How a savage ’60s movement changed guitar then and now.
It can be loud, brash, brutal, experimental, and even psychedelic, but arguably no other style of music has experienced as many revivals as garage rock. Maybe that’s because it taps into the essence of what rock ’n’ roll is all about: Just turn up your guitar, and play like you mean it.
If you’ve ever spent a Saturday afternoon in a friend’s basement slugging beers and banging out guitar jams through a few raggedy amps, a beat-up drum kit, and a makeshift PA (possibly a cheap microphone hooked up to another raggedy amp), then you know what it’s like to play in a garage band. There’s no rarified air or mystery to it. Rock ’n’ roll, as every rock critic from Lester Bangs to Lisa Robinson has asserted over the years, is the great equalizer—a democratizing force that imbues us all with the inalienable right to unleash our rebel yell. In the end, all you really need is the desire … and a dream.
So what then is “garage rock,” exactly? The term itself gets tossed around a lot these days, and rather glibly at that, but it comes down to a few key ingredients (and it’s not just about where you play it or how “lo-fi” it sounds). For starters, it has to be electric-guitar based. You can have a Farfisa organ, even a horn section, or backing singers, but without guitars and amplification, it ain’t garage. Then there’s the do-it-yourself factor. Covers are allowed, just as long as you give them your own unique spin—the farther out, the better. And finally the kicker: Attitude is an absolute necessity.
Ironically, this most all-American of pastimes got its kick-start when the Beatles and the first British Invasion started dominating the airwaves back in early 1964. Before then, ’50s rock and rollers like Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly—who, incidentally, recorded a clutch of early demos in his parents’ garage with his backing band, the Crickets—had helped set the tone for what was to come. By 1963, with the release of their classic version of “Louie Louie,” the Kingsmen staked a claim for what may very well be the first true garage-rock record. Just on the basis of Jack Ely’s unhinged, almost indecipherable vocal performance and Mike Mitchell’s wacky Strat solo, the song certainly qualifies.
“When you picture someone in a garage or a basement or at home or wandering down the street, trying to find a way to express their inner core, that’s what it’s about,” says Lenny Kaye. And he ought to know. Besides his punk-rock bona fides as the founding guitarist of the Patti Smith Group, he also curated the famed Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968 compilation for Elektra back in 1972. The double album features 27 key tracks by such stage-proven stalwarts as the Seeds, the Standells, the Shadows of Knight, Blues Magoos, the Electric Prunes, and many more. Nuggets has long been recognized as a lodestone in the garage-rock canon, because it provided, for the first time, an encapsulated history and context for a sound that detonated across the latter half of the 1960s. Fueled by hungry, fiercely iconoclastic bands that had emerged from underground scenes around the country, garage rock had all the earmarks of a musical movement.
Lenny Kaye, lead guitarist for the original Patti Smith Group and curator of Elektra Records’ canonical Nuggets garage-rock compilation, performing in London’s Hyde Park on July 1, 2016. Photo by Brian Rasic/WireImage. (Inset) One of Kaye’s fond gear memories from the early years of the garage movement was seeing the game-changing
Gibson Maestro FZ-1A Fuzz-Tone. Photo by Simon Murphy.
“This was the renaissance for rock and roll,” Kaye observes. “Especially for the guitar, where the instrument became the primary source for innovation and inspiration. It made the garage band very guitar-friendly, because the one thing you needed was a guitar, y’know? And it coincided with the explosion of mass acceptability of the guitar, and its sense of electronic potential. When I was playing with my own band the Zoo, I remember seeing the first Gibson [Maestro] Fuzz-Tone, the FZ-1A. So when we played ‘Satisfaction’ or ‘Wild Thing,’ we could replicate that stinging, sustained tone.”
This Is a Journey into Sound
Although the preferred gear varied wildly in the early days of garage, Fender Strats, Mustangs, Teles, Precision basses, and Jazzmasters rose to the top, often powered by Fender Twins, Super Reverbs, and Showmans. But almost as soon as the Beatles came on the scene, the amplification began to shift. Up until late ’63, the Fab Four had relied on the workhorse Vox AC30, but their screaming fans consistently drowned them out. Vox outfitted the band with the larger and louder AC100 amps and cabinets (prototypes for the U.S.-made Super Beatle, introduced in ’66), so by the time they reached American shores in early ’64, the word was out.
