Jeff Baxter Talks A Lifetime Of Being Skunk, Working In Steely Dan, That Moustache & Guitar Technology (INTERVIEW)

Photos by Jimmy Steinfelt

When you think of some of the most well-respected musicians in the business, it’s a good bet that Jeff Baxter, better known as Skunk, ranks very high on that list. Known for his exceptional guitar work with Steely Dan, the Doobie Brothers, and on many notable albums by big-name artists such as Rod Stewart, Dolly Parton, Carly Simon, and John Mellencamp.

Baxter knows his way around a good song and how to make it great. In June, he finally released his first solo album, Speed Of Heat, to rave reviews. Alongside friends such as Michael McDonald, Jonny Lang, and Clint Black, the album just sizzles with exciting tunes. Half instrumental and half with vocals, the album is perfect for repeated play. 

For instance, you’ve never heard country singer Clint Black sound this cool as he does on “Bad Move;” and the depth of blues that Lang and Baxter trade off on “I Can Do Without” is goosebump-inciting; not to mention McDonald’s vocals on “My Place In The Sun” are so sensual partnered with the melody. And that’s just the songs with vocals. Baxter certainly explores his guitar neck, conjuring up shades of Celtic, Blues, R&B, Jazz, rock, and soul rhythms. The man who has been making music since he was a kid has definitely caused a sunflare with this long-awaited album.

I recently had a lengthy conversation with the Hall Of Famer about his stellar career, his new record, and the artists he has worked with.  

Skunk, I know you’ve been asked this a million times already but people have been wanting you to do a solo album for years. What finally lit that fire under your butt to do this?

Well, it’s been kind of an ongoing endeavor, a labor of love, with my music partner CJ Vanston. We became friends a long time ago and we would get together when we both had time and record different things and see how it came out. For the past three or four years, we really settled down, trying to do something, because it’s like putting pennies in a jar, right; eventually you’ve got to roll them up, take them to the bank and start all over again. So we got to a point where it was time to roll up all the pennies.

I was never a big fan of doing a solo album right after you leave a successful band. I just thought there was something a little trite about that, because you didn’t really give yourself time to think. I know the record companies certainly want to capitalize on whatever momentum you have but I wanted to give it some thought. Besides, at the time, I was way too busy with studio work and touring with other folks and doing research and development on electronic stuff for Gibson and Fender and Akai and Roland. Then my day job with the Department Of Defense just really didn’t leave a lot of time.

And you still don’t have a lot of time

No, but we put our heads together, CJ and I, and we got this done. In the meantime, we found that there were some folks who were really interested in participating. I talked to Mike McDonald and he said he’d love to do it, and Jonny Lang and of course Clint Black, who I’ve known for a million years, and Rick Livingstone. So I’m glad we waited because it was just going to be an instrumental album and then these folks expressed interest and okay, let’s think about that way.

Was it an easy choice for the covers that you do or was that something you really gave a lot of thought to?

I gave a lot of thought to it, because there really is no sense in doing anything that I can think of, whatever it may be, and especially musically, unless you really think it out. Otherwise, why do it? “Do It Again,” is a really cool song and I’ve noticed there is not a lot of, how shall we say, people with the intestinal fortitude to take on a Steely Dan song. So I figured, okay, I’m the right guy for the job. 

The idea was, like everything else we did, to really have a different approach. So “Do It Again” is a very different approach to the original. “My Old School” is a song that I used to sing live when I was in Steely Dan, so every time we would play it we’d get a little more energy and it was kind of like a snowball rolling downhill till finally it became, live, a pretty hard-driving tune. So I thought, why not take it to the ultimate and see what happens and I asked Steve Tyler if he’d sing it. I sent him a scratch vocal and he said, “Well, why don’t you sing it?” And I said, “I’m not a singer.” He said, “Well, yeah you are. You should do it.” I said, “Are you kidding me?” and he said no. So I figured, okay, I’ve known Steve for a long time and he knows more about this stuff than I do so I took a shot.

So why the hesitation to be more out front singing?

