By Art Thompson | January 2006 for Guitar Player Magazine
Few sidemen can claim to have played as big a role in the modern guitar story as James Burton. As a teenager in the 1950s, he coined the classic Telecaster sound and string-bending techniques that would become essential elements of early ’60s honky-tonk-a.k.a. the “Bakersfield sound.” He came up with the signature lick on the Dale Hawkins hit, “Susie Q.” He was a staff guitarist on the famed Louisiana Hayride and, subsequently, the lead player for Ricky Nelson on the immensely popular TV show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.
As one of the most in-demand session guitarists of the ’70s, he played on hundreds of albums by everyone from Merle Haggard to Frank Sinatra to the Beach Boys. Burton worked simultaneously with Elvis Presley and Emmylou Harris, and, following the King’s death in 1977, he became John Denver’s lead guitarist-a position he held for 15 years.
At 66, Burton still maintains a hectic touring schedule with the big-screen/stage extravaganza Elvis in Concert. He has also used his notoriety to advance the cause of music education in America via the James Burton Foundation. The James Burton International Guitar Festival, held last August in Shreveport, Louisiana, was only his latest effort to provide music scholarships and instruments for hundreds of young musicians.
Somehow, Burton recently found time to record an album of gospel music (his first solo release since the early ’70s), and help develop a new signature model Fender Telecaster. In classic form, he was in the midst of packing for an extended trek through Europe when this conversation took place.
How were you able to craft such a signature sound at a very young age?
When I started playing at 13, I used a flatpick and my fingers because I never could get into using a thumbpick. I started noticing, though, that when I was doing a bass-string rhythm-flatpicking the bass strings, and then doing the rhythm fill and lead with my fingers-I’d lose a lot of top-end clarity. So I kept the flatpick, but started using a fingerpick on my middle finger, and, suddenly, I got a lot more clarity and bite from my guitar.
Was the Telecaster always versatile enough for you?
I’ve found through all these years of playing on so many records that you really don’t need a lot of guitars to do a lot of different things. Back in the old days, we used a lot of treble, and the original Tele was very bright-you could cut a tree down with the lead pickup. That was the Buck Owens sound, and I used it on some of the Merle Haggard stuff we did in the ’60s and ’70s. But if I didn’t want that real edgy sound, I’d roll the tone control back a little to take the edge off the treble. I’d still get the brightness, but not that real high, piercing sound. Plus, I could switch back and forth between the pickups, and I still had the tone knob to adjust the highs and lows. That worked really well for me, because, depending on whose record I was playing on, I didn’t always want that same edgy sound.
Have your tone tastes changed much over the years?
I’m leaning toward a fatter sound these days. Instead of that peaky, edgy thing you get on the lead pickup, I want more of a tone. One of the things that excites me about my new signature Fender Telecaster is that it has a button on the tone control that you can press to get five different sounds. Its pickups are a stacked humbucker design, so it’s quieter, too. I also really like the paint job, with its ghost flames over a paisley design.
Has the steel guitar influenced the way you play?
I think so, because I always loved the slinky bends you could do on a steel. I got into bending strings early on, but on that first Tele my parents bought me in the ’50s, the strings were real stiff-you almost needed a pair of pliers to bend them. So I replaced the first, second, third, and fourth strings with lighter banjo strings. Then, of course, I had to figure out what to do with the fifth and sixth strings. So I took the original D string, and I moved it up to the fifth-string slot, and then I used the A string for the low E. Now the gauges were nice and even. That setup worked out great, and I loved the twangy sounds I could get.
When did you first deploy your string-bending technique on a record?
After becoming Ricky Nelson’s lead guitarist in January 1958, I did a record with him called “Believe What You Say.” That’s when I first did the string-stretching thing.
How did your idea of using lighter strings lead to the development of the Ernie Ball Slinky sets?
Ernie Ball had a music store in California, and when I went out there to work with Ricky Nelson, I met Ernie, who just happened to be a steel player. He asked how I got that twangy sound and did all those bends, so I showed him my guitar. That gave him the idea to make different gauges available for guys who wanted a lighter, or a little heavier, string set. He came up with the light, medium, and extra-light sets with the unwound third, and that was so great for everybody-especially blues and country players.
You worked a lot with the great steel player Ralph Mooney. What impressed you about his style and sound?
Well, he had that pedal thing down-that real soulful, crying thing-and he had some very hot licks. Ralph had his own sound, like I did, and when the two of us hooked up and started playing with Merle Haggard, we came up with some pretty great ideas.
