The Golden Age of Electric Guitar Pt.2 (or “Hernias, Hippies and Tinnitus”)

It’s hard to precisely define the moment when the simplicity of the early rock and blues era rolled into the madness that followed it – fantastic, joyous, complex, exciting madness – but madness all the same!

So I’m going to choose one record that I think defined the changeover from the Rock’n’Roll and blues era, and that of the early guitar pop bands, to a louder age.

Ray and Dave Davies kicked guitar playing into a dirtier and grittier mode. The sound of the little Elpico amp on the record, reputedly distorted by the slicing of the speaker cone with a razor blade, drives one of the most instantly recognisable riffs in Rock history – one that plays a reprise part much later in the story of rock guitar. Some claim it to be the pre-cursor to heavy metal. It was August 1964.

Two inventions at around the same time would herald the rise of the guitar sound that left a young man from Surrey lauded as a deity. The Marshall Amp, (most notably the Bluesbreaker), and the Dallas Rangemaster Treble Booster.

This sound of the 1960 Les Paul, with the treble booster thrashing the front end of the Marshall Bluesbreaker combo is undoubtedly the sound that made Clapton the most famous guitar player on the planet in the 1960’s. And Clapton was directly responsible for the amp itself, having gone to Marshall and specifically asking for a JTM 45 that he could fit in a car.

But of course, Clapton’s rise wasn’t to stop there. Less than a year after that recording in 1965, he and Bruce had formed Cream and released the ‘Fresh Cream’ Album. Something else was changing in rock music – the single was becoming less important and the album as  an art form was gaining strength. Depending on your standpoint, it could be the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end (where all roads lead eventually to Johnny Rotten).  For me, it was dawn of the era of the Virtuoso guitarist.

And just at that time of course, one James Marshall Hendrix was discovered in New York by Chas Chandler of the Animals and the rest is of course history. I shan’t repeat his story here as it’s one everyone knows – but needless to say Hendrix ripped a hole through the UK guitar scene with ‘Are You Experienced’ like no-one else before him, and things were never the same again.

Another guitarist who took the volume to new levels was far from a virtuoso of the Hendrix, Beck or Clapton mould. Pete Townshend wasn’t blues man – he was a mod. He was a rebel with a cause, to tell the world of the British teenager’s anger and angst. And he wanted to make sure they heard it! He wanted volume.  Lots of Volume.  He went to Jim Marshall with a specific request – a 100W amplifier. This was quite an unusual request at the time, as speaker technology could barely cope with what was already being thrown at it – but boasting a single cabinet loaded with eight 25W speakers, the Marshall 1959 superlead was born.


The Who’s road crew soon had enough of the over sized speaker cabinet, and it was sawed in half – and the 4×12 cab completed the set.

Jeff Beck recorded his first (and to my ears still his finest) solo album, ‘Truth’, over four days at De Lane Lea studios in Soho in May 1968 with Rod Stewart’s raw angry vocal complimenting the biting aggressiveness of Beck’s guitar.

On 4th October the same year, the New Yardbirds began their first UK tour. Their album wouldn’t be released until January 1969, by that time under their new title, Led Zeppelin. But between those dates, the now legendary supergroup Cream held their final concert at the Royal Albert Hall in November.

Cream’s farewell concert was notable not just for the headline act’s planned swansong, only 2 years after its inception. On the bill that night was an Irish progressive blues and rock trio – Taste. The proud owner of what was reportedly the first Strat in Ireland, Rory Gallagher was a slightly unconventional rock star, rather quiet and softly spoken. But with his guitar, simply incendiary.

Already Taste had held down a regular slot at the Marquee Club and were becoming influential in the blues scene and Gallagher himself would become one of it’s mainstays well beyond the hayday of the late 60’s . They were to make what was probably their most famous appearance when the band had already decided to fold and relations between the members had reached disastrous levels of mistrust, at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970. But more of that later.

The album as an art form had it’s greatest launch pad with an album that was actually a move away from guitar driven pop music into a more esoteric field. Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released in June 1967, elevated the status of the album as an entity – and the drive to emulate it’s success was one factor which allowed other artists to record albums which were no longer based around the idea of a hit single, but a statement in their own right. Of course, it also allowed a great deal of rambling nonsense to get pressed to vinyl, but amongst the dirt there was some gold dust, as guitarists suddenly had the time to become experimental.

Hendrix’s second album, “Axis Bold as Love” was one such record. Though still using fairly short songs, he was able to use less radio friendly arrangements such as If 6 was 9.

