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Interview: Kenny Wayne Shepherd - How He Goes

Interview: Kenny Wayne Shepherd - How He Goes

Blues-rocker Kenny Wayne Shepherd shares details on his rig, becoming a father, and how he’ll probably never get away from the comparisons to Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Click below to listen to the tune "Never Lookin' Back" from The Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band's new album, How I Go:
Kenny Wayne Shepherd is back in the spotlight with his new album How I Go. It’s been seven years since the straight-ahead studio rock record The Place You’re In was released. With live projects, documentaries, marriage, and fatherhood during the interim, Shepherd is now at the height of his creativity. How I Go displays the full range of his musical influences mixing Southern rock, heavy rock, blues, and good old rock ’n’ roll. It’s also a buffet of great guitar tones, so PG caught up with Shepherd to get in deep on the making of How I Go.

Congratulations on being a father.

It’s probably the most profound thing that’s ever happened to me in my life. It’s given me a renewed sense of motivation and inspiration to be the best parent I can be, as well as the best musician I can be. I want to give my kids something to be proud of.

How does that affect your craft as a songwriter and guitarist?

I want to set a good example in what I do. Everything I record and the way that I perform, I think, “Would my kids be proud of this? Would this be okay for them to see?” Are they going to grow up and say, “Man, I wish dad would have never done that!” [Laughing.] That’s where the responsibility comes into my mind in everything that I do.

What took so long to do another studio record?

I had three kids in the past four years, and that really affected my free time for writing and recording. Life has changed a bit, and there are different things going on with new responsibilities. I can’t just leave the house for a few months and go write a record. For this album, we went in the studio for two weeks, tracked the songs, and then a few months went by before we went into the studio again. So we recorded the album over the course of a year. It didn’t take a year to record it, but it was spread out.

What was cool about that is that it enabled me to live with everything. We would track something and I would live with it for like a month. I could listen to it and dissect it, really getting into the ins and outs of the song. Then I’d be able to go back in and know what I needed to do to make it better. Sometimes when you’re making a record, you’re really trying to hurry up and get it out by doing it all right then and there. Later on after the record is out, you go, “Hey, I could have done this a little different!” I really got to live with every one of these songs throughout the making of the record, and really focus on trying to make them as good as they can be.

Your vocals are strong on this record.

I appreciate that. I’m singing “Who’s Going To Catch You Now,” and “Cold,” and doing all the background vocals on everything else. Noah Hunt is such a great vocalist. He has such a different style of voice than I do. Mine is a little more pop rock, and his is way more soulful, bluesy, and southern rock. I’ve wanted to sing more, but I don’t necessarily want all the vocal responsibility in my band because he’s such a great singer. His voice is very much a part of my sound, so it’s kind of evolved into us both doing lead vocals.

I wish I sounded like Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker, but I don’t. I choose the songs where my voice works well and I sing those. For the songs where my voice doesn’t quite cut it, I don’t have a problem having someone else do it. I have standards that I want my music to meet and I want every aspect of my music to be as good as possible. If that means somebody else is doing the singing, then so be it. It doesn’t bother me one bit.

What was your approach to choosing the covers for the record?

I always like to do an artist that influenced me, somebody I respect, and choose their less obvious material. Over the course of my career I’ve been doing Hendrix’s “I Don’t Live Today,” which is not an obvious Hendrix cover. We did Peter Green’s “Oh Well,” which is a much less obvious song for Fleetwood Mac. And from Bob Dylan, we did “Everything Is Broken.” I like to go deeper into an artist’s catalogue and pick songs that I think we can do a great version of, but still stay true to the original.

Our producer Jerry Harrison came up with the idea of us covering Bessie Smith’s “Blackwater Blues.” It was kind of appropriate with all the struggles my home state of Louisiana has gone through since Katrina. It’s also good to have a nice up-tempo shuffle on there. Jerry also came up with Albert King’s “Oh, Pretty Woman,” which isn’t the first Albert King song that would come to mind for most people.

There’s some great wah work on that track.

Thanks. It’s a rockin’ track and it’s the first time I ever used a horn section on a record.

What about the Beatles cover?

“Yer Blues” was my idea. Three or four years ago I was driving down the Pacific Coast Highway near Malibu. Out here we have a station that does a Breakfast With The Beatles program every Sunday where they play nonstop Beatles music “Yer Blues” came on and I was like, “Oh man!” I’d heard that song before but it hit me differently, and I could totally hear myself doing it!

I held on to that for three or four years. When we were making the record, we cut it live and then overdubbed the guitar. I was actually talking to Ringo recently—because I played on his upcoming record—and I told him we did that song and cut it live in the studio. He told me it’s the same way they cut it, which I thought that was really cool.

Give me a basic rundown of the gear you’re using.

Because what I had going was working really well, I kept it rather simple for this album. Most of my stuff is in storage in Louisiana and since we were in California, I mostly just used what I had out here. For amps, the majority of what you hear on this record is one of my original ’64 Fender blackface Vibroverbs with the original 15" speaker. I just got a brand new Fender ’57 Tweed Twin from the custom shop and I was beside myself with how incredible it sounded right out of the box.

I also used my Fender ’65 Reissue Twin, which is from one of the original runs of the ’65 Reissue Twins, when they were doing just 250 of them. I’m also using a Dumble Overdrive Special along with another amp Dumble built for me that he calls a Tweedle Dee Deluxe. If you saw it you would think it’s a Tweed Deluxe, but it’s actually his own circuit. It sounds absolutely phenomenal.

Is this a one of a kind amp?

Yes. The clean tones are just amazing and sparkling, and the clarity is unbelievable. When you crank it up, the overtones are just incredible—you don’t even need a pedal for that amp. You’re hearing the Overdrive Special on some of the solos, the Deluxe that he built for me on a lot of the rhythm parts, and the ’57 Tweed Twin is on a ton of stuff.

