WHEN PEOPLE TALK ABOUT UNDERRATED guitarists, the name Jerry Reed often
doesn’t even come up. That’s how underrated Jerry Reed is. More often
viewed as an actor, singer, or variety show regular, Reed possessed
mindboggling guitar technique that incorporated intricate fingerpicking,
gorgeous cascading harp-style runs, and an infectious, funky sense of
rhythm and humor. He got his start as a songwriter, penning “Crazy Legs”
(which would be covered by Gene Vincent and later inspire an album of
the same name by Jeff Beck) and “Guitar Man,” which caught the ear of
Elvis Presley. By the mid ’60s, Mr. Guitar himself, Chet Atkins, had
taken note of Reed’s amazing fingerstyle prowess and began producing and
collaborating with Reed, most notably on the albums Me & Jerry and
Me & Chet. Reed told GP in his March 1971 cover feature what it was
like to record with his hero for the first time.
“It was a rare treat for me to do that one,” he said. “Whether it sells or not, I couldn’t care less. I’ve got a record at home with me and Chet, and that’s all that matters. It’s a milestone for me.”
In that same GP story, Reed spoke of his humble beginnings, playing a “nothin’ guitar” with “nickels and dimes, I didn’t have any guitar picks.” Fascinated by the guitar work of Atkins, Merle Travis, Les Paul, and Johnny Smith, Reed more than paid his dues in the woodshed to develop his stunning chops.
“You’ve gotta love guitar,” he said. “Love sitting down with it 18, 20 hours a day. I did it and I don’t regret a minute of it. I lived with that instrument day and night for 25 years. That’s what it takes to get better.”
Reed would often work his hybrid-picking magic on a Baldwin nylon-string acoustic, but he could also be seen picking on a Peavey T-60 electric, as well as various Gibson, Fender, and Gretsch guitars. He would play them on his own recordings, as well as on sessions for Elvis, Bobby Bare, Porter Wagoner, Joan Baez, Ringo Starr, Willie Nelson, and others.
Reed would go on to gain greater notoriety as an entertainer, on television, and in films, but he remained a guitarist’s guitarist at heart.
“As for myself,” he told Guitar Player, “I guarantee that I’ll always be huntin’ and diggin’ for licks. And if people like ’em, I’ll be huntin’ and diggin’ for some more.”
Reed remained eternally grateful for and pleasantly surprised by his success and good fortune. He was always quick to give credit to Atkins for his help and mentoring. He also seemed intent on paying that forward to the next generation of guitarists.
“I want to look around for some young people who just need a little encouragement in the right direction in this business.”
The true legacy of Jerry Reed, who passed away on August 31, 2008, may very well be in those young people he encouraged. They include names such as Eric Johnson, Jerry Donahue, Brent Mason, Brad Paisley, John Jorgenson, Glen Campbell, and Tommy Emmanuel, and several of them tell Reed’s story best.
I learned so much about songwriting and song construction from him. He also gave me license to be fearless—to jump in, boots and all, and try new ideas. I remember when I learned the song, “Today Is Mine.” I was 17 years old, and that song touched me. It still does and I still sing it on stage.
I would say his biggest contribution to the guitar vocabulary was the irresistible melodies that inspire you so much that you won’t eat or sleep until you learn them. I think the song “Struttin’” is a true stroke of genius.
I remember when I played for Jerry the first time. He was chewing tobacco and he smiled after I finished playing and said, “Son, you didn’t learn that. It was in your ethos. You were born with it.”
Jerry’s message through his music and his words is a loving and sincere message. I found him to be a highly emotional and sensitive person who was a born entertainer. He walked on the stage and changed the whole room. He was full of charisma. He had a great love for mankind that you could see in his eyes. He was a sensitive and sweet guy. Some people think he was just an actor in movies, and some people think he was an okay guitar player and singer. Jerry Reed was deeper than most people imagined. I remember a conversation I had with Chet about Jerry, and Chet said, “Only once in a lifetime does something come down the river so special.”
I could point to a couple examples in music that I’ve written to show his influence. The guitar part I played in the Kansas song “Taking in the View” is a blend between a classical style and the sort of openstring- incorporating melodic style that he demonstrates in “Jerry’s Breakdown.” I played it with fingers, no fingerpicks. Rich Williams played a sort of harmonizing, fingerstyle part with the same idea on the other guitar.
Another example is a guitar break, doubled with piano, just before the verse repeats on “Bloodsucking Leeches” by the Dregs. Although I played it with a regular pick, which meant all the double stops had to be on adjacent strings, I tried to come up with left-hand fingerings that would give the sort of honky-tonk double-stops that would be typical of Jerry’s tune “The Claw.”
I never knew or met him, but I especially liked the positive personality he had on stage. He seemed to make everyone in the audience feel that they were having a good time, just like he was.
Through my Disneyland bandmate Raul Reynoso, I met banjo player Larry McNeely who had twinned Reed on some of his classic pieces like “Swarmin’.” Larry showed me how Jerry had taught him “The Claw,” and I learned “Jerry’s Breakdown” from the Me & Jerry album with Chet Atkins. That record, along with Me & Chet, features amazing playing by both of them. Jerry gave Chet the type of foil that brought out the best in Atkin’s playing, as well.
I never became adept at Jerry’s style exactly, but learning his tunes inspired lots of licks in the “floating technique,” where scales are played using fretted strings higher up the neck on lower strings followed by open strings to give a ringing, harp-like texture, and in the banjo-roll style too. I hear Jerry Reed’s influence on my own playing in everything from bluegrass flatpicking to some of the more intense Hellecaster’s tracks, as well as on countless sessions for other artists. Even though Reed’s technique was amazing, I think the thing I will miss most about him is the easy-going sense of humor that was always evident in his playing. Most players, myself included, can tend to get a little too serious about the music, and Jerry reminded us that guitar playing can be hot and humorous at the same time. I wouldn’t be the same player without having heard and studied Jerry Reed.
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