Hands up those who think the Dutch-born American rock guitarist Eddie Van Halen invented two-handed guitar tapping? It’s not true, of course, with Eddie always saying he was originally inspired by Jimmy Page’s ‘Heartbreaker’ solo, on Led Zeppelin’s self-titled 1969 debut album.
But guitar tapping goes back much farther. In Jim Carlton’s 2009 book, ‘Conversations With Great Jazz and Studio Guitarists’, Ted Greene, the famous American jazz and blues guitarist, author and Guitar Player columnist remembered the American blues guitarist Randy Resnick pioneering guitar tapping back in the early 1970s. Resnick’s tapping innovations are also documented by Grammy-winning jazz guitarist, Lee Ritenour, in Guitarist magazine and in Abel Sanchez’s 2005 book ‘Van Halen 101’, forwarded by Queen guitarist Brian May.
Folks of a certain age might well remember the name. Here’s a reminder: Randy Resnick made his name playing guitar with the LA blues band, Pure Food and Drug Act, in the early 70s, alongside former Johnny Otis and Kaleidoscope drummer, Paul Lagos; original Canned Heat bassist, Larry Taylor; and the legendary enfant terrible of electric blues violin, Don ‘Sugarcane’ Harris.
All four musicians played with the celebrated English blues bandleader, John Mayall, whose past band members include Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Peter Green, former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie (Fleetwood Mac) and Andy Fraser of Free.
Still going strong, John Mayall is 88 in November.
Randy Resnick has also played with John Lee Hooker and Freddie King, but let’s get back to Randy’s two-handed guitar tapping. Said the late guitar guru Ted Greene:
“I heard a guy out here (in California) named Randy Resnick, who’s a legend among a few other guitarists in L.A., like Jay Graydon and Dan Sawyer, some of the best players, because he wanted to sound like John Coltrane in the late Sixties and early Seventies. He tried for ten or twenty years to do it … He had very high standards and really wanted to sound like Trane and he ended up coming up with the two-handed (guitar tapping) thing way back then. Of course Jimmy Webster had done it, but Resnick’s version of it was with the lines of Coltrane and Dolphy’s. So he sounded like an avant-garde jazzer way back then. And it was so far ahead of what we had heard other guitarists doing. And then he disappeared.”
To be mentioned in the same breath as legendary jazz saxophonists John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, not to mention two-time Grammy winner Jay Graydon and award-winning composer Dan Sawyer, means we’re not talking about your usual blues and jazz guitarist here. We’re talking about a guitar innovator who suddenly chose to drop out of the American music scene. Here’s why:
“I used to play with the great blues harp player, John ‘Juke’ Logan’, but around 1980, the situation in California was changing.” And not for the better. John Logan (1946 – 2013), incidentally, one of America’s top electric blues harmonica players, was also a pianist, singer and songwriter who, like Resnick, had recorded and toured with John Mayall. Juke Logan features on albums by Etta James, J.J. Cale, John Lee Hooker, ex-Rolling Stone Mick Taylor and Percy Sledge amongst others, but is probably best remembered now for playing the theme music for worldwide TV hit comedies ‘Home Improvement’ (in which he appeared) and ‘Rosanne’; and for the ‘Crossroads’ and ‘La Bamba’ movie soundtracks.
In 1980, new wave was at its peak. But electro, techno, house, dance music, synthesizers and synth-pop music were all emerging. In California, clubs began changing how bands were paid. Venues started demanding artists produced their own concerts, take tickets at the door and rent the house PA if they didn’t bring their own. “After all the years I’d spent playing in bars, this was, for me, the end of an era,” said Randy. As Ted Greene said, Randy Resnick disappeared. So where did he go? Having a French wife, he moved to Paris, and has never looked back. But more about that later.
Randy Resnick meets the Beatles.
Hailing from Minneapolis, Randy Resnick’s first brush with fame was as a teenager at a Beatles press conference when he presented a Rickenbacker 12-string electric guitar to George Harrison on behalf of Minnesota’s musicians. After applauding young Randy, each Beatle shook Randy’s hand, and it was all caught on film. Check it out below. George Harrison subsequently played the guitar on a couple of Beatles tracks.
Moving to Los Angeles in 1969, Randy Resnick joined the Pure Food and Drug Act, through his friend and mentor, drummer Paul Lagos. The band was set up to showcase the amazing talents of singer and violinist Sugarcane Harris, who also played piano, guitar and harmonica. Frank Zappa, a big Sugarcane fan, reportedly bailed Harris out of jail more than once, getting the violinist to play on many Zappa albums including ‘Hot Rats’ and ‘Weasels Ripped My Flesh’. Harris also played on Captain Beefheart albums.
Born Don Bowman, Sugarcane Harris earlier formed the 1950s R&B doo-wop duo Don and Dewey with his childhood friend Dewey Terry. Among their compositions were ‘Farmer John’ recorded by the Searchers, and ‘I’m Leaving It Up To You, a number one hit in the USA for Dale and Grace in 1963. The song also reached number four in the Billboard Hot 100 and number two in the UK when covered by Donny and Marie (Osmond) in 1974.
Remembered Resnick, “Don and Paul used to do long duets on violin and drums, where there was like a jungle beat with Don’s violin flying all over the place, sometimes citing classical riffs”. (Sugarcane had studied classical violin.)
Randy Resnick on Sugarcane Harris.
“Sugarcane has many fans worldwide, although he never reached the heights he should have done, due to his heroin and cocaine use. Had Don remained sober he could have been another Jimi Hendrix.” Fortuitously, both Sugarcane Harris and Dewey Terry later played alongside Jimi Hendrix touring Europe with Little Richard’s band. As John Mayall once said, “Sugarcane’s violin playing has the same sort of vitality an electric guitar has”. The Sugarcane nickname, incidentally, came from Johnny Otis, regarding Don’s reputation as a ladies’ man.
