JAMES GURLEY WAS,
sadly, one of those giants
standing in the shadows.
The ferociously innovative
guitarist pioneered ’60s
psychedelic music with coguitarist
Sam Andrew in Big
Brother & the Holding
Company, but his seminal
contributions to rock guitarcraft
were often eclipsed
by the tsunami that was Big
Brother vocalist Janis Joplin.
While Gurley stayed active
until his death at 69 from a
heart attack on December
20, 2009, the “Father of
Psychedelic Guitar” never
achieved the pop-culture
status within the music
community—that such an
would enjoy if life were fair.
“A big influence was
Lightnin’ Hopkins—I loved
his raw sound,” Gurley told
GP’s Jas Obrecht in January
1979. “Then, when I first
joined Big Brother, we were
doing a lot of wild instrumental stuff. I had been listening to John Coltrane, and I thought
if you could play a guitar like he played the sax, it would be really far out. That’s what
I was trying to do. Of course, nobody understood it—especially me.”
As his recordings—and his performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival—illustrate,
Gurley was a genius at twisting blues and jazz conventions, and blending them
with myriad other musical and cultural influences to construct impassioned, otherworldly
lines that could explode from his fingers alone.
“There’s a lot more emphasis on technique now,” he said in 1979, “and, at the same
time, I see less individuality among players. You can’t tell one guy from the next, or one
Eric Clapton lick from the next Eric Clapton lick.”
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