Lead guitarist Gerry McGee has been in that position for the Ventures on more than one occasion. He’s had plenty of other diversions to keep him busy during “interim” times (including an acting career), but he’s been firmly ensconced in the “melody section” of the legendary instrumental quartet for over a decade (and McGee’s guitar duties for the Ventures date back to 1968).
However, McGee has played on numerous other recordings as a session guitarist, and some of his licks are quite familiar to the general public (even if they don’t know it’s him). When Vintage Guitar went on the record with the affable guitarist, we began by inquiring about the area of the country where he was raised:
Vintage Guitar: When we were setting this conversation up, I noted a Southern accent on the other end of the phone, and I thought to myself: “Hot damn! A good ol’ boy!” I’ll bet you had some Southern musical influences growing up.
Gerry McGee: Yeah, I’m from Eunice, Louisiana, near Lafayette. That’s Cajun country, and my father was a prominent Cajun fiddler. He made a lot of records in the ’20s and ’30s. Cajuns are very musical; everybody plays accordion, fiddle, or guitar, so I played with all of my family members.
But as I got into my teens, I decided that Cajun music wasn’t really what I wanted to play, so I began listening to country musicians like Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Tubb, and Hank Snow. Chet Atkins was one of my early influences. Louisiana blues players like Guitar Slim and Gatemouth Brown had become pretty popular, so they influenced me as well.
We didn’t have any expensive instruments. I went in the Army in 1955, and around ’56 or ’57, I invested in a Fender Stratocaster, my first professional electric guitar. I wish I’d kept it.
Were you playing with some friends while you were in the Army?
Right; I met a guy from Atlanta, named Jimmy Shaw, who was kind of like Elvis; he was sort of “charismatic,” and he was a good singer. He told me that when we got out of the Army, he’d like for me to come to Atlanta to get in a band with him, and that’s what happened when we were discharged in 1958. We played a radio show there in Atlanta called “The Georgia Jubilee;” it was like “The Grand Ol’ Opry” show. Performers from Nashville would appear there; folks like Don Gibson and Carl Perkins. Joe South was part of the band there at the time. I lived in Atlanta for about a year, then moved to Savannah and worked in clubs there.
But, while I was in Atlanta, I met a Johnny Cash impersonator named Johnny Sea, and after I moved to Savannah, I got a phone call from his bass player, asking me to replace their guitar player. They were in Shreveport, Louisiana, so I moved there.
Shreveport’s the home base of James Burton.
I met James there in 1959, through the band I joined. He looked at my Strat and saw those heavy strings on it, and told me I ought to get some strings that I could bend (chuckles). But I needed the heavier-gauge strings for that Johnny Cash “chunka-chunka” rhythm on the low strings. I’d known a guy in the Army who put a second string in his third string place, where he could bend his “G” string, and James was doing the same thing, I really liked what he did with Ricky Nelson.
Considering that era and your heavy-gauge strings, was Duane Eddy an influence?
Not really; I liked Duane Eddy, but I didn’t try to get into that style. I tried to develop my own style, somewhere between Chet Atkins and blues players like B.B. King, and I was also trying to incorporate influences that I grew up listening to, like Jimmie Rodgers.
As far as how your own style has developed, some people might not expect the lead guitarist for the Ventures to be a fingerpicker.
(chuckles) That’s right. People will say things to me about how I’m not supposed to play guitar like that because the band plays surf music. I say: “Well, I don’t play surf music; we don’t play surf music,” although the band did record a surf album before I joined. Some of the comments we get are funny. The band must have thought my style would fit in with them; we do some things that are almost country. My fingerpicking thing came from my Chet Atkins influence.
Where did you go after your stint in Shreveport?
Things kind of wore out; I was broke and was sleeping in a car. I hitched a ride with a couple who was driving to San Jose; I told them I was going to Hollywood, because I wanted to try to become an actor. I had the phone number of Lance LeGault, who had been one of Elvis’ cronies for a while. James Burton has played with him, as well.
