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The unmatched talent of rock and country guitarist James Burton

A man plays an electric guitar.
Scott Dudelson
CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons
James Burton is a 2024 Country Music Association Hall of Fame inductee.

Fifteen Rock and Roll Hall of Famers are members of the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Only one — Chet Atkins — was an acknowledged guitar virtuoso. Until now.

The Country Music Association recently announced James Burton as a 2024 inductee.
A rock and country guitar fountainhead since the 50’s, Burton’s influence spans genres and generations. Among his disciples: Keith Richards, Brian May, Albert Lee, Elvis Costello, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Pete Anderson, Brad Paisley and Pete Townshend.

Burton, born in 1939, grew up in Shreveport, La., captivated by the blues and country guitarists he heard on local radio. He began playing at 13 and turned pro a year later. Playing a new Fender Telecaster his parents bought him, he joined the Louisiana Hayride, a local, Grand Ole Opry-style weekly stage and radio show. Telecasters became his guitar of choice.


“Susie-Q”: Working with Shreveport blues and rockabilly singer Dale Hawkins, Burton wrote a bluesy instrumental. When Hawkins added lyrics, it became his 1957 hit “Oh! Susie Q.”

Later covered by the Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival (their first hit), Burton’s opening lick inspired John Fogerty’s snarling intro on CCR’s 1970 classic “Green River.”

Rockin’ With Ricky: Burton was recording in Hollywood with former ex-Hayride rockabilly singer Bob Luman in 1957 when he met Ricky Nelson, 17 year-old co-star (with brother David) in his parents’ hit ABC sitcom “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” and a hit rock singer. Ricky hired Burton for TV, tours and recording. Ozzie, the show’s producer, added music segments promoting Ricky’s records and making Burton the era’s most visible rock guitarist.

Jazz guitar great Bill Frisell warmly recalls seeing Burton in action on the show. “I didn’t know his name, but [I remember] seeing him with Ricky Nelson when I was a kid. He’s so amazing.”

Chicken Pickin’: Burton offers his take on Hayride alumnus Elvis Presley’s early music and how he created his signature “chicken pickin’” style. He’s praised by Skunk Baxter and Pete Townshend, and seen in a 1961 “Ozzie and Harriet” segment playing one of his most memorable solos: on “Hello Mary Lou.” For filming, he sometimes held guitars other than his Telecaster.

1958: “Believe What You Say”

The Wrecking Crew: Burton left Nelson in 1965 to join the elite group of Hollywood studio musicians known as the “Wrecking Crew,” which included future stars Glen Campbell and Leon Russell. He played on countless rock and country hits recorded there and in 1970, appeared on “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour” playing Dobro on Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen.”

Elvis: A Burton fan since the Ricky Nelson days, Presley hired Burton in 1969 to organize what became the TCB Band. This clip, from Presley’s “Aloha from Hawaii” concert, shows Burton and Elvis in top form. He remained with Presley until his death in 1977.

Emmylou: Burton, was the original guitarist in Emmylou Harris’s legendary Hot Band, is seen here with her on the BBC pop music show “The Old Grey Whistle Test” playing “Amarillo.” Playing guitar and singing harmony: future Nashville star Rodney Crowell.

Elvis Costello: The other Elvis knew who to call for authentic rockabilly picking on “Glitter Gulch” from his “King of America” album. Burton toured occasionally with him, as well.

1988: Burton and the core of the TCB band reunited for the Cinemax special “A Black and White Night with Roy Orbison.” On “Oh! Pretty Woman,” he duels with Bruce Springsteen as Costello and Andrew Gold play acoustic rhythm; Jackson Browne sings backup.

2023: Burton, who rebounded from 2022 kidney cancer and a broken hip, continues to perform and record. His James Burton Foundation makes guitars available to worthy causes. The June, 2023 London tribute “James Burton and Friends” featured Burton with Sir Brian May, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter,” Ronnie Wood, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello and younger disciples. They brought it full circle with “Susie Q,” joined by Wood, May and (far left) Baxter.

Pete Anderson, who played a Telecaster behind Dwight Yoakam and produced his biggest hits, ably summarizes Burton’s as “a white blues guy from the south,” playing “country, almost blues-country.” He was a young guy, revved up with a Telecaster through an amplifier. He got to set the table. Nobody was lookin’ over his shoulder.”

Rich Kienzle is an award-winning music critic, journalist and historian and author of three books. A former contributing editor of "Country Music Magazine" and "No Depression," his work has appeared in "Texas Monthly," the "Austin American-Statesman," "Fretboard Journal" and the "Pittsburgh Post-Gazette." He has also authored liner notes for numerous historic CD reissues.