Sugarcane sang, and played double stops, imitating a horn section, said Randy. “That gave the band (PFDA) a solid sound. His pizzicato (strumming not bowing) was another great groove he’d do. I copied that on my mandolin. Our most popular song, ‘My Soul’s On Fire’ was in 10/4 time.”
With Sugarcane being such a hard guy to pin down, often disappearing due to his drug habit, it’s not surprising the Pure Food and Drug Act never rehearsed. “Never, ever. We had very long songs with original grooves, creating excitement with drum and violin dynamics.” Add to that Randy Resnick’s innovative two-handed tapping and you had a band creating tremendous excitement when playing live, sending crowds wild.
“I wasn’t the first (to do tapping), but I did different things with it,” Randy said. As Ted Greene said, the Count Basie and Woodie Herman guitarist and long-time Gretsch guitar designer, Jimmy Webster, “had done” guitar tapping in the 1940s. He even wrote an instruction book on hammering-on in 1952 which he called ‘The Touch System’. Even earlier, as Webster said in his book, the guitar pick-up pioneer Harry DeArmond developed a fretboard tapping technique to promote the sensitivity of his new pick-ups, sometimes playing two guitars simultaneously. DeArmond pick-ups today, of course, are now considered classics. Randy also knows of a ukulele player in the 1920s or 30s who liked to get stuck into a bit of tapping.
So, what inspired Randy Resnick to start guitar tapping? “John Coltrane’s ‘Sheets of Sound’ legato”, he said. Master saxophonist Coltrane developed his ‘Sheets of Sound’ style of improvisation, a new form of jazz, in the late 1950s, featuring cascades of arpeggios running in rapid fire. Coltrane obviously inspired Randy Resnick so much, the guitarist took up playing saxophone, which he now says he enjoys playing even more than guitar.
“I am more interested in saxophone, realising I should have taken it up 40 years ago. I’m more into jazz now but still play some blues on sax and sax synth. The other inspiration for tapping was African tribal music, where a player sings then blows rhythmically into a bottle. I loved that bottle music.” (Herbie Hancock, whose band members play on Randy Resnick’s Spotify tracks, uses the technique on his later rendition of ‘Watermelon Man’).
For all his brilliance, playing his electric violin with a searing, distorted Hendrix-like tone, the unreliability of Sugarcane Harris became too much for bassist Larry Taylor, who left the Pure Food and Drug Act to re-join John Mayall. He was replaced by Randy’s friend from a previous band, Victor Conte. Also joining was former Canned Heat and John Mayall guitarist, Harvey Mandel. But Harris’ unreliability continued and after only one album, ‘Choice Cuts’ (since reissued) Pure Food and Drug Act folded. Conte went on to join Tower of Power and Herbie Hancock, and Resnick and Lagos joined John Mayall.
Randy Resnick on John Mayall.
“He loves to change everything around, including the music and that’s great. He was constantly changing: from no drums, to acoustic guitar, to violin with Sugarcane, and recently, with no guitar, in a trio with just drums and bass. Those tours with him were great fun, but the music was pretty strange, not really blues.” Randy played on Mayall’s ‘Latest Edition’ album in 1974, his last on Polydor.
One of his more memorable moments with John Mayall was in Spain with Salvador Dali’s legendary wife and muse, the Russian-born Marchioness of Dali de Púbol. Randy penned a memory, below
“I last saw John (Mayall) here in France a couple of years ago. He was happy to chat to me and said, graciously, “I’ve always liked the way you play, Randy.”
Randy Resnick on living in France.
“My wife and I moved to Paris in 1980. She had a thesis to finish there, so I thought why not? My brother, (Art Resnick, a jazz pianist who’s played with many of the world’s most famous names) was also in Paris for a while.”
In Los Angeles, Randy had supplemented his musician’s income working for laser effects pioneer, Laserium, who put on laser shows for the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and so on. So he started doing laser effects in Paris. He also had a trio there, playing mostly guitar synthesizer on which he could replicated the sounds of Hammond organs, grand pianos and horn sections with guitar doubling. “Audiences loved it but today people think you’re playing pre-recorded tracks, so it no longer has its original impact.” Here’s an example:
‘African Queen of the Parisian Night’ (above) and another song recorded in Paris, ‘Woman in White’ (below) were included on Randy’s 1995 CD ‘To Love’, (put out under the non de plume Randy Rare), featuring songs mostly recorded in California.
“I’ve recently re-released most of that material with earlier fusion stuff, with the guys from Tower of Power and Herbie Hancock’s Monster Band. They’re only rough mixes, but are good songs, musically, and there’s a good feeling to them, thanks to the guys. I’m also redoing some of those on saxophone. Other CDs include Larry Taylor, Tom Waits, Victor Conte and Nate Ginsberg.”
Here’s ‘Woman in White’, which nicely show off Randy’s sublime guitar playing.
Also in the 1990s, Randy and his wife started a company building websites. Three of their biggest clients were top Bordeaux wine producers. “We lived and worked in Paris for 20 years, then moved here to Bordeaux (in the south of France) because of the wine clients.”
In October, 2012, Canned Heat asked Randy Resnick to replace his old Pure Food and Drug Act bandmate, Harvey Mandel, on their French tour. Harvey needed to fly back to California for a family emergency. Randy played Bergerac and Avignon but was unable to play the rest of the dates due to prior commitments.
Randy and his wife closed their website company a few years ago and he retired. “My wife still teaches at a private business school,” he said. “Bordeaux is a great place to live, especially with the public health care in France.”