In memory of Guitar Innovator Link Wray
November 22, 2005
YOU PROBABLY NEVER HEARD OF HIM, BUT HIS INFLUENCE IS STILL FELT TODAY!
I was just 15 when I first began taking guitar lessons from the late Buddy Raymond, who was the guitar player in my father's country swing band. Buddy was probably in his early 50s at the time, which seemed pretty old to me, though now that I've passed the big "five-oh" myself, I certainly don't feel all that ancient. Although Buddy was a terrific country player and doubled on steel guitar (which was called Hawaiian guitar back then), he wasn't content to simply stick to one style.
Eventually, Buddy taught me several instrumental guitar pieces, among which was "Comanche." Buddy loved the song and the sound and with a little prodding, he pulled out a few other records and dropped them on his battered old RCA Victrola. Though the system was definitely "low-fi," I'll never forget the sound that literally exploded out of that little speaker. I guess I should mention that back then, almost all recordings were monophonic. Stereo was available in the mid-'60s, but hadn't gone mainstream yet.
In any case, the song he played for me was called "Rumble." Looking back, I can say that hearing that record was what inspired me most at the time to go beyond the more traditional "twangy" guitar sounds. This was something altogether different - like nothing else on the radio. I was hooked. But at the time I simply wasn't a good enough to play anything as complicated as "Rumble." But Buddy reassured me that given time, I'd be able to do it.
Buddy Raymond was clearly a man ahead of his time, with an appreciation for innovative sounds. But so too was the man who recorded "Rumble" way back in 1958. His name was Link Wray.
For most of you, the 1950s is ancient history, like the Civil War or the Bronze Age. To think that a guitar player who had no such thing as a fuzz tone (or any other electronic effect for that matter) could come up with such a monster sound seems unimaginable. Yet that record is probably the first time anyone ever played what we now know as a power chord, which as we all know, is the basic building block of modern rock music.
Today, on November the 21st, I just heard that Link Wray had recently passed away at the age of 76 in his home in Denmark. If you Google the name Link Wray, you'll find lots of information. And the one thing almost all the Web sites agree on was the fact that Wray is the missing link in the history of rock guitar. It may seem as though talents like Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Pete Townshend collectively created the genre we now know as rock, but there's simply no way of knowing how different things might have been if it weren't for the recordings of Link Wray.
"He is the king; if it hadn't been for Link Wray and 'Rumble,' I would have never picked up a guitar'," Pete Townsend of The Who wrote on one of Wray's albums. Neil Young once said: "If I could go back in time and see any band, it would be Link Wray and the Raymen."
In retrospect, it's hard to believe that "Rumble," which cracked the U.S. top 20 charts in 1958, was actually banned by some radio stations because they felt its title connoted gang violence. In fact, Cadence Records, which released the recording, pressured Wray to tone down the hard edged sound. Refusing to compromise, Link signed with Epic Records. With his two brothers, Link recorded another single, the aptly-titled "Rawhide," which made it to #23 and was a hit among leather-jacketed, motorcycle-loving male youths. It appeared that Link Wray was becoming somewhat of a hero to so-called "juvenile delinquents" and this scared his record company so much that they pressured Wray to record a version of the traditional Irish lament "Danny Boy" with a full orchestra.
I won't tell you what happened next. This is your opportunity to do a little research into the man and his music. The next time you sit down and plug in your guitar and jack into your pedalboard full of effects, stop a minute. Do yourself a favor and go online and get yourself an MP3 of "Rumble." Have a listen and you can hear the very beginnings of the evolution of the modern rock guitar.
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