Players often overlook the different picks and playing styles. Explain how you incorporate several picks and playing styles.
When I was young I always flatpicked and I started using my fingers when I was taking lessons with Joe Pass. He specifically told me during one of my lessons to stop using the pick and rely more on my fingers because you could do so much more with chords. So during my time with the Rockats and all throughout the ’80s I’d always put the pick in my mouth, then fingerpick and then use a flatpick to play rhythm. Also, when were putting the Ripchords together I took a year at USC as a Classical Guitar major and took a course with Pepe Romero, and that helped me really excel at fingerpicking. It wasn’t until the early ’90s that I really started studying Merle Travis and forcing myself to use a thumbpick. I use to buy those old Dunlop thumbpicks and file them down—which a lot of people did—so I had a little more control over them, but now Fred Kelly in Nashville makes these Slick picks. I just basically evolved as a thumbpicker so I didn’t have to keeping putting and taking the pick out of my mouth.
For the Lonesome Spurs record, what was your signal chain?
At that time I had a lot of amps, but I believe I mainly used an Ampeg Reverbojet combo. We recorded up in my studio in Aqua Dulce, California, and I had this really nice, but completely DIY-setup. There was a bathroom connected to the studio and all it had in it was a shower, so I put the amp in the shower and mic’d it about four feet away and I had the guitars sitting by me in the control area. For the “Lonesome Spur Stomp” I used two guitars to record it—a James Trussart Steelcaster (Tele-style) and a 2000 Les Paul Raw. But after playing it back I just used the track with James’ guitar because it was a little bit brighter.
How did you get turned on to Trussart’s guitars?
I was first drawn to his guitars aesthetically at a guitar show where they were just hanging up. They looked like pieces of art rather than musical instruments. He was hanging around so I met him and we hit it off so well that I eventually ended up being his roommate for three years in L.A. During those years I really got to see how much he cared for and nurtured each guitar throughout the building process. He’s built me some guitars since then and he’s tweaked a few specifically for me.
For instance, I’d gig with one of his guitars and I remember the radius of the neck [was] a little too high and wanted it to be a little rounder—he had no problem changing it for me. I really like low action with .010–.046 gauge strings and I really prefer a high, flat neck radius going back to the days when I played all that rock stuff. I liked the lower action particularly for the style of playing and finger-picking I do and the flatter necks because it just feels the most natural in my hands. Lately I’ve been using those Stewart MacDonald Golden Age pickups. It’s nice because Eric, one of my good friends, helps build them. [He] specifically winds some pickups for me that are in a few of my guitars, including a set that he made a little hotter than any of their standard models for my rockin’ guitar.
All of James’ guitars that I own now are perfect—they’ve been fine-tuned to the way I play. And it’s not like he did that for me because I was his roommate, he’d do that kind of thing for anybody. Plenty of touring guitarists swing by when they are in town for fatter frets, hotter pickups or whatever, and James does it all with a smile. He really cares about not only crafting the perfect guitar, but the perfect guitar for each player.
What models of Trussart’s guitars do you currently have?
I currently have three Trussart guitars: A white and red rose engraved Steelcaster (Tele-style) primarily for country, Americana and rootsy gigs; A chrome hollowbody SteelDeville (Les Paul-style) with only one master volume knob and a Bigsby used for the Head Cat stuff because it is super loud and gets some great natural distorted tones; and the third one is a black hollowbody SteelDeville—with a red star for Texas—that is in between those two. It has a really great clean, jazz tone but if you crank it up and dig in a bit you can get some gnarly blues and rockabilly tones with it, too. That red star SteelDeville is the one I probably use the most, including when I record.
How did you meet Lemmy and Slim Jim [Stray Cats] and start The Head Cat?
Slim Jim and I were first friends when I was 17 years old over in England playing with the Ripchords. The first rendition of Levi and the Ripchords had Brian Setzer as the other guitarist and his brother Gary was the drummer. They both passed on the Ripchords because their band was starting to take off. A few months later in London I met Jim with his new band the Tomcats. Since then, Jim and I have always stayed in contact and we were in a band called The Swing Cats with bassist Lee Rocker [Stray Cats] that put out two albums. In 2000, Lee was doing his solo stuff, so Jim and I were asked to do an Elvis tribute album so we contacted all these artists and let them [do] each song the way they wanted to do it. We got Johnny Ramone, Lemmy and a few other friends to be on the record. We did “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” “Stuck on You” and “Viva Las Vegas” with Lemmy. And when we went to record his part for “Viva Las Vegas” he said “it’s not fast enough and it’s in the wrong key.” So he picks up an acoustic and tells me to get on bass and suggest that we record a few of the songs as a trio. We ended doing the last two songs as a trio.
It was just a good, smooth process and at the end Lemmy mentioned that we should do a whole album as a trio. So we approached the record label, they agreed to it, and we recorded Fool’s Paradise
. After the album was released we were approached to do a live DVD and so we did that, too, and we just have a great time playing these songs together that we’ve been doing more and more shows when we’ve all had the time.