10 Things You Gotta Do to Play Like Danny Gatton

WHEN GUITAR PLAYER BEGAN RECEIVING DOZENS OF READERS POLL BALLOTS WITH THE SAME NAME NOMINATED IN NEARLY EVERY MUSICAL CATEGORY AS EARLY AS 1976, THE EDITORIAL STAFF MUST HAVE DISMISSED THEM AS A PRANK. After all, it wasn’t possible for a single guitarist, let alone one whom so few had heard of, to excel equally in nearly every guitar style, was it?

WHEN GUITAR PLAYER BEGAN RECEIVING DOZENS OF READERS POLL BALLOTS WITH THE SAME NAME NOMINATED IN NEARLY EVERY MUSICAL CATEGORY AS EARLY AS 1976, THE EDITORIAL STAFF MUST HAVE DISMISSED THEM AS A PRANK. After all, it wasn’t possible for a single guitarist, let alone one whom so few had heard of, to excel equally in nearly every guitar style, was it? History (and, of course, Danny Gatton) proved everyone wrong. Originally profiled back in September 1983, Gatton ended up gracing the cover of our March 1989 “Unknown Greats” issue, which included an exclusive soundpage recording and generated a tremendous wave of public interest for the guitarist—including appearances on CBS Evening News’ Nightwatch, MTV, and even a guest spot playing himself on the long-running CBS soap opera The Guiding Light—that earned “the Humbler” national exposure, his first major-label record deal, and, ultimately, unparalleled notoriety among his peers.

Born in Washington, D.C., on September 4, 1945, Gatton followed in his father’s footsteps, starting out on an old Stella at age nine and picking up banjo four years later. (“My father took me down to Reliable Pawn Brokers when I was 13, and we bought a Vega Little Wonder 5-string banjo, and by the time I got home, I could play ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown.’) He gigged incessantly around the D.C. area in the ’60s, first with the Lancers, then with the Offbeats. After joining Liz Meyer & Friends in the early ’70s, Gatton subverted the band into Danny and the Fat Boys, who recorded one independent album, American Music, in 1975. He later toured as a sideman with pop singer Roger Miller and rockabilly artist Robert Gordon, and put out two more records—Redneck Jazz (1978) with steel-guitar legend Buddy Emmons (also a member of Gatton’s Redneck Jazz Explosion), and Unfinished Business (1988), his first official solo album.

All these recordings were highly acclaimed representations of Gatton’s blinding talent, but none had the national impact of 88 Elmira St. and Cruisin’ Deuces, which were released by Elektra in 1991 and 1993, respectively, and led to Gatton’s first national tour. Gatton also managed to cut his first all-jazz album, New York Stories, in 1992. Unfortunately, heaping critical praise didn’t translate to high record sales. Though Gatton remained a cult hero among guitarists, he was unwilling to mount a national tour on his own after being dropped by Elektra—which, for Gatton, wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. He didn’t want to go on the road without support. He was just as happy to play regionally, where he could stay close to home and family.
Thanks to his hard work and previous success, Gatton, who was also a hot-rod enthusiast, was able to refurbish an old farmhouse in Newburg, Maryland, that he’d bought years earlier, and build his own private Shangri-la in the form of a dream garage. (“There are seven cars in there, workbenches for guitars, a great big loft, lots of storage, a 400-watt stereo, zillions of tapes and records, posters, rock and roll memorabilia, and a refrigerator full of beer. It’s my own little Hard Rock Café!”) Gatton cut another smoking, straight-ahead jazz disc (Relentless) with B-3 whiz Joey DeFrancesco in May of 1994, and was optimistic about releasing a series of albums, each showcasing a different genre. He was also looking forward to branching out into production and movie soundtracks. Unfortunately, this is where the happy part of the story ends. On the morning of October 4, 1994, Gatton locked himself in his garage and took his own life. He was 49.

By all accounts (including my own), Danny Gatton was one of the nicest and funniest guys you’ll ever meet, and both of these traits surfaced in his music. His tragic demise took a heavy toll on his family, friends, and many fans, but, whether he knew it or not, Gatton was a teacher to many. Since his passing, Gatton’s mother and long-time manager, Norma, has released Untouchable, the album Danny was working on before he signed with Elektra, and Rhino has issued Hot Rod Guitar: The Danny Gatton Anthology, a definitive box set. Along with these, Gatton’s loyal followers have kept his spirit alive by networking and trading a large library of archival material, which is evident in the many astounding live recordings and video clips floating around on the Internet. It really doesn’t matter if you remember Gatton as a master of the Telecaster, the Humbler, or just a guy named Dan who wanted to play the guitar, just remember that he left us a hell of a lot of music to learn. So, let’s do our part and “gat” it on! First, you gotta ...

