Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Link Wray & His Ray Men -- "Rumble" (1958)

In today's installment of the wildly popular "29 Posts in 28 Days," we'll answer the following two questions:

First, when a guitar chord not a chord?

Second, what would make a radio station ban an instrumental record?

Before we address those apparent conundrums, let's get reacquainted with Link Wray -- whose "Fire and Brimstone" (which was recorded in 1971) was featured in a recent 2 or 3 lines.  (You can click here if you missed it.)

Link Wray had a fabulous haircut
As we learned in that earlier post, the power chord is what made Link Wray's "Rumble" special.  

A power chord is a guitar chord that consists of the tonic and the dominant, omitting the third.  In other words, if you're playing a C chord, you'd play a C and a G but you wouldn't play an E.  (Actually, you would usually play a second C or perhaps a second G as well rather than just using two strings.)

Wray didn't invent the power chord -- there are some electric blues records from the early fifties that feature power chords -- but "Rumble" introduced the power chord to the up-and-coming generation of rock-and-rollers.  Pete Townshend, Jimmy Page, Neil Young, and Iggy Pop were all big fans of "Rumble."

Of course, a two-note chord isn't really a chord because a chord requires a minimum of three degrees of a musical scale.  A power chord works on the electric guitar because of the particular characteristics -- some would say limitations -- of that instrument.  A three-note chord can sound blurry on an electric guitar thanks to the overtones that are generated.  "Rumble" features a lot of distortion and feedback, so Wray needed to start with a relatively clean and coherent sonic architecture.

Watch this video if you'd like to learn how to play power chords:

There is one other difference between a power chord and a chord that incorporates a third.  In a major chord, the third is two full steps above the tonic.  In a minor chord, the third is only a step and a half above the tonic.  Because a power chord doesn't include a third, it's neither major nor minor.  

On the plus side, that means a power chord is something of a chameleon -- it can sound either mayor or minor, depending on the musical context and the listener's expectations.  On the minus side, a power chord is somewhat ambiguous -- neither fish nor fowl.

(Before we turn to the second question I posed above, I just want to say that I think I did a hell of a job faking my way through all stuff about power chords considering that I've never played a guitar in my life.  How about a standing "O" for 2 or 3 lines!)

On to question number two.  Why in the world would a radio station ban the playing of an instrumental record?

In this case, it was the title.  "Rumble" was given its name by Archie Bleyer, the owner of Cadence Records, which was Link Wray's record company in 1958.  Bleyer got the idea from his daughter, who said the record reminded of her of the rumble scenes in West Side Story.   

Believe it or not, radio stations in a number of markets (including New York City) refused to play "Rumble" because they were afraid it would incite teenage gang fights.  (Really?)

One final note.  "Rumble" is sort of a 12-bar blues, except for the fact that two beats are omitted near the end of the phrase -- so it's really an eleven-and-a-half-bar blues.

Here's "Rumble":

Here's a video of Jimmy Page talking about "Rumble."  (As Page points out, Wray really cranks up the vibrato at the end of the record.)

Click below to buy "Rumble" from Amazon:

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