Guitar 101: Studio Guitar Legends, Part I: Memphis
On March 5, 1951, a song called “Rocket 88” was recorded by Jackie Brenston at Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service (now known as Sun Studios). Some people call it the first rock and roll record ever made. It wasn’t the first record made in Memphis by any means, but it marked the beginning of a golden era. From the early ‘50s until about 1972, hundreds of hit songs were recorded in Memphis. Most of these records came out of four Memphis Studios: Sun, Stax, Hi, and American. Each studio had its own rhythm section, composed of drums, bass, keyboards and guitars. They did not read written music notation, but used “head arrangements.” They had to make up their own parts on the spot, often hearing the writer play the song for the first time immediately before recording it. The guitar players in these four rhythm sections created some of the most memorable guitar intros, fills, and solos of all time. I’d like to say a little about each one of these players, and hope you listen to the records they played on. Literally millions of guitar players have stolen licks from these guys, without ever knowing who they were.
In addition to Jackie Brenston, Sam Phillips also recorded blues artists Howlin’ Wolf and Junior Parker in the early ‘50s, but his claim to fame is making Elvis Presley’s first records. Elvis, along with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash (also known as “The Class of ‘55”) were the most famous singers of the rockabilly genre. The two guys that played on most of these records were the great Scotty Moore and the lesser known but equally talented Roland Janes. Scotty Moore was heavily influenced by Chet Atkins and played hollow-body Gibson guitars with a thumbpick on Elvis’ records. Listen to his solos on “Mystery Train” and “That’s All Right, Mama” and you’ll hear the Chet-inspired thumb-and-finger chord approach, and in the solo to “Hound Dog” you can hear the bluesy pentatonic scale and double-stopped thirds, a staple of the rockabilly style. A “slap-back” delay (between 40 and 120 milliseconds) was used a lot in that genre, for vocals as well as guitars. That’s Roland on Billy Lee Riley’s classic “Flyin’ Saucers Rock ‘n’ Roll” playing a Chuck Berry-ish solo and intro. In Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls Of Fire,” he doesn’t get a solo, but he does an inspired one in “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”
Only a few years ahead of me at Messick High School in Memphis was a guy who became the best known of all the Memphis guitar legends, Steve Cropper. He was not only the guitar player in Booker T. and the MGs, he played some of the most classic guitar licks ever on the records made at Stax, at 926 E. McLemore Avenue on the south side of Memphis. “Soul Man,” “Green Onions,” “Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay,” “Knock On Wood,” and “In The Midnight Hour” are just a few of the most famous. Steve not only played guitar and produced, he co-wrote many of the hits he played on, including the last four of the above-mentioned songs. Steve usually played a Telecaster through a small Fender Harvard amp. Never a flashy player, Steve epitomized simplicity and taste. When talking about how he came up with those great guitar parts, he always stresses the importance of listening to what the other guys are playing. He’s a great rhythm player and always makes sure his rhythm “locks in” with the drums. Another trademark of his style are the fills (so-called because they “fill the holes” between vocal phrases) that are based on intervals of 6ths, 3rds, and 4ths. He very rarely used any effects, but listen to his solo on “Green Onions” and you’ll hear the reverb kick in halfway through.
At 827 Thomas Street, another legendary rhythm section (later to be known as The Memphis Boys) was coming together at American Studios. Reggie Young was the man who played guitar on almost all of the hundred plus hits that came out of American. Reggie played electric sitar on my band The Box Tops’ second hit, “Cry Like A Baby.” It still blows my mind that that sitar part and the guitar on such diverse records as “Drift Away,” “Hooked On A Feeling,” “Son Of A Preacher Man,” “I Can Help,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Skinny Legs And All,” “Luckenbach, Texas” and “Always On My Mind” were played by the same guy: Reggie Young. Reggie has a knack for playing exactly the right lick at exactly the right time. Of all the Memphis guitar legends, no one has played on more hit records that cover such a wide range of genres. Although he played a Les Paul on “Drift Away,” most of Reggie’s recorded work was done on a Telecaster or Stratocaster through a Fender Deluxe or similar tube amp. I remember a guitar closet at American with several guitars in it, mostly Fenders and Gibsons and the Coral electric sitar co-owned by Reggie and bassist Tommy Cogbill. In the late ‘50s, the Nashville Number System had recently been invented and studio musicians began using it immediately because it was so practical and adaptable to any key. Recently, in his home studio where he’s working on his own instrumental album, Reggie told me, “The first number charts I remember using were when we recorded at Hi Studios in 1959 with The Bill Black Combo. We cut two instrumentals, ‘Smokey Part 1’ and ‘Part 2.’ It wasn’t anything complicated.”
The other Memphis studio that was cutting hits was Hi Records, over on South Lauderdale. Like the studio at Stax, the space was originally a theater. Soul singers like Ann Peebles and O.V. Wright recorded there and early rhythm sections included Reggie Young and keyboardist Bobby Emmons (also of The Memphis Boys at American), but the most well-known rhythm section featured the Hodges brothers, with Mabon “Teenie” Hodges on guitar. His work on Al Green’s great soul records is both beautiful and funky. Listen to his intro on “Love And Happiness.” It’s one of the classic guitar intros of all time. If you want to hear a masterpiece of smooth soul guitar, listen to his arpeggios and tasty fills on “Let’s Stay Together.” Teenie also co-wrote a dozen of Al’s big hits. He recently toured with Cat Power and works with his brothers in the Hi Rhythm section.
I have been so inspired by all of these guys, and if you’re not familiar with their work, I think you’ll be amazed.