Fretprints: Kim Simmonds

Ode to the British Blues Icon
Fretprints: Kim Simmonds
Kim Simmonds and his ES-345 with Savoy Brown, 1974.

Leader and guiding spirit of Savoy Brown, Kim Simmonds was an architect of the ’60s British Blues movement. A powerful influence on countless guitarists, he epitomized the form and set its evolution to blues-rock, progressive, hard rock, and heavy metal.

Born December 5, 1947, in Wales, Kim Maiden Simmonds (see our remembrance in the March ’23 issue) took up guitar at 13. Inspired by ’50s rock and roll, particularly Bill Haley’s “Dim Dim the Lights,” and brother Harry’s record collection, he taught himself Elmore James and Chuck Berry riffs. Opting for Lightnin’ Hopkins over the Shadows and the blues’ harder edge, he absorbed the sounds of Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, the Kings (B.B., Albert, and Freddie), and Buddy Guy as well as jazz guitarists Billy Butler and Grant Green, and developed his own amalgam. He left school at 16 and in ’65 formed Savoy Brown Blues Band, named from splicing America’s Savoy Records to the word Brown connoting an earthy grounded quality. Blues-rock guitar came of age at this time and attained primacy in clubs like the Marquee, Nag’s Head, and Klook’s Kleek, exemplified by Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck – and Simmonds.

Savoy Brown was signed to Decca in ’67 and recorded Shake Down with a biracial lineup reflecting Simmonds’ view of transcending color barriers. As befit the genre, he relied heavily on reinterpreted blues classics including “Ain’t Superstitious,” “Let Me Love You Baby” (Willie Dixon) and “Rock Me Baby” (B.B. King) covered within a year by Beck on Truth, plus a Beano-approved spin on Freddie King’s instrumental “High Rise” and two slow blues that rivaled Bluesbreakers outings for intensity and feel. Getting to the Point (’68) boasted a heavier sound with greater attention to dynamics and textures, different personnel including guitarist Dave Peverett and vocalist Chris Youlden, originals by Simmonds, Peverett, and Youlden, and only two blues covers. Dixon’s “You Need Love” was given a dramatic guitar-driven treatment with bass and drum solos presaging progressive hard rock, while the Simmonds-penned title track expounded on Freddie King’s catchy instrumentals and “Give Me a Penny” and “Taste and Try, Before You Buy” portended the transition of Brit blues into hard rock and metal. The trend continued into ’69 with Blue Matter and accelerated with the U.S. hit single “I’m Tired.” The all-original A Step Further delivered more diversity in funk, R&B, and light jazz allusions, sporting the live 22-minute “Savoy Brown Boogie.” A concert favorite acknowledging Hooker, it embodied their inherent boogie bent that was not lost on Peverett, Tony Stevens (bass) and Roger Earl (drums), who would depart in ’71 to form Foghat. 1970 saw all-original albums Raw Sienna and Looking In, the latter bearing even greater diversity and expanded through psychedelic rock undertones, acoustic/electric timbres, Hendrix-inspired wah colors, funk grooves, jazz influences, and extreme stereo panning effects in “Money Can’t Save Your Soul” and “Leavin’ Again.” “Gypsy” is an atmospheric ethnic-tinged folk-guitar instrumental. The album spent 19 weeks on U.S. charts and reached #39.

British blues built on guitar innovations of the Kings and prominent Chicago, Texas, and West Coast players. “Rock Me Baby” (from Shake Down) is a case in point. There, the B.B. King standard was reimagined through Savoy’s blues-rock prism. This excerpt (1:28-1:56) depicts Simmonds’ lead-guitar approach in soloing over classic 12-bar blues in A and reveals he had his own way with reinterpreting familiar blues elements. Note the abundant triplet lines, variety of string bends and vibrato, pentatonic melodies and arpeggio shapes reshaped throughout. He adds more-colorful swing-blues gestures with 6th and 9th tones in measures 5, 9, and 10, applies B.B.-inspired chromaticism in 5, and consistently uses Am pentatonic sounds over D7. The cadence line in 12-13 is his reworking and expansion of a Chicago-blues cliché.

A lineup largely recruited from Chicken Shack, including Paul Raymond and Dave Walker, lent a different sound and attitude to Street Corner Talking, cited by Simmonds as his best early work. The album sported originals (the hit single “Tell Mama” foreshadowed Foghat’s boogies) and two covers of Temptations and Howlin’ Wolf tunes. Now an institution, Savoy Brown served as portal for numerous artists in blues-rock, prog and metal including King Crimson, Yes, Fleetwood Mac, Genesis, Black Sabbath, Humble Pie, UFO, and Foghat. Hellbound Train reached #32 in America and represented a circle closing in Savoy’s “classic” period – and the beginning of a more-commercial phase. Simmonds shared vocal duties with Walker and Raymond, the repertoire grew more divergent and rock-oriented, influences were less obvious, and traditional blues references were minimal. They toured extensively, supported by Rod Stewart and the Faces in America in ’72, and headlined over Kiss and AC/DC. Henceforth, Simmonds routinely handled more lead vocals with a succession of singers like Jackie Lynton, Miller Anderson, Stan Webb, Ralph Morman, Speedo Jones, Pete McMahon, Phil McCormack, Nathaniel Peterson, and Joe Whiting for Savoy albums from 1973 through 2013. The music remained high-quality but stardom eluded the band due to personnel changes and inconsistent output, though Witchy Feelin’ (2017) made #1 on the Billboard blues chart. Simmonds recorded five acoustic and electric solo albums, starting with Solitaire in ’97, and pared Savoy down to a trio; its most stable lineup was with bassist Pat DeSalvo and drummer Garnet Grimm. Savoy Brown’s 41st and final album, Ain’t Done Yet, was released in ’20.

Simmonds emerged from the musical landscape that yielded the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Beano triumvirate of Clapton-Green-Taylor, Jeff Beck Group, and Led Zeppelin, and was among the earliest U.K. guitarists to embrace the instrumental vitality and soulfulness of electric blues. He delineated its two principal factors as blues music – a style and feeling, as well as a mindset. In Savoy, he expanded both. A diverse player, composer and bandleader, he applied variants of traditional blues song forms, timbres, and approaches in the repertoire and adhered to its essence with call-and-response phraseology, riff themes, reliance on I-IV-V melody, blues-scale melodic language, and idiomatic rhythmic settings of shuffles, 12/8 slow blues, boogies, boogaloo and 4/4 R&B, and rock grooves. Traditional elements are evident in Savoy’s Chicago-based instrumentation, the Delta-inspired slide work and chording in “Honey Bee,” references to lead-guitar techniques of the Kings, Otis Rush, Hubert Sumlin, and Albert Collins in improvised solos, and Hopkins-style country-blues comping (that similarly inspired Scotty Moore’s and James Burton’s rockabilly) in “Doin’ Fine.” Simmonds’ moments in slow blues like “It’s All My Fault” and “Flood in Houston” evoke the same Buddy Guy-informed soulfulness purveyed by Slowhand in the “E.C. is God” era. Moreover, the overdriven tone, early use of deliberate feedback (“Doormouse Rides the Rails,” “Shake ’Em on Down”) and aggressive attack emphasized the Brit-rock factor in his updated blues hybrid. Boogie surfaced notably in “Savoy Brown Boogie.” There, traditional Hooker influences were blended with rock and roll in the medley that included “Feels So Good” (Chuck Willis), “Whole Lotta Shakin’” (Jerry Lee Lewis), “Little Queenie” (Berry), “Purple Haze” (Hendrix) and a quirky insertion of the novelty tango number “Hernando’s Hideaway.”

Boogie remained a constant in Savoy’s playlist, personified in Boogie Brothers, Kings of Boogie, and “Jaguar Car.” More than an affectation, it reflected lessons from legendary blues pianist Champion Jack Dupree, who counseled Simmonds at 19 to “play boogie-woogie well” as job security for a professional bluesman. Funk also informed Simmonds’ style. James Brown and Al Green, early influences, inspired the ubiquitous R&B side of Savoy, while a modern Hendrix funk-rock approach distinguished “Waiting in the Bamboo Grove” and “Looking In.”

“Taste and Try, Before You Buy” (1967) was, Ronnie Wood said, “way ahead of its time” – a powerful endorsement from one who experienced the scene firsthand. This example (1:05) from the solo argues the case dramatically. Simmonds adopts a harder driving feel and sound characterized by strong rhythmic intentions, greater use of the high register and a heavier sustaining tone over the funk-rock vamp. His licks played on a single E7 chord are firmly pentatonic and make use of string bends and riff-based patterns. Check out the rhythmically displaced figures in the ostinato of measures 4-6 as well as the 16th note flurries in 10. These are contrasted by a slow bend-and-release passage in 7-8 and unison bends in 9. His lines embody the mutated and transplanted blues elements that defined hard rock in its earliest incarnation.

