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“Make me sound like I’m a big, fat, sweaty guitar-player guy,” rockabilly filly Rosie Flores says at the beginning of our interview at her filled-to-capacity show at New York City’s famed Mercury Lounge. “Don’t think about my gender. I’ve said from the beginning, whatever you do, don’t think, ‘This is Rosie, I have to make her guitar sound sweet.’”
And she’s right—there’s no need to be gentle. Flores, 62, kicks major ass whenever she takes the stage, as she proved on that chilly November evening. Halfway through the show, tequila in hand, she brought up special guests Earl Slick and mega-producer Mark Hudson (Clapton, Aerosmith, Ozzy Osbourne) and held the pompadoured and tattooed crowd captive with a take-no- prisoners onslaught of rabble-rousing guitar work: Slick’s low E minor pentatonic triplets were answered in a blink of an eye by doppelgänger lines an octave higher, and Hudson’s vocal flourishes were matched by Flores’s kinetic double-stop bends and Bigsby-bent trills. And three weeks before that, she was throwing down equally greasy mayhem with Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister and blues sensation Joe Bonamassa, as she duck-walked across the stage at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tribute to Chuck Berry.
Flores got hooked on guitar at age 6 when her brother taught her standard E, A, and D chords. At 16, she started her first band, and a big flashpoint occurred around 1979, when she discovered Janis Martin—one of the few women who’d worked in country and rockabilly in the 1950s. (Martin’s onstage dance moves even earned her the “Female Elvis” nickname.)
“I’d been doing country and rock, and to me rockabilly had kind of married the two genres. I was excited by the energy and the look of rockabilly, so I switched over,” says Flores. In 1995, Flores reached out to Martin, who had long since retired from music, to appear on her album Rockabilly Filly. In 2007, Flores coproduced The Blanco Sessions with Martin, recording 11 tracks in two days. Tragically, Martin died four months after the album was completed. Her passing made it virtually impossible to find an interested label for the record, so after exhausting all the possibilities, Flores set up an extensive Kickstarter campaign. Five years and $16,571 later, The Blanco Sessions was finally released in October 2012.
But Flores didn’t just spend the past five years Kickstarting. Her 11th album, Working Girl’s Guitar, was released the same month, and it showcases her talents in the guitar, vocals, and production departments—a first for Flores. We caught up with the tireless Texan to get the scoop on the album, her gear, and the trials and tribulations of her life as a road warrior.
What inspired your move to take on so
many duties with your latest album?
I’ve coproduced all my records through the years. I’m in the studio for every second of it, all the way down to the mastering process, so I’ve learned how to make records and I know what needs to be done from the production end of things. I felt like I didn’t really need anybody’s help on this one. I knew exactly what to do—especially after I produced Janis’ record. I’ve also learned how it is that I like to be spoken to as an artist—what somebody might say that might set me off and what somebody might say that makes me feel more relaxed.
What kinds of things has a producer said
that set you off?
One thing I got early on was, “You need to go listen to Barbra Streisand.” I was like, “What?” That was when I was 21, at my first recording session in Los Angeles. Also, something like, “Gosh, maybe you better go home and learn that part. I’m used to working with really good guitar players.”
Someone actually said that to you?
Yeah, somebody actually said that to me once and it’s, like, “Thanks a lot.” Everything that happens to you in life, you take it and you account it. You go, “Note to self: Never say that to anybody when you’re producing” or, “Note to self: Never take shit from anyone.”
Rosie Flores goes for a huge bend at the 13th fret of her James Trussart SteeltopCaster, which is equipped with a TV Jones neck pickup and a Bigsby vibrato. Photo by James Via Photography
And what might someone say to
If someone wants to say something to encourage the way I’m sounding or playing, they’re, like, “Whoa, that was amaaazzing.” When somebody compliments you, you’re, like, “Really? Cool!” And it makes you want to go back and do more. As a producer, it’s your role to get the artist to produce something great. It’s, like, “What can you tell somebody to get them to shine?” It’s about showing people how to believe in themselves.
Y’know, I started teaching guitar when I was younger, and I learned how to encourage young players. I would make a really big deal out of just anything that they would start to get. Like, when my brother said to me, “Whoa—you got that really fast,” that egged me on when I first learned how to play.
“Surf Demon #5” is a catchy and fun
instrumental. Have you done much
instrumental work in the past?
No, it’s always been tied in with songs. There was a guy in Germany who asked me to play on his record, and I only played guitar on the record. In fact, I was the only guitarist on the record. A band called Norrin Radd, which is an alter ego of the Silver Surfer.
At the end of that tune, you have the
guitar feeding back and hovering near the
major 3rd of the final minor chord. Was
that done to evoke a particular vibe?
I just wanted to create tension. It was built off an A minor chord, and I bent the note with the Bigsby. I also used some overdrive and a lot of tremolo from the amp. I wanted to make it kind of scary sounding and wicked. I told [the engineer], “Make me sound like you would make Brian Setzer sound—don’t think of me as being any different.” We had a fun time talking about guitar tones before we started. I’m a guitar geek. I love the Hellecasters, old Chet Akins, Jeff Beck and the Yardbirds.
Do you feel your lead playing is sometimes
Yeah, kind of, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to make sure I was the only guitar player on this new record. A lot of times people hear my songs on Sirius radio and they’re, like, “That’s a really cool song. I really like the voice,” but they don’t put it together that I’m playing guitar on it as well. And, actually, throughout the years I have hired a lot of other great guitar players—like Albert Lee, Duane Jarvis, and Pete Anderson. I’ve had great guitar players working with me because I’m a fan of great guitar playing.
While your lead playing is flashy at times,
you always balance things so that it never
takes over the song.