I had a suitcase, a Telecaster, a little Magnatone amp, and $15 in my pocket. I’d traded the Stratocaster when I was in Shreveport. They let me out in Pomona, I checked into a motel, and found work at a club in a couple of days. That was in 1960; I worked at that club for about four to six months, and I bought an old ’53 Mercury convertible, which I wish I still had.
Eventually I moved on to Hollywood. I went into a small club on Sunset Boulevard one night where a trio was playing, and it turned out the guitar player was leaving. I’ve been lucky; a lot of times the timing has been just right for me. I worked there for about a year; we were playing blues music and instrumentals. The place got to be quite popular, and a lot of stars would come in; I remember Clint Eastwood showing up when he played Rowdy Yates on “Rawhide.” There wasn’t any dancing, but the place would be packed every night. Glen Campbell came in one night and sat in with us.
We decided to call ourselves Gerry McGee and the Cajuns, but nobody out there knew what a Cajun was, and they’d pronounce the word “Ka-hoons” (laughs). One night, a producer named Jimmy Haskell walked in; he was working with Ricky Nelson at the time. After one of the sets, he introduced himself, and asked if I did any recording. I lied and said: “Sure, all the time.” I think I’d been in a studio one time, somewhere in Georgia. He offered me a recording session with Bobby Darin. I was ecstatic, but real nervous, and I got more scared when I got to the session, because Howard Roberts and Barney Kessel were playing rhythm! I didn’t even read music, but I got through it.
Did you stop doing the club gig and go on to studio work?
No, but an arranger from New York named Don Costa came into the club, and offered to help us with some recording. We ended up with a contract with Reprise Records, and we recorded some instrumentals, which didn’t do much, but it was exciting for me to have something out. The band had Mel Taylor’s brother, Larry, on bass, and the drummer was Bill Lewis. The original drummer was calling himself Chet Powers back then, but he went on to become a singer named P.J. Proby.
But before the singles came out, Don Costa referred the manager of a New York pop singer named Teddy Randazzo to us. He offered us an opportunity to go to Las Vegas to back up his singer, so we worked there from about ’62 to ’64; we’d go back and forth between L.A. and Vegas, and we went to New York a couple of times, as well, to do some recording.
Things fell apart in ’65, and we all came back to L.A. I started trying to get work again; I’d gotten married in ’64 and had to practically start all over again. Around ’66, Bobby Hart called me about doing some session work for a band that was going to have a TV show; they were called the Monkees. Oddly enough, he told me he already had Larry Taylor and Bill Lewis lined up! We started rehearsing, and began recording in late ’66. I played on the first album, and half of the second album.
What would have been the most-often-heard guitar lick of yours on Monkees songs?
There’s this one chord at the opening of their theme song. That’s me, when they start singing: “Here we come….” I’m also on “Last Train to Clarksville.” Louie Shelton and I traded off a lot on those sessions; Louie went on to work with Seals and Crofts.
What did you do after those sessions, up until the first time you joined the Ventures?
I worked with Delaney and Bonnie, but I really started working even more after I joined the Ventures in ’68. I also worked with John Mayall and Linda Ronstadt. In ’68, I also worked on an Elvis movie called The Trouble with Girls.
When I was playing in that little club in Hollywood, Mel Taylor and Don Wilson came in one night; Larry pointed out his brother and Don to me, and introduced us later. Around the time I had been recording with Delaney and Bonnie, Mel called me. I had an offer to go to England with Delaney and Bonnie, and a lot of people like George Harrison and Eric Clapton were trying to get them to come over there.
Mel wanted to know if I’d be interested in joining the Ventures, and we met and played a bit. A couple days later, he called and said the job was mine if I wanted it, and I decided to take it, because I had a family, and this was closer to home; I felt like my having played a lot of instrumentals was a deciding factor, as well. I loved the blues Delaney and Bonnie were playing, but with all due respect to them, their lifestyle back then was too wild for me.
Back then, did your fingerpicking style cause you to wonder how well your playing would fit in with the Ventures?
Well, I didn’t really think about that; I figured I could adapt and adjust to whatever came up. The beginning was a little tough, because I had to copy a lot of the stuff Nokie did, but I tried to retain my individuality, and I eventually incorporate more of my own style into the music.
