Southern rock guitar has a slew of sonic signposts: daredevil solos, multiple six-stringers, unison and harmony lines, greasy slide tones, and typically the warm purr of a Gibson guitar through a high-powered amp. And the Allman Brothers Band established all of them.

Sure, plenty of other groups from the Charlie Daniels and Marshall Tucker bands to Lynyrd Skynyrd to 38 Special to the Outlaws have made great contributions to the genre, but when it comes to the brawniest and brainiest guitar interplay, the Allman Brothers have consistently raised the torch the highest.

What’s remarkable is that the firepower and intensity of the Allmans’ guitar frontline has endured despite major shifts in its line-up since the group essentially invented Southern rock as a genre in 1969. But, then again, Duane Allman, Dickey Betts, Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks, Dan Toler, Jack Pearson, and Jimmy Herring are all remarkable guitarists.

The band’s story, of course, begins with Duane, who remains one of America’s most influential guitarists 37 years after his death. He and his singing organist brother Gregg had been in at least three outfits—the Escorts, the Allman Joys, and the Hour Glass—together before the Allman Brothers. After the Hour Glass lost its contract with Liberty Records Duane went to work in the studios at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and Gregg went to Los Angeles at Liberty’s call to explore a solo career.

Through his Muscle Shoals contacts Duane met drummer Jai Johanny Johanson and bassist Berry Oakley. They started jamming seriously in Jacksonville, Florida, with guitarist Dickey Betts, drummer Butch Trucks, and keyboardist Reese Wynans. Hearing magic –especially in the interplay of the dual drummers and in his own rapport with Betts—Duane summoned Greg back from Los Angles to replace Wynans on organ and to sing lead.

Wynans would come to fame a little more than a decade later with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. And today he’s a respected figure in the Nashville music scene. But for the Allman Brothers stardom arrived quickly. Shortly after forming in March 1969 they became a major concert draw in the South. That same year they released their debut album, The Allman Brothers Band.

It took one more LP for the rest of the country to catch on, but The Allman Brothers Band boasted two numbers that would become rock and roll classics. “Dreams” reflected the group’s live improvisational instincts. It’s a swinging, seven-minute blues waltz in 12/8 time with a lyric that gives way to Duane’s corcidin bottle slide on, likely, his ’61 Gibson SG. Duane’s solo is followed by the butter-toned, vibrato laden blues licks of Dickey’s ’57 Redtop Les Paul. The tune climaxes with the harmonized unison guitar lines that would become an Allman Brothers Band trademark—fashioned by Duane and Dickey, but upheld by every one of the group’s guitar teams since.

The other number fated for history was “Whipping Post.” It’s charging twin-guitar intro demands attention and establishes a stomping momentum that propelled the band to epic jams in concert. Good as the five-minute version on The Allman Brother Band is, however, the song was immortalized two years later when it was re-recorded on stage at New York City’s famed Fillmore East. There—as they did every night—Duane and Dickey painted a collage of musical images, coloring the tune to 22 minutes. (See Russell Hall’s ode to The Allman Brothers’ At Fillmore East.)

At Fillmore East remains the original line-up’s Rosetta stone, but the apex of their studio mastery was their second album, Idlewild South. Legendary record man Tom Dowd produced the 1970 release. He reigned in the band’s free-form approach to developing songs and cut the radio friendly tracks “Midnight Rider” and “Revival.” The album also includes the band’s first instrumental, Dickey’s beautiful “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.”

Named for a woman whose tombstone Dickey spotted in a cemetery in Macon, Georgia, which the group and their label Capricorn called home, “Elizabeth Reed” was the Florida-raised guitarist’s tribute to Miles Davis. Dickey plays a series of modal solos over the fast, aggressively swinging double-drum attack of Johnson and Trucks, alternating sax-like clusters of notes with the smooth turns of the song’s graceful, voice-like melody. And again, there’s his magical unison playing with Duane.

Betts and Allman were rock’s finest guitar partnership – tied perhaps only by Duane’s 10-day collaboration with Eric Clapton on Derek & the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. They shared a charmed blend of similarities and differences.

What originally brought Duane and Dickey together was Duane’s desire to have Berry Oakley in his band. Oakley was reluctant to leave Second Coming, his Jacksonville-based group with Betts. So when Oakley finished an early 1969 session at Muscle Shoals and headed home, Duane and Johanson followed. Oakley still held out – until Duane conceded that Dickey could also be in the band.

Dickey was a veteran of cover outfits, but he’d been playing since he was five and his chops and sense of harmony and swing were well developed. His renditions of other artists’ hits rippled with excitement. As the legend goes, Dickey’s group the Jokers – who mixed Top 40 cuts with stone blues like “Stormy Monday” – inspired Rick Derringer’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Hoochie Koo.” They’re name checked in its lyrics. And in 1975 Betts and his red Les Paul would get another shout-out, in Charlie Daniels’ “The South’s Gonna Do It Again.”

