Link Wray has left the building

Link Wray was buried this week in Denmark. He died on 5 November.

‘Who’s Link Wray?’ you might say. Just one of the pioneering and landmark guitarists in rock music, that’s who.

See, in 1958, Link ‘invented’ the power chord in a tune called “Rumble”. It was a turning point in the evolution of the guitar sound in rock music.

So what is a power chord? It uses only two or three notes from a chord, just the main notes that give a chord its character – a sort of skeleton chord – so you play just two, sometimes three strings only.

“Rumble” is instantly recognisable by its three-chord riffs – D, D, E, (pause) D,D,E, (pause) D,D,A, (pause) D,D,E, (pause) – played evenly and deliberately like some kind of hammer of doom. You can hear it on the soundtrack of the movie “Pulp Fiction”.

When it was released in 1958, some American radio stations refused to play it because they thought it sounded too menacing.

So why is it so important? As I said, it changed the way the guitar was played and sounded in rock music. From the rockabilly and blues-influenced sound and the straight eight and shuffle rhythm patterns to a more aggressive and dark sound.

Many experts say Link paved the way for punk and heavy metal. He also pioneering the use of distortion in rock guitar. Nowadays we might pay a couple hundred dollars for an effects pedal. Link’s technique was simpler. He used a sharp pencil to deliberately punch holes in the loudspeakers in his amplifier to give it that ratty, broken sound.

Robert Hilburn, The Times’ pop music critic, said that Wray “was one of the key figures who helped establish the guitar as the instrument of choice in rock.”

Hilburn said that Wray, “was someone who turned the sensualness and mystery of the blues into a supercharged sound that was both eerie and anxious. His key works were powered by a force and, even at times, a brutalness that encouraged generations of musicians to explore the extreme boundaries of human emotion and sonic possibility.”

Wray was a major influence on many rock musicians, including Jimmy Page, Bruce Springsteen, Jeff Beck and Pete Townshend.

Pete Townshend wrote in the liner notes for one of Wray’s albums, “He is the king; if it hadn’t been for Link Wray and ‘Rumble’, I would have never picked up a guitar” .

In 2002, Wray was named one of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time by Guitar World magazine.

According to today’s New York Times, Michael Molenda, editor in chief of Guitar Player magazine, saw Wray perform last July at Slim’s, a small San Francisco club.

“He was certainly a young soul, very gracious, kind of like a punk to the end,” Molenda said. “He wasn’t like a guy who was 76 years old. He was like a 19-year-old in a 76-year-old body.”

Rest easy, Link.

Visit the official Link Wray web site here.

Footnote for music theory geeks: A power chord is often just the root and fifth of the scale, sometimes with the octave added. It leaves out the third note of the scale which makes a chord either major or minor, so the power chord is ambiguous and can fit into either major or minor keys, making it very useful. Neat, huh?

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