You could probably count on one hand the number of outstanding rock guitarists over the years that have thumbed their noses at conventional playing style, eschewing the standard guitar pick and instead employing a hybrid or finger-picking technique principally utilizing the thumb and some combination of the other fingers. Mark Knopfler and Lindsey Buckingham, of Dire Straits and Fleetwood Mac, respectively, most come to mind. Jeff Beck is another thumber, but his signature orgy of sound could never have been achieved without the almost constant maneuvering of the whammy bar by his lower digits. On the other hand, Toy Caldwell, lightning fast lead guitarist for one of the greatest southern rock acts of all time,¹ the Marshall Tucker Band, stuck out like a sore thumb: Caldwell was the only one I know to ever play using only his thumb. Generally speaking – or you might say, as a rule of thumb – I’ve never seen anything else quite like it.
There was no Marshall nor was there a Tucker in the Marshall Tucker Band. The Caldwell boys, Toy on guitar and Tommy also playing all thumbs on bass (something slightly less remarkable for bassists), started the band in 1972 in their hometown of Spartanburg, SC, naming themselves (inadvertently, as it turned out) after a blind piano tuner who had recently rented the same rehearsal space as the band. Within a year they had released a self-titled debut album on Capricorn Records that would contain two of Tucker’s biggest songs ever, as well as arguably two of the greatest in all of the southern rock genre: ‘Take the Highway’ and ‘Can’t You See.’ Thumbing through their incredible catalogue, you’d also find stupendous, trail-worn tunes like ‘Fire on the Mountain,’ ‘Searchin’ For a Rainbow,’ ‘This ‘Ol Cowboy,’ ’24 Hours at a Time,’ ‘Long Hard Ride,’ ‘Hillbilly Band,’ ‘Running Like the Wind,’ and their top-charting hit, reaching #14 in 1977, ‘Heard It in a Love Song’ – from which I challenge you to properly identify the lyric which immediately follows these opening three lines:
“I ain’t never been with a woman long enough / For my boots to get old / We’ve been together so long now / ???²
Before long, though, a trifecta of tragedy befell both the Caldwell family and the then-booming band: younger brother Tim (a non-Tucker member) died in 1980 at just 25 following a collision with a Spartanburg County garbage truck on a S.C. highway; exactly one month later bassist Tommy died in another car accident at age 30; Toy, the oldest, left the band in 1983 and died of cardiac arrest a decade after at 45. Oddly enough, Marshall Tucker, the actual man whose name was taken for the band, remains in place; he’s still living in South Carolina at age 94, actively playing piano even now (and not just sitting around twiddling his thumbs).
One more standout from the Marshall Tucker Band’s career-launching record back in ’73 was a rip-roaring southern stomper by the name of ‘Ramblin.’ In this featured, vintage live video of that tune, try not to be distracted by the likely Southern Comfort-swilling crowd from which nobody seems to be capable of clapping in time to the music. Instead, I recommend you focus first on the dizzying, effortless, almost inexplicable guitar work by Toy Caldwell that helped him become known as “the fastest thumb in the south.” And then, on the highlight dramatic moment from lead singer Doug Gray, the lone original member remaining in the still-existent version of the band, whose histrionic howling from 4:42 to 5:04 provides the operatic coda to this rendition as it spectacularly did to hundreds of other Marshall Tucker Band shows over the decades. All considered, I’d have to rate the combination an enthusiastic two thumbs up.
¹third-greatest to me, just in front of my personal favorite, The Outlaws, and behind only the Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd – unless maybe you’d want to put your thumb on the scale for Tucker.
²my friend Zing has forever insisted it’s “De-bo-dee-bee-do”