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Music

How to play guitar like Chicago's Terry Kath

@TylerGolsen

Chicago has a very specific reputation in modern music culture. Even though they are a self-described “rock and roll band with horns”, Chicago found the secret to success fairly early on: people love sappy ballads.

Soft rock was a rising genre as the 1970s began to solidify. There had always been wimpy and schlocky pop music that followed this formula, but now some of the biggest rock stars on the planet were getting in on it. Elton John figured out how to crank out ballad after ballad while still retaining some edge on his rock songs, but it was mostly Los Angeles-based groups like the Eagles and Bread who cracked the code on slowing things down to a gentle rock.

With the high shrieking pipes of Peter Cetera and an already built-in horn section to really lay the cheese on thick, Chicago embraced the softer side of rock in the mid ’70s and never stopped throughout the rest of their still-ongoing career. Songs like ‘Colour My World’, ‘Hard to Say I’m Sorry’ and ‘If You Leave Me Now’ made Chicago one of the wussiest bands in America, and by 1978, they lost their one real connection to the world of rock and roll.

That’s because Terry Kath, the band’s wild man lead guitarist and gruff baritone singer, had shot himself in the head while messing around with his collection of guns. For a solid decade, Kath had provided the necessary counterbalance to Chicago’s increasingly soft material. Hidden in a band that was the constant target of derision from “real” rock fans, there was one of the greatest rock and roll guitarists of all time.

Kath was a musical prodigy, picking up a number of instruments including bass and drums at a young age. He began gigging around the city of Chicago as a teenager, but he didn’t even gravitate towards the guitar until the first iteration of the Chicago Transit Authority began to solidify. It didn’t take him long to find his voice on the guitar, however, as their titular record proved: ‘Introduction’ showcased his adeptness in jazz forms, while ‘Free Form Guitar’ provided an early pedestal for his sonic exploration of the fretboard.

For the next ten years, Kath continued to provide necessary jolts of R&B-influenced rock and roll to Chicago’s catalogue. ‘Make Me Smile’, ‘Movin’ In’, ‘Free’, and ‘Dialogue (Part I)’ were keeping Chicago fresh, even as they were starting to abandon most of their jazz and hard rock leanings. By the late ’70s, disco and soft rock became the primary focuses in the band, and Kath’s role as both a guitarist and vocalist were becoming less important. Still, Kath kept providing material, and he sings four tracks on his final album with the band, 1977’s Chicago XI.

Kath’s guitar playing was something else. Look no further than the utmost authority on all things guitar, Jimi Hendrix, who allegedly called Kath the best guitarist in the universe. What Hendrix likely picked up on was Kath’s raw, unstoppable drive. Whether it was through the use of rapid pull-offs, lightning-fast runs, or fierce sustained tones, Kath could keep up with any of rock’s greatest six-string players.

In order to play like Kath, the first you need to do is sit down and practice your finger dexterity. Kath played fast, and most impressively not at the expense of melody. He was an expert in scales, and his solos always found the perfect notes, even if the chord progressions were outside of the traditional rock structure. If you listen to any live version of ’25 or 6 to 4′ with Kath on it, you can hear just how fast his mind works. He’s improvising all the time, his combination of hammer-ons and pull-offs speed by you like a freight train. The man had completely control over his left hand, and could get anywhere on the fretboard in record time.

The tools you choose to use in replicating Kath’s playing is important too. Kath frequently swapped out guitars in his early years, using Fender Stratocasters, Gibson SGs, and even the Gibson Les Paul Professional for a time. But Kath eventually settled on the Fender Telecaster which he modified with a humbucker pickup. The “Pignose” Tele, named for the collection of stickers on the body, became Kath’s definitive guitar and was used on most of his final records with Chicago in the mid-to-late ’70s.

When it came to amplification, Kath never stuck to just one amp. Fender Dual Showmans, 60-Watt Knight amps, and a Knight Heathkit Tube Amplifier all came and went in the early years of Chicago. But starting in 1972, Kath became involved with the Pignose Amplifier company. The small practice amps were too low-powered for his powerful live performance, but he was an advocate for the Legendary 7-100 amplifier that became Pignose’s signature design, and his association with the company continues on to this day.

When it comes to effects, Kath is once again all over the board. The famous noise-filled playing of ‘Free Form Guitar’ was actually all amp and fingers, with no external pedals connected to Kath’s rig. When he played live, however, he used a similar setup to Hendrix: Maestro phase shifter, a Cry Baby wah wah and a Fuzz Face helped bring his killer riffs to life. Throughout his life, you can hear examples of Kath playing with echo units, Leslie speakers, and even flangers (most notably of ‘Feelin’ Stronger Every Day’), but if you’re looking to key into Kath’s signature sound, the phase-wah-fuzz combo is all your need.

Another important part of Kath’s playing was his choice of string gauge. Kath’s strings of choice were unorthodox – his high E string would be replaced with a thinner tenor guitar string. Kath would then move each string from its typical slot down a place, so that the normal high E string would now be the B string, the B string would become the G string, and so forth. It’s not known specifically what gauge Kath favoured (he likely picked up whatever he could get), but this specific practice of suing lighter strings allowed him to get wild bends without the same stress and strain that other guitarists endured.

But the main reason that Terry Kath played the way he did was because he never stopped playing. Kath was a major proponent of jamming, sometimes at the expense of the other members’ desire for more concise songwriting. Kath could jam over anything: rock chords, jazz progressions, Latin beats. It didn’t matter, and you can often hear Kath work his way into his comfort zone mid-jam on live performances. It was about finding direction and combining it with spur-of-the-moment intensity, and when the two came together, it produced some of the most electric guitar playing on the 1970s.