Last month, I explained how a ride in my dad’s truck with Marty Robbins’ 1959 Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs as the soundtrack, stoked my passion for music, and how to my surprise, later in life, Marty was directly involved in guitar’s evolution toward the guitar sounds we find common today. This week, I want to break down exactly what happened during one of Marty’s should-have-been-normal recording sessions, and why it ended up being one of the most important moments in music history. Yeah, I know that’s a bold statement, but stay with me.
Like most other milestones in guitar history, this one happened by accident. It all starts in a New York City factory, where a none-the-wiser technician put together three recording consoles and had one of them shipped to the Quonset Hut recording studio in Nashville.
Unbeknownst to the recipients of this custom ordered studio desk – Glenn Snoddy and brothers Harold and Owen Bradley – these consoles had a few issues. And by ‘a few’ I mean ‘35 improperly calibrated output transformers’. As Glenn himself explained in an interview with NAMM’s Oral History Program, “Prior to making the transformers, they misjudged the windings somehow or other, and there were 250 volts going through the winding instead of the transformers, and one malfunctioned at the exact time that Grady [Martin] was playing his guitar solo through it.”
Grady Martin? Wait, what was he recording when this accident went down? Eh, nothing much, just a single called Don’t Worry by A-list country star Marty Robbins. The chances of this moment coinciding with this situation are astronomical. Honestly, you’ve got better odds of seeing an Oasis reunion concert tomorrow at Knebworth where the Gallagher brothers hug and compliment each other before they start the show.
In other words, the chances were almost – but not quite – zero. But the chance was there. It had to be, or this story never would have happened.
Forensics of fuzz
As important as this moment is, I’ve never heard it explained in a way that is acceptable. Every article or interview that I have ever read about this event glances over the fine details of this day and in my opinion, this is a huge disservice to guitar’s history and the weight of what really happened. That said, here is my attempt at the whole story.
Picture it: Nashville, 1960. It’s time to record a new radio single for the biggest rising star in country music, Marty Robbins. Musicians and studio crew arrive at the backyard Quonset hut studio late morning, step out of their cars onto the gravel parking lot and greet each other with cigarettes in hand (this was 1960; literally everyone smoked). They make small talk about what happened the night before. A few more minutes pass. Finally, they file into the entrance one by one and make their way to their spots in the room.
This crew has this down to a science by now. Everyone knows their place. For these studio professionals, recording a song is just like swinging a hammer – but with a little more finesse. Day in and day out, these seasoned pros create songs; at this point, they do it almost from instinct. They are the best of the best and they rarely make mistakes.
Remember: it’s 1960, 38 years before Pro Tools let you cheat in the studio. Once the tape recorder started, every musician had to do a flawless take. If not, everyone would have to re-record the song from the beginning, even if the bassist was the only one out of sync. A song could be tracked in a few minutes, and most days these musicians would see a smorgasbord of different styles, artists and genres come across their plates. Time was money and this band knew how to stay on budget.
Don Law’s familiar voice calls from the control, “Five minutes!” With guitars in hand, drumsticks ready to swing and the control room prepped to track, there is now an urgency to be on point. There are a few last-minute adjustments to microphones and preamps as an engineer named Glen Snoddy scrambles around the tracking room making sure everything is just right.
The outboard gear is warmed up, the tape is ready and the control room gets quiet. Marty is standing in the live room behind a big silver microphone, taking a sip of water and mentally running through his lyrics. Directly in front of him is the band, all seated in a semi-circle of sorts and all within talking distance. The pianist is looking over the chart in front of him. Realising he is the foundation and the lead instrument on this song, he walks over the intro bars and gathers his ideas of what’s best for the track. The bass player thumps a few notes and proceeds to tell a joke. The mood is relaxed but serious at the same time.
Grady Martin is seated with his guitar amp at ear level on his right side. The small Fender amp is used as a simple reference monitor and turned up just enough to hear what he is playing in balance with the other instruments in the room. He faces Marty and the vocal microphone while tuning his guitar. It’s a Danelectro six-string electric guitar, model UB2, but it’s a little bit different from most factory-made solidbodies. You see, this is technically a baritone guitar. Because the neck is longer, it reaches much lower on the bass spectrum of notes; instead of a low E note at the bottom of its register, it can reach down to a B. This produces a deep, growly and very firm tone that a standard electric guitar cannot achieve.
Grady was a master guitarist and on this track he was tracking a style called Tic-Tac, which was all the rage in Nashville at the time and was subsequently the secret ingredient to many radio hits. The idea was that the bass player – always on an upright fretless bass – would play the low, deep and standard part we think of as the bassline, and the identical Tic-Tac bass part would be tracked in parallel or on top of that upright bassline. A standard upright bass guitar has a soft attack (or start) to each note being played, a very gentle tone. The initial strike of the note is never really up front because of a few factors, one being that upright bass players don’t use a pick, they simply use their fingers to pluck the notes being played. This is the reason these basses are still used today for more traditional music like jazz and bluegrass.
