Keeping The Blues Alive

lonnie mack blues-rock guitarist

Lonnie Mack: Remembering His Trailblazing Blues-Rock Guitar Virtuosity

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It is often said of Lonnie Mack that he is a “guitar hero’s guitar hero”. A true trailblazing pioneer of the electric guitar, his playing was faster, louder, more aggressive than anything else people were used to hearing during his time. He essentially paved the way for the electric guitar to become a soloing instrument in rock music. Lonnie Mack modestly put it, “I was a bridge-over between the standard country licks in early rock ‘n’ roll and the screamin’ kinda stuff that came later.”

Stevie Ray Vaughan, for one, was extremely influenced by Lonnie Mack. “Wham!” was the first record that Vaughan ever owned. He played along with the record so often that Vaughan’s father ultimately destroyed it. But he couldn’t destroy the knowledge that Stevie Ray had gleaned from playing along to Lonnie Mack so often. A plethora of amazing guitarists have been influenced by Mack’s guitar playing. Both Duane Allman and Dickey Betts of The Allman Brothers Band have acknowledged their indebtedness to Mack. Lonnie is one of the greatest players I know of. He’s always been a great influence on me” said Betts. Duane mastered the tune “Memphis” in his military dorm room.Jeff Beck has acknowledged his debt to Lonnie Mack and payed tribute to him live. Ray Benson, the western swing guitarist, has called Lonnie Mack his hero. The famous bassist Bootsy Collins of Parliament-Funkadelic commented, “For me, at that time, Lonnie Mack was the master. Every note that mother played, was, like, Man! I would try to mimic all the notes he played. Same thing with [Collins’ brother] Cat. A Lonnie Mack song come out, he’d learn it backwards and forwards”. Lonnnie Mack essentially set the standards for speed, dexterity and improvisational skill in rock music at the time.

Before there was a little thing called rock and roll, Lonnie Mack started off by playing bluegrass guitar. He played music with his family including his father on the banjo: their styles would range from bluegrass to old school country to gospel music. Dropping out of school in sixth grade, he went pro as a musician and modeled his vocal style after country singer George Jones and blues vocalist Bobby Bland. In terms of his endlessly talented guitar playing, major influences on Lonnie Mack included country musician Merle Travis and blues guitarists T-Bone Walker and Robert Ward.

In terms of guitars, Lonnie Mack was essentially synonymous with his Gibson Flying V.

Blues historian and record producer Dick Shurman has commented, “Lonnie Mack was one of the first white guys to really make a mark playing blues-infused guitar. I think of him as a prototype of what later could be called Southern rock. His music was a blend — it wasn’t a conscious blend — he brought black and white styles together seamlessly.”

In the early 1960s Lonnie Mack put in lots of time as a session musician for a small Cincinnati record label called Fraternity. At Fraternity Mack played on a number of singles by the label’s various local R&B recording groups, including their biggest female R&B act, The Charmaines. On March 12, 1963, Lonnie Mack worked a session for The Charmaines and upon finishing that work, Mack was offered the remaining 20 minutes of studio recording time for him and his band. Not ever thinking that his recording would be released, he spent the time playing an instrumental version of the Chuck Berry song “Memphis, Tennessee” which he simply called “Memphis”.

The piece was a mix of rockabilly and blues that he had been playing live with his band for years. A Guitar Player Magazine analysis of the piece describes it, “”An extended guitar solo exploiting the entire range of the instrument rings in the climax of the song in the fifth section. Lonnie Mack begins this portion by quoting several measures of the riff one octave higher than before. From there, he breaks into his choicest licks, including double-picking and pulling-off techniques — all with driving, complicated rhythms and technical precision”. Distinctive features of the piece include its driving rock beat juxtaposed with the atypically fast tempo 12-bar blues guitar solo.

Undoubtedly, it has been a tragic week for music – first with the untimely death of Prince, which has dominated the news cycles, and then with the passing of Lonnie Mack as well. A true blues-rock pioneer, the genre would not have been the same – indeed, much of rock music might not have been the same – without his innovative way of treating the electric guitar as a lead soloing instrument in rock – edgy, aggressive, loud and fast. As Mack has said, he may truly have been “a bridge-over between the standard country licks in early rock ‘n’ roll and the screamin’ kinda stuff that came later” – but he was also so much more than that. I highly encourage you to spend some time this week listening to some classic Lonnie Mack. You won’t regret it.

-Brian Reiser
Keeping the Blues Alive

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