We Lost Another Guitar Hero on April 21—Lonnie Mack Passes at 74

Publish date:
Updated on
Image placeholder title

PHOTO: Courtesy of Alligator Records

Groundbreaking guitarist and vocalist Lonnie Mack, known as one of rock’s first true guitar heroes, died on April 21, 2016 of natural causes at Centennial Medical Center near his home in Smithville, Tennessee. His early instrumental recordings — among them "Wham!" and "Memphis" — influenced many of rock's greatest players, including Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and especially Stevie Ray Vaughan. He was 74.

Mack was born Lonnie McIntosh on July 18, 1941 in Harrison, Indiana, twenty miles west of Cincinnati. Growing up in rural Indiana, Mack fell in love with music as a child. From family sing-alongs he developed a deep appreciation of country music, while he absorbed rhythm and blues from the late-night R&B radio stations and gospel from his local church. Starting off with a few chords that he learned from his mother, Lonnie gradually blended all the sounds he heard around him into his own individual style. He named Merle Travis and Robert Ward (of the Ohio Untouchables) as his main guitar influences, and George Jones and Bobby Bland as vocal inspirations.

He began playing professionally in his early teens (he quit school after a fight with his sixth-grade teacher), working clubs and roadhouses around the tri-state border area of Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio. In 1958, he bought the guitar he would become best known for—a Gibson Flying V, serial number 7—which he equipped with a Bigsby tremolo bar.

In 1963, at the end of another artist's session, Lonnie cut an instrumental version of Chuck Berry's "Memphis." He didn't even know the Fraternity label had issued the single until he heard it on the radio, and, within a few weeks, "Memphis" hit the national Top Five. Lonnie Mack went from being a talented regional roadhouse player to a national star virtually overnight. 

Mack continued to tour into the 2000s. He relocated to Smithville, Tennessee, where he continued writing songs but ceased active touring. In 2001, he was inducted into the International Guitar Hall Of Fame, and in 2005, into the Rockabilly Hall Of Fame.

He is survived by five children and multitudes of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Mack's Gear

Excerpted from Dan Forte's story in the March 1978 issue of Guitar Player.

Throughout the years Mack's trademark setup has been his Gibson Flying V played through a Magnatone amp. He bought the V in 1958, the model's first year of production, because, in his words, "it was weird look­ing. I'd played some Fenders­ I bought a Stratocaster when they first came out, and I had some Broadcasters and Tele­ casters. Then I got a [Gibson] Les Paul and liked it real well. When the V came out, it played pretty much like a Les Paul and with that shape I said, 'That's for me."

Mack got hooked on Magnatone amplifiers from a Dayton, Ohio, guitarist named Robert Wood, who later went on to form the Ohio Players. "They're great little amps," declares Lonnie. "The one I had when I cut 'Memphis' was a 460 model, with two l2s. The one I have now is a 440, with one 12. They have built-in phase shifters; that's what I like about them. With the Magnatone you've got to turn everything up, and it's still bassy as hell. Usually I don't turn anything on but midrange, and I run it through a Fender Twin. On the guitar, I play on the high [bridge] pickup, with everything full. I've been using the same setup ever since I really got going professionally."

Mack's strings are normally Gibson E-340s-"the heaviest ones you can get. I never did like the flimsy ones. I can't even keep these in tune."

Below are clips of Mack performing "Further on Down the Road" with Albert Collins and Roy Buchanan, and playing "Oreo Cookie Blues" and "Wham!" with Stevie Ray Vaughan.