Arthur Rhames, Guitar God
Growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y. in the 1970’s, I played guitar in a band called Wajang, along with 3 other friends from South Shore High School. We rehearsed in a basement on East 93rd Street in the East Flatbush section. It was in the summer of ’72 during a rehearsal break that as my band mates came out on the sidewalk to get some air, we heard this screaming guitar work that was pure talent. It sounded like the Fillmore East at show time. We looked at each other and instinctively ran around the corner to locate the source of some of the most amazing mix of fusion, rock and blues guitar we had ever heard. The solos were clean and consistent with hints of Larry Coryell, John McLaughlin and Johnny Winter all rolled into one.
Our search took us to the bass player’s home. We walked cautiously by the carport towards the backyard, being aware that we had not been clearly invited, although I am sure the musicians knew that such a decibel level was sure to attract the attention of the neighbors or the cops. In the backyard we found a four-piece band consisting of Arthur and his buddy Cliff trading rule guitar solos, Cleveland on bass and Adrian on drums. Standing there mesmerized and staring at these jaw-dropping performances we received a lifetime of lessons compressed into a two-hour jam session. They played a few original tunes and some cover songs that sounded better than the original as Arthur and Cliff took turns teeing off. We introduced ourselves and wasted no time telling them how much we appreciated meeting them. We soon learned these guys were not just committed to their craft but were fanatical about their brand of music. Arthur was the leader at 15 years old and as we were to learn, a prodigy on not only guitar but keyboard and saxophone too.
I stopped by Arthur’s rehearsal a few more times to observe his practice routine. He confided that at the minimum 8 hours a day was his standard. He had something going on in his head that was beyond the specific instrument he was playing at the moment. You could see him trying to get the instrument to execute what he was hearing in his head. He would play these bursts of notes on guitar sprinkled with wild bends that defied the physical geometry of the instrument. He seemed to be more like a painter than a musician. He made complex statements in general layered swatches of sound but just when you thought he was going over the edge with sheer technical wizardry he would resolve into the most soulful expressions what would make Carlos Santana proud. His fingers were a blur of motion as he ravished the fret board.
Once he came down to our rehearsal and we were honored to have him stop by and check out our band. When he walked in there was a dead silence. In our band we used vocals, horns and guitars and we played a mix of dance music, rock, Reggae in addition as some Tower of strength and Ronnie Laws. Arthur couldn’t resist sitting in. He took out his guitar and plugged in as we went by some of our tunes. That was the first time I had ever seen anyone do a fretting-hand tapping technique with the fingers laying on the fretboard like a piano player. Arthur was famous for his wild fusion riffs but that night he pulled out all the stops as we went from one genre to the next. He was in the zone and seemed to be using the whole basement floor to do his guitar act. He would crouch down low to wring the essence out of the high strings then skip sideways to play another burst followed by a hop and a jump forward for another volley. What a performance. Before he left he told me he knew I loved the Stratocaster but that he thought I would be more comfortable on a Les Paul. He then wanted to know if I had been following by on my practice regimen as we had discussed. I thanked for him for his advice and conceded that I needed to work harder.
Music was what Arthur lived for: everything else was secondary. To all of us, it felt strange taking advice from a younger player but he was gifted and when he spoke everyone listened. How he expressed his talent certainly took an understanding that was way beyond his years.
Sadly Arthur Rhames passed away in 1989 at the age of 32 having touched the lives of many musicians who were lucky enough to have known him. May he rest in peace.