The first time I was in the band was from ’68 through ’71. Nokie came back until ’84, when both he and I went on a tour of Japan with the band; Bob couldn’t go, so Nokie and I switched off on guitar and bass.
What did you do in the interim?
I started getting a lot of session work. In 1974, I began working with Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge; that lasted about four years. I got into acting as well; I was in movies like A Star Is Born, Convoy, and Heaven’s Gate.
I got to play with a lot of my rock heroes. I went on the road with Ricky Nelson, and I played with Jerry Lee Lewis for his film Great Balls of Fire.
Let me back up a bit and ask what you played in the Ventures the first time around, and through your session work in between.
I was using a Stratocaster, a Telecaster, and I had a Gibson ES-335 I used on occasion. I also used Les Pauls some. I used Fender amps; either a Deluxe Reverb or a Vibrolux Reverb for the most part, but I also used a Twin for live performances. As for acoustics, I had a Guild D-40, and I had a D-28 Martin for a while.
Following your ’84 tour of Japan, did you stay in the band from that point on?
Playing with Nokie on that three-week tour was a lot of fun, but I thought it was only temporary. Mel called me the next year and told me they were planning on doing a big two-month tour of the States, and Nokie was out again. That was kind of the beginning of my return. We toured a lot in the States through ’87, and in ’88 we started going back to Japan each year.
Since you returned to the band, have you done any session work?
I do some sessions occasionally, but I’ve gotten into working as an extra in movies. I had a bit part on a TV miniseries called North and South; I’ve done a lot of regular shows, too, like “Simon and Simon.” I recently did some music for a movie filmed in Louisiana called Dirty Rice; I also had a acting part in it.
What’s your performance setup with the Ventures these days?
I’ve used a Clapton Strat a lot, as well as a ’57 Vintage reissue Strat. I’ve got a lot of guitars, and sometimes I just grab whatever’s by the door when I leave (chuckles). Then there’s the new Ventures series of Fender instruments, which I like. I’m also having a custom guitar made for me; it ought to turn out nice and I’m looking forward to getting it from the builder.
You played some acoustic guitar on the Live in Tokyo ’94 video.
I think that was an Aria, which they gave us to use over there.
There was an also an electric sitar on that video; was it an original Danelectro product or a Jerry Jones reissue?
That was a Coral. Jerry’s reissues are quite good, and we did buy one last year becuase of some intonation problems on the Coral. This year we’re not going to be playing any “sitar song” on tour over there.
I have a Matchless amp I like a lot, and a Fender Blues DeVille, which is like a 4 X 10 Bassman. I still have a Deluxe Reverb, and that’s about all I use domestically. Oddly enough, in Japan I use a Marshall! It seems to work well over there, but people think it’s strange to see someone in the Ventures playing through a Marshall, since it’s supposed to be a “distortion” amp, but if you tweak it right, you can get a clean sound out of it.
You’ve been to Japan fewer times than the other bandmembers. Are you getting used to the culture differences?
Oh sure. Japan has gotten to be a second home for me. It’s hard work while we’re over there, but the people are so nice, it’s worth the effort. The fans are great.
I may be doing another film in Louisiana, and I’ll probably be doing a solo blues album for a Japanese label. They have a blues festival there each May, and I may go there “on my own” for that event. But I think the Ventures will be going to Japan each year as long as the fans want us to come over.
The drummer’s slot may have changed in the Ventures since this series of interviews with the band members was recorded, but they plan to continue providing their fans around the world with great instrumental music. Gerry McGee’s tenure in the lead guitarist position has meant a lot of memorable melodies have been heard by thousands of guitar lovers, and for all of his other talents, he looks forward to more Japanese tours and more fun with the Ventures. Their fans eagerly anticipate more years of great music, as the band approaches its 40th anniversary.
Vintage Guitar would like to thank Barney Roach for audio-video assistance with the Ventures’ interviews.
Photos courtesy of Taylor, Wilson & Associates, Inc. Gerry McGee sports a Fender Venture signature instrument.
This interview originally appeared in VG‘s Apr. ’97 issue.