Though the name James Burton may not immediately ring a bell for everyone, you've almost certainly heard his playing. If, somehow, you haven't, you've definitely heard someone whose playing owes Burton a great debt.
Burton's list of session credits – even among the titans of the Nashville electric guitar scene – is mind-boggling. Country greats spanning multiple generations (Brad Paisley and George Jones), R&B and soul legends (Ray Charles), Great American Songbook masters (Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin), and rockabilly pioneers (Ricky Nelson and Jerry Lee Lewis) have all utilized the Louisiana native's services. Oh and, of course, he served as Elvis Presley's live guitarist for eight years.
Though the names he backed got much of the adulation, fame, and credit for shaping rock and roll as its known today, Burton arguably deserves just as much recognition as the Elvises and Ricky Nelsons of the world. It was his supple fretwork, after all, that guitarists cutting their teeth on rock's formative tracks were focusing on.
“I never bought a Ricky Nelson record, I bought a James Burton record,” Keith Richards explained when inducting Burton into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.
As one can glean from the breadth of his discography, Burton can handle just about anything that's thrown at him, but it's in the country and rockabilly arenas that the guitar legend really shines.
An example of that prowess can be seen in the killer clip below, in which – around about the 1:35 mark – Burton gives an up-close demonstration of his awe-inspiring chicken pickin' technique.
Props to whoever was behind the camera, because as the clip goes on, you really get to see the intricacies of Burton's right-hand work, and how he gets that squawking tone out of his signature Telecaster.
Of course, Burton wasn't the only influential practitioner of chicken pickin', but the overall impact of his signature guitar sound – a Southern-fried blend of that aforementioned country twang and the urgency of up-tempo blues – was instrumental in paving the way for the breathtaking evolution of the guitar in the 1960s.
Think of any giant of rock guitar who came to prominence in that era – they've, almost without exception, either explicitly tried to capture Burton's magic by covering a song he played on, or tipped their cap to him in one way or the other.
Susie Q – an early rock 'n' roll standard Burton played on when he was just 17 years old – was covered by Creedence Clearwater Revival early in their career, and became their first major hit. The Rolling Stones' spirited take on the song, meanwhile, served as the closing track on their second album.
In the 2018 documentary, Still On The Run: The Jeff Beck Story, Jimmy Page recalled how he and Beck would learn, and subsequently compare notes on, Burton's solos.
“We were really, really keen on exactly the same things, with the Gene Vincent records and Ricky Nelson records,” Page said of his and Beck's formative early days.
“There were all these fine guitar solos by James Burton, and one of the things that we would ask of each other was ‘What’s your version of [Nelson's] My Babe?’ ‘OK, what’s your version?’ That sort of seemed to be a common ground between most guitarists around that time, to see how well other guys could cut [that] solo.”
In an email to Burton, Paul McCartney wrote, “I want to wish you a very happy 75th birthday, and let you know how much I have loved your work for many years, and what a hero you are to me and many of my generation.”
Pete Townshend, meanwhile, said simply, “Jimmy Burton was an absolute groundbreaker as a player.”
It's not just those that came of age in the '60s and '70s who appreciate Burton, though.
A Burton tribute show held at the London Palladium in June of this year, for instance, featured an awe-inspiring lineup that included not only older classic rock legends (Brian May, Albert Lee, Ronnie Wood, and Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter), but a number of younger guitar stars as well, such as Arielle and Christone "Kingfish" Ingram.
Even Gen Z was featured at the tribute show, with 11-year-old Britain's Got Talent star Harry Churchill joining the assembled all-stars for a rendition of Johnny B. Goode.
Though he casts an incredibly long shadow, Burton remains humble about his influence and legacy.
In a 2021 Guitar Player interview, Burton – while recollecting his time in Tom Jones' band – reflected on being an inspiration for the likes of Page and Beck.
“Tom’s guitarist for many years was Big Jim Sullivan, and he once said to me, 'I used to teach guitar in England and do you know who my students were?'
“I told him I had no idea,” Burton went on, “He said, ‘Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck – and these guys wanted to play like you.’
“I felt pretty honored by that. I mean, I wish I could play like them.”