Sax and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll

(Reprinted from August 2017)

There’s something about the sound of a saxophone that reaches the depths of my soul.

It can be a wonderfully sexy drawl, like the dreamy part you hear in Dire Straits’ “Your Latest Trick” (1985) or Junior Walker and The All-Stars’ “What Does It Take?” (1969)

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Or it might be the greasy, frenzied solos that drive the middle break in the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” (1971) or Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” (1956).

For me, the sax has the most uncanny ability to make me stop whatever I’m doing and take a moment to groove to whatever song in which it’s featured.  It comes down to this:  If a song has a sax part in it, it’s better, sometimes way better, than it would be without it.

I mean, seriously.  Imagine Sade’s “Smooth Operator” (1984) without the sultry sax that winds its way through the entire song.  You can’t.

Although the saxophone is perhaps best known for its contributions to jazz music, there’s no question it has made an indelible mark on rock ‘n roll as well.  From the very beginning, sax and rock music have been fast friends, and it’s not hard to see why.

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Let’s consider the memorable 1978 hit “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty.  The talented singer-songwriter had written a great batch of songs that would comprise what became his #1 LP “City to City.”  It looked like “Baker Street” was shaping up to be the obvious single.  It would be carried by an incredibly mesmerizing guitar riff, repeated throughout the track.

Ah, but here’s where it gets interesting.  The guitar player was a couple hours late to the session, and in the meantime, sax player Raphael Ravenscroft suggested he could take a shot at the guitar part.  Rafferty shrugged and said, “Sure, why not.”  Ravenscroft lifted his sax and leaned into it, and the result sent chills down the spines of everyone in the studio.  The golden riff was clearly a sax part from then on.

“If you like an instrument that sings, play the saxophone.  At its best, it’s like the human voice.”  — Stan Getz, tenor sax great (1927-1991)

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We owe a debt of gratitude to Adolphe Sax, a Belgian instrument maker in the 1850s who saw the need for an instrument that would bridge the gap between brass (trumpets, trombones, tubas) and woodwinds (clarinets, oboes, bassoons).  His invention used a single-reed mouthpiece and a series of holes and finger-driven keys, much like the clarinet, but it was made of brass and had a bell-shaped opening that gave it a sound closer to a trumpet or French horn.  He named the instrument after his family moniker, and came up with multiple versions (sopranino, soprano, tenor, alto, baritone, bass, contrabass) to cover the range of musical notes.

Classical music — concert bands, chamber music, solo recitals, even orchestras — promptly incorporated saxophones into their instrumental mix, as did military and marching bands.  But it was the jazz combos and big bands that dominated the popular music charts in the ’20s and ’30s that truly embraced the saxophone and its potential to grab listeners emotionally.

By the 1940’s the saxophone was a well established and very popular instrument in both classical and jazz music. As the 40’s and ’50s brought more musical styles like jump blues, rhythm and blues and rock and roll, the instrument would become even more important and play a major role in the new sound.

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Charlie Parker started playing as a boy, when his mother gave him a saxophone to cheer him up after his father left. He went on to spearhead a musical revolution.

Charlie Parker is regarded as the first true pioneer of the sax, responsible for the development of bebop, characterized by fast tempos and virtuoso techniques.  He was only 34 when he died in 1955, but his influence has lived on ever since, and sax greats from John Coltrane to Kenny G have praised his groundbreaking work.

“Don’t play the saxophone.  Let it play you.” — Charlie Parker (1920-1955)

In the ’50s, the sax was prominent.  Consider songs like The Champs’ “Tequila,”  Big Jay MacNeely’s “Nervous Man Nervous” and Bill Haley and The Comets’ iconic “Rock Around the Clock” — they offered definitive proof, and then some, of how the saxophone could dominate a great rock and roll song.

This continued into the early ’60s, with tracks like Duane Eddy’s take on the fabulous “Peter Gunn” theme (by Henry Mancini, who also wrote the “Pink Panther” theme, also carried by saxophone), Darlene Love’s “Today I Met the Boy I’m Gonna Marry” and Dion’s “Runaround Sue,” featuring raging sax solos that lifted them to a higher plane.

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Curtis Amy performing with The Doors

Sixties classics like Sam the Sham and The Pharaohs’ “Wooly Bully” and Junior Walker’s “Shotgun” probably wouldn’t have been the hits they became without the amazing sax riffs that played such an integral part in their arrangements.  Even The Doors, who weren’t known for using brass or woodwinds on their recordings, used both in an exciting way on their 1969 hit “Touch Me,” featuring Curtis Amy, a longtime collaborator with Ray Charles.

Motown and Stax Records were huge proponents of using sax solos in the mix of many of the biggest soul hits of the era:  The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” The Supremes’ “Baby Love” and The Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself,” to name just a few.