During his first all-out jam with Duane, Dickey began crafting guitar harmonies on the fly. Thus one of the Allman Brothers Band’s hallmarks was effortlessly forged. There’s a detailed description of that marathon in Scott Freeman’s excellent Midnight Riders: The Story of the Allman Brothers Band.

Typically Dickey and Duane would trade third- and fourth-position harmonies around each other’s sterling guitar lines in the studio. But they’d go further live, improvising into seventh- and sixth-position harmony lines in tunes like their “Mountain Jam,” which is captured in full glory on Live at the Atlanta International Pop Festival, a set that also features an exploratory “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.”

Betts still often crafts his solos around seven-note diatonic scales, as he did with the Allman Brothers. He also enjoys playing minor scales against their relative majors, like his classic solo in E on the post-Duane smash “Ramblin’ Man,” which is in the key of G. Another of Dickey’s favorite moves immortalized in the best of the Allman’s catalog is switching between major and minor scales during his solos. That’s something he likely plucked from bluesmen like T-Bone Walker, Wayne Bennett, and others who played the Texas-Louisiana-Florida crawfish circuit.

Duane’s and Dickey’s shared blues roots gave them rapport and provided the Allman Brothers an instant springboard for improvisation. Like Dickey, Duane was also a modal player fond of jazz kingpins Miles Davis and John Coltrane. And the demands of playing sessions for Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, and others had made Duane flexible and savvy about tailoring hooks.

Duane also came to the Allman Brothers Band as the most sophisticated slide guitarist of his day. Inspired by bluesmen like Blind Willie McTell and then supercharged by hearing Jesse Ed Davis, he’d dived into the technique, which relies on vocal and textural sensibilities as much as practical musical knowledge. His tool box of slide tricks included downward phrasing, forceful right-hand muting to keep his notes dampened, dark, and distinct - which gave him an uncommonly rich and controlled slide tone – and careful adherence to the five-fret rule (always stay within two downward frets and three upward frets of the tonal center).

As a textural player and an avowed Jimi Hendrix fan, Duane was also curious about sound’s sheer power and emotional value. Dickey shared this interest and they developed a heavyweight arsenal for the band. Duane employed his ’59 Junior, a Tele with a Strat neck, a late ’50s or early ’60s ES-335, a ’57 Les Paul Gold Top, a ’61 SG he most often used for slide, and other instruments. Dickey preferred Les Pauls. Both played through Marshall amps and cabs during the band’s heyday, preferring 50-watt heads and 4x12s—another reason why their guitar lines were often so seamless.

Because of Dickey’s and Duane’s seamless sound and intertwined playing, many Allman Brothers fans initially thought the band had only one lead guitarist—the more charismatic Duane. Sadly, this became true on October 29, 1971, when Duane died in a motorcycle crash.


In the period following Duane’s tragic death, Dickey proved his mettle as the Allmans’ sole guitarist. He completed 1972’s Eat a Peach. The enduring tracks “Melissa,” “Blue Sky,” and “Little Martha” reflect a gentility that seems, in retrospect, both mournful and partly the result of Dickey’s more purely melodic style of composing on guitar. Keyboardist Chuck Leavell was added to the line-up, which was delivered a second blow when Oakley died on November 11, 1972 in a bike accident just blocks away from Duane’s fatal crash.

Dickey’s ascendance in the band was complete by 1973’s Brothers and Sisters. He was the architect of the group’s first top 10 hit “Ramblin’ Man” and the FM airplay staple “Jessica,” a seven-minute excursion pinned to his reverb dappled Les Paul. The album’s radio breakthrough also announced the ascendance of Southern rock, paving the way for hits by the Marshall Tucker Band (featuring the brilliant guitarist Toy Caldwell), the Charlie Daniels Band, and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Then, as they often do in rock ‘n’ roll, things got ugly. Dickey and Leavell butted heads over the groups’ musical direction. While Greg Allman tried to make peace, his own alleged issues with drugs made him ineffective. For the first time the group recorded an album without congregating in the studio to cut tracks together, abandoning the live interplay that had sparked their birth and been their core. The result was 1975’s messy, ill-received Win, Lose or Draw.

A year later Allman was busted by the feds on drug charges and ended up fingering the band’s long-time road manager and friend John “Scooter” Herring as his supplier. Allman got a break and Herring took the fall. The other band members were outraged and vowed to never work with Allman again.


