By Gilbert Klein •The Music In Me: The Evolution of Lead Guitar
Friends, we are all spoiled and most of us don’t even know it, do we? We didn’t even miss it back then, and now it’s all over the place and I love it when I hear it. To explain, we have to go back to the 50’s and the earliest rock ‘n’ roll. Elsewhere in this space I’ve alluded to discussions I’ve participated in where the subject was the first rock ‘n’ roll record, but for the nonce, we’re going to look at the early days of lead guitar in rock music. So: not early rock, but early lead guitar.
Right, maybe I shouldn’t have started out with, Hey, you out there: you’re spoiled! Right, I should try to make friends in this space, so, uhh… look, I’m sorry, and I’ll start again, but it’s true. If you like rock music and careful enough to discern art—or skill, at the least—when you hear it, then let’s go back to when rock was being invented and we teens were the focus group. What they gave us was pre-programmed to get past our parents, because whatever we watched or listened to had to be parent-proof or they’d never put it out. The music we heard might not pass muster today for sophistication, but back then it rocked us because we didn’t know something was missing.
Songs were all under three minutes and most of them were made for dancing, so we danced, we sang, we threw our arms, legs and everything else around, and we had a good time not knowing we were deprived of excellent, daring, challenging rock lead guitar. Back then, lead guitar was simple riffs, sometimes merely repeated. No screaming breaks, no heights of emotion or stellar explorations. Back then Jimi Hendrix got thrown out of a pre-Experience Top 40-type band for “showing off.” He broke Rule #1 in Showbiz: never outshine the star. The lead guitar wasn’t the star? What the…? There were a few lead guitar-driven songs, and we’ll look at what that meant in the early days, when rock was being invented.
Rock was simple and formulaic, and no one was in what we now think of as a garage band because the bands practicing in garages were trying to sound like the Top 40 dance records that were on the AM radios that everyone listened to; no one was looking to overturn the establishment, and for that matter, I’d bet that any decent garage band in America right now has a lead guitarist way better than any of the guys we’re going to look at today, when the level of lead just wasn’t played because there was nothing like that around to emulate. The players were there, the skills were there, they just didn’t kick it up that extra notch. No judgment, here, because as with any art: it’s easy to copy, but hard to create. More exciting music was coming soon, but back then no one was thinking of serious lead guitar. It just wasn’t an issue.
Ever see the scene in Back to the Future when Marty McFly—with his knowledge of modern rock—grabs a guitar at a teen dance and starts Chuck Berry-ing all over the place before anyone had ever heard of Chuck Berry or his brand of rock or seen his stage antics, and the kids in the crowd were stunned into silence? They just weren’t ready yet, and neither were I or my classmates in the mid- and late 1950’s, when the record industry controlled the recording output and no one wrote or played on their own songs. The writers, singers, players and producers followed the charts and it was a safe, neatly tied-together, pre-digested package that teens sucked up until the mid-60’s, when all hell broke loose in every corner of our culture, and music drove the revolution.
There was rock lead guitar in the early days, but it followed a simple formula; no one took extended, adventurous breaks, no one was challenged by the music, no one was overworking the amps or had effects pedals, and hardly anyone played more than six notes; but no one knew we were missing anything. Some songs had a few guitar licks thrown in, and that was always a highlight for me, but the breaks were never extended beyond a few bars and then went back into the background. But even as I appear to be disparaging what we had, I have to tell you that it was great! It was new, it was ours, and we loved all the hits.
Rock belonged to the teens and not to their parents, so it was even better when our parents screwed up their faces in uncomprehending distaste at the sound of it. Rock was simple, it was mostly about love and lost love and used simple themes, it was made for dancing, and it was… simple. The best rock followed a faithful 4/4 beat and you could dance to it because we all did the same dances they did on the biggest, most-watched afternoon TV show in America, American Bandstand, with Dick Clark, which we all watched when we got home from school and then talked about that night on the phone if we were done with our homework and our parents let us use the phone because that was pretty expensive and our parents hated us tying up the line because everyone had just one line in the house and this was before “call waiting,” and parents could be testy about stuff like that, especially if we were talking about “that jungle music” and anyway we had all day tomorrow to talk about it.
American Bandstand had a daily feature where they’d play a new release and three kids would give it a grade, and at least two if not all three would include somewhere in their evaluation, “well, it had a good beat and you could dance to it…” Everyone watched it and we all learned the new dances from watching the show, which was necessary after a few years of doing the “Lindy,” when Chubby Checker came out with “The Twist” and every few weeks thereafter saw another new dance, like the Frug, the Hitch-hike, the Swim, the Monkey, the Madison, the Watusi, the Mashed Potatoes, and my favorite, the Stroll, some of which I can still do. We had dances and parties, which I liked but was awkward at, especially during those slow dances… those slow dances… when we got to hold a girl close and smell her perfume and feel her heartbeat...