One teenaged guitarist based in San Francisco had been following the development closely. Cyril Jordan hadn’t yet founded Flamin’ Groovies, a future cult favorite in the Bay Area and southern California—and, with the 1971 release of Teenage Head, a band that was destined to be considered a key progenitor of punk rock and the garage offshoot known as “power pop.” But Jordan was already a well-informed aficionado of guitar gear, and he put his knowledge to good use.
Flamin’ Groovies founding guitarist Cyril Jordan onstage in 2013 with one of his favorite axes, a Dan Armstrong Plexi with swappable pickup modules. Photo courtesy of Cyril Jordan. (Inset) Influential San Francisco guitarist Cyril Jordan was often found plugged into a Fender Pro Reverb onstage with punk forefathers Flamin’ Groovies.
Photo courtesy of Bernunzio Uptown Music.
“I started getting guitar catalogs in 1959, and in ’63, my cousin in Holland sent me a Vox catalog,” he says. “This was just before the Beatles came to America. It was weird, because the Vox amps were drawn in pencil—there were no photos. And then when the Beatles show up on Ed Sullivan with their Vox amps, I’m like, ‘Oh, those are from the catalog my cousin sent me!’ So I went to a store in my neighborhood called Angelo’s Music, and I kept bugging Angelo to look at this catalog. Finally he takes a look and says, ‘What’s the big deal?’ And I told him these are the amps the Beatles use. As it turned out, Angelo was a rep for the Thomas Organ Company, and guess who got the franchise for Vox in America? I didn’t figure this out until decades later.”
Jordan himself was a proponent of the Fender Pro Reverb, which he retrofitted with Electro-Voice speakers before the Groovies recorded their defiantly oddball, multi-styled debut, Supersnazz, in 1968. He also owns one of the original Dan Armstrong Plexiglas guitars, which he still plays to this day. “At the time, they were going for $400 and came with two extra pickups that looked like chocolate candy bars,” he says. “You could slide one out like a cassette and put the other one in—it was amazing. I always used it on basic tracks, and later on I split the signal so I could play live in stereo. I took it back to mono about five years ago. It still has a great shredded sound, because I go into a Roland JC-120 for pure treble, with a Brian May Vox AC30 on the bottom.”
As guitarists across the U.S. picked up on the Beatles’ built-for-sound Vox AC100 behemoths, the marketing gurus at Vox were already plotting the company’s entry into the American market by sponsoring a few emerging bands, including two stalwarts of the L.A. garage scene—the Seeds and the Standells. The 1967 exploitation film Riot on Sunset Strip features the Standells playing through Vox amps (with guitarist Tony Valentino wielding a Telecaster and bassist John Fleck slinging an Eko 995), while the Seeds’ Jan Savage, who favored a Fender Mustang, also played a Vox Bobcat through the Super Beatle, later models of which upgraded the trapezoidal V1141 head with a built-in “distortion booster.”
Although Hendrix is often thought of as a premiere proponent of the Arbiter Fuzz Face, Leigh Stephens, who achieved notoriety for his band Blue Cheer’s raging 1968 rendition of “Summertime Blues,” was also a big fan.
Photo courtesy of Starman1984.
Along with Vox, Marshall amps broke into the U.S. market in the mid 1960s, and suddenly volume was the name of the game. Blue Cheer’s Leigh Stephens was an early convert to the 100-watt Marshall stack—the perfect outlet for his Strat or Gibson SG, which he usually played through an Arbiter Fuzz Face. The band’s ’67 demo of “Summertime Blues” is a stunning example of how, with just a little power and distortion, a garage band could morph into blues-rock with a psychedelic edge.
“I always liked John Cipollina’s amplifier setup, with the trumpet horns on the top, and a Standel and a Twin,” says Kaye, referring to the lead guitar slinger from the Quicksilver Messenger Service, who became an unsung hero to many fans of the late-’60s San Francisco scene. “But that’s a very high-end sound, and of course everything changed with the Marshall and Hiwatt invasion from England. Blue Cheer were probably the underbelly of garage rock as it developed that heavier sound through the end of the ’60s.”