Well, I’m a big believer in you do what you do best and when you’re in bands with people like Donald Fagan and Linda Ronstadt and people like that, singing really doesn’t come up in my wheelhouse (laughs). I’m a guitar player, a steel player, an acoustic player and that’s what I do best. I’ve done a few vocals in the studio as a studio musician, background stuff, but as a studio musician I’m a guitar player. Maybe I’m being overly conservative but that’s what I do best. So it never really occurred to me, you know.

Do you do it on tour?

I do, I sing that and I do background vocals, obviously. That’s easy. I’ve been doing that for years. We did an East Coast tour and we’re going to do a West Coast tour and then we’re going to head to Japan the middle of August. So yeah, I’ll continue with it till somebody says, “You suck.” (laughs) Then I’ll stop and go back to playing guitar.

You have Jonny Lang on the new album. He hasn’t been out there a lot lately. So what made you think of him and that he’d be a perfect fit?

We became friends some years ago. We’d actually played together up at the Sundance Film Festival, we’d actually met each other a few years before, but it was a lot of fun. There was a nice communication, which I think we really took to the ultimate degree on “I Can Do Without,” the song we did on the solo album, with the call and response. And there was really a nice bond. Our playing styles are very different and I think they complement each other; at least it seems that way. So when we met and played together, afterwards he said, “Listen, can you help me with something. I’d like to explore getting into law enforcement.” And I said, “Sure I can help you with that.” I was LAPD for fifteen years so I hooked him up with a couple of friends of mine, US Marshals, and after that conversation, I had called him up about a month later and he said, “So what are you doing?” And I said, “Well, I’m working on a solo project.” And he said, “Wow, I’d like to play on it.” I said, “In a heartbeat!” (laughs) 

The criteria for being a part of this project with myself and CJ was that you have to agree to write with the two of us and write something completely original AND do something that’s way out of your wheelhouse. So if you listen to what Clint Black did, he’s an incredible musician and a big Steely Dan fan, when he walked into the studio and he played that opening guitar riff, it was like, okay, you get it, this is going to be totally different. Same with Mike McDonald. That song that we did is very different than anything he’s ever done. And Jonny Lang, the same thing. The verses are kind of bluesy but then it goes into this just thermonuclear hardcore rock chorus and he pulls it off beautifully.

“Ladies From Hell” has all these Irish and Scottish flavors that you have whirling through it. Was all that there when you were conceiving that song or did that come later?

I wanted to do a kind of a musical tour of Scotland from Roman times all the way to the present, to right after WWII. See, my whole family is from Scotland so it’s a tribute, I guess, to my heritage and if you’re going to do it, you want to have the pipes. It’s very Celtic, I think, in it’s execution and it’s structure. You listen to it and yeah, it reflects the Celtic heritage of that part of the world. And at the end when you have the drums that go out, that was from the Black Watch, the Scottish Guards, and Ladies From Hell is the term that was given to the Scotsmen during WWI. When the Germans saw these people coming out of the trenches dressed in kilts, probably hammered out of their minds, pipes screaming, I mean, same with the Romans, when they saw this, they built Hadrian’s Wall. They said, “No thanks!” (laughs) “We’re not having any of that!” So they gave them the nickname Ladies From Hell, I guess, because of the kilts and the way they looked. That’s where the title came from and it definitely is an ode to my heritage.

Do you know where in Scotland your ancestors are from?

Yes, from Dunfermline. It’s a wee town near the Firth of Forth. Have you been to Scotland? I’m telling you, when I first went to Scotland, my dad said, “When you look out the window of the airplane, you’re going to see a green in the land that’s going to shake your DNA.” And I said, yeah sure. And when I looked out the window when we were landing in Edinburgh, it was just incredible. When you go there, there’s something about it that will stir your DNA. I don’t know how to describe it.

Do you know when your family came over to America?

