“My advice to anybody is to grab that guitar, get up on that stage, and just try not to suck,”
says Kirchen, shown here at a show on September 12, 2010. Photo by Chip Py

Did you use a variety of Teles on the album or did you stick to one guitar?

When I made this record, I had two main Teles. One was my beat-up ’59 sunburst Tele I’ve had forever—which at that point had Joe Barden pickups in it. The other is a Tele made for me by Eric Danheim, from Big Tex Guitars in Houston. Eric is the guitar player in the Hollisters, and he assembles and relics Teles. I believe the Big Tex has Jason Lollar pickups, though I have no idea which ones. I’ve never been able to figure that out because Eric doesn’t even know. During the overdub process, I got my hands on a delightful Rick Kelly replica Tele with Don Mare pickups. This guitar is made from 150-year-old pine that came from [film director] Jim Jarmusch’s loft in New York City, after he had it rebuilt. Here’s what’s wild: The neck is pine too, and it doesn’t have a truss rod. The neck is just god-awful huge—over an inch deep from top to back. Sometimes when I go for the “folk” F chord—the one where you grab the low F with your thumb—it’s like, “Where is it? Someone help me with this F note!” So I used those three Teles on the record. I can’t tell you which guitar appears on what track, but that’s the way it goes.

How does the absence of a truss rod affect the Kelly’s sound?

Well, Rick’s rap, which I tend to believe, is that without a truss rod you don’t have that hollow below the G and D strings. Instead, you have a solid piece of wood there, and that produces a fatter tone. More and more, I’m realizing that a lot of tone in any guitar comes from the neck, which I never really gave much thought to until recently. I’ve got two Big Tex guitars, and one has a maple fretboard and the other has a rosewood fretboard— and, boy, they sound different. Now I can really hear the difference in the neck.

Tell us about the baritone you played on Word to the Wise.

Well, that’s the fourth Tele I used on the album. It’s a Fender Baja Sexto owned by [luthier and master repairman] Danny Erlewine, who I’ve known since the ’60s from my days in Ann Arbor. He sold me my first tweed Fender Twin back in the mid ’60s. Why didn’t I keep that one? [Laughs.] But anyway, Danny built the body, and I think Fred Stuart [formerly of the Fender Custom Shop] made the neck. I used that a bunch on the album. I also used a Danelectro baritone in England, because I didn’t have the Baja with me.

Do you tune your baritones B–B or A–A?

I tend to tune it A–A, but I’ve done both. On my prior record [Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods], I had it tuned Bb–Bb for a song that was in F.

How about amps?

I brought my Talos amp to England and I used it exclusively on the rhythm tracks, as I recall. It’s a dual-6L6, 1x12 combo made by Music Technologies in Springfield, Virginia. It’s a neat amp. When I got home, I used the Talos for the overdubs, as well as a ’68 silverface Deluxe Reverb and a TV-front tweed Deluxe. The ’68 Deluxe has been beefed up by Pete Cage [of Cage Amplifiers], who put in a slightly larger output transformer and reconfigured the amp for 6L6 tubes.

I’ll tell you a funny story about my Talos. When I fly, I surround it with bubble wrap and tote it in a soft-sided suitcase. While I was over in London tracking, somebody told Mark Knopfler about my Talos, and he was interested in hearing it. I’d never met Mark, but I dragged the amp over to his studio so he could try it out while he was working on his most recent album. On my way to Heathrow to fly home, I had to swing by his studio to pick up the amp. I knew I was going to have to pay the $125 overweight shipping to get it home, so I thought, “Why not fill the amp with laundry?”

Now, Mark insists on helping me carry the amp down from the studio. I tell him, “I got it, Mark,” and he says [adopts a British accent], “No, Bill, please let me carry the amp.” So we get down to the sidewalk, where I’ve got a car waiting, and I say, “Okay, I’ve got it from here.” But again Mark insists, ”No, let me help you.”

So he’s holding the case open with the amp in it, and I’m trying to force my plastic bag of dirty laundry into the back of the amp. Well, I’ve been in England for three or four weeks, so this bag just won’t fit in there. Finally, there’s nothing for it: Mark is kneeling on the sidewalk, holding the case, and I have to take my dirty underwear out of the bag and shove it into the back of the amp. I say, “So, Mark, is this how you travel?” And he goes, “Not anymore.” And I say, “So watch and learn, Mark.” [Laughs.]

Mark is a great guy, just lovely. He also has the most spectacular studio I’ve ever seen—by a power of 10. Everywhere you peek, there are vintage guitars and amps, 16-track tape recorders, ribbon mics—all kinds of astonishing gear. While I was there I met [Knopfler’s second guitarist] Richard Bennett, who I’d never met before. He was very nice too.

Are you particular about speakers?

Yeah, I’m really mad for these Jensen neo-dymiums now. I used to use the Jensen reissues, but then the neos came out and they work even better for me. I think it’s because they have a flatter frequency response. Whatever it is, I like it. I occasionally use an original Jensen C12N, and my ’68 Deluxe has an even older Jensen that Pete Cage put in it for me. But, by and large, the Jensen neo is my speaker of choice.

“Shelly’s Winter Love” has deep, throbbing tremolo. Does the Talos have tremolo or are you getting that from the Deluxe?

No, the Talos doesn’t have tremolo. During the tracking sessions over in England, I got my tremolo from one of those $29 miniature Danelectro Tuna Melt tremolo pedals. I love those things. It gives a little gain boost, which is handy. For the overdubs back home, I used my Deluxe’s tremolo.

Did you use other pedals on the record?

I used a Talos overdrive pedal called the Ass Bite Overdrive, of all things. It has four knobs—a Gain knob and a Volume knob, plus one knob for Ass and another for Bite. There you have it. I ask you, what else could they call it? It’s a neat overdrive that can be very transparent. Sometimes I’d use it for a little boost, and sometimes I’d crank it up. I wish I could tell you what songs have the Ass Bite and what songs have an amp turned up to 10.