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 celebrity—or reverential status within the music community—that such an innovator/original stylist 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.”
Watch James Gurley and Big Brother perform “Summertime” in 1968.