Fringe Box



Milestones In Rock ‘n’ Roll History: Rumble By Link Wray

Published on: 28 Aug, 2018
Updated on: 29 Aug, 2018

In our series of feature articles on Milestones in Rock ‘n’ Roll History, Dave Reading features a little-known instrumental number that proved to be a blueprint for heavy metal 

Sometimes critics and fans alike debate the question of what was the first heavy metal record. People come up with an assortment of answers including tracks by Jimi Hendrix, Steppenwolf, the Who, Iron Butterfly and even the Kinks.

Link Wray.

But if you go further back, to the distant 1950s, you can find a record that wins the title hands down. The track is called Rumble and the guy who recorded it was a part Native American called Link Wray.

There are all kinds of colourful legends surrounding the man who’d been born Frederick Lincoln Wray in North Carolina in May 1929. He proudly described himself as three-quarters Shawnee. He said his family lived in fear of the Ku Klux Klan. 

He claimed he fell in love with the blues at the age of eight while he was sitting on his front porch struggling to play a Maybell acoustic guitar. A black circus performer named Hambone strolled by and when Hambone started playing bottleneck guitar, Link was hooked for life. 

Parts of the Link Wray legend are undoubtedly true. His hearing really had been damaged by a bout of childhood measles and this was what made him play louder. He really had lost a lung after contracting TB and because this hampered his singing he put all his energies into the guitar. 

You can skip over most of Wray’s early career. Technically he wasn’t the world’s greatest guitarist, as he admitted, but he was a visionary who believed in simplicity. On the day he cut Rumble, he stepped into rock ‘n’ roll history. With this primitive, slow blues instrumental, Link Wray took his place as inventor of the power chord. It was the blueprint for heavy metal.

In a scene from the documentary It Might Get Loud, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin is ecstatic as he places Rumble on to the turntable and acknowledges its influence on his own career. And writing on the sleeve of one of Wray’s albums, Pete Townshend of The Who said: “If it hadn’t been for Link Wray and Rumble, I would have never picked up a guitar.” 

Like the man himself, the story of Rumble has the air of legend about it. The year was 1957 and the place was Fredericksburg, Virginia, where Link Wray and his Ray Men were playing a live gig at a local record hop called Milt Grant’s House Party.

Link looked the real showman in his black leather jacket, armed with his 1953 Gibson Les Paul, plugged into a small Premier amp. The place was jam packed – 5,000 people, according to Link in an interview years later. Link was playing rock ‘n’ roll numbers by stars like Chuck Berry and then someone shouted out a request – “hey, Link, play The Stroll by the Diamonds”. 

But Link didn’t know how to play The Stroll so he improvised. The drummer, Link’s younger brother Doug, started up a slow blues rhythm and Link began hitting chords just because he knew they’d sound good: a simple D with the top string muffled, then into E. Simplicity itself.

As they were playing, Link’s older brother Vernon thrust the microphone in front of the speaker, which Link had stabbed with a pencil. Link turned on the tremolo and the audience, in Link’s owns words, “went ape.” The sound was so weird and so enthralling that they called for encore after encore. This was one of those rare occasions when a ground-breaking number was created during the heat of a live performance. 

The story goes that when Archie Bleyer of Cadence Records heard a recording of Rumble he hated it, but changed his mind when he found his teenage daughter raving about it, saying it reminded her of the fight scenes in West Side Story.  

Rumble was released on Cadence in May 1958 and became a controversial US hit. At a time of national hysteria over juvenile delinquency several radio stations banned it for fear of inciting gang violence. Some wouldn’t even mention its title. Even though there were no lyrics, the track captured a mood that those in authority found dangerous.

Rolling Stone Music, in placing Link Wray at No.67 in its list of 100 greatest guitarists, said: “Wray is the man behind the most important D chord in history. You can hear that chord in all its raunchy magnificence on the epochal 1958 instrumental Rumble. By stabbing his amplifier’s speaker cone with a pencil, Wray created the overdriven rock-guitar sound taken up by Townshend, Hendrix and others.”

Musicians and film makers alike have recognised the track’s power. You can catch it in the background of the diner scene in Pulp Fiction when Uma Thurman tells John Travolta how she hates uncomfortable silences, and when Randy Quaid is sitting in a bar in Independence Day.

When Link Wray died in 2005 at the age of 76, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen played Rumble onstage in tribute.

Share This Post

Leave a Comment

Please see our comments policy. All comments are moderated and may take time to appear.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *