Big Brother & The Holding Company: The James Gurley Interview

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    Following their stunning performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, Big Brother and the Holding Company hit the top of the album charts with Cheap Thrills. This psychedelic masterwork featured the astounding vocals of Janis Joplin and the groundbreaking guitar work of James Gurley and Sam Andrew. “Piece of My Heart” remains one of the era’s defining singles. Many of those who were on the scene cite James Gurley as the father of psychedelic guitar in San Francisco.

    Barry “The Fish” Melton, guitarist on San Francisco’s first commercially released psychedelic record, Country Joe & the Fish’s 1965 “Bass Strings” backed with “Section 43,” explains, “James is the founder of psychedelic guitar because he was the first guy to play in the zone. He never really played straight all that well, but the thing that defines psychedelic guitar – because certainly the chord boxes are the same as folk – is that it gets improvisational and goes out to this place where the beat is assumed. The music is kind of out there in space, and James Gurley was the first man in space! He’s the Yury Gagarin of psychedelic guitar.”

    Big Brother’s ride to the top of the charts would be short-lived. After Cheap Thrills, Janis Joplin quit the band to go off on her own. Big Brother carried on for two more albums – Be a Brother and How Hard It Is – before disbanding around 1973. Five years later, Chet Helms, the band’s original organizer, persuaded its original members – Gurley and Andrew, bassist Peter Albin, and drummer Dave Getz – to reunite for the Tribal Stomp concert, held in Berkeley, California, on October 1, 1978. At the time, I was the new editor at Guitar Player magazine. Helms invited staff photographer Jon Sievert and me to the band’s rehearsals in San Rafael the day before the show. When Jon and I arrived, we learned that the previous day was the first time James Gurley and Sam Andrew had seen each other in five years. Fans of Guitar Player magazine, both guitarists expressed interest in doing interviews. I spoke with James first, in the interview that follows. Later, over lunch, I interviewed with Sam and James together; this is posted here: At the start of our conversation, James and I discovered that we’d both come from the same neighborhood in Detroit.



    Are you from Detroit?

    Yeah. Born there.

    Grow up there?

    Yeah, unfortunately.

    So did I.

    You did?!

    Moved to San Francisco a few months ago.

    Oh, yeah! Bet you’re glad!

    Yeah. I was living on the West Side.

    Yeah, me too. Five Mile and Wyoming.

    I lived at Six Mile and Hubbell.

    Oh, yeah? Far out!

    So you didn’t want to go back.

    No. Hell no, man! We played there after they had those riots, and all those places had machine-gun bullets in them. It’s too cold, anyway. I can’t stand the cold. I live down in the desert now [in Palm Desert], where it’s real hot.

    What have you been doing since Big Brother?

    Well, I wasted a lot of time up here, trying to get things together. Had a band for a while – it was called Ruby. But just personality conflicts, I guess, is what you’d call it. I played with Big Brother until about ’71, ’72. I had several bands, but none of them ever really got together enough to make it to the gig on time or anything. You know, one guy would drop out, and then another guy would join, and it just never really got together, except this one band, Ruby, which was together for about a year. And then I went to Salt Lake City for a year to try something else, try a whole different area. I’d always been fascinated by Salt Lake City. This was about ’74 or ’75. I broke my leg skiing, of course, right away, and I wound up for three months staring at the wall. Oh, God, it was awful, just awful. It was in the winter time too – freezing cold and broken leg and no way to get around. Anyways, I sold my house here and then moved down to the desert where I am now.

    That was three years ago. I went to school for a couple of years at College of the Desert. They have one really good professor there, John Norman, who’s head of the Music Department. He’s really good. He has a lot of energy, and the guy was just amazing to take classes from. He enthused you so much about so many aspects of music – not only from just the technical points of view. He would get very emotional about some things. Certain things would strike him in a way, and he’d say, “Man! When I think of a Cmaj9th, I feel it right here in my hands, all up my arms. I feel it down here. It’s part of my nervous system.” The guy was really a turn-on to listen to. 8:00 in the morning was his class. I don’t know how he could do it – I could just barely make it there at that time. And there he was, just wailing away, every day. I took a bunch of courses there, but his was the best.

    Why did you go to the desert?

