Meet James Burton, the father of the chicken pickin’ technique
A session ace, sideman to the stars and contributor to a laundry list of hit records, James Burton remains one of the Telecaster’s greatest exponents. In this archive interview, he tells us about Elvis, the Beach Boys and how he invented a little style known as chicken picking.
Image: Gijsbert Hanekroot / Redferns
When in 1952 Mr and Mrs Burton splashed out several hundred dollars – a hefty sum at the time – on a shiny new Fender Telecaster for their son, even in their wildest dreams they couldn’t possibly have realised where it would lead. The 13-year-old James would pay back his parents’ commendable faith and go on to make that very instrument the star of more hit records than perhaps any other guitar in history.
Many will have spotted the quiet man playing the pink paisley Tele on stage with Elvis during his famous Las Vegas 70s residency, but few seem to grasp the huge influence James Burton has wielded over the history of rock ’n’ roll. Burton was the go-to guitarist for virtually every top Californian record label from the 60s onwards, playing integral licks and riffs on classics by the Beach Boys, the Monkees, the Everly Brothers and many others.
Find your own way
Despite this, James Burton has never had a guitar lesson. Entirely self-taught, he turned pro at the tender age of just 14, encouraged by talent contest victories in his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana. So impressive were his skills that not only did he play at parties – the usual outlet for underage prodigies at the time – but he was also granted a special permit from the local police station to play the local bars and clubs.
The big gig in town was the Louisiana Hayride, broadcast live every Saturday night on KWKH radio. This was the show that launched the careers of big names like Hank Williams, and such was the buzz around Burton that he was asked to join the house band, still only 14.
“It was wonderful,” remembers James. “It was held at the Municipal Auditorium in Shreveport… there’s so much history in that building, it’s incredible. I played behind George Jones, Billy Walker and Johnny Horton but I never played it at the same time as Elvis. When Elvis played the Hayride I was always on tour with a country singer called Bob Luman.”
Luman, incidentally, named his backing band the Shadows. Hank Marvin was a huge Burton fan… even though he had never seen a picture of his hero with his Telecaster, and thus made the famous mistake of ordering a Strat instead.
Minding your Qs
James got his first taste of session work at local label RAM Records in 1955, and when frontman Dale Hawkins came to town the pair began playing together and soon cooked up a tune that played its own part in shaping rock ’n’ roll.
“When I first started playing I wrote a little melody lick which became Suzy Q,” explains Burton. “When I was in a blues band with Dale I wrote the music, and he wrote the lyrics.” The song eventually got to No 27 in the US charts and has since been recorded by acts like the Rolling Stones, the Everly Brothers and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
After a year on the Hayride, Burton’s distinctive style was fully formed. It took in many influences, including a love of the steel guitar developed from playing with Hayride steel man Sonny Trammell. “My thing is country music, blues and rhythm and blues all mixed together. I kind of took a little bit of each one and made it one,” muses James.
“I just played a little different – in the sound, and the approach to the chord structures. It was God’s given gift, he was my teacher, and I don’t know where else I’d have gotten that kind of training. You create an identity, then it’s easy to pick out on the records. It’s like when you hear Dolly Parton sing – you know who it is.”
Burton’s style involves a fingerpick slotted onto his middle finger as well as a normal flatpick. “In the mid-50s I developed a little style called chicken picking – it’s just my way of playing. The strings in those days were very stiff and I wanted to bend them, so I experimented with the banjo strings and it worked out perfectly.
“The banjo strings didn’t have the little balls at the end which holds them in place, so I would have to cut the ball off a regular string and attach it to the banjo string to hold the tension.
“I used those banjo strings for the first four strings, and then I used the regular D string in place of an A string and the regular A for the E. The sound was so different… I loved it, man! It became my sound. I guess I was probably one of the first to do that… or maybe the first, I don’t know.”
By 1956, Bob Luman – with Burton on guitar – had chalked up a string of hits and was invited to appear in a Hollywood movie. While in California they landed a slot on the NBC television network’s Town Hall Party show, and things suddenly began to snowball for the 16 year-old Burton. The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet was an incredibly popular TV show which went on to become the longest-running sitcom in US history (now pipped by The Simpsons).
Ozzie and Harriet were a real-life couple – shots of the outside of the house were of the pair’s real home – and the show also starred their son, Ricky Nelson. Ricky was a singer, and when he heard Burton play he knew he had to have him in his band.
Burton agreed and left Shreveport for Los Angeles, spending two years at the Nelson household. Storylines were specially written to feature Ricky’s band, so James was now a TV star and would be the guitar player on all of Ricky’s many hits right up until 1966.
Burton was poached by Johnny Cash around 1965. This freed him up to become a top session man and a member of the legendary Wrecking Crew, a group of virtuoso musicians who played on so many hits, it’s almost impossible to count them. “I was doing five or six sessions a day, seven days a week. It was a very busy time,” marvels James. “Each session was about three hours. Sometimes we’d play all night, and just take a nap if we had time.
