Who invented heavy metal? Ask this question and you’ll likely get a lot of different answers: Plant and Page, Ozzy Osbourne, perhaps (if you take the long view of history) even Wagner, Beethoven or Mozart. If you asked me this question I would answer unhesitatingly with two legendary words: Link Wray.

Fred Lincoln Wray, who died eight years ago today, was not part of the “acid rock” genre in the late 60s that gave rise to what are usually considered the world’s first heavy metal bands, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. But he was clearly a pioneer, and he basically invented the power chord. Click the above video, which is for the iconic song by Link Wray and the Ray-Men, “Rumble.” It was originally recorded in 1958. If that doesn’t sound like heavy metal to you, I’m not sure there’s much I can do for you. This is the essence of heavy metal: downtuned, fuzzy guitars, power chords, a driving bass line and a very heavy edge. No one had ever done this before Link did it back  in the ’50s.

link wray in 2003

“Rumble” is often classified as surf rock. That doesn’t bother me, because surf rock is one of the progenitors of heavy metal. If you’re a little too young to have hung out around the jukebox in 1958 (I’m not that old!) you may remember “Rumble” from the soundtrack of the Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction.

Link had a fascinating life. A native of North Carolina, he served in the Army during the Korean War and even lost a lung, which supposedly meant a singing career was out. Nevertheless he started playing rock in 1956, assembled the Ray Men band, and became a staple of the surf- and hot-rod rock circuit that became popular especially in California in the next decade. Hits came and went but Link remained true to his principles. He toured until the very end of his life, far outlasting most rock artists of his generation.

I had the very good fortune to see Link Wray perform live in Portland, Oregon in 1997. It was one of the most amazing shows I ever went to. I’ll never forget the angry couple standing in front of me who stormed out of the performance halfway through, complaining that they were ripped off. “This isn’t what i came to hear!” fumed the man. “It sounds like Metallica!”

Hail the founder of heavy metal, Link Wray. Long may he reign in Valhalla.

The photograph of Link Wray was taken in March 2003 at the Village Underground in New York City. The photo is by Anthony Pepitone and is used/relicensed under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license.