There’s a downside to being a legend. Myths, rumors, tall tales, and allegations swirl around you and obscure the
truth like mists around some magical isle in
a fantasy novel. Legend distorts reality.
Such is the case with Hank Garland and
his place in the annals of guitar history. To
those in the know, his story is fraught with
innuendo, hearsay, and familial strife. But,
brush that aside, and the truth emerges—
and it’s a truth all guitarists can agree upon:
Garland was an incredible player.
The Early Years
Walter Louis “Hank” Garland (November
11, 1930–December 27, 2004) was born
in Cowpens, South Carolina—a town that,
even today, has only slightly more than
2,000 residents. During Garland’s childhood, most of the locals were listening to
country music, and he was no different.
One of his biggest musical influences was
seminal folk group the Carter Family.
According to the Garland family’s website dedicated to Hank, his first guitar was
a four-dollar Encore steel-string that his
father purchased for him. A neighbor provided the budding musician with lessons to
augment his own attempts to copy tunes
from the radio. At 14, he impressed Paul
Howard of the Arkansas Cotton Pickers,
who subsequently took the young guitarist
to Nashville. Garland eventually appeared
on the Grand Ole Opry. During this initial foray into country music’s heartland,
Garland met guitarists Harold Bradley and
Billy Byrd. They felt the young player was
obviously talented, but still a bit rough.
His age became a more pressing concern
when authorities realized he was too young
to work regularly. Garland was forced to
return to South Carolina.
When he was of legal age, he came back
to Music City and reconnected with Byrd
and Bradley. “Billy and I were his mentors,”
Bradley remembers. “But he immediately
left us in the dust—he was so talented.”
That’s high praise coming from someone
like Bradley, who was inducted into the
Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006 and
A young Hank Garland with a Bigsby solidbody in a publicity photo from the early 1950s.
WALTER LOUIS “HANK” GARLAND
Born: November 11, 1930,
in Cowpens, South Carolina
Died: December 27, 2004,
in Orange Park, Florida
Associated Acts: Elvis Presley,
Roy Orbison, Patsy Cline
Best Known For: As a member of
the Nashville A-Team, Garland was one
of Music City’s first in-demand studio
musicians. He also helped to develop the
Gibson Byrdland hollowbody guitar, in
addition to helping make the Nashville
music scene more racially integrated.