Jordan picks up the thread, recalling his first encounter with the heavier version of the garage-rock scene in Detroit. “We’d seen the fuckin’ MC5, and Fred [“Sonic” Smith] and Wayne [Kramer] both had Marshall stacks. That really blew our minds.” In fact, the Flamin’ Groovies started sharing bills with the MC5 and the Stooges—both known for their hard-rocking protest anthems (later lumped under the rubric of “proto-punk”)—in early 1970, when the Detroit scene was in full throat. “After that, I knew I had to get a Marshall,” Jordan says. “I used one when we cut Teenage Head about a year later, and the rest of the guys had the Vox Super Beatle amps. Those were real cool, too, because they had that power.”
Expanding Minds, One City at a Time
After the technical leaps made in amplification in the mid ’60s—not to mention the oncoming wave of new and improved effects boxes, including the Echoplex EP-2, the Maestro FZ-1A, and the Vox wah—it made sense that the next frontier for the garage sound would be the musician’s imagination. But those weren’t the only pieces of the puzzle. Just as important were the growing support networks—the scenes—that had popped up in cities all over America.
Another key gear development in the burgeoning garage movement was the release of Vox’s wah pedal.
Photo courtesy of Guitar Center Vintage Collection
Austin, Texas, certainly had one, and bands based in the nearby cities of Houston and San Antonio fed into it. In the mid ’60s, Red Crayola (out of Houston), Bubble Puppy (San Antonio), the Golden Dawn, and the Babycakes were all part of a burgeoning psychedelic scene that united like-minded musicians of all stripes. And oscillating at the center of it were the 13th Floor Elevators.
Led by the wild-eyed, charismatic singer-guitarist Roky Erickson, with lead guitarist Stacy Sutherland by his side, the Elevators defined a sound—duly repped by the way-gone “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” included on the Nuggets set—that was overtly derived from the band’s mind-altering experiments with hallucinogenics. In the liner notes to their 1966 debut, The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators, co-founder Tommy Hall wrote about chemically altered states and “the essence of the quest,” putting fans on notice that the Elevators weren’t just firmly committed to musical experimentation—they were living it.
The Elevators toured the West Coast in October ’66, and right away they had a profound effect on the San Francisco scene. “The bands of the Bay Area were still growing up on a folk-based thing, so when the Elevators showed up, things changed real quick,” observes ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons in the 2006 Roky Erickson documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me. (During his teenaged stint fronting his own psych band the Moving Sidewalks, Gibbons played a white ’63 Fender Jazzmaster, a garage staple.) “Every musician had so much respect for this crazy thing that they were coming up with. They took it into a new realm, branching out with some of the wildest arrangements.”
Trip-a-delic 6-string masters Roky Erickson and Stacy Sutherland of the 13th Floor Elevators both favored Gibson ES-330s like the one shown here. Photo courtesy of Rock N Roll Vintage.
The kaleidoscopic range of Erickson and Sutherland, who plugged their Gibson ES-330s into Fender amps that were usually outfitted with the essential “Tube Reverb” or “Reverb Tank,” lingers to this day. Besides influencing Texas players like Butthole Surfers’ Paul Leary and the Black Angels’ Christian Bland, the Elevators directly inspired the founding of the annual Levitation festival (formerly the Austin Psych Fest), which has been drawing crowds since 2008.
Meanwhile, in New York City, an entirely different but no less explosive movement was coalescing around the thriving countercultural art scene—one that intersected with the experimental music of composers like Tony Conrad and La Monte Young, and created a super-heated atmosphere that was primed for the Velvet Underground.
Thanks to the support of Andy Warhol’s Factory studio, Lou Reed and the Velvets had a platform to launch their brooding, street-hardened, and decidedly garage-flavored brand of art rock. For Reed, it was a natural progression. He was an avowed fan of the Sonics’ 1965 debut, Here Are The Sonics!!!, and had even written an accidental garage hit in ’64 called “The Ostrich” for an ad-hoc band he assembled under the name the Primitives. (Among the players brought together in the project was Welsh musician John Cale, who would go on to become another founding member of the Velvets.) The song featured a droning guitar with all six strings tuned to the same note—a technique that would later be used in VU.
