Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Style, Sound, and Revolution of the Electric Guitar - Alan di Perna, Brad Tolinski (2016)
Chapter 5. THE BLUES (AND COUNTRY) HAD A BABY
In the summer of 1943, the Number Nine Illinois Central train made its usual sixteen-hour climb from Memphis to Chicago. It was an uneventful trek for the railroad, but for one of its passengers—a handsome thirty-year-old black farmhand named McKinley Morganfield—it would always be remembered as the most monumental day of his life. Not that anyone could tell he was excited or nervous. His heavy-lidded eyes radiated an almost preternatural sense of cool as he watched the landscape slowly evolve outside the train window from emerald green pastures to gray industrial sprawl.
It was hard for him to believe that after thirty years of living and toiling in the cotton fields of Clarksdale, Mississippi, he was leaving his wood cabin for Chicago, a land so exotic he might as well be on a spaceship flying to Saturn. Wearing his only suit, and carrying a battered suitcase in one hand and a ten-dollar Stella acoustic guitar in the other, Morganfield knew he looked “country,” but he was confident his ability to sing and play the blues would guarantee his survival in the city.
He was at least as good as his friend Robert Nighthawk, who’d left Clarksdale a couple of years earlier and was already making records for labels such as Victor and Bluebird. Truth was, he was a lot better. Since his early teens, Morganfield, known to his friends as Muddy Waters, had been honing his talent performing around the Stovall Plantation, where he spent long days plowing the fields followed by late nights entertaining tough customers in local juke joints. He was greatly influenced by other Delta bluesmen, such as Son House, Robert Johnson, and Charley Patton, but Waters had developed his own distinct sound, built around a deep, sensual voice punctuated by his stinging bottleneck slide guitar.
“I’d be hittin’ my guitar, blowing a kazoo, and it was gone,” Waters remembered. “People be dancin’ like wild.” He was a local legend, but at the age of thirty, he wasn’t getting any younger and it was time to get a move on and make his mark in the city.
Besides, he never did like farming and all it entailed—picking and chopping cotton, taming the rough terrain in the hot sun. “I didn’t like work, period,” he told journalist Robert Palmer in 1978. “I loved the country—beautiful country, the Delta! But I would rather be in town playin’ my guitar.”
Muddy wasn’t the only one determined to break the last chains of post-slavery plantation life. By the time he arrived in Chicago, tens of thousands of black Americans had already migrated there from the South. It might have been colder, dirtier, and more dangerous, but the factories and stockyard killing floors paid roughly four times more than work at the plantation—$2,000 a year on average, as opposed to $450.
Still, when Waters stepped off the train in Chicago, he was stunned. “It was the fastest place I’d ever seen in my life,” he said. “Cabs dropping fares, horns blowing, the peoples walking so fast…and the big buildings.”
He was as green as a Mississippi water snake, but over the next decade Mud would rise from the streets to become the undisputed king of Chicago blues, recording enduring classics for Chess Records like “Rollin’ Stone,” “I Got My Mojo Working,” and “Mannish Boy.” During that time he would also form the first significant electric band—that is, a group that used amplification for something more than sheer volume. Muddy and his self-proclaimed “Headhunters” would use electricity and distortion to create a sound that was as big, powerful, and modern as the locomotive he rode to town on. The band, featuring a singer, two electric guitars, an amplified harmonica, bass, and drums, would influence a vast array of blues and rock musicians who collectively shaped music in the twentieth century, including Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, B.B. King, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin. If rock and roll were a virus, Muddy and his guitar were its patient zero.
WHEN WATERS HIT Chicago, it was primarily a jazz town. The sophisticated jump music of performers like Louis Jordan, Big Joe Turner, and guitarist (and Charlie Christian bandmate) T-Bone Walker were all the rage, while well-established blues performers such as Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Slim were relegated to smaller clubs. Undeterred by the lack of musical opportunities, Muddy was ready to make his own luck. He hustled jobs, playing raucous house parties for $5 a night and all the whiskey he could drink, while working a succession of day jobs, doing everything from factory work to delivering venetian blinds.
Time and time again, Waters was told by local musicians that his raw form of country blues and bottleneck slide would never fly in the city, but he had enough evidence to the contrary. His performances at wild tenement get-togethers were incredibly popular with transplanted blacks, who enthusiastically consumed Muddy’s emotive Delta-style blues like it was the sweetest home cooking, and he was confident in its power and broader commercial potential.
The only problem was, as mighty as his voice and guitar playing were, the city wasn’t the country, and his acoustic guitar was no match for the ambient blare and smokestack lightning of the noisy Chicago streets. Muddy knew he needed something more if he was going to wrestle the wild metropolis to the ground.
