It seems unlikely that you could draw a straight line between the roaring, shredded power chords wrenched out of the ’53 Les Paul wielded by a Korean War vet in 1958 to Steve Jones’ “punk” rock riffs with the Sex Pistols on his Les Paul nearly two decades later. But Fred Lincoln “Link” Wray, a half Shawnee Indian born dirt poor in rural North Carolina, changed rock guitar forever with his ’58 instrumental hit “Rumble.” Even the leather jackets adopted by bands like the Pistols and the Heartbreakers were a throwback to Link Wray, the other Man in Black, as were the riffs and power chords he pummeled into existence with the Wraymen, which included his brothers Vernon and Doug.
The unrepentant father of distortion and the power chord was born to semiliterate street preachers and started playing guitar at age eight, when a black circus performer named Hambone showed him a few chords and how to play slide guitar.
Link Wray died in Denmark, his adopted home, in 2005 with his fourth wife, Olive Julie. He had never stopped playing guitar, touring regularly to capacity theater crowds, and was the rare cult figure who lived to see his work reexamined and acknowledged, thanks to his songs showing up in films like Pulp Fiction. In 2003, Rolling Stone’s entry for Link in their “100 Most Important Guitarists in History” (he was No. 67) called him the man behind “the most important D chord in history. Wray created the overdriven rock-guitar sound taken up by Townshend, Hendrix, and others.”
Wray was an inadvertent rock and roller from the very beginning. He went after the nastiest sound possible from his Les Paul, run through a screaming Premier amp with cranked tremolo and some well-placed pencil jabs to the speaker. Largely self-taught, he picked up a guitar when he returned home from the Korean War. Relocated to the DC area (Portsmouth, Virginia), Wray and his brothers first tried their hand on the country circuit but found their sound with “Rumble” and never looked back. Wray humbly explained later that he lacked the chops to copy his heroes of the day (Les Paul, Chet Atkins) and was forced to invent his power chord style. He wrote riff-heavy rock songs rather than pretty tunes you could sing along to. Songs you could feel under your ribs. He never considered himself a strong vocalist, having lost one lung to tuberculosis contracted during his stint in the service, but his growled, snarling vocals sound timeless today, long outliving the saccharine crooning of his chart contemporaries.
The still brutal, menacing “Rumble” was one of those songs plucked from the ether, an improvised instrumental they called “Oddball,” created when an influential DJ hosting the sock hop the Wraymen were playing asked Link to perform “The Stroll” by the Diamonds, which they didn’t know. Link made up the riff and Vernon and Doug fell in right behind him with a pounding, primitive stomp. They cut the song soon after. Re-christened “Rumble” (West Side Story had debuted on Broadway in ’57), Cadence Records put out the track and credited it to “Link Wray and the Wraymen.” The song, which sold four million copies, was seen as a juvenile delinquent call to arms and was banned on some radio stations, despite the fact that it was an instrumental. You didn’t have to see Link Wray’s leather jacket and ducktail to know he had one when you heard the needle drop on “Rumble;” it was a nasty, menacing little slab of guitar rock and fuzz sandwiched in between the hits of the day?from teen angst ballads to smoothies like Andy Williams and Perry Como. With one mean D to E chord change, Link Wray changed the electric guitar forever.
The song also created a rumble heard across the ocean in England (Pete Townshend declared “He is the King; if it hadn’t been for ‘Rumble,’ I would have never picked up a guitar”), in northern Minnesota (Dylan saw Wray in 1958), in Winnipeg (Neil Young), and elsewhere. It was a call to all coming-of-age youngsters who heard something dangerous in Wray’s guitar tone and were inspired to get a guitar and turn up.
During the course of his career, Wray bounced from small labels to majors and went DIY before the term had been invented, recording in a converted chicken coop dubbed “Wray’s Shack Three Tracks.” There was no drum kit at the shack—they’d stomp or shake a can of nails to get the beat down. His first “shack” release, simply titled Link Wray (1971), showcased his vocal work and also featured Wray playing slide on a 1910 Gibson (tuned to D fitted with a DeArmond pickup) he’d sent back to Gibson for restoration. While the album was a hit with critics?Rolling Stone’s review read, “Wray’s voice is vital, driving, and somehow retains that Brando/Dean ambience”?it didn’t find an audience. Said MOJO’s Andrew Male, “America wasn’t ready for Wray’s mystic gospel grooves, beaten hound-dog voice, and mean open-tuned slashes at his battered 1910 Gibson.”
Wray continued to record solo albums and was never forgotten by his fellow musicians. His album Be What You Want To, for example, featured appearances from heavyweights Jerry Garcia, Commander Cody, and David Bromberg but still failed to find an audience.
Wray resurfaced in 1977 recording and playing live with Tough Darts frontman turned neo-rockabilly Robert Gordon. He still had the ducktail and had been discovered by the punk and rockabilly crowd. Pics from this era show him playing a playing a Gibson SG.
Thanks to the re-release of Wray’s work through compilations (check out the excellent 1993 Rhino comp Rumble! The Best of Link Wray), Wray’s early tracks were available to a new audience. He returned with the album Shadowman in 1997, nearly 40 years after he’d released “Rumble,” and started to tour the states again, still shredding well into his 70s. By the end of his life, he’d connected with a new generation of listeners who caught the same excitement hearing the track for the first time.
“I had to search for sounds, play through off-brand guitars, and slash up my speakers,” Link explained in a 1999 interview with the Tucson Weekly. “I had to make my own distortion. Back in the ’50s, there was Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee, but ‘Rumble’ don’t sound like ’50s rock and roll. It sounds like outer space.”