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Johnny Burnette & The Rock'n'Roll Trio

Did Paul Burlison or Grady Martin play guitar for Johnny Burnette & The Rock'n'Roll Trio?
and
who "invented guitar distortion"?

By Vince Gordon & Peter Dijkema

A Fender Esquire has not got a "fat" tone...

For years, it never struck me that anyone but Paul Burlison could be playing the brilliant lead guitar, on some of the classic Rock'n'Roll Trio songs recorded at Owen Bradley's Quonset Hut studio in Nashville. Songs like: Lonesome Train, Sweet Love On My Mind, Rock Billy Boogie and Rock Therapy.

I used to tell people, who asked me rockabilly gear questions, that the only one I ever heard who got a fat and full sound out of an Esquire/Telecaster was Paul Burlison on some of the Quonset Hut recordings. Today I believe the mystery is solved: It wasn't Paul Burlison playing a Fender Esquire/Tele at all, but instead Grady Martin playing with his trademark fat tone, used on numerous rockabilly recordings.

 

Johnny Burnette & The Rock'n'Roll Trio
On this CD cover with
Johnny Burnette & The Rock'n'Roll Trio
you see Paul Burlison holding the
blonde Fender Esquire.

The photo was taken on May 7,
1956 at Pythian Temple, New York
at the session.

Paul Burlison is still a great guitarist

Even though I no longer think that Paul Burlison played lead on all those classic rockabilly recordings, as the official Rock'n'Roll history will have it, he still - without a doubt - played on the May 7, 1956 recordings at the Pythian Temple, New York for instance. That session spawned two classic rockabilly tracks (Among other songs): Tear It Up and the Elvis Presley, Baby Let's Play House rip off - amazingly a great song in its own right - Oh Baby Babe.

The playing and sound on those sessions is typical single string blues influenced Tele/Esquire stuff, which I happen to think is great! However, it's a far cry from the sophisticated jazzy stuff found on the Quonset Hut recordings. The classy chord playing found on Please Don’t Leave Me for instance is a completely different approach to lead guitar playing, than that of Tear It Up, which was recorded only three months earlier.

 

Why didn't Paul Burlison play on some recordings?

Actually, at Quonset Hut it was more the rule than the exception that band musicians were replaced by studio musicians and only the singer was allowed to participate.

I purposely use the term "allowed" because that is definitely the impression you get when reading about the policy at Owen Bradley's studio. This was a highly professional run studio and they were into making hit records, not satisfying the egos of sidemen. I know this a provoking way to put it, but from what I know about the industry now and then, this is exactly how professional studio's look at it. If done with sound judgement, it should be that way, to get the best result.

 

The "A-team" took over...

The studio musicians used to replace band musicians have been named the "A-team". The ones most frequently used to back-up rockabilly acts were: Grady Martin (Guitar), Bob Moore (bass), Buddy Harmann (drums) and Boots Randolph (saxophone).

When Johnny Caroll came in to record at Quonset Hut, he was told he couldn't use his own musicians and Martin, Moore and Harmann took over. After Buddy Holly had cut some unsuccessful records, he was also forced to use the A-Team for his last session for Decca. It resulted, among other things, in a brilliant version of 'Rock Around With Ollie Vee' with E.R. "Dutch" McMillin on sax. Even Sonny Curtis, who wrote the song and played lead on the first version, thought the "A-team version" was better.

Bob Moore played bass!

For this article I had the luck of getting in contact with Bob Moore through his wife Kittra. He confirmed that Grady Martin played lead guitar for Johnny Burnette & The Rock'n'Roll Trio and that he, himself played bass on the 4th July and 22nd March sessions. They also told me he most likely played his 1947 top-of-the-line Kay Swingmaster upright bass with gut strings.

 

Let's look at the evidence

Hear for yourself

Here are some recordings, where Grady Martin is known to play lead, that are very similar or even partly identical, to the lead guitar on some of the July sessions of Johnny Burnette & The Rock'n'Roll Trio:

  • Don Woody - Barking Up The Wrong Tree
  • Don Woody - Bird Dog
  • Ronny Self - Big Fool
  • Johnny Horton - Honky-Tonk Man
  • Brenda Lee - Bigelow 6200
  • Listen to a streaming audio sample of When My Dreamboat Comes Home by Grady Martin & the Slewfoot Five:

    Play streaming audio sample*

    Download mp3 sample*

    Just click on "play streaming audio sample" and the music will start playing! (If not, maybe you need the free RealAudio Player or a similar program)

    *This sample is made available under the Danish law about quotation right.