Around the Civil War. We’re all McMillan’s, subclan of the McMillan clan, and my Great-Great, I think, grandfather, Charles K. Baxter, came over and immediately, you know, they were signing people up when they literally got off the boat in New York. So I guess he signed up and moved the family to Indiana and he then joined the 19th Indiana Volunteers, which became part of the 19th Indiana Regulars, which was known as the Iron Brigade, and they were the ones that held Culp’s Hill day one and day two in Gettysburg.

You know, I have my Great-Great grandfather’s whole uniform, his saber and everything, and a colleague of mine who is a Civil War reenactor, he lives in Gettysburg, and about ten or so years ago, we did a horseback ride through Gettysburg and took the route that my Great-Great grandfather took on the way to Culp’s Hill. I put the uniform on, made the ride and it was an incredible experience.

You fit in that? People were a lot smaller then.

Yes, well, my Great-Great grandfather was a big guy. Scotsmen tend to not be that small (laughs)

Half this album is instrumental. When you’re composing or noodling around, do you ever hear words filtering in and out?

Sure, many times it’s not so much the words as it may be ideas that the melodies and structure suggest a mood or a place in time or something cinematic that gives rise to something descriptive, which would lead to lyrics, although “Ladies From Hell” I think is descriptive without lyrics. But yeah, that happens. Or you start out with like a poem or a description, a lyric, and then something about the cadence of that suggests chords. So I don’t think it’s one way or the other, I think it’s a continuum. One side is pure melody and chords and the other side is pure lyrics and then there’s all that stuff in between.

Has there been a solo that you did where playing it for the first time, you felt it was surreal or magical or it took you to another world?

Gosh, I don’t know (laughs). Nothing that I can recall although on this album I did a version of “The Rose” and I loved the voice of the pedal steel. I don’t think anybody has ever done an a cappella part on pedal steel. I did the whole first verse just the steel cause I wanted to showcase the beauty of the voice of the instrument. At the end when we were sort of improvising on the chord changes that we added to the arrangement, when I finished playing it, I guess it was surreal because there were certainly tears on my steel as I did it to honor my father. I had gotten to a point I wasn’t quite sure where I was. I wasn’t sure if it was me playing or me playing for my dad or my dad. I remember after finishing that, sitting there and being enveloped in the moment. 

Originally, I got the idea to do it because some years ago Guitar Player Magazine asked me to play at their 25th anniversary, and this was many years ago in San Francisco, I was on their Board Of Advisers and I used to write a column for them called “The Eclectic Electric.” They asked me to put something together because they wanted to honor those of our colleagues that had passed away and they were going to go through photographs at the celebration and they wanted me to play. So that’s when I came up with the idea of playing “The Rose,” because I just thought it was such a beautiful melody and it was simple enough it wouldn’t distract people from the photographs but beautiful enough that it would set the mood. So I went out onstage and I started playing it and I got to the end of the last verse and Adrian Belew came out, who I just love and he’s one of my favorite guitar players and one of my favorite people, and he plugged in and started to play. By the time I got to the end of the second verse, they had a keyboard player and a bass player and a drummer. Everybody just kind of wandered out to play and it was beautiful. So I thought someday this is a great way to arrange this song and I got a chance to do it, and again to honor my father in the same way we honored the different guitar players that had passed on.

When you first started learning to play guitar, what was the hardest thing for you to get the hang of?

To want to play guitar (laughs). My parents had given me a guitar for my ninth birthday. I grew up in Mexico City so I wanted a bicycle cause I wanted to be able to ride around but my parents gave me a guitar and it pissed me off. So I hung the thing on the wall and said, “Yeah, that’s nice.” About six months later a friend of mine who lived in the same apartment complex that we lived in, got a guitar and said, “If it’s okay, I’d like to teach you a couple of chords so I’d have somebody to play with.” So I went, “Yeah, alright,” cause I’d already been studying Classical piano for quite a while anyway so I was into the music thing, I just wasn’t into playing guitar. So I pulled it down, tuned it up and realized, holy crap, I like this a lot! (laughs). So that’s kind of how it started.

You were in Steely Dan from the beginning. Did you ever get the sense that they would eventually want to primarily be a studio band?

