Link Wray: my one and only interview with the inventor of the raunchy riff



By Steve Newton

There’s been a missing Link on the North American music scene for a long time, but now he’s back, and instro-rock fans have serious cause to rejoice. Two weeks ago in Texas, 68-year-old guitar god Link Wray launched his first North American tour in 25 years, the same tour that brings him to the Starfish Room on Friday (July 4).

I caught up with the living legend—who currently resides in Denmark—the day after his historic date at Houston’s Satellite Lounge.

“It was a fantastic gig last night, man!” enthused a rapt Wray from his Dallas hotel room. “It was really packed and everybody was happy, the owner of the club got up and jammed with me, and I got a good write-up in the Houston paper.

“I was a little bit worried, you know, ’cause I haven’t been over to America to play, so I was wonderin’ how the American audience was gonna receive Link Wray. But man, they were hollerin’ and screaming, bangin’ on the stage. Whew! It was almost like when I had ‘Rumble’ out, you know.”

It was nearly 30 years ago that Wray’s signature tune, “Rumble”, changed the shape of rock guitar, influencing generations of noisemakers. (“If it hadn’t been for Link Wray and ‘Rumble’, I would have never picked up a guitar,” Pete Townshend has said.)

At the time of its 1958 release, the primitive instrumental—which brought to mind the rumble scenes in West Side Story—caused quite a controversy. Although it reached Number 16 on the American charts, it was banned from the radio in several markets—including New York and Boston—because of its supposed capacity to incite teen violence.

“Gangs were really happening back in those days,” recalled Wray. “There were headlines all across the East Coast like ‘Teenage Gang Fights!’, ‘Rumbles in the Streets!’, and my instrumental was seen as related to the gang fights, so they had to ban it. When Dick Clark played it on his show, he couldn’t even say, ‘Here’s Link Wray’s “Rumble”.’ He said, ‘Here’s a slow, stroll type of song from Link Wray,’ and then ‘Rumble’ would play.”

The ability of “Rumble” to get young ’50s rowdies hopped up and ready to scrap had a lot to do with Wray’s snarly, groundbreaking guitar sound, which resulted from his inventive use of a pencil to create one of the world’s first recorded instances of fuzztone.

“When I made ‘Rumble’ they didn’t have no [effects] boxes, right, so I had to get my own distortion. So I was searchin’ for sounds, and to get the distortion I had to punch holes in my amplifier speakers with a pencil.”

As anyone who’s seen Pulp Fiction can attest, the instro-rock music Wray helped pioneer—along with the likes of Duane Eddy and Dick Dale—has been making a huge comeback. Two of Wray’s songs, “Rumble” and “Ace of Spades”, appeared in Quentin Tarantino’s hip ’94 hit, and “Rumble” also made it onto the Independence Day soundtrack.

Wray’s echo-laden ’61 riff-fest “Jack the Ripper” was used in Desperado, and Breathless before it, and three of his tunes were included on the soundtrack to the underground Brad Pitt flick Johnny Suede. “They started putting all my songs in the movies,” noted Wray cheerfully, “so that’s sorta like bringin’ my image and my music back to the ’90s.”

Part Native American of Shawnee extraction, Wray was born to preacher parents in North Carolina, in 1929. He first picked up the guitar when he was eight, after discovering the power of music thanks to an old black bottleneck guitarist who performed in the local circus.

“I heard him playin’ that bottleneck music, and I knew right then I wanted to play a geetar. I mean I wanted to play country music, black music, bottleneck music—I wanted to play it all. And then when I moved to Virginia at 13 years old I heard all the country artists playin’ behind the country stars, and I tried to play like that, but I could never get that clean sound. I just didn’t have that kinda technique.

“So instead of tryin’ to pick clean like a Chet Atkins, I sorta created my own ‘rumble’, you know what I mean?”

With a new CD, Shadowman, just released on England’s Ace Records, and a 17-date North American tour in full swing, Wray’s 50-year musical career is rumblin’ right along. Even though he’ll soon be pushing 70, and has a lung missing from a bout with tuberculosis during his stint in the Korean War, the “godfather of metal” still rocks.

And rules.

“Yeah, I’m 68, man, but I still got black hair, and I’m skinny, and I’m playin’ my wild guitar. And the kids, they don’t give a shit how old I am. Those kids last night were actin’ like I was Elvis onstage, and every time I hit a note they were hollering and screaming.

“It totally shocked me, man. And I would tilt my guitar out and the guys would eat the guitar like Jimi Hendrix. Aw, you should have been there, man! If all the gigs in America go like last night, I’ll be the fuckin’ happiest guy in the world.”


