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Chicken Pickin’ and Hot Lickin’: 10 Foundational Country Music Guitar Greats

Ted Drozdowski
|
02.12.2014

Sure, contemporary country stars like Keith Urban, Brad Paisley and Joe Don Rooney, and session men from Kenny Greenberg to Kenny Vaughan, can pick up a storm. But the foundation of their styles rests on the plethora of county studio and stage six-stringers who came before them. Here’s a list of 10 historic players who helped establish the fundamental language of country guitar for several generations, from the 1930s to the 1990s:

Mother Maybelle Carter: Country music’s first major guitar hero was a woman from tiny Nickelsville, Virginia. She was also a third of its first major group, the Carter Family. The Carters were part of country music’s initial recording sessions, in 1927 in Bristol, Tennessee, and when their records took off Maybelle used her money to buy the Gibson L-5 acoustic that she used on practically every side she cut from 1928 until her death. On that guitar she also developed a singular style of playing that’s come to be known as “Carter picking,” which involved playing the melody lines on the bass strings with her thumb while keeping time on the high strings with an attack similar to frailing a banjo. That guitar is valued at more than $500,000 and is on display at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Maybelle was also the mother of the Carter sisters, including June, who married and performed with Johnny Cash. Key cuts: “Wildwood Flower,” “Keep on the Sunny Side,” “Can the Circle Be Unbroken.”

Chet Atkins: The undisputed king of country guitar considered Maybelle Carter and Merle Travis among his earliest influences. He heard both pickers on the radio in his family’s Luttrell, Tennessee, home as a child before discovering jazz and pop through Django Reinhardt, George Barnes and Les Paul. As a producer and performer, Atkins racked up 14 Grammy awards and built the template for country as a major commercial musical enterprise. Atkins’ influence is so profound and his history so sprawling that it’s impossible to relate in miniature. Besides his session work and hit albums and singles – starting with his smash instrumental version of “Mr. Sandman” in the early 1950s — and productions, his playing had an incredible range of influence. The Beatles’ George Harrison was a devout follower. And Atkins’ rendition of “Malaguena” inspired a renaissance of flamenco guitar. Key cuts: Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” the Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up Little Susie.”

Grady Martin: This Chapel Hill, Tennessee, native was part of Nashville’s famed A-team, the group of players assembled by producer Chet Atkins to play on historic recordings by Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, Elvis Presley, Eddy Arnold and others. They helped shape country into a more cosmopolitan and mainstream-accessible sound without compromising its musical strength. Jazz and western swing were major building blocks in Martin’s style. Martin had a long career, which was launched when he played the hot licks in Rod Foley’s 1950 hit “Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy.” His later recordings include Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter” from 1970 and Sammi Smith’s classic “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” More key cuts: Ray Price’s “For the Good Times,” Marty Robbins’ “El Paso,” Johnny Horton’s “Honky Tonk Man.”

Hank Garland: This guitar wizard from Cowpens, South Carolina, had his first hit at age 19 with the million-selling “Sugarfoot Rag.” Before he moved to Nashville and joined the “A-Team,” he was acknowledged as a blazing jazzman who jammed with the likes of Charlie Parker and George Shearing, and Garland recorded his own progressive Jazz Winds From a New Direction album. He was also instrumental in developing the Gibson Byrdland guitar. No less an authority than Chet Atkins proclaimed Garland the finest guitarist to ever come to Nashville. And Garland played on hundreds of top 10 country and pop hits in the 1950s and ’60s. More key cuts: Ferlin Huskey’s “Gone,” Elvis Presley’s “Stuck On You,” the Everly Brothers’ “When Will I Be Loved.”

