Published On: Wed, Jan 30th, 2013
Uncategorized | By Richard Flynn

Guitar Techniques Workshop: Play Like Danny Gatton

Hailed as ‘the guitarist’s guitarist’ or the world’s greatest unknown guitarist, 1991’s 88 Elmira St was the first of two big label albums for Elektra, marking master of the Fender Telecaster Danny Gatton’s attempt to break into the mainstream. Douglas Noble gets down to business

The 11 instrumentals on 88 Elmira St – seven of them written by Gatton himself – show this virtuoso exponent of the Telecaster drawing upon blues, jazz, country, bluegrass and rockabilly, with extraordinary improvisational skills and a mastery of many genres and styles. ‘Basically, it’s options,’ he once said. ‘At every turn there are 10 or 15 different possibilities. A lot of rockabilly and blues and rock guitarists think in riffs. I don’t. That’s because of my jazz background; improvisation makes you do that.’ 
Gatton was known as ‘The Humbler’ because he could outplay any guitarist who shared a stage with him. One infamous live trick was to play slide with an almost-full beer bottle, drying the fingerboard with a towel and then playing through the towel. Don’t believe it? Zip over to a YouTube clip at… you won’t believe your ears or eyes. On one level it’s a party gimmick; at another level it shows his innate command of the instrument. He also sometimes fretted the strings over the top of the fretboard, being influenced by his period of pedal steel playing.

The flip-side of all this virtuosity was that he occasionally lost sight of the song, as his saxophonist Bill Holloway remarked on Blues Newberg, a track on 88 Elmira St: ‘I kept after him: “Danny, this has to have a melody. You’ve got to have something the kids can play on guitar”. Finally he relented and came up with that nice melody.’ Live performances were a different matter. ‘A lot of times we never bothered with the melody, or he’d play the first three bars and that’d be the end of it.’ 

Joe Barden, who made Gatton’s pickups, commented: ‘I know Danny loved the studio, but my feeling is that he was one of those people who should have released nothing but live albums.’ Sadly, Gatton never got the break into the mainstream that his talent deserved; he committed suicide in 1994.


One of the reasons Gatton liked the Telecaster was that he could bend strings behind the nut. The first two bars of our first exercise show a simple phrase using this technique. Pluck string three and two open (Gatton would use his pick and middle finger) and then, with the fretting hand, reach behind the nut and push the second string down, thus raising the string in pitch.

Aim to raise the note by a semitone, from B to C. Release the bend, bend up again, then release the bend one final time. The third bar of the exercise shows a lick similar to one use by Gatton in Funky Mama at 1:19; he sounds the natural harmonic on the third string at the fifth fret, then reaches behind the nut and bends the harmonic up by a perfect fourth interval, or five frets worth, then releases the bend. It’s a cool move. 


Gatton’s lead playing often used using ‘chicken picking’ to make the guitar squawk and stutter like a chicken. Here’s a version of a relatively easy Gatton chicken picking lick, heard in Funky Mama at 4:24. The dots above the notes mean ‘staccato’, so as soon as they are sounded, you stop them.

This lick is intended to be plucked with pick and middle finger, so as soon as the first note is hit with the pick, place the middle finger on the string to stop it sounding, then pluck the string with the middle finger and stop it immediately with the pick, then continue as written. A trebly tone will help. Gatton can be heard chicken picking later in the song at 5:14 and 5:17.


Here’s a couple of licks that showcase Gatton’s technique of using pick and fingers together. (These licks could be played with pick only, but they won’t sound the same.) Both are similar to licks used by Gatton in Funky Mama, except he plays them 12 frets higher. Practise as written, then try an octave up.

The first lick echoes phrases at 1:34 and 3:21. At the start pluck strings two and three with the ring and middle fingers, and use the pick to pluck the fourth string. The second lick is similar to a phrase in Funky Mama at 3:44. Use middle and ring fingers to pluck the top two strings and the pick to pluck the third string. In both licks, experiment with letting the upper notes ring on and stopping the upper notes by placing middle and ring fingers back onto the strings for different effects.


Gatton occasionally uses pick and fingers to play alternate bass patterns on the low strings, plucked with the pick, as can be heard in Elmira St Boogie at 0:47. The bass notes on strings six, five and four (shown with a down stem) are plucked with the pick. The upper notes (the melody notes, shown with up stems) are plucked with the middle and ring fingers. As indicated below the tablature, Gatton played this on a Gibson ES-295 semi-acoustic with a delay effect, and it’s also played at a brisk BPM of 180. 

