Fogerty’s only words for this pic of him raging onstage with a Les Paul during CCR’s heyday are “ROCK and ROLL!”
As you started crafting a style of your own and making an impact as a singer and songwriter in the early Creedence days, how strongly did you consider yourself a guitar player?
Well, at the time I thought I was pretty good [laughs]. Put it this way, I admired Chet Atkins greatly, and James Burton of course—and many others—but those are two guys that I would think about and talk about all the time. I considered Chet the best guitar player on earth, and I didn’t think of myself as being anywhere near where he was. It’s a weird thing that your brain does—especially when you’re younger: You don’t realize you’re doing it, but you close doors and you tell yourself, “I won’t be able to do that.” You kind of set yourself off. Eventually I got past that way of thinking, though.
In Fortunate Son, you mention that one of your strengths is being able to recognize a great riff. But you also seem to have a prominent awareness of the groove—a sense of pocket.
Thank you for that. You know, every once in a while, sort of by accident, I’ll stumble on some new little riff, and invariably it’s not because of how complicated it is—it’s because of that groove that makes you feel good. It’s the same exact thing as discovering the “Green River” riff way back when. You get into it, and it’s so simple, but it just feels really good. Most songs that I write, I feel better when there’s a pocket to the arrangement that gives you a happy and soulful feeling.
The Creedence version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” works like that.
I do happen to think that’s one of the great strengths of Creedence as a band. We were able to—in the good times, of course—find that groove. That was essentially my job as the arranger. I had Marvin Gaye’s version, and I knew Gladys Knight’s version, and somehow in the working of it, one day I had the epiphany that instead of being an electric-piano song, it could be a guitar song. It was like, “Oh man, this is a cool riff!” From that moment on, I was off.
None of us were technical whiz-bangs, you know? But since Booker T. & the M.G.’s were our idols, I didn’t really think of them that way either. The sound they made together was a really good groove, and I thought then—and for the most part I still think this way—that was much better than seeing some flashy guy playing nine million notes, with the band behind him just for backup. I always thought the idea of a band grooving was a far more powerful statement.
Your choice of guitars has changed quite a bit since Creedence. You started with the Rickenbacker, a Gibson ES-175, and a Les Paul Custom. You picked up a Telecaster to record 1973’s Blue Ridge Rangers, and then a Washburn Falcon for Centerfield? What drew you to the Falcon?
Well, it was some time during the “hot rod” days in the middle to late ’70s, and you were seeing pickups without covers everywhere. DiMarzio and Seymour Duncan were getting popular, and in my own fumbling way I was intrigued with all that. I’m pretty sure it was Leo’s Music in Oakland where I went and tried a bunch of different guitars, and I remember picking up the Washburn in that store. The pickups sounded really hot, especially on the bridge pickup. I think I was intrigued too because it had a through-the-body neck. That was very culturally correct at that time—you know, it gives you more sustain. I think it had brass hardware on it, and it had those pickups, but the neck and everything else was perfect. You could get a lot of different sounds out of it. At the time, I really thought that was gonna be my guitar for the rest of my life—at least for the Centerfield album, and certainly on “The Old Man Down the Road.” When I toured in ’86, I played it quite a bit.
You came back to a Telecaster for a while recently. Why did you stay away from them for so long?
I always thought they were kind of hard to play. I would say that—even now, after all these years—that assessment was correct. A Telecaster didn’t give back all that sustain and amp-driving tone that a Les Paul did through a Marshall. Nobody had pedals back then, so if you wanted to get a good sound out of it, you had to learn what all the country guys like James Burton were doing. They had a whole other approach to playing guitar. It was a different style from Jimmy Page or Eric Clapton, at that time at least. It would sustain forever if you hit a low string, but if you hit a chord, the notes didn’t ring very long at all. Also there was more space between the strings than the typical Gibson setup. And again, it’s a 25 1/2" scale rather than 24 3/4". But if you really want it badly enough, then you’ve gotta put in the time. When you do, you’ll be rewarded, because there’s nothing that sounds like a Telecaster doing that stuff. I mean, I just get a smile on my face.
You picked up a Dobro again for a few cuts on Blue Moon Swamp . Had you played that since Creedence’s “Looking Out My Back Door”?
No, and for that song all I had learned was a very simple little part, and rehearsed it just enough so that I could record it. I first got introduced to the Dobro backstage at a Johnny Cash show in 1969, by the wonderful [late bluegrass player] Tut Taylor. There was this strange hippy kid who had been hanging around, and he says, “I can get you one of those. I know where there’s a whole bunch of them.” Eventually he found the one you see on the cover of Green River—it’s a Regal Dobro, as a matter of fact, and that strange hippy kid was George Gruhn [laughs]. I think I was right there at the beginning of his business, which was pretty cool.
But I put the Dobro away until about ’92. I started taking trips to Mississippi, and I think that’s when I really got reacquainted with Dobro. When you spend time there, it almost seems like the earth is buzzing. There’s electricity in the ground. I definitely sense that energy. So that sense of a drone—that bluesy, buzzing thing—was in me. At first I started playing normal slide. I got hold of a resonator guitar with a Spanish neck, and just walked around the house playing it. I did that for a year or so, but it wasn’t quite right. And then one day I was at a guitar show out in Pomona [California], and I bought a Dobro from a guy there, tuned it Dobro-style to G–B–D–G–B–D, and started taking it with me on those trips. That’s when I came up with the riff that’s on [2004’s] “Joy of My Life.” I knew it was original, and I really liked it.
And you know, because I talk about tracing things backwards and trying to figure out where they start—well, all Dobro roads, when you’re really serious and trying to learn, eventually lead you to Jerry Douglas. Once I heard his records, with his great tone and his vibrato and his technical ability and musical taste, eventually I realized he’s my favorite musician of all time. It just thrills me when I hear him play.
You write about how the new track “Mystic Highway” [from 2013’s predominantly covers album Wrote a Song for Everyone] was important for you. And throughout the book a lot of your sentiments on experiencing music—and even writing songs—involve riding in a car. It’s almost like the movement, the journey, is an integral part of your work.
I think there’s some truth to that—and you know, a car is also a perfect listening space. I know people with home setups make a big deal about sitting in the right spot—and even in the studio, you’ve gotta get that chair right between the two NS-10s [Yamaha monitors] or whatever [laughs]. But in a car it’s just perfect because the air is sort of trapped. And one of the secrets of good producing is to arrange your records for a car. You don’t need so much—just a backbeat, a vocal, and on my records at least, you need a guitar. Then the things you have right in the middle, sonically, they should probably be the loudest. So while you’re singing, the guitar shouldn’t be as loud as you are—but when it goes to the solo, that should drive the whole thing. You don’t need to hear a symphony orchestra. With just a really cool guitar part and a backbeat, you’ve got it all—especially in the car.