The first time I saw you on the G3 Tour years ago, you were crankin’ the Marshalls. What happened?

I’ve been using Fender amps almost exclusively for some time now. When I was using the Marshalls, I was blowing them up pretty much on a regular basis. There was also a little too much high end coming from them, and even when I had the treble turned all the way down, it was still tough to get rid of the high end. I liked them at first, but I ended up struggling with them.

Over the course of my career, the staple of my live show has been the blackface Twin Reissue. I usually run two or three of those depending on the size of the venue. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been trying to figure out how to get a great tone at a lower volume. The Twins would just be screaming sometimes, and they could overpower the venue. When Fender reissued the blackface Vibroverb with the 1x15, I started using a couple of those to help dial the wattage down. The Overdrive Special that I use in the studio is likely to become a primary part of my live touring rig, depending on how things shape up for this tour.

How about effects?

On the record I used two different wahs. I used my original Vox Clyde McCoy Wah and a Custom Audio Electronics Wah that Dunlop makes. Then I used the Analog Man King of Tone Overdrive pedal, an Ibanez TS808 handwired Tube Screamer, and an original TS808 that I have. I used an Analog Man Bi-Chorus pedal, and a Pigtronix Envelope Phaser. The Envelope Phaser was only used on one song in combination with the Analog Man Bi-Chorus.

There’s a bunch of Octavia on this record.

I have an original Tycobrahe Octavia, and Chicago Iron, the company that reissues them, sent me one of theirs. A lot of times I was sending multiple effects to different amplifiers. I had the original Octavia going to one amp and the reissue going to another amp separately, and ran them in stereo at the same time.

Even though it’s the same tone, they’re still slightly different and combining the two gives a unique sound. It’s a slightly more unique sound than just using one pedal or the other, and having it come through two individual amps. I also did the same thing with the Fuzz Face. I have an original Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face, one of the blue ones from the late ’60s or early ’70s. I also have one of the reissues and I ran those in stereo through two different amps. That was a pretty cool sound.

What did you use on the solo to “Yer Blues?”

That’s an old-school octave pedal that my engineer had. It’s always been one of those kinds of effects that I didn’t really like so much because I always liked the Octavia, which is the octave up. The octave pedal is an octave down, but it sounded cool and really fattened up the guitar tone for the rhythm part and the solo.

Which one did you use on “Come On Over?

That was the original Tycobrahe Octavia and I used it for the entire song, even as a rhythm sound. I don’t know if anyone’s ever done that since most people throw an Octavia on for a solo or something.

Is that the Dumble on the solo to “Anywhere The Wind Blows?”

Straight Dumble. [Laughing.] That’s my Dumble with some delay that was put on by my engineer. It’s just cranked up.

The record has a lot of colors. Every track has something different in terms of guitar sounds.

Thanks. I tried to make a tonally diverse record, although most of what you’re hearing is Stratocasters and a handful of different amplifiers. It wasn’t like I had 35 amps and 35 guitars. By most guitarist’s standards, I use a pretty modest collection of equipment, but the sounds I’ve achieved are a testament to that equipment and the diversity of the amps. There are so many sounds you can get out of them if you just tweak them a little bit.

What’s your main guitar?

The primary guitar for me in the studio is my ’61 Strat. I also used a ’59 hardtail Strat with a maple neck that I acquired while I was doing the record, using it on several songs. My signature series Strat was used on a bunch of songs, along with the clone of my ’61 that Fender made me. It’s an exact replica, so I can leave the original guitar at home, and take the clone on the road.

Are you still using the Monterey Strat?

I’ve been using it ever since I got it back in the ’90s and have been closing the show with it on “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” When we do fly dates, I’ve just been using my signature guitar because the Monterey is pretty valuable and I don’t want the airlines to lose it. But when I’m on the road touring with all my own equipment, that’s the one I pull out for the encore.

You’ve been framed as a Stevie Ray Vaughan guy. Do you get sick of that?

You can’t please everybody and there’s always going to be haters out there. They want to throw me in a category of being a Stevie Ray clone as if I can’t do anything beyond what he did. Those people obviously have never really given my music a fair listen. I’ve done tons of music that I don’t think Stevie Ray Vaughan ever would have done. I’ve never heard Stevie Ray Vaughan do anything like “Blue On Black,” and it was number one for 17 consecutive weeks on the rock charts.

I believe people are referring to your phrasing.

I’m an artist and I think I go way beyond my influence from Stevie, but he was almost single-handedly responsible for inspiring me to play guitar. There’s no denying that. If there wasn’t a Stevie Ray Vaughan, there probably wouldn’t be a Kenny Wayne Shepherd. He was my hero and he still is one of my heroes.

I just make music for myself and for the people who enjoy what I do—I appreciate the compliments from the people who do dig it. There’s always going to be a Stevie Ray Vaughan influence on what I do and I owe that to him for being such a big influence.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s Gear Box

Fender ’61 Stratocaster
Fender ’59 Stratocaster
Fender Kenny Wayne Shepherd Stratocaster
Fender Jimi Hendrix Monterey Pop Stratocaster

’64 Fender Blackface Vibroverb
’65 Fender Twin Reissue
’57 Fender Tweed Twin
Dumble Overdrive Special
Dumble Tweedle Dee Deluxe

Vox Clyde McCoy Wah
Custom Audio Electronics MC-404 Wah
Analog Man King of Tone Overdrive
Ibanez TS808 Tube Screamer
Analog Man Bi-Chorus
Pigtronix Envelope Phaser
Original Roger Mayer Tycobrahe Octavia
Chicago Iron Tycobrahe Octavia SE
Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face

Ernie Ball Power Slinkys .011-.058