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James Burton and his guitar playing

Mon Jun 09, 2014 6:42 pm

skatterbrane wrote:
sherrlon12 wrote:Skatter - you don't like the Memphis 1974 version of My Baby Left Me? It's fantastic, especially the "let's go baby..." part he added before the guitar solo.


No, I do not. It is the 50s voice I like. I am also not a fan of James Burton's chicken pickin' Telecaster. He is fine with Emmylou Harris, but should have never been Elvis' guitarist. My Baby Left Me was the only RCA recording that successfully captured the Sun sound as far as I am concerned.


Hi guys,

This is picked up from the "My favorite two Elvis recordings" thread.
What stood out to me is that the "James Burton should have never been Elvis' guitarist" remark did not get any response.
Now, before we start going at this subject, the sole purpose of this thread for me is to educate myself on the matter at hand.
So I would like to hear all of your opinions on whether or not James Burton was indeed not worthy of being Elvis' lead guitarist.

In the past there was a thread on Duke Bardwell and there were obvious comparisons drawn to his versions of Fever and Jerry Scheff's.
The evidence was clear in that case for me and I really think that Jerry Scheff was a far better bass guitarist than Duke Bardwell, no question about it.

But to me the James Burton situation gets more complex because of the simple fact that we can't draw any comparisons with him.
Is there any way we could compare some of his work on Elvis songs with what others were doing at the time that was significantly better ?

Very intersting subject and I hope this sparks some good conversation in order to get some genuine points made.

As always, thank you for your time.

Re: James Burton and his guitar playing

Mon Jun 09, 2014 7:13 pm

James Burton is an amazing guitarist. He was the lead member of TCB and a key part of Elvis' music, on stage and in the studio, from 1969-1977. He played at almost all of Elvis' studio sessions and the few songs he doesn't play on sound a little odd - they feel like they're missing something e.g. Snowbird. The January 29 DS live performance of Snowbird sounds so much better. I can't think of a single instance when James Burton played anything that didn't sound good with Elvis. Even for slow songs like Something his guitar playing added so much life.

He was such a key part of Elvis' music during these years that I can't imagine it without James Burton. It would be a huge, unimaginable change. While all of TCB were great, James Burton was the only one that had to be there. Elvis obviously thought so too because in the March 1976 tour they were basically all absent except James Burton. He was the only one Elvis felt he had to persuade to come back.

While the 68 Comeback Special is amazing, lead guitar for the stand-up shows is almost absent. The sole guitar solo in the concerts for Blue Suede Shoes (both shows) is pathetic and just a lot of noise. The orchestra steal the spot-light in these shows. Perhaps an indication of what 1969-1977 would have been like without JB.

James Burton is at a well-deserved 19th place on the 100 greatest guitarists of all time list by Rolling Stone (an incredible achievement considering that all the guitarists above him are renowned solo artists like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix). Scotty Moore is at 29.

The thing I admire most about James Burton is the huge variety of guitar solos he did e.g. See See Rider and Johnny b Goode (1971 especially). In the January/February 1972 Vegas season he plays a different guitar solo each show for See See Rider. Very few guitar players would have such imagination for a mere 15 second guitar solo.

Re: James Burton and his guitar playing

Mon Jun 09, 2014 7:42 pm

I don't hear variety at all - he Is playing same solo on various songs
his playing style (with Elvis after 1973 for sure) got nothing with rock and roll

Re: James Burton and his guitar playing

Mon Jun 09, 2014 8:10 pm

sasho wrote:I don't hear variety at all - he Is playing same solo on various songs
his playing style (with Elvis after 1973 for sure) got nothing with rock and roll



That's probably because Elvis was shifting his focus from rock & roll and going towards the big ballads.

If James wasn't playing any rock & roll with Elvis after 1973, we can blame Elvis for that because Elvis was leaning toward the bigger ballads like, "What Now, My Love?". "My Boy" (Crap, I didn't just mention that song, did I?), but he also did some country songs like, "You Asked Me To." Do you not think that, "Promised Land", was a rock & roll song? James plays a kick-ass solo there! James was rooted musically in the same styles as Elvis when he was growing up. On his instructional DVDs, he cites the late Chet Atkins, Lightning Hopkins, and the blues players of that time as influences.

