A still-shirtless Iggy Pop writhes onstage backed by Williamson, bassist Mike Watt, and drummer Scott Asheton

Williamson never anticipated a second act in the music business, but when Ron Asheton died on New Year’s Day in 2009 and his old bandmate came calling, it was an offer he could hardly refuse. “Iggy called me up and we had several conversations,” says Williamson. “Initially, I told him no—because I wasn’t even sure I could do it. I hadn’t played guitar in 30 years. But once I retired from Sony, I was free to do whatever. I thought, ‘I owe it to those guys.’ We go back to our 20s and they needed me, so I said ‘What the hell’ and I signed up.”

He spent months relearning his old parts by gigging with a local group called Careless Hearts prior to rehearsals. The Stooges’ first gig with Williamson back in the fold was in front of 40,000 people in Sao Paolo, Brazil—quite a leap from his previous largest audience, which was somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000.

After a few years on the road, they’d worked up new material and decided to take it to the studio. The resulting record, Ready to Die, is an eclectic mix of the classic, overdriven Stooges sound with tracks like “Sex and Money,” “Gun,” and “Ready to Die” interspersed with tunes that verge on balladry (“Unfriendly World,” “Beat that Guy”)—albeit with a fair dose of grit.

The band’s creative process involved jamming on riffs that Williamson had worked up on his own, just like the old days, before heading into the studio. “We finished up the jams we wanted to record—it was about 15 altogether—and we ended up with the 10 on the record,” he says. “It felt good and I think the album sounds good. Our goal going in was to sound like us, and I think we achieved that.”

James Williamson's Gear

1969 Gibson Les Paul Custom, 1962 Fender Jaguar, 1963 Martin D-28, Gibson B-25

1964 Vox AC30 Super Twin (studio), 1957 tweed Fender Deluxe (studio), Blackstar Artisan 30 (live)

Advanced Pedal Workshop Treble Boost, Durham Electronics Sex Drive

Strings, Picks, and Accessories
D’Addario EXL110 (.010–.046) electric sets, D’Addario medium-gauge acoustic sets, D’Addario medium-gauge picks

Gear-wise, Williamson elected to use the same recipe that led to his iconic tone on Raw Power: a 1969 Martin D-28 acoustic guitar along with his trusted 1969 Gibson Les Paul Custom played through a 1964 Vox AC30 Super Twin amp. “The Les Paul Custom I use has a very specific sound that is unique to it,” he explains. “In the early days, the pickups were all handwound so each one was different. This one has a relatively low DC resistance, so it has a certain kind of sound to it.” Williamson takes two backup Les Paul Customs on the road, and both are equipped with pickups reverse-engineered by Jason Lollar to match the set in his ’69 Paul.

In addition to playing guitar on Ready to Die, Williamson served as producer—and he was determined to forestall the types of knocks he’d previously gotten as a producer. “Sometimes people criticize me and say I don’t favor my guitar as much as I should. This time I said, ‘You know what, you want guitar? I’ll give you guitar!’”

YouTube It

This 2010 version of "Search and Destroy"—probably Williamson's most well-known tune—finds the ex-Sony V.P. rocking his trademark black Les Paul Custom through a trio of Blackstars.

In this live rendition of “Gimme Danger,” Williamson employs a goldtop Les Paul outfitted with a Fishman Powerbridge to produce the opening acoustic tones before launching into full electric onslaught.

Need evidence of how Williamson, Iggy Pop, and the Stooges presaged punk in 1970? This clip begins with a network-TV talking head marveling at how “the kids seem to be enjoying” Pop’s repeated ventures into the crowd, as well as his rubbing of peanut butter on his chest.