Terry Kath: Chicago's Guitarist Extraordinaire

Terry Kath: Chicago's Guitarist Extraordinaire

Written by WL Woodward

In 1970 a dear friend, Hank Rau, introduced me to a new band, Chicago Transit Authority. I want to dedicate this column to Hank, who I’ve known since the first grade. He’s always been a wonderful friend and I never listen to Chicago without thinking of him.

In being introduced to the band I discovered a new guitar hero. Terry Kath, guitarist and tenor vocal for Chicago Transit Authority was an unknown guitar name. Oh, everyone knew who he was from hearing the music. With songs like “Make Me Smile” and “25 or 6 to 4” being such big hits, all you had to say to someone was, “You know that guy on 25 or 6 to 4?” and the recognition was immediate even if they didn’t know Kath’s name. On the other hand, other guitarists were well aware of him.

Terry Kath was born in Chicago in 1946 to musical parents. Early in life his parents Ray and Evelyn Kath bought a cabin and some land fronting a lake and the family spent summers there. The family had neighbors who would bring instruments and play on summer evenings. Terry’s brother Rod played drums and Terry picked up the guitar when he was about 10 years old.

Rod was famously asked, “Why’d he pick the guitar?”

”Mostly to make our dad angry. Dad hated the guitar and the longhairs that played it.” Ah, the good old days. We used to spend hours coming up with ways to piss off our parents. And it was so easy.

Kath did the same thing everyone did; at age 12 he met a friend and they started practicing songs and playing parties and school dances. At 15 he got his first real guitar and amp, and began working on stuff like the Ventures, Johnny Smith, Dick Dale, George Benson, Mike Bloomfield, Clapton and Hendrix. Wow. Given that mix of diversified influences he could have turned to most genres. His preference was rock.

Terry began a semi-pro career in 1963 with the Mystics, who became Jimmy Rice and the Gentlemen. You remember them right? Yeah no.

Here he first met future Chicago fellow founders, drummer Danny Seraphine and Walter Parazaider on sax and winds. In 1966 Kath joined a cover band named the Missing Links along with Seraphine and Parazaider. They started playing with eventual Chicago members James Pankow (trombone), Robert Lamm (keys) and trumpeter Lee Loughnane. They gigged in nightclubs around Chicago as The Big Thing. (They must have sat up all night thinking up dat name.)

There’s a great story from this period. The Big Thing was a cover band but this chafed Kath. He had ideas and knew the band was capable of much more. They were auditioning at a small nightclub for a Chi-town hoodlum club manager who asked them to play a song so he could dance with a waitress. At Kath’s urging they played Frank Zappa’s “How Can I Be Such A Fool.” They, um, didn’t get the job. But the band members all point to that incident as a defining moment for the band.

In late 1967 Peter Cetera was asked join The Big Thing on bass and the lineup was set. By 1969 the band had moved to LA, signed a record contract with Columbia, and renamed the band Chicago Transit Authority. They started working on that first record.

By all accounts, from band members and producer James William Guercio alike, Terry Kath was the clear leader. James Pankow had learned music theory at DePaul and Kath went to him with a song idea. He wanted to have a piece he’d been thinking about that introduced the band members musically. Kath couldn’t write music himself and had no theory training so he enlisted Pankow to write down what was in Terry’s mind.

The result was “Introduction,” the album’s opening song. Keep in mind while you listen to it that Pankow was astounded by the complexity of the song and how hard it was to write down, and couldn’t believe this was coming straight out of Terry’s head. Then in the studio, one take.  What?” Some stories about famous ‘one takes” in studios are incredible but this one suspends belief.

Danny Seraphine reported in an interview this was the most difficult song he ever played.  There were several key changes and time changes starting with 4/4, then 3/8, moving to 19/8.  Try counting out 19/8 sometime and get back to me.


Immediately you are grabbed by the voice. The voice of Terry Kath has been compared to the style of Ray Charles and I can hear it. No matter where or who he got his tone from, he was not only a crazy good guitar player and songwriter but could sing like his soul was on fire.

By the way Peter Cetera was a fine bass player.

Speaking of crazy guitar, there’s a song that opens Side 3 where the producer put Kath in a room by himself with just a guitar and an amp. No pedals. Just guitar, amp and a Bogen PA amplifier used as a preamp. The result was “Free Form Guitar.” How this managed to make it on a debut album was a sign of those times and a tribute to the faith of the producer James William Guercio.

Joe Walsh was interviewed for the film The Terry Kath Experience. He remembered studying Terry’s playing to try and figure out what he was doing and was mostly successful. But on “Free Form Guitar” Walsh shook his head and said “In some places I had no idea how he was getting his guitar to sound like that.” He paused and said, “I miss him.”