Hey, how many people reading this have danced to rock ‘n’ roll anytime recently? Okay, I guess weddings and such count, but rules of civility prevail at those. What about a nightclub? Would you know how to dance there? I don’t know if I would. Just saying. We did then. It was simple and naïve, but joyful, and I wish I knew how to get that back, but let’s get on with the other thing: lead guitar.
For perspective, let’s start in 1954 with what some say is the first rock ‘n’ roll record: Bill Haley’s Rock Around The Clock. Okay, maybe you are among the many who thought this was the first rock record (and please don’t say that to Ike Turner! See below), but no one disputes it is one of the most important rock releases. Haley’s lead guitarist took a lead break, but it was only maybe six notes, played fast. Other than that brief lead, the band had two guitars playing rhythm. As we’ll see often, it’s a basic three-chord, twelve bar blues they’re playing. Simple rock. And pay attention to that six-note thing.
As long as we’re in this period, here’s a quick shout-out to Scotty Moore, legendary guitarist for Elvis Presley, who took some bluegrass, some blues, and made early rock guitar a standout instrument. Yes, Elvis was important, but it’s Moore that the coming rockers listened to. Along with being influenced by Duane Eddy, guitarists like Keith Richards George Harrison, Pete Townsend, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, John Lennon all studied Scotty Moore, and every right-thinking lead guitarist and rockabilly soul everywhere reveres him.
Now I’d like to jump to April, 1958 and introduce you to my first guitar hero, Duane Eddy, and when you’re ready, please stop reading this tripe and listen to Duane Eddy’s first hit, Rebel Rouser, with the understanding that this was exciting, rockin’ lead guitar. Eddy produced a low, reverberant sound that he called “twangy.” It was a new sound and it rocked us. Duane Eddy was a new thing: a guitar slinger, and I wanted in. My father said I could take lessons, but the only guitar teacher around was, like, 60, and he’d let me buy the sheet music to any song I wanted to learn as long as I completed my classical assignments, which of course I hated. And yes, we used to buy sheet music. But I practiced diligently and got through those exercises so I could get to what I wanted to play. The deal I agreed to was that if I took the classical lessons, my father would buy me a gut-string guitar, because of course having an electric guitar in the house was out of the question. I agreed to it, I got me a guitar, I started playing Rebel Rouser, and my father never forgave himself.
Cannonball, Eddy’s next hit, stays with the three-chord rock we’re looking at today, and deviates only slightly from the standard 12- bar blues format. Oh, yeah, for sophistication at the halfway mark he bumps it up a key, but it’s still simple music compared to what we know today. And 59 years later, it still rocks, and 59 years later, how many of us still do? The ranks are thinning, folks, and I’m glad our host at CA thinks enough of preserving some of this history, because after the Boomers go, you gotta do the research yourself if you want to know this. But you still have me, so let’s look at some other examples of early lead rock guitar.
There were few guys around whose fame was lead guitar, but hardly any of them sang, and among the most prominent was Link Wray, whose first release in May, 1958, Rumble, made him legendary, perhaps because the guitar had a unique sound, and perhaps because the song was banned in New York and Boston for fear that it would lead to an outbreak of gang violence, aka: a rumble. The song uses a distinctive, distorted guitar sound that many credit as the first power chord, and Quentin Tarantino hasn’t hurt Wray’s oldies career any when he featured this song and another in Pulp Fiction. Other films that include Rumble are too many to burden you with. Listen to it and try to imagine why this song might start a gang fight. Wray played chords emphasizing the bass, and it was heavy, but Eddy played lead on those strings, and this was as heavy as it got.
Just for fun, here’s Jimmy Page talking about Rumble. Listen to the lead break: basically he’s holding one chord and strumming in double time through the whole break, and the lead break lasts all of twelve seconds! Man, that’s what I’m saying! That was lead guitar! Also, that guitar he’s holding in the video is a Danelectro, and that’s the first electric guitar I got. I had to rent it because my father wasn’t going for a full-time Gilbert-owned electric guitar in the house. What would be next, one of those amplifiers? And my parents were normal! Parents were scared, friends; maybe not all of them, but there were pockets of troublemakers waiting for their chance, and all parents knew it. If my dad wouldn’t buy an electric for me, I had to rent it, and I got a Danelectro ‘cause, y’know, you gotta have style. Danelectros are a trip, they’re really collectible now, and players love to have them worked on and moderned-up. I don’t know how to explain it, but when I heard Link Wray’s sound, it thrilled me and Jimmy Page. And yes, I liked saying “me and Jimmy Page.”
