In General

Danny Gatton, The HumblerWithout question, the best guitarist I ever witnessed in person was Danny Gatton.

And I’ve seen some great ones. Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan, together in “The Fire Meets the Fury” tour of 1989… Vaughan was always a force of nature, but ultimately a little predictable. Beck was a revelation, though – even playing the dreaded jazz-fusion. I had no idea he could summon all those incredible sounds from his Stratocaster with just bare fingers against strings, and very few special effects.

Dickey Betts had so much presence and authority before he got the boot from the Allman Brothers Band. Maybe substance abuse does make you a more interesting guitar player (Clapton, anyone?). Speaking of substances, I also had the good fortune of wandering into a Grateful Dead show in Cleveland back in ‘73. Jerry Garcia sounded amazing toward the end of the concert. Too bad I had to sit through a three-hour sound check to get there.

On a smaller (small club, that is) scale, Gatemouth Brown was the most naturally gifted, effortlessly soulful player I’ve seen. I remember watching him duel with Roy Clark on TV’s “Hee-Haw.” Clark was pretty hot too – but you could see Roy sweat with every single note. Gatemouth would tear him to shreds while looking like he was waiting for someone to serve him a drink.

Brother James and I stumbled across the Nighthawks, with the great Jimmy Thackery on guitar, at the Rome Inn in Austin, TX. He took the small crowd on a side trip to virtually every musical landmark in America – Memphis, Clarksdale, Chicago, New York (Mickey Baker) and L.A. (Johnny “Guitar” Watson) and left us begging for more. I’m glad I saw him in his prime.

Young Danny Gatton

Young Danny Gatton

I’ve seen Muddy, Hooker, B.B., Lonnie Mack, Roy Buchanan, Mick Taylor with the Stones, nine-string freakshow Charlie Hunter… But when it came down to sheer virtuosity and feeling, Gatton was the man. He could burn with mind-numbing speed, and then slow down to caress a timeless theme like Harlem Nocturne or Melancholy Serenade. Simply put, he was a master of his instrument. But more important, he mastered every major form of American roots music – blues, jazz, country, rockabilly, western swing… Did I mention that Gatton was the man?

Like Buchanan, Thackery and another one of my favorite pickers, Evan Johns (who gained little renown with his band, the H-Bombs), Gatton was a product of the fertile roots music scene in and around our nation’s capital. And fittingly, I first saw him play at a club right off of Pennsylvania Ave.

Physically, Gatton was not an imposing figure. He was a pudgy little guy with smallish fingers that looked like they had no business strangling a Fender. He wouldn’t bother with badass poses or a bad attitude, preferring to flash an occasional goofy smile while destroying every convention of the three-sets-and-out (and carry your own shit to the van) bar-band routine. Gatton’s playing seemed to transcend his physical presence and everything around him – including the crappy dives that kept him in business.

Danny Gatton, Redneck JazzI won’t get into the usual Gatton-related discussions regarding gear (like many of his country music idols, he preferred the Telecaster, and he invented his own special effect called the Magic Dingus box) or technique (he often used “banjo rolls” to sound like a small army of guitar players). Suffice it to say, Gatton could do virtually anything he wanted with an electric guitar. And if you had a basic appreciation of the instrument, seeing Gatton live in a small club was truly a life-altering experience.

He named one of his instrumentals Funhouse, which is a perfect word to describe a Danny Gatton performance. Jaw-dropping be-bop figures would segue into soaring blues runs, which would then dissolve into the carnival-like sounds of a Frank Zappa-influenced composition. The guy clearly had a boundless love for all forms of American music, and he claimed to have a weakness for the Blue Note recordings of Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers. But he was especially dangerous playing rockabilly, which seemed to synthesize all of the great influences he absorbed growing up in a city with a cosmopolitan spirit and a southern heart (let’s not forget D.C.’s location relative to the Mason-Dixon Line): 88 Elmira St.

Danny Gatton, 88 Elmira St.That cut was from one of two solid but fairly slick albums he recorded in the early ’90s for a major label (Elektra). Gatton worked long and hard to taste that success, having slogged his way through countless bars and a few questionable record deals. He started out in the mid-‘70s playing what he liked to call “Redneck Jazz” (the title of his second album, on the small NRG Records label). And he usually recorded with a worthy foil, like fellow guitar shredder Johns or the outstanding pedal steel player Buddy Emmons. Here’s Gatton and Emmons dueling on a tune by Hammond B3 maestro Jack McDuff… Rock Candy

Amos Garrett, himself no slouch on guitar, gave Gatton the nickname “The Humbler.” If one of his bandmates would start to get a little cocky after a gig, Garrett would whip out a tape of “The Humbler” blazing his way through one of his legendary live performances. I guess it was just Garrett’s way of keeping everyone honest, including himself.