Remember. No pedal effects, Jimi. And before your “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock.

By the way. For headphone listeners, that was fair warning.


For the gearheads among you, he was playing a Fender Stratocaster. The amp was a “Showman amplifier with a twin 15 bottom” according to the album liner notes (likely a Fender Dual Showman from this description).

Live, Kath used a RadioShack PA amp that he would not give up. When the band was on stage the thing would pick up the broadcasts of local truckers delivering lettuce. So Terry and a sound guy came up with a stoner-inspired fix that strapped chicken wire around the amp to isolate it from the nearby highway. You heard me.

(Right now there is a dear reader trolling eBay looking for a RadioShack PA amp. I’m positive you can find one. Still won’t make you Terry Kath my friend.)

Before recording their first album the band was the house band at the Whiskey A Go-Go in Hollywood. During a set the band noticed Jimi Hendrix with his entourage at the back of the room. Later in the band room they were laughing and amazed that the man might have caught their set. Damn man! He was there, Holy sh*t. Hendrix was there! As related by a band member, the door opened and in walked Jimi. He pointed his finger and said, “You guys are mother-f***ers.” He hired them for a tour and told people Kath was his favorite guitar player, and better than him. In a whisper, Chicago went from the house band at the Whiskey to touring behind Jimi Hendrix. Before Jimi died in 1970 he and Terry were discussing a joint project. Crap.

That first album and the touring began the most prolific period of the band’s career. From 1969 to 1977 they released an album every year. Four of them were double albums and they had a string of five consecutive albums that went to number one.

In 1972 Terry moved into the Caribou Ranch in Nederland, CO, a recording studio built by producer Guercio. Kath was the first artist to record and live at the ranch that would go on to record some of the most iconic players in pop and rock. Unfortunately the ranch also became a playground for firearms. Terry wasn’t into hunting but loved sport shooting and the band did a lot of it out there. Kath started wearing an automatic pistol on his hip almost constantly.

He also started on drugs during this period. A lotta dat was going around. He was uncomfortable with fame and the band’s celebrity had resulted in a period of melancholy that resulted in heavy drug use. And we all know drugs and guns do not mix.

I have always erred on the side of drugs.

In January 1978 he was partying with road manager Don Johnson. Terry was playing with a ‘38 revolver and at one point put the revolver to his temple and pulled the trigger. Terry apparently knew the gun was empty and did it as a goof. Despite warnings from Johnson, Kath picked up his automatic, showed the empty clip, popped it back into the gun and repeated the temple trick. But there was one round in the chamber, Terry.

Terry Kath was 31 years old, had just finished writing a solo album and was planning on leaving the band.

Everyone involved, and most emphatically Don Johnson, swore he was not suicidal. He was just the victim of a tragic Pavlovian mistake.

On another gear note, Kath had several guitars but was most famous for a Telecaster he’d had modified. Kath was involved with guitar amplifier company Pignose Amps. He decorated the Tele in the hippie style of the day. Put lots of sh*t on it. Adorned it with a beloved Chicago Blackhawks logo and plastered Pignose stickers all over it. Great player, sh*tty designer. The thing was a monstrosity and had gone missing, but given its legacy it was worth finding.

In 2015 Terry’s daughter Michelle Kath Sinclair wrote and produced The Terry Kath Experience documentary, which used a search for the Pignose Tele as an understory. After contacting as many people she could think of she found the damn thing in her grandmother’s closet. Family.    “Oh. You were looking for this?” Sheesh.

Great watch and a must for fans.

There is a quote in the beginning of the doc that noted that if Kath had been in a power trio named The Terry Kath Experience he would have been one of the greatest known guitar players of the 1970s. The emotions of the band members talking about Terry some 40 years later is worth the watch. Michelle. Beautiful job.

How about a couple of examples. These cuts are from a July 1970 Tanglewood concert. Both   are well known, especially the second. I used these because the live recordings are a cut above the album takes to say the least. The first is a cover of a Spencer Davis Group tune penned by Stevie Winwood and producer Jimmy Miller. Needs no introduction.

If you look closely you’ll notice that little RadioShack PA amp tucked between the monster speakers.

And listen for Kath spurring on the drummer during the percussion break. “Come on man!”  Seraphine then shows some pretty nice chops.


Shiver me timbers.

The next is played on the putrid classic rock stations about 47 times a day. When the single first came out we took a while figuring out what the darn thing was about. Now we all know the story of “25 or 6 To 4.”


I always loved that man’s wah wah pedal work. Played like it was a part of him.

Wait! He really was one of the greatest guitarists in rock history!

Thanks, Terry Kath.


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Back to Copper home page