    Because I like the warmth. I can’t stand this cold and this fog. I came here [to San Francisco] to get away from Detroit. And now I’ve got to go to the desert to get away from the cold here. It’s too cold here. And it was a really great move, because it’s really beautiful. It’s good for my kids. They’ve got a real good scene together there. They’ve got their schools. One of my sons [Hongo] is trying to get a group. He plays drums. He’s been playing since he was about six months old – I mean literally. He’s 12½, and he’s been playing since six months, watching us. We use to live all together in Lagunitas in this house, and we’d rehearse every day. We had a big giant living room where we could set up all the equipment and stuff, and we’d rehearsed there every day when he was born. That was the first thing that he could understand, I guess – you get this thing [drums] and it makes noise. Guitars, he couldn’t understand electric stuff – you play here, and it comes out over there. But this thing he could understand. And he’s really a good drummer. All the drummers who come by show him licks, so he’s always picking up new stuff as he goes along. He’s trying to get a band together now, but he doesn’t know anybody else that can play as good as him. He can play better than everybody else around him, so he’s kind of out there by himself.

    Do you play with him?

    Yeah, yeah! Oh, he’s played with Big Brother onstage here. We played “Purple Haze” at the Lion’s Share, which is not there anymore, but used to be down the road here a piece. He was about six or seven when he did that. He’s used to being on stages all the time, since he was born.

    Is that your only kid?

    No, I’ve got two. My other son is eight years old. But he just moved in with me. He lived with his mother up until now.

    James Gurley and Jas Obrecht interview, September 30, 1978. Photo by Jon Sievert.

     Coming from Detroit, how did you end up getting involved with Big Brother?

    Through Chet Helms.

    How did you run into him?

    I was living at the Family Dog – this was before Chet was part of the Family Dog. The Family Dog was started by four other people as a group. Alton Kelly was one, the poster artist in the San Francisco days. They started the Family Dog, and then they gradually dropped out of it – I don’t know how it evolved from there, but gradually Chet took hold of it. Through them and through all this interaction, I met him. He said that he was trying to manage a band and was auditioning guitar players. I went and auditioned. I don’t know – I don’t think they really knew what to make of it at first, because I had been listening to a lot of John Coltrane and stuff before that. When I heard John Coltrane, I thought, “Jesus! If you could play a guitar like that, that would be really far out!” So I was trying to get a grip on something like that, but nobody could understand what I was trying to do, you know. I don’t know if I understood. So they auditioned a bunch of guys and chose me.

    This was for Big Brother?

    Yeah. Well, it wasn’t Big Brother yet. It was unformed.

    Was this 1965?

    This was early ’65. Let’s see – maybe late ’65. No, it’d be early ’66 because my kid had just been born.

    Who were the early members?

    It was Peter and Sam and another drummer named Chuck. I can’t remember his last name – he wasn’t there too long – and then me. We went through drummer after drummer after drummer until we finally got Dave, and he’s been with it ever since.

    How did Janis Joplin came in?

    We’d been gigging and playing. We were doing a lot of instrumentals – you know, real wild instrumental stuff – and we felt the need to expand more vocally. Peter and Sam both have pretty good, strong voices – pretty nice, deep voices. But we felt we wanted something else. Me and Peter had seen Janis at the Coffee Gallery in San Francisco a couple of years before this. See, we’d just been in there and saw her sing. She was doing a folk thing, a Bessie Smith kind of a thing. I think there’s some out – I’ve heard it on the radio, but I don’t know what it is. It’s just her playing guitar, and it’s real good. As a matter of fact, I think she did that best. It’s too bad that she didn’t get a chance to do something more like that before she died, because she could really do that with a lot of soul and power. It was really great. I thought that was her best stuff.

    What was it like working with Janis?

    Oh, she was temperamental. I mean, one day she’d be up, the next day she’d be down. You never knew what to expect. It was crazy days for everybody. That whole period, it just seemed like everything was happening at once. It was just all happening so fast, it was hard to keep track of things. At times she could be great to work with, because she was very intelligent. She was really smart, a very smart woman. Had a lot of understanding about things. But also she could just get real petty and bullshitty about something for seemingly no reason. I guess we all do that. We were all developing, and the band was just breaking out. Everybody’s going crazy with all this.

    Did she force you to change your material?

