Friday, 11 May 2018

The Grønmark Blog's ten favourite 50s rock'n'roll guitar pickers - from Cliff Gallup and Danny Cedrone to Roland Janes and Duane Eddy

When Gene Vincent turned up for his first recording session in Nashville on 4th May, 1956, producer Ken Nelson had session musicians standing by in the case the band weren't up to the task - standard procedure back then. When Vincent's lead guitarist, Cliff Gallup, plugged in his Gretsch 6128 with Bigsby vibrato tail-piece and played his first solo on "Race With the Devil", the session men packed up their instruments and left. Here's why:
Gallup's playing is about as inventive and witty... rock'n'roll picking ever got - and it still rocks. He was older than the rest of the band, and married, and, because he didn't enjoy touring, soon parted company with Vincent - but still managed to infuse 36 classic tracks with his constantly surprising, playful blend of jazz, western swing, country and rhythm and blues licks. Gallup was a genius - maybe the greatest of his era, which perhaps explains why he's worshipped by Jeff Beck, arguably the greatest guitar genius of his era.  

Danny Cedrone's time with Billy Haley's Comets was even briefer than Gallup's with The Blue Caps. As a session player who had his own group - the Esquires - he only recorded a few sides with Haley's outfit. These included "Rocket 88" in 1951, "Rock the Joint" the following year, and "Rock Around the Clock" - Haley's first recording for Decca - on 12th April, 1954. The story goes that, having missed the rehearsal, he arrived at the session in New York without a clue what he was going to play. Someone suggested he reprise his solo from "Rock the Joint", which is what he did. It starts 47" in, and, as we all know,  it's an absolute belter:
Cedrone was paid $21 for the session, returned to record "Shake, Rattle and Roll" on 7th June - and died ten days later, after falling down a staircase and breaking his neck, without the slightest inkling that he'd laid down one of the most famous guitar solos of all time.

Scotty Moore wasn't in Gallup's or Cedrone's technical league, but his gloriously innovative, genre-blending, echo-drenched Sun solos - and his later searing RCA work - made him one of the three key guitarists of the rock'n'roll era.. While (IMHO) he practically invented rock (as opposed to rock'n'roll) guitar on "Baby Let's Play House" - especially the second, overdriven solo, which starts at 1'23" - it would be several years before most people heard those early Sun sides. I suspect it was his two borderline-demented solos on "Hound Dog" that turned the electric guitar into sex with frets for a whole generation:
Carl Perkins is my favourite rockabilly artist: he had a great voice, wrote terrific songs, and his aggressive, ultra-rhythmic guitar playing - more rhythm and blues than Scotty Moore's - was stupendous. Just listen to his razor-totin' solos on "Matchbox":
Roland Janes played guitar on more Sun recordings than any other picker. He's best remembered as Jerry Lee Lewis's constant musical companion, but my favourite Janes performance was on Billy Lee Riley's "Flying Saucers Rock and Roll" - especially the electrifying opening lick: 
For my money, Chuck Berry's one of the three most influential early rock'n'roll guitarists - here, he performs the rifftastic "Oh Carol!":
Then of course, there was Chuck's Chess stablemate, Bo Diddley - garage, punk, heavy metal, voodoo, rock'n'roll, gospel, Chicago R&B, folk blues, Mississippi field hollers: it's all right there in the one-chord "Bo Diddley":
In terms of influence, James Burton's right up there. Treating his Telecaster as a percussion instrument, using banjo strings for maximum bendability, and turning the "treble" controls up to 11, he mastered the Sun rockabilly style, applying it to Bob Luman's early rockabilly recordings; added Chess R&B Hubert Sumlin-style guitar menace to Dale Hawkins's "Susie Q"; turned Ricky Nelson's pop rockabilly numbers into mini-masterpieces; with one blistering, twangy, wildly inventive solo on Ricky Nelson's 1961 smash, "Hello Mary Lou", he essentially invented a style of guitar playing that would later form the basis of country rock and, eventually, hot country: helped Elvis rediscover his rock'n'roll mojo in the late '60s; sprinkled magic dust over the booze and drug-addled Gram Parsons' two legendary solos albums; and helped EmmyLou Harris cement Parsons' legacy by joining her first Hot Band:
I've written so often about the contribution made by legendary Nashville A-team session guitarist Grady Martin to rock'n'roll guitar, there's little to add. His impeccable technique and extraordinary precision - and his pioneering mastery of fuzz - are all present and correct on Johnny Burnette and the Rock 'n Roll Trio's classic version of Joe Turner's "Honey Hush":
Duane Eddy is the third and final member of the triumvirate of rock'n'roll's most influential guitarists. in beside them. The man who boasted the "biggest twang of them all" isn't the most dextrous, fleet-fingered or technically proficient guitarist who ever lived - but the vast, echoing, cavernous, clean sound he and his brilliant producer Lee Hazelwood created has been so hugely influential ever since the release of "Rebel Rouser" in 1958 (on everyone from The Shadows and Ennio Morricone to Adam and the Ants, Chris Isaacs and Angelo Badilmente and beyond), has become such an integral part of the soundtrack of our lives, it would be unthinkable to leave him off the list. Rather than one of his raunchier sides, here he is with the delightfully jaunty "40 Miles of Bad Road":

