If you really take the time to dive deep down the rabbit hole to investigate and learn about specific genres of music, you will often find a whole cast of characters you never heard of. For example, in rock music, a good argument could be made that the period of 1967-1974 was the crucible that spawned virtually all of the sub genres that followed. It was the Wild West of rock and roll and the laws had yet to be written.
In those pre-internet days, geography played a large part, and in this context the Detroit-Michigan scene was hugely influential. A lot of the important players would never become household names, and today have faded into history, but if you’re interested in rock music they are fascinating and larger than life characters whose contributions loom large. Richard “Dick” Wagner was one of those people.
He was a guitar player from Oelwein Iowa, born in 1942, who really helped define a specific and highly musical style of playing. His sound was inextricably tied to his Les Paul cranked up through a Marshall amp, but he refined it to a degree that put him in a category occupied by a rarefied few. Anyone who is a fan of “classic rock” has heard his work, though few would know his name. If you’re a musician who’s into guitar and production, Dick Wagner was a great example of an incredibly gifted musician who honed his craft by playing thousands of gigs in the mid west club scene in the mid to late sixties. In those early days of “heavy” rock guitar sounds, there was only one way to get that tone – take your guitar of choice and plug it directly into a Marshall amp turned all the way up. No pedals and no preamp channel on the Marshall – the only extra technology required might be a wah wah pedal, and I’m not aware of Dick using that.
If you’ve ever been in the same room with a Marshall amp cranked up, you’ll know that it is so loud it’s actually frightening. We’re talking loud on a level that’s actually changing your biology on a molecular level – affecting hormonal cascades and altering neurological functioning to create an alternative state of consciousness. Volume at this level is actually acting like a drug, and (at least before you go deaf) can trigger euphoric states. So someone who has mastered an ability to harness and control this immense power begins to take on the role of a Shamen, whether anyone witnessing this phenomenon is aware of it or not.
Once again, this is the power of great art – it changes the lives of everyone who comes into contact with it. All hail Dick Wagner, gone but not forgotten. For everyone who loves this stuff, he made our lives just a little bit better. He was truly one of the pioneers of the art form, and armed with a Les Paul and a Marshall, he made life a little more exciting for everyone. Some people are visionaries who show others what might be possible. Thank you and RIP, Dick Wagner.