Gary Rossington: 1951–2023
The guitarist’s brawny Les Paul tones helped create the Lynyrd Skynyrd legacy on hits like “Free Bird” and “That Smell,” and made him a 6-string hero in his own right.
Gary Rossington—the guitarist who inspired Lynyrd Skynyrd’s song “That Smell” and then played the hell out of it, with sailing, melodramatic feedback and a corpulent, grizzly-bear tone decorated by squealing pinch harmonics—died on Sunday, March 5, after at least a decade of coronary issues, including bypass surgeries and a reported heart attack in 2015. Rossington, who held the reins of Skynyrd ’til the end, was the band’s last surviving original member.
The 71-year-old was also the primary slide guitarist in the foundational version of the Jacksonville, Florida-birthed group, playing the distinctive chirping introduction to their iconic “Free Bird,” as well as the muscular solos on “ Simple Man,” “Comin’ Home,” “Tuesday’s Gone,” “Call Me the Breeze,” “Gimme Three Steps,” “ Cry for the Bad Man,” “Workin’ for MCA,” “On the Hunt,” and their version of the Jimmie Rodgers classic “T for Texas,” among many other memorable, influential performances.
Rossington’s tone was always like a boxer’s fist—strong, calculated, consistent—regardless of the gear he played, but the core of his sonic formula was a Gibson Les Paul Standard plugged into 160 watts of Peavey Mace or 100 watts of Marshall. In fact, Rossington boasted in a 2017 PG interview with journalist Joe Charupakorn that he played his 1959 Les Paul on every Skynyrd recording and show from the band’s inception until 1977. (Although live videos of the band in the mid ’70s also show him with a two-humbucker SG slung around his shoulders.)
In Skynyrd’s nascent years, that Les Paul was his sole instrument. “Early on, we didn’t have the time to change tunings onstage, plus I only had one guitar back then, so I learned to play slide in standard,” he told me in 2015. To raise the action for his glass slide, Rossington would insert a pencil above the first fret on his guitar’s neck. He was proud that “my ’59 Les Paul, Bernice, is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame sitting right next to Duane’s and Clapton’s guitars. They were my two biggest idols coming up, so having my guitar right between theirs is great!”
Rossington onstage at New York City’s Beacon Theatre in 1976, the year of his infamous auto wreck and the success of the live One More from the Road and “Free Bird.”
Photo by Frank White
Over the decades and the trials—brawls with Skynyrd’s mercurial leader Ronnie Van Zandt that once left him with glass-shredded hands in the middle of a European tour; the terrible October 1977 plane crash in Mississippi that killed Van Zandt, guitarist Steve Gaines, singer Cassie Gaines, and three others, and left Rossington badly injured; the booze-and-drugs-fueled car crash that inspired “That Smell”; the challenges of addiction and recovery; and the rising and falling tides of the music business—Rossington survived with his everyman charisma and chops intact.
He was born in Jacksonville in 1951, and his father died in the Army soon after. Initially, Rossington, who was inducted in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2006 as a member of Skynyd, wanted to be a baseball player, but that changed with the arrival of the Rolling Stones and when he fell in with Van Zandt, who became a father figure. They formed their first band together in 1964 and evolved into Skynyrd in 1969. The debut, Pronounced ’Lĕh-’nérd ’Skin-’nérd, was released in 1973 and contained “Gimme Three Steps,” “Simple Man,” “Tuesday’s Gone,” and “Free Bird,” although the latter did not become a hit until the 11-minutes-plus version on 1976’s One More from the Road was released to FM radio—forever launching “Play ‘Free Bird’” as a call for Skynyrd fans and wiseasses alike.
Rossington’s tone was always like a boxer’s fist—strong, calculated, consistent—regardless of the gear he played.”
