Prophet of the Rock Guitar

A pencil through the speakers, and the rest was history: Link Wray in 1971.
A pencil through the speakers, and the rest was history: Link Wray in 1971. (By Linda Wheeler -- The Washington Post)
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 22, 2005

With "Rumble," the classic 1958 instrumental first improvised at a Virginia sock hop, Link Wray invented the power chord, creating a template for modern rock guitar. Released as a single by Wray & His Ray Men, "Rumble" was gutbucket menace, awash in echo and reverb, built on Wray's slow drags across the strings of alternating major chords, capped by a run of notes up and down the fretboard.

It was the big bang of dangerous guitar.

Wray, who died this month in Denmark at age 76, and his group at the time were house band for "The Milt Grant Show," Washington's version of "American Bandstand." One night they played a Grant-sponsored show at the Fredericksburg Arena backing the Diamonds, who'd had a big dance hit with "The Stroll." Wray didn't know the song, but when his drummer (and brother) Doug Wray laid down a stroll-like beat, Link filled in with a slowly unfurling, ominous guitar sound so immediately cool the crowd demanded it three more times that very night.

When Wray went into a studio soon after to record what he initially called "Oddball," he had trouble replicating the sound he'd gotten onstage. Thinking it had something to do with the studio amps, Wray took a pencil and punched holes in his speakers, thereby inventing the fuzzbox and becoming one of the first guitarists to experiment with feedback and distortion.

Which may explain why one of his biggest fans was Pete Townshend of the Who. In liner notes to a 1974 Wray album, Townshend cited "Rumble" as a primary influence and pronounced him "the king." Bob Dylan called "Rumble" " the greatest instrumental ever"; on Sunday, Dylan opened his concert at London's Brixton Academy with a cover of the song.

England's music magazine NME dubbed Wray the man "who invented punk rock, heavy metal and every other form of sonic nastiness." For that we can thank Archie Bleyer's teenage daughter. Owner of Cadence Records in New York, Bleyer didn't like the "Oddball" demo but she loved it, saying it reminded her of the Jets-Sharks rumbles in the hot new Broadway musical "West Side Story." The song was released as "Rumble."

Apparently "Rumble" also suggested gang violence to radio programmers, some of whom banned it -- a first for an instrumental! Nonetheless, "Rumble" cracked the top 20 and sold several million copies. When Wray later went on "American Bandstand" to hype it, however, Dick Clark introduced him without ever mentioning the title.

Over the next few years -- which coincided with the last surge of classic-rock instrumental hits -- Wray crafted several other guitar standards, including "Raw-hide," "Jack the Ripper," "The Swag" and "Comanche" (one of three tribal tributes by Wray, who was part Shawnee).

Cadence dumped Wray after "Rumble," feeling he was a bit raw, dangerous and delinquent. His basic look -- black leather outfit, dark glasses, greased-back hair -- supported that finding. Subsequently recording for many labels, Wray tended to milk the raw, primitive guitar formula he'd originated and was soon supplanted by more melodic instrumental stylists like Duane Eddy, Dick Dale and the Ventures. That would doom Wray to cult figure footnote status, but anyone who really knew the music's history recognized his part in it.

By the mid-'60s, Wray had retreated to the family farm in Accokeek. Small career revivals seemed to take place periodically. A decade later punk fans embraced Wray when he teamed up with Washington's Robert Gordon for several neo-rockabilly albums; Bruce Springsteen gave "Fire" to Wray and Gordon after the death of Elvis Presley, for whom he had originally written the song.

"Bullshot," in 1979, was Wray's last American album for almost 20 years. He had moved to Denmark and married a local woman. The 1997 album "Shadowman" occasioned Wray's first American tour in 15 years, though his last Washington performance had occurred in 1985 at the Wax Museum. Efforts to book him locally were thwarted by Wray's fears of being sued over unpaid child support. When he did tour (as recently as this past spring), the aging guitarist was usually accompanied by his bass-playing son and go-go-dancing wife, Olive Julie Wray.

It was movies that reinvigorated Wray's career and refurbished his reputation. John Waters was the first to use a Wray track ("The Swag" on 1972's "Pink Flamingos"). Quentin Tarantino incorporated "Rumble" and "Ace of Spades" into "Pulp Fiction." And in 1999, Taco Bell used "Jack the Ripper" in its first television commercial featuring the talking Chihuahua.

Even in recent years, Wray pushed his equipment to extremes during concerts, rolling out the raw riffs he had pioneered almost half a century before. Link Wray never toned the music down. He was always ready to Rumble.

A sample of "Rumble" can be heard at

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