    No, no. No, she didn’t force us. It was more my idea, I think. Because she used to just come on for a couple of songs – sing a few numbers – and a lot of people didn’t like her at first. They said, “Get rid of that – all she does is scream.” But we thought instead of putting her back more, we could put her up more, develop it more, because we felt there was a lot of potential there to be developed. So we started working more material to include her through the whole set instead of just having her come out halfway through. Before that, we’d start out, play a half a dozen instrumentals or something before she ever came out. And then we decided it would be stronger if it was a group all the way through from beginning to end. So we started working on that. And then we got this house in Lagunitas, and her and Sam started writing songs together. I think that’s where Sam wrote “Call on Me.”

    You did some writing, too, in the beginning.

    Yeah, a little bit. A lot more than ever got recorded. Well, shit, man, we had about 50 good songs that I thought should have been on records and never got on any of them.

    What did you think about the first album, the one on Mainstream?

    I listened to it the other day to learn these songs over again, because I couldn’t remember them. I thought there was some pretty good energy on a couple of cuts, but I thought it was poorly recorded. I remember it was recorded at a four-track studio in L.A. I think we did it in two days. It was the first time we’d ever been in the studio. It surprised me – the sound of the thing is so trebley. You know, there’s no bottom to it. The way they cut it, there’s just no bottom to it at all. But Cheap Thrills – I like the whole first side of Cheap Thrills.


    [At this point, James was called into rehearsal. When he rejoined me during the next break, he began by mentioning that he’d been teaching guitar.]

    What ages are you teaching?

    Oh, like 12, 13, 14 – in that range. They’re mature enough, these kids I know, that they can sit still and listen and pay attention and are intelligent. They have no problems picking up what you’re trying to teach them. It’s been good. I guess I’m lucky – the students I’ve chosen are better than most students.

    What do they want to learn – electric or acoustic?

    Either one. I teach them whatever they want to know, or what I think they need to know. Most of them want to shy away from the theory stuff, but I always slip it in on them. Because it was always one of my regrets – I never got the good early background in theory. There weren’t any books available, and now there’s so much stuff available – God, just the stuff you get in Guitar Player every a month alone. I mean, it took me a year or two to find out just the stuff that’s in one issue of Guitar Player. There’s so much material and so many things around, it’s really nice now. If you’re learning to play now, you can find out anything you want to know. It’s all being covered with books and methods and records.

    Did you learn to read music somewhere along the line?

    I can read, but not sight-read. Like B.B. King says, “My reading is more like spelling.” [Laughs.] Because I learned by ear first. See, I’m ear-trained. I can learn a song faster by listening to it than I can by trying to read it, although I know what all the notes are and I can read the staff and everything. It’s just that I don’t have the discipline to sit around long enough to wade through all the books.

    When did you first start playin? In Detroit?

    Yeah. I was 19, I think it was, when I got started.

    You were born in 1941?

    1939. December 22nd. I didn’t get started until I was 19, which is rather late, I guess. But it didn’t seem so at the time.

    How did you get started?

    A couple of guys in high school I knew were playing. I went to Cooley [High School]. We were skin divers.

    In Detroit?


    Did you start on electric guitar?

    No. I went into a folkie kind of bag first. Blues – country rural blues. Lead Belly and Brownie McGee and Lightnin’ Hopkins. I loved Lightnin’ Hopkins, man. As a matter of fact, I once hitchhiked to Houston. I was coming from Mexico and hitchhiked all the way to Houston to try to find Lightnin’ Hopkins. But I couldn’t find him, and I didn’t have any money. I was backpacking and sleeping under bridges.

    Was Lightnin’ Hopkins your first major inspiration?

