You want to impress somebody? Tell them that you played guitar on Alice Cooper’s Welcome To My Nightmare; or that it was you playing that solo on Aerosmith’s cover of “Train Kept-A-Rollin’” and not Joe Perry; or that you created the “Intro” to Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane;” that you have toured with Cooper, Reed, Tracy Chapman and Peter Gabriel; have played on albums by all of the above as well as Dr John, Jack Bruce, Julian Lennon, Mitch Ryder, Bette Midler and David Lee Roth; and that your current solo album, The Manhattan Blues Project, features Joe Perry, Joe Satriani, Marty Friedman, Tony Levin and Johnny Depp. But Hunter is not that cocky. He enjoys talking about his music and his career yet he has no narcissistic airs about him.
Steve Hunter is undoubtedly one of the music world’s unsung heroes, overshadowed by the people he has played with. But it’s time to discover him. His playing is elegant, with shades of blues, rock and Jazz. And he has created riffs that you’ve heard maybe your whole life without even realizing that it was Steve Hunter playing them. “Train Kept-A-Rollin’” is a prime example. There is nary a notation giving him credit on the album for playing on the first half of the song. It’s no wonder everyone thinks it’s Joe Perry. And for the longest time, neither Hunter nor Dick Wagner, who played on the second half of the song, were allowed to talk about it.
But Hunter has a wonderful attitude towards his career and he has a genuine love for what he continues to do. Releasing his fifth solo venture earlier this year, he has created a lovely instrumental soundtrack to the city of New York with songs such as “Gramercy Park,” “Twilight In Harlem,” “Flames At The Dakota,” and “The Brooklyn Shuffle.” His respectful admiration of the individual note is one of his crowning glories and when you listen to something like “Ground Zero,” you feel exactly what he is saying.
In this particular interview, I decided to talk with Hunter about just that: the notes that have been his soul-feeder since he was a young kid, how he creates music and how he got the illustrious Jack Sparrow to play guitar on The Manhattan Blues Project.
The Manhattan Blues Project is obviously inspired by New York City. When did you decide that you wanted to create this whole entity revolving around that particular part of the world?
That’s actually a very good question. I have a friend of mine, she’s mainly a fashion photographer but she also does hobby photography too; just enjoys going out and taking pictures of all kinds of different things. On the first clear blue sky day in spring in New York a couple of years ago, she grabbed her camera and went out to take some photographs. Just in Manhattan. And she took these beautiful photographs of a sunset in Central Park, just gorgeous. And she posted them on Facebook. I happened to see the photograph and I thought, wow, that is beautiful. And suddenly, this song sort of started emerging from just looking at that photograph and remembering what it was like to be in New York and Manhattan. I’ve gone in and out of Manhattan so many times. I almost moved there several times.
But I got the idea then that maybe I should write some instrumental songs about my take on certain parts of Manhattan, certain parts of New York. And it all sort of started evolving from that and eventually I started working on another song and then the Marvin Gaye song, “What’s Going On.” I know it’s about the Vietnam War and all that sort of thing but for some reason or the other, I don’t know if it’s the production of the song or what, but it just always reminds me of New York City. I started working on an arrangement of that too and suddenly this whole thing just started very slowly developing to the point where last year I took off from the road. I didn’t go on tour with Alice Cooper again. I had toured with him in 2011. But I just set aside the whole year to write and work on just parts of New York I had feelings for. And that’s basically how the whole thing evolved, was from that photograph.
What came first – was it a melody or did you think of a certain place and that inspired the music?
Well, there was a certain mood in the photograph that created a musical image for me. In other words, I could feel this song. I didn’t necessarily feel the melody but I could feel the vibe of the song. Like, what does this song want to be to fit this photograph? And it sort of evolved from there. In other words, I felt just a vibe of a song and then the melody actually came a little bit later. But the actual feeling for the song, you know, I got from the photograph.
Back in the old days, back in the early 1900’s, Debussy and Monet were pretty good friends from what I understand. And Debussy, the kind of music he wrote, Monet used to call tone poems and the reason he did was because the kind of music he wrote always evoked an image. So what I wanted to try to do was to create an image musically that fit that photograph. And that’s pretty much what I did on the whole album. Does that make sense? (laughs)
It makes perfect sense, especially as a photographer. You can see and almost hear things visually.
