It’s a ton of fun and incredibly engaging to listen to Joe talk about his friend, mentor, and fellow guitar virtuoso Danny Gatton on episode #40 of The Pickup Radio show. Danny Gatton has become a legend in the broader world, but to Joe, he was more than that. He was a wonderful person and a fellow guitar geek. Here’s what you need to know about Danny Gatton, his music, and his relationship with Joe Bonamassa.
- Danny Gatton was born on September 4, 1945 in Washington, D.C., the son of Daniel W. Gatton Sr. Gatton Sr. was a rhythm guitarist who had a very distinctive, percussive style of playing. Gatton Sr. eventually left the music scene to pursue more stable work that would help to support his family. But the influence of his father loomed large over Gatton, who would share his father’s affinity for the axe.
- Gatton began playing guitar at the age of nine. By the age of twelve, he had joined his first band, The Lancers. But in 1960, Danny Gatton began to steer himself towards jazz and joined the band The Offbeats. In that band, pianist and organist Dick Heintze became a huge influence on Gatton.
- The Offbeats broke up four years later and Danny Gatton headed to Nashville to try his hand at being a session musician. When he moved there, he met fellow guitarist Roy Buchanan, who for a short period of time became his roommate. Buchanan became another great teacher for Gatton.
- Banjo was another instrument that Danny Gatton could play very well, and it influenced his method of guitar playing. As a result, Gatton would use a pick and three fingers to play guitar, like a banjo. He played both guitar and banjo for Liz Meyer & Friends for a time, and began to gain some recognition. He became known as an ace guitarist in the D.C. area while gigging around in clubs.
- In the mid 1970s Danny Gatton began to release studio albums and drew even more attention to his talents. He started a band called the Redneck Jazz Explosion which featured a fellow virtuoso, pedal steel player Buddy Emmons. The two would trade licks and duel in a musical melting pot that combined many influences including rockabilly, jazz, blues, and country.
- When Joe Bonamassa was about 11 years old, he had already been playing guitar for 7 years and would often attend blues festivals hoping to sit in with the veteran musicians. Danny Gatton was on the bill at one of these festivals, and it just so happened that Bonamassa was playing a Fender Telecaster. Gatton showed Joe his old, worn ’53 Telecaster and Joe was immediately struck by its cool factor.
- Bonamassa was invited to sit in by Gatton, and Joe very quickly had his mind blown by what he saw and heard from Gatton. Joe describes it as a soup full of blues, country, jazz and folk. At the end of the gig, Gatton gave Joe one of his records, Unfinished Business, that featured Gatton’s rendition of “Georgia on My Mind”. When Joe went home and played the record, he was stunned by the virtuosity and brilliance of what he was hearing.
- Gatton’s deep interest in all things vintage Americana, especially guitars and cars, helped to ignite a similar passion in Joe. This started Joe on his journey to becoming a real collector of vintage guitars and gear, and his obsession with the 50’s and 60’s era of vintage American guitars. One major difference between Gatton and Joe, however, was that Gatton would heavily modify his instruments, whereas Bonamassa generally likes to leave well enough alone. Similarly, Gatton liked to work on old vintage cars as well, like Jeff Beck. In fact, Gatton loved cars so much he wound up trading his ’53 Tele for a classic car!
- At one point in his younger club days, Gatton was recruited to play with Lowell George after George had left Little Feat. Unfortunately, two days after George had made the offer, George was found dead.
- Danny Gatton had several nicknames relating to his supreme talent. These included The Telemaster, the World’s Greatest Unknown Guitarist, and The Humbler. He earned The Humbler moniker because whenever he was challenged to a duel by a fellow guitarist, well, Gatton left them feeling humbled.
- A Grammy Award nomination came Danny Gatton’s way for a track off of his 88 Elmira Street album in 1990. The nomination was for Best Rock Instrumental Performance for the tune “Elmire Street Boogie”. However, he lost out to Eric Johnson for “Cliffs of Dover”.
- Some of the musicians who admired Danny Gatton included Eric Clapton, Steve Earle, Les Paul, and Willie Nelson. Not a bad crowd of admirers if we do say so ourselves.
- Unfortunately, Danny Gatton’s life met a tragic end when he committed suicide on October 4, 1994. Joe Bonamassa would learn about the death of his good friend and mentor from a complete stranger, while he was touring with his band Bloodline. Joe was in Austin and heading into a guitar shop for a browse when a stranger on the stairway of the shop asked Joe if he knew who Danny Gatton was, and then stated that he had passed away. When Joe saw that he had an answering machine message from his parents, he knew the rumor was true. Joe called this one of the saddest days of his life.
Danny Gatton’s reputation is more than well-deserved and if you aren’t already familiar with his remarkable body of work, I urge you to go out and listen to some Danny Gatton at your earliest possible convenience. Just start at the beginning and go from there. It’s nostalgic vintage Americana guitar playing at its finest.
Who do you think is the “Greatest Unknown Guitarist”? Let me know below in the comments!