Yeah. I guess we were into the third album and I think that Becker and Fagan were so comfortable with their success as songwriters and success with the band that they wanted to have a lot more opportunity and control over the music, which was fine. Hey, fine with me. I was actually out playing with the Doobie Brothers at the Knebworth Music Festival in England. I had been touring with them a lot anyway and when they decided that they didn’t want to do the band anymore, I hung up the phone and said, “Well, that’s kind of it for me with Steely Dan.” And one of the members of the Doobies said, “Well now you’re in the Doobie Brothers.” Okay (laughs)

So I did get the feeling, and again that’s fine. I never want to stand in anybody’s way creatively. I think more than it should be, the business of music gets in the way of music, whether it’s money or whatever it is, it tends to break bands up and separate good creative teams. So for me it was a natural progression. With Steely Dan, I would never ever downplay the success we had and how absolutely thrilled I was that it was happening. But I was doing so much studio work and producing records and so many other things, it seemed like a chapter as opposed to a whole book. I think for some people being in a band is their whole book. For me it was, I don’t know, a very good, exciting, wonderful, joyful chapter.

We’ve heard about how tough it could be in the studio with Walter and Donald. Was it easy to work with them in the studio?

I certainly understood the dynamic and sometimes the focus might have been a little excessive but that’s the nature of people that are creative. So again, the pressure is fine because if you’re a studio musician, pressure is the name of the game. So it really didn’t bother me that much. I think it’s fair to say that as they became more successful, like anybody who is creative, they wanted more control over their art and it is true that they were hard taskmasters. In a lot of ways they knew what they wanted and if they didn’t know what they wanted, they thought they knew what they wanted. I don’t see that as a flaw or a problem. I think that people tend to like to describe things in the extreme to be dramatic so I’m just trying to describe to you in as straight and descriptive way as I can. Yes, there were some difficult times but so what. I mean, I worked for other artists in the studio that were absolute horrifying pains in the asses.

Who was the most down-to earth person you’ve worked with?

Dolly Parton. She is an angel and working with her was an absolute joy. Not only is she an incredible musician and incredible artist but she is an angel. She is a very special human being. She would bake cookies and bring stuff into the studio. I would have done anything for her, whatever she wanted. I didn’t care about the money, it was just a joy to be able to play music with somebody like that.

Tell us about your relationship with Jazz? 

Well, I started studying Classical piano when I was about five years old. It was a great gift that my mom gave me to let me start taking lessons. Some years into it, I started to listen to more of my dad’s record collection. He was a huge fan of Dixieland – King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Pete Fountain, Al Hirt – that whole genre of music. Along with the collection of records that he had, besides me listening as a piano player to everything that Pinetop Smith and Albert Ammons ever did, trying to learn to play that style of piano, he had a really great collection of Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne and all these wonderful Jazz musicians and the players on those records were people like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson, just incredible musicians. 

So as I listened to those records, I started to get very interested in the whole Jazz genre and two things happened: One is that my dad got two records from a friend of his. We were living in Mexico so a friend of his that was a DJ in Washington DC would send him cases of records and the two albums that he sent him were Color Him Funky and HR Is A Dirty Guitar Player by Howard Roberts. I listened to those two records and it really changed my life in a sense. I said, THAT is the kind of guitar player that I would like to be. A bunch of guitar players that I know, they all listened to Howard Roberts when they were kids. I even wrote the forward for the transcription of those two records because the man was incredible. Luckily, I got a chance to play and work with him. We actually taught together at the Guitar Institute Of Technology.

So I heard those two records and then, in Mexico sometimes they would play American TV shows, and when I saw Peter Gunn and heard the music I went, Oh man, THAT’S awesome! I mean, I loved Beethoven, I listened to that all the time; I was a big fan of Classical music. But I asked my piano teacher, “I would like to learn the soundtrack from that TV show,” and she said, “Absolutely.” So she got the music, the Henry Mancini songbook, and I started to learn not only the music from Peter Gunn but later on from Mr Lucky, which was another show that Henry Mancini had written the music for. So it all came together around the time I was eleven/twelve years old.