    Yeah. He was really my most impressionable. I really wanted to play like him most of anybody. I just loved his raw sound. And John Lee Hooker I liked. There’s this one song John Lee does called “Down Child.” Oh, God – it’ll raise the hair on your head, man. Oooh! I love that. That’s like a razor, that song. It’s really a fine song. And then from Texas, I hitchhiked to New Orleans. You won’t believe this – I’m walking down the street and I get arrested. The paddy wagon comes along, and they throw me in jail – for nothing. I was just walking down the street with my guitar. The paddy wagon was going down the street, and the guy would go [pointing], “This guy. This guy. This guy. This guy.” And they would just be stuffing them in, man. This was the late ’50s, early ’60s, and New Orleans seemed like a very brutal, totalitarian kind of police state. So anyways, they got me down to the police station and they were making out the papers and stuff. The guy says, “You play that thing, boy?” I says, “Yes, sir.” He said, “Well, whip it out and play that thing.” So I played a bunch of Elizabeth Cotten stuff – “Freight Train” and a few things like that. He says, “Damn, boy, you shouldn’t spend the weekend in jail.” I said, “Well, I don’t want to.” He said, “What were you gonna do?” I said, “Well, I was gonna leave town right away, sir, if you let me out of here.” He says, “Okay, I’ll let you out of here, but don’t you be in the county on Monday.” “Yes, Sir!” Grabbed my guitar and split. I thought, “Wow, that was great – just like Lead Belly.”

    Sang your way out of the jail.

    Yeah! [Laughs.] But I got the hell out.

    How’d you make your way to California?

    I’d been to California before. I’d gone back and forth. I used to race around the country all the time, go to New York and go to the Village. There was an incredible guitar player at one time who really had a lot of effect on me when I was first learning to play. It was a guy named Perry Lederman. You ever hear of him? He’s got a record that really didn’t capture him at his height, because he got in all kinds of trouble and got busted, and this was in the middle of that. But before that, when I met the guy when I was 19, he was, like, 13. He was from New York. I mean, he looked like he was 45 – he had a big beard and all this long hair. He was just really a dynamic player. He played a lot with Josh White. You know, Josh White has that real nice, clean acoustic style? Perry had this real nice old New York Martin – it was beautiful. And he played with such power! There’s a song on that album – I think it’s on Tacoma or Arhoolie, maybe. It’s an anthology that has a couple of his songs on it. [The album James is likely referring to is the Arhoolie anthology called Out West.] He’s got “Freight Train” and this other one where he does this triplet thing that sounds like thunder. It’s just beautiful. He had a real powerful style.

    What’s he doing now?

    He got into Indian music, studying sitar and sarod. He had a sarod. He just disappeared into the Indian sarod nebulous void area, I guess.

    What kind of playing did you do up until 1965?

    Mostly acoustic. It was folk stuff and country blues. I never played any rock and roll at all.

    Why were you more attracted to Texas blues than Mississippi blues?

    I don’t know. Lightnin’ Hopkins, maybe, just his character. Certain individuals grab you. I did meet him in San Francisco at a gig. I went up and shook his hand. I always liked the way he played and the way he sang. I liked a lot of Mississippi blues too, like Fred McDowell and the guy who was in prison for killing somebody – I can’t remember the guy’s name. He was recorded in the ’50s and had one or two records that were real good. He just had a raw, brutal kind of style, full of pain and anguish. He played acoustic. I wish I could think of his name. He had a lot of people trying to get him out, but the governor wouldn’t go for it for a long time.

    After you were listening to country blues music, what styles did you explore next?

    After listening to rural blues kind of stuff, I was listening to a lot of classical guitar. I began trying to develop a sort of synthesis, putting different things together. I was playing some classical things on steel-string guitar, which really sounds nice sometimes.

    Were you playing in public?

    Yeah, in Detroit. I was just playing coffeehouses and stuff. I wasn’t making a living at it.

    When did you leave Detroit?

    I left and went back, I left and went back. Actually, when I stopped finally living there was about ’63.

    Then you went to the West Coast?

    Yeah, permanently. I’d been here before. Winter made me go out there – winter was coming. It was fall, and I’d just graduated high school. I thought, “Holy cow. This is it. I’m not gonna stick around here and freeze another winter.” So I split. Then I played a lot of coffeehouses here. Big Brother was the my first real band, actual band as such.

    What kind of guitars did you have along the way?

    I had a Martin 00-18 that I got in about ’61. I had a bunch of Martins there for a while. The last bunch of ’em got stolen. I had a nice Hawaiian koa-wood Martin – a koa-wood face too, all koa wood, ebony fingerboard. Rare guitar. It got stolen out of my car. I had another one, an all-mahogany Martin that was really beautiful too – had a mahogany face. That one got ripped off twice. The first time was just kids broke into my house when I was living over in the Haight – this was ’67, I think. They broke into my pad. You know, Haight Street was just abuzz with everything happening at that time. But they just threw the guitar out the window from the second story. It apparently hit its neck and snapped the neck in half. I took it to Satterlee & Chapin in San Francisco, and he put it back on better than it was before. The neck was a little straighter. 