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Bobby Keys and Keith Richards

The Beach Boys, The Beatles and the British Invasion bands didn’t seem to be too interested in incorporating sax into their arrangements, with minor exceptions like “Lady Madonna” (check out the alternate mix on “The Beatles Anthology 2” in particular).  The Stones turned out to be big sax devotees, prominently showing off the great Bobby Keys on their “Sticky Fingers” and “Exile on Main Street” albums (“Bitch,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’“), and, in the ’80s, with Sonny Rollins guesting on tracks on the “Tattoo You” LP (“Slave,” “Waiting on a Friend“).

The dense, keyboard-heavy progressive rock genre could never make room for sax, could it?  Well, yes, it could:  Check out the Ian McDonald sax solo in King Crimson’s “20th Century Schizoid Man” (1969), and you can’t overlook the phenomenal sax by Richard

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David Sanborn

Parry on the landmark Pink Floyd tracks “Money” and “Us and Them” (1973).

The rise of the singer-songwriter era in the early ’70s (James Taylor, Carole King, Jackson Browne) brought the opportunity for delicate sax solos that would embellish their mellower work.  Check out the amazing sax fills by Michael Brecker and David Sanborn on Taylor tracks like “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” (1973) and “You Make It Easy” (1975).

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Clarence Clemons and Bruce Springsteen

Sax and rock had a major wedding when Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band showed up in 1973.  The musical and physical presence of Clarence Clemons (immortalized on the 1975 album cover of “Born to Run”) brought saxophone to the forefront, showing vividly how sax riffs could lift a regular song to supersonic levels (“Born to Run,” “Badlands,” “Prove It All Night,” “Rosalita” and so many others, especially Clarence’s tour-de-force, “Jungleland“).

“I wanted an electric train for Christmas but I got a saxophone instead.  Glad it worked out that way.”  — Clarence Clemons

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Wayne Shorter

Some of the best saxophone players of all made time for guest appearances on the works of some of rock’s most esteemed composers.  Wayne Shorter played amazing solos on the title track of Steely Dan’s “Aja” (1977) and Don Henley’s brilliant “The End of The Innocence,” (1989) and when Joni Mitchell won a Grammy for her 1994 LP, “Turbulent Indigo,” it’s no coincidence that Shorter appears on half of the songs.

Meanwhile back in the Seventies, there were sax-heavy tracks like Traffic’s “Freedom Rider” (1970) and “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys,” (1972) and “Jive, Jive, Jive” from

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David Newman

Edgar Winters’ White Trash (1971).   When the late Gregg Allman chose to release a solo disc (“Laid Back,” 1973) in the midst of The Allman Brothers’ chart success, the best track on the album, “Queen of Hearts,” included a magnificent tenor sax solo by the great David “Fathead” Newman, former sideman to Ray Charles.

“The ’70s and ’80s were awash with great tracks that featured sax:   David Bowie (“Young Americans” and “Modern Love“), Al Stewart (“Year of the Cat” and “Song on the Radio“), Men at Work (“Who Can It Be Now“), Boz Scaggs (“Georgia“), Kenny Loggins (“Whenever I Call You Friend“), Alicia Bridges (“I Love the Nightlife“), Sting (“Fortress Around Your Heart“), Bob Seger (“Old Time Rock ‘n Roll“), Whitney Houston (“I Will Always Love You“), Huey Lewis and The News (“I Want a New Drug“), John Lennon (“Whatever Gets You Through the Night“), Supertramp (“The Logical Song“), Tina Turner (“Private Dancer“), Spandau Ballet (“True“),  The Doobie Brothers (“One Step Closer“), Poco (“Heart of the Night“).

Pete Christlieb, the sax player in Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” band, was the anonymous (not any more) musician who played the fine sax part on “Deacon Blues,”

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Pete Christlieb

the Steely Dan track that celebrates saxophone parts above all others: “I’ll learn to work the  saxophone, I’ll play just what I feel…”  Christlieb recalls the recording session:  “I cut that part in two takes, and I was out of there in maybe a half hour.  Next thing I know, I’m hearing myself in every airport bathroom in the world.”  Christleib also played the great solo in Steely Dan’s “FM (No Static at All)” (1978) and Natalie Cole’s Grammy-winning “Unforgettable“… (1991).

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Junior Walker

Let’s not forget the very sexy sax riff that made Wham!’s “Careless Whisper” (1985) such a crowd pleaser.  And most of the reason Foreigner’s “Urgent” (1981) was such a big hit was thanks to Junior Walker’s killer guest sax solo.  R&B aficionados Daryl Hall and John Oates were also big fans of sax in their arrangements, and they used it to great effect in their early ’80s hits “Maneater” (1983) and “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” (1981).