That’s right, exactly. That’s exactly right. Monet used to talk to Debussy about his color and balance, and Debussy would talk to Monet about his rhythm and harmony. They exchanged the terms, you know. They could see no reason why those same terms couldn’t apply to both forms of art. And I think that’s just wonderful, I think that’s a wonderful way to look at music, and art in general.
Because art, photographs or paintings, they’re like living and breathing creatures.
They absolutely are. And what I want to do is put music to that. If you’ve never been to New York, and there’s a lot of people that have never been, but when you listen to “Sunset In Central Park” and then if you go to Central Park, I’m hoping that you hear that song in your head and say, “Yeah, it does kind of make sense.” (laughs). That would be the most extraordinary thing to happen for me, the most satisfying thing, if somebody called me up and said, “You know, I’ve never been to New York, I heard your song ‘Sunset In Central Park’ and when I went to Central Park I heard that song.”
You have a few covers amidst the originals. You talked about “What’s Going On,” but you also have Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill.” Why those songs in particular?
That’s also a good question. The reason that “Solsbury Hill” is on there is that I played on the original track back in 1976 and I did Peter’s first solo tour, and we rehearsed that tour in New York City. And the encore tune that we did was the Genesis tune “Back In NYC.” So there’s all these New York references and every time I hear that song, I remember rehearsing in New York and then doing a tour with Peter. The song always kind of harkens back to New York for me, just because there’s that strong connection. So I wanted to put that on there for those two reasons. And I wanted to make it feel a little more worldly. Once you go to New York you will see it’s just a world community, just an amazing place on the planet. I wanted to evoke that in “Solsbury Hill,” in my version.
And like I said earlier about “What’s Going On,” for some reason or the other, that song has always reminded me of New York City. It reminds me a little bit of Harlem and it reminds me of the turmoil that was kind of going on in the 60’s and early 70’s. I was there, I was around when that stuff was going on and it was really scary and a really weird time in our history. And that song to me is like THE most perfect song to cover that time. Also, it’s just such a beautiful melody the way it lays on guitar. You know Marvin Gaye was an awesome singer and when I started playing the melody I thought, Oh man, I got to do this, cause it just lays on guitar like it was made for it. For that reason, I had to do a version of it. It took me a while to find the arrangement that I liked. It’s a tough song because the single they put out was just the most brilliant production and arrangement of a song. It scared me. It was intimidating to try to come up with something.
But you’ve been doing this for so long, it still sometimes doesn’t come easy?
Oh sure, I’m intimidated all the time, are you kidding me (laughs). All the time.
You brought up Harlem. One of my favorite tracks on the CD is “Twilight In Harlem.”
Oh thank you, glad you like that. I like that one too. It was fun to work on that one. It’s really funny, when you’re writing a song, parts of a song and the evolution of the song, it’s different for each song. It’s like The Beatles and Lennon and McCartney tell that story much better than I do, but one of them would come in and have these great verses but no chorus. John Lennon would say, for example, “I have a chorus” and Paul would say, “Oh ok, let’s try it.” They evolve in different ways. Like certain parts of the song would come to me before other parts. Then obviously, of course, the whole song doesn’t come all at once but when a part comes, again, it evokes a certain emotion and it evokes a certain image. And I started seeing these images of these like stray cats kind of characters coming out at night, getting ready to kind of sneak around and see what they can get into in Harlem. There’s this twilight between the daytime people and the nighttime people and Harlem is a very exciting, vibrant part of New York City. It’s been one of the coolest parts of New York City for many years. Way back into the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s with the Jazz era and everything.
But there’s this little twilight area between the day people and the night people and what that song is to me is that twilight area between the day people and the night people. It’s kind of mysterious and it’s kind of bluesy and soulful and then suddenly when somebody like Joe Satriani comes in with a solo, all of a sudden, BANG, something’s happening (laughs). And that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted it to create like this little cartoon video because Harlem has such life. When you go down there you can’t help but feel the energy in that city. I don’t care if you even just drive through it, it’s got this impact on you that you can’t deny. And it’s the coolest thing. When I wrote the song, I wanted it to have that feeling, like, it was kind of mysterious, you didn’t know what was around the corner but you’d go around the corner anyway just to find out. Sometimes it was something just a little intimidating, sometimes it was something a little cool and sometimes it was something funny. That’s how the whole song evolved. It’s just how I see Harlem.
What about “Flames At The Dakota?” Is that a reference to John Lennon, who lived there until he was murdered there in 1980?
