Wednesday, April 21, 2010

1950's Rock Guitar Greats

Here's a list of my top guitarists of 1950's Rock 'n' Roll. I don't have enough courage to list things in order---there is too much taste involved. I'm rating them on style, technique, influence and their ability to promote the use of electric guitar. In the 50's Rock 'n' Roll itself was precarious, and it was far from a certain thing that electric guitar would even be used in rock songs.

Carl Perkins----Carl brought the guitar strong on every song he played. With his smash #2 Blue Suede Shoes from 1956 he even had the audacity to include two guitar solos. Carl had a unique scene of rhythm and a sharp attack on the instrument that made for an inimitable style. His total comfort while playing, the feeling that the guitar is just part of his body, brings to mind later guitar gods such as Eric Clapton (nick-named slow finger because of this ease). The rhythm and blues element was very strong in his playing even though his songwriting heart always leaned country. That being said, that mix is what made Rock 'n' Roll, and he was always a honky tonk virtuoso on the guitar, too. Carl had tough career luck, but was always was respected as a founding father of rock. It is unfortunate that his later life was not in the spotlight because he just kept picking up more and more guitar tricks as time went on. Bonus points for any artist that sings and writes songs, too.

Chuck Berry----According to many, Chuck taught Rock 'n' Roll guitar to the 60's. This is true to an extent; I would rate him as one of the two most influential guitarist of the 50's. Several Beach Boys songs lift a simple and rather stiff Chuck Berry solo almost verbatim. Others such as George Harrison of the Beatles are under his constant influence. But in another way, Chuck played in a style of souped-up blues that no one else could pull off. Perhaps his greatest influence is popularizing the instrument. Who didn't want to play guitar in a band after hearing a Berry song? He probably had more guitar per minute than any major 50's rock artist and was thus constantly promoting the instrument. Honestly, Chuck was not always at his best and most original, but when he was he created a sound that no one else has before or since. The guitar in the opening of the solo in Too Much Monkey Business sounds like a spaceship landing. Again, bonus points for writing and singing, too.

Buddy Holly----When people think of Buddy, they think of one of the great vocal stylists in all of rock, but he was a fantastic and original guitarist and songwriter, too. In fact I rate him as one of the two most influential rock guitarists of the 50's. Buddy basically invented the foundation of rock guitar that all subsequent acts stand on---Rock 'n' Roll rhythm guitar. Buddy played great leads solos, but often played something called rhythm-lead. This created a driving momentum to his music, not heard in rock music before. Sometimes he mixed lead and rhythm elements in a solo such as the immortal guitar work in That'll Be the Day. The flip side of that release, I'm Looking for Someone to Love, includes a song with two solos and some of the best pure rockabilly lead guitar of the 50's. Buddy lead the way in other guitar respects. He invented the idea of lead guitar throughout an entire song, as can be heard on Words of Love. He also promoted what would become the king guitar of rock, the Fender Stratocaster, and was the 1st major rocker to use it. Although the stereotype is that Buddy's songs leaned to the sweet, nerdy style of Rock 'n' Roll, the fact is that his original guitar style made for a driving backdrop. Few guitarists of the 50's were as 'heavy' as Buddy, and his modular, driving approach to the instrument became the status quo in rock ever since.

Eddie Cochran---Eddie was the master of the 50's riff and some of his songs were, from a guitar standpoint, nothing but a riff over and over. This could be said of two of his biggest hits, Summertime Blues and C'mon Everybody. But don't let such modesty fool you----Eddie was one of the true virtuoso's of early rock guitar. He came from a remarkably similar background to that of Buddy Holly, starting in country and easing into Rockabilly until he brewed his own style of rock. But his guitar style was more urban than Buddy's with true blues elements. His influence beyond the riff was not so much on record, but from his tours. His tour of Britain introduced many up and coming rockers to blues guitar and the art of bends. Once again, bonus points for songwriting and singing.

Cliff Gallup---In a brief run as the lead guitarist for Gene Vincent's Blue Caps, Cliff was able to create a nervous, detailed and jazzy rockabilly guitar style that would influence many lead-oriented guitarists of the 60's and beyond. All this while working in 1956, in the first year rock really took over. He quit early to become a family man, but remains a guitar legend.

