Jim Campilongo's Vinyl Treasures: Billy Grammer's Gospel Guitar

Billy Grammer was born in 1925, and he played with a Who’s Who of country music that included Chet Atkins, Charley Pride, Floyd Cramer, Hawkshaw Hawkins, and T. Texas Tyler.
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Billy Grammer was born in 1925, and he played with a Who’s Who of country music that included Chet Atkins, Charley Pride, Floyd Cramer, Hawkshaw Hawkins, and T. Texas Tyler. He was a member of the Grand Ole Opry, and he scored a hit record as a vocalist with “Gotta Travel On” on the Monument label in 1959. Busy Billy also oversaw and produced the wonderful Grammer acoustic guitar that is still collectible today. Grammer acoustics retailed at around $400 in the mid ’60s, but Johnny Cash’s Grammer acoustic recently sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $131,000. I assume that guitar doesn’t leave the house much.

I became aware of Mr. Grammer after hearing a lone track on a compilation LP. I was immediately taken by Grammer’s style, which channeled the craftsmanship of Chet Atkins, but brought something unique and personal to the table by incorporating triads and cleverly simple voice leading, while never straying from the melody. Grammer also attained a chimelike effect by employing the vibrato bar in conjunction with picking-hand pinched harmonics that was unique and innovative for the era.

One of the tracks I love from Gospel Guitar [Decca, 1962] is “Whispering Hope,” and what I’ve learned from Billy after transcribing his tunes is that you don’t need to play finger-wrangling chord shapes to produce captivating music. Billy played the essential bare minimum—focusing on subtle 3rds, 6ths and 9ths—and he incorporated lovely bass inversions that split the guitar into two levels. Strings six through four played the bass, and strings three through one played the melody via triads. This led me to re-focus on basic triads, and eliminate those highcalorie large grip chords that are a struggle to play technically, and sometimes end up muddling the vulnerability and simplicity of a tune.

As a younger player, I might have ignorantly discounted Billy’s great playing as rudimentary. I recall my first guitar teacher, Bunnie Gregoire, telling me, “Jimmy, triads and inversions are where it’s at!”

Bunnie, you were absolutely spot on.

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