The Telecaster electric guitar is the musical equivalent of Henry Ford’s Model T: a historical breakthrough, because it was a cheap and durable assembly-line product. Invented by Leo Fender in 1950 (although it didn’t acquire the name Telecaster till 1952), the solid-body guitar boasts a bolt-on neck and a pickup that is unusually bright and fat-sounding. With its high-tension strings and wide frets, it’s not an easy instrument to play, but those who master it can achieve astonishing results.
When Jim Weider did his first “Masters of the Telecaster” show in New York City five years ago, he subtitled the event “A Tribute to Roy Buchanan.” It was so successful that Weider began doing multiple shows every year in cities all over North America. But he had never done one in Buchanan’s home base of Washington. That changes Saturday, when Weider, G.E. Smith and Tom Principato perform at the City Winery.
Buchanan, who hanged himself in a Fairfax County jailhouse in 1988, lived in Northern Virginia for most of his adult life and built his reputation playing in Washington’s bars and clubs. He wasn’t much of a singer, but he was a dazzling guitarist who could fill a song with chiming harmonics, feedback squeals and moaning wails, whether it was rock, country, R&B, blues or gospel.
“To me, he was the greatest Telecaster player ever,” says Weider, the man who replaced Robbie Robertson in the Band. “Roy added a whole new level to the instrument; he got a sound like no one else. He could play one note and you knew it was him. He didn’t need effects; he’d just crank his amp to 10 and just use the volume control on the guitar. He was using feedback before anyone else. He influenced Robbie, Jeff Beck and all of us on this tour. It wasn’t just his speed and technique that separated him from everyone else; it was his incredible touch and feel, so deep and soulful.”
Buchanan inspired a D.C. school of Telecaster guitarists, most notably Principato and the late Danny Gatton. Gatton, who lived in southern Maryland, used to go over to Buchanan’s house to soak up as much information and spirit as he could and soon became a faster, more fluid version of Buchanan. Principato, who grew up in Falls Church and still lives there, was so inspired by Buchanan and Gatton that he not only followed in their footsteps as a player but also founded Powerhouse Records, which has released their lost music on CD.
“For me,” Principato says, “to have Roy and Danny around was not just an inspiration but also a kick in the butt — every time I saw Danny, I’d say, ‘I have to go home and practice.’ Once I got to know Danny, I’d go over to his house just like he went to Roy’s. We’d play, and once in a while I’d have to stop him to say, ‘Wait, how did you do that?’”
Powerhouse Records’ most recent release is Buchanan’s “Telemaster Live in ’75,” eight songs taken from two shows at Cleveland’s Agora Ballroom during the guitarist’s peak period. He demonstrates both his versatility and virtuosity by performing Robert Johnson’s blues classic “Sweet Home Chicago,” Don Gibson’s country ballad “Sweet Dreams,” Jerry Lee Lewis’s rock-and-roll stomper “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and Buchanan’s own gospel hymn “The Messiah Will Come Again.” No matter the style, Buchanan imposed his own “eccentric musical personality,” as Principato puts it.
The Telecaster, described by Weider as “a plank of wood with strings attached,” is a bear to play, but that effort translates into a different sound. “The tension on the strings is a little tighter than on other guitars,” adds Principato, “so it takes some extra oomph, some extra effort to play. Every guitarist nowadays is going to bend the strings, and that snap comes from the way the strings bounce back.”
The format of the “Master of the Telecaster” shows is three guitarists backed by a bassist and drummer; each guitarist leads the way on a song of his own choosing before passing the baton to the next picker. Two of those three guitarists are almost always Weider and his comrade-in-strings, G.E. Smith, the former music director for “Saturday Night Live” and former lead guitarist for Bob Dylan, Roger Waters and Hall & Oates. The third picker is drawn from a pool that includes Principato, Simon & Garfunkel’s Arlen Roth, James Taylor’s Danny Kortchmar, Levon Helm’s Larry Campbell, Steely Dan’s Jon Herington and the Desert Rose Band’s John Jorgenson.
Just as Buchanan passed on his Telecaster secrets to Gatton and Principato on the D.C. club circuit, he also passed them on to Robertson and Weider. In 1960, Robertson replaced Buchanan in the rockabilly band Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks, and in 1985, Weider replaced Robertson in the Band. After the new version of the Band broke up in 2002, Weider played with the Band’s Levon Helm. After Helm died in 2012, Weider founded the Weight Band, named after the Band’s most famous song, “The Weight.” The group’s new debut album, “World Gone Mad,” features songs by Dylan and the Grateful Dead as well as three previously unreleased songs that Weider wrote with Helm.
“I was a huge fan of Robbie when I first heard the Band,” Weider says, “because he created those melodic openings and endings that were just what the songs needed. I hear a lot of Roy in Robbie’s playing: the same vibrato, the way they bent high and low strings at the same time, the way they let that bass string ring while they played the treble strings. Playing the Telecaster like that is both a challenge and an achievement, and how to do it gets passed on from player to player.”
City Winery, 1350 Okie St. NE. 202-250-2531. citywinery.com/washingtondc.
Dates: Saturday at 8 p.m.