The easy-listening side of the pop music spectrum was smitten with sax sounds as well.  Listen to The Carpenters’ “Rainy Days and Mondays” (1971) and, especially, Barry Manilow’s workout with Stan Getz on “Summertime” (1987), and you’ll see how sax solos gave the songs the special ingredient they needed.

As Carole King put it in her 1975 hit “Jazzman,” the sax player (in this case, Tom Scott)

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Tom Scott

was often the key figure in the whole mix:  “Lift me, won’t you lift me above the old routine, make it nice, play it clean, jazzman… When the jazzman’s testifying, a faithless man believes, he can sing you into paradise or bring you to your knees, it’s a gospel kind of feeling, a touch of Georgia slide, a song of pure revival and a style that’s sanctified, jazzman, take my blues away, make my pain there same as yours with every change you play, oh jazzman…”  

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Watch the jingle jangle start to shine

At age 12, I decided I wanted to learn to play guitar and be a rock musician someday. My parents bought me a shiny new electric guitar for Christmas that year, but I realized in less than year that I was not destined to be a lead guitarist. I was a strummer of chords rather than a picker of notes. I would set my sights on being Paul Simon instead of Eric Clapton.

When I visited my local music shop to trade in my electric for an acoustic, a funny thing happened. I perused the guitars hanging on the wall and noticed one that had twice as many strings as the others. Hmmm, I wondered, what have we here? I pulled down this 12-stringed instrument from its hook, tucked it under my arm and strummed it. What came out was the most wonderful sound, a full, melodious tone that stunned me. It was like two guitars being played at once. I knew instantly that this was for me.

Struggling to play barre chords on my bulky
Mayfair 12-string in 1969

Frankly, I should’ve reconsidered. Even though a 12-string guitar is played the same way as a 6-string, using the same chords and tuning, it requires more dexterity, a tighter grip, deeper callouses, and it has twice as many strings that break or go out of tune. As folk legend Pete Seeger put it, “When you play the 12-string guitar, you spend half your life tuning the instrument and the other half playing it out of tune.” It made the learning process more challenging than if I’d just stuck with a regular 6-string acoustic. But I persevered, and by the time I turned 16, my parents saw how dedicated I’d become to my craft, and gave the green light to turning in my $65 Mayfair starter guitar for a truly magnificent Martin 12-string that I still cherish today in 2022.

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A guitarra séptima

Where did the idea of 12-string guitars come from? Various Mexican instruments in the late 1800s like the bandolón, guitar séptima and mandolin used doubled strings, as did the bouzouki in Greece, some of which had as many as 18 strings. The modern 12-string guitar didn’t find its way into the United States until the 1920s and 1930s, when blues artists like Lead Belly and Blind Willie McTell were attracted to the larger-than-life sound they provided, making them ideal for solo accompaniment. Folk musicians in the 1950s like Seeger occasionally used them to embellish more spirited songs in their repertoires.

Blues legend Lead Belly

As electric guitars were developed and became crucial instruments in the rock and roll sound, manufacturers began experimenting with 12-string electrics. You could hear the distinctive chiming tone they make on such early ’60s tracks as Jackie DeShannon’s 1963 hit “When You Walk in the Room,” with Glen Campbell, then an L.A. session musician with The Wrecking Crew, playing the 12-string licks. The 1964 Peter and Gordon hit “A Would Without Love” features 12-string solos by Vic Flick as well.

George Harrison

But it was George Harrison’s electric 12-string on The Beatles’ LP “A Hard Day’s Night” that broadened the appeal. Listen to “I Should’ve Known Better,” “You Can’t Do That,” “Anytime At All” and the title track, and you can hear the shimmering tone that would mesmerize aspiring musicians like Roger McGuinn of The Byrds. He would soon get his own Rickenbacker 12-string and make it the signature element of the group’s records, from hits like “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” to “My Back Pages” and the frenetic picking on “Eight Miles High.” That unmistakable metallic tone was often described as “jingle-jangle.” Seeger had equated it to “the ringing of bells.” Similarly, Tony Hicks of The Hollies and Michael Nesmith of The Monkees loved the sound of the electric 12-strings made by Gretsch, Gibson, Fender and Guild, and employed them often on record and in live shows.

The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn

Harrison continued using a 12-string on subsequent Beatles albums, most notably on “Ticket to Ride” from “Help!” and on his own song, “If I Needed Someone,” from “Rubber Soul.” Keith Richards used one, although noticeably out of tune, on the Rolling Stones ballad “As Tears Go By.” David Bowie used a 12-string on the intro of his earliest hit, 1969’s “Space Oddity,” and in the studio, premier electric axeman Jimi Hendrix was not immune to picking up a 12-string acoustic now and then, such as on the very deep track “Hear My Train A-Comin’.”

