For Link Wray, it all started with a rumble.
Born Fred Lincoln Wray Jr. on May 2, 1929, Link Wray is one of the “patient zeros” of rock n’ roll. The late inventor of fuzz guitar is responsible for defining much of what makes up the genre today – distortion, power chords, and swagger. Today, we take a look back at the stellar musician and his song that caused a rumble around the world.
It began with an experimental (and at the time largely controversial) song he and his Ray Men orchestrated called “Oddball.” It was performed for the first time live at a small gig in Fredericksburg, Virginia in 1958 – an uncanny time when distortion, feedback, and of course fuzz guitar were sounds still uncharted in the rock n’ roll scene. Of course, in today’s sound sphere, we can’t imagine what rock would be without a ripping guitar (or five.)
Link and his crew pulled out all the stops on stage, so much so that the crowd demanded four encores of “Oddball” from the band. The loud, gripping, and solely instrumental jig soaked in distortion from that night eventually turned into the beginnings of what would eventually become the hit we all know and love: “Rumble.”
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After Wray discovered that the live performance they gave needed to be put on tape, he turned to the recording studio in an attempt to capture the same sound that made the crowd roar that night. By poking holes in his guitar amp, and tapping into his natural ingenuity, Wray was able to achieve the same gritty distortion that shook the walls of the small venue. From there, “Rumble” was born, and quickly made its way onto every radio station. Sounds like the natural progression of a hit song, right? Well for Wray, it wasn’t that cut and dried.
“Rumble” became, and remains, the only instrumental song to be banned from radio in the U.S. It’s quite a feat to achieve, and Link Wray did it swiftly. For one thing, the song originally got its name from Wray’s stepdaughter, as she claimed that it sounded like a street fight. At the time, the term “rumble” was equated with gang fights, and the general public felt fearful over the song’s potential dignification of crime and gang culture.
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With the growl of Wray’s guitar, paired with his louder-than-life backing band, many felt the track’s sound implied messages of violence, delinquency, and gang culture. Despite its controversy at the time, “Rumble” went on to climb charts briskly, reaching number 16 in the U.S. in 1958. It was the same sounds that the audience feared that also drew them in. From there, Link Wray went on to shake up – and ultimately shape – the sound of rock n’ roll as we all knew it.
Wray honed in on his signature guitar sound throughout the rest of his musical career, releasing other distortion-heavy hits like “Jack The Ripper, “The Swag,” and “Ace of Spades.” In addition to pioneering fuzz guitar, Wray also popularized the power chord – a chord shape that we all know now as the foundation for any good rock song.
The impact of “Rumble” and Wray’s guitar-playing ingenuity was far and wide, inspiring budding musicians to pick up a guitar. From Page to Townsend, it is evident that classic rock would not be what it is today without the stir that Wray created with “Rumble.”
“Oh, my God. That record was really important,” shared Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman John Fogerty in an interview with Ultimate Classic Rock. “When it hit, it was a hit on the radio, all the kids were tuned into it – not just me. Everybody understood: Man, that’s so cool.”
Today, 62 years after its debut, “Rumble” remains as cool as ever.
Photo of Link Wray via Getty Images
“Ace of Spades” and “The Swag” were never hits for Link Wray; “The Swag,” in fact, was simply the B side of “Rumble.” Those two tracks were only only sides Link ever recorded for Cadence Records, a label better known as the recording home of Andy Williams, The Chordettes and The Everly Brothers. Link did score a second hit in 1959 with “Raw-Hide” and then kind of fell off the radar for a long time. He made a surprise and welcome return in 1977 backing rockabilly singer Robert Gordon on “Red Hot.”
I remember seeing Robert Gordon on “Wolfman Jack’s Midnight Special.” Link Wray was playing guitar and this was my first experience with rockabilly music. I was 16 years old and remember thinking it sounded like 50s music. I didnt know much about music genre’s back then but this was just my first step of a lifetime of music exploration.
Thanks for the article, nice to see the old guys getting some modern props. A few other things I read in Link Wray interviews.. the engineer had so little experience recording rock n roll bands that he put the bass drum microphone next to the drummers foot instead of around front. And the upright bass mic was stuck inside a hole that was kicked into the bass during a bar fight.
Wray deserves all the props. However, the invention of guitar distortion is rock’n’roll is an academic wormhole, as guitarists were doing that (intentionally) before Wray came along. It usually involved a mangling of the gear. Paul Burlison, guitarist for the manic rockabilly Johnny Burnette Trio*, claimed to have “invented” distortion in 1956. One night for a gig, his tube amp got bumped hard, knocking the tubes askew in the chassis. It distorted the sound, but Burlison liked it and kept it that way. You can hear it in their records. That said, Wray raised the bar and furthered the impact, and I’m glad he did. *Way before they went pop mainstream…
Link Wray created the sound hints why Page, Beck , Pete and so many more have publicly aid this many times. You are aware that Rumble was created in 1950 and recorded in 1956 and it was HIS show that the sound was made. Interesting how they tried to copy his story haha except Link Punched holes in the amp and blew it. Some of us were teens back then and remember this day.
Link Wray needs to be in the HOF! I see Jeff Beck , Slash and even the actor Johnny Depp ( did not know he played) playing Rumble. Link has other hits but Rumble is the one that will stop you in your tracks when you hear it