Both Velvet Underground frontman Lou Reed and lead guitarist Sterling Morrison often plugged in a Kent Copa 532 for the band’s influential amalgam of garage-inspired art rock, but Reed often played a ’64 Gretsch Country Gentleman as well. Photo credits: (top) courtesy of Frank Meyers/DrowningInGuitars.com; (bottom) courtesy of Tim Mullally/Dave’s Guitar Shop
Reed favored a ’64 Gretsch Country Gentleman through a Fender Deluxe, while lead guitarist Sterling Morrison often went for a ’65 Japanese-made Kent Copa 532 (also a fave of Reed’s), as well as a small arsenal that included a Fender Stratocaster, a ’61 Gibson SG, a Les Paul Standard, and a Vox Phantom. Reed and Morrison both switched up on amps, which included Silvertone 1484s, Vox Super Beatles, and Sunn models. Ultimately though, the gear almost didn’t matter: If the twin emotions of desire and dread could be double-helixed into a yowling guitar sound that personified the dystopian end of the ’60s, this was it.
The rest, as the cliché goes, is rock history. VU’s 1967 debut album with Warhol starlet-singer Nico eventually became a creative flashpoint for a wave of ’70s protopunk and glam bands, influencing the Modern Lovers, the Dictators, the New York Dolls, and plenty more to follow. Or as Brian Eno put it in a 1982 interview with the L.A. Times: “I was talking to Lou Reed, and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years. Yet that was an enormously important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!”
Revival of the Fittest
In the wake of the ’60s, the influence of the garage rock sound ebbed and flowed, but the spirit behind the music never really wavered. “We’re talking about a very direct, no-frills form of rock ’n’ roll,” says Lenny Kaye. “When you start reducing the music to its base elements, that spirit is always there for renewal. You can see it cropping up through the years—not specifically a garage revival as exemplified by, say, a group like the Chesterfield Kings in the early ’80s, or even the Lyres, although those bands had a little more modernity. But to me, the great garage revival scene was the one in Detroit, with the White Stripes and the Demolition Doll Rods and the Gories. That was bringing things back to the elemental.”
Like most of his heroes (Jimmy Page being one), White Stripes mastermind Jack White can’t easily be summed up based on his record collection, but two delectable quirks stand out: his fascination with the Monks—a wacky, way-out band of enlisted misfits stationed with the U.S. Army in Germany who released one sublime album called Black Monk Time in 1966—and his childhood love of the Stooges, whose 1970 classic Fun House album White has lauded as “by proxy the definitive rock album of America.” (White almost produced a Stooges studio album, but he and Iggy Pop politely scrapped the idea after the band demurred. Steve Albini eventually signed on to tweak the knobs for 2007’s The Weirdness.)
Interestingly, while the Stooges’ Ron Asheton recorded the band’s early albums on Stratocasters and a Gibson Flying V—usually through a Marshall stack, and often front-loaded with unpredictable waves of fuzz and feedback—White pursued much more of an exotically vintage—and one could even say defiantly minimalist—route with his ’64 Airline Res-O-Glass “JB Hutto” guitar. Doubled up through an old Silvertone and a Fender Twin, the unusual axe pretty much defined the crunchy, gutbucket sound (and, in fire engine red, the seductively louche style) of the first five White Stripes albums.
Beyond the music, White clearly revels in shrouding himself in mystique, but the 2009 documentary film It Might Get Loud is probably the most accessible window into his thinking about how the guitar—and the garage attitude—defines his stripped-down aesthetic. “Distortion, anger, the punk ideal—guys who got picked on, like a lot of us did in high school, this is our chance to push you down now,” he says. “Southwest Detroit is a tough town, and it puts up with a lot and keeps going. Where I lived, it was uncool to play guitar. Hip-hop and house music—that’s what everyone wanted to hear. Nobody liked rock ’n’ roll or blues music. Surf, rockabilly, Dick Dale, the Cramps—I tried to absorb everything.”
He also cites going to see Flat Duo Jets—a seminal two-piece band from North Carolina fronted by Dexter Romweber—as a life-changing event. “They were guitar, drums, and vocals just like me and Maggie. I was just blown away. There was nothing onstage—just an old 10-watt amp and a Silvertone guitar. [Dexter] had what I would have thought at the time as a backwards direction. And I had to reassess what backwards meant in my mind. That opened up a whole new inspiration for me about the guitar.”
