Forgotten Heroes: Hank Garland (2023)

The first installment in our new series on players who’ve shaped the history of guitar focuses on Nashville session ace Hank Garland—a master of jazz, country, and rockabilly.

There’s a downside to being a legend.Myths, rumors, tall tales, and allegationsswirl around you and obscure thetruth like mists around some magical isle ina fantasy novel. Legend distorts reality.

Such is the case with Hank Garland andhis place in the annals of guitar history. Tothose in the know, his story is fraught withinnuendo, hearsay, and familial strife. But,brush that aside, and the truth emerges—and it’s a truth all guitarists can agree upon:Garland was an incredible player.

The Early Years
Walter Louis “Hank” Garland (November11, 1930–December 27, 2004) was bornin Cowpens, South Carolina—a town that,even today, has only slightly more than2,000 residents. During Garland’s childhood,most of the locals were listening tocountry music, and he was no different.One of his biggest musical influences wasseminal folk group the Carter Family.

According to the Garland family’s websitededicated to Hank, his first guitar wasa four-dollar Encore steel-string that hisfather purchased for him. A neighbor providedthe budding musician with lessons toaugment his own attempts to copy tunesfrom the radio. At 14, he impressed PaulHoward of the Arkansas Cotton Pickers,who subsequently took the young guitaristto Nashville. Garland eventually appearedon the Grand Ole Opry. During this initialforay into country music’s heartland,Garland met guitarists Harold Bradley andBilly Byrd. They felt the young player wasobviously talented, but still a bit rough.His age became a more pressing concernwhen authorities realized he was too youngto work regularly. Garland was forced toreturn to South Carolina.

When he was of legal age, he came backto Music City and reconnected with Byrdand Bradley. “Billy and I were his mentors,”Bradley remembers. “But he immediatelyleft us in the dust—he was so talented.”That’s high praise coming from someonelike Bradley, who was inducted into theCountry Music Hall of Fame in 2006 andwho received a Trustee Award at the 2010Grammy Awards ceremony.

Back on the Scene and Going Big
According to Bradley, Garland initiallyfound it difficult to get session work inNashville, but he eventually broke throughand became one of the most in-demandpickers on the scene. His “Sugar FootRag”—a guitar-heavy single available in twoversions, one with Red Foley on vocals andan instrumental rendition that put Garland’sfleet fingers center stage—became a hugehit, with more than a million copies sold.

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The skill Garland demonstrated in“Sugar Foot Rag” continues to inspireguitar players of every stripe to this day.Venerated session ace Brent Mason—whoseschedule is as jam-packed as any musician’sin Nashville today—is among the legions ofplayers who have paid homage to the song(on his 1997 release Hot Wired).

“I admired his capacity to play what’s inhis heart in his music,” Mason says, “andthen, on the other side of it, go in and be asession player and be commercial—to haveboth of those worlds. You don’t see a lot ofguys who can jump in one genre and theninto another. It’s tough for a jazz guitarist tostay on the same lines as a piano and saxophone—sometimes jazz licks don’t play thatgreat on guitar. But Hank was one of thefew who could do it. He had a real smoothnessand very melodic lines. Everything wasreal fluid, and his technique was tremendouslystellar. Whatever the style, I nevercould find a weakness in his work.”

Even metal shredder John Lowery (akaJohn 5) cites Garland as the first axe manto really strike a chord with him. “‘SugarFoot Rag’ is on my first instrumental recordbecause I felt like I grew up with Hank.He was the guitar hero, the shredder backin the day,” Lowery says. “He was the man.I guarantee that if kids today would checkhim out, his popularity would skyrocket.There are so many great recordings peopleshould listen to. It will blow their minds.”

“Sugar Foot Rag” was the only “hit”to officially bear Garland’s name, but hecontributed to a host of popular singles forother performers. His days were devotedto quick, efficient sessions in Nashvillestudios, while his evenings were spent insmoky bars in Printer’s Alley—places likethe Carousel Club, where audiences wererequired to be silent and waiters strolledthe room in red coats. It was in the latterenvironment that Garland indulged in adifferent genre—jazz. Owing to his timein these contrasting worlds, Garland developedan incredible ability to seamlesslyshift between styles in a manner that wouldbecome one of his hallmarks.

Gear Preferences
In the mid ’50s, Garland influenced guitarmanufacturing when he and Billy Byrdhelped design what would eventuallybecome the Gibson Byrdland hollowbody.Some of the specifics Garland and Byrdrequested included a thinner body and a23.5" scale. The company kept the firstByrdland off the line, and Garland got thesecond instrument.

Garland also experimented with differentinstruments and effects on his recordings. Forexample, he employed an Ecco-Fonic tapeecho on Patsy Cline’s smash “I Fall to Pieces.”

