He never had a guitar lesson in his life. Everything he learned, he learned by ear. He played by using what he describes as the "emotional approach". This approach, unschooled and undisciplined, earned him the title, "Father of Psychedelic Guitar".
James Gurley was born in Detroit, Michigan on December 22, 1939. As a boy, he sometimes worked with his father who was a stunt car driver. Occasionally, this work entailed performing as a "human hood ornament" with a helmet as his father speed through a flaming plywood wall.
At the age of nineteen James took up the guitar and began practicing long hours while listening to old Lightin' Hopkins records. Sometimes he would shut himself in a closet, with a stethoscope taped to his guitar and experiment with various techniques.
In the early sixties he moved to San Francisco and became part of the coffee-house circuit, playing in the folk and country blues tradition. For a time, he played with JP Pickens and the Progressive Bluegrass Boys.
In the summer of 1965, Chet Helms brought James to 1090 Page Street to meet Peter Albin and Sam Andrew. James proved to be the missing component to the embryonic Big Brother and the Holding Company.
A charismatic figure, James immediately developed a large and devoted following. Many came to the Big Brother shows simply to experience his loud and passionate guitar playing. James was looked upon by his fans as something of a spiritual leader.
His innovative trailblazing style did not go unnoticed by his contemporaries in San Francisco. Mickey Hart first heard James playing in the Matrix in 1966. Hart remembers; "I'd never seen anything like it. It was magnificent, the best solo I'd ever heard. The amplifier was just pulsing on the floor". Barry Melton said, "James Gurley was the first man in space! He's the Yury Gagarin of Psychedelic guitar".
James was a fusionist in the truest sense of the word. Along with his "weird" blend of blues, country, western and jazz, James employed a finger picking style that he used all the way through the Cheap Thrills sessions. With his guitar mate Sam Andrew, they produced some of the best Psychedelic guitar solos in history. Guitar Player magazine recently listed James' and Sam's work on "Summertime" as one of the top ten Psychedelic solos.
Along with his work with Big Brother, James has been involved in a number of independent projects. He has recorded with New Age drummer, Muruga and has also been actively involved in writing and recording some very innovative solo work. In May of 1997 James stopped touring with Big Brother to devote his full attention to these projects. The first offering is entitled "Pipe Dreams" and was released in January of 2000.
Now, more than thirty-five years after introducing his pioneering style, James is still a marvel and a mystery to watch. One recent concert goer noted; "I love loud weird guitar a la Hendrix, Santana and so on, and on that night what James was doing completely floored me. I have no idea what he was doing to make those sounds. Incredible!" But what else would one expect from the "Father of Psychedelic Guitar".
biography by Todd Bolton