  • When My Dreamboat Comes Home - Grady Martin & the Slewfoot Five. On this instrumental of an old standard, Grady Martin is playing many of the Johnny Burnette & The Rock'n'Roll Trio licks, with the same tone and exact same feel. The definitive proof IMO. (Thanks to Juan of Blue Lake Recouds, CH from providing me with this rare recording).
  •  

    Who says what?
  • Grady Martin said that he played on the July sessions in an interview with Stuart Coleman who writes the column "Nashville Notes" in "Now Dig This" magazine.
  • Bob Moore played bass on Rock Billy Boogie, Please Don't Leave Me and Rock Therapy (See recording session list for more songs) and he says Grady Martin played lead on those and other tracks.
  •  

    Things to listen for on the Johnny Burnette & The Rock'n'Roll Trio recordings (Listen closely)

    If you use the Bear Family CD, Johnny Burnette Trio, Rockbilly Boogie (BCD 15474) for reference, you can follow the track numbers that are listed. When I talk about two guitars being present, I mean two electric guitars besides the acoustic one.

  • Track 2. Please Don’t Leave Me (Alt. take) : The bass string you hear at 2:16 has the same distortion as on the famous tracks Honey Hush and The Train Kept A-Rollin'.
  • Track 5. Sweet Love On My Mind : Use of a Bigsby at the end of the song. Paul Burlison's guitar didn't have a Bigsby vibrato tailpiece.
  • Track 12. Blues Stay Away From Me : You can hear two guitars. Someone - possibly Burlison - playing a simple rhythm guitar pattern in the background and Grady filling in. At 1:04 you hear a Bigsby.
  • Track 14. Lonesome Tears In My Eyes : At 0:45 there’s that Bigsby again, once more at 1:36.
  • Track 15. I Just Found Out : Two guitars. Again a very simple line by someone - possibly Burlison - with Grady doing his thing. At 1:30 you hear the Bigsby again.
  • Track 17. Please Don’t Leave Me : Sounds like a Bigsby is used on the last chord of the song.
  • Track 21. Butterfingers : Two guitars.
  • Track 27. Midnight Train : Here you can hear the level of picking that Burlison had at the time. It's not compatible with Grady Martin's playing.
  •  

    Who played lead guitar on "The Train Kept A-Rollin'" / "Honey Hush"
    and who "invented guitar distortion"?

    Most people, who agree that Grady Martin played lead guitar on many of the July sessions, believe that it was in fact Paul Burlison who played lead guitar on "The Train Kept A-Rollin'" and "Honey Hush".

    "The train Kept A-Rollin’” is the track that many rock historians have singled out to be the first rock recording ever, with a heavily distorted electric guitar.

    Paul Burlison used to tell a very famous story about how he got the distorted guitar sound on these recordings: One day he had dropped his small Fender Deluxe amp and when he played through it, the sound was distorted. Burlison, being an electrician by trade (He actually worked at Crown Electric in Memphis where Elvis Presley drove the delivery truck), found out that a tube had come loose and was acting as a rheostat, thus creating distortion.

    Apparently he was able to re-create that effect in the studio by pulling the tube loose. This is his explanation on how the distorted guitar sound on "The Train Kept A-Rollin'" and "Honey Hush" came about.

    On the official Burnette website he's quoted for saying that he would get that distortion again, whenever he wanted, just by pulling that tube loose.

    Burlison also stated that he'd not been able to re-create that distortion later, because it could only be done on a Fender DeLuxe and he didn't have his anymore.

    While this may be partly or even completely true, something just doesn't add up...