As Gatton’s reputation grew, he added more session work to his busy schedule of bar and club gigs. Among other artists, he recorded with country star Roger Miller, rockabilly singer Robert Gordon and moody rocker Chris Isaak – although you’d be hard-pressed to find Gatton in the final mix of Isaak’s “San Francisco Days” album (another one of those effectively sparse productions from Isaak). I’m guessing he provided the whacked-out fills on this cut: Beautiful Homes/Chris Isaak with Danny Gatton(?)

Sometime in the mid-‘80s, I dragged a friend to see Gatton at a little club in Manhattan called U.S. Blues. We recognized a few other musicians in the crowd, including a couple from Bob Dylan’s touring band. But that night, they were just like the rest of us – standing there in awe of Danny Gatton. We barely moved for two hours, having planted ourselves about 10 feet from the front of the stage. And although I’ve played guitar for years, I still struggle trying to describe the experience to other musicians. It’s like closing your eyes and hearing a musical conversation among all your favorite guitarists, then opening them to realize it’s all coming from one guy – and he looks like your auto mechanic.

Apparently, Gatton’s unique genius was fueled by a fair amount of pain. And the professional indignities of being “the world’s greatest unknown guitarist” must have been more than he could bear, especially after he lost his record deal with Elektra. In 1994, Gatton shot himself dead at his home in Maryland – only a few miles from the small clubs where he first honed his chops.

Several months later, Les Paul, James Burton, Albert Lee and other six-string legends paid tribute to Gatton during a series of shows in New York that helped raise money for his widow and daughter. But even a roomful of celebrities couldn’t erase the humbling reality that Danny Gatton, a true giant of the electric guitar, remained a virtual unknown in the world of music.

We’ll close with this cut from the appropriately named album “Unfinished Business”: Melancholy Serenade

Danny Gatton on video… Thankfully, there are enough Gatton freaks out there to keep the youtube beast fed for years. Here’s some schtick that never gets old – from a 1991 performance on Austin City Limits (one of nephew Dan’s favorite Gatton clips):

For all you guitar-pickers out there, here’s a five-minute lesson from the master… Remember, if you can’t find your tuner, the dial tone on your phone is an F!

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Showing 18 comments
  • April

    That ACL clip has me smiling big… and wanting to hide my guitar back in the attic for another ten years.

  • The Hound

    “Dickey Betts had so much presence and authority before he got the boot from the Allman Brothers Band. Maybe substance abuse does make you a more interesting guitar player (Clapton, anyone?)”

    When you think about it, getting thrown out of the Allman Bros. for taking too many drugs is a fairly awe inspiring achievement.
    I mean, how many drugs do you have to take to get thrown out of that band? The mind boggles….to get off the subject, except maybe the lick from Layla, Clapton’s never played an original note in his life, everything he’s ever played can be easily pinpointed to an earlier player be it Matt Murphy (whom he quotes all over the Bluesbreakers’ LP) or J.J. Cale, Freddie King, etc. I put him at the top of the “most overrated” list. BTW he doesn’t tip waiters, cab drivers or bellhops either.

  • admin

    I actually slogged through his biography — which, ultimately, is more about yachting and estate planning than the act of creating music that merits a second listen. And the tipping thing, well, there’s a special place in hell…

  • rixaidan

    Clapton is an frequent target for some reason. I kind of like the rule at Mike Pekar’s guitar store…. which is no guitar player should bad mouth another guitar player in public. I lost interest in Clapton after “Crossroads” & “Spoonful” but his Bluesbreakers’ work certainly has my eternal respect.

    Dickie Betts is the man. Best guitar player I ever saw?… that’s going to take some deep thought.

  • admin

    Clapton said in an interview that he basically has no use for the Black Keys — which is an honest response but doesn’t earn him any respect from RCR (although I doubt his marketing team is losing any sleep!)

  • Rixaidan

    I’d have to read the comment in context. On the other hand Clapton has been Neil Diamond with a strat for a long, long time..