Elvis chose James in 1969 for a reason and kept him until 1977 for a reason - he liked his playing (even if the set lists were the same and the guitar licks were the same). It's that "loyalty" factor. Even though Elvis's shows were up and down by '76/'77, James still stayed and has never said one negative word about his time as guitarist for Elvis Presley.

Other than personal reasons, why do you think that Jerry Scheff left after the January/February, 1973 engagement? He, himself, was already becoming bored with the way things were going - and then there were the personal problems he was battling. When you play in a band with someone, you play the way they want you to play either in the studio or in concert. So, if James wasn't playing much rock and roll, it goes back to Elvis as the reason why.

James, as we know, almost left for good in '76 because (I believe) of the money situation (Emmylou Harris was offering him more, I think, to leave Elvis and go be in her then-named band, "The Hot Band" - which he did after Elvis passed).

Personally? I'm a fan of James, period, no matter what he plays. I love watching him interact with John Denver during the "Wildlife Concert" in 1995 where he's playing his first signature Telecaster. There are a good amount of videos on YT where James still rocks even if he is in his 70s. I want to meet James, someday. He's my reason for owning and playing a Fender Paisley Telecaster.

Re: James Burton and his guitar playing

Mon Jun 09, 2014 9:14 pm

On stage with Elvis, Burton's guitar playing was nothing incredible...he rushed everything and didn't get the chance to "open-up" and explore his talents as a guitarist for the simple reason because that's how Elvis wanted him to play. Elvis was a lazy b*****d and he was getting disinterested as the 70's were on. And the same can be said of his studio work with Elvis, there maybe a couple of songs where there was spark, "Promised Land" comes to mind, but other than that, zero.

James also comes across to me as a bit of a "yes man". A guitarist with a bit of balls in him would've said, "man, you've got to stop playing some of this sh*t". I've read that James was getting $3,000 per show, thats a hell of a lot of money back then, so maybe thats the reason he didn't say anything.

If you want to listen to the REAL James Burton, listen to his work outside of Elvis.

Re: James Burton and his guitar playing

Mon Jun 09, 2014 9:51 pm

mysterytrainrideson wrote:On stage with Elvis, Burton's guitar playing was nothing incredible...he rushed everything and didn't get the chance to "open-up" and explore his talents as a guitarist for the simple reason because that's how Elvis wanted him to play. Elvis was a lazy b*****d and he was getting disinterested as the 70's were on. And the same can be said of his studio work with Elvis, there maybe a couple of songs where there was spark, "Promised Land" comes to mind, but other than that, zero.

James also comes across to me as a bit of a "yes man". A guitarist with a bit of balls in him would've said, "man, you've got to stop playing some of this sh*t". I've read that James was getting $3,000 per show, thats a hell of a lot of money back then, so maybe thats the reason he didn't say anything.

If you want to listen to the REAL James Burton, listen to his work outside of Elvis.


For the most part, I like James' playing and he is undeniably one of the greats but I wish Elvis had a guitar player that changed sounds more instead of having the guitar sound pretty much the same through the whole show. For the most part, I think James played it too safe. I would have liked to see him play a Scotty Moore type Gibson on some of the 50's numbers. His guitar playing seemed more "Countrypolitan" than Rock and Roll to me, most of the time. I know Marty Lacker was no great fan of James and thought Reggie Young was way better and more versatile. As far as James being a yes man, I believe he was but not because he didn't tell Elvis to "Stop playing some of this sh#t" as an employee of Elvis, he just couldn't do that be he could have played things a little harder and changed things up more and subtlety pushed Elvis into new directions. He didn't need to fall into the rut with Elvis. You could tell by his on stage manner that he was intimidated by Elvis in that he would rarely look Elvis in the eye when Elvis looked at him. I think it would have been better if Elvis had musicians that pushed him in new directions instead of being sycophants which is what Elvis was constantly surrounded with.

Re: James Burton and his guitar playing

Mon Jun 09, 2014 10:27 pm

Hank Garland, now THAT'S a guitarist!