I haven’t been to the Dakota although it’s fairly easy to get to. It’s right on a subway stop, right across from Central Park. There’s a little section called Strawberry Fields in Central Park and it’s absolutely gorgeous. But Yoko Ono, when John was killed, paid to have a couple of flames put on the front of the Dakota, to represent her and John, I think, that were to be perpetual flames. So that song is initially my tribute to John Lennon, who I was a big fan of his. I loved his writing and his singing and everything. I also got to work with his son Julian on one of his albums and it was really freaky because Julian is so much like his father. He looks like him and everything. It’s really eerie.
Also, I wanted to tribute George Harrison, who has been a long time hero of mine. I always thought he was underrated in a lot of ways as far as a guitar player. He’s an extraordinary slide guitar player. So I wanted to blend the two. They were my favorite Beatles when I was younger so I got a chance to tribute them and still stay in New York.
With “222 W 23rd” there is a funkiness to it.
There is and there’s a good reason for that. That’s an address, obviously. It used to be the address of the old Hotel Chelsea. I used to stay there all the time when I went to New York in the 70’s. I loved that place, absolutely loved it. And it’s supposed to be funky because the hotel was funky (laughs). It was like a funky place, cockroaches and bad doors and everything but it was just the coolest place. Mick Jagger used to have a suite there or something on the upper floor and he used to come and stay there all the time. Andy Warhol used to go in and out of there all the time. I mean, it just had this vibe about it that I absolutely loved. So every time I came to New York to do a session or something I always begged them to let me stay at the Hotel Chelsea. They’d say, “Ok but we were going to put you up in a better place.” “No, I want to stay there.” I’m so sad that it’s not there anymore cause it was such a cool hotel. It was a rock & roll hotel, that’s what it was.
On “Brooklyn Shuffle,” you have not only Joe Perry playing a solo but Johnny Depp playing one as well. How did that come together?
Well, I had to pay them an extraordinary amount of money (laughs). No, I’m kidding. Johnny Depp, I met in London. I was touring with Alice in 2011 and we played this club called the 100 Club and it’s a very famous tiny little club in London. I mean, it’s really tiny, but for some reason or another, a lot of really big bands like to play there. The Rolling Stones have played there many times. Alice was due to play there but he was also there in London working with Johnny Depp on the Dark Shadows movie. Of course they hit it off almost instantly because there is no way you cannot like Alice. He’s just the greatest guy, a great sense of humor, and he’s a real sweetheart. I’ve known him since 1971. So we’re at the soundcheck at the club and in walks Alice with Johnny Depp. Johnny Depp is a great guitar player. He was in a band back in the 80’s, I think, in Los Angeles.
Yeah, when he originally left Florida, he was with a band and he was playing music.
That’s right. Well, you’ve done your homework (laughs). He’s a good player and I didn’t know that for sure. Alice introduced me and it turns out he’s a fan of mine. He was a fan of mine from the stuff I did in the 70’s with Nightmare and all that stuff. He was a fan and, I mean, my jaw dropped. I said, “No, Johnny, you can’t say that. I’m a fan of yours. You can’t say that you’re a fan.” “Oh no, man, I love your stuff in the 70’s.” (laughs) He’s the greatest guy, the kind of guy you’d love to hang out with, really cool. So he gets up on stage and he plays and he plays great. Then probably about a year later I had written the “Brooklyn Shuffle” in hopes that I could get Johnny to play on it because I thought it would be something he’d really have fun playing on. Tommy Henriksen, with Alice’s band, was working with Johnny Depp on some stuff and he just turned to Johnny and said, “You know Steve’s doing an album right now and he wanted me to ask you if you’d like to play on it.” And Johnny said, “Oh man, I’d love to.” I told him, I said, “Man, you just play whatever the hell you want. You plug your guitar in and just have fun. That’s all I want you to do. Don’t think about too much. It’s just a fun song. Just think of driving in a car on your way over the Brooklyn Bridge and you’re going to Brooklyn to just get a burger, you know.” And he played this great solo.
