Danny Gatton (September 4, 1945 – October 4, 1994) was an American guitarist who fused rockabilly, jazz, and country styles to create his own distinctive style of playing. A biography, Unfinished Business: The Life and Times of Danny Gatton by Ralph Heibutzki, was published in 2003. It has a voluminous discography. When Rolling Stone magazine selected the 100 Greatest Guitarists of all Time in 2003, senior editor David Fricke ranked Gatton 63rd on his ballot. On May 26, 2010, Gibson.com ranked Gatton as the 27th best guitarist of all time.
Gatton was born in Washington, D.C. on September 4, 1945. His father, Daniel W. Gatton Sr., was a rhythm guitarist known for his unique percussive style, who left his musical career to raise his family in a more stable profession. The younger Gatton grew up to share his father's passion for the instrument.
Danny Gatton began his career playing in bands while still a teenager. He began to attract wider interest in the 1970s while playing guitar and banjo for the group Liz Meyer & Friends. He made his name as a performer in the Washington, DC, area during the late 1970s and 1980s, both as a solo performer and with his Redneck Jazz Explosion, in which he would trade licks with virtuoso pedal steel player Buddy Emmons over a tight bass-drums rhythm which drew from blues, country, bebop and rockabilly influences. He also backed Robert Gordon and Roger Miller. He contributed a cover of "Apricot Brandy", a song by Elektra Records-supergroup Rhinoceros, to the 1990 compilation album Rubáiyát.
Gatton's playing combined musical styles such as jazz, blues and rockabilly in an innovative fashion, and he was known by some as "the Telemaster." He was also called "the world's greatest unknown guitarist". His most common nickname was "The Humbler", owing to his ability to out-play anyone willing to go up against him in "head-cutting" jam sessions. It was Amos Garrett, guitar player for Maria Muldaur, who nicknamed Gatton "The Humbler". After a successful gig, Garrett would pull out a tape of Gatton and tell his band, "You think we played well tonight. Let's take a minute to listen to the Humble-lizer." A photo published in the October 2007 issue of Guitar Player magazine shows Gatton playing in front of a neon sign that says "Victims Wanted".
However, he never achieved the commercial success that his talent arguably deserved. His album 88 Elmira Street was up for a 1990 Grammy Award for the song "Elmira Street Boogie" in the category Best Rock Instrumental Performance, but was beaten by Eric Johnson with "Cliffs of Dover".
His skills were most appreciated by his peers such as Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Steve Earle, and his childhood idol Les Paul. During his career, Gatton appeared on stage with guitar heroes such as Alvin Lee and Jimmie Vaughan, the latter literally walking in one night on a Gatton club gig. There is also an apocryphal story about an on-stage "head-cutting" jam between Gatton and fellow Washington DC-area resident (and Telecaster player who also held the title of The Greatest Unknown Guitarist) Roy Buchanan. (Gatton had roomed with Buchanan in Nashville, Tennessee in the mid '60s and they became frequent "jamming partners", according to Guitar Player magazine's October 2007 issue). He also performed with old teenage friend Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen (from Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna) as "Jack and the Degenerates". Those recordings were never commercially released, but live tapes are in circulation. In 1993, Gatton was invited by rocker Chris Isaak to record tracks for Isaak's San Francisco Days CD. Reports of where Gatton's playing can be heard on the CD vary, with unconfirmed reports placing him on either "Can't Do a Thing (To Stop Me)", "5:15" or "Beautiful Houses". Gatton reportedly brought a customized Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster to the recording session.
He usually played a 1953 Fender Telecaster (Fender now manufactures a replica of his heavily customized instrument), with Joe Barden pickups and Fender Super 250Ls, or Nickel Plated Steel (.010 to .046 with a .015 for the G) strings. For a slide, Gatton was known for using a beer bottle or mug (still half full of beer), without regard to whether it might spill all over stage or his guitar. During a 1991 performance on Austin City Limits, he followed this by wiping the guitar neck with a rag, then holding the rag between his fingers and the frets, all the while playing flawlessly. In the March 1989 issue of Guitar Player magazine, he said he preferred to use an Alka-Seltzer bottle or long 6L6 vacuum tube as a slide, but that audiences liked the beer bottle. He did, however, only play slide overhand, citing his earlier training in steel guitar [Guitar Player, March 1989]. Among amplifiers Gatton is known to have used are a 1959 Fender Bassman amp and a heavily customized blackface Fender Vibrolux Reverb]].
He always played with a jazz-style teardrop pick, and was capable of intricate passages combining Bluegrass, bebop, and garage sounds, executed with amazing clarity and at dizzying speeds. His picking technique was a hybrid combination of pick and fingers, primarily his middle and ring fingers on his right hand. The basis of his picking technique was using banjo rolls; he was an accomplished banjo player and from that he learned the traditional (Scruggs style) right-hand technique. His forward roll consisted of a pick downstroke, then middle finger, then ring finger. His backward roll consisted of middle finger, then a pick upstroke, then a pick downstroke. He possessed a classical guitar left hand technique, thumb behind the neck, fretting with arched fingers.
Among his admirers are Les Paul, James Burton, Lenny Breau, Joe Bonamassa (whom Danny mentored when Joe was eleven years old), Vince Gill, Evan Johns (of Evan Johns and His H-Bombs), Chris Cheney, Bill Kirchen, Albert Lee, Steve Vai, Buckethead, Arlen Roth, Johnny Hiland, Ricky Skaggs, Slash, and Richie Sambora.
Final Years, Death & Legacy
Throughout the late 1980s and early 90s, Danny worked closely with Fender to create his very own signature model guitar - The Danny Gatton Signature Telecaster, released in 1990. On October 4, 1994, Gatton locked himself in his garage in Newburg, Maryland and shot himself. He left behind no explanation. Members of his family and close friends believe Danny had silently suffered from depression for many years. Joe Bonamassa, who was a student and friend of Gatton, has stated that he knows the reason for the suicide but said "it's not something for the public".
On January 10, 11, and 12, 1995, Tramps club in New York organized a three-night tribute to Danny Gatton featuring dozens of Gatton's musical admirers, the highlight of which was a twenty-minute performance by Les Paul, James Burton, Arlen Roth and Albert Lee. Those shows (with all musicians performing for free) raised $25,000 for Gatton's wife and daughter.
Danny Gatton has been described as possessing an extraordinary proficiency on his instrument, "a living treasury of American musical styles.” In 2009, John Previti, who played bass guitar with Danny for 18 years stated: "You know, when he played country music, it sounded like all he played was country music. When he played jazz, it sounded like that's all he played, rockabilly, old rock and roll, soul music. You know, he called himself a Whitman sampler of music" Legendary guitarist Steve Vai reckons Danny “comes closer than anyone else to being the best guitar player that ever lived.” Accomplished guitar veteran Albert Lee said of Gatton: "Here’s a guy who’s got it all.”
Since the advent of YouTube, decades-old bootleg performances of Danny have garnered millions of views,eliciting high praise from fans worldwide.
- Bill Holloman
- Arlen Roth
- Heibutzki, Ralph (2003). Unfinished Business: The Life and Times of Danny Gatton. San Francisco: Backbeat Books. ISBN 0-87930-748-X.