How did it change the way you were playing? Did it change the physical way or the mental way?

Both, because I was playing rock & roll, three chords, simple pentatonic scales. I was eleven and playing in a surf band with Abraham Laboriel and sitting in sometimes with Los Hooligans, which was a very well-known Mexican rock & roll band. But the focus was pretty straight ahead. Then when I heard this other stuff, especially the stuff from Howard Roberts and Kenny Burrell and Teddy Bunn and Wes Montgomery, these guys playing along with these wonderful Jazz singers, it started to peak my interest. I wanted to delve into it, I wanted to see what there was there, because I thought that the more vocabulary that you have, the better you could describe the emotion that you’re trying to convey. 

It’s like when you read a book when you’re a kid: Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. Okay, I get it. But if it says: Jack, who grew up in a very, very poor family on the other side of the tracks, had very little education and had no real opportunity, met this young girl named Jill, who grew up on the other side of the tracks and she was from a well-to-do family. Anyway, when you start to get into adding vocabulary and more of this subtle description to a story, it becomes not only more interesting but it becomes a better vehicle for getting down deep into what the story really is. So that was the same with guitar. Expanding my vocabulary is something I wanted to do because I wanted to be able to express myself better.

What was the first song you obsessed over as a kid?

Gosh, it’s hard to say. I was a big fan of The Ventures and Billy Mure and Les Paul. I listened to all that music. I think the first song I learned was “Walk Don’t Run” by The Ventures, which is probably the first song that 90% of all guitar players of my era learned to play when they were kids. The good news is my dad had a record player and back in the day there were four different speeds: 78, 45, 33 rpms and 16. So I could take the Jazz records and slow them down and learn how to play them. Matter of fact, Les Paul did a wonderful version of “Lover,” which I learned when I was a kid, and I did obsess on that because learning to play that fast was something that I WAS going to figure out. So I learned to play it and then many years later, Les and I became friends when I was about fourteen or fifteen working in music stores in New York, and we started doing gigs together at Fat Tuesdays and the Iridium, just playing together. So one day I said, “Hey, Let’s do ‘Lover.’ I learned that when I was a kid and it’d be fun to play.” He said, “Alright Skunk, yeah.” So we played it and when I got to this part which is extremely difficult and extremely fast, I mean ridiculously fast, afterwards he’s laughing and I said, “Les, what’s up?” He said, “Man, I sped that up to twice speed when I recorded it.” I said, “I busted my ass to learn to play this.” And he’s just laughing his ass off. He said, “But it did you good, right?” “Absolutely!” (laughs) So I did obsess about that.

Who was the first real rock star you ever met?

Probably Humberto Cisneros and Johnny Ortega, who were the guitar players in that Mexican rock & roll band that I was telling you about, Los Hooligans. They were a very, very well-known band. There were three or four really top rock & roll bands there and they were huge stars in Mexico. When I first met Humberto Cisneros, and later on Johnny Ortega, yeah, it was, wow, these guys are like selling records, doing gigs, hugely famous, they’re all over TV and they’re doing huge concerts. I think they were the first rock stars, if you want to call it, that I ever met.

You were a young man while the Vietnam War was going on. Were you worried about maybe having to go over there or about what was happening here?

Well, it’s not something that I looked forward to, going over to Vietnam, but I showed up to my draft physical – and someday when you have some time I’ll tell you that story, it’s fascinating how that worked out – but they rejected me. I was relieved because that was 1969 when I showed up for my draft physical; 1968, something like that. By that time I think everyone was aware that the Vietnam War was probably at the very least problematic and at the most kind of a debacle, where it just became a grinding machine for cannon fodder. So yeah, I was relieved.

Robby Krieger once told me that he thought the reason so many of the older generation feared bands like The Doors was the fact that they represented freedom, being able to do what they wanted to do during those times.

