Throughout the month of July we will be celebrating the strides and achievements North Carolinians have made in the world of rock and roll music. We kick off the weekly series, Rock Sculptors, with Link Wray – the father of the power chord.
By: Sam Gerweck
“My Generation” by the Who. “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin. “Search and Destroy” by Iggy Pop and The Stooges. Pillars of the first wave of hard rock and punk music. While groundbreaking in their own right, the true innovation is credited by all the aforementioned artists to a Shawnee Indian man from Dunn, North Carolina – Frederick Lincoln “Link” Wray, Jr.
Born on May 2, 1929, Link Wray spent his childhood in Dunn, a small city in Harnett County, about an hour south of Raleigh. A childhood bout of measles left Wray hard of hearing, a diagnosis that might seem like a death sentence for a hopeful musician. After a short stint in the army, serving in Germany and Korea from 1951-1953, Link Wray returned home and ordered himself a Gibson Les Paul electric guitar. As a child he was exposed to some travelling blues men and learned a few chords, but started seriously pursuing music after his time in the army was up. His first group was called Lucky Wray and the Palomino Ranch Hands , formed by Link and his two brothers, Doug and Vernon, but they disbanded quickly when his bandmates left to find steady work in Washington D.C. Link kept at his music though, and in an effort to establish his own sound, made some unique changes to his playing. Link would prod holes with pencils in his guitar amplifier’s speakers to distort the sound being projected. Instead of relying on open-chords like most guitarists of that era (think Bob Dylan strumming “Mr. Tambourine Man”), he would play barred-chords up and down the entire length of the fretboard, a technique that would come to be known as the “power chord,” and to this day remains the most important tool in any rock and roll guitarists arsenal. And that childhood battle with measles that effected his hearing? Well, that just meant he had to turn his amp way up and play his guitar louder than anyone else.
In 1958, his new group Link Wray and the Wray Men released a single that changed the world of music forever. “Rumble” clocks in at a little over two minutes, doesn’t have any words, and was banned by radio stations across the country out of fear it would incite riots. Give it a listen above. It sounds mean. It sounds tough. It was recorded 20 years before punk rock became a household name. Iggy Pop, often referred to as the Godfather of Punk Rock, recounts in the documentary Rumble: Indians Who Rocked the World, “'Rumble' had the power to help me say ‘F--- it, I’m gonna be a musician.’” Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin talks about his first time hearing Link Wray to Jack White and U2’s The Edge in the documentary It Might Get Loud: “The first time I heard ‘Rumble’, I was like, ‘that’s something that has profound attitude.’” The other two nod in agreement. In the years following the release of “Rumble,” Link Wray put out countless other singles and albums with the Wray Men, as a solo act, and with punk-rockabilly legend Robert Gordon, with genres ranging from hard rock to gospel to country.
Beyond his breakthroughs in the sound of rock and roll music, his influence on the style might be even greater. A slicked-back black pompadour with sideburns, a leather jacket, black pants and boots, chains and rings, and a prototypical rock star scowl, Link Wray looked cool. He played pointy electric guitars with glasses on. He’d pop his collar. He’d march around the stage like he owned the place, because he did. Pete Townsend of The Who once said of him, “He is the king. If it hadn’t been for Link Wray…I would have never picked up a guitar.”
Link Wray passed away in Denmark in 2005 at the age of 76, but his profound influence lives on with every kid who picks up an electric guitar and turns the volume knob all the way up.
About the Author
Sam Gerweck works for the North Carolina Arts Council as a Program Administrator for the Come Hear North Carolina campaign. Performing as a solo artist and in garage bands since his pre-teens, he went on to study vocal performance and music theory at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. Settling in North Carolina, he has come to love the rich musical culture of the state, and you can likely find him at any number of music venues, record stores, or guitar shops around the region.