Link Wray, one of rock’s most venerated guitarists, passed away on Nov. 5 at age 76. Wray’s claim to fame was his trebly, downright nasty-sounding guitar playing which covered the gamut from rockabilly to blues to country music. Legend goes that Wray, looking for a more distorted, fractured sound, poked holes in his amplifier speaker to achieve the reverb-heavy twang of instrumental shakers like “Rumble,” “Rawhide,” and “Jack the Ripper,” thus inventing what came to be known as the “power chord.”
Like “Louie, Louie,” “Rumble,” Wray’s signature tune, was banned by radio stations nationwide for being “too suggestive.” History tells that it’s the only instrumental record ever to obtain that dubious honor.
Wray moved to Copenhagen, Denmark during the late ’70s, where he lived out the rest of his days. He made the occasional cross-Atlantic trip to play the states and make the rare TV appearance, like a late-’90s Conan O’Brien performance where he broke out “Rumble” once again. It must’ve been upwards of the thousandth time he’d played the thing, but it remained loud, cool, and wickedly dangerous.
Wray was definitely an influential icon, though his take it or leave it attitude often confined him to cult status. Bands like Southern Culture on the Skids, The White Stripes, Reverend Horton Heat, and even Pete Townsend, though, learned much from his example.
With his craggy Shawnee Indian features and quiet guy demeanor, Wray was one tough cat. Early in life, he lost a lung to tuberculosis contracted while serving in Korea. This would steer him in the direction of becoming an instrumentalist, save for the sought-after 1971 album, Link Wray, which he recorded and sang all within a makeshift studio/chicken coop. The Neville Brothers eventually covered two songs, “Fallin’ Rain” and “Fire and Brimstone,” from this rare and peculiar recording.
Wray is survived by his wife, son, and a ton of bands who learned that the combination of beaucoup reverb and a killer riff actually can get you somewhere in life. —Michael Andrews