Robby is right. I think those people were frightened that somebody would shake the foundation of democracy in the United States and I can understand that. The people that went and fought and died in WWII, somehow or other that has been branded as the good war and certainly I’ve never heard any argument that holds any water as to why you would want Adolph Hitler or Hideki Tojo to be running the world. I just don’t see that.So that generation went off to make the ultimate sacrifice. What was happening in the sixties is that the Vietnam War did not have the imprimatur in the minds of a young generation in the same way it did in WWII. When people began to object to it, there were people in that older generation that didn’t understand that.

My grandfather hated Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He thought it was unpatriotic.

Jimi Hendrix was in the 101st Airborne and Jimi and I were friends. I actually traded him his bad, beat up bullshit guitar for a really nice Stratocaster way back in 1963, I guess it was, when I was working on 48th Street in New York in the music stores. He played the “Star Spangled Banner” because he WAS a patriot. When he was playing down in the Village with Jimmy James & The Blue Flames, where I got the opportunity to play a little bit with him, every once in a while we’d sit down and either have a drink or maybe grab a bite at Matera’s, a little Italian restaurant on the corner of Bleecker and 3rd, and when people would start to talk about the Vietnam War – oh it’s terrible, etc, etc – he never said a word. He stayed out of the conversation or didn’t offer an opinion one way or the other. And I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that even though he left the army under less than stellar terms, although it certainly wasn’t dishonorable by any means, he still understood what that meant. The people at Woodstock thought it was an ode to anti-war, your grandpa thought it was an insult; neither of which was the truth.

I read where you worked with Gene Clark.

Absolutely. God, I miss that guy. We worked together on a number of occasions. Actually for a while when I was running the Skunk Hotel For Wayward Musicians (laughs), and that’s not to intimate at all that Gene was wayward, but for a while he needed a place to stay and he came to live with me. It was great. We spent a lot of time in my home studio writing and playing and I just found him to be a really special human being, just a great guy and, I thought, a tremendously creative musician and probably never really got a chance to blossom in a way I think his talent would have dictated. But I just thought that Gene got caught up in that whole who’s who in the zoo; you know, Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds, all of these bands that were mixing and matching. I don’t know, I thought he didn’t get the opportunity that he probably should have had.

Jack Casady told me he is forever chasing tone. What is your forever chase?

Tone is the voice. I’m not a singer but much of what makes a singer special, besides their phrasing, is the tone of their voice. I think the same is true for an instrumentalist. Tone is the voice that you use to speak your emotions. I am much a tone freak because I built guitars, I made a living customizing and repairing guitars for years with some of the best people on the planet and many of the pickups that I use on my guitars I wound on my mom’s sewing machine (laughs). And the electronics were something that was important to me, searching for the right tone. 

I started repairing guitars when I was in Mexico actually and I pretty much know how to do that and would try to give people the voice that they were looking for. So I totally understand. Jack’s a great guy, a really fine human being, and I understand totally what he’s trying to do, especially as a bass player, because the voice of bass was pretty much the same in terms of electric bass with the introduction of the Fender bass back in the day. There was kind of only one tone really. Now of course it’s gone from one tone to John Entwistle, who was an orchestra in terms of his bass playing. So I understand Jack’s desire to be able to find that voice. Makes sense to me and again, I’ve strived to do that with my own instruments, with the instruments I’ve designed, the electronics and stuff I’ve done with Fender and Gibson and D’Angelico and other guitar companies that have asked me to have input on their instruments.

Do you have an album that you played on where you hit the sweet spots from top to bottom? Was there a perfect album for you?

At the risk of sounding slightly disingenuous and maybe, you know, I don’t mean to sound snarky but for the most part I think this solo project is as close to that as I’ve been able to get, because number one, as a studio musician, you’re doing it, the guy’s looking at the clock, so you use your skills and they expect you to play your best and you do. If not, you’re fired. Not to say that I’m not proud of what I did and not to say I’m not happy with the results, and even in records that I did with other bands, there are limitations – time, money, schedules, etc, etc, etc. But what I found to be most enjoyable with this project was there was no time limit. I could really take the time to play what I wanted and to get it the way I wanted. So maybe this is it. I would posit at least on some level that it might be.

