Zoot Horn Rollo: Captain Beefheart's Glass-Finger Guitarist
Gore, Joe, Guitar Player
If you want to talk to the man they used to call Zoot Horn Rollo, phone right on the hour, when Bill Harkleroad may be able to squeeze in a few words between lessons. Harkleroad, 48, is a busy guitar teacher in Eugene, Oregon, where many of his students have no inkling that he once helped craft some of rock's most outrageous and explosively creative records with Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band.
Beefheart and company occupy a singular niche in pop history. They were never popular, but their unearthly blend of Delta blues, free-jazz atonality and zonked-out psyche-delia have cast a spell over three decades of musical subversives. Countless art-rockers and noisemakers have been inspired by Beefheart's raucous sounds and free-associative imagery. Left-field visionaries Tom Waits and PJ Harvey crib liberally from him. A Beefheart guitar solo inspired college-age Henry Kaiser to dedicate his life to an instrument he'd never before played. During his Chili Pepper days John Frusciante tried in earnest to commence every day by listening to Beefheart's 1969 masterwork, Trout Mask Replica--the record Courtney Love claims inspired her peak sexual experience with Kurt Cobain.
Like the Zappa and Bowie groups, the Magic Band was a magnet for superb guitarists, and Harkleroad was only one of many gifted players who passed through its ranks. Doug Moon, Alex St. Claire and young Ry Cooder helped the band morph from a straight-ahead blues combo to daring rock outsiders. Moris Tepper, Richard Redus and Gary Lucas helped Beefheart create three extraordinary albums before his 1982 retirement. But more than any single player, it was Harkleroad--with help from Jeff Cotton, Elliot Ingber and Mark Boston--who, between 1969 and '74, helped concoct the definitive Beefheart guitar sound.
Bill spent his adolescence in Lancaster, California, the desert town north of L.A. where both Frank Zappa and Beefheart (real name: Don Van Vliet) attended high school. "One of the first bands I remember seeing live was the Blackouts with Frank on drums," recalls Bill. "When I was 14 or 15 and Frank and Don were in their early 20s, I started meeting them at jam sessions."
Bill shared Van Vliet's enthusiasm for the blues: "The Beatles had cool hair and all, but I was more of a B.B. King guy. By the time I was 151 was playing note-for-note Muddy Waters things in open tuning." Meanwhile, Van Vliet and his band were starting to warp the blues with increasingly surreal lyrics, ad hoc structures and startling dissonance, resulting in the group's Cooder-driven debut, Safe as Milk.
Harkleroad first ventured into the studio with Beefheart during the making of the next album, Strictly Personal. The session was was over-seen by producer/engineer Zappa, who apparently found the young guitarist's '63 Telecaster/Dual Showman tone insufficiently harsh: He strode into the studio and dimed every knob on the amp with a single swipe of his arm. "I had to stand to the side of it because it was so painful," remembers Bill. "It could have cut paper for sure." The day's tracks were shelved when producer Bob Krasnow wrested creative control from Zappa and Beefheart, but "Moonlight on Vermont" and "Veteran's Day Poppy" would later resurface as Trout Mask Replica highlights.
"Then Don took control" recounts Bill. "The older players like Ry were gone, and he could tell us young guys what to do." Beefheart even re-christened the musicians: Harkleroad was now Zoot Horn Rollo, and Cotton became Antennae Jimmy Semens. Van Vliet also molded Bill's musicianship, specifying not only what to play but how. The teenager was directed to use heavy strings and adopt the same combination of flatpick and metal fingerpicks that Cotton used. "Don wanted it to sound harder, harder, harder," says Bill. "My fingers would be a bloody mess, but I didn't complain. I was 19, my two favorite artists were Zappa and Beefheart, and I was just glad I didn't have to go to college or join the army and die. …