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Danny Gatton: The Greatest Guitarist You’ve Never Heard

Getty Images / Redferns / Ebet Roberts

Danny Gatton: The Greatest Guitarist You’ve Never Heard

Danny Gatton, who would have been 65 today, went by many names during his decades-long career. Master of the Telecaster. The Prince of Redneck Jazz. The Humbler – given to him for his ability to put any guitarist who dared challenge him to shame. And the one that unfortunately stuck – The World’s Greatest Unknown Guitar Player.

A musician’s musician, his admirers included guitar heroes like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Albert Lee, Joe Pass, Les Paul, Ricky Sambora and Slash. Bonnie Raitt and John Fogerty both tried to sign him as a sideman, as did The Tonight Show. He recorded with Chris Isaak, Arlen Roth, Delbert McClinton and Commander Cody. Rolling Stone named him one of the Top 100 guitarists of all time.

So why haven’t you heard of him?

Danny Gatton was born on September 4, 1945, in Washington, D.C. His father Dan Sr. had been a rhythm guitar player and raised Gatton on a steady diet of western swing, big band and Les Paul recordings. He remembered his parents once taking him to see country guitarist Roy Clark. Gatton first started playing seriously at age 12. By 17, he was playing gigs in local bars. By 19, his talents had taken him to Nashville.

He didn’t stay there for long, returning to the D.C. area in 1968 to front acts like The Fat Boys (no relation to the hip-hop act), The Danny Gatton Band and The Redneck Explosion. He was soon a legend in the D.C. guitar community. He also made a trip out to California to play sessions with other artists and cut a number of independent, basically self-made records. But despite a growing reputation, his career was essentially going nowhere. He hated traveling and so didn’t like to tour outside the mid-Atlantic region. Record companies he sent demos to said they loved his guitar playing, but didn’t know how to market his eclectic style, which ranged from rockabilly to blues to jazz to country to rock – often within the span of a single song.

In 1978, he expressed his frustration to the Baltimore Sun Magazine. "If I had to do it all over again, I would never play an instrument. More often than not, it's been miserable." He lamented that he was in his mid-30s and he and his wife still didn’t own their own home and felt they couldn’t afford to have children.

A major label deal he felt would change all that. In an interview in 1979, he said he was close to signing a contract that he hoped would “open the door to heaven.”

It would be another ten years before that deal came.

At 45, Danny Gatton signed what was to be a 7 album deal with Elektra records. The company mostly took a hands-off approach, though they insisted his debut be an instrumental album (Gatton was not a strong vocalist) and convinced him to cover the theme to TV’s “The Simpsons.” But it was not a good fit. Elektra didn’t feel he toured enough to support the records, and though he received a Grammy nomination, made appearances on “The Late Show with David Letterman” and “Conan O’Brien,” sales were disappointing. Elektra dropped him after two albums.

Gatton claimed to be relieved to escape the pressure the deal put him under. He continued gigging and recording, but his periodic bouts of depression began to occur more frequently. After a domestic argument at his farmhouse in Newberg, Maryland, on October 4th, 1994, Gatton stormed off to the garage. Moments later, he was dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

When asked once what he wanted people to get out of his music, his answer consisted of a single word.