Did you become obsessive over what you were playing?

Well, I rarely obsess about anything. I find that ultimately to be destructive and sometimes less than constructive. Certainly, I wanted things to be right and I would spend the time preparing if I could, not only in terms of the music but in terms, as you say, tone, arrangements, things like that. And there will always be something that you would have liked to do better. I think the perfect example is in the Muslim prayer rug. No matter how beautiful the prayer rug is, the weaver always leaves a slight flaw somewhere, because only God is perfect. And this is not meant to be a religious trope, I’m just saying that I don’t think there’s ever such thing as perfection. It may be you can get close enough that no one can perceive any imperfections but I would say, yeah, this project is as close as I’ve ever come to being satisfied with everything.

In what genre of music do you see the most creative guitar innovations happening right now?

I’m not sure it’s a genre as much as we entered a state some years ago with sort of the grunge phase of music, around the time where electronic music, the grunge phase, etc, seemed to provide less inspiration to musicians to become not only proficient but excellent at their craft. It was not really necessary on a lot of levels to be able to create the type of music that was popular. I would posit now that there are kids interested, because of the popularity of the instrument, that I sold more guitars during covid than any other time ever, because people were, you know, they had the time. So I am sure that somewhere some young person is shedding their ass off looking to discover, dig into, explore the world of the guitar, or any instrument actually, but certainly the world of guitar. And you see bright spots, mostly in terms of guitar playing, because guitar had kind of lost it’s position as the mirror for the vocalist. Now I think that’s coming back. We’re seeing more and more guitar players become facile enough, experienced and capable enough to be able to do that. 

So I can’t think of a specific genre but I can see by the plethora of articles in guitar magazines the fact that people are starting to write music out so that other musicians can learn from the playing of different players. It’s like reading a novel. You want to learn about the experience of Winston Churchill in WWII, you read The Gathering Storm and the books of that collection. If you want to understand a little bit more about Wes Montgomery, get out the sheet music and you play it. I think that’s where it’s going. There’s so much interest in guitar. How many guitar magazines are out there now? So many. I think that would underline the fact there is a resurgence and interest and in that interest I don’t see any limitation in terms of what is being offered and what is being created for musicians, especially guitar players, to hone their craft. 

There are a few guitar books that I would say are essential. If you really want to be a great guitar player, you need to go out and buy a copy of Ted Greene’s Chord Chemistry 1 and if you can work your way through that then you should buy book two. It’s laborious, it’s difficult and extremely rewarding. And only a few guitar players really knew about Ted, mostly in the LA area, because he never really played out that much, didn’t do much recording. He’s just sort of the guru on the mountain; well, the guru with an apartment in the Valley. But a guru of the guitar. So I see more and more transcriptions of different kinds of music showing up because obviously people are interested. They want to read and since musical notes are another form of vocabulary, they want to read the insights that other musicians have. I think that’s great.

I was a librarian for twenty years so I totally believe in reading.

That was another gift my mom gave me, was she taught me to read when I was very young.

Are you more prone to fiction or nonfiction?

Mostly nonfiction because of my day job. I’m reading constantly, whether it’s open source or classified, I have to read all the time to stay current in my job. So I’m very appreciative to my mom. She taught me to read when I was five, about the same time she got me piano lessons. So that’s the greatest gift ever. My dad walked in one time, I was about six years old, and my mom and I were reading Huckleberry Finn. I was reading it out loud, so my dad said, “Oh, so you can read now.” And of course I’m a little snot right, and go, “Yeah, yeah, I can read.” So he went into the library, pulled out a copy of the first volume of Churchill’s memoirs from WWII called The Gathering Storm, dropped it in my lap and said, “Read that.” It took me about two years to get through it but not only did Winston Churchill become a hero for me but immediately it was like transcribing a Wes Montgomery solo after you’ve played a three chord rock & roll song. It was the same thing: okay, you can read, now it’s time to dig in. So for me, reading is habitual. I think my biggest fear is to be stuck in an airport with a long delay and not have something to read (laughs).