Re: James Burton and his guitar playing

Mon Jun 09, 2014 10:37 pm

He is quite rightly acclaimed as an influential player. His work in the studio with Elvis, when he cut loose, is brilliant. Play Promised Land or I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water and tell me he wasn't great.

The entire TCB Band were pretty much on cruise control after '73, but a lot of the blame there lies squarely at Elvis' feet. He was the man in charge.

Elvis focused his attention on bombastic ballads that Burton had little room to play on, throwing away a lot of the rock numbers that would have been more up his guitarist's street. Night after night it must have become quite dull and the whole thing fell into a rut, with the band playing by numbers and offering little in the way of innovation or variation.

At the end, it was more about picking up a decent wage than making great music, wasn't it?

Re: James Burton and his guitar playing

Mon Jun 09, 2014 11:35 pm

londonflash wrote:He is quite rightly acclaimed as an influential player. His work in the studio with Elvis, when he cut loose, is brilliant. Play Promised Land or I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water and tell me he wasn't great.

The entire TCB Band were pretty much on cruise control after '73, but a lot of the blame there lies squarely at Elvis' feet. He was the man in charge.

Elvis focused his attention on bombastic ballads that Burton had little room to play on, throwing away a lot of the rock numbers that would have been more up his guitarist's street. Night after night it must have become quite dull and the whole thing fell into a rut, with the band playing by numbers and offering little in the way of innovation or variation.

At the end, it was more about picking up a decent wage than making great music, wasn't it?



You said what I tried to say in my reply....but only better.

Re: James Burton and his guitar playing

Mon Jun 09, 2014 11:59 pm

I can't believe we are back to criticizing JB as a guitar player. Now granted, he did not get the spotlight with Elvis as often as he should have, but the man is a legend. Have any of you ever heard of a singer (and actor on family sitcom...) named Rick Nelson? James' work on those Rick Nelson records is loved and respected by musicians worldwide - including some musicians that are greatly admired on this board, guys like George Harrison, Keith Richards, Pete Townsend and Dave Davies. Elvis knew what he was doing when he hired one of the best pickers in the biz to lead his band, I can't imagine anyone doing a better job.

Re: James Burton and his guitar playing

Tue Jun 10, 2014 12:16 am

skatterbrane wrote:I am also not a fan of James Burton's chicken pickin' Telecaster. He is fine with Emmylou Harris, but should have never been Elvis' guitarist.


Agree. Burton's guitar notes were much too thin for my liking.

skatterbrane wrote:Hank Garland, now THAT'S a guitarist!


Again, agree. 'Little Sister' is his (and Elvis' of course) masterpiece. The intro, with it's dirty thick notes is perfection with an axe. In my dream revamping of Elvis' live act, an extended 'Little Sister' intro would have replaced the 2001 theme, and set the theme for the whole show.

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Re: James Burton and his guitar playing

Tue Jun 10, 2014 1:17 am

Lonely Summer wrote:I can't believe we are back to criticizing JB as a guitar player. Now granted, he did not get the spotlight with Elvis as often as he should have, but the man is a legend. Have any of you ever heard of a singer (and actor on family sitcom...) named Rick Nelson? James' work on those Rick Nelson records is loved and respected by musicians worldwide - including some musicians that are greatly admired on this board, guys like George Harrison, Keith Richards, Pete Townsend and Dave Davies. Elvis knew what he was doing when he hired one of the best pickers in the biz to lead his band, I can't imagine anyone doing a better job.


Oh, I can imagine a few who would have done a better job.

Re: James Burton and his guitar playing

Tue Jun 10, 2014 1:23 am

londonflash wrote:He is quite rightly acclaimed as an influential player. His work in the studio with Elvis, when he cut loose, is brilliant. Play Promised Land or I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water and tell me he wasn't great.

The entire TCB Band were pretty much on cruise control after '73, but a lot of the blame there lies squarely at Elvis' feet. He was the man in charge.

Elvis focused his attention on bombastic ballads that Burton had little room to play on, throwing away a lot of the rock numbers that would have been more up his guitarist's street. Night after night it must have become quite dull and the whole thing fell into a rut, with the band playing by numbers and offering little in the way of innovation or variation.