“The country sounds different than in the city—the sound is empty out there,” he recalled. “At night…just a guitar, man, you play it at night out in the country, carries it a long way cross town.” This simply wasn’t the case in the North. As fun as it was to play at house parties, the close walls and bad acoustics of a rowdy apartment room filled with revelers threatened to swallow his music whole before it could even reach the front door.
Fortunately for Waters, he’d found a solution to his problems in the form of guitarist Jimmy Rogers, a fellow Mississippi transplant who had heard about Waters from mutual friends. When they first sat down to play, Rogers immediately recognized Mud’s potential and understood how to help him take it to another level. An enormously empathetic musician, Rogers appreciated the rawness of Waters’s country approach, but, ten years his junior, he also knew the sound needed to be brought into the modern era.
“Muddy had a Gretsch hollow-box [guitar],” Rogers told writer Robert Gordon, “and I got him a DeArmond pickup put on his guitar, got him a little amplifier, and then you could get a sound out of it.”
For the next several months, the duo jammed every chance they could at Muddy’s house on the West Side of Chicago, running through traditional songs and building new compositions of their own while carefully constructing complementary sounds and tones through their 15-watt Gibson amplifiers. Jimmy, with his Silvertone archtop, concentrated on the more contemporary single-note method, influenced by players like Charlie Christian, while Muddy, on what was most likely a Gretsch Synchromatic 100, focused on the gritty rural slide technique created by Son House and Robert Johnson. Together they forged a new sound, as Rogers’s slinky licks coiled and uncoiled around Waters’s aggressively swampy grind. It sounded sexy and dangerous. Add Mud’s impassioned vocals to the mix and you had a sound that was big enough to knock plaster from ceilings, or peel paint from brick and steel. With two amplified guitars, they could do much more than fill an apartment with sound; they could dominate an entire club.
OF COURSE MUDDY and Jimmy weren’t the first guitarists looking to expand their dynamic range. Charlie Christian was already turning heads with his playing on the Gibson ES-150. So why didn’t they follow in his footsteps?
The simple answer is that, for a working-class musician, it wasn’t that easy. Buying a $150 Gibson or Epiphone instrument was an expensive proposition in the forties, especially if you were struggling to make $5 a night. For men of their means, there was another option, one that was cheap and actually quite brilliant.
The DeArmond electromagnetic pickup was a stand-alone device that could turn any acoustic guitar into an electric instrument in seconds, and it cost a relatively manageable $25. Invented in 1935 by an enterprising ten-year-old guitarist named John Henry DeArmond, who fashioned a pickup from parts off an old Ford Model A, the unit clipped onto just about any guitar, giving Depression-era players a way to go electric without purchasing a new instrument. John’s older brother, Harry, immediately saw the potential of the device and teamed up with a Toledo, Ohio, company named Rowe Industries. Together they oversaw the production of two models in 1939: the RH for round-hole guitars, and the FH for f-hole instruments.
The DeArmond pickups were a success, and enormously significant in democratizing the electric guitar for musicians like Waters and Rogers. And while they were inexpensive, they were by no means inferior products. Many aficionados consider the 1953 Model 1100, for example, to be among the best-sounding pickups ever made. Percussive, rich, and slightly twangy, the 1100 had a one-of-a-kind sound. It can fetch as much as $1,000 in today’s market. The company went on to provide groundbreaking pickups for, most notably, Gretsch, Fender, and Martin, but those early pickups were some of the most important and unsung heroes in the popularization of the electric guitar.
MUDDY WATERS HAD always maintained that while his blues appeared to be simple, it was “the hardest in the world to play.” He may have been right. For Waters, the blues was a fluid thing, and it had to flow, hesitate, or explode at any given moment, depending on what the singer was trying to express. Fellow musicians had to be vigilant to catch the dramatic pauses and the passionate outbursts of joy or sorrow that were the hallmark of a great blues performance. The chord progressions might’ve been easy to master, but the art of maintaining the groove while capturing the shifting drama of the music was as subtle and complex as any performance by a classical string quartet.
It wasn’t easy to teach, either, and was even more difficult to learn. Waters and Rogers spent long hours practicing and building a sort of psychic connection that would allow them to shift dynamic gears at the drop of a bottle. For the next couple of years they played parties, networked the South Side blues clubs—such as the 708 Club, Smitty’s Corner, and the Triangle Inn—and supported other bluesmen, like harmonica legend Sonny Boy Williamson and pianist Sunnyland Slim, while working on their soon-to-be revolutionary sound.
Occasionally they accepted outsiders into their ranks. For a while a flashy guitarist named Claude “Blue Smitty” Smith from Marianna, Arkansas, joined the duo. Smitty brought a new level of musical sophistication to the unit, and taught Waters and Rogers more than a few new tricks on the guitar, but he eventually left for a more stable job as an electrician. It was just as well, for it was his replacement that would help them make history.
