Recently, at PRS Guitars’ 30th Anniversary, fusion master John McLaughlin sat in with Herring and The Aquarium Rescue Unit for a set of inspired, spaced-out jams. Photo by Vikas Nambiar
Overall, your tone on the new Widespread record, Street Dogs, is amazing. Who produced the album and what did he do to capture your sound?
John Keane produced it. He’s done a lot of records for this band over the years. He’s just a great producer. He did my last record, too. He’s brilliant at capturing guitar sounds and usually he makes you play through amps that he prefers. On our previous album, Dirty Side Down, I used a 100-watt Fuchs Overdrive Supreme and the Fender Super Reverb. Luckily, on this record he really liked my amps. I’ve spent years tweaking these amps, but he knows where to put the mics. I’ve been into amps that only have one channel, and using just use an overdrive box and my volume knob.
Was the intention for “Cease Fire” to emulate a Santana at Woodstock vibe?
You’re not the first person to say that. That tune was lying around and I’ve had those chord changes for a long time. The group liked it and we arranged it and put vocals on it. It’s kind of classical in a way. Some of the chord changes … like when you build a diminished triad on the II chord and play it over a pedal tone of the root. There’s that one passage [sings], and then it descends in different inversions. But it’s the same two chords every time. You hear that in classical music sometimes. It’s fun to play over because it’s visiting that harmonic minor or Phrygian thing. When we play it live I haven’t used a Strat on it, but I used a Strat and the Bassman in the studio when we recorded it.
What Strat did you use?
It’s an American Deluxe that they made with the neck specs that I asked for—a 12” radius with big frets. I play it a lot. It’s got those noiseless Fender pickups in it that everyone hates [laughs]. Including me! Except when I plug this one in I can’t find anything wrong with it. I did a lot of single-coil Strat stuff on this record for some reason.
How does Widespread Panic gear up for an album cycle? What makes Street Dogs different?
Normally, we would just go in and get a good drum track, which a lot of rock ‘n’ roll bands do. Then start building from that point. But this time we really wanted to try and capture it live. The band made a decision that we were going to do as few overdubs as possible. We had been writing some tunes and some covers were hanging around from the live shows, so we went in the studio in January 2013 to write some tunes. We played them live for a while and came back in January of ’14 to make a record. It wasn’t like we could set up like we were playing live, but they found a way to make it work. I hate headphones. I just can’t make it happen. Depending on what’s expected… but if I’m improvising solos, forget it.
You’re such a dynamic player. It must be hard to get that sense of feedback and control without being close to your amp.
Yeah, man. I have to be standing next to my amp in order to get any kind of relationship between the pickups and the amplifier. It may be superstition talking, but I feel like your amp sounds different when you’re standing next to it. Even if you’re not holding a note and bringing feedback into the equation, I just think it sounds different.
How did you get around that in the studio?
They set the drums up like you would imagine, and then they set the percussion up next to them with a little wall for some separation. JB’s amp was in an iso chamber—he doesn’t suffer from my disease of having to be right by an amp. My amps became really interesting. A lot of the album was done on a ’64 Fender Bassman. You know those blonde Bassmans that Brian Setzer uses? It’s like that except it’s a blackface model, but internally the same as what Setzer uses. It’s a transitional model, from when they were going from the blonde era to the blackface era. They call those “tuxedo” Bassmans. I love that amp and ran it through a 4x12 Tone Tubby cabinet that had four alnico speakers with an open back. My Super Reverb went through another 4x12 in stereo—just like I do live. I had an Ampeg B4 there and a Germino Lead 55.
This was the interesting part: Instead of wearing headphones, the producer brought in a small PA system. He set up the PA facing me. I was in the same room as everybody, but they put up these little isolation walls around me. He basically set that as my monitor mix so I could control the levels of everything. I was able to play just like I was playing a show. My concern was that my amps were behind me and the PA was facing me and going right towards the mics on my amplifier. I thought it would be a bleed problem, but the producer said, “Yeah, you’d be surprised. It’s minimal.” There were probably one or two things on the album where I overdubbed the solo again later, but not because they wanted me to. I just begged [laughs]. They were like, “Don’t re-do that, just leave it.” And I was like, “OK.” As a result I haven’t really wanted to hear it, so I haven’t heard it since it’s been mixed and mastered.
The album has that single-coil twang to it.