Then Joe Perry turned out to be the same thing. I knew his tech – I knew Joe since 1973 – but I knew his tech so I asked his tech if he thought Joe might be interested in playing. And yep, turns out Joe was interested in playing (laughs). So I told him the same thing. Johnny and Joe are good buddies, they hang out a lot when Joe comes to LA. And Joe said, “Yeah, well, let me hear what Johnny played and I’ll try to play something off of that.” So I put Johnny’s solo on and sent it to Joe and Joe sent back the solo. And I thought, how cool is that. I just got these two cool guys playing really cool solos on my song. I mean, that is just the coolest thing to happen. So basically, all I did was, I asked them (laughs)
Speaking of Joe Perry, what exactly did you do on “Train Kept-A-Rollin’?”
Ok, here’s the deal. Dick Wagner and I have been spending most of our careers trying to straighten that out with everybody because there was no credit on it so you don’t know what the hell happened (laughs). There’re two versions of “Train Kept-A-Rollin.” If you remember, there’s a studio version and then it kind of morphs into this live version, sort of like they are playing in a club. On the studio version, all the soloing on that is me. Then when it morphs into the live version, that’s all Dick Wagner. Since we weren’t allowed to put any credit on it, we’ve been spending a lot of our time explaining to everybody what happened there, because it’s very confusing. So many people said, “Well I thought that was Joe?” So now I think I got it all straight (laughs)
Why didn’t they want to give you credit?
Well, back in those days there was a thing called ghost playing and for a little time there, for a period of about three or four years or so, record labels were getting very irritated about having outside musicians. They would sign a band to a label and then the producer would take the band in the studio and then use other musicians to play on the band’s album. And labels were getting kind of angry at that and they were saying things like, “If the band can’t cut it, then we don’t want to sign them.” Then the producers would say, “No, we’re not doing that, just remember this is an album that is going to be out there forever and we just kind of want to add a new flavor, a new color to the album.” So the only way they could get around that was to just not give you credit. There was a lot of that going on, especially in Los Angeles and in New York. Like Paul Revere & The Raiders and all those bands had a lot of other players, and the Monkees. They all had other players on their albums. That’s just the way things were done. But the labels were kind of afraid, they didn’t want to alienate the audience into thinking, “What’s the matter? How come they didn’t play on the album?” So just to keep it all cool, they just said, “We’ll pay you to do this but we can’t give you credit.” They even asked me sometimes, “Don’t say anything in the press.”
That must have been frustrating when you wanted to build up your credits?
Yeah, it was at first and you’re right, there is a lot of things you did that you wanted to have credit for. It was kind of a drag in those days cause it was difficult to get more work if you couldn’t say, well, yeah, I played on that. But then they’d ask, “Where’s the proof? I don’t see any credit on there.” So it was difficult in some ways and it was a little disappointing when you did something. But at the same token, you understood it. They usually paid you fairly well because they knew they couldn’t credit you. So it all kind of worked out. Now, I’ve had to spend most of my career explaining to everybody about “Train Kept-A-Rollin” and other things I’ve done. Dick’s had to do a lot of this kind of talk too. But it’s all right. We understand that’s the way it happened in those days and it’s nice to be able to clear the boards on it now.
You seem ok with it now but were you ever angry or upset about it?
Well, you know, to be honest with you, I wasn’t all that upset with it when it happened because I wanted to be a session guitar player, credit or no credit. I really loved in those days going into a studio and hearing a track and coming up with a guitar part. I really loved that. It wasn’t till about two or three years later that I sort of found it a little annoying that I couldn’t get credit. But it never really latched on so much that I have this real anger about it or any of that sort of thing. It’s just how things were done in those days and you either accepted it or you didn’t. You could say, “Well, I don’t want to do that if I can’t get credit.” Then you walk out the door and there’s like fifteen other guitar players that are ready to take your place. So it was a matter of if you wanted to work, that was just what you accepted as part of the work.
I am always curious when it comes to naming instrumentals. How do you decide what to title it?
You know, that’s a good question and not very many people ask that question. The reason is because a lot of people think, well, they just probably throw some title on it. There are no words, nobody cares (laughs). I don’t do that. I try to come up with a title. Sometimes I actually come up with a title first and then the song comes. Or sometimes a part of the song will come and it will start reminding me of something. Then suddenly the title will come. But basically what I try to do is, I try to make the title fit the mood and the vibe of the song so that when you see the title on the CD and then you hear the song, it makes sense. Like for instance, you wouldn’t call “Flames At The Dakota” “A Day At The Races.” It wouldn’t fit. You’d sit there perplexed. Like, “Why in the hell did he call it that? That doesn’t make any sense.” But I came up with the title first kind of and then the song came out because I wanted to write something to tribute John Lennon and George Harrison. So I knew it had to be kind of a Beatle-y kind of song and I knew kind of the mood I wanted. I knew kind of the tempo and the groove I wanted it to be. Then suddenly this title came: “Flames At The Dakota,” that’s perfect.
