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Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Gary Rossington: Simple Man, Big Tone

Rossington has a no-frills approach to getting big, sustaining tones from his Les Pauls. He cranks up the pre-amps on his Peaveys or Marshalls and controls the distortion with his guitars’ volume pots. Photo by Frank White

A 6-string legend gets back to blues-rock basics in a new album with wife Dale Krantz, and shares the recipe for his fat, classic Les Paul sound.

A cat on its ninth life would be wise to trade places with Gary Rossington. The seemingly invincible Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist and cofounder has triumphed over catastrophe numerous times—including one of the most famous disasters in rock history. In 1977, just three days after the release of Street Survivors, a tragic plane crash put the kibosh on the band’s meteoric rise and took the lives of members Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, and Cassie Gaines, and assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, among others. Rossington emerged from the rubble with two broken arms, a broken leg and pelvis, and a punctured stomach and liver, yet miraculously lived. He’s also endured whiskey-and Quaalude-induced car wrecks, quadruple bypass surgery, and several heart attacks, including one in October 2015 and one this past summer.

As the last original member still touring under the Lynyrd Skynyrd banner, Rossington continues along the route he, singer Ronnie Van Zant, and their friends set out on in 1964 as if he’s on a crusade to keep the dream alive. “All these years later, ‘Freebird’ and some of these songs have taken on an anthem-like feel,” says Rossington. “Everybody yells out ‘Freebird’ or ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’ I’m the only one left that gets to tell about it.”

In addition to his legacy with Skynyrd, Rossington has been part of other projects throughout the decades. Two years after the plane crash, he and Allen Collins, another of the founders, formed the Rossington-Collins band. To avoid accusations of being a Skynyrd knockoff, they brought in Dale Krantz, who had previously opened for Skynyrd as a singer with 38 Special. Rossington and Krantz fell in love making music together and eventually got married. After the Rossington-Collins band disbanded in 1982, the Rossington Band, featuring Rossington and Krantz, formed.

When Lynyrd Skynyrd reunited in 1987, Rossington and Krantz were back in the fold, where they’ve remained. (By then Collins was paralyzed from the waist down, due to an alcohol-fueled car wreck. He died in 1990.) And now, almost 30 years later, they’ve released a new album called Take It on Faith. This time, there’s no band. The album is simply credited to Rossington. And, in fact, the guitar legend explains that the songs were recorded seven or eight years ago and awaited release. For the sessions, producer David Z (Etta James, Buddy Guy, Prince) chose a diverse group of studio musicians—including Jack Holder on guitar, Bruce McCabe on keys, David Smith on bass, and Richie Hayward on drums—to lay down a foundation that would bring Rossington’s vision of a blues-tinged rock album to life. Notably, Holder and Hayward—also legends of Southern rock—died before the album was released.

Rossington, who has otherwise always recorded with bands, says making Take It on Faith was a new experience for him. “A band goes in, works together, and kind of tries to change things here and there,” he says. “We just went in there and showed these studio guys the songs real quick—sang it once—and then they went out into the studio, and, bang, it was there. It was so cool.”

“Blues never changes. You can play blues from way back in the day until now.”

Nonetheless, fans of his big-boned guitar work will be pleased. The title track features his elegant slide playing on acoustic guitar, and his keening bends, recognizable from decades of recorded and live Skynyrd performances, shine through on Krantz’ vocal showcase “I Should’ve Known.” Ditto the pinch harmonics that decorate the rocker “Good Side of Good” and recall his stellar opening and solo on the classic Skynyrd smoker “That Smell.”

On a break from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s still-busy touring schedule, Rossington talked about creating the new album, his love for Gibson Les Paul Standards, and his basic-but-effective recipe for achieving his classic sound.

What inspired Take It on Faith?
We decided to do meet-and-greets with Skynyrd every night, and a lot of the fans kept asking if Dale would ever sing or do another album. So we did it for the fans from the Rossington-Collins Band days, and everybody seems to like it. We’re very happy.

I understand the writing process for Take It on Faith goes back a decade?
Yeah. We always write songs here and there. We can’t stop ourselves. [Laughs.] We wrote some of them and we took some of them from our producer, who helped us pick a few songs. It came together real quick.

When you revisited the previously written material, did you make any major revisions?
Nah. Most of them were blues songs, and blues never changes. You can play blues from way back in the day until now. We just started writing two or three blues tunes, and we had a few in mind that we thought were great that we didn’t write. We figured a blues album would be fun, but then we went more rhythm and blues, and picked a few other songs that weren’t hard blues … or I don’t know what style you’d call it, but it was different than the blues.

