Musical Heroes - Old and New

A Letter From Dave Alvin, October, 2002

In interviews and barrooms, people often ask me who were my musical influences or my favorite guitar players. I usually shy away from answering such questions by saying something like, "There's too many to mention." And that is the truth. Often I'm also asked who I'm listening to lately or what's in the CD player right now and I give the similar answer like, "The same stuff I've always listened to" ( Right now, Johnny Shines, the great postwar blues singer/slide guitarist is blasting as I write this ). I'm not trying to be cute or evasive. I really don't want to leave anyone out. Also some of the people who've influenced me are so obscure that I might as well be speaking ancient Egyptian to most people.

But I've decided that the time has come to mention as many as I can think of, well known and obscure, in order that other people might track down records or CDs by my influences/heroes or even, in the case of the living artists, go see them live. All of these performers/songwriters have made me turn up the volume and dance or cry or see the world in a new light or gotten me through hard times or made me want to pick up a guitar or write a song or drive fast or drive slow or pull over to the side of the road or drink another beer or fall in love.

So here is an incomplete list.



(No matter what style of music I'm playing, no matter what musicians I'm playing with, acoustic or electric, I'm just trying to do their licks the best I can.)

LONNIE JOHNSON - Underrated genius. His best guitar recordings were made in the late 20'/early 30's. Recorded everything from raunchy blues and jaw dropping solo guitar instrumentals to jazz with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Eddie Lang (another early guitar monster). My goal before I die is to learn just one of his solo guitar pieces.

Some of absolute favorite guitarists/singers are the pre-World War 2 bluesmen. There are too many to go into detail so I'll just list a few that come to mind. CHARLIE PATTON. BLIND WILLIE JOHNSON. SKIP JAMES. MISSISSIPPI JOHN HURT. BLIND LEMON JEFFERSON. ROBERT WILKINS. SON HOUSE. BLIND WILLIE McTELL. TAMPA RED. MEMPHIS MINNIE. BIG BILL BROONZY. TOMMY JOHNSON. ROBERT JOHNSON. SCRAPPER BLACKWELL. BLIND BLAKE. BO CARTER. CURLY WEAVER. FRANK STOKES. This is just the tip of the iceberg. I know some people have trouble listening to scratchy old 78's, even when they've been sonically cleaned up on CD reissues, but the musical treasures beneath the scratches are incomparable. Each of the these brilliant musicians had their own unique style and approach to the blues/folk tradition. Besides the awesome guitar techniques, you can learn a lot about American history, about humanity, about love, loss and survival from these old masters.

CHARLIE CHRISTIAN - DJANGO RHINEHARDT - EDDIE LANG - My favorite jazz guitarists. Probably the three greatest ever. I don't play jazz but even if I did I wouldn't even consider ever trying to play like them. I'll leave that to better musicians.

JOHNNY "GUITAR" WATSON - Funky California/Texas blues guitar. Started off playing loud, hard blues then went through various musical incarnations (from r+b to jazz to funk to disco to hip hop) but underneath all the stylistic changes in his songs he never altered his guitar playing. A blues player to the end. You can tell it's him from a hundred miles away. I found my first Johnny Watson record in a thrift store in Paramount, California when I was 13. It cost a quarter. I've been hooked ever since.

Some of Johnny Watson's blues guitar influences are also mine: T-BONE WALKER, GUITAR SLIM and CLARENCE "GATEMOUTH" BROWN. These men were the masters of the late night, juke joint ripping, menthol cigarette, big city electric blues guitar. T-BONE WALKER is considered the pioneer of the electric blues guitar - he plugged in his guitar back in the early forties - and influenced ALL blues/r+b guitarists that came after him. I first saw T-Bone perform when I was 12 years old. He was wearing a purple sharkskin suit and playing a big fat red Gibson. Unbelievable. He knocked me out! My brother, Phil, got to hang out with T-Bone a lot when Phil was still just a teenager, something I'll be jealous of forever.

GUITAR SLIM was a flamboyant guitarist/entertainer/hustler from New Orleans. Perhaps not the greatest technical player but, Jesus, what expressive, powerful, raw power he could summon from a guitar. He was merciless.

CLARENCE "GATEMOUTH" BROWN is a national musical treasure. He'll play blues that are as blue as anything anywhere then turn around and play straight honky tonk country then switch to big band swing then turn some banal pop tune into a heartbreaking tone poem. At a blues concert a few years back, I was honored to be asked by Mr. Brown to accompany him on guitar while he played . . . the fiddle! He pulled out bluegrass songs, polka's, Mexican songs, you name it, we played it that night. Quit reading this and go see him play live now!

SISTER ROSETTA THARPE - The Queen of the Gospel Guitar. Although Sister Rosetta strictly sang gospel and spirituals, her recordings from 1940s are some of the hardest rocking tracks made by anyone anywhere at anytime in any style. Her style was very percussive with intense rhythms and wild staccato single note runs. Carl Perkins and Sleepy LaBeef cite her as one their main influences. Even if the message doesn't move you, the messenger will.

CURTIS MAYFIELD - Everybody knows that Curtis was a powerful songwriter but few know what an amazing, soulful, beautiful, transcendental, highly individual guitarist he was. He had a very light, sensitive touch that mixed a touch of blues with the gospel tradition. His playing could break your heart or inspire you to climb mountains, sometimes both at the same time. I particularly love the old records Curtis made with his group, The Impressions. One of the high-water marks in American Music.

