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Welcome to Rock of Agers

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Danny Who? The Best Unknown Guitar Player in Rock

The great Danny Gatton and his Telecaster he made talk
Who is the most amazing American rock guitarist that virtually no one has heard of? For me, that would be Washington DC-based Danny Gatton.

But you don't have to take my word for it. In its March, 1989 edition, Guitar Player magazine gave him that designation and featured him on its cover.

In fact, that's where I first was introduced to Gatton and his incredible playing. The issue included a sound-page record the size of a 45 single featuring Danny on guitar, accompanied by John Prevetti on bass and Dave Elliot on drums.

One listen and I was hooked. I still keep that issue and the sound page in a prominent place in my music collection.

Gatton's jaw-dropping music was a mix of jazz, rock-a-billy, country, and sock hop rock and roll.

I was able to see him live three times: once in my hometown of Bridgeton, New Jersey, once in Philadelphia, and once in Atlanta when my wife and I were living there. Before his show at the Cotton Club in Atlanta, we got a chance to talk to him and he signed the pick guard of my Telecaster. His signature is still there today, although it is a little faded from use.

His music has definitely influenced my playing. He used so many techniques I had never even considered. Things like behind the nut string bends, chicken pickin,' pedal steel licks, jazz chords, old rock-a-billy riffs, string muting, and string skipping.

So why didn't Gatton, with all his talent and innovation, ever get the acclaim and stardom he certainly deserved? He actually told people he enjoyed rebuilding old cars more than playing music. He also didn't like touring to promote his music. Basically he was just a good-ole-boy, content to play DC-area clubs and beat the hell out of his Telecaster.

I still listen to his music and watch his videos on YouTube in hopes of stealing a lick or two. But that's not easy. The guy could do it all and make it look effortless.

I absolutely hated the music that was out in the 80s, but discovering Danny Gatton brought me back to music with the same appetite as the Beatles did when they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964.

Unfortunately for music and guitar playing, Gatton died on Oct. 4, 1994. He was 49. He died in Maryland, just miles from the DC neighborhood where he was born.

Many people call Feb. 1959, the date that Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and J.P "The Big Bopper" Richardson died in a plane crash in Iowa, "the day the music died'. Don McLean even wrote the song "American Pie" about that tragic date.

 But for me, the real day the music died will always be Oct. 4, 1994.

I feel fortunate to not only have had a chance to listen to and learn from Danny Gatton, but also to talk to him. Now when people ask "Who's that guy Danny Gatton who signed your guitar," I have a good story or two to tell them about the greatest guitarist that very few have ever even heard of.

--- by James Gilbert

A half-dozen songs you need to listen to to discover for yourself just how good Danny Gatton was ...
  1. "Sleepwalk"
  2. Sun Medley ("Mystery Train", "My Baby Left Me", That's Alright"
  3. "Harlem Nocturne"
  4. "Canadian Sunset"
  5. "Funky Mama"
  6. Orange Blossom Medley

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