Joe Maphis Played Mosrite Guitars

Joe Maphis

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The guitar has played a major role in virtually every musical style of the 20th century and fortunately, this century has been rich in great guitar players : from Django Reinhardt to Eddie Cochran, Cliff Gallup to Freddy King, Hank Snow to Danny Gatton, Chet Atkins to Wes Montgomery, Hal Harris to Eric Clapton, Hank Marvin to Robbie Krieger, Brian Setzer to Steve Ray Vaughan, Mick Green to Glen Campbell, Nokie Edwards to Charlie Christian, Albert King to Marcel Dadi, the list is endless.

They all had a distinctive sound, a style of their own and ultimately exerted a lasting influence on what followed. Most of them also spent a lot of time in the studios and on the road, backing up other artists. Thus, a singer's sound or a particular hit is often closely associated with the guitar player(s) involved : for instance, can you think about Ricky Nelson without thinking of James Burton ? But sometimes, it goes even further : can you talk about Country Music without mentioning Joe Maphis ??? For years, he's been dubbed 'King Of The Strings' and although quite a few others would deserve the same distinction, there's no arguing that Joe was - and forever remains - one of the most talented guitar players ever and one whose style can be identified at all times ; that may be the quintessential quality of a great musician.

He was born Otis W. Maphis on May 12, 1921, in Suffolk (Virginia) but was raised in Cumberland (Maryland). He began playing fiddle at an early age but also took up the piano - only to concentrate shortly on stringed instruments. It's funny because of the similarity with another top guitarist [Jimmy Bryant] who was also a good piano player - and almost nobody knew it !! Joe quickly became proficient on tenor banjo, 5-string banjo, mandolin, bass fiddle and guitar. He built up a large following through his radio shows in Wheeling (West Virginia), Cincinnati ('The Boone County Jamboree' on WLW) and even Chicago ('The National Barn Dance' on WLS).

During World War II, Joe went all over the South Pacific entertaining the American Armed Forces. After his discharge, he went on to be one of the most popular entertainers on the Old Dominion Barn Dance in Richmond (Virginia) for years. In issue # 4 of 'Barn Dance Magazine' (December 1947), there was a feature on the Old Dominion Barn Dance ; among the many artists appearing on the show - which was broadcast over WRVA - were : Bill & Arline Wiltshire, Benny & Curly, Little Robert, Slim Idaho & his triple-necked steel guitar and of course, Joe Maphis who used to double as 'Cousin' Joe Maphis when he sang and emceed, and as 'Crazy' Joe Maphis when he did a comedy routine. His longtime friend, the late Merle Travis, picks up the story on the back of Joe's rare Mac Gregor LP, released circa 1961 : 'When I was in my late teens, I was with a group called 'The Drifting Pioneers', on a radio station in Cincinnati. One night, driving home from a personal appearance, we happened to tune in 'The Old Dominion Barn Dance' from Richmond, Virginia. A few songs were sung, and the honey voiced mistress of ceremonies, Sunshine Sue, announced that we'd hear a guitar solo by Ol' Crazy Joe. I'll never forget how 'Arkansas Traveler' came through that car radio. Here was the flawless, lightning-like execution of a master. After I'd got rid of my goose bumps and come back to earth, I remarked, 'Gosh, I'd sure like to meet that old man!' ' Joe spent some six years on The Dominion Barn Dance and that's where he met Rose Lee, who eventually became his wife.

Rose Lee Schetrompf was born on December 29, 1922 in Baltimore, Maryland and raised on a farm not far from Hagerstown, Virginia. Her Country music career started at age 16 when she played guitar and sang with an all girl group called 'The Saddle Sweethearts'. As Don Pierce (head of Starday Records) put it : 'Her clear, sweet voice has that 'ever lovin' twang of Country sincerity and she picks a mean rhythm guitar.'

Around 1951, the couple headed for California (following advice from Merle Travis) and it wasn't too long before Joe was in great demand on recording sessions. In fact, his considerable skills made him one of the busiest session guitarists on the West Coast (more on that later). When television came along, Joe & Rose Lee became fixtures on the Town Hall Party Show in Los Angeles. Their first recordings were made for the small Lariat label, but they were soon signed up by Okeh Records, a branch of Columbia which seemed to specialize in Rhythm'n'Blues but had a strong Country roster as well. They cut six singles for the label, including their biggest seller to date, 'Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music)'(1953, the same year they married). Their duets on these honky tonk songs were quite pleasant and Joe's playing was always the ice on the cake. In fact, Joe is as pure a Country musician as you can find ; his guitar lines were patterned after those played on fiddles and even when, later on, he attended Rock'n'Roll sessions, the Country essence of his playing always showed up. He developed a clean, precise, though sharp, picking style which, combined with his astonishing dexterity and speed, produced one of the most thrilling, memorable and influential guitar sounds ever. Cliff Gallup, Eddie Cochran, Gary Lambert, Larry Collins, Danny Gatton, are part of the legion of pickers who owe him a lot.