Merle Travis: Rosewood, Kentucky’s Merle Travis was one of the first truly orchestral guitarists — a kind of mountain raised Michael Hedges of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. Travis’ style was singular, marked most prominently by his ability to play two bass strings at the same time on the one and three beats while laying blazing melody lines on top. It became known as “Travis picking.” Fast key changes, a hybrid picking technique that allowed him to use his thumb pick like a flat pick, and a host of other signatures borrowed from ragtime, swing, jazz, blues and old-fashioned boogie-woogie colored his guitar approach. He was also an exceptional songwriter who drew on his Kentucky heritage for inspiration, writing songs about hard labor in coalmines and life in the rural south. Key cuts: “Dark As a Dungeon,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Cannonball Rag.”

Joe Maphis: The first king of the double-neck guitar, Maphis was born in Suffolk, Virginia, but was one of the first artists to emerge from the rough-and-tumble Bakersfield, California club scene that would later be the proving grounds of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. He was a brilliant, high-velocity player whose style was a bridge between country and early rock. Maphis’ reputation was built primarily on his live performances. He often shared touring bills with artists like Brenda Lee and Wanda Jackson, with Maphis’ band opening the shows and supporting the other artists in the line-up. Maphis was also a featured soloist on the weekly Town Hall Party country music variety show in the ’50s, and in the ’60s he appeared regularly on network TV’s Jimmy Dean Show. Although he left behind a relatively small catalog of recordings, his instrumental hits are indelible. Key cuts: “Fire On the Strings,” “Town Hall Shuffle,” “Black Mountain Rag.”

Harold Bradley: Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.” Brenda Lee’s “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree.” These and thousands of other songs bear the mark of Bradley’s polished tone and elegant, jazz informed licks. A rare Nashville legend actually born in Music City, Bradley was also part of the legendary “A-Team” and claims more than 300,000 sessions in a career that lasted well over a century. He was one of the earliest proponents of the solid body guitar on Nashville’s studio scene and recorded three albums of his own on Columbia Records. At age 88 he remains a respected figure in the Nashville music community. More key cuts: Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely,” Eddy Arnold’s “Make the World Go Away,” “Burl Ives’ “Holly Jolly Christmas.”

Jerry Reed: It wasn’t until 1970, with the hit “Amos Moses,” that Reed became a country music star. But during the previous decade he’d been a respected member of the genre’s recording community thanks to his guitar prowess. That reputation was cemented in 1967 when Elvis Presley decided to record Reed’s song “Guitar Man” and Reed was hired to play on the session, delivering a stellar performance. Reed was an extraordinary finger picker, which allowed him to blend speed and precision, and to develop a bold, singular tone that even Chet Atkins admired. He was also a terrific improviser with a foundation in blues, rock and country that emerged as a blend on his strongest performances. More key cuts: “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot,” “East Bound and Down, “The Bird.”

James Burton: This Louisiana native was an early rock ’n’ roll hero, playing with Ricky Nelson and Dale Hawkins, and delivering a template solo on Hawkins’ solo “Susie Q.” His string bending, vibrato, chicken pickin’ and faux steel guitar bends have kept him in demand — and on guitar players’ radar — for more than a half-century. Burton was among the first guitar players to use banjo strings to provide a lighter gauge for his top notes. Burton’s influence during the ’60s expanded greatly due to his membership in the house band for the TV show Shindig! Burton’s credits as a sideman include albums and tours with Buffalo Springfield, John Denver, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Emmylou Harris, Elvis Costello, Gram Parsons, Merle Haggard, Joni Mitchell and many more. His induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame was by Keith Richards — a further testimonial to Burton’s status and influence. Key cuts: Ricky Nelson’s “Hello Mary Lou,” Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds,” James Burton and Ralph Mooney’s “Corn Pickin’.”

Dann Huff: Nashville native Huff is among the most influential studio musicians of the past 30 years. Beside taking bands like Racal Flats and Keith Urban to the top of the charts, he brought a bigger tone to modern country music guitar as well as deft new variations on old-school moves like chicken pickin’ and faux steel bends. His studio credits beyond the world of country also include platinum recordings with Michael Jackson, Whitesnake, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Michel Bolton. Key cuts: “Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” Taylor Swift’s “Red,” Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again.”

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