So if you look at the titles, I tried to make them each fit the vibe of the song, so that when you see the title and you hear the song, they make perfect sense together. It’s difficult to do sometimes but to me it’s the fun in trying to give it a title that you can create your own lyrics to or you can create your own images to when you hear the song. And that’s the fun of it. What I want to do, you know, it’s like a painter, an abstract painter let’s say. How many times have you gone to an art museum and you look at a painting on the wall that’s like eighty feet across and it’s a big circle. And you think, “What the hell does he mean by that? Why is that art?” But it’s funny how if you get a hundred people walking by that painting they all react to it differently, you know what I mean? And they all sort of interpret it their own way. Well, that’s what I try to do with instrumental music. I try to sort of lead you in the general direction but then after you get in that direction, you’re on your own. You figure out what you want to hear from the song or you figure out what you feel from the song. That’s the beauty of instrumental music to me, is that it’s not encumbered by lyrics.
That’s not to say that I’m not into lyrics because I think there’s been some absolutely stunning lyrics by The Beatles and other groups that are a joy to hear and to read. But I’m talking about my form of music. I like to get the words out of the way and let just the melody carry you someplace. So you create your own story.
One thing that I noticed about this CD is your notes. They are very, very pristine and very pure. It’s like you hear each note. Was that a conscious decision or is it always the way you play and create music?
Well, first of all, I’m so glad you picked up on that because that’s very important because I did do that on purpose. I’ve always been into melody, even in the very early days. I kind of got my start in blues and I’ve been sort of a blues guitar player the whole time through because I like the simplicity of melody and space and phrasing. What’s wonderful about music to me is that space in music is just as important as notes. If you don’t leave space, the note doesn’t have any dimension, it becomes very one dimensional. But if you leave enough space, it’s almost like you can see completely around the note. That’s what I want, that’s my whole purpose in playing, is that when you hear those notes, it’s like they’re so big and there’s so much detail in them that you can see almost all the way around them and you can see through them and you can see above them and below them. When you’re hit with a flurry of notes, there’s nothing wrong with that, that’s just a different way of expressing yourself. But for me, I much prefer playing notes and spaces as if each one has the same amount of purpose. In other words, the note isn’t more important than the space. They’re equal. So you’re playing two things instead of one all the time and I love that. Somebody asked Beethoven, I think, once, “What was the most difficult thing about writing music?” and he said, “The spaces.” It’s not the notes. You can write a bunch of notes (laughs), that’s easy. But trying to find the exact place to put a space, that’s difficult. And it can make or break a phrase.
Do you have to have patience to do that?
You do have to have patience because your initial response might be to play more than is needed and a lot of times that’s what I have to do. I have to kind of work through that. I think it’s the same way with a screenwriter, for example, that might have too much dialogue and they’ve got to thin it down. You’ll have a paragraph and then you think, well, that’s too much so maybe I can say it in a sentence. It’s the same thing with me. I could write a paragraph but I’d much rather say more in a sentence. So it does require a lot of patience, especially with yourself. And it’s not so much that you’re fighting your own instincts, it’s more like you’re editing your instincts, you know. You’ll say, ok, now wait a minute, I don’t want to do that there. We want to be simpler there, let’s find something really cool in there. That, to me, is more fun and more satisfying and more creative, and it means more in the end. And I think it affects people more.
Listen, if you were having a conversation with somebody and they were talking a mile a minute, after a while you just get sort of numb to it and you don’t really hear what they’re saying anymore. The same thing can happen if they talk too slow. If they talk too slow and leave too many spaces, same thing happens. You get bored to death. But you get that person that paces themselves just right and puts the right nuances on the words and all that sort of stuff, you’re captivated. That’s what makes a really good actor, someone like Marlon Brando who can deliver a line that you hang on every syllable. And that’s what I’m trying to do with music. I’m trying to do that same thing. I want them to listen so I do whatever I can to help them listen and to make them want to listen.