In 1955, Joe & Rose Lee were moved to the parent company - Columbia - and cut more fine sides until Joe came up with 'Fire On The Strings', which became his signature tune. Apart from playing also banjo and mandolin on the track, Joe used his double-neck Mosrite guitar to great effect. And thereby hangs a well-known but remarkable tale ... After watching Joe on TV, a young boy by the name of Semie Moseley dreamed about making a guitar especially for him. With the help of a preacher friend of his, he was able to meet Joe and agreed to build a double-neck guitar with the top neck an octave higher. That beautiful Mosrite guitar was presented to Joe on stage ; there was even an 'M' at the top of the peghead which stood for Maphis. Joe's incredible technique allowed him to jump easily from one neck to the other, creating dazzling effects which changed Country music forever.

In 1957, Joe's first LP was released ; aptly titled 'Fire On The Strings', it contained such monsters as 'Guitar Rock And Roll', 'Bully Of The Town', 'Flying Fingers' and the hauntingly beautiful, 'Lorrie Ann'. Joe's playing is so tasteful that one never grows tired of listening to this stuff. In January 1958, Columbia put out an astonishing EP called 'Swingin' Strings' ; it featured Joe and his prot�g�, young Larry Collins (of The Collins Kids, of course), chasing each other in a spectacular battle of the double necks !! One track in particular got all listeners flabbergasted : 'Hurricane'. 1959 saw the release of the Harmony album, 'Hi-Fi Holiday For Banjo', but also that of a single which showed some kind of departure from Joe's usual sound : 'Short Recess' featured Plas Johnson playing tenor sax (bit like in some of Duane Eddy's super recordings for Jamie) and the flip, 'Moonshot', had some Bo Diddley-influenced percussion.

In 1960, Joe parted company with Columbia - although Rose Lee cut her own delightful album for the label later in the year (with Joe backing her up). There was a lone but great sounding 45 on Republic : Joe's version of the old Merl Lindsay number, 'Water Baby Boogie'. A stereo reissue of this track on a Sundazed CD in 1990 (CD HC 12001) allowed us to hear Joe's various guitar overdubs and it's a joy to hear those cascading runs up and down the necks !! Now, who plays piano in there ?? Around that time, Joe recorded that famous LP for the Mc Gregor label, located at 729 South Western Avenue in Los Angeles. Almost comprised of traditional country & folk tunes only, Joe's playing is a joy to hear - especially since he did all guitar, banjo, mandolin and fiddle parts. His double neck Mosrite, well to the fore on the outstanding front cover, is used in several tracks - 'Square Dance Rock', 'Crazy Pickin' (which goes a bit over the top) or 'Green River Rag' where Joe does some real good Travis pickin'. There are times when you can clearly hear the tape splicing : my question is, do stereo tapes exist ? The album would no doubt benefit from clean stereo separation. From 1961 to 1963, Joe & Rose Lee were under contract with Capitol. The two albums they cut there were, again, fantastic !! First, there was that Bluegrass LP with The Blue Ridge Mountain Boys ('Lonesome Train' contained a fine dobro solo and I particularly liked Joe & Rose Lee's rendition of 'Little Rosewood Casket').
Then, Joe teamed up with his longtime friend, Merle Travis, to cut an instrumental set - 'Country Music's Two Guitar Greats' - which was pure magic !! Merle's subtle picking combined with Joe's blazing artistry produced gems like 'West Coast Blues' or 'Blast Off' (the latter being really 'Flying Fingers' #2).

I should also mention another Capitol outing : 1963's album, 'The Prisoner's Dream', recorded in prison by a real prisoner, Charles Lee Guy III. Guy sings songs by Johnny Cash ('Folsom Prison Blues') and Spade Cooley ('Cold Gray Bars') in a pleasant Country-Folk style, while accompanying himself on acoustic guitar ; the lead acoustic guitar is played by none other than Joe Maphis.

The next step would be at Starday Records, although Joe, Rose Lee and their three children (Jody, Lorrie and Dale) did not leave their San Fernando Valley home to settle close to Nashville, Tennessee - where the action was, then - until 1968. Joe worked many Californian clubs during the '60s ; guitarist Walt Rogers recalls playing with him at the 101 Club in Oceanside and at Bill Testers's 1440 Club in San Jose.