They gather around the recording desk and Glen Snoddy rewinds the tape and hits play. Suddenly, they hear a sound that shocks them all
Another major difference in how these sound is that the upright bass (specifically in this era) is recorded by placing a microphone in front of it. This results in an even more subdued and mellow tone, in most cases causing much of this instrument’s work to be felt in a finished song more than heard. The Tic-Tac electric bass is on the other hand an electrified guitar by way of magnetic pickups and plugged into a valve/tube amplifier or directly into the recording console. This produces a punchy and up-front recorded sound in comparison to the upright. The two sounds together are the best of both worlds and are responsible for the movement and catchiness of countless hits by Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline and the pop music of the 50s in general.
Glenn Snoddy, now in the control room, double checks the tape machine, glances across the mixer desk and then Don’s voice shouts through the control room door into the live room, “Here we go.” A few seconds pass as everyone takes a deep breath to block out everything that isn’t the song. Marty looks to his right towards the drummer, almost hidden behind a tall studio baffle that helps isolate the sound of his louder drums from the quieter vocals and other instruments. Marty says, “Count us in,” and the drummer gives a click of his sticks “1, 2, 3, 4” right at 100bpm. A few silent counts after that, the piano leads the band in, and the rest is about to be history.
Not just normal history, but the kind that makes you wonder, what if? What if it hadn’t happened? What if the situation had gone any other way? To everyone present in the moment, it was another ordinary day, but 60 years later, we know better. That recording session was a doorway to something different, something unexpected.
The band plays along perfectly as usual. Marty’s confident and echo-saturated vocals come in at nine seconds (if you listen closely you can hear him clear his throat at seven seconds), the bassline is precise, the piano gallops along pushing the song forward and the drums are the glue that hold it all together. The song is only going to be 3 minutes and 13 seconds and that means that everything is to the point, nothing long-winded; this song is created for airplay and it is conscious of wearing out its welcome.
A minute quickly passes by and the song is perfectly predictable until the 1 min and 25 seconds mark. Out of nowhere, Grady Martin’s Tic-Tac bass part explodes into an instrumental measure that tears through time and space for an entire 20 seconds. It is the sound of disruption. Everything normal about this safe radio song dies a violent death at the hands of a new sound: fuzz. Listen to it for yourself. I dare you. I need you to. But first, forget who you are, forget what you know and forget what you think you know about guitar history. Take it in as if you are there in 1960, this moment where the world is still understood through a black and white television screen.
This is the beginning of guitar’s rebellious rise to rule the counterculture generation of the 60s. This wasn’t planned, it wasn’t expected and it turns out that in the moment, it wasn’t even heard.
Seeing with sound
For years, I have played Don’t Worry over and over with my eyes closed and tried to see the space, the people and the reactions to this accidental moment. This is one of my favourite practices as a music lover who wants to be immersed in the songs I love. Try it sometime on your favourite records from the 50s and 60s. Put on Bob Dylan’s Highway 61… and if you listen closely, you can see the band’s panic as they try to follow Bob’s stream of consciousness. The tape machine snaps thousands of unseen musical images that can transport you beyond the song and into the moment if you just let them.
Knowing that everyone involved that day in the recording of Don’t Worry has gone on record with the same exact story of how this was a freak accident, I believe that is the truth. The only problem I have with this narrative is that the band never misses a beat, they never waver from form and there isn’t an ounce of reaction or surprise in their performances. Just listen to Marty’s vocal reentry at the 1:46 mark after the fuzz part: it is calm, collected and exactly what it should be in light of a standard instrumental break. But as you heard for yourself, this is anything but standard. This has always bothered me.
How can this be? I have played hundreds of sessions and I can promise you that if we were live tracking as they were, and that fuzzy malfunction came blasting through the room, the session would have come to a screeching halt in seconds. Obviously, I was missing something. What did I not understand about this moment? How did this otherworldly glitch in music history pass unnoticed right in front of a band that was sitting just a few feet apart?
I accidentally found my answer while interviewing Robert Hobbs about his father Revis Hobbs’ contribution to the invention of the first fuzz pedal. At the end of a lengthy interview, told from Robert’s perspective at the time as a teenager, I told him my dilemma. His simple response floored me: “On that tape machine, the way they were tracking, you wouldn’t have heard the blown transformer malfunction in real time. It would have been heard afterwards during playback because Grady’s amp was working fine; the problem was after the amp that everyone was hearing in the room.”
And that explained everything. Marty sounds calm because he is calm; he never even heard the malfunction. The drummer keeps a beat, the bassline never ceases and the piano rolls along for the same reason. Grady keeps going without hesitation because his guitar amp that he and his bandmates are hearing sounds completely normal.
With this newfound knowledge, I can finally finish the story: when the song ends, the band is called into the control room by Don Law. As they walk in and gather around the recording desk, Glen Snoddy rewinds the tape and hits play. The song jumps from the speakers as expected; a radio single to tickle the ears of American country music airwaves. Each member of the band is listening to himself closely to be sure they are happy with their take. But suddenly, they hear a sound that shocks them all.
You see, like many of the great guitar inventions, this invention wasn’t on the schedule. It just happened. Invention can often be better defined as evolution, and this is the moment that everything popular music began to evolve into the rock revolution of the 60s.
In part three, we’ll explore the details of how this new sound transformed itself from an accident in the studio into a box on the shelves of music stores across America – and even in the hands of a few guitarists across the pond.
Join Josh for more effects adventures at thejhsshow.com.