Hank Garland, whose name provided the “-land” in Gibson’s Byrdland model, died Dec. 28 at 74. Garland was one of Nashville’s top session guitarists in the 1950s and had recorded a landmark jazz album when an auto accident left him brain-damaged, ending his career.
Born Walter Garland in 1930 in South Carolina, he started playing guitar at age 6 and was performing on local radio by age 12. He debuted on the Grand Ole Opry at 15 but the musicians union made him wait until he was 16 to become a regular. He was still a teenager when he signed with Decca records and had a country hit with “Sugarfoot Rag” in 1949. Country star Red Foley immediately recorded a vocal version of the tune, featuring an instrumental break by Garland.
Although the public came to know him as Hank “Sugarfoot” Garland, the country licks he played on “Sugarfoot Rag,” and on sessions for everyone from Webb Pierce to Patsy Cline to the Everly Brothers, represented just the tip of his talent. After the country sessions were done, Garland and other Nashville guitarists played jazz. Two of those jazzers, Garland and Billy Byrd (who would later gain fame as Ernest Tubb’s guitarist) were enlisted by Gibson for a signature model in 1955.
The Gibson model featured the spruce top and cutaway body of Gibson’s high-end L-5CES, but with a shallower body. The model’s unique feature was a 23 ½” scale length, an inch-a-quarter shorter than the standard Gibson scale, designed to accommodate the left-hand stretches that jazz guitarists were exploring. Gibson combined Byrd’s and Garland’s names and called it the Byrdland.
The Byrdland originally had two single-coil pickups, but it changed to humbuckers when the humbucker was introduced in 1957. Garland custom-ordered his personal Byrdlands with a “Charlie Christian” pickup – Gibson’s first pickup, from the 1936 ES-150 used by jazz guitar pioneer Charlie Christian – in the neck position.
In 1960 he displayed his inventive, virtuoso jazz chops on a solo album, Jazz Winds from a New Direction, and he would also record a second album, The Unforgettable Guitar of Hank Garland.
In 1961, in the midst of session work for the soundtrack for the Elvis Presley movie Follow That Dream, he had a car wreck that left him brain-damaged. He lost most of his motor functions and had to learn to play guitar all over again. Although he never fully recovered, he did perform “Sugarfoot Rag” in 1979 to a crowd of over 9,000 cheering country fans at the annual Fan Fair celebration in Nashville.
Seldom in good health after his accident, Garland died of a staph infection in the Orange Park Medical Center in Orange Park, Florida. He is survived by his brother Billy.
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