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Such is the case with Hank Garland and his place in the annals of guitar history. To those in the know, his story is fraught with innuendo, hearsay, and familial strife. But, brush that aside, and the truth emerges— and it’s a truth all guitarists can agree upon: Garland was an incredible player.
The Early Years
Walter Louis “Hank” Garland (November 11, 1930–December 27, 2004) was born in Cowpens, South Carolina—a town that, even today, has only slightly more than 2,000 residents. During Garland’s childhood, most of the locals were listening to country music, and he was no different. One of his biggest musical influences was seminal folk group the Carter Family.
According to the Garland family’s website dedicated to Hank, his first guitar was a four-dollar Encore steel-string that his father purchased for him. A neighbor provided the budding musician with lessons to augment his own attempts to copy tunes from the radio. At 14, he impressed Paul Howard of the Arkansas Cotton Pickers, who subsequently took the young guitarist to Nashville. Garland eventually appeared on the Grand Ole Opry. During this initial foray into country music’s heartland, Garland met guitarists Harold Bradley and Billy Byrd. They felt the young player was obviously talented, but still a bit rough. His age became a more pressing concern when authorities realized he was too young to work regularly. Garland was forced to return to South Carolina.
When he was of legal age, he came back to Music City and reconnected with Byrd and Bradley. “Billy and I were his mentors,” Bradley remembers. “But he immediately left us in the dust—he was so talented.” That’s high praise coming from someone like Bradley, who was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006 and who received a Trustee Award at the 2010 Grammy Awards ceremony.
Back on the Scene and Going Big
According to Bradley, Garland initially found it difficult to get session work in Nashville, but he eventually broke through and became one of the most in-demand pickers on the scene. His “Sugar Foot Rag”—a guitar-heavy single available in two versions, one with Red Foley on vocals and an instrumental rendition that put Garland’s fleet fingers center stage—became a huge hit, with more than a million copies sold.
The skill Garland demonstrated in “Sugar Foot Rag” continues to inspire guitar players of every stripe to this day. Venerated session ace Brent Mason—whose schedule is as jam-packed as any musician’s in Nashville today—is among the legions of players who have paid homage to the song (on his 1997 release Hot Wired).
“I admired his capacity to play what’s in his heart in his music,” Mason says, “and then, on the other side of it, go in and be a session player and be commercial—to have both of those worlds. You don’t see a lot of guys who can jump in one genre and then into another. It’s tough for a jazz guitarist to stay on the same lines as a piano and saxophone—sometimes jazz licks don’t play that great on guitar. But Hank was one of the few who could do it. He had a real smoothness and very melodic lines. Everything was real fluid, and his technique was tremendously stellar. Whatever the style, I never could find a weakness in his work.”
Even metal shredder John Lowery (aka John 5) cites Garland as the first axe man to really strike a chord with him. “‘Sugar Foot Rag’ is on my first instrumental record because I felt like I grew up with Hank. He was the guitar hero, the shredder back in the day,” Lowery says. “He was the man. I guarantee that if kids today would check him out, his popularity would skyrocket. There are so many great recordings people should listen to. It will blow their minds.”
“Sugar Foot Rag” was the only “hit” to officially bear Garland’s name, but he contributed to a host of popular singles for other performers. His days were devoted to quick, efficient sessions in Nashville studios, while his evenings were spent in smoky bars in Printer’s Alley—places like the Carousel Club, where audiences were required to be silent and waiters strolled the room in red coats. It was in the latter environment that Garland indulged in a different genre—jazz. Owing to his time in these contrasting worlds, Garland developed an incredible ability to seamlessly shift between styles in a manner that would become one of his hallmarks.