Rogers lived only half a block from the center of Maxwell Street, a bustling Chicago marketplace that was a gathering place for street musicians looking to sharpen their chops and make a few bucks off passing crowds in the process. One morning he woke up to a “strange harp sound.” The music was familiar, and yet so compelling that the guitarist put his clothes on and pushed through the busy streets until he found what he’d expected: the preposterously skinny, teenaged Marion “Little Walter” Jacobs, blowing some of the fiercest harmonica he had ever heard. The guitarist had only briefly crossed paths with Walter over the years, but he’d never forgotten his singular sound.
“He had a bass player and a guitar and a drum with him,” recalled Rogers. “But the only thing that was really standing out to me was the harmonica. That’s what I wanted to hear, and I knew how to back it up. And I sat in with them, and well, we had a wonderful time down there. That’s the way we really met—communicating.”
Still adjusting after Blue Smitty’s departure, Rogers brought Walter to Muddy’s home for a jam. Walter was young, high-strung, and arrogant, and his timing left much to be desired, but there was no arguing with his ear for melody and his lightning-fast chops. Profoundly influenced by swing jazz and bebop sax players like Charlie Parker, Walter was way ahead of the blues curve, and it was clear to Muddy and Jimmy that if they could rein in the eighteen-year-old, there would be very little that could stop the trio from being a force to be reckoned with in the blues world.
Little Walter knew he was brilliant, and was therefore reluctant to take orders from anyone, and even argued with veteran players such as Sonny Boy or Big Walter Horton when they tried to get him to slow down. You had to be careful when arguing with Walter. Rogers put it succinctly: “He was likely to kill you or anybody that crossed him.” He was small and quick to anger, but there was something about the seriousness of Waters and Rogers and their ability to break down each song that appealed to the harp player, who deep down knew he needed to learn how to play within a groove if he was ever going to make it in a band.
Together they began forging the same kind of psychic bond with Walter that they had with each other. “Running patterns,” they called it. By that time, Muddy and Jimmy were so in tune with each other that even the hurricane force that was Little Walter had to comply. And once the harmonica player found the groove, Waters and Rogers would start building and creating subtle variations until they would explode, sending waves of shrapnel-like bent notes and distortion toward audiences, who responded to the power and excitement by packing their performances.
The trio encompassed the past, present, and future of popular music in one compelling package. Even though Muddy’s sound was rooted in the soil of the Mississippi Delta, playing through an amp modernized his style. The treble licks sliced deeper, his notes sustained longer and hung in the air like smoke. The sound he produced was industrial in strength—a primordial cry designed for modern ears.
It wasn’t long before Waters, Rogers, and Walter, accompanied by a succession of drummers and bassists, came to own the Chicago blues scene. Their combined volume and absolute control over dynamics was unlike anything anyone had ever heard out of such a small group. Most significant was the notion that five men could generate that much noise and excitement; it pretty much sealed the doom of big bands, who were expensive to take on the road and difficult to maintain. The group would set the stage for rock bands to follow, who would use amplification to fill arenas, stadiums, and beyond.
But just as the unit was really starting to gel, Waters got his own break. In 1947 the legendary record company owner and producer Leonard Chess announced he was searching for a “rough blues singer,” a musician who could authentically sing and play rural blues for his Aristocrat label (soon to be the eponymous Chess Records). Recent successes by Lightnin’ Hopkins for Aladdin Records and John Lee Hooker for Modern Records, who both played like they’d never left the Delta, convinced Chess that there was commercial potential for music that appealed to transplanted blacks nostalgic for simpler times.
Pianist Sunnyland Slim, who functioned as the record mogul’s eyes and ears on the street, recommended Waters, who had remained true to his country roots even as he adjusted his sound and style for the city. But Chess wasn’t remotely interested in Muddy’s sensational band; he just wanted Waters.
Mud was disappointed to part with his bandmates, but he knew it was an opportunity too good to refuse. And so, in April of 1948, he became a solo act.
Chess got so much more than an authentic country sound out of Waters. Accompanied only by his amplified Gretsch acoustic and the ominous thump of upright bassist Big Crawford, Muddy recorded two milestones in blues history, “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “I Feel Like Going Home.” While the production was sparse, Mud’s bottleneck playing, channeled through an amplifier, gave his music an edge that was as funky and dirty as an Illinois factory. It wasn’t the full-on assault of Muddy’s band, but it was innovative still. Chess himself wasn’t sure if he liked it, but when the first pressing of his single almost sold out in a day, he knew he would learn to.
After releasing smash after smash, Waters eventually convinced Chess to let him record with members of his band. Together, they would dominate the R&B charts during the mid-fifties with soon-to-be blues standards such as “I Just Want to Make Love to You” and “Hoochie Coochie Man.” The Muddy Waters sound—sly, sexual innuendo issued over two stinging electric guitars, a wailing harmonica, and a throbbing rhythm section—would create a new paradigm for the blues.