Frankly, Joe's Starday albums are wonderful and every bit as good as the previous ones. The first for the new label, 'Mr & Mrs Country Music' (circa 1964), contained great stuff like 'Time To Pray' and the rockabilly-flavored 'Sweet, Sweet Lips' (dig Joe's guitar intro and Pete Drake's steel solo !) as well as remakes of 'Please Mr Mailman' and 'Del Rio'. The classic cover photo was taken at the farm of the late Grandpa Jones, in Goodlettsville, Tennessee.

The other three (not counting various artists comps) were instrumental masterpieces (I know, I'm out of superlatives now !!) - especially SLP 316 which includes some of my all-time favorites like 'Little Bit Of Travis', 'Coffee Break', 'Banjo Boogie Shuffle', 'Double Neck Boogie' and the delicate 'Sweet Rosie', plus one of his many collaborations with another great talent, the late Pete Drake, in the form of the non-stop 'Hot Rod Guitar'. 'Golden Gospel Guitar' (SLP 322) is a marvelous collection of sacred tunes and on SLP 373 ('Country Guitar Goes To The Jimmy Dean Show'), Joe plays acoustic lead guitar, sometimes using his electric Mosrite in counterpoint like in 'Dixie Guitar' or his lovely rendition of Arlie Duff's 'Y'All Come'. It should be noted that the jacket of that latter album - nicely designed, like the other Starday LPs from the '60s - included a now scarce 34-page guitar method.

As the sixties drew to a close, Joe & Rose Lee remained active. They cut two albums and a few singles for the Mosrite label, on which Joe's discovery, Barbara Mandrel, had debuted : there was always the same tasty mixture of vocals ('Second Fiddle To A Guitar', 'Ole Jobro', 'There Goes My Everything') and instros like 'Durango', 'Alabama Jubilee', 'Spanish Dobro' and a version of 'Buckaroo' featuring Joe on fuzz guitar. Several sides were produced by veteran Bill Woods, including 'Tunin' Up For The Blues'. Joe then appeared on the Chart imprint (his single, 'Guitar Happy', is tremendous : wonder who plays that dazzling steel on it!) before moving on to CMH in the late seventies, where he cut another nice series of albums (sometimes with Merle Travis, Grandpa Jones & others). The 'Grass 'n' Jazz' LP (see discography) was an acoustic Bluegrass/Country Jazz effort , where Joe was supported by a stellar cast of musicians : Johnny Gimble, Benny Martin, Bobby Thompson, Harold Bradley, Josh Graves, Hargus 'Pig' Robbins & Buddy Harmon. All those records are wonderful examples of Country music at its best ; Joe's playing is always inventive while his and Rose Lee's vocals stay well rooted in traditional styles - the whole thing sounding varied, modern, though conjuring up what I would call 'prairie' images and feelings.

Of course, Joe had also made his mark with TV themes and the duo remained very popular until the end ... The end occurred on June 27, 1986, when Joe died of lung cancer. Rose Lee and their children (Jody and Dale cut at least one album each with their father) keep his memory alive, as do all those fans and collectors who were instantly knocked out by his incredible musicianship. His skills and versatility led to his ubiquity in the West Coast recording studios during the '50s, a most important period of transition ; therefore, it can be safely said that Joe Maphis strongly contributed to shape modern Country music.

The original double neck Mosrite is now in The Country Music Hall Of Fame in Nashville


Joe Maphis didn't name himself "King Of The Strings", he earned that title.

Equally at home on guitar, banjo, fiddle, and mandolin, Joe Maphis is best remembered for his outrageous electric picking on a custom-made Mosrite Doubleneck.

It's hard to talk about Joe Maphis without gushing.

Often credited with being the first country guitarist to flatpick fiddle tunes, Joe Maphis was an influence on Merle Travis, Jimmy Bryant, Chet Atkins, and all the hotshot country players that followed.

In addition to recording some incredible, speedy, and inhumanly precise guitar on his own LPs and with his wife Rose Lee Maphis, Joe backed countless country and rockabilly artists on stage and in the recording studio.

Joe's exemplary picking can be heard on tracks by Johnny Bond, Jimmy Boyd, Johnny Burnette, The Collins Kids, Don Deal, Bob Denton, Terry Fell, Ernie Freeman, Wanda Jackson, Rose Maddox, Ricky Nelson, Laura Lee Perkins, Jimmy Walker, and countless others.

Would it be an overstatement to call Joe Maphis a Total Guitar God?
Most certainly not. Joe Maphis IS a Guitar God, and don't you ever forget it.


Original Mosrite of USA Joe Maphis custom left handed guitar, from the Ed Roman Custom Shop
This is a custom made lefthanded guitar we did in 2008 for a customer who was looking for an Original Joe Maphis Singleneck