1: Get On-the-Job Training

Gifted with an extremely keen ear since childhood, Gatton honed his monster chops on the bandstand. Years of club dates provided training in most musical styles and allowed Gatton to amass a large repertoire of cover tunes, many of which remained permanent fixtures in his live shows and later ended up on his records. Gatton’s set lists ranged from standard and obscure rockabilly, rock-and-roll, blues, R&B, country and jazz tunes, to TV themes, show tunes, easy-listening chestnuts, and even marches, along with a growing cache of Gatton originals. Using a flatpick plus his middle, ring, and little fingers, Gatton became a master improviser whose solos touched on lightning-fast banjo rolls, screaming blues licks, laidback and/or high-octane single-note and chord-melody jazz lines, funky R&B fills, and chicken-picked country riffs, all executed with taste, reverence, and an inimitable sense of humor. And it wasn’t as if he just skimmed the top of each genre—Gatton had a deep, historical understanding of these styles and often incorporated several within a single solo. The Humbler spoke of his abilities in characteristically modest terms: “I’m sort of a curator of guitar styles. I appreciate Link Wray’s ‘Rumble’ as much as I do Les Paul’s ‘How High the Moon.’ I know a little bit of a lot of things, but I’m really not a master of any of them. I know the best Scotty Moore licks, some Gene Vincent, a few Wes Montgomery licks, some Les Paul.”

2: Customize Your ’Rod 

Gatton was a consummate master of the Fender Telecaster—one of the few who revealed the instrument’s full potential—and his love and knack for rebuilding cars reflected the way he customized his instruments. The modifications Danny performed on his main squeeze, a 1953 Tele, would cause most vintage enthusiasts to shriek in horror. For instance, he swapped his stock pickups for a set of hand-wound Joe Bardens (but without any re-routing), had zirconium fret markers installed on the side of the neck, and bent the pickup selector switch away from the knobs (which were also swapped out for more heavily knurled ones). All of these mods would later be incorporated into Fender’s Danny Gatton Signature Model Telecaster in 1990. Designed for live performance, Gatton’s legendary “Magic Dingus” box, which can be heard on Redneck Jazz, was a remote switching mechanism mounted on a steel plate affixed to the face of his guitar—first a 1961 Gibson Les Paul Custom, then his ’53 Tele—and was used to control a Maestro Echoplex and a Leslie rotating speaker. Danny could use the Echoplex’s sound-on-sound feature to capture a few minutes of his playing, then harmonize with himself on playback, creating a live overdub. For amps, the liner notes for 88 Elmira St. cite a slew of tweed and blackface Fender beauties, including a ’63 Vibrolux and Super Reverb, a ’58 Twin, ’64 Deluxe, and a ’58 Bassman, many of which had been beefed up with bigger transformers. After retiring the Dingus box, Gatton’s only effects were amp reverb and tremolo. “But if I’m playing rockabilly,” he said, “I’ll use a Boss Digital Delay for slapback.”

3: Develop Stage, Studio & Street Smarts

Gatton had a knack for figuring out what worked best and sticking to it. Engineer George Cowan, who recorded and mixed Gatton’s killer tones on 88 Elmira St., recalls discovering Danny applying some kind of pasty concoction to his strings while changing them during the recording sessions at Bearsville Studios: “It was beer and cigarette ashes. He’d put it on a cloth and rub it into each string. I think his logic was to acclimate his strings to the average bar climate.” Crazy? Like a fox! On stage, Gatton was renowned for grabbing a half-full and sufficiently warmed beer bottle in mid-solo, using it to, ahem, foment a barrage of inspired and uncannily accurate overhand slide licks from his Tele as suds flew all over the fretboard. He’d then pour whatever was left all over the neck, so his string marinade recipe in the studio makes perfect sense! And for the ultimate rotation effect in the studio, Gatton decided to spin the air rather than the speaker. “One guitar track on ‘Fandingus’ was recorded through an electric fan,” says Cowan. “He may have picked the trick up from someone else, but Danny had the intent to get that sound.”

