He didn’t go out with the wall-to-wall media coverage of Prince, but not even the Purple One was more influential, at least as a guitarist.
Indeed, Lonnie Mack, who died Thursday at 74, was a rock “guitar god” before there was such a term, thanks to his transformative 1963 instrumental hits “Memphis” (an extraordinary rock guitar take on the 1957 Chuck Berry hit) and “Wham!” and a blues-rock playing style that likely influenced all guitarists who followed, certainly including the diverse likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Beck, Duane Allman, Dickie Betts, Ted Nugent, Bootsy Collins and Ray Benson.
“Lonnie’s passing will probably be lost on many in the shadow of the shocking loss of Prince—but his influence will never be lost,” notes versatile guitarist Jimmy Vivino, who serves as bandleader for Conan and guitarist for the ultimate Beatles tribute band Fab Faux.
“A little known fact is that he played bass guitar on ‘Roadhouse Blues’ by the Doors–alongside John Sebastian under a pseudonym on harmonica,” Vivino adds.
Mack also recorded with artists including Vaughan, James Brown, Freddie King, Joe Simon, Ronnie Hawkins, Albert Collins, Roy Buchanan and Dobie Gray. His guitar technique came out of country and blues, and he employed a vibrato bar, which he controlled with his right-hand pinky on his 1958 Gibson Flying V guitar; it became known as a “whammy bar” after his hit “Wham!.”
“Wham!,” incidentally, was the first record Vaughan ever owned, and he played it nonstop until his father destroyed it—so he just bought another. “Memphis,” meanwhile, had a similar effect on Duane Allman. The multi-dimensional guitar masterpiece, ironically, was tacked on to a recording session when 20 minutes were left over—and with no thought of it being released. It became only the fourth rock guitar instrumental to crack the Billboard Top 5.
Mack, who was also an admired blue-eyed soul vocalist, saw himself as a bridge between the country side of early rock ‘n’ roll guitar playing and the edgier rock styles that he helped engender.
“He was too country for rock, too rock for country,” says Vivino, adding, “Lonnie was a guitar instrumental pioneer but also a great singer with deep roots in gospel and blues and country–one of the guys that made me feel as a kid that there were no racial lines in the sand in music. I am still digging into his bag of tricks trying to chase his sound and fire in playing the guitar.”
And Vivino was hardly alone in stating, via Twitter, that Mack was “a huge personal influence” and now represents a “big loss to the guitar world.”