Country guitar legend Jimmy Capps dies aged 81

(Image credit: Ed Rode/WireImage)

Jimmy Capps, a member of the Grand Ole Opry and the Musicians Hall of Fame who played electric and acoustic guitar on some of country music’s greatest recordings, including Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler and George Jones’ He Stopped Loving You Today, has died at age 81. 

No cause of death has been revealed.

Capps was born on May 25th, 1939, in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He began playing at 12, when his parents bought him a Stella guitar.

“The strings were an inch high off the fretboard,” he recalled in his 2018 autobiography The Man in Back.

“It played hard. You could only play C and G chords. The further up the neck you went, the more your fingers hurt. It was a cheap guitar, but I thought it was the greatest thing in the world.”

Capps started working in television and radio almost immediately, but his career launched in earnest in 1958, when he auditioned to be the guitarist in the Louvin Brothers’ band. He was formally asked to join the duo by Charlie Louvin.

“Thanks to Charlie… I guess I owe my whole career to him,” Capps wrote. “That one split-second decision that he made is the reason I am here.”

Capps debuted on the Grand Ole Opry stage with the Louvins, performing their murder ballad Knoxville Girl; the following year he became an Opry member. 

In 1967 he joined the house band at the Opry as the lead guitarist, backing guest performers each week up until his death.

Beyond his steady work at the Opry, Capps was an in-demand session man on acoustic and electric guitar. According to his biography, Capps at one time averaged more than 500 sessions a year.

In addition to The Gambler and He Stopped Loving You Today, Capps can be heard on Tammy Wynette’s Stand by Your Man, Barbara Mandrell’s I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool, George Strait’s Amarillo By Morning, Conway Twitty’s The Rose, the Oak Ridge Boys’ Elvira and many, many others.

Among Capps' many accolades include being honored as one of the "Nashville Cats" by the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2012, and his induction into the Musicians Hall of Fame, alongside Peter Frampton, Barbara Mandrell and Buddy Guy, in 2014. He was also honored by the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2018.

Regarding his longevity and success, Capps told the American Federation of Musicians in 2019:

“Attitude is 75% of it. Get along with your fellow pickers, and your peers will be the keys to the kingdom; they’ll recommend you to other people. I think that has helped me through the years as well: having a good attitude.

“You’re there for the artist, you’re there for the song, and you need to do your very best for those two items.”

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Richard Bienstock

Rich is the co-author of the best-selling Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion. He is also a recording and performing musician, and a former editor of Guitar World magazine and executive editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine. He has authored several additional books, among them Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the companion to the documentary of the same name.