FROM A MODERN perspective, it would be easy to imagine that the history of the electric guitar must largely have been a battle royale fought between Gibson and Fender, dominant as they are in today’s market. But there were many other manufacturers equally important to the development of the instrument. As we have mentioned, some of Muddy Waters’s earliest and most important electric sides were recorded using a hollow-body Gretsch with a DeArmond pickup. While it was not technically an electric guitar—it was an acoustic instrument retrofitted with an aftermarket device—both Gretsch and DeArmond would become major players in the solid-body guitar field.
Gretsch’s origins are an archetypal New York story and, like Gibson’s and Rickenbacker’s, began with an immigrant from the Old World. Friedrich Gretsch arrived in Manhattan from Mannheim, Germany, in 1873. He worked briefly for the drum and banjo manufacturer Albert Houdlett & Sons. But by 1883, he’d Americanized his first name to Fred, started the Fred Gretsch Manufacturing Company in Brooklyn, and begun to build a product line that included drums, banjos, tambourines, and toy instruments.
The company grew steadily, but in 1895 misfortune struck. On a trip back to Germany, Friedrich died suddenly. He was only thirty-nine years old.
“He was traveling to Europe on a boat,” explained great-grandson Fred Gretsch III, who still runs the company. “By the time he got to Hamburg, he was deathly ill, and he died a day or two later.”
The leadership of the company passed on to Friedrich’s eldest son, Fred—known as Fred Sr.—who was only fifteen at the time. “Even though my grandfather was only fifteen in 1895, my great-grandmother brought him into the business, rather than closing it down,” said Fred III. “She must’ve been a heck of a businesswoman: the mother of seven children and helping a fifteen-year-old son to run the company. Together they brought the business forward.”
Mandolins were added to the line in 1900. And in 1916, the Fred Gretsch Manufacturing Company built a fine new headquarters for itself: a ten-story building at 60 Broadway in Brooklyn. Visible from the on-ramp to the Williamsburg Bridge connecting Brooklyn to Manhattan, the Gretsch building would be a landmark for successive generations of guitarists in the New York area.
Gretsch got increasingly involved in guitar making during the 1920s and 1930s, as guitars eclipsed banjos as the instrument of choice for dance band rhythm sections. During the twenties, these Gretsch-made guitars were marketed under the Rex and 20th Century brand names. None of these early guitars attracted much attention, but in 1939, Gretsch brought out the Synchromatic series—stylish archtops with flashy “cat’s eye” sound holes that did much to put Gretsch on the map. That same year saw the release of the first Gretsch electric, the Electromatic Spanish guitar.
The Gretsch company underwent a series of managerial changes during the 1940s. Fred Gretsch Sr. left the company in 1942 and became a banker. Leadership of the company passed to his son William Walter “Bill” Gretsch, the father of the company’s current head. But Bill Gretsch died in 1948, at age forty-one, and was succeeded by his brother, Fred Gretsch, known as Fred Jr. In the booming economy that took hold in the years after the end of World War II, Fred Jr. decided the time was right to stop messing around with the subcontract work they had been doing for Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck, and to get serious about building and marketing high-quality guitars under the Gretsch name. As part of this impetus, Gretsch made a pact with Harry DeArmond; DeArmond pickups graced some of Gretsch’s finest early-fifties guitars.
Solid-body electrics were still a new concept at the dawn of the fifties, but Fred Jr. had taken notice of Leo Fender, if only because Leo had for a time encroached upon his Broadkaster brand name. But what really got Fred Jr.’s attention (and what would transform the way the electric guitar was conceived in America and abroad, as we’ll see) was when his chief rival, Gibson, started producing the solid-body Les Paul model in 1952.
Ted McCarty, Gibson’s president, recalled Gretsch’s disbelief that Gibson was dabbling in such a tacky fad. In a 1992 interview McCarty said, “Fred Gretsch, who was a personal friend of mine, said how could you do this? I said, Fred, somebody’s got to stop this guy Fender, he’s just about trying to take over.”
Fred may have been a skeptic, but it didn’t take long for him to change his tune. After Fender and Gibson started selling solid-body guitars by the thousands, he responded quickly, and one year later the company introduced the 1953 Gretsch Duo Jet. It wasn’t really a solid-body instrument. Hollow sound chambers within the body gave it a tone distinct from either the Les Paul or the Telecaster, a difference that found favor over the years with players ranging from Beatle George Harrison to punk rock icon Billy Zoom of the Los Angeles band X, to U2’s the Edge.
The original Duo Jet was issued in black. But in 1954, Gretsch guitars started to become available in a kaleidoscopic range. Among them was the Gretsch Silver Jet, basically a Duo Jet done up in a silver sparkle finish, a look taken from Gretsch’s drum department. As a major guitar manufacturer also very heavily invested in the drum business, Gretsch had a source of eye-catching materials that left its competitors in the dust.
