The Guitar Heroes Who Lit the Fuse

Hendrix, Hampton, and Verlaine provided a masterclass in musical storytelling

By William DuVall

I’ve been fascinated by guitars for nearly 40 years. They’ve held sway over just about every major event in my life; every celebration, disappointment or heartbreak from childhood to adolescence, right up to present day adulthood, where the game only gets tougher and the stakes higher. Through it all, the guitar has been my constant companion.

Long before I was a singer, I was a guitar player. To this day, when things get really bad, my ability to “play it out” through the instrument is often the single thing that keeps me going. The amazing guitar records I heard as a kid built the bridge to the only life I would ever want to know. So, with heartfelt gratitude, here are the top three who lit the fuse for me.

Jimi Hendrix
“Who Knows” from Band Of Gypsys (1970)

If I had to pick a single flashpoint for my all-encompassing need to become a guitar player, this live recording of Hendrix at the Fillmore East would be it. I started playing guitar in 1976. I was eight years old living with my mother in a two-bedroom tenth-floor apartment in Washington, D.C. My cousin Donald came to live with us to escape his own troubled home life. Donald was eighteen so the decade between us in age made him the ideal big brother role model I was lacking.

He was an aspiring keyboardist and music fanatic, and when he moved in he brought his small, tattered record collection with him. Among the dozen or so worn vinyl platters was Band Of Gypsys. The album cover had long disappeared so Donald had the LP in a paper sleeve, which he’d decorated with beautiful psychedelic drawings in green magic marker. The vinyl was riddled with scratches from years of hothouse listening and was so warped it looked like a dancer doing the “body wave” on my little Show ‘N Tell record player.

But the sound… I still get chills typing this four decades later — the crackling of the needle, weighed down by a coin to keep it on the scratchy, warbling wax; the thick fatback groove of Buddy Miles and Billy Cox; and Hendrix mainlining every ecstasy and horror of human existence directly to my tiny soul. Somehow it wasn’t intimidating. It was inviting. His rhythm and phrasing were so conversational. He made me feel like I could do it, too.

Obviously, as an eight-year-old with a cheap, no-name nylon-string acoustic, I was in for an uphill climb. So I memorized the solos to “Who Knows” by scat-singing them. It’s a testament to Hendrix that the lines he improvised were so musically deep yet so memorable that a rugrat like me could run around singing them. Those phrases are embedded in my memory. I can now sing and play them note-for-note. That’s perhaps the greatest compliment I could pay Jimi and the most fundamental lesson I learned from him: Have a story to tell.

The next song on this album, “Machine Gun,” wherein Hendrix recreates the Vietnam War through his solo, is arguably his finest moment on record. But “Who Knows” is the one that started it all for me. I feel blessed that the very first guitarist to set me on my path remains the greatest I’ve ever heard.

“Cosmic Slop (Live)” from Hardcore Jollies (1976)

In the wake of Jimi Hendrix’s death in 1970, a number of worthy acolytes stepped in to fill the cavernous void. Among the most prominent were George Clinton’s band of intergalactic badasses, Funkadelic — spearheaded on lead guitar by the almighty Eddie Hazel. However, by 1976, Hazel was drifting from the fold so his nineteen-year-old protégée, Michael Hampton, stepped up in spectacular fashion on this album. Hampton’s presence is indelibly felt on this live run-through of the classic made famous a few years earlier by Hazel, “Cosmic Slop.”

Hampton supercharges his predecessor’s solos with the youthful abandon only a gifted teenager could muster. Though I would go back and collect all the Hazel recordings, it’s this version of “Cosmic Slop” that stopped me dead in my tracks when I heard it on the radio. Everything about Hampton’s playing is a master class in tone, rhythm, melody, phrasing, and (once again) storytelling. And, unlike Hendrix, Michael Hampton was flourishing in his prime right there in my time. He was a kid just like my cousin, Donald, or me. In fact, Clinton even gave Michael the nickname Kidd Funkadelic. The Kidd instantly became my idol.

“Little Johnny Jewel (Live)” from The Blow Up (1982)

This is storytelling at its finest. Tom Verlaine seems demonically possessed, yet there’s such purity and innocence. He sounds like a child that’s just learned to walk, equal parts amazed and frightened by what he can do and the implications his discovery holds for the wider world. One clearly hears the influence of jazz icons Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, and John Coltrane. Verlaine’s courageous honesty more than makes up for what he lacks in abundant melodic hooks.

I got this back in 1982 when it was only available on cassette through the ROIR label. Later that year, at age fifteen, I formed my first band. At our very first rehearsal, though my two bandmates had never heard Television, we fell into a jam around a very simple modular bass riff and drum rhythm strikingly similar to “Little Johnny Jewel.”

It was a matter of natural selection. Much like Television when they first started in 1973, we were all novice musicians with varying levels of competence. Our bass player, like Richard Hell in the original Television lineup, had never played an instrument, hence my handing him a bass: fewer strings, less to play. Our drummer was in our high school marching band so his style was more straightforward and martial, like Television’s Billy Ficca, than flamboyant like, say, Keith Moon. And like Tom Verlaine, I was a geeky well-read kid with a cheap Fender guitar, a little proficiency, and a lot of intensity.

I also had a free jazz mind colliding with a rock & roll heart. So my first band experience straddled a lot of the same contradictions embodied in this recording: high-minded meets lowbrow, with life-affirming results. More than 30 years later, the story Verlaine tells is so compelling that I still hear new things in it. I still lift ideas and attitude from it in my own improvisations. It’s part of my DNA. Again, what better compliment could be paid?

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William DuVall is the vocalist and co-guitarist for Alice in Chains
Follow him on Twitter
@WilliamDuvall and @aliceinchains

Photos of William DuVall by Johnny Buzzerio

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