Duane Allman was a guitar hero. It is a testament to his legacy that he is so widely revered, especially considering that he died at the young age of 24. He effectively invented southern rock via his marvellous technical ability and slide guitar licks. In the Allman Brothers Band, Derek and the Dominos and the many other recordings he played on, Allman showed an ice-cool dexterity that has been highly influential.
It was his brother, Gregg, who got him introduced him to the six-string. Gregg had gone to the Daytona Beach Sears department store to buy a pair of gloves, but returned with a Japanese Teisco Silvertone, his first ever-guitar. At this point, Duane was solely concerned with riding around the local area on his Harley 165 motorbike, but before too long, Gregg would be giving him lessons, and Duane was fascinated by the guitar.
Fed up with the constant bickering over Gregg’s guitar, and wanting one all for himself, Duane traded in his motorbike and bought his own Silvertone. He progressed quickly, and within a year, his skill has eclipsed that of Gregg’s, and so his mother bought him a Les Paul Junior as a gift.
Often, Gregg and Duane would visit their grandma in Nashville, Tennesse, and one evening they caught a show by blues guitar icon, B. B. King, and after the show, Duane told his younger brother, “We got to get into this”.
The two concentrated on their craft, and by 1967, they were in Hour Glass, a typical R&B band of the day, signed to Liberty Records in Los Angeles. Unhappy with being creatively stifled by their label, the band split in early 1968, and the brother’s Allman returned home to Daytona Beach.
It was during this period of downtime that Duane started perfecting what would become his signature trick; the slide guitar. On his birthday, October 29th, 1968, Duane found himself stuck at home recovering from a nasty elbow injury he’d picked up after falling from a horse. For his birthday, Gregg bought him blues legend Taj Mahal’s eponymous debut album and a bottle of Coricidin pills to ease the pain.
“About two hours after I left, my phone rang,” Gregg remembered. “‘Baby brother, baby brother, get over here now'”. The younger Allman rushed round to Duane’s apartment to find that he’d poured the pills out the bottle, and washed off the label, and was now using it as a slide. He was playing along to Mahal’s ‘Statesboro Blues’ with ease.
“Duane had never played slide before,” Gregg stated, but “he just picked it up and started burnin’. He was a natural”. Duane was so good at it that the track would become a go-to cover for the Allman Brothers Band across their short existence.
However, it was another song that had first pipped Duane’s interest in the concept of slide guitar. Ex-Hour Glass member Paul Hornsby revealed all in Scott Freeman’s 1995 biography, Midnight Riders: The Story of the Allman Brothers Band. He claimed that it was 1967’s ‘Beck’s Bolero’ that inspired Duane to make his first foray into the wonderful world of the slide guitar.
The classic rock instrumental featured guitar legends Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, as well as John Paul Jones, Keith Moon and Nicky Hopkins, and was so ahead of its time. The makeshift supergroup created a sound like no other, and Beck’s slide guitar galvanised a whole generation of budding guitarists, including Allman. After hearing the track, Hornsby said that Allman “loved that slide part and told me he was going to learn to play it”.
When listening to Duane Allman after these two revelations, you can hear the influences of Taj Mahal and Beck clearly. It’s crazy to think that without Jeff Beck being tired of The Yardbirds, and encouraged to pursue a side project by his management, that southern rock as a genre may well have not come to fruition. The implications of that for music are immense.