The Strongest Link: A Memory of The Inestimable Rock Guitarist Link Wray, Who Died Four Years Ago Yesterday

If you’ve never heard of the seminal American rock guitarist Link Wray, his Wiki page is here.

By way of remembering Wray, who died four years ago yesterday, I thought I’d share with you the below, which is a review I wrote of a show of his that I saw maybe ten years ago, at a club called The Casbah in San Diego. The video above could have been taken that night: that’s exactly how he looked. (Thanks for the link, Laura!)

Link Wray is arguably the first—and unarguably one of the finest—American rock guitarists. On his four-million selling 1958 single “Rumble” (the only purely instrumental tune ever to be banned from radio: it instigated rumbles, don’t you know) Link introduced the Rock God guitar sound that later inspired Pete Townshend, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Jimi Hendrix—to name just six who have named Wray a primary influence on their own work.

It’s legitimate to wonder what American rock would sound like today if it weren’t for the galvanizing guitar genius of Link Wray.

Today Mr. Wray is a thin, pale, 70-year-old with one lung (he lost the other decades ago to tuberculosis contracted during his service in the Korean war). You’d think that would slow him up a little. Think again. With his flowing black ponytail, sleeveless black T-shirt, bluejeans and ever-donned Ray-Bans, Link is still every bit the sort of feral, menacing punk your mother begs you not to hang out with. From the opening chord of “Rumble”—routinely referred to as the most important D chord in history—through his shingle-shaking encore some ninety minutes later, Ray prowled around the Casbah stage like a caged puma, executing the kind of blindingly fast fretboard work and maelstroms of precise phrasing that for the past forty-five or so years have proven so crucial in the development of everything from rockabilly to punk.

If this is old, bring on the Geritol.

Backed by a ferociously talented young bass player, and perhaps the only drummer in rock ‘n roll capable of simultaneously driving a beat and playing a trumpet, Link pretty much stuck to the sound for which he is most revered: the dirty, hickory-flavored, reverberating guitar tones that made “Rumble” such a hormone-generating menace to society.

Serving up steaming slabs of such trademark tunes as “Jack the Ripper,” “Ace of Spades,” “Raw-Hide,” and “Branded,” Ray played merciless hailstorms of fiery notes, seamlessly interspersed with the chord chunks laid down just behind the beat for which he is renowned. Challenging his delighted bass player to keep up with him, letting audience members in the front row strum his guitar while he coolly worked the frets, and constantly imploring the sound man to “Turn up the guitar, man! Turn it up!” Link Wray gave the mostly under-30 crowd something new to forever associate with the term “Rock of Ages.”





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  • mm

    Wow: Can't believe I ever heard of him before. Amazing. Clearly can see where Jimi and Jimmy picked up their sound from. Thanks!

  • Beth Wray Webb

    I'm Link Wray's oldest daughter and I would like to thank you for the nice article that you wrote about my father. I miss him very much and I'm so glad to hear that his music is still being played.

    Thank You

  • Well, bless your heart, Beth. Thanks for writing. (And you're welcome, MM.)

  • John, this show that you described sounds very much like some of his shows I saw. I once saw him blow up the sound system of a club at probably 69 or 70 years of age after repeated arguments with the sound man. Well written article that captures the legacy of one of rock's most seminal guitarists.