Roy Nichols

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For the baseball player, see Roy Nichols (baseball).
Roy Nichols
Roynichols sm.jpg
Roy Nichols
Background information
Birth name Roy Earnest Nichols
Born (1932-10-21)October 21, 1932
Chandler, Arizona, U.S.
Died July 3, 2001(2001-07-03) (aged 68)
Genres Country, western swing, jazz
Occupation(s) Musician, songwriter
Instruments Guitar, harmonica
Years active 1932–1987
Labels Various
Associated acts Merle Haggard
Notable instruments
Fender Telecaster

Roy Nichols (October 21, 1932 – July 3, 2001) was an American country music guitarist best known as the lead guitarist for Merle Haggard for more than two decades. He was known for his guitar technique, a mix of fingerpicking and pedal steel-like bends, usually played on a Telecaster.


Roy Ernest Nichols was born in Chandler, Arizona. His parents were Bruce and Lucille Nichols. Roy was the first born of seven children. The Nichols family moved to Fresno, California when he was 2. They owned a camp for migrant farm workers. Sometimes a traveling Gypsy band would stay at the camp. Nichols would hide and watch them play. His father Bruce played upright bass at the local dances on the weekends in the San Joaquin Valley. Nichols was interested in his father’s music. He learned three chords from his father and began playing in his father's band on the weekends when he was 11. By age 14, Nichols began playing weekends with Curly Roberts and the Rangers. This earned him $25 a week.[1]


Shortly before his 16th birthday, Nichols met Fred Maddox, of the Maddox Brothers. The Maddox Brothers and Rose was a colorful hillbilly band. They heard Nichols playing guitar on the Saturday-morning radio program by Barney Lee, a DJ in Fresno. Nichols was now earning $90 a week. This was big money for a 16-year-old. “He could play anything,” said Rose Maddox. “He was good at all of it. Every guitar picker in the country wanted to play like him, but none of them ever compared. He was one of a kind. But the music aside, he was like any 16-year-old kid - feisty, causing us trouble. But my mother brought him under.” At a Maddox show in Mesa, Arizona, a teen-age couple sat in front row. It was Buck Owens and Bonnie Campbell Owens. They were fascinated with Nichols' playing. The Maddox Brothers toured out of state for extended periods. Fred became Nichols' legal guardian and tutor. Fred’s brother, Henry Maddox, was actually the one who tutored Nichols. While in Las Vegas, Nichols began sneaking away to gamble. Lula Maddox watched out for Nichols, and caught him gambling one night. He was warned not to gamble. He was caught the next night and was fired by Lula. Nichols was with the Maddox group for 18 months. He recorded over 100 songs and toured almost 7 nights a week.

Returning to the valley, Nichols joined Smiley Maxidon on radio station KNGS in Hanford, CA. He played a 1-hour live broadcast. Nichols also played dances several nights a week. He would stay up all-night and then play the 7 a.m. radio show.

About a year later, Lefty Frizzell employed Nichols. Lefty was from Texas, but he was a country music icon in Bakersfield. Merle Haggard watched Nichols play with Frizzell in 1953 at the Rainbow Gardens. In 1954, Nichols returned to work for another year at the radio station with Maxidon.

In 1955, Nichols joined Cousin Herb Henson's Trading Post Gang's TV show. For 5 days a week, this 45-minute live country music show was aired on station KERO in Bakersfield, California. Nichols remained there for 5 of the 11 years the show ran. He also played at the Foothill Club in Long Beach with Billy Mize and Cliff Crofford. He toured with Johnny Cash during that period.[1]

In 1960, Nichols joined Wynn Stewart in Las Vegas. Merle Haggard was the bass player. This would be the beginning of a long relationship. Ralph Mooney played steel guitar in Wynn’s band at the time. Ralph would later go on to play steel guitar on several of Hag’s recordings along with Norm Hamlet. I asked Ralph about his experience with Nichols. Ralph explained “Roy had a resophonic guitar…you know a dobro that he fretted. Nobody could tune it. Roy was so good with his left hand that he bent the strings in tune as he played depending on where he was on the neck.” When asked what it was like recording those sessions, he replied, “…it was really a lot of fun.”

On June 15, 1965 Nichols was hired straight out of Wynn’s band by Merle Haggard. Nichols flew to Phoenix to join Merle on his 1st tour. Merle Haggard formed his band “The Strangers”. Nichols was his first hire. Wynn Stewart had been paying him $250 a week. Merle hired him for $125 a week.[2] Nichols had three conditions for being hired by Haggard. "I don't drive, I carry my own amplifier, and I know where my bed is every night".[3]

Over the next two decades, Merle Haggard and the Strangers had 38 No. 1 songs, and 33 in the top 10. Nichols published 19 songs that he wrote. “Street Singer,” was recorded by Merle and was nominated for a Grammy in 1970. Nichols toured with Merle in the US and overseas. Highlights include Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Gardens, the White House for one President, and the Summer White House for another President. The Academy of Country and Western Music honored Nichols with nominations for 'Guitarist of the Year' several times. The Strangers were voted “Touring Band of the Year” seven times.


He retired from the road in March 1987. He was later inducted into the Western Swing Society Hall of Fame in Sacramento, California. Nichols suffered a stroke in February 1996 which left him partially paralyzed and no longer able to play.

Nichols was being treated for a non-life-threatening infection at Mercy Hospital in Bakersfield, California, when he had a heart attack and died on July 3, 2001.[4]

This text was copied from the history section of the tablature book from "The Guitar Styles of Roy Nichols" instructional video, courtesy of Terry Downs at


  1. ^ a b The Bakersfield Californian
  2. ^ Haggard, Merle, and Peggy Russell. Sing Me Back Home. New York: Times Books, 1981 (ISBN 0-8129-0986-0)
  3. ^ Haggard, Merle, with Tom Carter. My House of Memories: For the Record. New York: HarperEntertainment, 1999 (ISBN 0-06-109795-0)
  4. ^ Obituary - obituary

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