Bikers on the Day Before Independence Day

52 Guitars: Week 27

Danny Gatton

An obvious follow-up to Roy Buchanan: another Telecaster master with mind-boggling technique, not very well-known outside the circles of those who are specifically interested in electric guitar. Like Buchanan, he was even called "the world's greatest unknown guitarist." He was also nicknamed "The Humbler" in reference to the way other players felt about him. Sadly, also like Buchanan, he took his own life. 

I've only heard one of his albums, 88 Elmira St. To tell the truth, it's really not that great, as an album: a hodge-podge of miscellaneous styles and compositions, including, for instance, the theme song from The Simpsons. But no matter what the material, as soon as the basic presentation is out of the way and Gatton just starts playing, it's fantastic. Here, for instance, is something only older people and relatively young hipsters would recognize: "Quiet Village," from a 1957 album by Martin Denny, Exotica, which included Hollywood-ish Latin and "tropical" sounds, including bird songs and other sound effects. No doubt considered very sophisticated in its day, and laughable a decade or so later, it and similar recordings had a semi-ironic vogue ten years or so ago, which for all I know is still in progress.


And here's a live version of another tune which appears on the Elmira St. album, the Beach Boys' "In My Room." The sound quality's not that great, but it's good enough for you to appreciate his playing.


And another live recording, of not so great but adequate sound quality: the '50s classic "Sleepwalk." It's apparently been edited, as you'll note a reference to an unheard saxophone solo.

Here's the Wikipedia bio

One thing that really strikes me about both Gatton and Buchanan is the almost total absence of theatrics in their live performances. They just stand there and play: no flailing, no jumping, no striking of macho poses, no simulated sex with the guitar, which is held at a height for accessibility rather than sexuality. Of course neither of them would have done very well at trying to play the Lizard King rock star role, had they wanted to try, but I don't get the impression that they wanted to.


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I like his performance of "Sleepwalk," perhaps the 27th I've heard (though none that I recall used the pedal steel guitar as in Santo and Johnny's original). For my tastes, Gatton pushes this thing to the limit of raucousness, without going beyond.

When reaching for a crescendo of drama and emotion, guitarists almost inevitably wind up in the higher registers, a screeching wail of "rock-n-roll mayhem" (a term coined by a friend). But I don't see why this must always be the case and really enjoy the few times when one attains a kind of rumbling intensity in the lower and middle registers. There's a bit of that in this video (eg at about 5:05 and just before he concludes).

I'm not surprised that "Sleepwalk" has spawned so many renditions, including those by several excellent guitarists like Les Paul and Brian Setzer. I recently mentioned to a friend who writes and produces music that "Sleepwalk" is such a simple melody and yet there's something perfect about it; and he quickly agreed, saying he had the very same thought.

That height of holding the guitar is the classic country height. Look at how Chet Atkins or Les Paul played. Of course, Paul was handicapped after his accident in the 1940s. To me it is the only way that makes sense. Actually, I like to hold my acoustic (which is all I've played for years) even closer. Maybe my wrist doesn't bend like some of those rockers. (Actually, this may be true; not only did I break my left arm when I was 15, which left some permanent nerve damage esp. in my ring and pinky fingers, but I also broke my left pinky a couple of years back playing football, which didn't heal right, despite having an orthopedist work with me on it. So, I'm both somewhat numb and in constant pain whenever I play, esp. something difficult.)

What a pain, pun intended.

Most early rockers held the guitar at that height, too. I was looking at a live Buffalo Springfield performance a while back and was struck by that.

"rock and roll mayhem"--heh. It probably takes more musical imagination to bring a solo to a climax in the lower registers.

Yeah, "Sleepwalk" is one of those amazing tunes that seems to grab everybody, from people who don't really pay that much attention to music to the likes of Danny Gatton. By the way, for anyone who doesn't know the original:

It probably takes more musical imagination to bring a solo to a climax in the lower registers.

I think so. The natural inclination is to increase the volume and frequency when turning up the emotional intensity.

Back in the mid-80s there was local blues club where I saw the awesome guitarist, Bob Margolin, perform a few times.* That guy could really tear it up on guitar, and seemed to relish thumping away basic rock and blues melodies along with complex improvisations in the low ranges, just great stuff that hit you in the gut.

His performance of "La Grange" was something I won't forget. It's another simple tune that someone like Margolin can embellish on for hours, but I'd guess this thing lasted about 15-20 minutes ( The song begins with a subdued, repetitive theme familiar to everyone who knows the song. After reaching an early high with a booming, melodic solo, Margolin returned to that theme again, low and simple, teasing the audience with seemingly endless variations of the thing, eventually going whisper-quiet before finally unleashing a wildly thunderous solo as the entire house went nuts. Now that was some real rock-n-roll mayhem.

* Wikipedia: "Margolin was a backing musician for Muddy Waters from 1973 to 1980, performing with Waters and The Band in The Last Waltz."

Which means that I may have heard Margolin in 1978 when I heard Muddy Waters open for Clapton in Munich.

I've seen Margolin's name off and on for years but I don't think I've ever heard him. Sounds very much worth checking out.

I very much enjoyed listening to "Quiet Village" Maclin. I haven't listened to the others yet.

This is one of my favorites of those you've posted so far. He is very musical/lyrical. I'm also fascinated by the way he uses his right hand. He moves it up and down the strings to modify the sound. He also occasional uses it to mute a string he doesn't want to continue sounding. Did he switch picks at the sax solo?

I'm not in a position to watch it now, but if I'm not confusing this with one of the Roy Buchanan videos he does sometimes play without a pick. One thing I noticed both of them doing is fiddling with what I guess is the tone control to get noticeably different sounds. I'm a little puzzled by that because the tone controls usually seem to make only a fairly slight difference.

I can't figure out what he's doing. Sometimes it looks like he's just resting his pinky for a second, rather than actually changing the controls. My presumption, though, is that he is extremely sensitive to the slightest variation of sound. Not uncommon among virtuosi. What I find weird is that I can't see a whammy bar in the video (Sleepwalk, anyway), but it sure sounds like he's using one sometimes.

Speaking of pushing the boundary of raucousness, I'm reminded of that scene in Back to the Future where McFly teaches "Marvin" Barry how to play rock'n'roll.

As it happens I recently watched that. A bit implausible--I don't think you could get those sounds out of that gear--but funny.

Telecasters in general don't have a whammy, but yeah, it sure sounded like he was using one.

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