The idea of applying drum surfaces to guitars was the brainchild of Jimmie Webster. Webster was an outgoing, backslapping ball of energy: a musician, inventor, pitchman, and marketing genius all rolled into one. As an artist/endorser he did tours and clinics to promote Gretsch instruments, dazzling potential customers with an unusual two-handed fretboard tapping technique (which rocker Edward Van Halen would stumble upon three decades later). He was also a marketing wiz, bombarding management and production people with wild ideas for finishes and gimmicks such as the T-Zone Tempered Treble, which was a very exciting name for a rather boring method of improving intonation using slanted frets.
But perhaps Webster’s biggest contribution to Gretsch was corralling a particular young country guitar virtuoso into their fold. Gretsch was making great guitars, but they lacked a strong identity in the marketplace. The company was determined to find a marquee artist to attach their name to, someone who could bolster their image and their sales.
The notion of the signature model—attaching a noted player’s name to a new guitar design—goes back at least as far as the 1830s, with collaborations between renowned luthiers such as René Lacote and Johann Stauffer and players such as Fernando Sor and Luigi Legnani. The idea was simple: if the best maker teamed up with the best player, they’d surely come up with something spectacular. Gibson had been achieving great success with their Les Paul signature models, as we’ll see. And Gretsch had been courting the growing country market with models like the Round-Up, introduced in ’53, so an alliance with a country star seemed an altogether wise course.
Fortunately for Gretsch, Webster knew exactly who to call.
BORN IN 1924 in the tiny, impoverished Appalachian town of Luttrell, Tennessee, the shy, asthmatic Chet Atkins found solace in his guitar. He’d started out on the ukulele, but when he was nine he traded his brother, Lowell, an old pistol and some chores for a guitar. Because of his illness, he was forced to sleep in a straight-back chair, in order to breathe comfortably. On those nights he would listen to the radio and play his guitar until he fell asleep, a habit that continued throughout his life.
Deeply influenced by the intricate fingerpicking of country guitarist Merle Travis and the jazz styles of Les Paul and Chicago guitarist George Barnes, Atkins eventually developed a remarkable, highly polished playing style that would earn him the nickname “Mr. Guitar.” He was essentially a fingerpicker like Travis, but whereas Travis used his index finger for the melody and thumb for bass notes, Atkins expanded his style to include picking with the first three fingers. Chet’s facility was so great, it often sounded like two people were playing at once (if not three), and he would amuse himself and astound audiences by playing two different songs simultaneously.
In 1942, the skinny, six-foot-tall eighteen-year-old became a staff guitarist at a radio station in Knoxville, Tennessee. He rapidly worked his way up the ladder, landing a recording contract five years later with RCA Victor in Nashville, where he became a triple threat—producing, recording, and arranging.
When Gretsch approached Atkins to endorse their instruments in 1954, the guitarist was intrigued. Both of his heroes, Travis and Paul, had signature models, and he aspired to be held in the same regard.
“At the time I was full of ambition,” said Atkins. “I wanted to be known all over the world as a great guitarist, and that was one brick in the edifice that would help that happen.” He agreed to work with Gretsch.
The first of many Chet Atkins models, the venerable 6120 debuted in 1955. Wanting to make a dramatic statement, Gretsch created an instrument that screamed “cowboy” perhaps a little too loudly. In addition to its campfire-orange finish, the archtop guitar featured a kitschy G-for-Gretsch logo branded into the front of the body and a 22-fret board engraved with a steer head, a cactus, and other western motifs.
Atkins himself was not crazy about the styling, and later modified most of it, but he was determined to support Gretsch’s efforts to make him and his new guitar household names.
“I was very honest about it,” said Atkins. “I played the Gretsch guitar, the orange one, even though I didn’t like it.”
Despite its garish design, or perhaps because of it, the 6120 was an overnight success, handily outselling Gibson’s best-selling ES guitar, the ES-175, from 1955 to 1961. The guitar grew and evolved with the company itself, and it would go on to become perhaps their most revered model.
Much to Gretsch’s delight, that same year the guitarist would also score two of the biggest hits of his career. His instrumental arrangement of “Mr. Sandman” reached #13 on the country charts and was followed almost immediately by another hit, “Silver Bell,” a duet with country superstar Hank Snow. This meant that Atkins and his orange guitar would appear regularly on national television, cementing his image as one of America’s premier guitarists and instrumentalists.
Additionally, over the next couple of years, the guitarist would oversee production and play rhythm guitar on some of rock and roll’s most significant early records, including Elvis Presley’s breakthrough RCA single, “Heartbreak Hotel” (which he arranged), and the Everly Brothers’ smashes “Wake Up Little Susie” and “Bye Bye Love.”
