No single person invented Rock-and-Roll, although Little Richard Penniman and Bill Haley, early on, had the right idea of how to combine the chord pattern of Rhythm & Blues (that used the chords of the earlier Blues) with the melody notes that came more from Country or Swing than from Blues, along with a rhythm that was more like Gospel but with a hard, steadier drive. But, the innovation that caused Rock-and-Roll to change popular music forever was the invention of the electric guitar (and the new techniques it allowed). Without the electric guitar, Rock-and-Roll wouldn’t have lasted long!
Around sixty years ago, the electric bass and the amplifier were invented by Leo Fender. About that time, Les Paul invented the electrified guitar. He also came up with the idea of an echo machine that led to an amplifier “reverb,” both very important in the early days of rock-and roll. Originally, the echo machine was a tape recorder that had both a recording pickup (head) and one or more playing heads. The guitar was plugged into one end of the machine and the amp into the other end; and each note would be recorded by one head and then played back again, one or more times, at a selected tape speed. The reverb (now electronic) originally was a spring (between two mechanical pickups) that could vibrate much faster and produce many more echoes than a tape recorder/player.
When I think of “The Greatest,” regarding any vocalist or instrumentalist, I think of innovation even more than technical expertise. Certainly, Chuck Berry was innovative with his two-string harmony solos, but even he admitted they were variations of older jazz piano licks learned from his pianist Johnnie Johnson (which is probably why Berry’s songs were recorded in keys like B-flat and E-flat, rather than the easier-to-play guitar keys of E and A). Carl Perkins, Joe Maphis, Danny Cedrone and Scotty Moore were among other great, innovative guitar players who helped shape the music of the 1950’s.
But, the picker that had the greatest influence on the popularity of Rock-and-Roll was Louisiana’s James Burton, lead guitar player for Ricky Nelson and Elvis (after Scotty Moore and up until The King’s death). Also, being an accomplished musician, he recorded albums with Bobby Darin, Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis and many others, including famous Country singers (John Denver for many years) with whom he often played the slide Dobro guitar. He was one of the first to employ the echo machine like he had heard Scotty Moore use when the latter was playing guitar for Elvis in the Sun Records days. Then, he cranked up the amplifier and created licks that blew people away. I recommended going to YouTube.com and playing Ricky Nelson’s “Believe What You Say” or “Hello Mary Lou”) to see James Burton in his early days on the Ozzie And Harriet show. Bruce Springsteen, Keith Richards and John Fogerty say the only reason they watched that TV show as kids in the 50’s was to watch James Burton play. Me too!
Burton was one the first to use light gauge strings so he could bend notes and also hit higher-than-normal pitches. He used a normal flat pick but added a pick to his middle finger so he could pick banjo style, then would dampen the lower strings with his pick-hand like Chet Atkins, except he would play new, creative, awesome-sounding licks that became rock-and-roll classics. He contributed as much to rock-and-roll music as anyone.