As I’ve decided to become a musician again, my darling 50-year-old Fender Telecaster has gone into guitar hospital to have its innards fixed. The outside, at least the cosmetic as opposed to functional parts, is beyond salvation, its battle scars and makeovers being part of its life story, not to be resprayed or botoxed over. (This is starting to sound a bit self-referential, but.) But it does have to do its job, and plugging it into an amp does need to result in more than electronic crackles.
Anyway, in preparation for that, I’d been picking it up and picking a bit. Which has led me to ponder on the guitar players I most wish I’d been, or at least wish I could play like. So here are three:
Scotty Moore. When Elvis walked into Sam Phillips’ studio that fateful day in 1954, Sam rapidly put together a scratch studio group to back him. Scotty was the lynchpin, and produced some great country-tinged fingerpicking licks that, to this day, I find it hard to unravel.
But after the great RCA sell-out (Sam got, I think, $34,000 for the lot, artist and recordings; the illegal immigrant ‘Colonel Tom Parker’ got the right to squeeze every squeezable cent out of ‘his discovery’, slowly eroding and then destroying the talent in the process), the sound had to harden up, and Scotty jumped in with both hands. But he was too much of a natural-born musician to treat this new-fangled rock’n’roll stuff as mere noise, as most people out of their teens did.
Take his solo on 'Too Much', from 1956. He starts with four bars of a vicious chordal chromatic up-and-down run, as rock-n-roll as it comes, then wanders off into territory more usually inhabited, at the time, by West Coast cool jazz exponents like Stan Getz, before bringing it back down again with a snippet of that good ol’ country pickin’. Sheer genius! Scotty later claimed that the middle bit was an accident, as the song was in an unfamiliar key (B flat) and he’d got lost; but I don’t believe him.
Steve Cropper. From somebody who was, I submit, the real and very present power behind the newly-ascended King’s throne (imagine ‘Hound Dog’ without the guitar), to an equally powerful but much less evident contributor. If you’ve heard anything by Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Eddie Floyd, or any other Memphis soul masterpiece from the sixties, you’ve heard Steve, in his role as a member of Booker T and the MGs, the Stax house rhythm section. I was going to use the word ‘minimalism’, but that’s not it; ‘precision’ is closer, or just plain ‘rightness’. I’ve chosen, of course, 'Green Onions' – he only plays about ten notes, but they’re all the right ones, necessarily in the right order.
Link Wray. Finally, a guitarist who, although he had a long, illustrious career as a master picker (I remember a long-ago documentary in which Link and Chet Atkins traded finger-style licks for several minutes, competing and laughing out loud at each other’s audacity), is remembered for just one ground-breaking single from 1958 – but what a single! If you’ve seen ‘Pulp Fiction’ you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about: 'Rumble'. It’s been said that without this record, the future of popular music would have been very different – no heavy metal, no punk – you may have your views on whether or not this would have been a good thing, but you can’t deny its power. It hit me between the ears when I first heard it, and I still love it.
When I said I wish I could play like them, of course I can, at least some of the simpler stuff. (I could teach anyone to play ‘Rumble’, even if they’d never touched a guitar in their life.) What I really meant was: I wish I’d been there. I wish I’d thought of it first!
Can’t wait to get the Tele back…
P.S. I’ve no idea whether the Spotify links will work for you.