You seem to be very passionate about music. When did all that begin? Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a small mid-western town called Decatur, Illinois, and I lived there until I was, I don’t know, twenty or twenty-one or so, and then I moved out to Detroit. But I was interested in music from the time I was about three years old. My grandparents had a Harmonium over at their house and my dad would pump the Harmonium and I’d figure out little melodies and stuff on the keyboard. There’s something going on with music for me. I mean, I had no choice, it was there. Then when I was about eight years old, my dad started me on guitar lessons. I actually started on a thing called Lap Steel first, which a lot of people think of as a Hawaiian instrument; which it’s pretty much well-known for that. But you know Ben Harper plays a Lap Steel. I love a Lap Steel. I played it for about five or six years and then I went to what we call regular guitar, the rock & roll kind of guitar that I play now. But all these years I’ve still been playing a Lap Steel. I still have my dad’s Lap Steel here and it’s on my album on “Gramercy Park.” I still play it, I still love it. My dad’s Lap Steel happens to be a particularly good-sounding one so I use it whenever I can.
Initially, I wanted to be a doctor. For most of my early life, I was a bookworm nerd, I was a science nerd, I loved science and math and all that stuff. And I was really a nerd, with glasses and everything (laughs). But music has just never left me and eventually it just took over my life. No doctor, none of that stuff. I ended up just, “I’m going to have to be a guitar player.” That’s what I am. Music was in me so deep and so young that I really didn’t have a choice. I feel like I didn’t have a choice.
When did you start doing music of your own composition, instead of trying to play like somebody else?
You know, I think any musician, with the exception of classical musicians because they’re trained to interpret music. They’re not trained to improvise, they’re not trained to write, or any of that stuff. Most of them don’t even care about that. What they care about is trying to be really good interpreters of classical music. So they don’t really care about a lot of that stuff. They’ve got enough to focus on. But I think all blues/rock musicians want to write music. You have this urge like you want to write something and I had it from the time I was like sixteen. They were terrible songs but they usually are (laughs). You throw them all away. But in the writing process you always learn something. It’s like photography, the more pictures you take, the better you get at it. Even if you weren’t aware of it, you just absorb things and learn things. And that’s kind of the way it was with me and writing. I did try writing a lot of times. I wasn’t a very good songwriter, I wasn’t very good at lyrics. So I think that’s why I started gravitating toward instrumental music because I love playing melodies on guitar so much that it was great for me. Sometimes I would interpret like a song that has already been out, play the melody off that song, and then you’ll learn some new things about creating melody and all that. So I think I’ve always wanted to write songs but it just so happens they turned into instrumental songs.
With your eye problems, has that changed the way you create music? Has it heightened the other senses?
You know, that’s a good point too because I think a lot of people say that when people go blind their hearing improves and their sense of smell and everything. Mine hasn’t gotten so bad that I think I would see any difference in that. It’s gotten bad enough, though, that I’m aware of things that I think sighted people kind of ignore, because they don’t need to. In other words, if you’re a sighted person, there’s some information you don’t really need because the sight covers it, whereas my sight is bad enough that I need some of that information. Like sometimes you can sense a wall close to you if you can’t see it, you know what I mean. So I think in some ways it helps me focus a little more because I don’t have as much distraction.
I don’t want you to misunderstand, I’m not blind. I am legally blind and I can see enough to get around and stuff, but I have blind spots, which means in my field of vision there are parts of the vision that is not there. I have to be very careful how I move around and stuff so I don’t run into anything. I run into things all the time and I trip over little kids cause I can’t see them down there. “Oops, sorry buddy.” (laughs) But those things happen and because I’m trying to get more and more aware of that, I have to be much more in tune with my environment than say someone who is a sighted person. I mean, if you’ve got all your faculties, your sight and hearing and everything, you have this whole world of information coming to you all the time. Part of my world is limited and blind people are phenomenal, the things they can pull off without seeing anything, just based on hearing. It’s amazing what they can do. They can do far more than I can do in some respects.
But I do think it helps me focus. When I was in here in my studio working, it just seemed like I had an easier time focusing on what I was doing because there were so little distractions that I could just hone right in. It’s great in a lot of ways; in some ways it’s a real pain in the butt (laughs). But in other ways it’s kind of cool.
Talking about being in a studio, was the first time you were in a studio to record, was that with Mitch Ryder?
The first official actual professional record I ever recorded was Mitch Ryder Detroit album. I did some little live recordings in little bar bands I was in back in Decatur and stuff, but I don’t really count it. It was a guy with a tape recorder and a couple of mics. That’s not really recording, you know (laughs). But the first actual official recording, which was a record, was a Mitch Ryder album, yeah.
