Larry Donn's Rockabilly Days - GUITARS AND PICKERS

Rockabilly Days

LARRY DONN writes for Now Dig This

Some historians believe the gutitar has been around for thousands of years as sculptures have been found, dating to 1000 BC, showing an instrument with guitar-like features. No word on whether the brand name was visible. Can you imagine what price a 3,000 year old Gibson would fetch? Wow!

My first guitar was given to me when I was ten years old by my uncle Elvis. There's probably something supernatural in that, but I'm not going to speculate. My uncle had the name long before the more famous Elvis. His last name in Baugh, the same as Smokey Joe, the Sun piano player. Actually, it is sort of interesting that both his names have a connection with Sun. (I've been trying to find out if Smokey Joe was a relative, but so far I haven't been able to locate any of his family.) So, back to the guitar. It was given to him by his Uncle Bill when he was a lad. I don't know how old it is but I think it was purchased from Sears & Roebuck in the '20s or '30s for about three dollars. I actually didn't learn to play it until I was about sixteen, but my father picked it up occasionally and hit a few Jimmie Rogers licks. It was black and had a painting on the front of cowboys sitting around a campfire. The neck was about the size of my right arm and bowed upward so the strings were about a half-inch off the fingerboard. If your not a guitar player, you cannot fully appreciate the agony resulting from a few minutes of hard playing on high strings. Nevertheless, I persevered and learned enough to convince my parents to spend 36.50 for a new Harmony. It was two-tone blue, light and dark, and the colours met in a V across the center of the body. The neck was still a bit large but the strings being a lot closer to the fingerboard made up for it. The first thing I learned to play, besides chords, was the guitar part in Waren Smith's 'Black Jack David'.

In 1957, just after I started playing music, a good friend sold me a Gibson LGO flat top for twenty dollars. It was like new and should have sold for at least a hundred dollars, and I could not believe my good fortune. For years I thanked him every time I saw him. It has been smashed and rebuilt a couple of times, and refinished twice. The plastic knobs on the tuning key disintegrated years ago and I replaced them by welding pennies to the shafts. The guitar is still in reasonably good condition but I use nylon (classical) strings on it to lessen the strain on the front as the wood is quite thin and fragile from all it has been through. I also have a flat top Epiphone, given to me by a good friend and former bass player in one of my bands after he smashed it during a bit of drunken revelry, I repaired it and bought new tunning keys and it turned out to be a pretty good instrument. I also have a late '60s Fender Mustang with a loose wire somewhere, but my favorite of all is a Gibson ES330. I suppose every guitar player has his favourite instrument or hopes one day to find the one that fits him. I've found mine. I bought it used in a music store in Illinois sometime in the mid-'70s.

I never had the burning desire to be a lead guitar player, which is a necessity if you want to be good at it. I considered myself a singer, and the guitar was just an accompaniment which made singing by myself more fun. About the time I began to think about being a lead guitar player, I teamed up with Benny Kuykendall and had no reason to learn as Benny handled it quite capably. Then came Jimmie Coleman, who was very good and etremely versatile and I just forgot about playing the guitar.

As I think about the list of guitar players who influenced me most, Benny is somewhere close to the top. He played with a vicious intensity... the way I like to play but rarely can. (Because I don't practice enough!)

A long-time friend of my family, Kenny Caldwell, was an early influence allthough he played no rock n roll. However, he could play about anything else, and still does. He has a band and plays some of the local Country Club-type dances, where everybody wears a suit and tie. Kenny does some nice violin work and is pretty good on the fiddle as well.

Then there was Martin 'Pig' Coleman, Jimmie's uncle, who, in 1955, I thought was one of the best guitar players in the world. He said he didn't like rock n roll, but he could play most of Scotty Moore's leads and taught me to play the lead in 'That's All Right', among others. He played at least one show with Billy Lee Riley and Bobby Lee Trammel and I will be telling you more about that in a future story.

I guess Luther Perkins was next. Luther's picking was the essence of simplicity but had a soulfulness that was hard to copy. Every kid who could get his hands on a guitar was trying, though, and I was no exception. I don't think I ever actually met Luther. I was around him a time or two, but I don't remember ever talking to him. He was a very quiet man and his personality was reflected in his playing. I would guess that he was neat and orderly and liked everything in its place.

The first guitar player I remember hearing was Billy Byrd. I probably remembered him because I heard Ernest Tubb tell him several times to "Pick it out, Billy Byrd". Incidentally, the small piece of celluloid Byrd used to 'pick it out' is correctly called a plectrum. It wouldn't have sounded right, though, if Ernest had said, "Plectrum it out, Billy Byrd".

I really didn't pay much attention to guitar players until the rockabilly days. (You'll notice how cleverly I snuck in the column name.) Scotty Moore was the spark that started it. The sound of his guitar on the early Elvis records still sets me afire. I've always felt that Scotty didn't get enough credit for what he added to the records. Without that Scotty Moore sound, I have some doubts that Scotty Moore sound, I have some doubts that the records would have generated the excitement complementary artists. Elvis' voice and Scotty's guitar just seem to fit together. I don't mean to belittle Bill Black's part, but this is about guitar players.

Many lead guitar solos come off sounding like something thrown in to give the singer a break. Not so with Scotty. His leads are like frosting on the cookies. Every one is a classic. Well, most of them, anyway.

One of my favourite LPs is Scotty's Epic record 'The Guitar That Changed The World'. I would've liked it better if Sam had engineered it, but it is an essential for Scotty Moore fans. Unfortunately, somehow I managed to become separated from my copy, so I hope someone will re-release it in Europe one of these days.

There were many guitar players I admired - Carl Perkins, Sonny Burgess, Chuck Berry, Al Casey... and, of course, everybody likes Chet and Hank and Les and Merle.

Speaking of Merle (Travis, that is), I have his last microphone and sound system. I bought it from his wife in 1983 through his last manager, Rod Kettler, of Waco, Texas. The microphone is an Electovoice, the amplifier is a Peavey 600 something-or-other and the speakers are Dietz, made somewhere in Texas. It's a good outfit and has a nice clean sound, but so far the amp has cost me about 250 dollars in repair bills. We used the system on shows I did with Burgess, Kesler and Riley earlier this year (see NDT 109). I've often wondered what Merle would say if he knew we were playing all that hot rock n roll through his p.a. system. I never met him, but from what Rod has told me about him, I wouldn't bet he'd say, "Well, son, you just go ahead and rock n roll all you want to". And that's what I'm doing. Rock on!

Larry Donn's Delta Musicians Page

Return To Rockabilly Days