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Exit stage left: the joy and fear of replacing an irreplaceable guitarist

Stepping into the role of a famous lead guitarist can be a daunting prospect. But when Deep Purple, Kiss and Motörhead came calling it was an offer Morse, Thayer and Campbell couldn’t refuse

"Where’s Luther, Johnny?” It’s February 24, 1969 at San Quentin State Prison in California. As Johnny Cash and his entourage blast through the set ultimately released as the iconic At San Quentin album, a member of his captive audience notices that Cash’s long-time guitarist Luther Perkins is conspicuous by his absence. The stark reality is that Perkins, the Fender Esquire-brandishing icon who pioneered Cash’s trademark ‘boom-chicka-boom’ sound on the 45s they cut with bassist Marshall Grant at Sun Studio in Memphis in the 1950s, is dead. While Cash never truly came to terms with his friend’s death, in a house fire on August 5, 1968, sonic salvation came in the figure of a young truck driver called Bob Wootton, a Perkins disciple who, pushed into an impromptu audition with Cash by his girlfriend at a show in Fayetteville, Arkansas, was soon offered the job of taking Luther’s trademark solos.

“We’re sorry to say that, er, Luther passed away seven months ago, after being with us for thirteen years…” said Cash in reply to the shout-out from the San Quentin inmate. “The fella that is playing the guitar with us now is doing a wonderful job but, of course, nobody can really replace Luther.”

Bob Wootton’s overnight change in fortune wasn’t the first time the question ‘How do you replace a lead guitarist who is considered irreplaceable?’ was answered. And where do you get the balls to play someone else’s solos anyhow?

Due to the longevity of classic rock bands it was inevitable that more guitarists would be called upon to replace the fallen. People die. Old friends fall out. Yet the show must go on.

When Peter Green took over from Eric Clapton in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers in late 1966, he dealt with the inevitable backlash by simply outplaying his predecessor. Suddenly, the faithful weren’t missing Eric any more.

When a band gets broken, sometimes, like Green you’re the cure. Sometimes, you’re the sticking plaster, the temporary fix. For example: to many, the idea that Richie Sambora would actually bail on Bon Jovi was unthinkable, never mind the notion that someone would dare try to take his place. In the end The Drills frontman Phil ‘X’ Xenedis was charged with making his guitar ‘talk so tough’ when Sambora chose to stay at home. Unfortunately for Xenedis, you don’t get to rewrite the lead guitar parts on Livin’ On A Prayer. Solos of that calibre are woven into the fabric of a song. “When you’re a hired gun your level of creative input is limited,” Xenedis commented. “Even when I toured with Bon Jovi I couldn’t be Richie, because I’m not. But I couldn’t really be me. So I became this guy in the middle somewhere who was between the two.

“When I did the first thirteen shows with Bon Jovi in 2011, I played in St Louis, the last show, and Jon asked me to sing the last verse of Wanted Dead Or Alive. And it was in front of 20,000 people. When I came home I played at The Roxy with The Drills. And to me it was as exciting – 200 people, my songs, doing my thing, with people in the front freaking out.”

Phil X is an outstanding guitarist – and he’s not the only one who thinks that. He just isn’t Richie Sambora, even if he can play his licks without breaking sweat. Bob Wootton is a far more technically gifted lead guitarist than the man he replaced, but he can’t ever be Luther Perkins. For a stubborn percentage of a band’s fan base, that’s always going to be a big problem. And if they can’t have the original guitarist, they at least expect a hired gun to nail the solos as they were played on the original records.

For Deep Purple guitarist Steve Morse, there was never any question he was going to be some Ritchie Blackmore tribute act when he joined the band in 1994. And Ohio-born Morse was relieved to find that’s not what Deep Purple were looking for when bassist Roger Glover came a-knocking.

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