ROLAND JANES - He's the guitarist on Jerry Lee Lewis' Sun records (as well as other Sun acts). He's the epitome of a rocking' guitarist. Simple. Direct. On the edge. Rocking'. I got to meet him a year or so ago in Memphis, a very nice man. I love SCOTTY MOORE, PAUL BURLISON, EDDIE COCHRAN, CLIFF GALLUP and all the rockabilly hot rod guitarists but something about Roland Janes just gets me. If a rockabilly guitar solo can ever be like a Picasso line drawing, well then it's probably a solo by Roland Janes.

SONNY BURGESS - Another Sun Records wildman. A great singer and performer, his guitar playing is often overlooked but his solo on WE WANNA BOOGIE is one of my favorite rockabilly/rock and roll solos by anyone.

LIGHTNING HOPKINS - Nobody else like him. I was lucky enough to see him 30 or 40 times back when I was a kid. A lot of people have written a lot of words about Lightning, trying to capture his musical/social/spiritual essence, well, all I can add is that whenever someone asks me who I'd be if I could be somebody else, Lightning is always my answer. I recommend getting a reissue of his early sides for either the Gold Star or the Modern record labels but ANY Lightning Hopkins is worth buying.

STEVE CROPPER - Great songwriter (DOCK OF THE BAY with Otis Redding is one example) as well as the king of understated but tough Memphis r+b guitar. Listen to any Otis Redding or Booker T and the MGs recording to see what I mean. I saw him with Booker T when I was 11 or 12 years old and, besides his Telecaster playing, I really dug his greased pompadour hair. One of the guys who made me want to wear my hair that way.

ROY NICHOLS and DON RICH - The lead guitarists for Merle Haggard and Wynn Stewart (Nichols) and Buck Owens and, along with Merle and Buck, the architects of the classic Bakersfield country sound. Hard, inventive, angular, no b.s. honky tonk guitar at it's best. As hot as August in the San Joaquin Valley.

MAGIC SAM and OTIS RUSH - Speaking of hard, inventive, angular, no b.s. guitarists, these guys epitomize tough Chicago blues guitar slingers. Often imitated (I've tried on many occasions) but never, ever duplicated. Some of their intense, moody, late 50's records on the Cobra label sound like nothing recorded by anyone before or since. Both were heartbreakingly great singers. Magic Sam died tragically young but Otis Rush is still touring so go out and see a living master.

LOWMAN PAULING - Singer/songwriter and guitarist for the 1950s r+b vocal group, THE FIVE ROYALES. The Royales were one of the best r+b vocal groups of their day and Lowman wrote some classics in that style (THINK - covered by James Brown, TELL THE TRUTH - covered by Ray Charles and DEDICATED TO THE ONE I LOVE covered by The Shirelles) but his guitar playing completely floors me. Mixing T-Bone Walker's urban blues with gospel chords and a touch of early feedback, his sound is beautifully distorted with a tone that will rattle the fillings in your teeth. Unfortunately, like many visionaries, he died pretty much forgotten.

CHUCK BERRY - Well, what else can you say about him? My favorite solo is the long ride out on NO PARTICULAR PLACE TO GO. A masterpiece.

JIMI HENDRIX - Another "what else can you say" guitarist. He took blues guitar playing further than anyone before or since. I saw him play twice when I was 11 years old and words just can't describe what it was like seeing him perform live. I've never tried to imitate him because, well, it would be almost sacreligious.

And there's even more:
Howlin' Wolf's devastating trio of guitar slingers; WILLIE JOHNSON, PAT HARE and HUBERT SUMLIN. I love "old timey" prewar country pickers like RILEY PUCKETT, SARA CARTER (from the original Carter Family), FRANK HUTCHISON, JIMMIE TARLTON and SAM McGEE. I worship countless obscure blues/r+b players like FLOYD MURPHY (who came up the famous MYSTERY TRAIN lick when he recorded with Little Junior Parker), LAFAYETTE "THE THING" THOMAS, FRANKIE LEE SIMMS, EARL HOOKER, JODY WILLIAMS, CAL GREEN (who rocked hard on Hank Ballard's great 50's records), LONG JOHN HUNTER and ROBERT WARD who never received their due acclaim. Then there are the more famous guitarists that slay me like ELMORE JAMES (who is also one my favorite singers ), BUDDY GUY, JOHN LEE HOOKER, The 3 Blues Kings - B.B., ALBERT and FREDDIE, jazz master KENNY BURRELL, Stratocaster twang bar basher IKE TURNER, bluegrass wizard CLARENCE WHITE, fearless blues/rock cats like MIKE BLOOMFIELD and PETER GREEN. And I can't leave out my favorite spiritual and gospel guitar innovators like POPS STAPLES, REVEREND GARY DAVIS, REVEREND UTAH SMITH and REVEREND M.L. ALLEN. And I can't forget the rock and rollers like LINK WRAY, KIP TYLER, JAMES BURTON, DICK DALE and whoever played the lead guitar solo on The Kingsmen's version of LOUIE LOUIE.

As you can see, I have too many favorite guitarists to ever give a quick answer when someone asks "who is your favorite " (AND I'm not even mentioning the current crop of guitarists performing and recording these days ). Anyway, if you have some spare cash I recommend just about anything by any of these brilliant, essential musicians and I hope you love them as much as I do.

Dave Alvin

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Last Modified: 4Nov02

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