4: Get the Bends

When Gatton met and later roomed with Roy Buchanan in Nashville during the mid ’60s, the two guitarists became frequent jamming partners and began a long-standing but friendly rivalry. Gatton learned to elicit crying string bends on a par with those of his fellow Tele-master from the simplest elements, and a look into his modus operandi will help you to do the same. Let’s investigate one of his approaches to bending by dissecting four subtle variations of the same basic motif in the key of F, each of which is generated by a single pick attack. Begin Ex. 1a with a 4-to-5 (Bb-to-C) grace-note bend on beat two, then play the grace-note release, re-bend, rhythmic release, and staccato pull-off to the b3/#9 (Ab) that occur within beat three as written. (Tip: fish for various pinched harmonics on the initial attack.) In Ex. 1b, we add finger grease and some attitude to the same lick by substituting a half-step re-bend on beat two, and decorating the Ab pull-off with a choked quarter-step bend. Ex. 1c features a melodic sixteenth-note release from the initial grace-bend, while Ex. 1d extends the front end of the lick with a hybrid-picked oblique bend, release, and re-bend during beat one, and appends the final pull-off with a gradual whole-step bend. Try embellishing this opening “train whistle” move with a pair of volume or tone control swells, then play all of these moves in different octaves and keys starting on each beat, and apply them to different notes in your scale of choice. Once you’ve got them down, you can...

5: Add Some Chicken Pickin’ 

As an acknowledged master of traditional rockabilly and country styles, Gatton’s playing included plenty of garden-variety chicken pickin’— i.e., preceding a note with a muted “cluck”produced by slightly releasing fret-hand pressure—but he was also adept at combining the technique with others, such as sweep picking. In this case, you’ll want to mute the strings with a combination of fret-hand muting and pick-hand palm muting. Ex. 2 illustrates a rollicking, one-bar run up the F pentatonic minor scale (plus a few chromatic passing tones) that segues into four pairs of accented eighth-notes, each separated by a muted-and-raked or swept sixteenth-note triplet. In bar 2, the first two notes in each triplet remain stationary as pedal tones, while the third note ascends a whole step, then chromatically, acting as a leading tone to each ascending melody note. Arriving at a target C in bar 3, we jump up two frets and switch strategies by arpeggiating Fm7, breaking out of this fowl mood with a familiar double-bend/release/pull-off applied to the root, b7, and 5 (F, Eb, and C). Add these tools to your workbench and see what you can build.

6: Get Organ-ized 

Gatton worked out many cool ways to simulate the jazzy sound of a Hammond B3 organ. The following hybrid-picked riffs utilize double stops and pedal tones to create a classic B3 vibe, especially when played through a Leslie or rotating speaker simulator. Use the repeated four-against-three “major” motif (includes C#, the 3) in bar 1 of Ex. 3a over two bars of the I chord (A7), followed by the “minor” version of the same motif (includes C, the b3) over two bars of the IV chord or V chords (D7 or E7). You can also play the major version over the I chord (F7) in bars 1-4, 7, 8, 11 and 12 in a standard 12-bar blues progression, and the minor version over the IV and V chords in bars 5, 6, 9, and 10. (Note how this four-note motif recycles every measure.) Switching to an uptempo groove in 4/4, the four-note motif in Ex. 3b works well over all three chords—check out the shift into overdriven sixteenth-note triplets in bar 2, where clawed double stops alternate with up/down pick strokes—while the three-against-four I-chord motif in Ex. 3c creates a shifting 3/8 hemiola (played as six sixteenth-notes) that recycles every three measures. Adapt this one to the IV and V chords by omitting the hammered 3 (C#). Finally, we switch to the key of F to accommodate the obliquely-slurred root-over-5 double-stops that alternate with octave F’s in Ex. 3d. Crazy man, crazy!

7: Paul-verize It 

Smitten at an early age with Les Paul, Gatton came up with several ways to emulate some of the legend’s studio trickery in real time. To duplicate one of Paul’s signature high-flying, harmonized double-speed licks, which Paul would overdub at half-speed, Gatton formulated the wide-stretched hammered-and-pulled triplet-based parallel fourth figures shown in Ex. 4a. Bar 1 covers the I chord (A) and bar 2 covers the IV (D). You could easily transpose bar 2 up a whole step to cover the V chord (E), but Gatton would typically respond to this I-IV phrase with an entirely different idea. Moving to a IV-I change (A7-E7) in the key of E, Ex. 4b drops the previous motif’s hammered fourth down a whole step, but is otherwise identical. Exiting double-speed mode, the Paul-esque E Mixolydian-based hammer-ons and pull-offs and open-E pedal in Ex. 4c are also reminiscent of the lines Gatton plays over the bridge section of “Quiet Village” (more on that one in a moment), as are the sweet, descending A pentatonic eighth-note triplets and sixteenth-notes that divide the tremoloed VII-to-I chord inversions (G#-to-A) in Ex. 4d. Gatton tremoloed these balmy island sounds by brushing the strings in a rapid up-and-down motion with the side of his middle finger.