What did that feel like being in a studio and being kind of green?
In some ways it was heavenly and in other ways it was depressing. Because the first time you’ve ever recorded yourself, you just think you’re the greatest thing since canned beer (laughs). You’re just the most phenomenal guitar player. Then you walk back in the control room and you hear it and you sound like hell and you think, “Oh my God, that’s me? That sounds terrible.” Then the engineer will look at you and say, “Hey, it’s not my fault. I put a mic in front of your amp. That’s you, Bud.” So then there’s this big awakening where you think, “Oh ok, so I’m not as great as I think I am. Now I’m going to have to back up and try to figure out how to make this work.” So you figure out what it is about your playing that you thought was really good that didn’t translate in the studio. Usually, that’s just dumb little technique things. Like you’re much more sloppy than you thought you were and you don’t really know that until you record yourself. Because when you’re playing live you’re not paying attention to all that stuff. You’re just trying to make the music work. You’re not paying attention to whether you’re using the right finger on the right string. You don’t care about that. But in the studio, you hear all that little sloppy stuff, all that stuff you don’t like. And that’s what I heard and I thought, “Oh my God, I’m terrible. What am I doing here? I’m terrible, I suck.” Then eventually, what happens is the studio really fine-tunes your playing. It takes you like maybe one or two days to realize that, “Oh, this is what I got to do to make myself a better player.” It’s really good for you in a way. Once I got over that hump and not being afraid anymore, I loved it. I’d live in the studio.
The next time you went in was with Lou Reed to record the Berlin album. Was it a better experience?
Each time I went into the studio, it got better and better for me. I loved it more and more and more. And every time I went into the studio, I learned something. I’ve never gone into the studio and not learned something from my whole career. And the beauty is you go in there and you think, “Well, I wonder what I’m going to learn today? I wonder what we’re going to do today? What kind of music are we going to make today?” Even when you have a bad experience, you learn a lot. I’ve just always loved it in the studio. I remember walking in one day and it was Jack Bruce and Steve Winwood and Aynsley Dunbar in the studio and I couldn’t believe I’m going to play with these guys. It was awesome. I mean, I was just in heaven. And it’s always kind of been that way for me when I go in the studio. Once I got over that initial hump and realized that when you’re in the studio you’re under a microscope, you got to make some adjustments if you want to keep doing this; but once you get over that hump, then to me, it was all fun after that. All fun and great times and creative and all that good stuff.
Aynsley Dunbar is one of my all-time favorite drummers.
No question about it. One of the best drummers on the planet. He doesn’t have a really big high-profile name but he’s an amazing drummer. He played some of the most amazing drum stuff I’ve ever heard, on that Berlin album. Just amazing.
When you worked with Alice back in the day and then you came back and worked with him again on Welcome 2 My Nightmare, was it like stepping into an old pair of shoes? Was it that comfortable?
You know, it was. It was exactly. When I heard his voice, I heard him coming in the studio, I heard him talking, and I thought, “Oh my God, it’s forty years earlier.” It was almost scary. “Oh my God, I heard this forty years ago. I heard Alice’s voice forty years ago. And now he’s talking and it’s the same voice.” (laughs). It’s the twilight zone (laughs). It was so wonderful and touring with him on stage, it was so incredible. I’d look over at him and see him onstage singing “Eighteen,” and neither one of us are near eighteen now (laughs), and to look over and see him singing it and for an instant, I remember, “Oh my God, I was doing this in 1975; I was looking over at him and he was singing ‘Eighteen’.” It’s a two-edged sword. One side of it you think, “Oh Lord, this is incredible” and then the other side of the sword is, “Oh my God, I’m still doing this forty years later, doing the same tune?” So it’s kind of a funny two-edged sword but to me it was really cool. It was so great to be able to do another tour with him after all these years. It was very cool. When we got on stage it was fun.
After all these years of playing music and doing what you do, when you were that kid in love with music and starting to play, has it all been what you imagined it to be, all these years later?
No. First of all, I didn’t think you could make a living at it. I really didn’t. I thought music was a hobby. When I was growing up, like at eight, nine, ten years old, kids had various hobbies. We didn’t have all the wonderful toys you have now. We had hobbies. Guys would collect stamps and coins and they might be into collecting seashells and bugs and all kinds of stuff. And I did that too but the guitar, I thought was a hobby. I didn’t know guys actually got paid to play. And that freaked me out kind of the first time. “Oh you mean you can get paid to do this? You can treat this as work?” Then it hit me that I can actually do this for a living. I can have another hobby (laughs).