The preponderance of 12 strings, both acoustic and electric, really flourished in the 1970s. Acoustic singer-songwriters like Gordon Lightfoot, Dave Mason and the three-man outfit America used acoustic 12-strings all the time to great effect. Check out Lightfoot’s 1975 top seller “Sundown” (with a 12-string pictured on the album cover), or the shimmering sound of the guitars on Mason’s 1977 hit “We Just Disagree.” Nearly every track on America’s debut album (especially “Three Roses” and “Rainy Day”) rings with 12-string guitars. David Crosby’s solo debut “If I Could Only Remember My Name” has 12-strings sprinkled throughout.

12-string virtuoso Leo Kottke

I remember the first time I heard acoustic 12-string virtuoso Leo Kottke on some of his incredible instrumental tracks, and marveled at his deft picking skills and his uncanny ability to play leads and chords simultaneously.

Meanwhile, the electric 12-string continued making its presence known in increasingly dramatic fashion. Perhaps the most famous use of the instrument came when Jimmy Page played one on Led Zeppelin’s anthemic tour-de-force, “Stairway to Heaven.” Because the piece required him to play both 6-string and 12-string guitar in different sections, he had a custom double-necked guitar built that made it much easier in concert to switch back and forth between the two in mid-song. Not to be outdone, Zeppelin bandmate John Paul Jones commissioned a special triple-necked acoustic guitar that included 6-string, 12-string and mandolin, which was perfect for the group’s acoustic sets on tour.

Jimmy Page and his double-necked Gibson
John Paul Jones playing his triple-necked instrument

“The double neck was not just a novelty,” noted Page in a 2014 interview. “It was there as a necessity. I thought the only way to replicate ‘Stairway’ properly, to do it any justice, was getting a guitar that will give you 12 strings on one neck, six strings on the other. It would have been very awkward without it.”

Indeed, while the 12-string was at first viewed by many as a novelty, it turned out to have plenty of staying power as more and more musicians gave it a whirl. Progressive rock bands like Rush and Yes were quick to join the party as guitarists Alex Lifeson and Steve Howe incorporated either electric or acoustic 12-strings into many of their arrangements. The introduction to Yes’s amazing “And You and I” from their “Close to the Edge” album clearly shows Howe’s innovative mastery of the 12-string. Genesis guitarists Anthony Phillips, Steve Hackett and Mike Rutherford were all quite fond of the resonant sound the 12-string produces. Guitarist Justin Hayward of The Moody Blues employed one for their minor hit “Question,” and Roger Hodgson of Supertramp featured an acoustic 12-string on their first Top 20 single “Give a Little Bit.” Classic rock tracks like Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” Queen’s “’39” and Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” seem to almost compete as to which used a 12-string more effectively.

Don Felder trading licks with Joe Walsh

Vying for the most well-known song dominated by 12-string guitar is The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” on which guitarist Don Felder gently picks the intro on acoustic, and then he’d pull out his own double-necked electric in concert for his famous solo tradeoffs with Joe Walsh at the song’s conclusion.

In the jazz fusion arena, John McLaughlin of the Mahavishnu Orchestra was a huge fan of the 12-string, brandishing one on a regular basis in the studio and on stage. Jazz guitar wizards Pat Metheny and Larry Coryell were often seen with 12-strings in hand as they navigated their song catalogs.

In the 1980s, Peter Buck of R.E.M. became a proponent when he used a 12-string on jangly tracks like “Pretty Persuasion” and “So. Central Rain.” The late great Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell both wielded 12-strings liberally on many great ’80s songs like “Somewhere Under Heaven” and particularly the mega-hit “Free Fallin’.” England’s The Smiths often brought 12-strings to bear on some of their tunes, notably “This Charming Man” and “Hand in Glove.”

Taylor Swift performing on a 12-string

You may not hear them used as much in recent years, but they haven’t disappeared. Taylor Swift, one of the premier songwriters/entertainers of her generation, says she loves playing some songs on a 12-string in concert to give them extra energy.

As for me, well, my Martin D-12-28 was the only guitar I had for more than 40 years, and it has served me well (even for a spell in 1976-77 when it became an 11-string guitar because I lost a couple pieces of one of the tuning pegs!). It wasn’t until 2018 that I finally broke down and bought myself a 6-string (another Martin, of course) just so I would have a choice when I was in the mood to play.

When I put new strings on the 12-string, though, nothing beats it. I could play for hours. In fact, I think I will!

With my Martin 12-string in the late ’70s
At home in 2022 with my trusty 1971 Martin

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This playlist takes the listener on a journey chronicling the use of the acoustic and electric 12-string in rock music, from early Lead Belly tracks through Beatles and Byrds tunes, from anthems of the ’70s through the jangly ’80s tracks of R.E.M. and Tom Petty.