Thanks. I take pride in trying to treat each song like what it’s uniquely calling for. I’m also a vocalist, so I try not to overplay—I try to make room for the vocals. A lot of guitar players don’t really think about that. They just want to play every note they know and be flashy. I think it’s important to hold back. I’ve been taught to play that way by people like Greg Leisz, who has backed me for years. I learned things like how to do fills when someone is singing, and when it’s time to kick butt, then you go for it.
How did you first get into Janis
I was really getting into rockabilly, and I was at a show in San Francisco watching a band called Levi and the Rockats. I was talking to a girl standing next to me, and she asked, “What songs do you do—do you cover any old classics?” I said, “Yeah, I do some Eddie Cochran, Wanda Jackson, and some Annette Brothers.” She said, “That’s cool. Do you do any Janis Martin?” I said, “Who?” And she said, “If you don’t know Janis Martin, you don’t know anything about rockabilly,” then she walked away. So I went and bought her record and became a fan from that day on.
Did the inspiration for covering Janis’
hit “Drugstore Rock ’n Roll” on
Working Girl’s Guitar come about
after working on The Blanco Sessions?
Yeah, because this album is about showing every era of music that I’ve been involved with. I’ve got stuff that sounds like Tom Petty all the way back to Elvis, surf music, and everything in between.
Flores onstage with Earl Slick at the Mercury Lounge. Photo by Michael Polito
A good number of your song choices—like “Love Must Have Passed Me By” and
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”—have
a feeling of longing and sadness.
Well, first of all, there’s a lot of truth in the lyrics of that song for me, because I’ve never been married and I’ve had a hard time keeping relationships because I’ve been basically a road doggie since I was 18 years old. I have been in love, but it never seems to work out for me, and the lyrics of that song really spoke to me. There was also a double reason to do it, because I was a Bobby Vee fan when I was young—I loved his records. And I was working with his son [bassist, Bobby Vee]—he’s the bass player that’s on the [new] record—and he said, “In case you’re looking for material, I’m going to send you some of my dad’s songs.” That was the one that stood out to me. It was nice to play those pretty guitar lines with really clear and bell-like tones. As a player, it spoke to me—the melancholy part and the sadness. It actually brought the engineer to tears.
What made you decide to do an acoustic
arrangement of ““While My Guitar
I didn’t plan on a totally acoustic treatment of it, but I was sitting in my car—I keep an acoustic in there so I can jam along with my recordings or whatever I’m doing—and that’s how I came up with the idea. I took it into the studio that day, and the engineer was like, “Wow, that’s really working.” I listened back and said, “That sounds good. Let’s go with that.” I’m playing two different acoustic guitars—an old Martin [for rhythm], and I did the lead tracks on an Art & Lutherie acoustic.
So your car is sort of a makeshift
It’s like my little studio sometimes. I’m in there and I’m working—nobody’s going to bother me, and the phone’s not going to ring. Sometimes I like to go and listen to mixes in my car, because I like the way it sounds in there. I can hear really well inside my car, because the speakers are great and I’m in a nice, confined area. I do a lot of my song learning in the car in my driveway.
Do you keep a recorder there to capture
ideas you might have, too?
No, I don’t need to record there. That’s just where I practice—singing and playing guitar parts. If I want to work on vocal harmonies, I can do so as I’m driving. If I want to record something, I’ll go into my office and use GarageBand.
How do you get such a strong attack
without sounding heavy handed?
I’m not heavy handed, and I don’t break strings unless I leave them on there for a month—and it’s usually a high .008 that I break. I think part of that is because I have four acrylic nails on my right hand and I use them right at the end of my fingers, as picks. I also use a medium pick.
So when you play the faster rockabilly
stuff, do you use a pick or your nails?
I’m grabbing the strings with my right-hand nails. I stroke down with the pick and then I flip up with the middle and index fingers [sings rhythm-guitar figure]. And sometimes I’ll use my index finger to pluck up on the string and get it to go boing. I use that finger a lot. You can tell because the fingernail polish is all worn out on that finger.
How do you get such a thick tone
I try not to play really hard. I use .008s on top and .038s on the bottom. One of my biggest influences is this guy Jimmy Wilsey, who used to play with Chris Isaak. I love the way he bent his notes. Of course, I also listened to Jeff Beck, Albert Lee, and Billy Gibbons, and I know that those guys used light strings—Billy Gibbons uses a .007 on top and his tone is so fat. It’s all in the way that you set your overdrive and your amp tones. You really don’t need to play that hard to get that tone. If you play with grace and finesse, you don’t have to dig in there to get a hard rock sound. A lot of guys are like, “Oh, I gotta use .012s on top. I don’t know how you play this.” I’m like, “Don’t play my guitar, please—you’re going to break my strings!” [Laughs.]
Tell us about your guitars.
I’m now using a Trussart SteeltopCaster—the back is wooden. I was playing a regular ’60s reissue Tele that I had gotten from when Los Lobos went over to the Fender factory in the ’80s.
How did you get the bright-yet-warm
clean sound on “Yeah Yeah”?
I used an old ’50s Fender Princeton on that. It’s got its own tremolo in it. I also used an old Boss delay from the ’80s.
When you started out, there were almost
no guitar-playing women on the scene.
How did that strike you?
It was 1966 and I was really excited, because I had never heard of any other female playing lead-guitar rock music in a band. I didn’t know what the future held, I just knew that I loved doing it. My father took us down to the music store and said, “If you guys really want to do this, I’ll help you.” And he signed for, like, $5,000 worth of gear.
Wow—that’s a lot of money even now.
That was a lot of money back then, and my dad was a postal clerk. He said, “You better start working, because your payment is $80 a month.” We became professionals because we had to pay the bill off.