While much has been written about the influence of the blues on rock guitar, it is of equal importance to note the contribution of country music. Most of our best early guitar-playing rock musicians were from the South. Elvis Presley’s guitarist Scotty Moore, who was highly influenced by Atkins, was from Tennessee. Buddy Holly was from Texas; Gene Vincent’s guitarist, Cliff Gallup, was from Virginia; the Everly Brothers were from Kentucky; and they all had deep roots in folk music, western swing, bluegrass, and country. It was not an accident that most early rock music played by white musicians was called “rockabilly,” which was essentially shorthand for hillbilly music infused with a large shot of African American-influenced rhythm and blues.
Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, summed it up this way: “The colored folk been singin’ and playin’ it just the way I’m doin it now, man, for more years than I know.” But in other interviews he also described it as “hopped-up country.” Both statements were true, and Atkins was a mover and a shaker at the center of all of it.
As a company that specialized in creating glitzy guitars that just happened to have a strong foothold in the country market, Gretsch was ideally positioned to become the axe of choice for the original rockabilly wild men with their outsized pompadour hairstyles and two-tone shoes. A circa ’57 Gretsch 6120 was the vehicle that Eddie Cochran rode to fame on, with classic tracks such as “Summertime Blues” and “Something Else,” songs that were reprised in later years by the Who and the Sex Pistols. Duane Eddy opted for a red 6120, purchased at Ziggy’s Music in Duane’s hometown of Phoenix, Arizona, and employed on instrumental hits like “Rebel Rouser” (which gave the word “twang” a permanent place of honor in the popular musicians’ lexicon). And lead guitar man Cliff Gallup wielded a circa ’55-’56 Duo Jet on such classic Gene Vincent hits as “Be-Bop-A-Lula”—a sound that made it to England and caused a young Jeff Beck and John Lennon to flip their wigs.
But Gretsch’s impact on early rock and roll wasn’t confined to rockabilly. Sometime in the mid-fifties, R&B great Bo Diddley took a Gretsch neck and pickups and attached them to a simple rectangular guitar body he’d made himself. A rock-and-roll archetype was born. Diddley went to Gretsch around 1958 and asked them to start making these distinctive guitars for him. With their five-alarm-red paint job and unique shape, they became an important element in Bo Diddley’s distinctive visual and musical style. The great rock-and-roll originator also played a Jet Firebird in the studio and worked with Gretsch to create the rocket-shaped Jupiter Thunderbird, revived decades later by Gretsch’s current management and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons as the Billy-Bo Gretsch.
Meanwhile, Gretsch poster boy Chet Atkins had been made the head of RCA’s Nashville recording studios in ’57. There, he helped create the much-celebrated Nashville Sound, a more mainstream version of country music that emphasized vocals and smoothed out any rural edges with the use of strings and slick background harmonies. Beginning in the mid-fifties continuing through the early sixties, the Nashville Sound turned country from a regional, niche phenomenon into a multimillion-dollar pop-crossover industry, as Atkins produced massive hit singles by Don Gibson, Jim Reeves, Charley Pride, Porter Wagoner, and Dolly Parton.
“We took the twang out of it,” said Atkins with pride. “In my case it went more uptown. I’d take out the steel guitar and the fiddle, which branded a song as strictly country.”
While some criticized Atkins’s productions as too slick, when later asked to define the Nashville Sound, the ever-shrewd guitarist responded simply by shaking some leftover change in his pocket and saying, “That’s what it is. It’s the sound of money.”
As Atkins’s prestige grew, so did Gretsch’s line of Chet Atkins signature models. Introduced in 1957, the Chet Atkins Country Gentleman was a thinline hollow-body guitar—a slimmer version of the conventional hollow-body. It was built without sound holes, to attempt to contain feedback (though the company painted on fake f-holes just to make the instrument look kosher). The following year, Gretsch added the 6119 Tennessean model to the Chet Atkins line. It was essentially an affordable, single-pickup version of the 6120, although this model, like all Gretsches, would evolve in the years to come.
IN 1954, at the age of forty-one, Muddy Waters had finally made it to the top. Or so it seemed. “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” released that year, became his biggest sellers and remained in the Top 10 R&B charts for more than three months. But the winds of change were blowing, and that summer, blues record sales suddenly plummeted, dropping by a dramatic 25 percent and sending shock waves through the Chicago music industry. Record execs blamed the poor economy, but as we’ve seen, a fresh and more youth-oriented brand of music was starting to sweep the airwaves, one that was built on the bones of the very R&B, blues, and country that they had so carefully nurtured. As Waters would later sing, “the blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll.”
