LOCAL COLOR
Guitar World|Holiday 2020
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF QUICKSILVER MESSENGER SERVICE’S JOHN CIPOLLINA, A BOLD, ORIGINAL AND UNHERALDED STYLIST WHOSE PLAYING ANTICIPATED THE FUTURE OF ROCK
ALAN DI PERNA

JOHN CIPOLLINA EMBODIED EVERYTHING EMBEDDED IN THE TERM “ROCK GUITAR GOD.” TALL AND SLENDER — WITH LONG, DARK, SIDE-PARTED HAIR FRAMING A PAIR OF MODEL-QUALITY CHEEKBONES — HE STOOD OUT EVEN AMONG THE COLORFUL CAST OF WILDLY TALENTED CHARACTERS WHO MADE UP THE SAN FRANCISCO PSYCHEDELIC MUSIC SCENE OF THE MID TO LATE SIXTIES.

His amp rig was like something out of Tom Wolfe’s Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Stream-Flake Streamline Baby — a hybrid tube/transistor stereo tower of tone, crowned with gleaming metal horns and flashing automotive lights. You half expected the thing to sprout massive tires and go roaring off down the highway. Armed with this primordial super-stack and his beloved 1961 Gibson SG, Cipollina did things that bordered on the occult. A bold, original stylist, his guitar work with Quicksilver Messenger Service played a key role in defining the San Francisco psychedelic sound, also anticipating much of what was to come in rock guitar playing.

But outside of a small, if devoted, cult following, he is not as well or widely remembered today as, say, Jerry Garcia, Jorma Kaukonen, Carlos Santana, and other guitarists who came out of San Francisco during the psychedelic era. Which is a shame, as Cipollina was every bit their equal. By the time of his relatively early death — in 1989, at age 45 — he’d been reduced to playing small Northern California clubs, his health seriously compromised by emphysema and often in need of a wheelchair to get around.

Cipollina was a true son of the Bay Area, born in Berkeley on August 24, 1943, and growing up mostly in Mill Valley. He started out on piano, but like many of his generation, he switched to electric guitar once the mid-Fifties rock and roll explosion had ignited. His first band, the Penetrators, covered Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, and other prominent first wave rockers. Cipollina’s adoption of the thumb pick may have grown out of emulating Presley guitarist Scotty Moore, who also employed this style of a plectrum. This would become one of the defining features of Cipollina’s technique and style, which combined a thumb pick and first-finger fingerpick. Cipollina had been relatively unfazed by the mid-Sixties folk boom that had captured the imagination of guitarists like Garcia, Kaukonen, or Roger McGuinn. He’d stuck with his rock and roll roots. So there’s something a bit more primordial in Cipollina’s deployment of his dual plectra. He used them in tandem with vigorous vibrato arm action to create haunted, howling, face-melting leads.

In this, he anticipated the dexterous fingers-and-vibrato-arm technique that Jeff Beck would develop to stunning effect later in his career. But Cipollina was doing it in ’65, long before Beck. And by combining his distinctive picking with a highly original approach to amplification, Cipollina was able to forge a style that blended tremulous lyricism with bursts of snaky, anarchistic phrasing.

In an era when rock guitarists were debating whether they should stick with tubes or move on to then-brand-new transistor amplification, Cipollina simply said, “I’ll have both.” He devised an elaborate amp rig combining two solid-state Standel bass amps with two Fender tube amps: a Twin Reverb and a Dual Showman driving six Wurlitzer horns.

“I like the rapid punch of solid-state for the bottom, and the rodent-gnawing distortion of the tubes on top,” he said.

His setup, which today is on exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, also incorporated a Maestro Echoplex and Standel Modulux, complete with a system of automotive lights to indicate which effect had been activated by footswitch. Even in an era noted for its imaginative experimentation with gear, Cipollina’s rig stood out just as much as he did.

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