This month, we pay homage to four unique and highly influential guitarists who in current times rarely receive the accolades and respect they deserve. The “Brit-Rock” moniker may tie them to the same island, and they’ve all shared a love for - and assimilated to various degrees - European classical and American blues, jazz and R&B music, but that’s where the similarities end. These four individualists helped to define cross-genre ’60s and ’70s musical styles ranging from bluesy jazz-rock and jazzy blues-rock to prog and proto-metal power-pop, and each one brought something different to the party.
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome in alphabetical order, Mick Abrahams (Jethro Tull and Blodwyn Pig), Gary Green (Gentle Giant), Steve Marriott (Small Faces and Humble Pie) and Kim Simmonds (Savoy Brown), and join me for a guided tour of their respective oeuvres. Since 1966, all of them have contributed to dozens of great records and logged countless hours of roadwork, creating a collective body of work that cannot be ignored.
And they march on. Except for Steve Marriott, who tragically perished in a fire at his English home in 1991, our other three heroes have remained active and accounted for. They just keep going and going and going…
If you don’t recognize these names, you’ve got some serious homework, but if you do, you’re in for another warm and fuzzy trip down memory lane. I’ve been a fan of these guys and their respective bands since I was 13, and all four have left a profound mark. I hope the following musical examples inspire you to search out their recordings and further investigate their undeniable contributions to the world of guitar playing. First, you’ve gotta...
1. Walk Tull
Mick Abrahams, whose emergence as a true musical alchemist began during his days as a founding member of Jethro Tull and Blodwyn Pig and continued through his transition to solo artist, spun golden lines and chordal figures tinged with blues and jazz elements across five important and criminally overlooked albums - Tull’s This Was (1968), the Pig’s Ahead Rings Out (1969) and Getting to This (1970), and Abrahams’ first two solo records, Mick Abrahams (1971) and At Last (1972).
Like our other three subjects, the first thing you might notice after hearing Abrahams is that he doesn’t play like Clapton, Beck, Page, Hendrix or any of his peers for that matter. Sure there are occasional nods in their general direction, but Abrahams’ truly unique style comprises a lot of things I’ve never heard anyone else play before or since.
For instance, in Abrahams’ hands, a basic, B5-to-B6 slow-shuffle rhythm figure is transformed into the devilishly clever pinky workout shown in Ex. 1a. In this simple but stunningly effective twist, Abrahams bounces between B5 and a single B, and then stretches up to grab both the 6 (G#) and the 9 (C#) by barring the fifth and fourth strings at the 11th fret, bending only the A string towards the floor to twice raise the 6 a half-step to the b7 (A).
He fills the rest of the measure with single bass-register notes, repeats the figure two more times and then tacks on the moves in bar 2 - all without ever leaving seventh position! Transpose two bars of the same figure to the next higher string group at the seventh fret to create a IV chord (E) figure, then move that up another whole step for the V chord (F#), and you’ve got a 12-bar blues covered.
Culled from a jazzier setting, Ex. 1b pieces together a few of Mick’s signature licks from Tull’s cover of Roland Kirk’s “Serenade to a Cuckoo” (from This Was, Abrahams’ lone recording with the band). Bars 1 and 2 feature a typically slinky blues riff that segues seamlessly into some Coltrane-inspired sax-style phrasing before concluding with a measure of slippery parallel sixths.
2. Sign Your Licks
Abrahams has many signature moves, one of the coolest being his frequent use of trilled ascending pentatonic and diminished lines. The technique is well represented throughout This Was, particularly during “Cat’s Squirrel,” where Abraham’s absolutely explosive tone - presumably emanating from the Gibson SG and WEM rig pictured inside the original album’s gatefold cover - certainly gives Clapton a run for his money, and on the aforementioned “Serenade to a Cuckoo.”
Let’s examine three variations played over the latter’s slow, G-minor-based swing groove. Ex. 2a shows how Abrahams attacks each downbeat and its swing-sixteenth neighbor, and then hammers, pulls and re-hammers a sixteenth-note triplet using the next G pentatonic minor scale tone. Begin on the fourth string, follow the same rhythmic pattern on the third and second strings, and wrap it up with the two-note stinger on beat four.