It has taken me years to tweak these amps to make them optimum for both humbuckers and single-coils. I’ve found ways of doing things. Like the right tubes. You just got to pay for them, that’s all. It’s sad that they cost that much, but old-stock preamp tubes are just the best. You know the deal. It makes a huge difference to me. Especially if you don’t use a lot of gadgetry going into the amp. That’s when you really hear the difference with the old-stock tubes. I fought it for years and said, “I’m not paying $95 for an AX7. That’s just stupid.” But man, when I heard the difference I couldn’t deny it anymore.
How do you balance your rig when moving from single-coils to humbuckers?
The most important thing, mainly with blackface Fenders, is you just have to turn it up to at least 8 or it’s going to sound brittle—especially with single-coils. You can’t be afraid of the treble knob. I was always afraid of it. One time I was playing a gig with Derek Trucks. He sounds like the pearly gates open every time he plays a note.
And with no effects! I got to watch him up close at an Allman Brothers rehearsal and it was just incredible.
Yeah. It’s ridiculous. He’s been my tone muse ever since I’ve known him. We were at sound check and I got my Super Reverb set up next to his. I was like, “Man, why is your Super Reverb so much louder than mine?” I know part of that is the fact that he plays slide with higher action. It projects better. And none of my guitars have super-low action, but I’m not a slide player, so it’s not like a Dobro. Derek looks at my settings and goes, “Do this.” He cranked the volume and treble to 10, the mid down to about 4, and the bass off. That’s the key. Either turn the bass down or off. Now, we’re talking about Fender blackface amps; it’s not going to be the same with every amp. I found out later that’s what Jeff Beck does. But it doesn’t work unless the amp is cranked.
When you’re talking about varying outputs of pickups, how do you balance that? With your hands and volume knob?
My volume knob is mostly maxed out, so I just live with a little bit less volume with single-coils. One way I’ve found around that is just use lower-output humbuckers. Lollar Imperial pickups are what I usually use for humbuckers. They have a low-wind Imperial, and I recently put those in a guitar and they are great. They have that creaminess when you crank the guitar volume, but when you back off, believe it or not, they sound like a beefed-up Tele. A good Les Paul, we’re talking about the late ’50s, sounds like a Tele on steroids. That’s why you see those old cats playing funk on a Les Paul. A lot of those old PAFs weren’t wound very hot. Plus, it wasn’t an exact science so some of them are wound hotter than others. Jason Lollar is a scientist and I trust his opinion about these sorts of things.
The tone on “Honky Red” is a little different for you. I was saying earlier that you do so many styles. The one I haven’t heard you do much of is heavy metal, but the tone here is a little bit metal. At least on the riff—and that’s coming from an actual metal player. Also, I heard a cover Widespread Panic did recently of “Ace of Spades.”
That was hilarious. Lemmy! I love him. He’s cool. That was JB’s suggestion. He just loves Motörhead and we’ve never covered one of their songs. We all thought it was fun. “Honky Red” came from our bass player, Dave Schools. His dad actually recorded that song. I’m not sure who originally did it. I didn’t know if it was going to be on the album, but we did it live in the room and I was using a PRS with those Lollar Imperials. I’ve probably had that guitar for 17 years or so. It does that fake harmonica shit with the trem, you know. I had that and my Hughes & Kettner Tube Factor overdrive pedal.
You have a unique approach to the whammy bar. Was that something you’ve been experimenting with for a while?
I didn’t grow up with it. I purposely stayed away from it because Jeff Beck is so great with it. He was my reason for not using it. I love Van Halen, but I just never tried to play in that style. As much as I loved him, it seemed like everyone was going that way.
Everybody! And you were in Hollywood at the time, when it was all over the place.
Yeah, that’s true. I doinked around with it on other people’s guitars once or twice, and it felt unnatural to me. Whenever I would take my hand away from the strings to grab the bar, other ugly noises would ring out. When I was about 46—I’m 53 now—I was on tour with Panic and Dave came to me with this giant spindle of DVDs. Many of them were recent Jeff Beck performances. This was before the Ronnie Scotts DVD came out. I watched those and I was stunned. How did Jeff Beck get even better? How did that happen? He drops out of the public eye and he’s even better. His level of expression with that bar, man: I heard him playing bagpipe shit; I heard him playing harmonica; I heard slide guitar—all with that bar. I heard him play “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and he would hit one harmonic and it would sound like a theremin. I was so struck by it that I had to find out more about it. He was the reason why I never touched it and, in the end, he was the reason I picked it up.