    James Gurley and Sam Andrew during the 1978 rehearsal.

    When did you get your first electric?


    The first electric was not until I joined this band. I didn’t even have an electric when I joined the band. I auditioned with an electric that they had there. I don’t even remember what it was or anything – it was real hard to play, I remember. My first electric was a Les Paul Junior – you know, the old flat, big, thick one with the double cutaway. Real nice guitar, man. That was a good one. That one got smashed up. I used that for about a year. I used it on the Mainstream album. On the second album, Cheap Thrills, I had to use the Gibson SG; it had two humbucking pickups on it.

    Did it have any modifications on it?

    No, not at that time. The Gibson Les Paul Junior, it got broken and I put it back together, and then I decided that since so much wood was missing – it really got smashed – that I was just gonna fill it up with woods that didn’t match. And then I just painted the whole thing so that you didn’t see the wood. I carved it andI did a lot of modifications on that. I installed a little fuzz tone from a box. See, I worked with a guitar maker, Tim Cameron, for about a year at one time – about ’64, I think it was. I worked about a year with him, making guitars, learning guitar repair and stuff. And now I do my own repairs – I don’t have anybody touch my guitars hardly, for that stuff. Although if I had a really good acoustic with a split down it, maybe I would defer that to someone.

    Did you use the SG on other albums after Cheap Thrills?

    Well, on the other ones I played a lot of bass – on Be a Brother and How Hard It Is.

    How Hard It Is is the last one?

    Yeah, right. The last one.

    What kind of effects were you using?

    At that time I had a fuzz tone device – I can’t remember who made it. I don’t think I have it anymore. The Judson or Jason? They make amps too – it started with a J. [Here James is likely referring to the Jordan Boss Tone Fuzz, which plugged directly into the guitar; the company also manufactured amps.] I also had a Gibson fuzz tone that didn’t work out too well.

    What was Sam playing?

    Sam was playing an SG also. His was a little more fancy. It had a bound fingerboard; mine had a unbound fingerboard. He had pearl dots and inlays, and mind just had dots.

    What kind of amps were you using?

    In the Cheap Thrills period, since we were on Columbia Records and Fender was a subsidiary of Columbia Records, they sent a whole truckload of stuff. It was just beautiful. Two Dual Showmans apiece, plus a Twin Reverb apiece. I think they gave Dave a set of drums. They gave me and Sam guitars. They gave me a Strat, which later got stolen also. Well, they gave me a Tele first, and I turned that in for a Strat. Then the Strat got stolen.

    But you stayed with the SG instead of the Strat.

    Yeah. I couldn’t get a grip on ’em at first because the pickups aren’t as hot as Gibson’s. You got a Gibson, you got that nice sound. And I wasn’t used to that other kind of drier, less-driving kind of sound, so it was quite a change.

    Your solos were a lot different from just about everybody else in the mid 1960s. What were you trying for?

    Like I said, when I joined the band, I’d been listening to a lot of John Coltrane. And I thought if you could play a guitar like he played the sax, it would really be far out. So that’s what I was trying to do. Of course, nobody understood it, especially me! [Laughs.]

     Did you guys just naturally fall into which part of the song you were going to do?

    Yeah, it came about pretty naturally. At that time I had no grounding in theory or anything at all. In fact, I learned a lot from Sam, because Sam is really well educated in theory and all that stuff. He really taught me a lot of things, because up until that time I was always just playing by ear. I was to the point where I was playing chords, but since I was only playing by myself, a lot of chords, I didn’t even know the names of ’em. I just knew where to put my fingers. Then when I got with Sam, since you had to communicate these things on a verbal level a lot of times, it saved time.

    My first musical experience that I can remember, teaching theory and all that stuff, was a music class I had when I was in about fourth or fifth grade, where the teacher was so horrible, man, she just turned you off to music. People like this should be shot. They’re on the taxpayer’s money, teaching. That woman! For years I wandered around saying, “If this is what learning music is like, I don’t want no part of it.” And then when I started playing by ear, it wasn’t the same thing as learning music, so I was okay. I had a definite aversion to even wanting to learn music theory and all the rest of it, from that early experience in my life. It had a lot of effect on me.

