There’s very few musicians who can write a great song, sing it superbly, and then play a great guitar lead on it as well.. someone who is truly a triple threat.
Some that come to mind over the last 60 years would be Eric Clapton, Chuck Berry, Freddie King, Todd Rundgren, Mark Knopfler, Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Robben Ford, and a handful of others. And many of these could be considered weak in one of these areas. For example, Paul McCartney can sing and write as we all know… but his guitar leads are not his strong suit.
And one thing about this list… it shows that these guitarists are more than just guitarists. They are complete musicians who can truly do it all.
My favorite guitarist who is seldom on anyone’s list (he’s not included in the Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Guitarists”), but is truly great at all three skills is Lowell George, the great leader of Little Feat. Lowell not only wrote great songs (i.e. Dixie Chicken), sang superbly, but also defined slide guitar in a way that is totally unique. There is still no one that has the style or musicality of Lowell George’s slide guitar playing (Bonnie Raitt comes close).
And to top it all off… Lowell was the producer of Little Feat’s best albums. That puts him in truly rare company… a quadruple threat if you will.
But as I mentioned, Lowell George is often forgotten. He seldom is remembered on the top songwriter’s lists and, and although his songs are classics, he often seems missing when people talk about the greatest musical influencers of the last 60 years.
For me, he is one of my greatest influences. I loved everything that Little Feat did in the 70′s and caught their shows many times. The band itself was the epitome of a great band with everyone playing their role and creating that great synergistic whole that truly defines greatness.
And although Lowell is not known as a blues guitarist, early material by the band included blues songs and his early slide guitar playing was directly styled after Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. Listen to Apolitical Blues, or early cuts like 44 Blues or Cat Fever, and you’ll hear some of the early blues influences on Little Feat and Lowell George.
The blues was often cited as a big influence on rock musicians of the 60′s and 70′s and I think this was also the case with George. The great book about Lowell, Rock and Roll Doctor, mentions Howlin’ Wolf being a big influence on him. And Lowell himself has said that Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson were big influences on his guitar playing, if not directly in the songs he wrote. It can be assumed that he picked up slide guitar after listening to these blues men, and his early slide playing comes directly from them, as you can hear on the blues cuts mentioned above.
Lowell George Takes Slide To A New Place
But the most important contribution Lowell George made to music was the way he took slide guitar in a whole new direction. Other slide guitarist of the era, including Ry Cooder and Duane Allman, played in a way that was directly related to the blues slide guitarists that came before them, with Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, and Elmore James being the main ones.
But although Lowell started from this same bluesy place, he took slide guitar in a new, and entirely unique direction. His “clean sustain” style and long, lazy legato lines, that were intimately woven into the arrangements of the songs, were brand new and totally his own. He never went for “over the top” leads just for the sake of playing a lead. They seemed to be more like horn parts that fit perfectly in the song and never overwhelmed the songs themselves. This is what made Lowell George the genius slide guitar player that he was.
And to this day, there are no slide guitarists that can do what he did. Bonnie Raitt is closest to that style, but her sound does not quite have that sustain or same clean tone that George had. It is said he used compressor pedals to get that sound, notably the MXR Dyna Comp. Initially he used a compressor from Carangella Electronics that was designed for radio stations.
As far as amps, Lowell used a combination of Fender Twin and Music Man amps in the early 70′s, and reportedly settled on a Dumble Steel String Singer model in around 1976. Yet his sound is not really distorted like many slide guitarists. It’s pretty clean with a bit of overdrive… and that long sustain.
He tuned to his own somewhat unique tuning, using an A chord which is really a G-tuning with some strings moved up a step. Here’s how George described it in a Guitar Player interview in 1976…
“I use an open A tuning which is an open G tuning moved up a whole step. Instead of moving the first, fifth, and sixth string down, I leave them alone and move all the other strings up a whole step. There’s a lot more tension on the strings, and it gets a much cleaner and brighter sound.”
But the fact is… like all great guitar tones, it doesn’t only come from the equipment or the tuning. There is always an element of touch in the hands, pick, and attack on the strings that makes a guitar tone unique. The proof is, that after all these years no one else has been able to quite duplicate that sound that Lowell George had. I know I’ve been trying for over 30 years myself.
But what makes Lowell George a genius is the fact that he invented himself. He used all of his influences to come up with a style and a sound that was uniquely his own. When you hear a Lowell George solo, you immediately know it’s him. That’s always the sign of a great guitar player. Only the greats can do that.
And it’s a shame that Lowell George is not remembered better. He really was one of the best guitarists of his generation. And his songwriting and singing are at the same high level. There really are few who can achieve his stature as a singer, songwriter and guitarist. He is truly in rare company.
He had a short musical career… less than 10 years really (he died in 1979). Perhaps that’s partly why.
But for me, Lowell George will always be one of my great influences. And when I listen to his music today, it has lost nothing in my mind. If anything, he sounds better than ever and just maybe was years before his time.
Here’s some videos that show you what I mean.