Fretprints: Johnny Meeks

Rock-and-Roll Guitar Pioneer
Fretprints: Johnny Meeks

In the 1950s, “rock” music was a melange of blues, country, and hillbilly that also snared elements from boogie-woogie, gospel, Western swing, doo-wop, and prototype R&B. Called “rockabilly,” its emissaries were Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, and Gene Vincent & His Blue Caps.

The music may have been an amalgam, but the attitude was single-minded. Though the term was yet to be coined, rock and roll was the mindset emblazoned in Bill Haley’s 1954 hits “Rock Around the Clock” and “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” After Elvis cut his Sun sessions that same year, a movement began as songs by Chuck Berry, Perkins, Vincent, Holly, Cochran, and Ricky Nelson continued to assault the pop charts.

Guitar was central to the rise of rock and roll. But which guitar? Danny Cedrone, Scotty Moore, Berry, and Cochran brandished hollowbody archtop Gibsons and Gretsches, Paul Burlison and James Burton preferred Telecasters, Perkins vacillated between an ES-5, Les Paul, and Tele, while Cliff Gallup played a Duo-Jet. Johnny Meeks was a devoted Stratocaster player when he appeared with Vincent in ’57, making him perhaps the earliest rock musician (along with Holly) to embrace the new instrument. Regional factors considered, Holly probably acquired his ’54 Strat in Lubbock the following year, but didn’t venture to Nashville with it until ’56, while Meeks was playing a Strat before Vincent hired him in early ’57. Either way, the mythos of the Strat in rock and roll begins here.

Johnny Meeks was born April 16, 1937, in Gaffney, South Carolina, and grew up in Laurens. Bred on country music, he was a favorite local singer/guitarist who played his first song on WLBG radio and generated considerable mystique with his unusual three-neck electric guitar (four-string mando, six- and 12-string guitars) made by Pee Wee Melton. He was a member of Country Earl and the Circle E Ranch Gang, which packed venues in the Greenville area while maintaining a large following with their WESC radio program and weekly TV show in Asheville. Earl and Blue Caps guitarist Paul Peek recommended Meeks to Gene Vincent after Gallup’s departure, and he joined in time to perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and at jamborees in the Ozarks, Dallas, and Los Angeles, appear in the 1957 movie Hot Rod Gang, and tour internationally.

His recording debut with Vincent took place at the Capitol Tower Studio, Hollywood, on June 19, 1957. Meeks’ playing graces an influential period in Vincent’s career, marked by “Lotta Lovin’,” Vincent’s only Top 20 hit (#13 in September of ’57) apart from “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” “Dance to the Bop” (#23 January ’58) and the album Gene Vincent Rocks!. Meeks composed the classic “Say Mama” before leaving Vincent’s band in October of ’58 and relocating to Los Angeles, where he remained on and off for 30 years. He formed the Tune Toppers, performed regularly at nightclubs including with the house band at the Palomino, and occasionally engaged in studio work. In ’59/’60, he played guitar on The Champs’ “Red Eye” (the instrumental B-side “The Little Matador” is his composition), toured with swamp pop R&B teenage idol Jimmy Clanton, and appeared in two feature films, The Fine Young Cannibals and Roustabout (Elvis Presley).

“Lotta Love” introduced fans to Johnny Meeks. Gene Vincent’s first hit single after “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” it’s a mid-tempo number embodying the blues-based I-IV-V harmony of early rock. Meeks responded with a succinct signature solo made of blues, R&B, and country elements. To establish the aggressive rhythmic nature of his improvisations, he begins with double-stops and chord partials; note the chromatic “push” chords in measures 2 and 5 of the otherwise triadic figures and telling use of a major-sixth tone (E) indigenous to Western swing. He plays blues-scale double-stops over C7 for an idiomatic minorizing blues move in 7 (the characteristic Db tension in the pattern). In 8, he employs the Strat’s vibrato to shake the E-Bb tritone (another blues staple) over D7, and closes with a G-G6 pattern common to R&B.

In ’69, he formed Johnny Meeks and the Detours with famed pedal-steel player Red Rhodes, which recording tracks for the Custom label that addressed the burgeoning “California country” movement and rock-influenced honky-tonk music of the era.

Meeks reunited briefly with Vincent on I’m Back and I’m Proud, which presented an updated version of Vincent’s sound fueled by Meeks’ Strat twang with Rhodes’ steel work and enhanced by contributions from Mars Bonfire (Steppenwolf), Skip Battin (Byrds), John Sebastian (Lovin’ Spoonful), and newcomer Linda Ronstadt. Afterward, he freelanced with Michael Nesmith (Tantamount to Treason), Leroy Van Dyke, Lynn Anderson, Bob Luman, Leona Williams, and others. He worked briefly as pianist in the house band at Las Vegas’ Silver Dollar Club before securing the lead-guitar position with Merle Haggard’s band, the Strangers, where he was both sideman and frontman. He played on several Haggard hits in the ’70s, appeared on Hag’s Leavenworth TV special, and at the last live Country Music Awards show in Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.

As the rockabilly resurgence gained momentum, in ’82 he reunited with members of Vincent’s band for Blue Caps Unleashed, which included “I Lost an Angel,” a previously unissued song co-written with Vincent. A longtime member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, Meeks was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a Blue Cap in 2012. He was 78 when he died in Jonesboro, Arkansas, on July 30, 2015.

Meeks cited Chet Atkins, Chuck Berry, B.B. King and “all the blues players” as role models. The latter includes T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Elmore James – an amalgam consistent with early rock and roll guitarists.

Though they shared influences and played divergent styles, rockabilly authority Brian Setzer has noted that early rock musicians were subject to regional conditions and existed in separate orbits, which explains the common aesthetic thread as well as differences running through Presley and Perkins in Memphis, Berry in St. Louis, Vincent in Norfolk, Holly in Texas, and Cochran and Nelson in Los Angeles. Each developed a unique approach to the incipient genre, accompanied by an artistically intertwined guitar sound.

“The Wayward Wind” flaunts a finely textured Meeks solo that blends pop, balladic country, light jazz, rock, and blues. His opening line, played through the break, is an elegant diatonic melody decorated with a signature trill. In measure 2, he begins a solo with melodic blues sounds over G and adds a telling G# passing tone and half-step bend in 3 to intensify the tension of G7. He mixes major and minor sounds in 4-6 over C; note the presence of that emblematic major-sixth tone (A) in the phrase. In measure 7, he alludes to the jazz influence of Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, and Chet Atkins in his G major melody that incorporates a colorful C# neighbor tone. Note the embellishing trills in the passage applied in the manner of his jazz forebears. The parallel-thirds dyads in 8-9 reflect pop and country origins. Note the chromatic motion within the phrase. In the second half of his solo, Meeks adopts a more-driving rock-and-roll approach, beginning with emphatic repeated notes in triplets in 10. Check out his repurposed unison blues licks in 12-13 over C; again exploiting repeated notes and triplet figures, which rhythmically displace the simple Berry-inspired ideas. His cadence line (C-G) in 13-14, applies minor and major pentatonic sounds straight out of the Chicago blues playbook.

Meeks’ style was crafted from country, blues, and pop ingredients. He favored spontaneity over technique and prided himself on not practicing or rehearsing. A prime example of Setzer’s regionality theory, he derived unique conclusions in his conception of rock-and-roll guitar – more economical and commercial, yet traditional and with cleaner/brighter tone compared to Blue Caps predecessor Cliff Gallup.

“Gallup was more advanced, a very precise player,” he told Guitar Player in December of 1983. “But I had that driving teenage sound that Gene liked.” This is exemplified by his propulsive rhythm work and soloing on “Lotta Lovin’.”

Initially, he strived to emulate Gallup’s country/jazz phrases, but was directed (by Vincent) to play his own style, which consisted of reconfigured Chuck Berry double-stops, simple string bends delivered rhythmically, idiomatic blues licks turned into catchy rock patterns and musical hooks, and various pop and country elements such as parallel third and sixth lines, triad-based chord phrases, and arpeggiations. His articulation involved flatpicking as well as hybrid picking, and he occasionally capoed his Strat, as on “High Blood Pressure.”

Meeks’ rhythm parts were similarly streamlined but effective. He addressed the standard I-IV-V changes of rock and roll with conviction, relying on full and partial barre chords rendered in straight-eighth grooves, punctuating lead-rhythm fills, boogie-woogie bassline figures, and single-note R&B background riffs as heard in “Git It.” He occasionally accessed jazz harmony in the form of dominant 9th and 6/9 sonorities as sophisticated ending chords or the unexpected passing-chord pattern heard in the second solo of “Flea Brain.” At crucial moments, he supplied transformative guitar parts to otherwise mundane crooner ballads such as “Wear My Ring” – check out his bluesy chord intro, signature tremolo-picked lines, parallel-third licks, muted chord riffing, subtle vibrato-bar embellishments, and walking countermelodies. Likewise, he employed percussive muted figures in the verses to color the Elvis re-tread “Look What You’ve Gone and Done” and unleashed a palette of sounds – decorative trills, chromaticism, bluesy bends, parallel thirds, Chuck Berry unison toggling riffs and more – in his well-balanced solo for “The Wayward Wind.”

