The Big Thing in L.A.
Shortly after forming, the six men began to convene on a regular basis in Parazaider’s basement to work out song arrangements and collaborate on material. As Pankow recalled on Chicago’s website, “We figured that the only people with horn sections that were really making any noise were the soul acts so we kind of became a soul band doing James Brown and Wilson Pickett stuff.” The Big Thing made its live debut at a club just outside of Chicago called the GiGi-a-Go-Go in March 1967 and soon began playing regular dates around the city and as far away as South Dakota. Kath was playing an off-brand Register guitar that he purchased for $80 after a succession of previous instruments had been stolen at various gigs over the years.

With a wealth of talent and tight arrangements, the Big Thing drew notice from all corners almost as soon as they hit the stage. People couldn’t take their eyes off the group’s enigmatic lead guitarist, whose innovative—some might have even said “crazed”—playing style demanded attention. Pankow described Kath’s wild ways in the liner notes to Chicago Box. “We were working clubs in Chicago, and Terry was banging his guitar against amplifiers and making it talk.” Record producer Jimmy Guercio, a longtime friend of Parazaider, went to check out the Big Thing for himself at a gig in Niles, Michigan, and came away so impressed that he came calling in March of 1968. As Pankow recalled on Chicago’s website, “He told us to prepare for a move to L.A., to keep working on our original material, and he would call us when he was ready for us.” When the call came, the band was only too eager to make the move. Shortly before their departure, looking to beef up their sound, they invited local musician Peter Cetera to handle bass duties. One more change was in order, as well. Guercio didn’t care for the band’s name and took it upon himself to change it from the Big Thing to the Chicago Transit Authority, after the bus line he used to ride to school.

Upon arrival in L.A., Kath and company played almost every night at various clubs around the city, including the famed Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip. In this setting, Kath rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest musicians of the day: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Carlos Santana, and Frank Zappa, to name a few. As the band’s success grew, Kath decided it was time to trade up and jettisoned his beat-up Register in favor of a white Fender Stratocaster with a rosewood fretboard. In the previously mentioned 1971 interview, Kath remarked of the guitar, “The Stratocaster has the best vibrato, but I have trouble bending the strings without slipping off … my hands are pretty strong, I guess from playing bass all those years.” Despite those strong hands, Kath still preferred fairly light strings—but with a twist. For his high E, he typically used the high A string from a set of tenor guitar strings. For the rest, he used a stock Fender set, using its high E as his B string and then progressing on through the pack from thinnest to thickest. The inclusion of the tenor string meant there was always an extra, so the Fender pack’s 5th string was actually Kath’s low E, and he ended up tossing aside the 6th string.

Hallmarks of Kath's Style

Terry Kath playing his custom Tele with Chicago in the summer of 1975.
Photo by Frank White

Though Terry Kath was about as versatile as they come, his style was mainly rooted in the jazz he was weaned on. Trying to stand out in a 7- or 8-piece band is certainly a tall order for any guitarist, but Kath was able to consistently create unique and ferocious parts that always managed to attract notice amidst a complex and varied arrangement. One of the key examples of this is the horn-heavy “25 or 6 to 4,” on which Kath’s absolutely locked-in rhythm parts are both interesting and varied without distracting from the song’s main riff. When it comes time for Kath to own the spotlight, he lets loose with a solo that pulls out all the stops, wailing on the wah pedal with all the mastery of his personal hero, Jimi Hendrix.

In fact, Hendrix was the inspiration for two other Kath standouts—“Free Form Guitar,” off Chicago Transit Authority, as well as “Oh, Thank You Great Spirit” from Chicago VIII. The former was an homage to the guitarist’s playing on Are You Experienced, and the latter was a stunning tribute to his dear, departed friend. In both cases, Kath evokes Hendrix without seeming like just another clone. “Free Form Guitar” is almost startling in its manic nature, with dive-bombs that seem to reach the lowest levels of sanity or hell … or maybe both. On the flip side, “Oh, Thank You Great Spirit” finds Kath using wah to create a soundscape that’s simply breathtaking in its serenity. From there, he layers guitar track upon guitar track to create a complex piece with intricate rhythms, searing leads, and soft acoustics.

As Chicago Transit Authority drew bigger and bigger crowds, Guercio was able to land them a coveted recording contract with CBS Records. So it was that Kath and his bandmates set off to New York City to record their debut album. In preparation for the sessions, he bought a Gibson SG that is featured prominently throughout the album. He also acquired a 60-watt Knight amplifier, as well as a Fender Dual Showman that he used extensively over the next few years both live and in the studio. The group’s self-titled double album quickly became a smash hit, selling well over a million copies less than a year after its release in April 1969.

“This guy came up very quietly and tapped me on the shoulder. He says, ‘Hi, I’m Jimi Hendrix. I’ve been watching you guys and I think your guitarist is better than me.”
—Chicago saxophonist Walter Parazaider

One of the most stirring tracks from Chicago Transit Authority was titled “Free Form Guitar” and featured Kath alone playing essentially experimental music reminiscent of Hendrix’s performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock just a few months later. The piece was recorded in one take, without the use of any pedals, and was improvised on the spot. Kath also penned the song “Introduction,” which was fittingly placed as the first track on the album and featured the guitarist taking over lead-vocal duties. It seems everyone in the band was given a moment to shine on the track, and when Kath’s turn comes he lets loose with a breathtakingly understated yet forceful solo.