaker stack for support, he was still able to rip incredible sounds from his guitar. But just about the best performance of this song I've found is one that I was fortunate enough to witness, at the 9:30 Club in DC in 2010. (Recorded in two parts, be sure to watch both.)
With the Stripes finally officially ended, and his band-mates from both the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather off playing with their original outfits, there's a lot of speculation currently amongst fans about what Jack will do this year. The one thing that every single one of us seems to agree on is that we desperately hope he'll continue his weird relationship with the guitar, that thing he's apparently never had a passion for yet plays so damned passionately.
Edit 9/29/2011: Here's another take on this theme-- The Many Shades of Jack White from Gilles LeBlanc at ROCKthusiast.