     

    What is wrong with this story?
  • ‘Honey Hush’ and ‘The Train Kept A-Rollin’ are not as distorted as you would think. If you listen closely you can hear that only the low E string is distorted. On both songs you hear pretty clean treble strings along with the distorted bass string. The distortion from a worn out power tube (for comparison) is different from what you hear on the record. Every single tone is distorted, a bit like fuzz pedals (like Satisfaction by Rolling Stones). How can pulling one tube loose only mess with one string / frequency?
  • In Vintage Guitar Magazine he retells the story, but there's an important hole in it because A; he claims that he was able to recreate the sound by pulling that power tube loose and then B; he says he never could recreate that sound because he didn’t know what Owen Bradley did in the control room?
  • If you can get a 6V6 tube to act like a rheostat with a Fender Deluxe, it should also work with any other amp and any other tube. The key should be the bad contact between the tube and the socket. You can wiggle any tube out of its socket. For those into amps, I can inform you that I know Burlison specifically was talking about the 6V6 and not the 5Y3 tube, as I heard himself say in an radio interview that it was the "third tube over from the back looking at it". As there are 5 tubes in a Fender wide-panel Deluxe, the third tube will always be the middle one, no matter what side you count from. The 5Y3 is on the side. Here are the schematics of a wide-panel Fender Deluxe.
  • If you listen to Paul Burlisons re-recording of ‘The Train Kept A-Rollin’ (1997 on Sweetfish Records, produced by Jim Weider) you can hear that his performance leaves a lot to be desired, compared to the guitar playing on the original.
  • This is probably how it was done…

    Try for yourself!
    (At your own risk)

    This is shown with a P-90 in
    the neck position, but it works
    better with a bridge pickup (P-
    90 or DeArmond). I just don't
    HAVE a P-90 or DeArmond in
    the bridge position :-)

    If you hit the E-string wrong
    what you see below will
    happen, resulting in a "clang"
    noise with or without a note.

    When thinking about how the distortion/fuzz was created, I was looking for a method that would result in what you hear on the record: 1. Only the deep E-string is really distorted. The other strings have a normal distortion for a 50ties tube amp. (Some of the blues stuff recorded at Sun was considerably more distorted, than the treble strings on these two songs). 2. The deep E-string is a whole lot louder (volume) than the other strings. Sometimes the thin E-string almost disappears in the background for instance. 3. Especially on Honey Hush, you frequently hear a strange “clang” noise together with notes played on the deep E-string. Even sometimes, you only hear the "clang" where there obviously should have been played a note on the deep E-string.

    I realised that all these things had little to do with the amp, but a lot to do with the pick-up on the guitar. The explanation is simple: First you set your amp to have what would qualify as normal distortion for the time period, but with a lot of bass. Then you take a screw driver and raise the pole piece on the pickup under the deep E-string – and only that one. Raise it as much as possible without making the string unplayable and there’s your Train Kept A-Rollin’/Honey Hush distortion.

    It results in: 1. Only the deep E-string is really distorted and in a fuzzy way. 2. The deep E-string is a whole lot louder than the other strings. 3. If you hit the deep E-string too hard (Especially when playing on the bridge pick-up and resting your palm around the bridge area, this is likely to happen) it will make physical contact with the pole piece and the result will be a “clang” noise, sometimes without a note.

    On the right you can see what I did and try it out for yourself.

    I recorded the intro from The Train Kept A-Rollin’ and an improvised solo similar to the one on Honey Hush, so that you can hear the result.

    My recording of the
    'The Train Kept A-Rollin' intro

    Play streaming audio sample

    Download mp3 sample

    The double string riffs on the treble strings are played with my middle and ring finger. The single string riff is played with my pick, which I hold with my thumb and index finger. The octave riff in the end is played with my pick (Thumb/index) on the deep E-string and ring finger on the thin E-string. Only pick-up used was my bridge FilterTron with the raised pole pieces (There are two pole pieces for each string on a FilterTron). See below for explanation...

    My recording of a
    'Honey Hush'-like solo

    Play streaming audio sample

    Download mp3 sample

    First of all, the noise you hear in the background is my foot tapping! As opposed to the "Train-intro", this little improvised solo is played without a pick, using my thumb on the deep E-string and the index finger on the thin E-string. I did it because it sounded closer to the sound on 'Honey Hush'. I also found out I made more mistakes this way, just like Honey Hush has more mistakes than 'Train'. Only pick-up used was my bridge FilterTron with the raised pole pieces (There are two pole pieces for each string on a FilterTron). See below for explanation...

