(Guitar * Rockabilly)
University of North Iowa
Citation: Grant, David. “Link Wray.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 23, 2021. doi:10.20415/hyp/023.r06
Abstract: This piece focuses on the musical and genre innovations of early rock n' roll guitarist, Link Wray. Given his Native American ancestry and physical disability, Wray is a difficult figure to place, though his material and embodied methods of making music prefigured other, more famous artists. This audio file reflecting on Wray suggests a more proper scope of his influence in an attempt to decolonize both the history of rock music as well as methods of multimodal and sound composition.
Keywords: Rockabilly, Link Wray, Rumble, Native American, Distortion.
Wray’s music is a strong undercurrent of American and British rock music, somehow both ubiquitous and unknown. The website linkwray.com calls his music “the DNA of Rock ‘n’ Roll” and I think he has been credited with launching more rock n’ roll careers than just about any other. Jerry Garcia, Pete Townshend, Neil Young, Iggy Pop, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page point to him as an inspiration for their own guitar work. After his death in 2005, both Dylan and Springsteen opened their concert sets in tribute to the man whose guitar sound so moved and inspired them. From his banned, slow-pitched, guitar-heavy, 1958 song, “Rumble,” to later, faster songs like “Barbed Wire,” Wray is at once both singular and ubiquitous.
I first really tuned in to Wray because of the Cadillac Angels, a rockabilly band popular in northern Arizona, headed up by Tony “Tiger” Balbinot. This wasn’t long after the minor rediscovery of Wray due to his inclusion on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack and about the time I bought my first guitar. Wray’s music had all the building blocks for a budding guitar player: power chords, reverb, feedback, the driving pulse. He was a good counter-balance to the jam-band and drum circle crowd looking for transcendence in communal harmony.
Wray is also a good counterbalance to popular conceptions of Native Americans. He’s anything but a spiritually-minded, flute-playing guru surrounded by a majestic natural tapestry, weighed down by turquoise squash blossoms and bedazzled leggings. He’s emblematic of the indigenous roots of American rock ‘n’ roll, standing with Jesse Ed Davis, Mildred Bailey, and Charlie Patton as early Native American pioneers of rock music, Wray not only makes the careers of the pantheon of rock gods possible, he also makes it possible for other Native Americans and First Nations people to make their own contributions as indigenous people: Robbie Robertson, Steve Salas, John Trudell, Buffy St. Marie, Jim Boyd, and Randy Castillo.
Like Dylan, Wray always inventive, never programmatic. In several places, Wray proclaims he could never pick clean like Chet Atkins, so he had to create his own sound. A filmed interview of him in 1984 shows him repeat that theme, but deny he was a great guitarist, just an “average guitar player who looks for sounds,” a phrase he repeats a moment later. The synesthetic description strikes me, suggesting a mixing of the visual and the audial as practice for composition.
Wray not only spanned genres and decades, persisting as “the original man in black” despite the changing fashions and trends, he also spanned groups of people and music styles with just as much ease. Always resolutely his own individual, in his performances and interviews he always seems unfazed by time, even glad of the difference surrounding him. In a 1984 interview, his fourth wife, Olive, sits beside him, dressed in a fashionable knit sweater, her long hair frizzed in a perm, and long dangly earrings complimenting her bright, almost pastel red lipstick. Wray looks his age, but still dressed in black leather jacket, opaque sunglasses, white Elvis T-shirt, and long, back hair flayed in a ducktail. He seems to have stepped right out of 1958, just as he looked in 1977 and 1969, comfortable in who he was.
As the synesthetic composer he was, his sound follows the same pattern. From the main riff to “Rumble,” dubbed “the raunchiest riff in the world,” to his more gospel-inflected eponymous album, to the star-studded, country-influenced Be Who You Want To, and on into rockabilly collaborations with Robert Gordon, Wray lent his guitar sound that was both “gigantic and lonely” (nodepression.com/article/just-dirty-and-no-good-legacy-link-wray). It’s those sounds Wray produced from punching holes in his amps, his heavy use of tremolo, and his reliance on off-brand guitars, like the flamboyant 1958 Danelectro Longhorn “Darlin” with lipstick pickups. The recording of his 1974 Winterland performance in San Francisco demonstrates the ways Wray could mold sound with just a few building blocks, stretching beyond “Rumble” to “Midnight Lover” and “Walkin’ Bulldog.” His cover of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” reimagines the song and, according to Neil Young, “can make you forget Bob Dylan’s ever existed” (Prinzing, Scott. “Three Native Axmen: Link Wray, Robbie Robertson, and Jesse Ed Davis.” Indigenous Pop: Native American Music from Jazz to Hip Hop. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 2016, 75-91.) It’s this sound you can hear in a vast range of rock n roll: The Kinks, Black Sabbath, Joan Jett, Ramones, Jethro Tull, Heart, Sex Pistols, Smithereens, and countless rock, punk, and metal songs. They are all undeniably Linked.