Tales from the New School
That tireless search for the unusual, even the outrageous, in both gear and sonic direction has driven the efforts of numerous artists for the last two decades. You can hear it in the bent, vibrating wall-of-sound generated by Thee Oh Sees, the psycho-surf-glam grooves of Ty Segall, the ageless experimental sludge rock of the Melvins, the wall-banging riffs of JEFF the Brotherhood, or the spooky desert twang of Allah-Las—and the list goes on and on. By and large, the underlying mission these days is to completely deconstruct the garage ethos with giddy abandon, reshaping it in a distorted funhouse image that embraces the sheer possibility of the music.
“That’s what I like about it, because it pushes me to keep trying different types of music and expanding my vocabulary,” says L.A.-based belter and axe-grinder Hanni El Khatib. Since 2010, he’s churned out three noisy, exuberant, and instantly accessible albums, including 2013’s grimy Head in the Dirt, produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. This year, El Khatib has focused on rolling out a three-volume series of EPs called Savage Times—each a raucous snapshot of his growing interest in sonic manipulation and electronics.
Velvet Underground’s Reed and Morrison used a variety of amps, including a Silvertone 1484 Twin Twelve like this specimen. Photo courtesy of Rock N Roll Vintage.
“I was really taken by bands that morphed that idea of early rock ’n’ roll,” he says, “especially the Sonics, the Cramps, and 13th Floor Elevators. Roky Erickson, I would consider a very influential garage source for me. But I see it all falling out of blues and rock ’n’ roll, and then it just moved forward. It was the answer, or the antithesis, to straight-up mainstream rock. But the essence of it, in a sense, is derived from that late-’50s, early-’60s garage sound. It definitely informed the way that I think about music. I mean, it’s fast, and it’s loud!”
“Mondo and His Makeup,” an ear-stinging garage send-up from El Khatib’s Savage Times Vol. 3, is a case in point. Tracked on a 1963 Danelectro 4021 Batwing guitar, with shades of Maestro fuzz driving a vintage Fender Princeton Reverb and solid-state Alamo amplifiers, the song sounds like it burst right out of a Laguna Beach garage jam circa 1966. The song’s fly-by-night video, shot at a magically gaudy Mexican restaurant in L.A., is a post-modern take on the multi-cultural fabric of the southland.
As for the guitars, El Khatib has run the gamut. “I’ve been listening to garage for forever,” he says, “and there are inherent sounds that just feel right. My main guitar for years was a ’64 Silvertone—a model H that looks like a Jaguar, with dual pickups like those DeArmond Kleenex boxes. That dictated my sound early. When I started recording with Dan, I realized that making a record and performing live don’t have to go hand-in-hand, so I opened up and started playing Teles. He even had a Strat that we used for fuzz leads. I would never in a million years think I would play a Strat, but after recording with it, I was like, ‘Oh shit, I want a Strat in the studio!’”
When the White Stripes burst on the scene with their eponymous 1999 debut, frontman Jack White made the all-but-forgotten Airline Res-O-Glass “JB Hutto” model a hot item practically overnight.
Photo courtesy of Chicago Music Exchange.
At the same time, El Khatib began to notice many of his peers were stocking up on guitars that had been oddball novelties when they were first produced, but were now ultra-fashionable. “I love to play out with the off-brand stuff—the Teiscos, Kays, Nationals, or Airlines or whatever—just because of the sound. But everyone started going that way. They were straying from the Mustangs, Jaguars, and Jazzmasters. So I thought the opposite of that would be to get a Gibson Black Beauty [laughs]. It was like, ‘Okay, let me play a real guitar that the greats played.’ Not that the others aren’t real, but I wanted to mess with the sound. I put a Bigsby vibrato on it and took it on the road with my ’78 Marshall, which has a modded master volume, and it became the guitar for me.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, garage rock has enjoyed its own sustained renaissance in England. From the unvarnished scuzz-punk of the Kills (based in London and Nashville) to the soulful lo-fi pop of Little Barrie, the DIY spirit is alive and well—and getting louder.