In ’54, Elvis Presley paired the country tune “Blue Moon of Kentucky” with “That’s All Right,” a song originally performed by blues singer Arthur Crudup, and the single sold an impressive 20,000 copies. That same year, Bill Haley & His Comets sold millions with “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “Rock Around the Clock.” In response, Leonard Chess sniffed out and signed two young electric guitar-playing rockers of his own. Bo Diddley and his rectangular guitar would become an enormous commercial success; but it was Chuck Berry’s crossover to the white teenage market that would make him a legend.
Charles Edward Anderson Berry, born to a middle-class family in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1926, was a brown-eyed charmer who loved the blues and poetry with almost equal fervor. After winning a high school talent contest with a guitar-and-vocal rendition of Jay McShann’s “Confessin’ the Blues,” he became serious about making music and started working the clubs in East St. Louis, Illinois, located directly across the Mississippi River from his hometown, where he put all of his skills to good use. While Berry excelled at playing the blues of Muddy Waters and crooning in the suave manner of Nat King Cole, it was his ability to play “white music” that would eventually make him a star.
“The music played most around St. Louis was country-western and swing,” Berry said in his autobiography. “Curiosity provoked me to lay a lot of the country stuff on our predominantly black audience. After they laughed at me a few times, they began requesting the hillbilly stuff.”
The sight and sound of a black man playing white hillbilly music, combined with Berry’s natural showmanship and his ability to improvise clever lyrics to fit any occasion, made him a top attraction with Missouri’s black community. But Berry had bigger aspirations; he wanted to make records. While on a trip to Chicago he paid a fifty-cent admission fee to see his favorite blues singer, Muddy Waters, perform, and after the show he worked his way toward the bandstand and managed a few words with his idol.
“It was the feeling I suppose one would get from having a word with the president or the pope,” Berry remembered. “I quickly told him of my admiration for his compositions and asked him who I could see about making a record.”
Waters told the guitarist to see Leonard Chess. So, taking his hero at his word, Berry made a beeline for Chess Studios the next morning, introduced himself to the receptionist, and politely asked to see Chess. Remarkably, Chess waved him in, and Berry passionately delivered a well-rehearsed speech outlining his hopes as a musician. “He had a look of amazement that he later told me was because of the businesslike way I talked to him,” Berry later said.
Hearing Chuck’s homemade demo tape, the label president gravitated to a cover of “Ida Red,” a 1938 song made popular by country swing band Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Chess recognized the crossover potential of a black artist playing country music, and he scheduled a session for May 21, 1955. After all, if a white man like Presley could make hit records by sounding black, why not try the reverse?
During the session, Chess demanded a bigger sound for the song and added bass and maracas to Berry’s trio. He also told Berry to write new lyrics, insisting that “the kids want the big beat, cars, and young love.” Chuck quickly responded with an outrageous story about a man driving a V8 Ford, chasing his unfaithful girlfriend in her Cadillac Coupe de Ville. The title was changed from “Ida Red” to “Maybellene,” a name inspired by a brand of makeup teenage girls were wearing at the time.
And with it, rock and roll was born. Although the record made it only to the mid-20s on the Billboard pop chart, its influence was massive in scope. Here was a black rock-and-roll record with across-the-board appeal, embraced by white teenagers and southern hillbilly musicians alike (including Elvis Presley, who added it to his stage show).
And it was fortunate for the electric guitar that one of its earliest champions was not only an extraordinary musician and showman, but also one of pop music’s greatest and most enduring singer-songwriters. With monster hits such as “Roll Over Beethoven” (1956), “Rock and Roll Music” (1957), and “Sweet Little Sixteen” (1958), Chuck Berry did much to forge the genre. His formula was ingenious: write lethally funny lyrics about the teenage experience, strap them into a high-octane groove, add a little country twang, shake it up with a showstopping guitar solo inspired by the likes of T-Bone Walker or Charlie Christian, and then watch the acclaim pour in. It was a recipe that would dominate popular music for decades to come. And if early listeners didn’t understand how important his guitar was to the mix, Chuck soon made the connection explicit.
In his 1958 masterpiece, “Johnny B. Goode,” Berry created the ultimate rock-and-roll folk hero in just a few snappy verses. As we all know, Goode wasn’t pounding a piano, singing into a microphone, or blowing a sax. In his choice of the electric guitar, something sleek and of the moment, the fictional character of Goode would forge an image of the archetypal rocker, doing as much to shape the history of the instrument as any real-life figure ever has.
The song’s opening riff is a clarion call—perhaps the greatest intro in rock-and-roll history. It was played by Berry on an electric Gibson ES-350T, and it indeed sounded “just like a-ringin’ a bell.” The tale begins “deep down in Louisiana,” where a country boy from a poor household is doing his best to get by. Johnny, we discover, “never ever learned to read or write so well,” but he has something better than a formal education or a diploma—he has talent, street smarts, and a guitar. Johnny’s Gibson is his instrument and also his ticket out of the backwoods.
