Prime Cuts: Lynyrd Skynyrd
Guitarist Gary Rossington explains the origins of some of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s—and rock’s—finest moments.
“We used a lot of D-C-G progressions,” Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Gary Rossington says with a shrug and a laugh about his band’s songwriting process. “There’s only seven chords, so you got to use the same ones over and over. It’s all in what you do with them. I could write a dozen different songs with the same three or four chords but they’d all be entirely different.”
Rossington and company certainly have always had a knack for doing a lot with a little. For while Skynyrd are renowned for their aggressive, three-guitar attack and the seemingly endless soloing such a lineup inevitably produces, what’s really made Skynyrd a staple of classic rock radio is their songs: instantly memorable four-minute rockers like “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Gimme Three Steps” and “What’s Your Name,” as well as extended ballads such as “Simple Man,” “Tuesday’s Gone” and, of course, “Free Bird.” Remarkably, the latter, one of rock’s most-played, best-loved songs, was one of the first songs Lynyrd Skynyrd ever wrote—penned when singer Ronnie Van Zant and guitarists Allen Collins and Gary Rossington were still in their teens.
Like virtually all of their material, “Free Bird” was written as a collaboration between Van Zant and one the group’s guitarists. This loose but consistent formula served Skynyrd extremely well, producing classic songs which quickly made them one of the nation’s most popular bands. By 1975, however, when third guitarist Ed King left the group suffering from burnout, Skynyrd had fallen into a bit of a creative rut, as reflected by Gimme Back My Bullets, an unusually flaccid affair. Before anybody could write the band’s epitaph, however, they added guitarist Steve Gaines, whose songwriting and phenomenal playing infused them with a new energy. The rejuvenated band shines on 1976’s live One More for the Road and the following year’s Street Survivors. The latter is one of the best-arranged and played guitar albums in rock history.
Tragically, before the group could reap the fruits of this rebirth, their chartered plane crashed into a Mississippi swamp on October 20, 1977, killing three members—including Gaines and Van Zant—seriously injuring everyone else and seemingly forever putting an end to the group.
A decade later, the surviving members of the group got together for a “Tribute” tour with Van Zant’s brother, Johnnie, taking over as vocalist. Enthusiastic audience response led to a full-time reunion, which has produced numerous albums, most recently 2003’s Vicious Cycle (Sanctuary). Here, Rossington recalls the origins of some of the band’s best-loved tunes.
pronounced leh-nerd skin-nerd (1973)
“I don’t remember that one. Could you sing it for me? Oh, okay. Allen had the chords for the beginning, pretty part for two full years. We were just beginning to write—that was actually one of the first songs we ever completed—and Ronnie kept saying that there were too many chords so he couldn’t find a melody for it. He thought that he had to change with every chord change. We kept asking him to write something to these chords and he kept telling us to forget about it!
“Then one day we were at rehearsal and Allen started playing those chords, and Ronnie said, ‘Those are pretty. Play them again.’ Allen played it again, and Ronnie said, ‘Okay, I got it.’ And he wrote the lyrics in three or four minutes—the whole damned thing! He came up with a lot of stuff that way, and he never wrote anything down. His motto was if you can’t remember it, it’s not worth remembering.
“So we started playing it in clubs, but it was just the slow part. Then Ronnie said, ‘Why don’t you do something at the end of that so I can take a break for a few minutes.’ So I came up with those three chords at the end and Allen played over them, then I soloed and then he soloed. It all evolved out of a jam one night. So we started playing it that way, but Ronnie kept saying, ‘It’s not long enough. Make it longer.’ Because we were playing three or four sets a night, and he was looking to fill it up. Then one of our roadies told us we should check out this piano part that another roadie, Billy Powell, had come up with as an intro for the song. We did—and he went from being a roadie to a member right then.