In the seaside town of Brighton, the Wytches have been making noise since 2011. In fact, they literally recorded demos for their first album in a garage. After the release of Annabel Dream Reader in 2014, they met Jim Sclavunos, well known for his long stint in Nick Cave’s genre-busting band the Bad Seeds. As it happens, Cave is also a resident of Brighton, and Wytches lead singer and guitarist Kristian Bell is an avowed fan of Cave’s first band, the Birthday Party—particularly the warped, freewheeling guitar attack of the late Rowland S. Howard.
“I can identify with his playing a bit more because it doesn’t seem very technical,” says the 23-year-old Bell. “It’s more like a feeling, rather than having loads of knowledge. He’s playing simple riffs, but they’re also really good, and with a lot of feedback. He’s probably my favorite guitar player—one I’ve tried to emulate now and then.”
The Wytches’ latest album, All Your Happy Life, delivers on the promise. For most of the sessions, Bell plugged into a Vox AC30 with his trusty Fender Classic Player Jazzmaster, cutting loose with a jagged, angular attack on the tripped-out single “C Side,” which pretty much encapsulates the trio’s sound: aggressive and combative, but still melodic as hell. He channels a stereophonically wide-angled crunch on “Bone Weary” and Dumb Fill”—both tracked on a tweed Fender Blues Junior, once again making the case that, in the studio (as opposed to onstage), massive volume is often just a matter of perception.
“The Blues Junior is quite limited, but it does have a really nice natural distortion,” Bell says. “And I think there’s a lot to be said about trying out things without reverb, because the guitar seems to do some crazy things when you take that away. I used to just drown everything in echo, and it sounds cool for some parts, but for a lot of the heavier playing on this album, I just left it dry and distorted, which I’m glad I tried out. It works better.”
In past interviews, Bell has referred to his band’s sound as “surf doom,” with a nod to Duane Eddy and Black Flag’s Greg Ginn—two key influences who couldn’t be more vastly different. It’s become an identifying factor among scores of young bands today that embrace the garage blueprint: The cross-pollination of styles doesn’t matter. Besides a guitar, an amp, three chords, and the truth, as long as you also share the commitment, comradery, and the burning desire to make noise together, then you’re playing in a garage band.
“To me, a band is a mystical thing,” says Lenny Kaye, summing up his own history with the Patti Smith Group, still going strong after more than 40 years. “It took me a long time with Patti to get my thing together. I was not the greatest guitar player—I’m still not the greatest guitar player—but you do learn your craft over the years. In our early years, people would say, ‘Well, if you had a real band, instead of this haphazard group of musicians who are straining to figure out who they are …’—but it wouldn’t have been what it became. And that’s one of the important things. You look at all these bands, from the garage era on up, and you can feel their unity.”
At a recent New York tribute to the Shaggs—yet another band of almost-forgotten outsiders who had the distinction of being sisters as well as self-taught musicians (and who counted Frank Zappa and Kurt Cobain among their fan base)—Kaye elaborated further on the mystique behind the music.
“Sometimes it’s hard to play simple, to take those two or three chords and turn them inside out and find a sound that attracts the ear. I mean, ‘Pushin’ Too Hard’ [by the Seeds] is just a great, crafty song. One of the myths of the garage bands is that they’re untutored and unschooled, and somewhat less musicianly. But some of these songs are not as simple as they seem. There are little guitar phrases, a second guitar adding this, the chords going strange—like most music, it’s not as easy as it looks.“And I couldn't let this go without mentioning the national anthem of garage rock—[Them’s] ‘Gloria,’ y’know? All over the world, whatever band happens to be up there, if they want me to jam out, I say, ‘Okay, E-D-A, just follow along.’ And they know it! And it’s always different, but it makes everybody stand up, and that’s what a national anthem should do.”
13th Floor Elevators, “You're Gonna Miss Me”
Sure, it’s a lip-sync, but early footage of Roky Erickson and company is so rare that this is the best it gets. Plus, they’re on American Bandstand—pretty bizarre, considering the show’s square image.
The Wytches, “Digsaw” live
Kristian Bell leads his trio through a searing, reverb-drenched number at SXSW 2014.