I grew up listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd and had tickets for their Street Survivors tour at the New Haven Coliseum. It would have been my first time hearing the band live, and I was thrilled. I was also crushed when the news of the plane crash spread four days after the album’s October 17 release. I did catch the Rossington-Collins Band, which Rossington formed with fellow Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Allen Collins in 1979, along with Skynyrd’s bassist Leon Wilkeson and pianist Billy Powell, in 1980 at the Springfield (Massachusetts) Civic Center, but Rossington had broken his leg the day before and the vibe was, understandably, off. Seven years later, after Skynyrd reformed with Johnny Van Zandt as vocalist, I caught their fiery, inspiring performance at the Centrum in Worcester, Massachusetts. Hearing the tones and visceral playing that Rossington evoked from his guitar, I immediately decided to buy my first Les Paul.
Almost 20 years later, when I was able to interview Rossington for the first time, I was inspired again—this time by his candor, humor, and humility.
When we spoke about recording “That Smell,” still one of my favorite rock songs, Rossington seemed delighted recalling that day in the studio. “It was perfect,” he said. “My guitar sound was hot, with the feedback. It was everything I wanted.”
Rossington takes part in a Lynyrd Skynyrd tradition, trading licks, with one of the current lineup’s other guitarists, Ricky Medlocke, who is the former frontman of Blackfoot and was the drummer for Skynyrd in their earlier days.
Photo by Steve Kalinsky
He also talked about the experience that inspired Ronnie Van Zandt and Allen Collins to write the song. “I was out of control,” he said of hitting an oak tree and a house with his brand new Ford Torino while on a bender in 1976. “I did get in a car wreck, but we got a good song out of it.” Rossington was so wild that there were times when his bandmates, no slouches in indulgence themselves, were sure he’d kill himself.
“Eventually, I learned that drugs are just horrible for you,” Rossington observed, “but that’s the way it was in rock ’n’ roll in our time. I can’t do any of that stuff now. I’m not in such great health. I’ve had some heart problems, and I’m on the straight and narrow. It’s a lot better than being fucked up all the time, and I thank God I made it through those days.”
“We loved Cream and Clapton’s style, and all the guitar players with the British bands—Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and also Hendrix.”–Gary Rossington
Decades later, the plane crash still hung over Rossington’s conversations about Lynyrd Skynyrd like a specter. He rarely mentioned it directly, preferring to complete relevant sentences with terms like, “until, well, you know…” or simply pausing to skip a beat.
But the guitar hero was delighted to talk about his own guitar heroes, who profoundly influenced him and generations of players, just as Rossington would influence generations in his own lifetime. “We loved Cream and Clapton’s style, and all the guitar players with the British bands—Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and also Hendrix,” he recalled. “But mostly it was Clapton, because he was so good, and he played more of the kind of blues we were raised on. I grew up listening to him and hoping to be that good one day. Of course, I never made it, and I never got near Hendrix, either. I don’t know if anybody will ever be as good as Hendrix again.
“And Duane and Gregg were big deals to us. They inspired us before they were the Allman Brothers. We would go see all the bands they were in while we were growing up. The Allman Joys played a lot in town, at clubs and teenage dances. Duane and Gregg were already great even then, and you could see Duane get better on guitar every week or two. Plus, they were older than us doing exactly what we wanted to do— they were driving and smoking and had long hair and were out of school. They were as cool as sliced bread!”
His current Lynyrd Skynyrd bandmates offered this announcement of Rossington’s death, on social media. “It is with our deepest sympathy and sadness that we have to advise that we lost our brother, friend, family member, songwriter, and guitarist, Gary Rossington, today. Gary is now with his Skynyrd brothers and family in heaven and playing it pretty, like he always does.”
Designed to offer both warm, rich tube tones in a compact combo, the Adam Clayton ACB 50 Bass Amp is a tribute to the U2 bassist's achievements, as well as his sound and harmonic style.