Do you prefer old-school recording methods or today’s hard-drive-based approach?
We just did it with tape—analog, you know? Put down a basic, overdubbed a little bit, and “boom,” there it was. For blues, that’s the best way. But we did a little Pro Tools for tuning up things and moving things and this and that. Pro Tools and computer stuff nowadays, I don’t understand all of that, but my engineers did and that was real good.

Gary Rossington and Dale Krantz recorded their just-released album with a crew of studio veterans, including fellow Southern rock heroes Richie Hayward, a cofounder of Little Feat, and former Black Oak Arkansas guitarist Jack Holder.

On all of the album’s ripping solos, you still seem to be focused on maintaining the integrity of the songs—never overplaying. That’s impressive considering how much free reign you can have with overdubs.
I try. That’s coming from Skynyrd and trying not to overplay over everybody. Back in the day we had three guitars and a keyboard, so that’s all strings. It’s hard to get all those strings together, and the hardest part, is not playing. Growing up, we learned where not to play. Even though you could play, you leave the space and room. That’s cool, too.

“I Should’ve Known” alternates between two feels. How did you come up with that?
It’s just different tempos. The song lent itself to being played fast or slow. A lot of songs, when you’re writing or playing them, you play them a little faster at rehearsal and it sounds good that way, too. So I just put it together—the first verse is slow and the next verse is fast. It seemed to work out. There’s a few songs like that I’ve heard throughout the years, and it was kind of fun, having two tempos in one song.

Was that tricky to record?
Nah, man. It’s on beat. When it picks up the beat, just jump on and hang on. It’s not that hard once you’re going.

Gary Rossington’s Gear

• Gibson Custom Shop Gary Rossington Les Paul
• Gibson Custom Shop Les Paul Standard
• Gibson Custom Shop ES-335
Fender Eric Clapton Stratocaster
• Fender Telecaster (customized by late Skynyrd guitar tech Gary Smalley)
• National resonator
• Gretsch Tennessean

• Peavey Mace 100-watt head
• Peavey 4x12 cabinet with JBL 120F speakers
• Fender Prosonic Amplifier

Strings and Accessories
• D’Addario NYXLs (.009–.042)
• D’Addario medium gauge-mixed strings for the National
• Mel Bay green light nylon contoured picks
• Score Marketing Coricidin bottle
• Buffalo Straps custom leather strap

Tell us about Billy Gibbons’ involvement on “Good Side of Good.”
Well, he didn’t play on it. I played all the guitar there. But he cowrote the song. We’ve toured with him throughout the years, and became friends. We just love him. He lives right in Texas, and there’s some guy [Tom Vickers] he writes with. They sent us one song, and it just seemed to fit our feel. It’s got a little blues feel to it. It’s just got a weird sound on it and there’s a piano, too. On that particular song, I used my Les Paul, the one I always use. When I went to the studio I also took a Strat, a Gretsch Tennessean, a Telecaster, an ES-335… hopefully to get a different sound than Skynyrd.

Even with all those axes, you’re ultimately a Les Paul guy, aren’t you?
I always use Les Pauls. With Skynyrd, I always used my ’59 Les Paul the whole time until 1977. I just use reissue Les Paul Standards now. They’re still old and good.

Are you still using the Les Paul that we looked at in our 2011 Rig Rundown that was damaged in the 2010 Nashville flood and restored by RS Guitarworks in Kentucky?
I use that one sometimes. It’s real, real heavy. The newer ones are lighter, and they still sound great if you get them all tuned up.

How would you describe the perfect Les Paul?
To me, it’s the Les Paul Standard. Humbucking pickups are great. I love the warm tones that you can get, and if you turn the treble up really high on the amp, you can get kind of a Fender sound, too, with a Les Paul. But you can’t get a Les Paul sound with a Fender. I always liked Gibson—really because of Keith Richards and Brian Jones. Way back when I was learning to play, they had Les Pauls. I saw them on The Red Skelton Show and I just fell in love with that guitar.

What about amps?
I’ve used a Peavey Mace throughout my whole career, really, even in the early days back in the ’70s. But we also use Marshalls. Peavey and Marshalls, to me, sound pretty similar if you get them side-by-side. The Peavey seems to carry out into the crowd more, and have that tone even 100 feet out, whereas the Marshall seems to get a little tinny when you get out front.

