Williamson helps Iggy Pop get in touch with his sensitive side, accompanying the legendary frontman on Weissenborn lap slide guitar—an instrument more typically associated today with the likes of Ben Harper and David Lindley.
Photo by Ken Settle
What gear did you use to track Behind the Shade?
Williamson: I pretty much used my regular stage rig for most things, which consists of a Les Paul—or a variation of a Les Paul—with a Vox AC30. The Vox I have now is a 1965 twin, so it’s a head and a cab. I’ve used that basic rig since Raw Power because of how great it sounds. There’s something special about humbuckers hitting an AC30 and I don’t think you can beat that sound, personally.
I did mix it up a little bit to suit some of the tracks. On one track, I used a Tele through an old Silvertone 2x12 combo. I believe it’s the 1484. I actually have my original one, which was my first amp that I had to talk my mom into getting for me because my uncle worked for Sears and I could use his discount. I played that amp in my first band, the Chosen Few, and when that band came to an end, the rhythm guitarist had a pair of boots I really liked, so I traded him the amp for those boots. He definitely got the better end of that deal, but later in life, he became an attorney in D.C. and he got in touch with me like a year ago and said, “I still have that amp in my basement. Do you want me to send it back?” and the rest is history. Those cabs are particle board, so it had totally deteriorated, but I replaced the cab and it sounds great. So some advice to everyone: Don’t throw those things away! I really don’t think I’ve ever played a Tele on a record before this, either. I do use one live for songs in open tunings.
Beyond that, I used a Martin D-28 and I have a really cool 1949 Martin D-18 that I just love the sound of. The wood is everything, and on those guitars, I just think the older the better. They don’t really come into their own into they’re almost sawdust, you know?
Your original ’73 Stooges Les Paul lives at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, so what Les Pauls are you using these days?
The original one in the Rock Hall was my only real vintage guitar, and I never thought anything sounded better than it. So I kept recording with it, but I wouldn’t take it on the road because I didn’t want to lose it or mess it up. I had a bunch of touring Les Paul Customs that I used that were all just reissues, and I’d go through a bunch of them to find ones I liked. I actually sent my Leopard Lady guitar [the Stooges Les Paul] to Jason Lollar and he took out the pickups and reverse engineered them so he could wind some new ones with the impedance characteristics of that guitar’s pickups. Because all of Gibson’s pickups were handwound back in the day, they all varied a bit, and these were actually pretty low impedance for humbuckers. I think the sound I’m known for comes from a low-impedance pickup into a loud amp, where the bite really comes from the amp itself. People like high-output pickups because they have some attack going on, but the high impedance actually makes them hard to control. With these, you can really crank the amp and get the sound I like without it being too unruly. So Lollar makes them now and sells them, and they’re called the Raw Power pickup.
Anyway, I had put those pickups in a lot of those touring guitars, but then I downsized a bunch of those touring guitars and, at the same time, Eastman Guitars came along and they sent me one of their guitars—an SB59/v—to try, and I was just blown away by the build quality. So I started playing those and I tricked mine for live shows with my Lollar pickups, and I also use the Fishman piezo bridge and I send that through stereo outputs, so I have a signal coming from both the magnetic pickups and the piezo, and I can switch between them on the guitar. I split that signal and send the piezo pickup to a Fishman Aura acoustic simulator, which gives me a very convincing acoustic sound with none of the feedback problems, and obviously the magnetic pickups go to my tube amp, and I can blend or switch between the two sounds, depending on the song.
It’s easy to assume the sound of your guitar during the Stooges involved fuzz pedals, so it’s very interesting to find it’s a low-output pickup through a Vox AC30.
A big part of it is how loud and trebly I have the Vox set, too. That said, I do use a pedal made by a guy named Steve Giles, who is the guy that designed all of the reissue vintage-style Vox-y stuff that JMI makes. Steve had a pedal business on the side called Vintage Pedal Workshop, and he took the circuit he used in the JMI AC30 Top Boost section and put it into a pedal he called the F.E.T., and it’s a really good one. I love that thing because it doesn’t distort and it doesn’t really work as an overdrive pedal, but it gives you just enough top boost to cut through when you need it for solos. I didn’t use anything back in the day, but I use that now because it just makes things simpler.
Was there something specific that attracted you to Les Paul Customs?
It’s just been a lot of serendipity. I used to play a lot of different guitars when I first started, and I went through a lot of different models to figure out what I liked. My first guitar was a Fender Jaguar, which I think is kind of funny because Johnny Marr wound up using those after all these years, but when I joined the Stooges, I was playing an SG. The SG was a great guitar, but it didn’t sound like the right guitar for that band to me. So I went down with Iggy to the local music store in Ann Arbor and ended up trading the SG, my Jaguar, and a little bit of money for a new Les Paul. I don’t know that I got the best end of that deal, but that’s how I got the Leopard Lady guitar, and it obviously served me well! I really liked that sound from there on out, and that was my only guitar for many, many years.