Danny Gatton, teenage guitar virtuoso in training, wasn’t so impressed by The Beatles.
Most people would probably find this odd. The Beatles, of course, are only the most successful and (many would say) the greatest band of all-time. The Beatles are the all-time best-selling band in history, with estimates of 600 million albums sold worldwide seeming to be right. They sent the UK and the United States into veritable states of ecstatic hysteria. They’ve inspired everyone from classical and jazz musicians to Bob Dylan. They’ve had the most Billboard #1 hits of any artist – 20, to be exact.
Danny Gatton, though, wasn’t so impressed.
Nor did he find much to enjoy about the other British Invasion bands that had been dominating the American airwaves in the early-mid-1960s. Bands like The Rolling Stones, the Dave Clark Five, and The Animals.
So why didn’t Danny Gatton, who would go on to become a guitarist so virtuosic that he would be nicknamed “The Humbler” because of his penchant for routinely reducing guitar challengers to a pile of ashes when they tried to outplay him, like The Beatles and the British Invasion?
I would argue that there are two reasons.
The first would be Gatton’s love of all things American and Americana. Perhaps it is no coincidence that his home base was located near Washington, DC, the nation’s capital. He was especially fond of jazz and country music, and would often incorporate those styles into the famously eclectic meld of music that he created with his legendary Telecaster.
According to Tom Principato, “Danny was master of everything – he played jazz, he played rockabilly, he played blues, he played rock ‘n’ roll… [and] he put them together in a personal way.” As American as apples pie” goes the phrase. That was Danny Gatton. He even named an early album, quite appropriately, American Music. That’s what Danny Gatton played.
But I think there is a more important reason that Gatton wasn’t influenced by the British Invasion. From a guitar standpoint, at least from a technical standpoint, those bands just weren’t very good in his eyes.
“Those bands played very simply, and I wanted to keep progressing as a player” Gatton told Pulse. “If you don’t play something new that’s harder than what you can already play, you don’t progress.”
Danny Gatton wasn’t called “The Humbler” and “The Telemaster” for nothing. He was a gifted musician, who could run his fingers over the frets like cheetahs slicing through the African savannah. He became a local legend in the Maryland-D.C.-Virginia area. Other musicians would flock to the clubs where played to catch a glimpse of the way he dominated on his instrument of choice.
From my perspective, The Beatles are very worthy of their near universal acclaim, often lauded as the best band ever. But, they were far from virtuosos. Even Paul McCartney, hailed by many as a terrific bass player, rarely took solos. Harrison was a passable lead guitarist but wasn’t in the league of many others who would follow soon hot on the heels of The Beatles’ tremendous success; musicians like Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.
John Lennon and Ringo Starr were almost strictly rhythm players, and generally not ones noted for the deep complexity of their instrumental abilities. Overall, The Beatles used guitars. But I would hardly call them a “guitar band” in the sense I would use that label with regards to, say, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Led Zeppelin, or Cream.
As the popularity of the British Invasion waned and was replaced by the trippy improvisational psychedelic-rock era focused on bands like Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, this new guitar-focused musical atmosphere was a boon for serious guitarists. Amateur guitar picking gave way to, for example, taxing modal improvisations that required great technical skill.
Much of that music was blues-based. But Danny Gatton wasn’t really a blues man, though he did incorporate much blues into his diversified musical portfolio. He liked early rock and roll, such as The Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly and the Crickets, as well as country. But had a much stronger affinity for the jazz tradition. As a result, Gatton was lukewarm towards blues-oriented rock guitarists like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix.
But still, the very presence of these instrumental virtuosos carved out the space Gatton needed to ply his trade.
Gatton wasn’t just lightning-quick with his fingers, though. A hallmark of Danny Gatton was his tendency to genre-hop. Danny was just as comfortable playing psychedelic music as he was bluegrass.
One thing everyone agreed on, however, was that Gatton’s chops were incredible.
The Beatles made an indelible impression on music history matched by almost nobody else. The Beatles are probably to the 20th century what Beethoven was to the 19th.
Danny Gatton wasn’t so impressed.
Spin some Danny Gatton records, and you might not agree about The Beatles – but you’ll understand his point of view.
- Brian M. Reiser,
Tribut Apparel / Joe Bonamassa Official Blog