Tue Jul 11th, 2006 at 09:01:50 AM EST
The guitar is practically the sine qua non of modern rock and roll. The singer may be sexy and get all the girls, but the coolest guy in the band is always the one swinging the six-string Stuka. No guitar ? Well sorry Kraftwerk, Pet shop boys et al, whatever it is you do, it just ain't rock and roll.
So, who invented rock and roll guitar ? Where do we first hear the unmistakeable elements that we can say "this was it" ? There are so many fitting claimants;-
Some say Elvis' backing player, Scotty Moore, others have suggested Chuck Berry. Or maybe it was Hank Williams with his works "Move it on Over" & "Lovesick blues" that have been regularly attributed with being the first real rock and roll records. But they were just building on already established elements. They added nothing which was not pre-existing.
So surely it was Robert Johnson !! Everybody says so; and here there is a case to answer, for if you listen to modern rock guitarists they fall into two camps. First there are those who are lyrical lead players, the Eric Claptons, Peter Greens, Jimmy Pages and Jeff Becks of this world. These are the inheritors of Robert Johnson. His ability to shape the guitar's voice, not so much an accompaniment and more as a counterpoint to his vocal and mould a whole new world of expression with his creativity. This is what what inspired such people, they wanted that commanding voice, the solo violin of the rock world, that which everybody else serves.
But there is another tradition, mixing lead and rhythm playing together, even within the same bar so that a dense network of chord progression, modal colour and tones are mixed together, less to express the lyricism (and ego) of the player and more serving the development of the music itself.
Here we obviously find Keith Richards, but also Pete Townsend, Hendrix even Slash of Guns and Roses. It is this tradition which, if you chase all the way back is finally attributable to the shy and unassuming country & western player of the 30s, Maybelle Carter (nee Addington).
The Carter Family are legends in the C&W canon, poor backwoods hillbillies who walked down a hillside in 1927 to audition for Ralph Peer, a New York-based A&R man for Victor Records who was scouting for local talent in Bristol, Tennessee. And strode into history. They were quickly offered a contract and eventually recorded over 300 records.
The Carter Family's instrumental backup, like their vocals, was unique. Indeed, Maybelle's style was named "Carter-style" picking and became the standard bluegrass technique. On her Gibson L-5 guitar, Maybelle played a bass-strings lead (the guitar being tuned down from the standard pitch) that is the mainstay of bluegrass guitarists to the present. Sara accompanied her on the autoharp or on a second guitar, while A.P. devoted his talent to singing a haunting though idiosyncratic bass or baritone. Listening to their music nowadays, the guitar sounds so much like the Rolling Stones it shouts out at you, yet it was fully 30 - 40 years before.
It was this style, heard throughout the land thanks to the booming interest in bluegrass radio during the 30s and 40s that influenced so many country and western players. Highly adaptable to the requirements of both group and solo playing (Woodie Guthrie's style is Carter style picking and Dylan was a Guthrie devotee) it was readily adopted in the new world of the electric guitars coming from the Gibson and later the Fender factories in the 50s.
Although never famous this side of th Atlantic, Maybelle Carter was recognised by american rock stars of the 60s as being a primary influence, even touring with Janis Joplin at the height of the latter's fame.
Maybelle Carter, creator of the rock and roll guitar. (b. May 10, 1909; d. October 23, 1978)
"What the boys don't know, the little girls all understand".