Before the British Invasion of early 1964, it was rare to find skilled rock guitarists
who were stars in their own right. There were a few—Duane Eddy, Chuck Berry,
and Carl Perkins led the pack, with Link Wray and Lonnie Mack close behind—
but as a general rule, singers were the stars and guitarists were sidemen.
In 1966 and ’67—when rock and roll came of age and became rock—the “guitarist
as hero” was born. Some say this began with Eric Clapton, who was suddenly
thrust into the spotlight with his incendiary work on John Mayall’s Blues
Breakers with Eric Clapton
(aka “the Beano album”). This LP introduced the
world to overdriven Les Paul-through-Marshall tone and blew a lot of young
guitarists’ minds, including a very impressionable Eddie Van Halen, who reputedly
learned Clapton’s solos note-for-note.
It was a dynamic time for rock guitar, as players began emerging from the
lead singer’s shadow. After Clapton left the Yardbirds to join Mayall, Jeff Beck
stepped into the band and began recording some of the most imaginative,
futuristic, and exploratory guitar the world had yet heard. Eventually, his friend
Jimmy Page joined the Yardbirds and continued to push the guitar’s sonic
boundaries before moving on to launch Led Zeppelin.
And then there was Jimi Hendrix—perhaps the ultimate rock guitar god—as
well as Chicagoan Mike Bloomfield (who first made waves in the Paul Butterfield
Blues Band), Pete Townshend, Keith Richards, and Peter Green and Mick Taylor
(both of whom launched their careers in Mayall’s Bluesbreakers). Dave Davies
of the Kinks, Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead’s Jerry
Garcia, and Mountain’s Leslie West were also among the first generation of ’60s
guitar heroes. Most of them are still with us and musically active today.
But there are other guitarists who, for whatever reason, never received the recognition
or glory they deserved. As we examine some of these unsung heroes,
remember this is by no means a complete list. It would take an entire issue of
PG to pay homage to all the pioneering players of this era.
As the lead guitarist in Vanilla Fudge, Vinny
Martell electrified rock fans in the summer
of 1967 with a dramatic, slowed-down version
of the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’
On”—a track many feel bridged the gap
between psychedelia and heavy metal.
Vinny Martell onstage in April 2010 with his ’82 Les Paul
Black Beauty. Photo by Bob Cianci
Martell, who was born in the Bronx, New
York, joined the US Navy as a young man,
and after his stint there he went on to play
in bands in Florida before returning to New
York. There, he formed a band called the
Pigeons with Hammond B-3 organist and
singer Mark Stein, bassist Tim Bogert, and
drummer Joey Brennan. When the hard-rocking
Carmine Appice replaced Brennan on
drums, Vanilla Fudge was born. The quartet
recorded five albums that consisted mostly
of highly rearranged cover material. Their
daring mix of soul, rock, and classical music
influenced such bands as Deep Purple, Yes,
and Led Zeppelin.
Initially, Vanilla Fudge’s music was dominated
by Stein’s B-3. It wasn’t until the band’s
fourth album, 1969’s Near the Beginning,
that Martell came into his own as a guitarist.
His playing on Beginning was punctuated by
slashing chord work and impassioned blues-based
solos that included the occasional
Middle Eastern twist. Stein, Bogert, and
Appice were powerful players and singers,
so at first Martell’s role was to provide a
musical foundation for the group. His bandmates
also relied on him for moral support.
“I was the spiritual guy in the group that
held it all together,” says Martell. “I was the
calm one who kept things cool. I think we
would have splintered any number of times
without my influence.”
Over time, Martell stepped into the limelight
and also contributed to the band’s sophisticated
arrangements. During the Fudge’s
’60s heyday, Martell played Gibson guitars—
ES-335s, SGs, a big archtop L-5, and several
Les Pauls, including a TV yellow Junior. For
amps, Martell gigged with Magnatone,
Fender, Standel, Kustom, Traynor, and Sunn
models before settling on Marshall stacks.
The Fudge split up in 1970, but since the
’90s they’ve regrouped many times for short
tours, occasionally with all the original members.
Martell also works local gigs with his
own band. He currently plays an ’82 Les Paul
Black Beauty, a Floyd Rose-equipped Kramer
with a custom flame paint job, and several
ESP guitars through Mesa/Boogie amplification.
“ESP has been great to me,” says
Martell. “When I go out on tour, I only bring
two guitars—a red ESP that looks like a Les
Paul and my Kramer.”
Vanilla Fudge’s progressive vision is documented
in a four-disc box set from Rhino
Records called Box of Fudge
One of the great characters of ’60s rock,
Zal Yanovsky held the lead-guitar spot with
the Lovin’ Spoonful for most of the group’s
existence and played on all their hits, including
“Do You Believe in Magic,” “You Didn’t
Have to Be So Nice,” “Summer in the City,”
“Younger Girl,” and “Rain on the Roof.” An
ex-folkie, Canadian-born Yanovsky teamed
with Greenwich Village singer, songwriter,
and guitarist John Sebastian to form the
Spoonful in 1965.
The band’s good-time sound—a mixture
of rock, blues, country, folk, and jug-band
music—brought them immediate success
and challenged the stranglehold that British
groups had on the charts at the time.
Yanovsky was an accomplished guitarist who
could handle straight blues, raucous rock,
sensitive chord work, country licks, and much
more. He played for the song and delivered
exactly what was necessary to make each
one work. Yanovsky was also one of the very
few guitarists who played the Gumby-shaped
Guild S-200 Thunderbird solidbody. He had
two—one with a sunburst finish and another
with custom purple paint—which he played
through Standel amplifiers.
After a drug bust in 1967, Yanovsky left the
Spoonful and recorded his only solo album, the
now collectible Alive and Well in Argentina,
on which he sang and played most of the
instruments. He returned home to Kingston,
Ontario, where he opened a restaurant, Chez
Piggy, followed by the Pan Chancho bakery.
Both ventures were highly successful.
When the Lovin’ Spoonful were inducted into
the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, it was
the last time all four original members would
be reunited. During the end-of-festivities jam,
Yanovsky took a solo on his battered S-200
that proved he had lost none of his youthful
fire and drew smiles from Eric Clapton, an
admitted fan, who was sharing the stage.
Yanovsky died of congestive heart failure in
2002, but thanks to the superb music he left
behind, his legacy lives on.