Though technically simpler, his style was more malleable than many of his contemporaries; “Little Lover” channeled Buddy Holly’s melodic sensibilities, “Rocky Road Blues” alluded to Carl Perkins’ tougher hillbilly-rock style, “Should I Ever Love Again” benefitted from a Jimmy Reed-informed Chicago-blues pedigree, and “White Lightning” took cues from James Burton’s country/blues bent-and-picked flurries.

“Flea Brain” was definitive rockabilly, complete with slap-back echo. One of a handful of echo-laced Meeks moments in the Vincent catalog, its second solo (1:14) stretches beyond the traditional confines of rockabilly stated in the first. He merges blues and jazz in his opening thoughts, using a repeated tritone double-stop, bent slightly to underscore the syncopated rhythm in measures 1-2 answered by a jazz-inflected episode of parallel seventh chords (Gmaj7-Am7-C#m7-Cm7-Bm7), also in syncopated rhythm, in 3-4. By contrast, he plays the blues card in his final bars – exploiting major-blues sounds over Bm7-E7 in 5-6 and switching to simpler minor-pentatonic lines over A in 7-8.

Meeks’ stinging minor-blues licks, modality, Latin feel and unmistakable Strat timbre on “Summertime” are definitive, stretching into areas explored by others in ’60s rock songs like “Secret Agent Man” and “Pushing Too Hard.” Throughout his career, he emphasized the Strat’s unique tone colors and attributes, harnessing its inherent twang and applying whammy-bar shakes and dips prominently to “Lotta Lovin,’” “In the Pines,” and “Red Eye,” along with slow/narrow vibrato for a quasi-Hawaiian effect in “Time Will Bring You Everything,” aggressive pitch changes and fast/wide vibrato in “Ruby Baby,” “Lotta Lovin’” (’69 version), and “Be-Bop-A-Lula ’69,” and decorative bends to ending chords of many tunes, all harbingers of the whammy-bar heard in his ’90s take on “Dance to the Bop.”

Meeks’ playing on “Dance in the Street” foreshadowed sounds that attained greater prominence in the instrumental rock/surf genres of the early ’60s. Moreover, his Strat tone represented a significant step forward in rock-guitar sound, commensurate with the move from acoustic upright bass to electric solidbody bass in Vincent’s band in ’57.

Numerous classic Vincent albums feature Meeks’ playing. Recommended are the compilation Complete Recordings 1956-1964 and Gene Vincent Rocks!. A glimpse of his later style is heard on I’m Back and I’m Proud.

Several illuminating clips are posted online. Noteworthy are “Dance to the Bop” (November ’57) with Meeks on a Gretsch 6120 hollowbody. “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” “High Blood Pressure” and “Rip It Up” (“Town Hall Party,” ’58) find him wielding the signature white Strat. A rare ’91 clip of “Dance to the Bop” reveals he also played G&L Fullertons later in his career.

Unlike most rockabilly cats who preferred electric/acoustic archtops or other solidbodies, Meeks was playing a Strat and his Melton triple-neck when Vincent hired him. He briefly switched to a Gretsch 6120 at the leader’s request, gravitating to its bridge pickup and adjusting the tone to achieve a brighter, Fender-like quality. In ’57, he returned to his instrument of choice when Vincent and the Blue Caps received an official Fender endorsement – a rarity in the period – and Meeks’ triple-neck became the singer’s stage prop. Fender provided the band with a white Precision Bass, tweed amps, and three white “Mary Kaye” Strats, which, in retrospect, probably should have been called a “Johnny Meeks” Strat, as Kaye favored her D’Angelico at the time. The look and twang suited the dangerous, rougher side of Vincent’s presentation, and its trebly, piercing quality remained a hallmark of Meeks’ sound.

He played various Strats with maple and rosewood fretboards. Notable are a custom-color rosewood-board ’59 used in The Champs, and his Dakota Red ’65 with maple-cap board, as well as, later, the G&Ls. On early Vincent sessions, he used a tweed Twin amp and generally eschewed echo effects cultivated by rockabilly players, with the exception of “Flea Brain.”

Special thanks to Deke Dickerson.
Wolf Marshall is the founder and original editor-in-chief of GuitarOne magazine. A respected author and columnist, he has been influential in contemporary music education since the early 1980s. His books include 101 Must-Know Rock Licks, B.B. King: the Definitive Collection, and Best of Jazz Guitar, and a list credits can be found at

This article originally appeared in VG’s March 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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