Hendrix was still half a year away from his most experimental work on Electric Ladyland. But others were experimenting too. Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn” & “Saucer Full of Secrets” were certainly examples of this ability to exploit the longer 12″ format, as was the Stones attempt at a concept album, “Their Satanic Majesties Request” and the much more memorable “Beggar’s Banquet”.  With Cream, the recorded Guitar solo was allowed to elongate, and Jeff Beck, Rory Gallagher and others took full advantage of the now more favourable medium. In the live situation, the song list shrunk as the solos extended.

1969 saw the release of what are arguably two of rock guitar’s greatest vinyl show pieces. Led Zeppelin ‘s eponymous début and it’s quick successor, often known by it’s nickname the Brown Bomber. The first with it’s turbo charged blues of “You Shook Me”, the folk of “Black Mountain Side”, the anthemic “Your Time is Gonna Come”, to the roaring rock of “Communications Breakdown” and “Good Times Bad Times”.  And then there was the sonic indulgence of “Dazed and Confused” with it’s iconic use of the violin bow on Page’s telecaster. But soon it was followed by the riff fest that was “Whole Lotta Love”, “Livin Lovin Maid” and “Hearbreaker” on the heavier Zep II.

If Cream had invented the ‘Progressive Blues’ genre which is so convenient a canvas for the guitarist to express raw power and emotion, then Zeppelin took it to another level. Undoubtedly for me though, the big difference between Cream and Zep was one John Henry Bonham. For all of Page’s inventiveness and brilliance as a guitarist, writer and producer, none of it really would have had the impact it had without Bonzo’s fire and energy behind the kit. He changed rock drumming in much the way that Hendrix changed guitar playing, and I doubt that there has ever been another rock drummer who has had as much impact.

69 saw more great album releases featuring great guitarists – Beck-Ola, Jethro Tull’s “Stand Up”, “Tommy”, “Blind Faith”, “Tons of Sobs”. It was boom time for the progressive blues, and the guitarists leading the way were predominantly Brits. From Robert Fripp on ‘Court of the Crimson King’ and David Gilmour on ‘Ummmagumma’ to Page and Kossoff – British guitar exhibited the esoteric through to the outright self indulgent (but fun) to the incendiary.

As the 60’s ushered in the 70’s, the idealism of the early flower power era had died in the ashes of Altamont. Britain was to have it’s own watershed moment – played out in two acts over the space of only a few weeks.

Act One took place on the Isle of Wight between August 26 – 31 1970. The Festival, so grossly over attended that the gates were simply thrown open and ticketing abandoned, was destined to make such financial losses that it was never repeated on such an epic scale, and no festival was held there for decades afterwards. So many acts appeared including Free, Ten Years After, Taste, The Who, the Groundhogs, The Doors, ELP, Jethro Tull and of course – Jimi Hendrix.

It was to be his last gig in the UK, and a moment in which some of the unravelling of his life could be seen. Now without Noel Redding in a new ‘Experience’ line up which saw him replaced by Billy Cox, Hendrix was plagued with technical issues, seemed distracted at times and the set was rather loose. He asked the crowd whether they ‘really wanted to hear all those old songs’ (which of course were only really three years at the oldest, most newer), and jammed through loose arrangements of new songs such as Dolly Dagger.

Jimi IOW

The second act played out in Notting Hill on September 18th when Monika Dannemann found her lover impossible to rouse late in the morning. After some delay an ambulance was called but James Marshall Hendrix was declared dead at St Mary Abbot’s hospital at a quarter to one that afternoon.

Hendrix’s story is a for me a distinctly British one, it was coming to London that launched him into the stratosphere when America had turned its back on Blues as backward looking ‘slave music’.  It was an Engllishman who discovered him, it was swinging London that was his home during his career. So maybe it was inevitable that it would end here too, flickering out with the bright hopes of the 60’s counter culture that he was very much a part of.

To put the era in context, it is important to note the speed of change. Only Five Years had passed between The Beatles “Love Me Do” and Hendrix’s “Electric Ladyland”. When you consider that the album that blew away the era of hair rock, “Nevermind”, is now 24 years old and nothing has come along since to dilute it’s impact, it really highlights how revolutionary the first decade or so of ‘popular music culture’ was.

The second half of the 60’s was one of the golden ages of guitar playing – it heralded the invention of the truly British Guitar amp sound – the over driven Marshall, the rise of the Concept Album, and of the Lead Guitarist as an instantly recognisable and valued entity. The Pop star had become the rock star, the volume had risen with the hemlines!

Roadies had hernias, singers had tinnitus. British Guitarists ruled the world!


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