Twang And Slapback: Danny Gatton’s Sound
Gatton’s main Fender Telecaster for many years was a ’53 model customised with Joe Barden pickups, as seen in Gatton’s Telemaster DVD (2005). Once Fender started making a Gatton signature Telecaster, Gatton traded his ’53 for a 1934 Ford – besides music, he was passionate about vintage cars. 
From the sessions for 88 Elmira St and onwards Gatton’s preferred guitar was a prototype Fender Danny Gatton Tele built by Mike Stevens in the Fender Custom Shop. This instrument had a larger-than-normal maple neck, a black scratchplate, a refin gold paint job, Barden ‘dual blade’ pickups, zirconium position markers for visibility in dim lighting, and a stainless steel bridge. 
Gatton generally played through two late ’50s Fender Twin amps, one with serial #40. For rockabilly tunes he would use a tube Echoplex or a more modern Chandler digital delay. For Elmira St Boogie Gatton played a Gibson ES-295 with the Echoplex for slapback.
Ever inventive and resourceful, Gatton created the rather demented Leslie rotating speaker cabinet-type effect on Fandingus first heard at 1:10 by simply placing a fan in front of the amplifier!


Gatton occasionally fills out his lead lines by using double stops, or playing two notes at the same time on adjacent strings. The first bar below shows such a phrase similar to one from Elmira St Boogie at 1:57; the second bar pays tribute to a similar phrase at 3:48.
In Muthaship at 1:37 and 3:41 Gatton plays a trickier double stop phrase involving two consecutive pull-offs on strings one and two. Played in the key of F, this technique is transposed here into the key of A on line 2 bar 1 for greater playability. Try fingering the lick by lying fingers four, two and one flat across the top two strings.

Aim to get clear pull-offs on both strings. Once you can do this, try transposing into the key of F by moving four frets lower down the fretboard. Also in the key of A major, Gatton plays the start of Blues Newberg in double stops, but uses a semitone bend on strings three and two to reach the major third and perfect fifth degrees of the scale, similar to the last beat of the second bar of the exercise. Finger the last pair of notes with fingers one and two, then bend both strings up a semitone – it’s generally more reliable to push the strings upwards towards the bottom string.


A proficient banjo player, Gatton can be heard uses banjo rolls  – rapidly played and repeated three-note patterns  – in his guitar playing. Based on the rather intense part of Gatton’s soloing in Blues Newburg at 2:00, the ascending three-note patterns in the first half of the first bar should be plucked pick, middle, ring finger. The ascending and descending patterns in the second half of the bar can be plucked pick, middle, ring, middle, or pick (downstroke), middle, ring, pick (upstroke). The second line below is an ascending banjo roll-based lick played by Gatton at 3:58, plucked pick, middle, ring. It’s a symmetrical pattern moved across the fretboard.


Gatton sometimes used pedal tone-based licks, where a low-register note is repeated in an almost constant semiquaver rhythm and a melody or lead line is played in the gaps in a higher register… as in Funky Mama at 3:28 and Muthaship at 3:30. The exercise illustrates this technique; use the pick to hit the G note on the fourth string, 17th fret and the middle and ring fingers to pluck the upper notes.

8 – A9, E7, D9 AND A6 ADD 9/C# CHORDS

Here we’ve got four chords that are going to be used in exercises 9 and 10. First, this voicing of A9 omits the major third degree of the scale, although we are going to be bending up to it in exercise 9 – more of that later! This E7 is voiced high up the fretboard, the reasoning becoming clearer in exercise 9. The last two voicings of D9 and A6 add 9/C# can be fingered in different ways, so use whichever fingering is most comfortable. 


Danny Gatton wasn’t adverse to playing pedal steel-type licks, as can be heard in Pretty Blue. We’re going to be making a phrase incorporating bends into the A9 and E7 shapes from exercise 8; Gatton can be heard using similar licks using these shapes at 0:53 and 1:15 respectively. Finger these chord shapes when instructed to by the music notation, and leave the fingers down so the notes overlap. Both bends with each of the two chord shapes are on the third string. In the case of the A9, push the third string towards the bottom string; with the E7, pull the third string towards the top string. In each case, make sure the other strings are not bent at all. 


Gatton made use of the tone control on his Telecaster to get a wah-wah-type effect. This can be heard in Elmira St Boogie at 3:01, and you can get close by using the D9 and A6 add 9/C# shapes from Ex 8. Basically, after striking the chord, roll the tone knob back and forth. The effect Gatton coaxed from his guitar was aided by the 1 meg tone pot and 0.05 capacitor. Different guitars with different electronics will respond differently – just do your best with what you’ve got! Incidentally, notice how at 2:46 Gatton quotes the solo from Bill Haley and his Comets’ Rock Around The Clock, originally played by Danny Cedrone. The third bar of the exercise is similar to a lick in Funky Mama at 3:07, again treated by Gatton with this wah-wah effect; a similar effect can be heard in Muthaship at 3:05.



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