Blast From the Past: Link Wray’s “Rumble” - EMusician

Blast From the Past: Link Wray’s “Rumble”

“Rumble,” one of the most primitive and exciting guitar instrumentals ever laid to tape, didn’t even have a name when it was recorded, and it almost wasn’t released at all.
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The classic track was rescued from obscurity when the 17-year-old daughter of Cadence Records owner Archie Bleyer grabbed the acetate while looking for music to play at a birthday party. The kids flipped, Bleyer smelled a hit (the song reached #16 on the national charts in 1958), and his daughter ended up naming the song because it reminded her of the fight scene in West Side Story.

The late Link Wray made up “Rumble” on the spot at one of deejay Milt Grant’s record hops after the dancers asked for a stroll.

“I didn’t know a stroll, so I just started playing,” said Wray, who launched into perhaps the nastiest two-chord intro in rock. “My brother took the vocal mic and put it in front of my amp, and it just distorted the heck out of the small P.A. speakers.”

Impressed by the audience hysteria, Grant brought Wray and his band into U.S. Recorders in Washington, D.C.

“That place wasn’t even a music studio—politicians went there to record speeches,” remembered Wray. “The engineer had never recorded music before, so when he miked my brother’s drums, he accidentally put the kick mic behind the drum, by Doug’s foot. That’s how we got that knocking bass drum sound.”

Wray stood in front of the drums and pointed his Premier amp—with two 10" speakers, a 15" speaker, and built-in reverb and tremolo—towards a wall to minimize leakage. Standup bassist Shorty Horton stood to Wray’s left, with a mic taped to his internal soundpost through a hole kicked in the instrument during a bar fight. Another Wray brother, Vernon, played acoustic guitar seated just behind the drums, and was tracked with a single boom mic.

“I tried to remember how the song sounded at the gig to make those kids scream,” said Wray, who rumbled with a 1953 Les Paul. “Right away, I missed the distortion, so I compensated by punching holes in the amp’s 10" speakers with a pencil. Then I put one mic on each of the distorting speakers and another mic on the clean 15".

“It took three takes to get the sound I wanted because everything was mixed down to a one-track Grundig. After the first take, I asked for the kick drum to be louder. The second take was okay, but I wanted to do another one. That third take sounded so good, I said, ‘I ain’t messing with it any more.’”

Grant paid $57 for the session, cut the deal with Bleyer, and reaped plentiful rewards.

“He stole everything,” said Wray. “I was just a nobody.”

TIE A RIBBON. . .

Many professional engineers laud the natural, organic sounds produced by ribbon microphones, and have been using these mics to great effect when recording electric or acoustic guitars. Ribbons have been around since the 1930s, and the thin ribbon that actually captures the signals used to be so delicate that a vocal plosive (such as a “pa” sound)—or even a sudden wind—would shred the sucker like a starved cheetah. These days, ribbons are much stronger, and they can easily stand up to blasting guitars, and even loud drums. The other good thing is that modern technology has reduced the price points of these once-expensive beauties so that the average home-studio owner can add a ribbon to his or her mic cabinet. Here are three models worth checking out.

Royer Labs R121. While still expensive at a street price of around $1,300, the R121 was one of the first “affordable” ribbons to break into pro studios. I’ve used this mic on countless guitar sessions—both as a close mic and a room mic—and its natural, almost uncolored focus is fabulous for those times when a more organic, even “vintage” guitar sound is desired.

Electro-Harmonix EH-R1. The street price on this puppy is just $299, which makes it a pretty fabulous deal. I haven’t used this mic personally, but I attended a session where the engineer was using it as the sole mic for an acoustic jumbo, and it captured the shimmer and low-end chunk of the guitar beautifully.

Nady RSM-2. Nady makes an entire line of affordable ribbons, but the $199 (street price) RSM-2 is pretty astounding. It’s a versatile mic that is natural, yet very detailed when used to track acoustics, and it totally rocks on electrics. It nails the punch and push of ramaging 4x12 cabinets with ease, but doesn’t over-emphasize the mids.