Scotty Moore---Elvis only rocked when he was working with this fellow. Scotty exemplifies the early, classic Rockabilly sound more than anyone, with it's circular way of picking chords and gentlemanly country gestures. But Scotty could also play in a very high octane manner, pouring in blues and jazz touches and never letting Elvis' antics eclipse him. Just appearing on Elvis' best records as the lead guitarist makes him one of the most influential of 50's guitarists. But this also has the tendency to exaggerate his abilities and mystique.

James Burton---Similar to Scotty, but less legendary, do to the fact that he didn't work with Elvis in his early heyday, James created a career spanning decades based on 1950's style country-rock guitar. While working with Ricky Nelson he developed classic rockabilly guitar into country-rock guitar, which would be exploited in the 60's and 70's, by mixing rockabilly guitar with country and pop styles of picking. Check out his immortal playing on 1958's Suzie Q.

Johnny Meeks----When Cliff Gallup left Gene Vincent's band, Gene found another guitarist plucked from the mid-southern countryside. Although Cliff is on Gene's biggest hits and has the fame, Johnny is every bit the guitarist that Cliff is. He certainly fit the greasy persona of the Blue Caps better. His guitar style is fluent and audacious. While Cliff could feel cold and bogged down in the technical side of playing, Johnny's blood was always hot. But that doesn't mean he was a technical slouch---his guitar work is as complex as any guitar man from the 50's. This is one guitarist I wish I could hear more of.

Luther Perkins---Johnny Cash was at his best when he did songs in his 'rockabilly-country' style, and he was best able to do this with Luther playing guitar. Luther's style might be too simple and too country for some people to put him on a Rock 'n' Roll list, but I think his style can be considered country leaning rockabilly. Either way, his understated talents added to the thick atmosphere of Cash's early (and best) style. Once you've heard the solo to Folsom Prison Blues, it is in your head for life.

Tommy Allsup---I recently saw Tommy at the Kato Ballroom for the 50th aniversery of the Winter Dance Party tour. At 78 he can still play guitar with the best---in fact Paul McCartney has said he's one of the finest guitarists in the world. Tommy's style relies on touch and detail. He's down here at the bottom because he has a very slim Rock 'n' Roll resume. His home base as a guitarist is texas swing, and he was only majorly involved in rock in 1958. Buddy Holly heard about him through his producer and was so thrilled by his guitar work when he heard it that he granted Tommy lead guitar on a number of songs, most famously, It's So Easy, Heartbeat, Lonesome Tears, and the Everly-style demos Wishing and Love's Made a Fool of you. His guitar style on these cuts is so modern, compelling and unique that it cemented his reputation as a great rock guitarist forever, even if he'd prefer to play Bob Wills and country blues.

Danny Cendrone----While Cliff Gallup took an early exit from rock in 1956, Danny one-uped him by dieing before he saw 1955. Like Tommy Allsup he was a bit old for the rock scene and a guitarist that grew up playing Texas swing. With it's genre bending array of influences, Texas swing was an ideal place for detail oriented lead guitarist to spring up from for rock purposes. Danny was not a member of Bill Haley's Comets, but cut the lead work on Rock Around the Clock and Thirteen Women in 1954. Within a number of days after the session he died. Some have called his solo in Rock Around the Clock one of the greats in all of rock music. I agree. His eerie guitar work on the flip side, Thirteen Women is not to be missed, either. The solo from Rock Around the Clock was actually lifted from Rock the Joint, an earlier Bill Haley number with Danny on guitar. He didn't have time to come up with something new, due to short notice. The Clock version of the solo is better, with superior phrasing. His style was so modern that it still sounds intergalactic today. Despite his tiny output, Danny showed the great skill and mischief that could go into rock guitar from it's earliest days, and thus is an important founder of the rock guitar style.


garylatcheran said...

Thanks for the list of the top guitarists of 1950's Rock 'n' Roll.

dshannon said...

This list is incomplete without Link Wray