To hear the full audio of my 1997 interview with Link Wray subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can also eavesdrop on my uncut, one-on-one conversations with:

Zakk Wylde, 1995
John Sykes of Blue Murder, 1989
Dave Mustaine of Megadeth, 1998
Alice Cooper, 1986
Lars Ulrich of Metallica, 1985
Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon, 1992
Myles Goodwyn of April Wine, 2001
John Mellencamp, 1999
Mike Campbell of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, 1999
Kenny Aronoff, 1999
Doyle Bramhall II, 2001
Jon Bon Jovi, 1986
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1992
Randy Bachman of the Guess Who, 2001
Little Steven, 1987
Stevie Salas, 1990
J.J. Cale, 2009
Joe Bonamassa, 2011
Rob Baker of the Tragically Hip, 1997
Tommy Emmanuel, 1994
John Petrucci of Dream Theater, 2010
Eric Johnson, 2001
Stu Hamm, 1991
Gene Simmons of Kiss, 1992
Ace Frehley from Kiss, 2008
David Lee Roth, 1994
Allan Holdsworth, 1983
John Mayall of the Bluesbreakers, 1988
Steve Vai, 1990
Tony Iommi of Heaven and Hell, 2007
Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1996
Geoff Tate of Queensryche, 1991
James Hetfield of Metallica, 1986
Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1990
Rick Richards of the Georgia Satellites, 1988
Andy McCoy and Sam Yaffa of Hanoi Rocks, 1984
Steve Morse, 1991
Slash of Guns N’ Roses, 1994
Brian May from Queen, 1993
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1991
Jake E. Lee of Badlands, 1992
Rickey Medlocke of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1997
John Fogerty, 1997
Joe Perry of Aerosmith, 1987
Rick Derringer, 1999
Robin Trower, 1990
Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, 1994
Mick Ronson, 1988
Geddy Lee of Rush, 2002
Buck Dharma of Blue Oyster Cult, 1997
Michael Schenker, 1992
Vince Neil of Motley Crue, 1991
Vinnie Paul of Pantera, 1992
Joan Jett, 1992
Steve Harris of Iron Maiden, 1988
Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, 1989
Rob Halford of Judas Priest, 1984
Bill Henderson of Chilliwack, 1999
Paul Rodgers, 1997
R.L. Burnside, 1999
Guthrie Govan of the Aristocrats, 2015
Mick Mars of Mötley Crüe, 1985
Carlos Santana, 2011
Walter Trout, 2003
Rudy Sarzo of Quiet Riot, 1983
Tommy Aldridge, 2001
Donald “Duck” Dunn, 1985
Mark Farner of Grand Funk, 1991
Chris Robinson of Black Crowes, 1990
Jennifer Batten, 2002
Mike Fraser, 2014
Leo Kottke, 2002
Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, 2002
David Gogo, 1991
Booker T. Jones, 2016
Link Wray, 1997
James Reyne from Australian Crawl, 1988
Mike Rutherford of Genesis, 1983
Buddy Guy, 1991
Country Dick Montana of the Beat Farmers, 1990
Mike Cooley of the Drive-By Truckers, 2016
Gary Rossington of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1986
Lindsay Mitchell of Prism, 1988
Buddy Miles, 2001
Eddie Money, 1988
Tom Hamilton of Aerosmith, 1983
Gaye Delorme, 1990
Dave Murray of Iron Maiden, 1984
Graham Bonnet of Alcatrazz, 1984
Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, 2016
Doc Neeson of Angel City, 1985
Rik Emmett of Triumph, 1985
Sonny Landreth, 2016
Tosin Abasi of Animals as Leaders, 2016
Jeff Beck, 2001
Albert King, 1990
Johnny Ramone of the Ramones, 1992
Peter Frampton, 1987
Otis Rush, 1997
Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, 1989
Leslie West of Mountain, 2002
Steve Howe of Yes, 2017
Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, 1983
Uli Jon Roth, 2016
Poison Ivy of the Cramps, 1990
Greg Lake of ELP, 1992
Robert Plant, 1993
Malcolm Young and Brian Johnson of AC/DC, 1983
Warren Zevon, 1992
Tal Wilkenfeld, 2016
Steve Clark of Def Leppard, 1988
Roy Buchanan, 1986
Gary Moore, 1984
Ronnie Montrose, 1994
Danny Gatton, 1993
Alex Lifeson of Rush, 1992
Ann Wilson of Heart, 1985
J.J. Cale, 1990
Yngwie Malmsteen, 2014
Chris Cornell, 2008
Long John Baldry, 1985
Allan Holdsworth, 1983
Kim Mitchell, 1984
Warren Haynes of Allman Brothers, 1994
Derek Trucks, 1998
Susan Tedeschi, 1998
Joe Satriani, 2018
B.B. King, 1984
Albert Collins, 1985
Ronnie James Dio, 1985
Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, 1984
Dick Dale, 2000
Greg Allman, 1998
Dickey Betts, 2001
…with hundreds more to come

Leave a Reply