The Third Man

A few weeks ago, I posted an article about Mike Bloomfield in which I cited him as one of three guitarists to whom I believe we owe a great debt of gratitude for their pioneering role in the development of rock guitar playing.

One of the remaining two players mentioned was Eric Clapton.

My own personal ‘evolutionary theory’ of rock guitar goes as follows:

Clapton gave the genre the overall sound – distortion, linked with controlled bends and vibrato  – Bloomfield contributed the vision to look outside the restrictive blues-based pentatonics that can drag rock guitar into cliché and the third player gave us the legato techniques and chops which added a melodic feel and flow into the mix.  

My contention is that if these three players hadn’t been so innovative as individuals and so influential then rock guitar would sound very different today.

So…Clapton, Bloomfield and who?

Step forward the late, great Ollie Halsall.

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Now, if you weren’t aware of Bloomfield, then Ollie’s almost certainly going to be someone you may not have heard of.

A lot of people have certainly heard him – on the early Rutles recordings – and seen him – in the Rutles movie, in which he played Leppo, the fifth Rutle who disappeared.

No matter how great Ollie’s part in the Rutles was, there’s far more to him than this, however.

Emerging in the early 1960s as the vibes player in a band called Timebox with singer Mike Patto at the helm, Ollie taught himself to play guitar whilst with Timebox and when the band morphed into the sublime Patto, he was ready to play some of the most amazing guitar you’ll ever hear and all by 1970. He was a bloody good pianist too.

No-one in rock before him had ever played guitar like Ollie.

Absolutely no-one.

His playing was defined by long winding runs given an amazing fluency by his use of hammer-ons and pull-offs and all within musical structures which owed little to blues and more to jazz and even, dare I say, fusion.

Ollie’s late-blooming prowess on guitar influenced a young Alan Holdsworth when the two met in John Hiseman’s Tempest after Patto split up. Holdsworth’s refinement of Halsall’s legato runs, in turn, influenced a certain young chap called Edward Van Halen who wrote a whole new chapter of what became known as shred guitar. Listen to Eddie’s playing and you can hear Halsall in there as clear as day.

Make no mistake, Ollie was an unknown but highly innovative player whose explorations of long fluid runs mark him as one of the key figures in the development of modern rock guitar.

His recorded legacy is patchy, to say the least. Like virtually all great lead guitarists, his major work is as a backing musician – not as the featured player. Consequently, we have a handful of Patto releases, collaborations with people like Kevin Ayres and John Cale, albums with his later band Boxer when he was united with Mike Patto and various other recordings – many made on the continent during one of Ollie’s length stays abroad.

I can only whole-heatedly recommend the Patto studio releases – all of which feature plenty of very dense and intense playing. To be honest, it’s not always easy listening due to its sheer mass in terms of notes per second. My favourite Ollie track is ‘Loud Green Song’ from a bootleg of BBC radio sessions where he shows what he could do with his style in a straightforward rock setting.

Unfortunately, Ollie’s life story wasn’t a particularly happy one. Dead from a heroin overdose in 1992 aged just 43, Ollie enjoyed getting regularly wrecked on anything he could get his hands on. Even the rest of Patto – his most rewarding association – seem to have shared his bad luck, with Mike Patto dying of cancer, bassist Clive Jenkins currently suffering from severe brain damage and drummer John Halsey physically disabled – from the same car accident as Jenkins.

Sure, listen to Ollie and you’ll hear lots of qualities and characteristics that marked early shred and fusion guitar and now seem hackneyed, but then think when he was playing like this – in 1970.

So, there we have my own personal Holy Trinity of rock guitar – Clapton, Bloomfield and Halsall.

All I can add to this influential and indispensible mix of key players is Hendrix’s use of the recording studio as an extension of his guitar playing and I believe we have the key elements of modern rock guitar and the right people credited – something long overdue in the cases of Mike Bloomfield and Ollie Halsall.

For much, much more on Ollie please go here. It’s an excellent resource and has video and audio clips of Ollie.

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2 Responses

  1. Hi Steve

    Like your piece on Ollie, which I came acroos by pure chance. I absolutely agree about Bloomfied, he almost gets as few mentions as Halsall. I ‘m afraid I would have to put Jimi up in the top two though, not just for the studio stuff. And there’s always Richard Thompson, of course :o)

    Thanks for the website plug. If you want, I can link to this.

    Best

    Barry Monks

  2. I’d be delighted to get a link from a site I’ve admired for quite a few years now!

    Of course, ‘bests’, ‘mosts’ and ‘greatests’ put one on shaky ground, but certainly Ollie is one of music’s best-kept secrets and deserves far wider recognition.

    RT – what a player! I’ve seen him a few times and he never ceases to amaze.

    Nice to hear from you!

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