    Do you teach your students some theory?

    Oh, yeah! I slip it in. I’m amazed. I have two little girl students who have had two years of piano, and they still didn’t know how to make a major chord from a scale. They didn’t know which intervals make up a major chord. So I started teaching them scale structure and interval things right away. I get them to the point where they’ve got to know it in order to go on, because they generally don’t want to hear too much twisting their brains around. They just want to move their fingers. I get them to the point where they’ve got to know why it’s happening. I say, “Okay, why is it this way? It’s because the first and the third are a certain distance apart,” and so on and so forth. “The first, third, and fifth make up the major.” Before I know it, I’ve trapped them into some theory. It’s a lot of fun. I really have a lot of fun teaching them.

    Big Brother rehearsal, 1978: James Gurley, Nick Gravenites, Sam Andrew, Kathi McDonald.

    Have you made any advances in your gear?

    One thing that I’ve discovered recently, a little helper, is Pro-Grip. [Shows me a small tin of Pro-Grip Non-Slip Grip Res, made by Manufacturers Specialty in St. Louis.] It’s stuff for tennis players and golfers, for their grip on the handle. You put a little bit between your fingers and just rub it on the pick, and it gives you a nice, grippy kind of surface. It’s just a little thing, though, but I always have trouble with my hands sweating, and I lose my grip on the pick. You’re playing along, and the thing’s flipping out and you’re trying to get a grip on it. It’s been a big problem.

    Is this cream-colored Strat your main ax?
    It is now, yeah.

    It didn’t have the arm on it?

    No, it didn’t. This is a new guitar one of my students gave me. So he put all this other stuff on it. These are Schecter Research – this whole setup with the pickups. It has an Alembic Stratoblaster module in there. I put the brass nut up on here.

    Does it sustain better?

    I can’t tell. I’ve had the guitar only for a few short weeks. I was using this Japanese Tele [hands me his black Telecaster] that I modified. It’s really nice. It’s got a three-piece neck that real solid. This neck is as solid as a goddamn brick. It’s a Japanese copy – there was no name on it at all.

    Does it have the bite of a Tele?

    Well, it’s really hot. The thing is so hot, I can’t play it with a band. It’s not versatile enough. The pickup for playing rhythm just comes out mush. I painted it, I put Gibson pickups on it, and I put the pickguard on it. It was white before. That’s about it. I’m going to re-do the writing so it’s not so hot, so that it’s more versatile. Now the thing – you barely crack that and you’re wide open, just about. I really nice this neck. So this is what I’ve been playing electrically for the last four years. But this Strat is really nice too. I just have to play it more to find out what its potential is.

    That was nice of him to give it to you.

    My student? Yeah, well that was his fee, more or less. Because he had three of them, and here’s a guy who doesn’t even know how to play. He brought it over as a gift toward my being his teacher, so it’s working out. I needed it – just in time for this gig, you know. At home, I play a lot of leads, but in this situation, I’m gonna play more rhythms and stuff, and it’ll be versatile to switch back and forth. I’m glad I got it at this time, because I really needed it. All my other guitars need work. I’ve been putting it off. I’ve got about 20 guitars at home – 18 or 20. I’ve got an Dan-Electro Electric Sitar, a Japanese flamenco, and a Mexican classical. A Hondo Strat, which I just got and haven’t even had time to play it – it needs work. I’ve got a couple of basses and several other electrics.

    [At this point, Sam Andrew joined in the conversation. The interview continues here: Big Brother and the Holding Company: The 1978 Sam Andrew-James Gurley Interview,Part 1

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    © 2011 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This interview may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.

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      One comment on “Big Brother & The Holding Company: The James Gurley Interview

      1. I’m so curious as to who ‘invented’ that heavily finger vibratoing, tremolo armed San Francisco gtr sound – all the best known players like Melton, Kaukonen, Cipollina, despite personal styles etc share some aspect of that approach. Was it Gurley?
        And I’m not thinking of influences, like Buddy Guy, BB King or even Bloomfield – I mean the first SF guitar player in that scene who incorporated the whammy bar sizzle and screeching vibratoed licks we know and love.
        We all have our preferred players, but historically – who was the first one?

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