Despite Garland’s association withGibson, he felt no compunction aboutusing other gear to get the right sound. “Heborrowed my Strat to play on ‘Little Sister’with Elvis,” Bradley says. “He told me,‘Yours twangs more than mine,’ because hewas playing a Gibson.”

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In this 1950s press photo, Garland plays a gig with a circa-1956 Gibson Byrdland hollowbody.

Prelude to Tragedy
In addition to Elvis Presley and Patsy Cline,Garland worked with such seminal artistsas Jim Reeves, Roy Orbison, and ConwayTwitty. He even performed on one of theholiday season’s most timeless tunes. “Heand I played the intro to ‘Jingle Bell Rock’by Bobby Helms,” Bradley says. “He’s playingthe lead and I’m playing the harmony.”

Forgotten Heroes: Hank Garland (3)In 1961, Garland released Jazz Winds froma New Direction, a groundbreaking record thatfeatured Joe Benjamin on bass, Joe Morelloon drums, and a young vibraphone playernamed Gary Burton. The vibraphone legendremembers that Garland had a “fluid, faciletechnical command of the guitar,” and thathe took routes and directions usually reservedfor musicians playing other instruments. “Therecording sessions featured Hank at his best.Being a studio musician, he was very comfortablein a studio setting. But, in this case, itwas new musicians and new music, in a genrethat was still relatively new to Hank. But hewas confident and cool and knew just how tobond with the musicians on the session.”

Jazz Winds blew away Nashville’s countrymusic establishment. But Garlandseemed to do that on a regular basis—atleast according to legend. The 2007 movieCrazy (which was co-produced by Steve Vaiand features cameos from him and TonyMacAlpine) depicts Garland as a playerwho bristled at the regimented and closed-mindednature of Nashville’s music industry.But critics say Crazy is more fabricationthan truth (which may be why the openingcredits begin with “Inspired by a legend”rather than “Based on a true story”).

Although it’s unclear whether it beganwith some sort of familial strife, as depictedin Crazy, in September 1961 Garlandwas apparently under the impression thathis wife, Evelyn, had left town with theirdaughters and was headed to Milwaukee tovisit family. The guitarist hit the highway inpursuit and was involved in a near-fatal caraccident near Springfield, Tennessee.

Some members of his family have saidin online forums that the musician hit anembankment and lost control. Others allegethat his car was forced off the road by music-industrygoons determined to prove a point.But Bradley dismisses all the conjecture.“[It’s] all trash—it’s all wrong.” He emphaticallystates that there were never any rumorsof malfeasance at the time of the accident.

While the veracity of the more dramatictheories may never be known, there’s nodoubt that the car crash marked the declineof Garland’s career. Depending on whoyou ask, he suffered brain damage fromeither the car crash or subsequent shock-therapytreatments at Madison Sanitarium.And that’s just the tip of the tragic iceberg.Allegations of depression and infidelityabound about this period in Garland’s life.Whatever the case, he left Nashville andstayed with family for a time before eventuallysettling in Orange Park, Florida.

As a testament to the esteem that Nashvillemusicians held for Garland, they funneledmoney to his family for years. At the time,session players were required to sign documentswhen they completed work in order toget paid. Rumor has it that Garland’s namewas often written in by generous colleagues.

“I know it’s true, because I signed someof them,” Bradley says. “I remember onetime looking into the book and seeing thatGarland signed into a session that occurredmore than a year after the accident.”

Garland spent years learning to play again,but he never fully regained his former levelof mastery. He performed in public rarelyover the decades, most notably appearing at a1976 fan appreciation show in Nashville. Ina 1981 Guitar Player interview, Garland said,“I’m going to take what the Lord left mewith and do better things with it, if I can.”

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Forgotten Heroes: Hank Garland (5)

An Undeniable Legacy

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In this 1950s press photo, Garland is shown playing a session with an Gibson L-7 outfitted with a Charlie Christian single-coil.

Today, Garland family members duke it outon various websites and forums, arguingabout who cared for Garland the most, whohas the most accurate version of the story,and so forth. It’s a sad situation for anyfamily. So perhaps the best way to gauge thereality of Garland’s impact is through theperspectives of the musicians he influenced.

“He’s one of the most talented musicians Ihave encountered in my career,” says Burton.“His obvious enthusiasm for whatever musiche was playing was inspiring to everyonearound him. I’ve always thought that was oneof the reasons he was so popular in Nashvilleand why everyone wanted Hank to be ontheir sessions. His very presence seemed tocreate a buzz among the musicians, whetherit was country, rock, or jazz.”

Bradley recalls that it wasn’t just Garland’sskill that put him in such high demand—itwas also his personal warmth. “He was anexceptional guitar player. We have peoplewho play fast now, but we don’t have anyonewho plays the lines he played. They’re veryschooled, but they don’t have the swing andthe tone and the feel that Hank had. He wasone of a kind. He was miles ahead of us, andwe’ll never catch him. But all the guitar stuffaside, he was just a great, great friend.”

