Since the earliest days of rock and roll the guitar has always been the driving force behind the music. It makes no matter what time frame you are referencing-the 50’s with those Chuck Berry riffs, the 60’s with the rise of the guitar ‘gods’ like Hendrix, Clapton, and Townshend, or from the 70’s onward bringing converging styles and approaches to the instrument. The guitar remains the key to rock and roll, with a long list of names for consideration as guitar heroes. A partial list of mine would include the above names of course, but also a number of players both well known and some lesser known ones too. Some are almost exclusively electric guitarists, while some are more known for their acoustic playing. And as you may have surmised from some of my other posts, not all of them are rock guitarists either for I am the music nerd that has guitar heroes from folk, country, blues, jazz and world music. But for the purposes of this post, I’ll be talking about Rock & Roll guitarists.
For me, a guitar hero does not have to be the fastest player, shredding away at a million miles an hour. Nor does it have to be the loudest sound out there (cue the Spinal Tap these go to 11 reference!). For me what makes a great guitarist is someone adept equally in the creation of a signature sound recognizable within the first few notes, together with using that sound in such a way to make music that sounds completely different from everyone else. That could be the loud and screeching sounds of a heavy metal guitarist, or something more subtle. It is important to remember that the early days of electric guitar in the 20th century were defined by lots of experimentation. On the one hand you had great innovators and players of the instrument such as Les Paul and Chet “Mr. Guitar” Atkins. On the other you had dozens of great blues guitarists like Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, and John Lee Hooker defining the electric guitar sound. By the 1950’s the electric guitar was now the primary lead instrument for most of what became called Rock & Roll, and names like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Carl Perkins rose to the top. Another name that belongs in that list, and who definitely welded a unique signature sound together with songs that did not sound like anyone else’s is the one and only creator of twang guitar, Duane Eddy.
The technique Eddy created was to play lead using mostly the top two (bass) strings on his guitar, typically a hollow body Gretsch 6120, creating a deep, heavy resonant sound, while often stretching those notes out with the use of a vibrato arm (called a Bigsby, but what we now refer to usually as a whammy bar) on the guitar. That is the essence of the twang guitar sound. What Duane Eddy did with that sound though was have a series of hit records in the late 1950’s through early 1960’s showcasing the sound on a series of wonderful instrumentals like Moovin’ ‘N’ Groovin’, Rebel Rouser, Detour, Shazam! and Peter Gunn. Whatever these may sound like to you in 2016, these songs were ground breaking when they first came out. And it was not just about the guitar either. With his band the Rebels, most of the above songs featured the phenomenal saxophone playing of Steve Douglas which coupled with that dirty twang sound made those songs memorable and influential to guitar players everywhere. Here is ‘Rebel Rouser’ with one of the most distinctive opening guitar riffs of all time-
In thinking about what photographs to use for this post, I thought about that funny little word twang. It is not really a word that translates well to tangible objects after all. It is really just a sound you know when you hear it. But for whatever reason, whenever I hear the music of Duane Eddy and his twanging guitar metal comes to mind. No, not heavy metal, but just metal as an object. The strength, force, and versatility of it in so many areas in our lives. So as I was thinking about that I suddenly thought about the fabulous designs on most models of cars from the 1940’s onward. Those classic tailfins, bench seats, quarter windows, bright or contrasting colors, hard top convertibles, and especially, all that wonderful chrome. I have never really been a car guy. Sure I know the difference between a Corvette and a Mustang, and I know where to add oil to the engine, but that is about all. But my lack of skills do not keep me from admiring a classic car whenever I see them. Lately I have even started taking photos of them. I love the colors of older cars, and all those shapes. The grills and different types of mirrors, headlights and tail lights. All the wonderful knobs and dials on the dashboard that did not just have a function, but also looked pretty damn cool too.
Thinking about all of that yesterday while snapping some photos I took on my way to work of one such classic car I knew that those photos would do a pretty good job in expressing ‘twang’. Some of that might be down to cars being such a key story telling element in early Rock & Roll. It also lies in the artistry of the craft of making those cars back then. All that metal and chrome were created in a new way, completely different to what came before. Just like guitar innovators like Duane Eddy, who by the way, is still out there making music and touring today, so make sure you check him out! And always remember, ‘the twang’s the thang’!
Now this post definitely needs a bonus video of Duane doing the Peter Gunn theme.
*The Twang’s The Thang is the title of a 1959 album by Duane Eddy & The Rebels.
Rebel Rouser-Written By Duane Eddy
Peter Gunn Theme-Written By Henry Mancini
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All Photographs By Robert P. Doyle
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