After introducing our hero, the anthem turns to his guitar. It’s portable—he could toss it into a “gunnysack” and practice anywhere, even beneath the trees by the railroad. It’s astonishingly loud. More powerful than a passing locomotive, Johnny’s soaring notes stop train passengers dead in their tracks.
By the last verse, the guitarist’s reputation has spread far and wide. As his growing legion of fans and supporters cheers him on with shouts of “Go, Johnny, go,” even his long-suffering mother is forced to concede that “maybe someday your name will be in lights.”
“Johnny B. Goode” is a brilliant, uniquely American rags-to-riches story, but with a modern twist. Where Horatio Alger’s nineteenth-century heroes rose from humble backgrounds to lives of middle-class security through hard work and virtue, Goode excelled on his own terms; he was uneducated, solitary. He was a bad boy, a story line all the more compelling to a generation of teenagers just beginning to identify with outsider icons such as James Dean and Elvis Presley.
It was a song that thrilled and exhilarated audiences both black and white. It became a massive crossover hit, peaking at #2 on Billboard magazine’s Hot R&B Sides chart and #8 on the Billboard Hot 100. To teenage ears, Chuck’s guitar signaled the dawn of a new era. The glorious peal of his 350T proclaimed that school was out.
John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, and Bruce Springsteen were just a few of the working-class kids who immediately grasped the sly moral of the song, and who recognized a good blueprint when they saw one.
“I could never overstress how important [Berry] was in my development,” said Richards, perhaps the ultimate rock-and-roll outlaw.
Reflecting on the significance of “Johnny B. Goode” and his other hits, Berry later played down his originality. He was attempting to marry the diction of Nat King Cole, the lyrics of Louis Jordan, and the swing of Charlie Christian, but with the soul of Muddy Waters. “Ain’t nothin’ new under the sun,” he was fond of saying. But he was being modest. His synthesis of genres and his use of amplification were wholly original. If Christian introduced the electric guitar to a mass audience, Berry created its grandest mythology.
AS THE ELECTRIC guitar began to take on its signature shape—almost indistinguishable from the guitars of today—it bears noting how conspicuously sexy that design had become. With curves that cartoonishly mimicked the lines of a woman’s hips, and an undeniably phallic neck, the guitar may have preceded the sexual revolution of the sixties, but it would become a perfect visual complement to it. Its provocative design was something Berry was one of the first to acknowledge, and that he rarely failed to exploit in his live shows.
While he had to be careful with how far he went—Chuck was one of the first black crossover rock-and-roll artists in a very racially charged time—he wasn’t that careful. He often played to predominantly white audiences at rock-and-roll stage shows booked by DJ/promoter Alan Freed, or in Hollywood films such as Rock, Rock, Rock!, Go, Johnny Go!, and Mister Rock and Roll. During each appearance, Berry would kiss his Gibson or Gretsch on the neck, wrestling with it as he made it scream and swoon during his wild solos, jutting it lasciviously from his waist as he did splits.
The Gibson ES-350T was particularly well suited to Berry’s gyrations. In the mid-fifties, electric guitar players had two choices: either a full hollow-body or a compact solid-body. Gibson had been receiving requests from players for something in-between the two styles, so in 1955 their first “thinline” electrics were developed. The guitar’s medium build was a perfect fit for Chuck’s high-energy stage presentation.
Chuck’s guitar antics and wild gyrations were provocative stuff for suburban kids, who were used to gently swaying crooners such as Frank Sinatra or Rosemary Clooney. And while they might not have understood all the implications of his act, one thing was clear: the electric guitar presented a seriously dangerous, sexy alternative to the comparatively staid piano or the sax.
BY THE END of the fifties, dozens of guitar-playing Johnny B. Goodes appeared, irrevocably changing the musical landscape, all playing in small electric combos resembling those pioneered by Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters.
As for Waters, he had a few more hits, including “Mannish Boy” in 1956 and “She’s Nineteen Years Old” in 1958. But the music of a forty-something guitarist like Muddy was being overtaken by rock and roll, driving him back into the small blues joints from whence he came. As Waters ruefully noted, “[Blues] is not the music of today; it’s the music of yesterday.”
Little did he suspect that a few short years later, his music (along with that of younger acts such as Berry and Elvis) would find new life across the Atlantic, where it would be discovered by and inspire a generation of white British teens. They would go on to pick up electric guitars and start blues and rock bands of their own. The Rolling Stones (who borrowed their name from a Waters song), the Animals, the Yardbirds, Cream, and Led Zeppelin would pay homage—not to mention royalties—to those pioneers. Blues played on electric guitars, it turned out, was far from the music of yesterday. Indeed, it would be the music of today for decades to come.
Influential bluesman Freddie King poses with his Gibson Les Paul goldtop.