At the end, it was more about picking up a decent wage than making great music, wasn't it?


But that was his fault. Elvis gave him a few times a show to shine so he should have used it to his advantage. Whether Elvis was on cruise control or not, James didn't have to follow suit. I do think by 73 they were all burned out and it would have been a good time to get some new blood in there all the way around.

Re: James Burton and his guitar playing

Tue Jun 10, 2014 2:06 am

With Elvis James Burton wasn't able to show his true potential, especially with 15 second guitar solos but he did a world of good for Elvis' music. He influenced Elvis to do songs like Steamroller Blues and Don't Think Twice. Have none of you guys seen Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night? James Burton is truly amazing in it. He is given plenty of chances to shine. Some of the guitar solos he plays are just incredible: so difficult yet they sound so good. Bruce Springsteen, given the impossible job of following JB's solos, cannot compete with him at all.

Re: James Burton and his guitar playing

Tue Jun 10, 2014 2:08 am

eligain wrote:
Lonely Summer wrote:I can't believe we are back to criticizing JB as a guitar player. Now granted, he did not get the spotlight with Elvis as often as he should have, but the man is a legend. Have any of you ever heard of a singer (and actor on family sitcom...) named Rick Nelson? James' work on those Rick Nelson records is loved and respected by musicians worldwide - including some musicians that are greatly admired on this board, guys like George Harrison, Keith Richards, Pete Townsend and Dave Davies. Elvis knew what he was doing when he hired one of the best pickers in the biz to lead his band, I can't imagine anyone doing a better job.


Oh, I can imagine a few who would have done a better job.


If the 19th greatest guitarist of all time (according to Rollingstone) wasn't good enough for the king then who on earth was?

Re: James Burton and his guitar playing

Tue Jun 10, 2014 2:16 am

charro1971 wrote:
eligain wrote:
Lonely Summer wrote:I can't believe we are back to criticizing JB as a guitar player. Now granted, he did not get the spotlight with Elvis as often as he should have, but the man is a legend. Have any of you ever heard of a singer (and actor on family sitcom...) named Rick Nelson? James' work on those Rick Nelson records is loved and respected by musicians worldwide - including some musicians that are greatly admired on this board, guys like George Harrison, Keith Richards, Pete Townsend and Dave Davies. Elvis knew what he was doing when he hired one of the best pickers in the biz to lead his band, I can't imagine anyone doing a better job.


Oh, I can imagine a few who would have done a better job.


If the 19th greatest guitarist of all time (according to Rollingstone) wasn't good enough for the king then who on earth was?


The 18th?
I jest. I have a lot of respect for James Burton's playing. There's no denying he's a great guitarist. Personally speaking however, he doesn't float my boat. I don't like his style. But I could say that about a lot of guitarists. Of all the main guitarists Elvis used, he's bottom of my list, but like I say, that's just personal opinion.

Re: James Burton and his guitar playing

Tue Jun 10, 2014 2:24 am

He is a fantastic player, but not my cup of tea.

Re: James Burton and his guitar playing

Tue Jun 10, 2014 2:24 am

sasho wrote:I don't hear variety at all - he Is playing same solo on various songs
his playing style (with Elvis after 1973 for sure) got nothing with rock and roll


There is only one instance I can think of where James Burton played the same solo on two songs and that is the version of Long Tall Sally on On Stage, which is the same as the 1969 Blue Suede Shoes solo.

For most songs James Burton was always changing the guitar solo except songs like That's All Right and Heartbreak Hotel where the guitar solo basically had to stay the same as it was so iconic. Listen to the guitar solos James Burton did for Johnny b Goode in 1971; different each show and completely different to the 1969 versions. The same applies to 1972 and 1973 versions.

Just today I was listening to the recent Touchdown CD Back On Track in Vegas (Jan 1974) and was amazed by the guitar solo in Big Hunk O' Love. A completely new guitar solo even though they had been performing this song regularly since 1972 and Elvis was about to get rid of it for good (sadly).