In Ex. 2b, we alter the rhythm from swinging triplets to a straight-eighth feel using four thirty-second-notes to create each trill, and replace the previous pentatonic minor scale with an ascending G diminished arpeggio. Ex. 2c features the same rhythm with a tasty blend of diminished and pentatonic minor tonalities that is 100 percent pure Abrahams. (Tip: Play each example using both rhythms.)
3. Pig Out
Abrahams’ soloing with Blodwyn Pig often involved stretching out with extended jazz-rock improvisations, but he was equally adept at spinning succinct 12-bar blues choruses that seem nearly perfect in their content and execution. Inspired by his solo on “It’s Only Love,” the opening cut from Ahead Rings Out, Ex. 3 (notated in half-time to conserve space) proves the point.
Injecting random, partially-pinched harmonics throughout, Abrahams begins by milking a b7-to-root bend and reiterating his pickup (bar 1) before completing the line with a beautifully phrased, descending Bb blues scale that targets D, the 3 of the Bb7 (bar 2). Nice!
He begins bar 3 by emphasizing the 2/9 (F#) and 3 (G) of the IV chord (Eb9) before dropping back to Bb blues for the return to the I chord in bar 4, which begins by echoing bar 2 and ends with a pickup that sets up the brief position shift at the top of bar 5. Abrahams drops back into sixth position and completes the turnaround via a repetitive bendy motif capped with some Albert King.
The entire chorus is played nearly a cappella, with the only accompaniment being single rhythm section and sax chops played on the downbeat of each measure. (Tip: The song’s main rhythm figure is nearly identical to Ex. 1a transposed down a half-step and sped up.) Check out the album to hear Abrahams burn up a second chorus.
4. Take Giant Steps
Multi-instrumentalists Gentle Giant arose from the ashes of an early-’60s English R&B band - Simon Dupree & the Big Sound, to be exact - and thus, unlike many of their prog-rock peers, the band grooved and swung its collective ass off!
Guitarist extraordinaire Gary Green appeared on every Gentle Giant recording, and his ability to juggle meticulously arranged counterpoint lines, complex time signatures, funky rhythm figures and gritty blues wailing with equal finesse was always integral to the band’s sound. Green used a beautiful, sunburst 1960 Gibson Les Paul feeding solid-state HH amplifiers to record and perform most of Gentle Giant’s repertoire, from Gentle Giant (1970), Acquiring the Taste (1971), Three Friends (1972), Octopus (1972), In a Glass House (1973), The Power and the Glory (1974), Free Hand (1975), Interview (1976), Playing the Fool (1977), The Missing Piece (1977) and Giant for a Day (1978), to their 1980 swan song Civilian.
Ex. 4a reveals just how deceiving 4/4 can be via Green’s menacing intro riff to “Peel the Paint” (from Three Friends). The silent first beat on the first pass of this descending tritone-based figure creates the aural illusion that we’re starting with a pickup into beat one, when it’s actually a pickup into beat two.
Inspired by a section of “Mister Class and Quality?” (Three Friends), Ex. 4b begins with a bass-and-keyboard figure (labeled “Rhy. Fig. 1”), continues with two measures of guitar and keys in unison (bars 2 and 3) and concludes with two bars of Green’s screaming, G minor-based, wah-inflected bluesy bliss framed by a reprise of Rhy. Fig. 1.
Green goes head-to-head with Kerry Minnear’s funky, quartal clavinet figure during the intro and verse sections on the title track from 1972’s Free Hand, as recalled in Ex. 4c. (Tip: Green typically accented a single fourth interval on the second sixteenth-note of beat two during the song’s verses.)
5. Screw Around With Time
Ex. 5a illustrates another Giant-influenced instance of 4/4 messing with your mind, this time from the In a Glass House era. Played over a straight drum beat (bass on one and three and snare on two and four), every note up until beat four of bar 2 is played on a sixteenth-note upbeat. Talk about the funk! And those note choices (likely penned by Minnear) are brilliant - Green’s first four notes outline D7#9, while the next two create contrary ascending motion by playing the b7 and root (D to Eb) over the descending E7-to-Eb7 harmonic backdrop. (Tip: Move it up a fourth and play it over G7, A7 and Ab7.)