“I’ve worked very hard with Fender on the Adam Clayton ACB 50 Bass Amp and I’m immensely proud of our creation,” said Adam Clayton. “I always found when I was starting out that it was very hard to find an amp that offered the mid-range distorted sound that I liked. This amp offers it in spades. It’s also very versatile, and if you’re moving around a lot or if you don’t have much space where you practice, then this is the amp for you.”
Featuring two distinctly different channels – a classic Fender sound and a more modern hi-fi, flat EQ tone, the Adam Clayton ACB 50 Bass Amp achieves all the sounds needed in any musical situation and is the perfect companion for any bassist, whether they’re playing in a studio, a club or on an arena stage. Classic Fender cosmetics: black textured vinyl, chrome panel, chicken head knobs and an aged silver grille cloth give the Adam Clayton ACB 50 Bass Amp a look that players around the world have come to love. The Adam Clayton ACB 50 Bass Amp includes a lightweight Eminence Neo 15” speaker that helps accentuate its fat, powerful sound and features an XLR line out to send that great tone to your home recording rig or front-of-house.
Exploring The Adam Clayton ACB 50 Bass Amp | Fender Artist Signature | Fender
“Adam Clayton is a true icon and working with him on the Adam Clayton ACB 50 Bass Amp has been an absolute privilege,” said Justin Norvell, Executive Vice President of Products at FMIC. “This is the first signature bass amp we’ve ever done and the first all-tube bass combo Fender has produced for over 40 years. We are extremely excited by the project and we’ve worked tirelessly to make it extra special. Designed for the pros, by the pros, the amp has a unique combination of that classic Fender look with contemporary style and features like the dual channels and the lightweight Eminence speaker that we’re sure are going to make it incredibly popular with bassists.”
ADAM CLAYTON ACB 50 BASS AMP ($2199.99 USD, £1,999.00 GBP, €2,399.00 EUR, $2,199 AUD, ¥253,000 JPY) Inspired by Adam Clayton, the Fender Adam Clayton ACB 50 Bass Amp offers warm, harmonically rich tube tones that are perfect for the studio, club or arena stage. Featuring two distinctly different channels – a classic Fender sound and a more modern hi-fi, flat EQ tone, the Adam Clayton ACB 50 Bass Amp achieves all the sounds you need in any musical situation. Classic cosmetics: black textured vinyl, chrome panel, chicken head knobs and an aged silver grille cloth give the Adam Clayton ACB 50 Bass Amp a classic Fender look that players around the world have come to love. The Adam Clayton ACB 50 Bass Amp includes a lightweight Eminence Neo 15” speaker that helps accentuate its fat, powerful sound and features an XLR line out to send that great tone to your home recording rig or front-of-house.
For more information, please visit fender.com.
Zach flies Rhett-less on this episode that features an interview with Joey Landreth. Joey shares on his Grammy award-winning success with Bonnie Raitt, how the amp he released with Two-Rock came about, and how parenting has informed his guitar playing. You'll also hear about a rig that gets quite a high Shoyles rating, thanks in part to its envelope filter.
A Slide of Life with Joey Landreth | Dipped in Tone Podcast
Thanks to Sweetwater for sponsoring this episode.
Head to sweetwater.com/dippedintone to enter to win one of 2 rigs hand-picked by Rhett and Zach! Giveaway ends May 21, 2023
The Bros. Landreth: “Guitar Playing Wasn’t a Priority”Jason Shadrick
One of the core ingredients that is essential to any Bros. Landreth album is also the most dreaded: abject fear and panic. It doesn’t sprout up from any particular insecurity about the end result, but rather where to start. “We always say we’re going to write 30 tunes and pick our 10 favorites,” says Joey Landreth. “But we usually write 12 and pick 11.” At first, the fear was unsettling, but Joey and his bassist brother, David, have not only thrived under the self-imposed pressure but relished it. Factor in a world-changing pandemic, the experience of being new dads, and a soul-crushing session gone wrong, it’s amazing that Come Morning even saw the light of day.