    Given the fact that I only used the gear I had at hand and recorded it with a modern microphone, the result is amazingly similar. If someone knew what guitar, strings and amp was used and had a RCA 44 microphone, I’m pretty sure the sound could be nailed completely.

    The gear used on my recording: My customized Epiphone with a Seymour Duncan vintage P-90 in the neck position and a vintage FilterTron pup at the bridge played through my 50ties, Fender Bassman’ish set up (You can read all about it at the main page, The Rockabilly Guitar Page). One Joe Meek JM47 microphone.

    I started out with the P-90 pickup because I suspected it to have the better sound for this purpose, compared to the FilterTron (The FilterTron was actually not introduced till '57, but that's beside the point). I also tried out the FilterTron in the bridge position and found out that, although the P-90 sounds more like the pickup being used on the Burnette recordings, the overall result was better when I used the FilterTron, simply because it was in the bridge position. That means it's important for the sound, to use the bridge pick up (The strings vibrate very differently at the bridge, than at the neck).

    Given the fact the FilterTrons were specifically designed by Ray Butts to accommodate Chet Atkins wish for a less dominant and muddy bass than that of the DeArmond Dynasonics, it’s amazing that I can get so close to the Honey Hush and Train sound with its particularly dominant and muddy bass.

    Other explanations?

    I’ve heard many other explanations trying to account for all the specific elements of the sound, but the only one I think is plausible comes from Juan C. Rodriguez of Blue Lake Records, who thinks that the bass is heard more because a (thumb?)pick is used and the high string is only picked with a finger.

     

    Who played the solos then?

    Given Burlison's unlikely explanations about the whole event, I don't see how he could have played the solos. Apart from that, the technical level is too high for his playing. For once, the timing on Tear It up and Oh, Baby Babe leaves a lot to be desired, whereas the timing on Train and Honey Hush is dead-on groovy, which is the typical trademark of a session musician. The choice of notes is very similar to Rock Billy Boogie and the other Nashville tracks and have nothing to do with what Burlison played in New York. It was Grady Martin. My co-writer and I have no doubt about it.

     

    What gear was used?
    Grady Martin

    Guitar: The most unlikely guitar would be a Fender Tele/Esquire, really. It could have been a number of guitars, as the tone was typical/popular for that age. It sounds P-90/Charlie Christian/DeArmond'ish and that doesn't narrow it down very much, now does it :-) Also, Grady Martin was known to have played many different guitars. Still we're 99% sure it was Grady Martin's custom made 1952 Bigsby Doubleneck guitar with 3+1 pickups and of course a Bigsby vibrato tail piece that was used (The "extra" neck is actually a mandolin and not a guitar).

    This theory was also our initial guess, mostly because the guitar sound wasn't exactly like anything else we've heard - apart from Grady Martin's other work. We felt we had to abandon that theory for a while however, after hearing from Deke Dickerson. He reported that the guitars he had tried with Bigsby pick-ups, had a squeaky clean tone, which is something you can hardly say about any of the Nashville sessions.

    Some time later Dickerson contacted us again after he had played a 1953 Bigsby guitar with appointments close to that of Martin's 1952 Bigsby doubleneck. He reported that it sounded hotter than the other guitars he tried up untill then. Dickerson's words were: "When I played a few of the signature licks from the Johnny Burnette records on Keith's guitar--"Lonesome Train," "Lonesome Tears In My Eyes," "Baby Blue Eyes," etc....THERE WAS THE SOUND. There was no mistaking it. The sound was absolutely identical to the Johnny Burnette Trio recordings."

    Of course we don't know for sure, but for us, that setteles the issue of what guitar was used.

    The guitar Deke Dickerson tried was from original Bigsby guitar owner Keith Holter, who still has his guitar (and holds on to it!).

    For those interested in the technical side of it, we can inform you that we investigated if some Bigsby pickups might have been hotter than others, but Paul Yandell (Who has owned 15 Bigsby pickups out of the approx. 200 ever made) said that all of his were 3KOhm (Which is very weak compared to other popular pups btw.) It is likely then, that all Bigsby pups are about 3KOhm.