“Brian Wilson – he’d want to record all day and all night, so he wouldn’t want anybody to leave. We’d work the whole weekend. I did the same thing with the Monkees. We did tons of stuff. I can’t remember all of them, but I know I did I’m A Believer and Last Train To Clarksville – I think me and Gerry McGee played on that.” McGee was famed for his clean guitar tones, and went on to join the Ventures.
The infamous producer Phil Spector of ‘Wall Of Sound’ fame was one of Burton’s frequent employers, but almost every contractor in LA would call upon him for work from television and movie soundtracks to supporting artists like Nat King Cole, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. Burton particularly enjoyed playing for Glen Campbell and Merle Haggard, as he got to showcase his love of the dobro.
“I think with the dobro as a slide instrument you can do a lot more with it than just bluegrass or folk music,” he points out. “I’ve used it on a lot of pop records, I’ve used it on Nancy Sinatra records… all kinds of things.
“I usually use either an open G or an A tuning, though if I’m doing a lot of blues stuff I’ll go to a D tuning or an E. I like the A tuning because it’s a little higher-pitched and a little brighter-sounding and it gets more bite out of the instrument.”
For dobro James sticks with his fingerpick and flatpick but utilises a contoured Stevens slide with his left hand. ‘It has a cut-out, so you can lay your finger right in the top of it,’ he explains. ‘A lot of steel guitar players use a round bar, but the Stevens is a lot easier to manoeuvre.
“I did some slide stuff on the Everly Brothers records, there’s some with John Denver, and I used it on Glen Campbell’s first album Big Bluegrass Special. The thing about being a session man is you don’t know until you get there whether you’ll be playing acoustic, dobro, slide or banjo – even mandolin.”
When it comes to electric, however, James always liked to stick with his number one favourite guitar. “All you need is one guitar. I always used my ’52 Telecaster unless a producer specifically requested a certain instrument.”
Burton even played his ’52 for the first couple of gigs with Elvis in 1969. After declining the King’s invitation to play on the ’68 Comeback Special – he was busy playing with Frank Sinatra at the time – James was offered the chance to put together the band for Presley’s Vegas residency. This time he was pleased to oblige, and stayed with the show until Elvis’s death in 1977. “We were a powerhouse on stage,” he says. “Elvis loved it. That was his thing.”
James was given a brand new and very distinctive Telecaster for the Las Vegas shows, and despite a few initial misgivings it has become his trademark. “A good friend of mine, Chuck Widener, who was Vice President at Fender at that time, called me and said ‘James, I’ve got a guitar here with your name on it.’” Mysteriously, Widener wouldn’t send the guitar – he insisted that Burton come and collect it. “I walked in and the case was in the corner of the office, so I opened it up. I said ‘Oh no, no, no, that’s not for me, man… way too flashy!’
James was nervous that Elvis might think he trying to upstage him with such an outrageous guitar, but was persuaded after a slap-up lunch to take it back to Vegas and give it a try. “I finally talked myself into playing it. We did the first show and Elvis didn’t say anything, but between shows this Memphis Mafia guy called Red West came down and said Elvis wanted to see me. I thought ‘Oh no, here we go…’
“I went to the dressing room and Elvis said ‘I notice you’re playing a different guitar tonight,’ and I told him I had been a little nervous about bringing it out, with it being a bit flashy. He said ‘Oh, no, it looks great, it sounds great. Play it. I love it!’ So that was a big relief.”
Marking the occasions
James turned 75 in August 2014, marking 45 years since he joined up with Elvis for that legendary run in Vegas. There have been many memorable stints with the likes of Emmylou Harris, John Denver and even Elvis Costello in between, but these days his biggest motivating force is the James Burton Foundation.
It’s all about raising money to put guitars in the hands of young kids, and so far around 4,500 instruments have been distributed to schools and hospitals. Since 2005 Burton has been hosting the James Burton Guitar Festival to bring in funds for the project, and the venue is the very same place where he began his career, as just a kid himself – the Shreveport Municipal Auditorium.
In 2009 an attempt was made to break the world record for the most people playing the same song on the guitar simultaneously on the guitar. The songs of choice were Hound Dog and That’s Alright Mama to mark four decades since Elvis’s Vegas comeback; sadly they fell a little short on numbers, but a great time was had by all as the likes of Albert Lee, Al Di Meola and Kenny Wayne Shepherd rocked the hall to its foundations.
With another job well done you might think James would take it easy for a while, but that session man work ethic still runs deep. He played on tracks for Jerry Lee Lewis alongside Eric Clapton and Merle Haggard, recorded on a Brad Paisley album, and went on the road with Elvis – The Concert, a strange but rather wonderful live show that reunited the Vegas band behind a state-of-the-art video projection of Presley culled from his best filmed performances.
With 60 years as a guitar pro under his belt, James Burton can still adapt to any musical situation, in the studio or on the stage. Just hand him his faithful Telecaster, and watch him go.
Learn more about the history of the Telecaster here.