Link Wray’s Statement
Yeah, I like to look for my own sound because I could never pick clean like Chet Atkins, you know. But, you know, that’s not everything. It’s not just lookin’ around for sound and, and, and, you know coming up with something like it’s a technical thing, you know. No, it’s bigger than that. It’s bigger than that.
It’s, like, Elvis, you know. He opened the doors. There was no rock ‘n’ roll before Elvis, so, but, Tom Parker – Elvis couldn’t do it himself. Bob Neil managed Elvis first. Bob Neil couldn’t do it. He couldn’t take Elvis and make Elvis open the doors. It took the power of, of Tom Parker. He took Elvis off of Sun, put him on RCA, you know, and Elvis opened the door for Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Link Wray, and Fabian, Frankie Avalon, and rock and roll. You understand?
This was 1956. And then I came out of the hospital, got my brothers together, went down to Fredercksburg, Virginia, you know – 1957 – jumped up on stage and was playin’ live and the, and the, the T.V. host whose name was Milt Grant brought The Diamonds out to the live show in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
“Link, play me a stroll.” [sings and taps on table] “Stroooooo-o-o-lin’, ba-da-da, ba-da-da, ba da-da…” 1957 number one in Billboard with the Diamonds, Milt Grant says “Link, play me a stroll.”
I said, “I don’t know a stroll.
Doug says, my brother Doug says, “I know the beat of a stroll, you know,” [drums a stroll beat on desk].
So, I says, my Jesus God, you know, brought me out of the death house where I was supposed to be dead. Took me out of the death house, put me back in with my brothers again, zapped [touches head, then plays air guitar] daum-daum-daum [drums stroll beat again] and the rest is history. 1957 in Fredericksburg, Virginia. (Roesser 1997, in Turner’s thesis).
And my brother Ray he grabs the microphone, right, because the only mic they had back on those days was just the singer’s. They didn’t mic the amps or anything, so he just took the mic and stick it down here like this, right. So I just took my amplifier and turned it wide open [mimes turning a knob] and, uh, and I had an old Premiere amplifier, right, so I just turned the tremolo on [makes noises] do-do do-do do-do.
Then I was playin’ all [strums along with “Rumble” riff] da-da-da da-da-da da-da-da… And the kids they just went ape, went screaming over me. My Jesus God just zapped it in my soul, you know, and I just gave it to the kids, you know. (youtube.com/watch?v=UgW8Tfapqbc) and (youtube.com/watch?v=kKjjb8RmcgA)
My first electric guitar was an old, uh, DeArmond pick-up that you stick in the hole you know. And I played in different, I played in jazz combos, a five-piece jazz combo and that got boring to me, you know. Then I played in a forty-piece band. I was the only person in a forty-piece band that could re—that couldn’t read music, you know. And, uh, I played in that and that got boring to me and then I got in this Western swing, you know. I was down there with those Grand Ol’ Opry guys, playing with them, you know, with Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams and all those cats, you know. And that got boring to me so I just started playin’ what you call now rock ‘n roll. I was takin’ the old country songs, you know, and jazzin’ ‘em up rock ‘n roll style, you know. Which, you know, nobody knew what I was doin’ at the time. And there was another young guy, you know, down in Nashville, Tennessee, doin’ the same thing that I was doin’. Only difference is he got a Colonel Tom Parker and became a millionaire, you know. (youtube.com/watch?v=O6HRsAvqJEM)
I guess, uh, I guess it’s also like little things, you know, nothin’ big. I used to put some, to get more action out the whammy bar, you know, I used to get old matchbook covers at places where we were stayin’ and put them under the bridge, you know. So I could get more action and that really affected the sound, you know [mimes whammy bar] wahw-wahw-wahw. (Dickerson, Deke. Strat in the Attic: Thrilling Stories of Guitar Archaeology. Minneapolis: Voyageur Press, 2013).
And that was, it was what I was doin’ in the studio, too, you know. I went to the studio to do the recording, you know. And it was too clean and I couldn't get that there distortion. And so I said I'll take the heads off the speakers, and I'll punch holes in the speakers and got the distortion. So I guess I did sorta like... invent the fuzz-tone, accidentally. Well, it was deliberately. I didn't know they were going to make the boxes, right. I sure didn't know, later on, they were gonna make the boxes, sorta thing (Roseser 1997, in Turner).
That’s what I mean, you know, looking for a sound. I’m lookin’ around, you know, seeing what’s available to make a sound. It’s, uh, it’s wild but not evil, you know. You can be wild but not evil. My whole life, I’ve never gone out in thrills lookin’ for trouble and wantin’ to fight. If a dog attacked you, you try to protect yourself, right? Well, I look at a wild human being as somethin’ that’s gonna attack me. I always thought I was just protectin’ myself, you know. I’m not strong at all, you know. God’s strong. God rules me, man, Satan don’t rule me. Peter, one of Jesus’s favorite disciples, man, he got a knife and he was goin’ around cuttin’, stabbin’, he was a drinker and a wild fisherman, wild as hell. It took Jesus a lot to tame him down. There’s an evil, and there’s wild. And I was wild.