“Never” lasted two years. Betts stoked the solo career he’d begun with 1974’s Highway Call by forming his group Great Southern, which he still leads today. Allman pursued his independent career, which he’d launched with 1973’s Laid Back and its number 19 re-recording of “Midnight Rider.” Leavell, Johanson, and Oakley’s replacement Lamar Williams formed the fusion group Sea Level. And they all went back to playing bars.

The lesser fortunes to be won apart from the Allman Brothers led Dickey and Gregg to, if not exactly put aside their differences, at least ignore them on stage and in the studio. Along with bassist David Goldflies, Betts drafted fellow Great Southern six-stringer Dan Toler and the Brothers reformed, releasing 1979’s Enlightened Rogues and hitting the arena circuit once more. The single “Crazy Love” renewed interest in the Allman Brothers brand, but it was the instrumental “Pegasus” - which also won radio play - that gave notice of the formidability of the Toler and Betts tag-team.

Toler was an Indiana kid whose father exposed him and his drummer brother David to jazz. In the early ’60s Toler became a popular local draw at sock hops and county fairs with his group Danny Lee and the Upsetters.

Intrigued by Toler’s jazz and blues background, Betts lifted him from obscurity by inviting him, and David, to join Great Southern, and then the re-formed Allman Brothers.

Toler and Betts still play together in the latest version of Dickey Betts and Great Southern. They are fiercely compatible musicians who at times seem mirror images of each other. Like Betts, Toler is an unerring melodist. They recaptured the seamless, harmonized elements of the classic Allman Brothers Band that Dickey and Duane had perfected. And they upped the ante by playing essentially the same gear.

“How we got the sound was with a Marshall 100,” Toler explained in an interview with Lisa Eicholzer-Walker for the web site. “In 1980 I had four Marshall 100s and I had 16 12-inch JBL speakers. Dickey had the same exact rig. We only used two heads at a time. We had two for spares in the rack. What we'd do is take one head and put the volume on two and the other head on eight. The midrange was on two, presence on six and bass and treble was adjusted by feel, usually five or six for us. We'd have a Les Paul, in fact I have a ’57 that Greg Allman gave me that I still use. I was using a ’58 with the Allman Brothers, but I sold it. We also had PAF pickups. They would provide a little bit of sweetness to the sound.

“For example, if you were playing a solo and your volume on your guitar was at about a seven/eight and it sounded really nice, when the band would get a little louder and you'd get that dynamic with the crowd going and you got that rush you'd crank that guitar up to 10 and it would become this intense, sweet beautiful sound. I think Dickey used a bit of digital delay. Dickey had a great sound and Duane Allman had a great sound and it is that signature Les Paul-Marshall combo.”

Dan and Dickey were the torchbearers of the Allman Brothers’ guitar legacy for four years, when the band surrendered to an inability to regain its once-immense popularity.


In 1989 Dickey and Greg decided to go for round three. This time they regrouped with the great Warren Haynes on second guitar, and thanks to a recent solo hit by Greg (“I’m No Angel”) and a resurgence in catalog sales, the Allman Brothers Band hit the summer shed circuit playing mostly its classic repertoire. Old fans and a new generation of listeners welcomed them and they’ve since remained one of the most consistently popular live acts on the road.

Haynes was playing with country rocker David Alan Coe, a friend of Betts, when they met in the mid-’80s. In 1987 Betts invited Haynes to sing back-up on a solo album he was recording, then asked him to stay on as guitarist. Again it was a blissful match—two improvisers with a background in jazz, blues, and R&B, two Les Pauls, and two heaps of Marshalls.

Betts and Haynes recreated all the Allman Brothers Band’s guitar signatures with fire. But their union as the group’s instrumental frontline was also the first time Dickey was paired with a player whose vocabulary had some significant differences. Haynes introduced a psychedelic element, employing Leslie-like effects and Hendrixian octave pedal tones in his already darker sound. He was also the most formidable slide player in the group since Duane, who was one of his major influences.

Warren and Dickey soldiered on together until 1997 when the side project that Haynes and Allmans’ bassist Allen Woody had formed with Great Southern drummer Matt Abts in ’94 – Gov’t Mule – demanded Haynes and Woody’s full-time attention. (For a wealth of stories about Haynes and his guitars including his Les Paul signature model, his slide technique, etc., plug his name into this site’s search engine and go nuts!)


Pearson remains the most mysterious of the Allman’s guitarists. He was the first to bring Fender-styled guitars – G&Ls and an axe with a white Stratocaster body and a Telecaster-type neck, all with Seymour Duncan pickups – on stage as his main instruments. He also played a National Reso-Electric and an Alvarez acoustic with the band, sometimes adding a tube screamer and a graphic eq. His amps were either Marshalls, Hoffmans, Soldano, or Randall’s pumping 12-inch Electro-Voice speakers.