  • Tim Duggan

    I concur with the assment of Danny Gatton. My into to him was totally by accident. I was walking by a record store in Manchester NH that was on the second floor. They were playing music that was so compelling i went upstairs and bought it right out of the disc machine. It was danny gatton. I consider myself a music historian and danny is just hard to describe. As far as favorite guitarist who i feel is not recognized is Roy Gaines. His version of gainsville on the deluxe label from 1957 is jawdropping for the time. I feel for danny and his family but at least us few got a small whiff of his immense talent and am proud to say i knew he was special even though i didnt know why. I also love Clarence Gatemouth Brown and his 1954 version of Okie Dokie Stomp is right up there in the big leagues.

  • Dale Wathen, Sr.

    Once you’ve realized how awesome Danny Gatton’s playing ability was. It will humble the most profound players out there. I truely believe that no man or woman can duplicate his heart felt ability to play music.

  • Don Bledsoe

    For years everyone thought the best guitarist ever was Hendrix, Jeff Beck,
    Stevie Ray Vaughn, Wes Montgomery, Django Reinhart, Chet Atkins,
    Charlie Christian, Allan Holdsworth, Yngwie Malmsteen, Andrea Segovia, John Williams, Julian Bream, Tal Farlowe, Joe Pass. After 40 3 years of studying and
    enthusiasm after watching and listening to everybody live; Danny Gatton is the most impressive player ever followed by Lenny Breau, Scotty Anderson, Wes Montgomery, Django Reinhart, Johny Smith, Jimmy Bryant, and Jeff Beck.

  • Glenn Holley

    I had the good fortune to produce The Humbler cd back in ’96. It sure was fun to be able to contribute a tiny piece to Gatton’s legacy.
    His solos on Love My Baby may be the greatest guitar playing ever recorded. Lots of great players past and present, but none could duplicate those solos. I think it was the Washington Post that said, “Gatton could play anyone’s music, no one could play his”

  • admin

    That’s a pretty significant contribution to Gatton’s legacy, Glenn. I think you had to either see or hear him play live to fully appreciate his gift. And he was especially dangerous playing rockabilly (The Humbler pairs Gatton with Robert Gordon). Glad you unearthed that lost treasure.

  • Jay Charles

    For my money, the late, sorely lamented Danny Gatton is the greatest guitarist who ever lived. The magnificent Scotty Anderson comes very, very close; to my ears, all he lacks is a certain fire Gatton had. In the same rootsy Tele vein as the aforementioned, Jerry Donahue is also fantastic: nobody can bend strings quite like he can.

    In the fusion/”shredder” (what a stoopid nickname…) category, the also late, lamented Shawn Lane is the absolute king forevermore: the most astoundingly, freakishly fluid player of lightning-fast legato lines ever – and soulful with it, too. Not even the great legend Allan Holdsworth does it quite as well. Frank Gambale is the best sweep picker in the world.

  • david isenberg

    met danny at the bayside inn in Hyattsville when he was bringing johnny rowe a amp he was selling, what a great guy, bought my echoplex from him for around 80 bucks and didn’t realize at the time what a ledgend he would become without the fat head and ego many other masters seem to aquire…. heard him many times but stealing licks and chops from watching his hands and scale positions was impossible…. the guy was a real monster ….. think the young guy brad paisley and danny would have had a blast playing together

  • admin

    Yeah, I play a little guitar and didn’t have the slightest idea what he was doing. And you’re right, he didn’t showboat at all. Well, maybe in some of the unbelievable runs he played… but his body language said “I’m just hangin’ at the bar like everyone else.” Paisley would’ve been an interesting sparring partner. I wish I could’ve seen Gatton play with Evan Johns back in the day.

  • stuart

    Danny Gatton was the best, and Roy Buchanan was a close 2nd. Does anyone have a live bootleg of Danny Gatton and Roy Buchanan playing together? Would love to buy and hear this… And in death Danny was 49 and Roy was 48. Neither made 50. Rip !

  • Doug

    The best? You mean the all-American ‘We’re number one! Everyone else sucks!’?
    Well, I don’t let that stop me from enjoying anyone’s good music.
    I had never heaed of Gatton; now I have. Thanks, man. In listening, I found myself asking How many guitars do I hear? 🙂

  • Juan

    For me, the best guitar players ever were Charlie Christian and in second place Wes Montgomery, because while technique belongs to the disciplined student, creating simple lines that sound brilliant is a thing of genius. Pat Martino is also another one who can deliver very tasty lines.

    George Van Eps was the greatest master of the fingerboard in my view, and a guy who played his own way and didn’t imitate like all the others did.

    I also must mention Eric Clapton and B. B. King—playing the blues might be technically easy, but the ability both can tell a story with the guitar is very rare.

    More recently, Julian Lage blows my mind every video I watch of his. What a master on the instrument and great musician.

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