8: Dazzle ’em with Dexterity

Gatton was a tremendous fretboard trickster, but even his flashiest moves were musically sound and well thought out. While many of these appear to be downright impossible to cop on first listen, closer scrutiny usually reveals their logic. Take the wild-and-crazy ostinato in Ex. 5a played over a static F7 vamp: This zippy 3/8 hemiola is grouped into three sixteenth-note triplets—with only the first and last notes played during the middle one—and is based on a rapidly ascending and descending whole-half diminished motif. Like any repeated three-against-four hemiola, it will return to its point of origin (in this case, the “and” of beat one) after three full measures of 4/4. Shifting to the key of A, Gatton’s mind-boggling hybrid-picked triple-octave Es and the ensuing chromatic run depicted over a V-I cadence (E7-A7) in Ex. 5b require ample stretching and accuracy to work your way up to each tonic A, but the more you do it, the easier it gets. Spend a few quality TV hours honing these licks and you may surprise yourself.

9: Catch a Jazz Wind

You’ll find the faux-Hammond moves from Ex. 3a and 3b transposed to the key of D, reorganized, and put to good use in Gatton’s interpretation of jazz organ icon Brother Jack McDuff’s sizzling “Rock Candy,” the lead track from the album that started it all, 1978’s Redneck Jazz. (McDuff’s original recording featured a young George Benson.) Gatton blazes through the song’s head [Ex. 6a] at a breakneck tempo in tandem with pedal-steel great Buddy Emmons before both nail the unison line in the third ending and converge on a bar-long anticipated I7#9 chord (D7#9). This opens up a one-bar hole in the form to spotlight the soloist of the moment, and Gatton uses this pickup measure to paraphrase the unison riff from bar 3 before launching his solo chorus with a jazzy lower-register line contrasted with some good ol’ open-string country twang. Notice how Gatton places most of his pull-offs and slurs on the middle two sixteenths of each beat in order to induce more saxophonic phrasing. And if you’re harboring any doubts about his jazz chops, the series of post-modern intervallic designs—broken fourth intervals and subsequent three-note tritone motifs that ascend and descend (mostly) in minor thirds over the I- and IV chords—in Ex. 6b should provide ample proof that Gatton was more than capable of taking it way out there when he wanted to. But once you’ve gone out, getting back inside is a true test of an improviser’s melodic mettle, and Gatton’s sax-flavored re-entry on beat four of bar 3, and bluesy, chromatic follow-up in bar 4 prove that he passed this one with flying colors.

10: Take it E-Z

Singling out one Danny Gatton solo that you’ve gotta know is a tough call. After much deliberation, I chose an excerpt from Gatton’s arrangement of the Les Baxter exotica/easy-listening standard “Quiet Village” (from 88 Elmira St.). Why? Aside from the fact that he obviously loved the song—it was a staple on his set list for years—the solo contains a virtual textbook of Gatton’s licks and stylistic shifts, and the tune’s medium tempo makes them accessible to all. It’s also a great example of how to transform a piece of music some might perceive as “corny” into a hip and groovin’ guitar vehicle. The two-bar, I-bVII (A-G) vamp in Ex. 7a depicts Gatton’s take on the Baxter’s call-of-the-jungle riff, which is played against the song’s original E-A-E-G-E-A-G bass line and is used to back the instrumental “verse” and solo sections, though not verbatim.

Gatton’s solo [Ex. 7b] commences on the “and” of beat one with a double-string bend at the nineteenth fret. Note how the G string is bent a whole-step, while the pre-bent B string is only raised a half step. This handy natural occurrence is due to the difference in string tension. Some of these bent minor-third intervals are broken and others are played together, as Gatton gradually releases both notes back to their point of origin on the downbeat of bar 2. Organ-ized hammered-and-pulled triplets lead a cool string of E Dorian modal interval skips that extend from bar 3 into bar 5, where Gatton begins burning through a string of mostly A Mixolydian-based sixteenth-note bebop lines that cross into bar 8. More organ-ic double-stops resurface in bars 9 and 10, followed by a sweet bend and flashy blues move in bars 11 and 12. Gatton uses a bluegrass-tinged 3/8 hemiola consisting of double-stopped major third intervals to outline the A and G chords in bars 13 and 14 before wrapping up his “verse” solo with more chicken-fried country-bop phrases (this time built from the fourteenth-position A pentatonic major box) before nailing the V-chord change (E) that announces the arrival of the song’s balmy bridge section. (Final Tip: try attaching Examples 4c and 4d.)

Even this heapin’ helpin’ of licks isn’t enough to cover Gatton’s vast stylistic oeuvre. Dig deep into his recordings and you’ll discover that the Humbler was also a master of banjo techniques, cascading Chet Atkins-style runs, Lenny Breau-style “harp” harmonics, inventive jazz chord-melodies, and much more. Then dig deeper and figure them out for yourself. Danny would dig that.

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