The ripping virtuoso played during a two-year period from 1997 to 1999 when the band recorded no albums, so his work with the group remains undocumented outside of private recordings by the band and its fans.

It was Haynes who introduced his fellow Nashvillian to the Allman Brothers as he felt the draw of Gov’t Mule’s road schedule pulling harder. Once again, Dickey found an able sparing partner in Jack, with a background and style that was much closer to his than Warren’s.

Pearson is a Nashville native who already had a strong reputation in Music City as a songwriter, studio musician, and all around six-string virtuoso before joining the Allmans. He started playing professionally at age 14, developing a versatile style based on a breadth of knowledge about jazz, R&B, rock, and country.

Like Duane and Dickey, Pearson is a melody man with a lyrical approach to single-line solos. He also has a vocabulary that includes extended chords and the chops to play chordal solos at single-note speed, which brought a new dimension to the group.

Pearson picked up Duane’s slide mantle as ably as Haynes had. He also brought an element of surprise to his traditional single-note blues soloing. Pearson has a sense of timing similar to Buddy Guy on a hot night. So in tunes like “Trouble No More” he’d lay back, fall a tad behind the beat, and then uncoil a venomous cobra strike of clustered notes laden with vicious vibrato and wicked bends.


When Pearson chose to return to a quieter life as a session player and songwriter, the group literally looked within the family for his replacement. Drummer Butch Trucks’ nephew Derek Trucks next took the guitar spotlight next to Mr. Richard Betts.

Two years earlier, at age 18, he’d emerged with The Derek Trucks Band album, a stunning slide-driven work as steeped in the Southern traditions of blues and soul as in the eastern microtonalities of Indian music. Duane and the colorful jazz bandleader Sun Ra are among his main influences, so the fit was easy. The one departure: instead of Marshalls, Derek prefers to plug his SGs into a 1965 Fender Super Reverb with Pyle Driver speakers set on “stun” volume. So avid is his affection for Duane’s slide approach that he uses a Dunlop Pyrex recreation of Duane’s corcidin bottle on his .11 gauge strings.

But Dickey and Derek’s recreation of the original Allman Brothers guitar sound was short-lived. The other band members decided to suspend Dickey right before their summer 2000 tour. Fans and the guitarist himself were stunned. He was part of the group’s soul - a founding voice as distinctive and important as those of Duane and Greg. He was an innovator who’d helped give birth to a genre.

Nonetheless, Betts had missed Allman Brothers Band concert dates during the ’90s for “health reasons.” For a stretch John Mellencamp guitarist David Grissom had subbed for Dickey, although never officially joined. And Dickey’s struggles with booze, violence, domestic issues, and the police showed up in newspapers. Betts responded to his suspension by suing the other members of the band and they’ve remained divided ever since, with Dickey putting his energy into the aptly-named Great Southern.


Jimmy Herring also played his first gig with the Allman Brothers Band as a sub for Dickey. He stepped into the group for the night of July 30, 1993 after Dickey was arrested right before a gig in Saratoga Springs, New York.

The North Carolina native’s touchstones are roots guitar supernova Roy Buchanan and country-fusion pioneer Steve Morse, and Herring’s first high-profile gig was with Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit, Southern rock’s answer to Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention. His other notable dip into high-profile fusion was with Jazz Is Dead, a hyperactive virtuoso Grateful Dead cover band featuring drummer Billy Cobham and Dixie Dregs keyboardist T Lavitz. Today he is also guitarist for the Band and Widespread Panic.

Once again, a blend of roots and jazz influences made Herring ripe for the Allman Brothers. So Jimmy was called back on deck after Pearson’s departure, and he and Derek quickly hit it off - two new guys thrown in the deep end of one of the best loved and most scrutinized bands in the world. With his Strats, Teles, and a Paul Reed Smith Custom 22, Herring’s sound put a little more brightness in the Allmans’ mix, and when turned loose he and Trucks took their soloing to screaming modal heights that were a logical extension of Sun Ra, Coltrane, Zappa, Duane, and Dickey.

But when Haynes once again became available in 2001, Herring returned to his other gigs. Warren and Derek have held the guitar reins ever since. These days Gov’t Mule and the Allmans generally work around each other’s schedules, and also schedule in Haynes’ gigs with the Dead. And Trucks had divided his time between the Allman Brothers, recording and leading his own band, and playing with Eric Clapton.

Recently the Allman Brothers Band cancelled their April and May 2008 shows due to Gregg’s battle with Hepatitis C. He says he’s bested the sometimes-fatal virus, but needs to recharge before returning to the stage this summer.

When he’s ready, Warren and Derek will be, too, making sure the torch Duane and Dickey lit continues to brightly burn.