Yeah, we were a bit unsophisticated, but this was all new to everyone, and it thrilled us. Speaking about how a new sound could have an impact, long ago in this space I recounted that the song many say as the first rock ‘n’ roll record is 1954’s Rocket 88 by Ike Turner. What many credit—in part—for the success of that record was its unique guitar sound. Ike’s drummer wrote the song in the car on the way from Florida to record in Memphis, but when they unpacked at Sun Studios, they found the guitar amp speaker cone was torn, so Sam Phillips stuffed some paper in there and the resulting “fuzzy” sound was so new and exciting that it helped drive the song to #1 on the R&B charts. Again, yes to being unsophisticated, but yes to everything being new and exciting, and once again we see that the music was simple, but although it was a rockin’ track, it was the sound of the guitar that people talked about. Interesting, mais non?
Now may I introduce the absolute star instrumental of the period (and please don’t disagree with me): Walk, Don’t Run by The Ventures. Easily the most-played and most recognizable instrumental of the period, it started out as a jazz tune in 1954, then re-cut by country guitarist Chet Atkins in 1956, and re-cut in 1960 with a 4/4 back-beat by The Ventures, when it went to #2 nationally. It became the only song ever re-cut by the same group and made into a hit again with a different version. Rolling Stone magazine named it one of the top 100 guitar songs of all time. After it came out, everywhere in America it became not only the first song a band learned, it was also the first song any aspiring guitarist learned. This song was everywhere! Ubiquitous, as it were.
So look at the video- and no laughing out there, d-d-dammit, they were our stars! We rocked to them! They rocked us at home, in the car, at dances and on TV. Let’s not think about how that band would go over today if presented un-ironically. No one rebelled yet, no one had long hair and only the JDs (juvenile delinquents) had sideburns. We all wore clean shirts and slacks, and jeans were only for weekends and after school. We were good boys and girls and that’s how it was. We all wore the proper clothes, and except for American Bandstand, we watched the same TV shows as our parents. We said thanks and may I and we toed the line and that’s why our parents were freaked-the-fuck out when it all changed after a group we never heard of got booked to do two songs on the Ed Sullivan Show. But back then this was lead guitar and we liked it!
Concluding chronologically, we refocus and go back to those six notes that maybe you thought I was kidding about as we look to Jörgen Ingmann and Apache from 1961. Ingmann had been influenced by Les Paul enough to build his own recording studio in Copenhagen and began experimenting in multi-tracking and distortion. Apache made it to #1 in Canada, #2 in the U.S. and in Europe, but I think the main reason I threw in Apache was so I could tell you that before his one hit, Ingmann played in an early 50’s duo named The Unmelancholy Danes. I know! You’re welcome.
But I’ve been harping about the sophistication thing, and it’s important, so let’s use a fun example of our sophistication back then by using a song that everyone (absolutely everyone!) knows- The Lion Sleeps Tonight by The Tokens. You know the song, you like the song, and too many of you have sung the song at some karaoke thing I was at. Good song, sure, a standard since 1961 (a #1 hit in 36 countries!) but by now you’ve also watched a lot of nature shows and you’ve all seen the lions out there on the plains, and you never thought: “Wait! There are no lions in the jungle! There are tigers in jungles, yeah, but there just isn’t a jungle anywhere with lions in it.” Okay, it’s kind of cheesy that they got away with that, but wait! Wait! Lions don’t sleep at night, they hunt at night! They sleep during the day to avoid the heat out there in the Serengeti Plain, that deathly-dry place that hardly has any trees, and when the sun starts setting they wake up and stretch and go out hunting, or ask the ladies to do it. So that song… it was all bullshit!
Liked that song, didn’t ya? Sucks, doesn’t it? And consider how long it would be before the net blew up with outrage if that song came out today. Yeah, I know you’re gonna think about that every time you hear the song from now on, and worse- you’re going to tell everyone around you about it the next time the song comes on. And yes, you’re gonna be a jerk just like I was. Yes, telling you that was a shitty thing to do, but if you’re ever on Final Jeopardy and they ask, “What was wrong with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”? you’re ready, Eddy. And again, you’re welcome.