     

    Grady Martin's 1952 Bigsby doubleneck guitar
    Grady Martin's (Obviously!) 1952 Bigsby doubleneck guitar
    Keith Holter's 1953 Bigsby guitar
    Keith Holter's (Obviously!) 1953 Bigsby guitar
    Keith does absolutely NOT want to sell and has already turned down many offers.
    There, I said it!

    Amplifier: Martin owned a Magnatone amp and there was often a Standel 25L15 in the studio (Cliff Gallup used one when recording with Gene Vincent). Owen Bradley had a Tweed Pro with a 15" JBL retrofitted speaker in it, which at low volumes probably sounded a lot like a Standel. Any of those amps could have done the trick and then there's Burlisons Deluxe, of course.

    Bob Moore tells me that most likely Grady used whatever amp was there at the Quonset Hut. Grady didn't usually haul his own special amp around to record sessions.

    Our guess is that Martin played through a Standel (FYI: Deke Dickerson's bet is on Martin's Magnatone), with the bass control turned up loud and the treble down. This set up (In mine and my co-writer's opinion) would result in a more muddy bass and slightly cleaner treble strings, compared to my test recording. We had a Standel owner test this and he verifies that a Standel 25L15, can be made to boost the bass AND distort. This is what my recording lacks to nail the sound completely (And of course the actual room and the RCA 44 microphone).

     

    All recording sessions of Johnny Burnette & The Rock'n'Roll Trio

    I've made a session list of who played lead guitar, bass and who produced Johnny Burnette & The Rock'n'Roll Trio. It might not be 100% accurate as these things are very hard to find out, but the general picture is there. If you have some information about this, I'd like to hear from you so we can get it as accurate as possible.

    Session:

    May 7, 1956, Pythian Temple, New York. Engineer : Bob Thiele

    Songs:
  • Shattered Dreams : Paul Burlison (Lead guitar), Dorsey Burnette (Upright bass).
  • Midnight Train : Paul Burlison (Lead guitar), Dorsey Burnette (Upright bass).
  • You’re Undecided : Paul Burlison (Lead guitar), Dorsey Burnette (Upright bass).
  • Tear It up : Paul Burlison (Lead guitar), Dorsey Burnette (Upright bass).
  • Oh Baby Babe : Paul Burlison (Lead guitar), Dorsey Burnette (Upright bass).
  • Comments:

    Typical Tele/Esquire-Fender amp sound (thin), single string picking. Paul Burlison played a blonde whiteguard Fender Esquire (One single coil pickup) through a tweed Fender DeLuxe amp.

     

    Session:

    July 2, 1956, Owen Bradley's Quonset Hut studio, Nashville. Producer : Owen Bradley

    Songs:
  • The Train Kept A-Rollin’ : Grady Martin (Lead guitar), Dorsey Burnette (Upright bass).
  • Blues Stay Away From Me : Grady Martin and possibly Paul Burlison (Lead guitar), Dorsey Burnette (Upright bass).
  • All By Myself : Grady Martin (Lead guitar), Dorsey Burnette (Upright bass).
  • Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee : Grady Martin (Lead guitar), Dorsey Burnette (Upright bass).
  •  

    Session:

    July 3, 1956, Owen Bradley's Quonset Hut studio, Nashville. Producer : Owen Bradley

    Songs:
  • Chains Of Love : Grady Martin (Lead guitar), Dorsey Burnette (Upright bass).
  • Honey Hush : Grady Martin (Lead guitar), Dorsey Burnette (Upright bass).
  • Lonesome Tears In My Eyes : Grady Martin (Lead guitar), Dorsey Burnette (Upright bass).
  • I Just Found Out : Grady Martin and possibly Paul Burlison (Lead guitar), Dorsey Burnette (Upright bass).
  •  

    Session:

    July 4, 1956, Owen Bradley's Quonset Hut studio, Nashville. Producer : Owen Bradley

    Songs:
  • Please Don’t Leave Me : Grady Martin (Lead guitar), Bob Moore (Upright bass).
  • Rock Therapy : Grady Martin (Lead guitar), Bob Moore (Upright bass).
  • Rock Billy Boogie : Grady Martin (Lead guitar), Bob Moore (Upright bass).
  •  

    Session:

    July 5, 1956, Owen Bradley's Quonset Hut studio, Nashville. Producer : Owen Bradley

    Songs:
  • Lonesome Train : Grady Martin (Lead guitar), Dorsey Burnette (Upright bass).
  • Sweet Love On My Mind : Grady Martin (Lead guitar), Dorsey Burnette (Upright bass).
  • My Love, You’re A Stranger : Grady Martin (Lead guitar), Dorsey Burnette (Upright bass).
  • I Love You So : Grady Martin (Lead guitar), Dorsey Burnette (Upright bass).
  • Your Baby Blue Eyes : Grady Martin (Lead guitar), Dorsey Burnette (Upright bass).
  •  

    Session:

    March 22, 1957, Owen Bradley's Quonset Hut studio, Nashville. Producer : Owen Bradley

    Songs:
  • Touch Me : Grady Martin (Lead guitar), Bob Moore (Upright bass).
  • If You Want It Enough : Grady Martin (Lead guitar), Bob Moore (Upright bass).
  • Butterfingers : Grady Martin (Lead guitar), Bob Moore (Upright bass), Unknown second lead.
  • Eager Beaver Baby : Grady Martin (Lead guitar), Bob Moore (Upright bass).
  • Comments:

    By this time Dorsey Burnette and Paul Burlison had left the group. There's no reason why they should be on these recordings.

     

    If you're interested in knowing more about the recordings of Johnny Burnette & The Rock'n'Roll Trio this is a very good site. Needless to say, we don't agree with all their personnel listings. Just for the record, we agree with all of them besides the lead guitar listings.

     

     

    Bottom line

    There's no doubt in my mind that Paul Burlison wanted to play the lead on all the recordings. There's no reason to think it was his decision not to play. After the records were released, Johnny Burnette & The Rock'n'Roll Trio were promoted as if Burlison had played the lead guitar. Again, this was not his decision and something he might just have got caught up in, like so many other band musicians have been, before and after him.

    This article is not a moral crusade in any way, be it pro or con band or session musicians, Grady Martin or Paul Burlison or the way record companies promote their acts. The entertainment industry is based on illusions. Generally speaking fans, then and now, like to believe that anyone can walk off the street and into the studio and become rich and famous just by being talented or maybe not even that. The truth however, is that great music is made by people who have worked hard to learn how to make it. This is true for musicians as well as producers, engineers, people who program sequencers and anyone producing music in any form.

    Grady Martin had worked really hard to get so good. I’ve heard it said that he played up to 10 hours a day. Burlison was an electrician by trade. Of course he couldn’t compete with that. He did his best as you can hear on the Pythian Temple sessions and his intentions were honest, I’m sure. This is no “Milli Vanilli” example. Paul Burlison went on the road with Johnny Burnette & The Rock’n’Roll Trio and played his heart out to promote the albums. This article is only about getting some facts straight. Nothing else.

    Paul Burlison (1929 - 2003) was a great guitarist and he definitely deserves his place in Rock'n'Roll history, but Grady Martin (1929 -2001) was a brilliant guitarist and he should be credited for some of the best rockabilly guitar work ever, simply because he did it.

    To me, an important part in all this is that anyone who wants to learn to play really good rockabilly guitar, should study Grady Martin and not so much Paul Burlison. I never studied Martin (Not knowingly anyway) but I certainly would have, if I’d known it was him, who played the best stuff for Johnny Burnette & The Rock'n'Roll Trio.

     

    What do you think?

    While my co-writer and I have no doubt that this article is true in its substance, we do not expect it to be flawless. If you have some information on the subject, whether you agree or disagree, we'd like to hear from you. You can just send an email.

    Credits:
    Peter Dijkema and I was made aware of the whole Martin/Burlison issue by Steven "Billy" Buckly, UK. A-team bass player Bob Moore and his wife Kittra verified many of our findings. Juan C. Rodriguez from Blue Lake Records in Switzerland provided lots of information and an mp3 of "When My Dreamboat Comes Home". As usual, the internet and the forums have also been a source of information (true and false). Thanks to Deke Dickerson for setteling the issue of what guitar was played at the Nashville sessions. Thanks to Paul Yandell for his info on Bigsby pickups.

     
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