Legendary Rigs: Rock and Roll
We often talk of the USA being a melting pot, but however accurate that might be, you really saw a cultural, sociological, and artistic coming-together in the early 1950s, the result being an entirely new breed of music. North meets South, city meets country, black meets white, suit and tie meets bolo and Cuban heels … bam! Rock and roll, baby. How could it not happen?
Volumes have been written about the way that the popular music styles of the late 1940s and early ’50s came together to create rock and roll. Far less has been said, however, about how the more extreme, driving, and revolutionary guitarists in the jazz, country, and blues worlds were all doing their thing on very similar equipment.
In the first installment of this series, Classic Jazz, I discussed how the first production electric guitars and early amplifiers helped to change the jazz scene. Only a decade later, both guitars and amps had come a long way, and there were significant new contenders in the market, too. On the playing front, many of these early jazzers were injecting stylistic elements that would later turn up in rock and roll, such as the driving, single-note riffing of Charlie Christian or Eddie Durham.
Just a little later, country players such as Junior Barnard of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Bob McNett with Hank Williams and the Drifting Cowboys, Merle Travis, and “boogie” artists Arthur Smith and the Delmore Brothers were all cutting loose with string bends, rapid runs, and gutsy double-stop riffs that would have been right at home in rock and roll … if it had been invented yet. All this on the big “jazz boxes” and rather archaic amps that were still really tools of the swing bandstand.
The unofficial birth of rock and roll was popularly considered to be the release of “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets in 1954 (although the song had been written in 1952), but perhaps it’s more accurately pegged to the lesser-known March 1951 recording of “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats (which actually consisted of Ike Turner & His Rhythm Kings as backing band). Even around that time the hollowbody archtop electric was far and away still the most common guitar on the scene. So, although the solidbody guitar would soon be the clear way forward for this bold, energetic, and loud new music, the fully hollow archtop electric was the instrument that birthed it.
I guess we can reasonably say, therefore, that the legendary rock and roll rig isn’t just one set-up, but an evolution of pairings: the music set forth from big-bodied Gibson archtops like those played by both Bill Haley and Comets guitarist Danny Cedrone, or—a couple years later—the Gretsch 6120s Eddie Cochran and Duane Eddy played.
As such, this tone was fat, broad, and raw, but not without some definition and cutting highs when played in anger through an amp like an early ’50s Gibson GA-30, Gretsch 6160 Electromatic Twin, or wide-panel tweed Fender Super or Pro. Keep in mind that these amps really weren’t designed to be played flat out (although you can bet more than a few early bluesers cranked them up to see what they could do, and probably plenty of jazz and country players too, in late-night jam sessions and cutting contests when the polite patrons had left the establishment).
Although underpowered by today’s standards, these tube amps were designed with a certain excess of power in order to achieve a modicum of headroom: play them at 3 or 4 and you could get away with passably clean jazz and country tones; anywhere past half way or so and they were cruising into rock and roll territory. It’s a sound that excited not only the adventurous guitarists who produced it but, as indicated by the new music’s runaway success, the droves of teens who flocked to the sock hops and concert halls to hear it, too.
While the technology might seem archaic today, man, this was the golden age of tone. Listen to what any of these players achieved on archtop electrics or basic, early solidbodies, through super-basic 15- to 40-watt tube amps, and it’s a humbling lesson in the virtue of simplicity. Raw, rich, powerful, and totally rock and roll.
[originally Dave Hunter | 01.23.2008, Gibson.com]