What did your parents think of the mustache? 

My dad had a mustache for years. Then I remember in Mexico City we had just finished playing golf and I was waiting for him in the clubhouse and this guy came out of the locker room and he walked over and I said, “Dad, is that you?” He said, “Yeah, I just decided to shave my mustache off.” He was forty years old and he looked like he was about thirty. I think I grew mine when I was eighteen and yeah, nobody seemed to have a problem with it.

Did the long hair come first or the mustache?

I think it all came around the same time cause that was in the late sixties. I was going to boarding school and they didn’t allow any of that. So as soon as I had the opportunity, obviously, I took advantage of it. I think my dad was not 100% thrilled because he was five years regular/twenty years reserve in the US Army. So I think there was something to that. But my dad was an interesting guy. Did you ever see Mad Men? That was my dad, without the issues (laughs). He was Senior Executive Vice President of J Walter Thompson, which was the largest advertising agency in the world. He had a very creative mind. He was the head of creative, just like, I guess it was Don Draper. That was his job, to be in charge of producing the creative portion of advertising. He certainly had a military framework but he saw outside of that because he had to, to be creative and be able to do things that appealed to the greatest number of people; you had to stretch out your templet, so to speak, about how you related to people. So he cut me some slack.

And you’ve been Skunk a long time

Skunk is my call sign. I know you don’t have a call sign but someday you will. It’s funny, I’ll be on the phone talking to some of my colleagues at the Pentagon and maybe a couple of friends are around me and I have to answer the phone, and I’ll say, “Okay, I need you to get ahold of Balls, I need you to get ahold of Bam Bam and I need them to call me tonight on this project.” And they’ll look at me and say, “What are you talking about?” (laughs). These are all call signs and I’m sure now everybody is familiar with Maverick with Top Gun and Goose and Viper. These are all call signs, which came about because the pilots wanted to be able to communicate on the radio in combat but they did not want to let the enemy know their real names. So they came up with call signs. So Skunk was a nickname when I started working, when I joined LAPD and also when I started working with the government, so I had a built-in call sign. Every general I know calls me Skunk. When I was working at the White House, George Bush called me Skunkster. George Bush Sr called me Skunk. Even Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, called me Skunku. 

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9 Responses

  1. What a great interview! I had the pleasure of seeing Skunk & the Band in May and I was blown away by the intensity of the concert they performed! Stellar performance & all of them played with such familiarity & ease, that the time flew by & you felt like you just sat down! Etched in my memory forever! 👏👏

  2. Jeff “Skunk” Baxter has been a hero of mine since I can remember. At 61 years of age, I have seen and listened to a plethora of musicians. Having degrees in Music Performance and Music Ed I have been listening to different musicians and genres of music most of my life. Skunk is the master, he is the musician I listen to and try to emulate. From his work with Steely Dan, The Doobies, and his solo Hot Stuff to his recent work. Skunk is the world’s greatest.

  3. What a fantastic read! Thanks to Jeff (Skunk) for the incredible insight. Besides wanting to sit and listen to him play guitar, he’s a guy I’d love to just sit and talk to .. actually I’d do the listening and I’d let him do the talking! What a brilliant man.

  4. So what was the Olympia beer obsession all about ? Ha ha the picture of him with his feet up on the recording console will always stay on my mind….

  5. LAPD, Department of Defense, White house? How did he do these ‘day jobs’ and tour with these great bands and do all the incredible session work. Did he fix their broken guitars? With all the drug use in rock-and-roll how did he get security clearances. Sorry just never heard these stories before. Incredible artist. Informative interview.

  6. Always a class act!
    I remember him from the 70’s when touring with the Doobies at a concert in Portland Oregon. They had to take a break mid-set because of sound issues.
    He pulled up a mic that still worked and proceeded to give us all a lecture and demo on Rhythm Guitar and it’s function in any piece of music. We were all amazed and listened intently! You could have heard a pin drop!
    That made such an impression on me that I have followed him ever since.

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