Diversity marked Savoy’s evolving blues-rock style. “Lost and Lonely Child” wouldn’t be out of place on a Pink Floyd record, “Poor Girl” anticipated ’70s hard rock, and gospel was freely merged with Brit pop in “Troubled by These Days.” Simmonds’ jazz influences are apparent in the Wes-styles octaves of “Leavin’ Again” and swing feel and modal note choices in “Sunday Night.” He was drawn to instrumentals as a child after hearing “Take Five,” “Green Onions” and “Memphis,” and Savoy records consistently featured instrumentals beginning with “High Rise,” “Getting to the Point” and “Sunday Night.” His aspirations reached a pinnacle 50 years later with Jazzin’ on the Blues, an instrumental solo album that displayed his painting talents in a self-portrait on the cover and presented his acoustic and clean-toned electric playing in blues, light jazz, Latin, and new-age settings. “Crying Guitar” was the closer of his final album, an aptly-titled instrumental showcasing his post-Peter Green/Gary Moore delivery of a modern blues ballad, and a fitting musical epitaph.

Street Corner Talking, A Step Further, Looking In, Getting to the Point, Shake Down, and Hellbound Train are important documents of Savoy’s Brit blues ascent. Serious listeners are directed to sample their post-’72 studio albums, live recordings, Simmonds’ solo releases, and Ain’t Done Yet.

Savoy’s live performances from the Rainbow, Rockin’ Blues Festival, “Hellbound Train,” “Tell Mama,” “Goin’ to the Delta,” and sets from Sellersville, Pennsylvania, and at the Iridium provide an illuminating online journey.

Unlike his Beano/Yardbirds colleagues, Simmonds included elements of jazz in his repertoire, lending a sophisticated flair to Savoy’s blues-rock proceedings. “Sunday Night” is exemplary – a melange of cool jazz and West Coast blues over a swinging minor-mode groove that evokes Van Morrison’s “Moondance” or Kenny Burrell’s “Midnight Blue.” His solo features a number of borrowed jazz ideas from broader influences, as heard in this passage at 1:19. The chord punches in 1, 4, and 9 are common to Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell while the minor-blues melodies, bop-oriented phrasing and syncopation throughout recall Grant Green. The opening line incorporates a bebop enclosure (F-D#-E) that has bseen found in Joe Pass’ improvisations. Note the winding triplet line in 5-6 that makes use of freely combined E minor modes with C and C# tones. These ingredients, plus Simmonds’ cleaner tone and lighter touch, create a genuine jazz impression in the instrumental track.

Simmonds’ first professional guitars were a blond ’65 Telecaster, red early-’60s Gibson SG and sunburst ES-345, but he began to favor Les Pauls, using various sunburst and goldtop Standards and Customs, on which he regularly changed pickups. For slide, he used a sunburst ’50s Junior (“Tell Mama”). He’s closely identified with a mahogany late-’60s Flying V, and in the ’70s used a sunburst ’64/65 Strat with maple board and transition logo, and an early-’60s cherry ES-355 with Bigsby. He later played an ’80s Porter custom neck-through with a Bigsby and P-90s. His main Les Paul from ’88-’95 was a cherryburst ’73 Custom (see this month’s “Classics” feature) heard on tours and albums including Kings of Boogie, Live and Kickin’, Let it Ride, and Bring It Home. It was sold after he acquired a ’94 Standard.

Occasional guitars included a blond Gibson Byrdland (Jazzin’ on the Blues), figured-maple blond ’99 Roger Bacorn, white Zion with tortoiseshell guard (Goin’ to the Delta), sunburst J-185 EC (Solitaire, Blues Like Midnight) and sunburst early-2000s J-190 EC Super Fusion. He later favored a sunburst ’70s ES-335 with coil-tap and trapeze tailpiece, ’80s Ibanez Destroyer II with ’50s PAFs, Dean Tagliare with two humbuckers and middle single-coil, and newer white Flying V.

In early Savoy, Simmonds used a Vox AC30, Marshall stacks, and Fender combos. By the mid ’70s, he relied on four linked Twin Reverbs with JBL speakers. He briefly switched to a Dan Dailey amp, then later a modern Marshall half-stack, ’70s Marshall combo, and ultimately, a 60-watt Fender 4×10 Deville. He often recorded with linked amps, blending or stereo-separating the DeVille on slight overdrive with a new cleaner Fender combo on Ain’t Done Yet. Simmonds preferred an unprocessed sound resorting only occasionally on a Tube Screamer for slight edge/boost and a wah pedal.

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

This article originally appeared in VG’s April 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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