To wrap up here, we must ask where that leaves us vis-à-vis guys like George Harrison, Keith Richards and all the guys in the first wave of the British Invasion. George, Keith, Pete Townsend and Jimmy Page all loved Duane Eddy, studied him when lead guitar meant something very different than it does today, and I’d bet that almost any garage band in America has better lead players than George or Keith. No, that is not, I repeat not, sacrilege, because these guys came up before guys like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman and everyone who followed their leads (pun unintended but enjoyed) made their mark by following a path of experimentation that wasn’t in the wind yet.
For me, Keith Richards is Mr. Rock and Mr. Roll, and his leads are bold and exciting, but lacking in the sophistication of those who came after. That stinging, piercing lead in Sympathy for the Devil is an all-treble attack, but look at what he does with so few notes. That’s Keith, man: give him a second and he’ll sting ya! Play it loud! It’s supposed to hurt! But remember that when Brian Jones died, they didn’t go looking for a rhythm guitarist, they went and hired Mick Taylor, one of the hottest, boldest lead players in the market. And when he couldn’t keep up with the Rolling Stones’ lifestyle, they hired Ronnie Wood, who I believe to be a better player than Keith, and who I believe holds back in the band because, people: what was Showbiz Rule #1? Right.
George Harrison improved, of course, but no one that I know has compared him with his friend Eric or Jimi or Jeff Beck or Jimmy Page or… But like with Keith, it’s the soul of the player, not the licks. And this is where we get to Chuck Berry, who is so important to this issue, and who, because he falls into a separate category, I won’t insult anyone by mentioning him only briefly, but with the promise of further explication. In a word, Chuck Berry is a category by himself.
To conclude (no cheering out there!), in the event that I haven’t made Duane Eddy’s contribution to lead guitar important enough for you, have a few of these:
- "Rebel Rouser," featuring yells and handclaps by The Rivingtons, became Eddy's breakthrough hit, reaching #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It sold over one million copies, earning Eddy his first gold disc.
- Eddy sold over 12 million records over the next few years, and his band members, would go on to work as part of Phil Spector's Wrecking Crew.
- One writer I found was convinced that Eddy’s raunchy guitar helped keep rock ‘n’ roll alive in a fallow period, a period I think of as the time of the Jimmy’s and Bobby’s. He sure did for me.
- Duane Eddy continued a non-stop string of releases, most of which made little impact, but in 1987, he released Duane Eddy, which featured the original Rebels (his backing band), plus John Fogerty, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Ry Cooder, James Burton, David Lindley and Steve Cropper, all of whom you should know. The album was co-produced by McCartney, Jeff Lynne, Ry Cooder and The Art of Noise.
- In the spring of 1994, Eddy was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Eddy's "Rebel Rouser" was featured that same year in Forrest Gump. Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers used "The Trembler", a track written by Eddy and Ravi Shankar. Also in 1994, Eddy teamed up with Carl Perkins and The Mavericks to contribute "Matchbox" to the AIDS benefit album Red Hot + Country.
- Eddy was the lead guitarist on Foreigner's 1995 hit "Until the End of Time", which reached the top ten on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart.
- In 1996, Eddy played guitar on the soundtrack for the film Broken Arrow.
- In 2000, at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee, the title "Titan of Twang" was bestowed upon Eddy by the mayor.
- In 2004, Eddy was presented with the Guitar Player Magazine "Legend Award". Eddy was the second recipient of the award, the first being presented to Les Paul.
- Among those who have acknowledged his influence are George Harrison, Dave Davies, Hank Marvin, the Ventures, John Entwistle, Bruce Springsteen, Adrian Belew, Bill Nelson, and Mark Knopfler.
- Eddy was the first rock and roll guitarist to have a signature model guitar. In 1961 Guild Guitars introduced the Duane Eddy Models DE-400 and the deluxe DE-500. A limited edition was reissued briefly in 1983 to mark Eddy's 25th anniversary in the recording industry. In 1997 Gretsch Guitars started production of the Duane Eddy Signature Model, the Gretsch 6120-DE. In 2004 the Gibson Custom Art and Historic Division introduced the new Duane Eddy Signature Gibson guitar. A new Gretsch G6120DE Duane Eddy Signature model was released in spring 2011.
- So: was Duane Eddy important?
Gilbert Klein has enough degrees and not enough stories. He’s been a radio talk show host, a nightclub owner, event producer, and has written two books: FAT CHANCE about the legendary KFAT radio, and FOOTBALL 101. He threatens to write one more. He spent 25 years in New York, 25 years in San Francisco, and is now purportedly retired in Baja.2