What do you use for gain—the amp or pedals?
I just use the amp, but put the preamp up high and the regular volume down, so it’s dirty. If you turn the guitar volume knob, like, halfway down, it’s a lot cleaner. That’s what I do, I play all my rhythms on 4 or 5, and for leads, I just crank it up and it gets that bite.

Can a guitar with the volume rolled-off get clean enough for something like, say, the intros to “Simple Man” or “Sweet Home Alabama?”
Yeah, but actually that’s a Stratocaster doing that “Sweet Home Alabama” intro. Sparky [Mark Matejka], our guitar player now, does it, and it was Ed King that started it. I play the little lick right after. So there’s a Fender sound and a Les Paul sound.

You’ve got other guitars throughout the album. It sounds like a 12-string on “Where Did Love Go?” and a dobro on “Take It on Faith.”
Yeah, I played dobro on “Take It on Faith” and “Something Fishy,” and a couple of songs here and there. I just love that. I wish I could’ve played it more, but we didn’t record that much. We only did it in a few weeks. The studio cats were so good they put down one or two tracks a day, and we just went in and overdubbed on them—played some lead, and “bang,” we’re done.

There was a 12-string and an acoustic up front on “Where Did Love Go?” and we kind of brought it down a lot so it doesn’t sound real twangy. I just played slide on that song. Wayne Perkins wrote it and it’s a beautiful song. He’s a good friend of mine from Alabama.

Will you tour with Dale to support Take It on Faith?
We haven’t planned it yet. If it calls for it, or we get some offers, we would, I guess. We’re touring all over the world with Skynyrd so we’re taking a few weeks off for the holidays, and then starting back up.

Is it hard to separate work and life with Dale?
No, man. We just get along really good and she’s my best friend. If we weren’t playing music together, we’d still be hangin’ together. We help each other on the road and everything is good. She takes care of me. I’m a mess these days with my health. [Laughs.] I had a couple of heart stents put in. But I’m feeling great and I’m playing, and we’re enjoying our grandkids and taking a few weeks off here.

Being on the road is hard.
Yeah, it’s a lot of work, just the traveling. Playing for the people at night and doing all the other stuff like talking about the old guys and the original band. That’s what I try to do everyday, to keep the dream alive and keep them alive. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s worth it and it’s fun. It’s all I know how to do.

Do you ever get tired of playing the Skynyrd stuff?
Nah, man. It’s a pleasure and an honor for me. Back when it was new and we first wrote it and toured with it, it was magic to us that we could do it, and that we finally made it after all those years of trying. That was our dream. And to play it now … unfortunately Ronnie and a lot of the guys in the band, after the crash, they never got to hear “Freebird” and “Sweet Home Alabama” be played for years and turn into classical music.

It’s great that you’re still staying true to your roots, after all these years.
We just do what we do. Unfortunately, Ronnie would have gone on to be a great songwriter, which he already was. He was one of the best I’ve ever heard. His lyrics—he had a magic way of talking to people, and the common person. But as far as Southern music, that’s just the way we play.

Are there any new artists that have caught your attention?
Like I said, I’m an old blues guy so I listen to old blues. And I love the Beatles, actually, and all the old groups like the Yardbirds. I listen to that stuff. We were so lucky—our generation that grew up with the Beatles. These kids nowadays, I don’t think they know how to appreciate real musicianship with real people that try to rehearse all day to sound good. [Laughs.] There’s not a lot of bands around anymore that tour all the time. There’s a lot of solo artists with dancers, but never a real band. But I’m gonna keep on going until I can’t.

Where do you see yourself during the next 10 years?
Oh wow! I don’t know the future, really. I just see us doing some more tours with Skynyrd stuff. We’re loving that and will keep on going until our farewell tour, whenever that might be. Anything me and Dale get going with this album … who knows, in the future we could do another album or songs. It’s hard to do a whole CD now because people just stream one song or two. You don't have to do a whole album now because nobody cares. [Laughs.]

YouTube It

Gary Rossington and the 2003 edition of Lynyrd Skynyrd—including Blackfoot founder Rickey Medlocke and Outlaws frontman Hughie Thomasson on guitars—tear through the classics “Simple Man” and “That Smell.” Both songs are showcases for Rossington’s burly tone, roughhouse licks, and singing feedback technique. He’s playing one of his beloved Les Paul Standards while Thomasson jams on a Fender Strat and Medlocke plays a Gibson Firebird, the preferred instrument of original Skynyrd co-guitarist Allen Collins.