As far as odd time signatures go, you can’t get much crazier than the 7/4 intro and verse figures in “Just the Same,” from Free Hand, and Ex. 5b decodes the song’s rhythmic scheme. (I’ll let you figure out the timing on those opening finger snaps!) We begin with four bars of Minnear’s quirky 7/4 piano figure, before Green enters on the fifth repeat, albeit one beat later, creating an off-kilter collage where the parts seem to keep reversing.
Following this intro, both parts continue over the course of the song’s verse before segueing to the three-part, 6/4 figure shown in Ex. 5c. Here, we’re looking at two keyboard parts (Green played the lower one live) and one guitar part that interlock with the precision of a Swiss watch. Learn ’em all. Still up for a challenge? Try playing both keyboard parts at the same time! Keep it Green.
6. Face The Music
Though he was an accomplished lead guitarist in his own right, the late, great Steve Marriott’s greatest contribution to the rock guitar pantheon may have been his bigger-than-life songs and rhythm figures, not to mention a voice that rivaled Tina Turner’s. As a founding member of the Small Faces, Marriott (1947-1991), along with the late Ronnie Lane, co-penned such hits as “Itchycoo Park,” “Tin Soldier” and “Wham Bam Thank You Mam,” and cast a heavy influence over bands on both sides of the pond, from the Who to the Nazz.
Using four chords to speak volumes, Ex. 6a approximates Marriott’s stupidly simple “Tin Soldier” progression (Fact: The song was covered by Todd Rundgren and Quiet Riot), while Ex. 6b shows how changing a single bass note can affect an entire chord progression. (More shades of Todd!) Marriott played a brown Gretsch 6120 on most Small Faces tracks, later adding a Fender Telecaster modified with a P-90 neck pickup a la Eddie Cochran.
Essential listening includes Small Faces (1966), There Are But Four Small Faces (1967, released with a different track list in the UK as Small Faces), Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake (1968), The Autumn Stone (1969) and any number of recently released and (finally) official compilations. But Marriott didn’t stop there...
7. Devour Some Pie
Marriott’s second version of Humble Pie - with Clem Clempson replacing Peter Frampton on second guitar - virtually defined early-’70s arena rock and proto-metal. Often imitated but never equaled, Marriott and company re-imagined heavy, two-guitar versions of soul gems like Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah (I Love Her So)” paraphrased in Ex. 7a, and created their own classics like “30 Days in the Hole,” “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” “Hot ‘n’ Nasty,” “Shine On” and “Four Day Creep.”
Ex. 7b depicts Marriott’s main riff from the latter, while Ex. 7c shows Clempson’s harmonies. Marriott’s three main Pie pans were a Gibson Les Paul Junior, a Les Paul Custom and an Epiphone Dwight, the latter of which can be heard on “I Don’t Need No Doctor.” Check out As Safe As Yesterday Is (1969, with Frampton), Humble Pie (1970), Rock On (1971), Smokin’” and their classic 1971 live album, Rockin’ the Fillmore. He remains sorely missed.
8. Discover The Original Brown Sound
We called him “The Kimmer,” my best friend and I, because in our bedazzled teenaged eyes, the founding father of Savoy Brown merited a special title. Such was the power of Mr. Kim Simmonds whose Gibson Flying V and Marshall tones totally ruled our world between 1969 and 1972. Several things set the Brown apart from other Brit-blues bands of the era: song arrangements that included horn, string and/or Latin percussion; a mysterious and charismatic frontman (Chris Youlden) and sympathetic second guitarist (Lonesome Dave Peverett, later of Foghat fame) and a generally broader take on the blues than most.