Re: James Burton and his guitar playing

Tue Jun 10, 2014 4:01 am

mysterytrainrideson wrote:On stage with Elvis, Burton's guitar playing was nothing incredible...he rushed everything and didn't get the chance to "open-up" and explore his talents as a guitarist for the simple reason because that's how Elvis wanted him to play. Elvis was a lazy b*****d and he was getting disinterested as the 70's were on. And the same can be said of his studio work with Elvis, there maybe a couple of songs where there was spark, "Promised Land" comes to mind, but other than that, zero.

James also comes across to me as a bit of a "yes man". A guitarist with a bit of balls in him would've said, "man, you've got to stop playing some of this sh*t". I've read that James was getting $3,000 per show, thats a hell of a lot of money back then, so maybe thats the reason he didn't say anything.

If you want to listen to the REAL James Burton, listen to his work outside of Elvis.

I believe that's more like $3000 a week. No way he was paid that much a show. $3000 a week for sidemen with expenses covered was huge then.

Re: James Burton and his guitar playing

Tue Jun 10, 2014 6:15 am

James is a really good player. He was the perfect compliment to Elvis on stage and Elvis clearly respected his playing.While I believe he was chosen as much for his skill as his Louisana roots, his on stage work is mostly a joy to listen to. On the other hand, his studio work with Elvis in many cases leaves a lot to be desired. Perhaps that was Elvis or the song choices but mayor the solos did sounded like the same thing over and over. I do agree James playing on Black and White Night was inspired.

Re: James Burton and his guitar playing

Tue Jun 10, 2014 6:21 am

Burton was a good mix for Elvis because Burton was a mix of country and rock just like Elvis. I think Scheff was probably the most rocking of the group.

Re: James Burton and his guitar playing

Tue Jun 10, 2014 6:29 am

Burton was fine. His playing was competent, but limited and not particularly memorable. It isn't as if Elvis was stretching the boundaries of his music as the '70s progressed. Burton's legacy as a noteworthy player was solidified with his work with Rick Nelson, but he wasn't the virtuoso that some Elvis fans like to promote.

Re: James Burton and his guitar playing

Tue Jun 10, 2014 7:51 am

eligain wrote:
Lonely Summer wrote:I can't believe we are back to criticizing JB as a guitar player. Now granted, he did not get the spotlight with Elvis as often as he should have, but the man is a legend. Have any of you ever heard of a singer (and actor on family sitcom...) named Rick Nelson? James' work on those Rick Nelson records is loved and respected by musicians worldwide - including some musicians that are greatly admired on this board, guys like George Harrison, Keith Richards, Pete Townsend and Dave Davies. Elvis knew what he was doing when he hired one of the best pickers in the biz to lead his band, I can't imagine anyone doing a better job.


Oh, I can imagine a few who would have done a better job.

There's only so much you can do with the limited spotlight James got during Elvis' shows. There weren't any extended solos, and I suspect some of ya'll that think another guitarist would've done better are thinking that another guitarist would have gotten more solos, longer solos, etc. I think the plain truth is that the average fan in the 70's could've cared less who Elvis had in his band, they were there for reason only - to see "the king". I think Elvis knew this, too, but he tried to spread the spotlight around as much as he could, not just the TCB band, but the backup singers, too. It was a big group with him on stage, and Elvis was usually only on stage for an hour. That doesn't leave much time for long solos. And yet, later, when extended band intros were part of the show, people complained about that! There's just no pleasing this crowd.

Re: James Burton and his guitar playing

Tue Jun 10, 2014 8:20 am

Burton was a country picker. Very clean, twangy guitar with few, if any effects on his sound. He wasn't a rock star like Page, Hendrix,Clapton, etc. That doesn't mean he wasn't a great guitar player. His clean country style may not be everybody's cup of tea.

Re: James Burton and his guitar playing

Tue Jun 10, 2014 9:20 am

The sad thing is the huge difference between Vegas 1969 and Aloha 1973. In 1969 James really rocked, in Aloha I think only in Big Hunk O' Love he showed his potential. Comparing Hound Dog, Blue Suede Shoes and Johnny B.Goode versions of 1969 to 1973 says all. Elvis cut short the songs in Aloha and James guitar solo were eliminated. So i think the main mistake was from Elvis, i cannot blame James for this.