Ultimately, the varying recollections andlegends regarding Hank Garland dissipatelike mist in the morning sun. Because thereality of his musical legacy is indisputable:It’s on records, on tape. It’s in yellowingsession pages decaying in Nashville officebuildings. Ignore the controversy, the allegations,and just lose track of time whilelistening to songs like “Sugar Foot Rag”or “Move.” In those melodies, the speedylicks, the warm tone, you’ll find the truemeasure of Hank Garland.

Special thanks to Bear Family Recordsfor their assistance with this story.

Hallmarks of Garland's Style
By Jason Shadrick

Even though Hank Garland made his name by playing onclassic country sessions, he was a jazz musician throughand through. Released in 1961, his breakthrough album JazzWinds from a New Direction featured some of the best youngjazz talent around. This recording showed off Garland’s formidablejazz chops, his ability to arrange jazz standards intosomething new, and his indelible sense of swing.

In Fig. 1, you can see a passage similar to what Garlandplayed on the changes to the bridge of “All the Things YouAre.” While a 17-year-old Gary Burton played the melodyon vibes, Garland comes in with a swinging eight-measurepassage that combines drop-2 chords, clusters, and triads.The bridge’s harmony is classic jazz-standard material withthe first four measures outlining a ii–V–I progression in Gmajor, and the second four measures moving that progressionto the key of E major.

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Typical of jazz harmony, the chords are extended with suchalterations as the D7b9 cluster played in the second measure.Here, Garland took the chord’s most essential notes (the 3 and b7) and then added the b9 in the middle of the voicing. Therub between the Eb and F# creates a tension-filled voicing thatconnects nicely with the root-position Am7 in the previousmeasure. Notice how the C is carried over, while the top twonotes of Am7 (G and E) descend by a half-step to F# and Eb.This is a textbook example of voice-leading in a jazz context.

In the third measure, there is a descending melodic motifthat connects all the chords. It begins with the A at the top ofthe Gmaj9 chord and connects diatonically through the G6chord in the fourth measure. At the end of the third measure,Garland plays a root-position Bm triad to illustrate the Gmajor tonality. Since Bm is the relative minor of G, all thenotes in the triad are diatonic and work to give the chord thatGmaj7 sound. Next time you see a vamp in G, try playing Bmtriads all around the neck. It will sound hip and open up thefretboard to some new comping ideas.

Basing chords off of guide tones is a technique used extensivelyby Barney Kessel and Barry Galbraith, two big influenceson Garland. In measure six, Garland voices a B9 chordby starting with the 3 and b7, and then stacking the root and9 on top. Since the bass player is covering the root, in this caseB, you can leave it out and still keep the harmonic integrityintact. The Emaj9 in the next measure and the final C7#5both use guide tones as a foundation for the chord voicings.

Garland’s single-note improvisations combined a bebopvocabulary with a driving rhythmic intensity that remindsme of early Tal Farlow recordings. The example shown inFig. 2 is quintessential Garland—a long, flowing stream ofeighth-notes combined with interesting note choices andreckless abandon. The example begins with a descendingscalar line that goes through F Dorian (F–G–Ab–Bb–C–Db–Eb) and lands on Fm7’s 9 (G) on the downbeat. Thereare times where Garland seems to hit “wrong” notes, butconsidering the tempo and the strength of his sense ofswing, they go by without too much hassle. For instance, inthe second measure of this example, he lands on a D naturalthat clashes with Bbm7’s b3 (Db).

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Bebop sensibilities come into play in the third measure overthe Eb7 chord when Garland descends chromatically from theroot (on beat 1) down to the %7 and then skips to the #5. Hegets a lot of mileage out of hitting the extensions (#5, 11, and9) before moving onto the 11 on the Abmaj7 chord in the nextmeasure. Finally, Garland ends the phrase with some textbookvoice-leading, moving from the b7 (Gb) against the Abmaj7to the 3 of the Dbmaj7 (F). Approaching a chord tone by ahalf-step—especially at points in the harmonic rhythm wherethe chord changes—is a common technique that makes single-notelines flow more easily.

At his heart, Hank Garland was a jazz guitarist of thehighest caliber. Few guitarists of his generation were able tosuccessfully live in the two (seemingly) unrelated worlds ofcountry music sessions and after-hours jazz clubs. A greatdocument of Hank’s jazz chops is Move! The Guitar Artistryof Hank Garland that covers all of his Columbia Records sessionsin 1959 and 1960. Included is the entire Jazz Windsalbum in addition to Velvet Guitar and The UnforgettableGuitar of Hank Garland.

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Search YouTube for “Hank Garland - Sugarfoot Rag” to see Garland playing his signature tune.

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