Then there are parts of the business that are much uglier than I thought they were going to be. There are parts of the music business which are severely ugly. They are not very pleasant. Anybody in the music business will tell you that, including some of the people that made it ugly (laughs). But there is a lot of stuff about the music business I’ve never liked. And touring was a lot different than I expected it to be, although for most of my life I’ve enjoyed it. There’ve been a couple of tours where it’s been kind of rugged. It’s not so much the tour was bad, it was just really hard on your body, physically. It just seemed like you could never get enough sleep and by the end of the tour you’re exhausted. So some of that gets pretty hefty. But overall, I loved it or I wouldn’t still be doing it. It’s what my whole body and my everything is designed to do. Maybe not so much touring really heavily anymore because it was hard on me. I would still like to tour, I just don’t want to do seven months cause that seven months kicked my butt (laughs). But I love doing two and three month tours, four month tours. Stuff like that, I can do that hands down. But the really long extended tours that I used to do when I was younger are much harder for me to do now.
I think as you get older, and especially, there are a lot of musicians that have families and stuff and they want to be with their families more. I don’t have a family. My wife Karen has a couple of kids so I have step-kids but they’re older guys, in their twenties and they’re out kind of doing their own lives. So I’ve never really had a family situation. I didn’t get married until I was fifty-nine but mainly that’s because my whole life is music and touring and recording and I just never had that sort of situation develop. It didn’t bother me that I would go on the road. I didn’t have a family to really miss but I certainly understood it of other guys. They’d get out on the road and they’d get homesick in maybe two weeks and I didn’t blame them. A guy just had a baby or something and it was a drag. But I never saw that side of it. But just after a while you put a lot of miles on and you just want to stay home longer.
What are your plans for the rest of the year?
My wife Karen is a singer, so we’re thinking about doing something together again. We did an album with her called Empty Spaces, which is all her songs, all songs she wrote about things she cared about; a very personal album. I produced it and did all the recording and stuff, so we’re thinking about doing another project like that, only in a different genre, maybe just try some different kinds of music. I’m actually looking forward to that cause there’ll be some cover songs – we didn’t do any cover songs on the last album – so we might do some now. And write some more songs. Then I’ll probably want to do another album sort of like Manhattan Blues. It might be a little different, might be a little more rootsy. I haven’t really decided yet. I know I want to do something like that because, I tell you, I had a lot of fun doing that album. It was a drag for me when it was done. I was like, “Oh man, it’s finished?” (laughs) I was having so much fun doing it, I felt bad it was finished. So I want to do another one kind of like that.
Have you been able to do any of these songs live?
No, that’s kind of tough to do. I think you’d have to have probably more musicians than I can afford. Touring nowadays is so very expensive. You really have to have some sort of financial support and I don’t have a label so I’d have to do it on my own and I couldn’t afford that right now. But you never know. Things do happen, people do get involved and things could happen. I’m not saying I’ll never do anything but at the moment there are no plans.
I didn’t know if there was a place in Phoenix that you liked to go sit in and play?
Well, you know what, there might be now because we went and did a little release party at this place called the Rhythm Room out here in Phoenix and it was a lot of fun. Man, we had a blast. I got up on stage with a blues band and we just jammed blues all night. It was really wonderful. We had a great time, everybody did.
Last question: What makes a guitar solo into a great guitar solo?
Phrasing. Phrasing is the most important thing. It’s not even the notes you play, it’s how you play them. Some of our favorite solos of all time, we can sing them. If we can sing them, then the phrasing is perfect. I’ll give you a good example of a great guitar solo: the beginning solo in Leslie West’s “Mississippi Queen.” That’s one of the best solos ever. And the solo in “Sunshine Of Your Love” by Eric Clapton, that’s another one. There are many. Jimi Hendrix did tons of them, Jimmy Page did tons of them; but to me, the most important thing to make a great guitar solo is phrasing: When to play and when to stop. That will always turn my ear. I will always listen to a solo like that. David Gilmour has beautiful phrasing. So does Jeff Beck. Those guys know what phrasing is. I think that’s what attracts a lot of people. They just don’t realize that’s what it is.