By Ed Mitchell
Known in his lifetime as “The Telemaster,” “The World’s Greatest Unknown Guitarist,” and “The Humbler,” Danny Gatton was a walking, talking, ’53 Tele-spanking encyclopedia of classic American guitar styles. Sadly, the guitarist took his own life in 1994, leaving behind a bunch of essential albums and two incendiary Hotlicks tutorial DVDs (Telemaster! and Strictly Rhythm Guitar). Here are five examples of why Steve Vai reckons Danny “comes closer than anyone else to being the best guitar player that ever lived.”
“Cruisin’ ” (live)
(The Humbler, 1996)
The aptly named “The Humbler” was recorded in 1981 at the Berkeley Square nightclub in Berkeley, California, when Danny was lead guitarist for rockabilly revivalist Robert Gordon and his band The Wildcats. For years the recording existed only as a bootleg, passed between guitarists to inspire and possibly even terrify. Everyone who plays guitar should own this album. Here’s a little taste as to why...
“Elmira St. Boogie”
(88 Elmira Street, 1991)
“Elmira St. Boogie” saw Danny nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance in 1990. Although he ultimately lost out to Eric Johnson’s “Cliffs of Dover,” his channeling of Fifties rockabilly greats like Gene Vincent & His Blues Caps genius Cliff Gallup on “Elmira St. Boogie” makes it one of his greatest performances.
(Cruisin’ Deuces, 1993)
Danny’s performance on “Harlem Nocturne” proves just how adept he was at wringing new life out of an old standard. There are echoes of Danny’s fellow Telemaster Roy Buchanan in this live performance of “Harlem Nocturne,” especially in those stinging string bends. But the “flying by the seat of his pants” vibe, like he’d just come up with a killer lick that second, is typical Danny.
(Cruisin’ Deuces, 1993)
Danny was a lifelong devotee of the sound of Sun Records artists like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins. This live clip features Danny blasting through Presley classics “Mystery Train,” “My Baby Left Me,” and “That's All Right” on the ’56 Gibson ES-350 he owned from the age of 12. Heads up—this is a rockabilly guitar masterclass.
Armed with his Tele’s tone control and his Fender amp’s vibrato circuit, Danny could pull off a damn close Hammond B-3 organ impression (see his Telemaster! DVD for proof). On “Gearheads” he leaves the tone-wheel grinding to Joey “Finest Jazz Organist on the Planet” DeFrancesco to concentrate on tearing the hell out of his Tele’s fingerboard.