Under Investigation: Terry Kath

DURING THE SUMMER OF 1970, YOU COULDN’T LISTEN TO A TOP 40 AM RADIO station for more than 15 minutes without hearing Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4,” which prominently featured the innovative guitar work of the late, great Terry Kath.
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DURING THE SUMMER OF 1970, YOU COULDN’T LISTEN TO A TOP 40 AM RADIO station for more than 15 minutes without hearing Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4,” which prominently featured the innovative guitar work of the late, great Terry Kath. Kath’s overdriven power-octave intro—played on the sixth and fourth strings, and counted “A- and-two-and- three (rest), G- and-two-and-three (rest), F#-and-two-and-three (rest), F-and-two-and- E-and-four-and”— defined the song’s main bass line, chord progression and groove in one fell swoop, and his multiple guitar solos rivaled the day’s best. And man-o-man, that guitar blaring out of a tiny car speaker kicked major ass!

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A dynamo on guitar, Kath was also an exceptional singer who covered lead vocals on many of the group’s biggest hits (including “Make Me Smile,” “Colour My World,” and “Tell Me”), as well as an accomplished composer, bassist, and drummer. Kath named the Ventures, Johnny Smith, George Benson, Kenny Burrell, Howard Roberts, Mike Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix as important influences. He was considered the best soloist in Chicago by his own bandmates, and Kath must have been especially honored and humbled when he was also cited by none other than Hendrix himself as one of Jimi’s own favorite guitarists.

Jean-clad and completely devoid of rock histrionics, Kath was most associated with a pair of Gibson SGs—a Standard and a threepickup Custom—plus a few other key axes, including a Fender Stratocaster (which Kath pumped through a Fender Dual Showman pre-amped with a Bogen Challenger P.A. amp to create the still-astounding “Free Form Guitar” while its neck was apparently held together with a radiator hose clamp!), an early ’70s Gibson Les Paul Professional Recording Model factory equipped with low-impedance pickups, and a Fender Telecaster. All of his guitars were unmodified, and Kath preferred pre-amping his Dual Showman with a Chicago-made Knight amp or the aforementioned Bogen during the band’s early days, which allowed him to get a fat sound at lower volumes. He later transitioned to Acoustic amplification. Kath’s main effects were distortion, wah-wah, and righteous phase shifter on tunes like “Call On Me” and “(I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long”, and he preferred Herco light-gauge nylon picks.

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Unfortunately, Kath’s nineyear run with the band, which began with their 1969 debut Chicago Transit Authority (recorded in just one week) and its follow-up Chicago, and spanned ten more albums, from Chicago III through Chicago XI, ended tragically on January 23, 1978 with an accidentally self-inflicted fatal gunshot wound. But Kath’s legacy has long lived on. Chicago released Chicago Presents the Innovative Guitar of Terry Kath in 1997, and Kath continues to inspire new audiences via classic rock radio and the band’s massive back catalog, which is why he’s been placed under investigation.

If you bought the album when it was released, Ex. 1a was the first thing you heard from this great new band after dropping the needle on side 1 of Chicago Transit Authority. The aptly titled “Introduction” (a Kath composition) kicks off with eight bars of this powerful horn figure, with Kath and the rhythm section playing only Fm-to- Gm and Gm-to-Abm hits on the “and” of beat four into beat one during the first four bars, followed by another four bars of the same horn figure, this time backed by Kath’s urgent rhythm guitar sparring. It’s all packed into a single measure, so study the notation closely. The piece— which also confirms how well Kath (who didn’t read music) was able to communicate his compositions to the rest of the band—progresses through a multitude of stylistically diverse ensemble and solo sections before Kath cuts loose, improvising wildly over four-bar sets of ascending minor seventh chords (Gm7, Bbm7, Bm7, Dm7, Fm7, and Abm7). Kath characteristically blended funk and fluidity within a single phrase, and Ex. 1b reveals how he effortlessly morphs from B-based Hendrix-ian blues (bar 1) to a jazzier B Dorian modality by emphasizing the 6 (G#) and 2/9 (C#) in bars 2 and 3. Ex. 1c picks up where Ex. 1b leaves off, so you can play it as written, or attach it to the previous phrase by starting it on beat three. Either way, it’s a concise, stand-alone lick, and a great example of how Kath typically broke out of (and back into) the blues box.

Ex. 2a depicts the smoky, slower-paced A minor groove from the hilariously titled “South California Purples” (also from CTA), which provides a nice platform for Kath’s often wild-and-crazy string bending. Begin Ex. 2b with a gradual 4-to-5 (D-to- E) whole-step bend, hold and re-attack it on the and of beat four, release it halfway to D# (the #4/b5), and then re-bend and release in accordance with the rhythm in bar 2. The C# bend in bar 3 shouldn’t work, but it does somehow. Ex. 2c ventures into Albert King territory with a juicy, one-and- a-half-step, root-to-b3 bend in bar 1, and ascending b3-to-4 rhythmic bends and releases in bar 2, and Ex. 2d’s lazy, gradual releases from four different pre-bent notes show how Kath could simulate whammybar effects on a stop-tail SG. Give ’em all a good milking.

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IS THAT 3:35 OR 3:36 AM OR PM?
What would you do to create a memorable opening solo statement over a four-bar Am- Am7/G-D9/F#-F-E progression (not unlike Led Zeppelin’s adaptation of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”) for an important hit record using only the raw materials—a hybrid A Dorian (minus the 6) and A harmonic minor scale— provided in Ex. 3a? Ex. 3b shows how Terry Kath made melodic magic out of it during the first 16 bars of his solo on “25 or 6 to 4” by climbing up the first half and quoting the vocal melody for two bars, and then continuing his ascent through the second half (A harmonic minor) to perfectly target G#, the 3 of the E chord-of-the-moment, all without ever hitting a single downbeat! IMO, it’s one of the top-10 guitar solos to ever hit the top-10. (Fact: “25 or 6 to 4” peaked at #4.)

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Ex. 4a
lays out the melodic strategy Kath used to continue his thematic development during the next four bars of his solo. It’s an ingenious grouping of three descending fourth intervals, plus a major third, that fits the progression perfectly, but Kath takes it one step beyond during bars 5 through 8 by playing the entire figure on the G string, using some very cool slides and passing tones as shown in Ex. 4b. Attach it to Ex. 3b, and you’re halfway home.

Following his relatively minimalistic opening eight bars, Kath cuts loose during the second half of the solo, and takes off with the kind of tastefully reckless abandon he was revered for. Ex. 5 begins with some position-jumping, ascending and descending sequential scale action mixed with blues riffing in bars 1 through 4 (again, Kath jumps in and out of the fifth-position A blues box), continues with a slippery transition into and out of tenth position (bars 5 and 6), and concludes with two bars of staccato phrasing leading into the only audible string bend to be found in the whole dang deal (bars 7 and 8). Now carry on and assemble the entire 16-bar solo by connecting Examples 3b, 4b, and 5 in sequence. This completes the single version, which was edited for AM airplay, but on the full-length album version, Kath’s solo continues blazing for another 32 bars. Be sure to check it out along with Kath’s stellar playing during the outro and throughout the first two albums (along with those other ten). Peace out.

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