Ex. 8a shows how Simmonds could forge a hooky rhythm figure from a single A chord (a la “Train to Nowhere,” from Blue Matter), while Ex. 8b’s sweet moves demonstrate some prominently pentatonic major-based soloing over D, the song’s only other chord change. The lumbering unison ensemble riff paraphrased in Ex. 8c provides the perfect foil for Youlden’s bellowing vocal style on the hilariously titled “She’s Got a Ring on His Nose and a Ring on Her Hand.” (Tip: Play it with Clapton-esque woman tone.)
The song’s unusual 12-bar chord cycle completes with two bars of the IV chord (C9), two bars of G9 (I) and two more bars of C9 - all played with dotted-quarter-to-eighth-note chops - followed by a break on D7#9 (V) that lasts two measures. For the outro, the V-chord break repeats four times, and then we hang on D7#9 and establish a jazzy walking bass line similar to the one in Ex. 8d (labeled “Bass Fig. 1) that sets up Simmonds solo. In retrospect, I am truly amazed at how much some of Simmonds’ occasional microbursts like the pair illustrated in Ex. 8e (played over Bass Fig. 1) presaged certain aspects of John McLaughin’s playing with the Mahavishnu Orchestra a few years later. Seriously!
9. Hook It Up & Boogie Down
Savoy Brown became well known for Simmonds’ bluesy instrumental hooks, from the two-chord/one-bar simplicity of A Step Further’s “I’m Tired” (Ex. 9a), to the rhythmically deceptive intro to the legendary “Savoy Brown Boogie” (Ex. 9b), which encompassed the album’s entire B-side.
By contrast, Raw Sienna, the Brown’s most jazz-oriented effort, was laced with keyboards, horns and strings doubling cool guitar lines like the one in Ex. 9c, while the “Master Hare”- influenced piano riff in Ex. 9d never appears on guitar until the coda and fadeout. And don’t underestimate the psychedelic allure of the gatefold artwork that graced the band’s LPs, especially Blue Matter, Raw Sienna, Looking In and Street Corner Talking. Savoy Brown, take me away!
10. Release Your Inner Jazzbo
In retrospect, Kim Simmonds is by far the jazziest blues-rocker of the bunch. Dissecting his C7-based solo on Raw Sienna’s“Needle and Spoon” in 2012 was a revelatory experience, unveiling many facets my 1969 ears couldn’t quite comprehend. For instance, Ex. 10a, which assimilates the first three bars of the Kimmer’s solo - complete with off-kilter entrance (bar 1), big-band-style C6 punctuations (bar 2) and unexpected b5 (Gb) target (bar 3) - comes off almost like Grant Green or Kenny Burrell playing through a Marshall! (There’s that McLaughlin thing again.)
The same goes for Ex. 10b’s organ-y, oblique half-step 4-to-b5 (F to Gb) hammer-ons played over a pedal C root, and subsequent five-note C blues run. (Tip: Precede this one with a measure consisting of beat one and two’s quarter-note triplet repeated twice.) The repetitive run in Ex. 10c emphasizes a bent-and-released 5 and 6 (G-A-G) and sassy b3 (Eb), another early Simmonds hallmark later adopted by many U.S. rockers.
Finally, Ex. 10d demystifies a lick that took me 43 years to decipher. (Okay, I hadn’t thought about it for 40.) Beginning mid-triplet on beat four, Simmonds follows his 7-to- root pickup (an atypical choice over C7) with a straight-up ascending C13 arpeggio (voiced 5-b7-3-6/13) and a Charlie Christian-influenced response, and then repeats the first half of the two-bar phrase - unbelievable. (Tip: Replace the second bar of the repeat with the previously described, extended version of Ex. 10b.)
That’s all, folks. We’re out of space, so please join me in saluting those left out of the proceedings, including Ollie Halsall (Patto, Boxer), Chris Dreja (Yardbirds), Miller Anderson and Spit James (Keef Hartley Band), Zal Cleminson (Sensational Alex Harvey Band), Clem Clempson (Humble Pie, Colosseum) Chris Spedding (session ace), Roy Wood (Move, Wizard, ELO) and of course, Lonesome Dave Peverett (Savoy Brown, Foghat). Support your local unsung heroes!