High Fives 2021 No. 15 – Chuck Melchin’s favourite guitarists


Today’s High Five contribution is from Chuck Melchin of The Bean Pickers’ Union. We reviewed his retrospective collection, “Greatest Picks” in the late summer of this year and Allan loved it. Chuck’s decided to share his appreciation of some of his favourite guitar players with us. Apologies in advance for the Emmylou video that refused to embed.

I’m a guitar player. I’m not an especially good guitar player, and my friends probably think of me more as a songwriter than a player. But I do play enough that I have developed an educated appreciation for certain guitarists and their work. To me, it’s not speed or pyrotechnics. It’s playing for the song, it’s leaving space, it’s tone, it’s complementing the vocals and, yes, it’s tearing open the sky when that’s what the song wants. I hold these guitarists in the highest regard, as they all check all the boxes and then some. They may or may not be in your top 5, but remember I’m not calling them the best guitarists, I’m calling them my favorites. In no particular order:

Buddy Miller – when I say “plays for the song” there is absolutely no one I can think of that does so as effectively and beautifully as Buddy Miller. I first heard Buddy play when I bought wife Julie Miller’s gorgeous album Blue Pony. Right from the get go, the opening riffs on A Kiss on the Lips gave me goosebumps. And later how his guitar blends together with Phil Madeira’s organ as a single instrument on the solo section of All the Pieces of Mary. I was hooked. I dove into his catalog, spent countless hours searching for information on Buddy’s gear, lusted after his Fulltone tape echo, and was in awe of his strange Wandre Davoli guitar (which he found in a pawn shop, and which years later I broke a string on while working stage crew for him. He doesn’t know, please don’t tell him!). Over the years I have listened in wonder at how he becomes integral to the sound of everyone he plays with, from Emmylou to Robert Plant. With Buddy it’s always about playing for the song, playing with great tone, and as you can see in this video of him playing in Spyboy, he can flat out shred, if that’s what the song wants.


Waddy Wachtel – I am a liner note geek. I really miss the vinyl albums of my youth, where I would hold the record jacket and read the credits as I listened. One name kept showing up playing guitar on so many of my favorite records from folks like Karla Bonoff , Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon and James Taylor. The strangely named Waddy Wachtel (often along with the similarly strange names of Russell Kunkel on drums and Leland Sklar on bass) played again and again exactly what the song needed, with extremely tasteful lead guitar parts, and rhythm guitar that had me experimenting with open tunings trying to mimic the chord sounds he was getting. His solo on Karla Bonoff’s Someone to Lay Down Beside Me remains a benchmark of guitar solos in my mind. I finally got to see him play live just a few weeks ago when his super group, The Immediate Family, with Kunkel, Sklar, Danny Kortchmar (no slouch himself) and Steve Postell came around on tour. He is in his mid seventies and as good as ever. Here’s Waddy with a young singer named Linda Ronstadt covering Someone to Lay Down Beside Me.

David Rawlings – David Rawlings has described himself as “a guitar player in a band called Gillian Welch”. His guitar playing as her partner is instantly recognizable by his way of playing passing notes outside of the usual blues rock patterns, the tension and resolve he creates and how once he plays a run, you wonder why you hadn’t thought of that. He has influenced so many of the new wave of string band players. I find the most direct disciple that I’ve heard to be Kenneth Pattengale from the Milk Carton Kids. Like Buddy Miller, David obtained his trademark axe, a 1935 Epiphone Olympic, in an unusual way, finding it dusty and stringless in a friend’s garage. Always the consummate sideman for Gillian’s amazing songs, he has over the years earned a great deal of respect as a songwriter. But in my mind, his playing on the record Revival, the first of his playing that I ever heard, is what separated him from the pack of really excellent acoustic guitar pickers creating such beautiful sounds across the Americana genre. I hear tell he has recently purchased a “new” guitar from Gruhns on Broadway in Nashville (a 1959 D”Angelico Excel for you fellow geeks) which can be heard on 2017’s Poor David’s Almanack. Here is the “band” playing Gillian’s song Annabelle, with David providing great harmony and looking so cool:

Gary Louris – I don’t think any songwriter has influenced my songwriting more than Gary Louris. If I could be in any band from any era, it probably would be the Jayhawks in 1995. On top of the ridiculously great songs, Gary stands out as a guitarist by being everything I pointed to in my first paragraph – his solos and fills tie the songs together often with a repetitive riff that comes around again and again in prechoruses and interludes, and his solos are well thought out, and make musical sense, really elevating the songs without dumping on the rest of the instruments. He’s an amazing singer, both main vocals and harmony and his song arrangements are nearly perfect. That covers of his songs are almost always done really closely to the original, attests to his talents as arranger. I think all of this might overshadow his guitar playing, and he might be underrated. Except by me. Listen to him rip it up in this version of Tailspin, one of my favorites from the vast Jayhawks catalog:

Andy Santospago and Gary Goodlow – Tied for 5th place, I can’t mention my favorite guitarists without mentioning my favorites from my own band, the Bean Pickers Union. Gary Goodlow played guitar for the BPU for maybe 8 years before moving to Nashville, and he totally elevated the sound of everything he played on. A monster of tone, watching Gary play his guitar is like watching a prizefighter work the ring, always in motion, small tweaks to volume and tone knobs, tremolo bar, and pedals, he always has the right sound for the song. Listen on bandcamp to our Halloween show as Wilco back a few years, for example. Or the song Glory which can be found on both our Archaeology and the Greatest Picks records. As if having Gary in my band wasn’t enough good fortune for one lifetime, I have also had the distinct pleasure of having Andy Santospago play for the BPU on many shows and many recordings. Andy is probably the most versatile musician I know. An absolute virtuoso on guitar, he’s also a fantastic lap and pedal steel player, and a great bass, mandolin and banjo player. It’s Andy playing the dueling lap steel and electric guitars like Dickie Betts and Duane Allman trading leads on my song 16 Pounds of Mary. It’s also Andy tearing it up on lead guitar on the alt.country rocker Amy Jean, both on Greatest Picks. Andy is also one of the finest songwriters I have ever met, and Exhibit A when I try to make the case that there are some people who should be household names if the universe was fair. Here is maybe my favorite song of his, with him playing all the guitar bits:

Check out Gary cranking out the lead guitar on Warrior and Andy bringing the voodoo to the song Burning Sky right here:

Gary –


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