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How did you become such a successful session cat? What separates you from other guitarists?
I looked at the guys who just did record dates. They were maybe non-readers. Then I looked at theses other guys who seemed to be able to do everything… records, movies, jingles, TV, all that kind of stuff. The guys who can do everything get a lot bigger piece of the pie. To me the number one requirement for that was a thorough understanding of the ornamentation of the styles.
When you really get down to it, blues, blues-rock, rock, country, country-rock, bluegrass, jazz, heavy metal, be-bop, all these different styles of music use the same twelve notes. The only difference between the jazz guys is how they ornament the style. They’ll play a certain feel so it’s a rhythmic ornamentation. They’ll play a certain choice of notes so it’s a harmonic thing and a sonic thing. You take that be-bop style of Charlie Parker—it’s really in many cases the mixolydian mode. Then you go to these blues guys like B.B. King. He’s also playing the mixolydian mode, along with minor pentatonic and various things, but so are the jazz guys. So it’s the phrasing and what I call the ornamentation of styles.
I had an awakening one day around 1980. I’d been studying jazz really hard, practicing five to eight hours a day for maybe six to seven years to try to be able to play through changes in the style of Wes Montgomery, Pat Martino, Pat Metheny and all those guys. I wanted to be a jazz guy. One day, I’m driving my car and I hear this Joe Walsh solo on the radio. It was from The Eagles’ tune, “Those Shoes.” It was just a soulful solo. I think he was using a voice box. I had to pull my car over. The state of the art of rock guitar has come so far. It made me think, [laughing] “This is the music of my people!” It made me really think, “I could play twenty-six choruses of ‘Stella By Starlight,’ but who cares? I really like this.”
Come to think of it, I love that Chet Atkins stuff I was hearing the other day. And I really like the way my friend plays classical guitar, and I’d really love to learn some of those Bach pieces. And I love the way Albert Lee plays. I need to get into everything. It made me come to realize that if you dig it, you must learn it. I just want to be a great guitar player, and not a great jazz player—not necessarily a great one thing or another. I think that really helped me in the studios.
Give me an example of how this works for
you in the studio.
I come into a session on a country thing, so I pull out this great Fender Tremolux amp I’ve got, and plug my Telecaster in and get the perfect country sound. Then the producer says, “Ya’ know, I think it’s a little too country. Can we rock out?” So I say, “Yeah.” So I get a Strat and play through a THD head that has some crunch to it. So the artist says he wants to go more acoustic and he wants to take it up a step. So now we’re in a different key and we’re thinking bluegrass or folk-rock.
If you’re the hat-wearing, boot-wearing, country picker guy, once they start changing it you’re sent home. That day is over. They need different guys because that country guy can only play one thing. Anybody who wants to be successful in the world of producers and songwriters really needs to have all that versatility. It’s even more important than reading, unless of course you get into movies.
You seem to embody those styles a lot more than what I hear from people coming out of academia. You sound like the real deal.
You’ve got to separate your artistic career from your sideman career. Your sideman career is about you being a well-listened craftsman. I was called into a session once where they said, “I need that ZZ Top thing.” That’s Billy Gibbons playing a Les Paul, probably through a little tweed Fender amp. Pinch harmonics… a Texas shuffle is very different than a Chicago shuffle so the sound adjusts, the feel adjusts and here’s my impersonation
of Billy Gibbons. That is being a well-listened craftsman, as opposed to an artist. I separate the two in order to make a living. When you are a sideman you’ve got somebody else’s musical vision that you’re trying to bring out. When I’m making my own records it’s my musical vision.
The styles come through in your solo work.
I hear all that country stuff in my own playing, the jazz stuff as well as the fusion of rock and blues. It’s all part of the expression of the whole. With the well-listened craftsman, you’re kind of like a plumber who looks under the sink and says he needs a 5/8” wrench.
Knowing your guitar tone history is just as important as knowing the fret board.
Every real serious student of the guitar is also a musical historian. You think back to those old records and you know what they played. Seymour Duncan can name every guitar from every track from the fifties, sixties and seventies. He knows every pickup. He knows it all.
What do you do to further your craft in terms of practicing?
I’m a serious practicer. To me, practicing is where I find my center as a person. If I go a day without practicing, I feel useless. I don’t feel like I’m doing what I’m here to do. I don’t feel like I’m on the level of where I want to be. To practice, I’ve always kept a lick book. It’s an ongoing musical diary that’s always on my music stand.
I’ve got lines for Emaj7th chords, harmony lines, pentatonics in D minor, chord voicings and anything that comes to mind. I’m always writing stuff down. I’m getting ready to do a DVD, so I’m writing five minor, five dominant and five major lines. I have old lick books that are completely full of lines. I’ve transcribed Brent Mason’s “Hot Wired” and then start working on ideas from that. It’s a great way of practicing. I’ll say, “I need a line in F# minor that starts on the low F# and ends on the high C#.” I’ll come up with something new and original, then write it down. Then I’ll transpose it into a major version, and then a dominant seventh version. Then I’ll practice it… to see if it fits. Then I’ve got new material—or I could go back ten pages. I can try it again and it might lead me to new stuff.
You’ve discussed your lick book on your Intervallic Rock video. It’s invaluable.
My personal style is a direct result of the lick book. My intervals are always larger than minor seconds, major seconds and minor thirds. I think in terms of fourths, fifths and sixths. It relates to my lines and my chords.
I would say it’s a key element of your style.
People who are full-time musicians run the risk of picking up the guitar after work and relaxing with it. They end up playing the same stuff they play every night to relax. It’s like the glass of wine. They play a lick, maybe a couple of chords, improvise in D major and it just kind of flows along. That isn’t practicing.
Practicing is finding new things or getting the impossible stuff you already know down better.
Improving. Do you play every single day?
Yeah. Not playing for a couple of days would be really bad.
What’s your favorite Strat?
The one you saw me play live is a ’61 seafoam green Strat. It’s my favorite rock guitar.