Oh hell - I left off the inventor of the power chord! Better make it eleven. Rather than go with "Rumble", here's Link Wray and the Raymen menacing us with a song which appears to have three titles - depending on your mood, you can call it "Ace of Spades", "Fat Back" or "Fatback":


  1. Well researched. Thank you.
    I've always liked the slightly wonky sounding chords on the opening of "It's Late" almost as if a string's just broken.
    Now I know the sound was most likely produced by banjo strings.
    Good move by Ricky Nelson to team up with the brilliant James Burton.

    1. Never noticed it, southern man - thanks for pointing it out. Ricky Nelson's an anomaly - logic dictates that he should have made truly crappy, anodyne records, but he evidently had great musical taste - and, as you say, securing James Burton's services was a stroke of genius.

  2. Great post. Honey Hush was nailed down by the Burnette trio the day after they had recorded Train Kept a Rollin'. Whoever the guitarist was - and Paul Burlison claims credit for the loose tube distorted guitar - he decided that the same riff would do for both. The Yardbirds' version of Train Kept a Rollin' features it more or less note for note.

    When the ever canny Jimmy Page joined the group, they reworked the song and the riff as Stroll On, presumably so that they could avoid paying songwriter royalties to Big Joe Turner. Those who have a sufficiently robust constitution to sit through about an hour's worth of pretentious twaddle can see the Yardbirds perform it in Antonioni's Blow Up. As guitar smashing was on trend at the time, the Italian maestro instructed Jeff Beck to obliterate his Les Paul during its filming. He was told to f*** off. A tenner's worth of cheap acoustic was purchased instead, although Beck looks as if he is thoroughly uncomfortable smashing anything with strings on it.

    Possibly by way of atonement for the earlier err...borrowing of the song and riff, Beck featured a live version of Train Kept a Rollin' on his Rock and Roll Party CD and DVD. It's a great, simple riff that was tricky to play until the invention of electronic octave divider pedals in the 70s meant that all that finger and thumb stretching and note muffling was no longer necessary. Sadly this came too late to be of any interest to Johnny Burnette, drowned in a boating accident in 1964.

    1. It wasn’t Paul Burlisson. He was a fine rockabilly guitarist, but you only have to listen to the other solos he definitely did record at the time, and this - and the ones on (for example) Sweet Love on My Mind and Train Kept A Rollin’ - would have been way out of his league. If Burlisson was responsible for these, then he also played the solo on Brenda Lee’s “Bigelow 6200” - in fact, everything recorded at every other rock’n’roll session accredited to Grady Martin in the '50s, because they undeniably all feature the same massively experienced and technically proficient picker producing the exact same sound using the same guitar - or, at the very least, the exact same model with the exact same set up.

      I look forward to hearing the cover versions you list.

      Antonionionioni was evidently a bit of a jerk.