What are your recollections of the album you two did together, Corn Pickin’ and Slick Slidin’?
Ricky Nelson came to me and said, “You know, I’m getting a lot of requests for you to do a record. Do you and Ralph want to do one together, or do you want to do it solo?” We decided we’d do it together, so we went in the studio, and we cut the album in three sessions. We did four songs per session, which, in those days was what your contract specified. Now, if you do one song a year, that’s okay-just as long as it’s a hit.
Roy Nichols said he learned your style and techniques by watching you in the studio. Did you play any significant parts together on those early Merle Haggard records?
On “Mama Tried,” I played the Dobro and Roy did the high part. I could have done both, but it would have been an overdub for me. On that particular day, we were doing a lot of songs that I was playing Dobro on. Roy was sitting there watching and listening to everything that was going on, and Merle said, “Why don’t we get Roy to play guitar on this, and you stay on the Dobro?” That was cool with me, because here I am playing all the lead stuff, and Roy’s just sitting there every day doing nothing. But he was picking up on the sound and what I was doing because he had to go out and play it on the road.
You backed a lot of different artists when you were in the staff band of the Louisiana Hayride. Can you describe that experience?
I just loved playing guitar, and I couldn’t get enough. Playing behind people like George Jones and Johnny Horton at age 14 was simply amazing. I didn’t think about anything else-like what the business was all about-except playing with all these great singers.
What do you recall of Elvis from that period?
He’d come out on the weekends, and we’d go to Texas or someplace and do a show with him. That’s how I met Horace Logan [program director for the Hayride]-the guy who invented the saying, “Elvis has left the building.” The way that happened was Elvis was performing one night and the place was going nuts, and, at the end, he just left the stage and got in the car and drove away. Of course, the crowd was thinking he’d come back out, so Frank Page, one of the other MCs on the Hayride, told Horace that he needed to go out and tell the people something because they were getting pretty rowdy. So Horace walked out to the mic, and the only thing that came to his mind was to say, “Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building.”
It must have been something to hear Scotty Moore with Elvis back then.
Well, Scotty’s main thing was the echo amp that he used to create that rhythm feel with the Merle Travis-style picking, whereas I was doing the double-picking thing using a lot of up-and-down strokes. I was basically doing the same thing as Scotty, but I was doing it with my fingers instead of using an echo. When I was 14, I didn’t have access to an echo unit. I was sitting there trying to figure out how he did “Mystery Train,” and I just learned to get that sound using my fingers.
Was it a big change working with Ricky Nelson after backing so many different artists on the Hayride?
It was a great experience with Ricky because we had the opportunity to do the road thing, cut some good records, and be on a TV show. Plus, I’d started recording with people like Dorsey and Johnny Burnett, Roger Miller, and the list goes on and on. You know, when Elvis called me in ’69, and asked me to put a band together for him, I remember one of his opening lines was, “You know, I used to watch Ozzie and Harriet just to see you play guitar and hear Ricky singing those songs.”
Did you stop working with Ricky Nelson because you needed some new challenges?
I really wanted to get out and play, but Ricky had stopped touring, and he was more interested in recording a new album. So that’s when Johnny Cash called me to play on Shindig. The show’s producer, Jack Good, told me, “Man, you’re going to be on every week, so why don’t you put a band together?” So that’s when we formed the Shindogs, with me on guitar, Glen Hardin on keyboards, Delaney Bramlett on bass, Joey Cooper on rhythm guitar, and Charles Blackwell on drums. The show was number one for a year, and then it went off the air. I met the Rolling Stones on Shindig, as well as the Kinks, the Who, and the Yardbirds. I even played on some of the Yardbirds records back in the early days. I don’t remember exactly what I played on, but I remember being on some of that stuff. I was booked solid in those days, doing like five sessions a day, seven days a week, and it was just crazy. I’d go from, say, Ray Charles to Merle Haggard to the Beach Boys to the Mamas and the Papas-and I was also playing on Phil Spector’s recordings over at Gold Star Studios. I played on a lot of records where you probably wouldn’t even know it was me.
Did Elvis ever ask you to play a certain way?
No. He was real considerate, and he had a lot of respect for all the musicians. We knew what to do, and what he wanted, and when we’d go out and play a live show, we’d just blow him off the stage. The TCB band [short for “Taking Care of Business,” which Presley had named it] was a powerhouse, and Elvis just loved the way we took his stuff and went into another dimension with it.