Tony Garnier

Chris Spedding

Chris Spedding with his Gibson Flying VChris Spedding — an absolutely stellar guitar player, and all-around cool guy, who I met soon after meeting another awesome gent, Spedding contemporary, Mick Ronson, who I interviewed for Guitar World Magazine. I was introduced to Chris after I started working for VITAL VAN, the premier musician cartage and van moving service in NYC back in the late-80s and early 90s. My Spedding and Vital Van stories could’ve been combined into one really long novella of a post because they are so intimately intertwined, but that isn’t really suitable for the blog format, especially for people who don’t like to scroll, and Chris DEFINITELY rates his own entry. Like Mick Ronson he is a total Guitar Hero and the two of them are not only archetypal British guitar slingers and producers, they also have some very interesting similarities in style. But first, check out Chris with long-time pal, Robert Gordon live on the Conan O’Brien Show.

We were roadies for the Robert Gordon band many times, so I had the chance to watch Chris play up close and personal and we also had many conversations about Guitars, Guitarists, and Guitaring. There were some long drives back from gigs in Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington DC and while the rest of the band was recovering from rocking out, Chris was happy to sit in the front seat of the van and talk music and guitars so I would stay alert and on the road (the traveling back to the city was usually 2am-to-whenever). So, as you can imagine, I was able to hear a lot about what he thought about guitar playing! Chris has a very compact, tasteful, lyrical style and he related at one point that someone he admired was George Harrison, because George’s solos usually functioned as a story within the story of Beatles’ songs. While George was certainly a major purveyor of this style of playing, he didn’t invent the concept and all you have to do to see how this evolved from the Jazz/Blues/Swing era to Rockabilly and Rock and Roll is read my post on The World is Waiting For the Sunrise. Like George, Chris is ALL OVER that hybrid of jazz/blues found in rockabilly and rhythm & blues music and playing with Robert Gordon has given him the chance to work this style for a long time. He has an arsenal of neat little tricks that he pulls out from time to time (see the next video), and unlike a lot of guitar heroes he doesn’t make the execution of tricky things a big production. They are just cool little technical moments that add to the atmosphere of the song. It has been years since I was involved with these guys, but I think Chris’s guitar stylings and Robert’s rockabilly boogie baritone have only gotten better with age. Both of their respective careers traversed much of the same landscape as the 70s and 80s punks, and I’m glad they have managed to age with the confidence and grace that is a characteristic of any of the great music icons. If you want to hear some great Rockabilly and Rock n’ Roll, they are the Real Deal.

Chris also hung out with the Vital Van crew from time to time — a real down-to-earth cat with a great sense of humor, and an avid reader. I remember him working his way through Gore Vidal’s Burr. The Vital scene was chock full of guitar players, and all of us picked up many a helpful hint just from being in Chris’s orbit. He also left his guitars lying around and at least 3 of us cut songs on our own recordings using a Chris Spedding guitar. He had a beautiful Gibson Hummingbird that I used on a song I did for a demo that included the awesome WORKDOGS rhythm section. At one point Chris mentioned that he thought that the Mickey Baker jazz books were a great way of learning how to read and play the kind of stuff he was able to work into his music. I’ve seen Chris start a set with a chord-melody medley of Christmas carols, totally cold (no warm-up backstage), and just kill. As a matter of fact I NEVER saw him warm-up for all the gigs I worked and he was always able to walk onstage, plug in and rock!

As a session player, Chris has been a very important person on some very great albums. It always knocked me out that he was one of the guitarists on the original Jesus Christ Superstar recording. Some of the other music legends he was involved with include Jack Bruce, Harry Nilsson, Roxy Music, John Cale, Paul McCartney, Tom Waits and Elton John. When I interviewed Leslie West in 1990 I mentioned that I had been working with Chris and Leslie had fond memories of his band, Mountain, touring with an early Spedding band, The Sharks, in the 70s. Chris later confirmed this and said that not only did the two bands share the tour, but also would get together at the end of some of the shows to have a big jam. Would’ve been great to see Chris and Leslie together on stage for a song or two don’t you think? Chris also produced some of the first Sex Pistols recordings, and for a long time it was rumored that it was him, not Steve Jones, actually playing on those recordings. I was successful in pitching a Chris Spedding article to Guitar World, (I wish I could find it, but I can’t). and before the interview my editor asked me to bring up the Sex Pistols rumor. I said “yea I’ll totally ask him” even though I already had, and knew the answer, I thought there would be a better chance for the article to get published by stalling. (I had already been handed a couple of rejections). As it turns out, not only did Chris not play on the songs, but his mixes weren’t used and you can read about it from the man himself HERE. Chris did have a whole lot to do with Steve Jones getting THAT guitar sound, which I’ve always thought was pretty flippin’ pro for a 1976 punk band and is probably the reason many people thought it was actually Chris playing. It’s the Spedding sound! If you read the list of credits on his Website, it’s obvious he is a player and producer who is home in many different settings and this is another parallel with Mick Ronson. Both Chris and Mick can be classified not only as superior players, but also as tasteful producers and idea guys for making music — Dudes with Multi-Vision! Here is Chris with Roxy Music from early in the last decade. After the rockabilly, you might think… What’s he gonna do on this song?…and then he plays emotionally and tastefully as he always does.

Chris was a long-time user of Gibson guitars and Fender amps…There are a lot of details on his guitar choices on his Website. He was telling me one night that he found it very easy to work with Les Paul Juniors because he only ever needed or used 1 pick-up (bridge position). On most guitars, he explained, it is impossible to get the sound he wanted on both the bridge and neck positions simultaneously, so it was just easier to get the good sound on the bridge position and use the tone knob or hand muting to produce a neck position sound on the bridge pick-up. As with all guitar players, I’m sure his thoughts on equipment constantly change through the years — at some point he started using a Gretsch, which suits his style perfectly, especially for the rockabilly stuff. He’s always had the slap-back echo sound working for him too and that is one of the two types of guitar echo I favor, especially the way he uses it. When we were working for him he used the Memory Man Deluxe and he would sometimes use a second Fender amp facing him from the front as a guitar monitor. One of my favorite gigs we ever worked was a Chris Spedding-fronted power trio gig in Boston, that included bassist extraordinaire Tony Garnier, long-time member of Bob Dylan’s band. I forget who played drums that night, but after the sound check, Chris, Tony, the drummer, Chicken John and I went and had Thai food and then we returned to the club and the band played something like this…

Of course the crowd dug it immensely just like they still do! It’s great that both Chris and Robert are enjoying a measure of success, because they are two of the very best at what they do. If you have a chance to see them, by all means go!! Hopefully, through the power of the internet, recordings and live performances there are younger players out there who will explore all of the possibilities of studying Chris’s style and will integrate some of it as I and others were able to do so many years ago. It is a way of approaching guitar that can definitely broaden the sonic palette and musical horizon of any player.

**Special thanks to Chicken John for providing the pic of Chris with the Flying V. Chicken has been the proud owner of this guitar for many years.

Booker (Bukka) White and the Blues — Part 2

Part 1 is HERE

While many guitar players have taken the humble beginnings of blues guitar styling into the realm of blues guitar virtuoso over the years and have done it very well: Johnny Winter, Otis Rush, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray, Roy Buchanan, Jeff Beck, and Buddy Guy, to name but a few, there have always been those more concerned with the most basic elements; feel, nuance, and (here comes my favorite word again) atmosphere. Two of my favorite superstar bands, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, both did very faithful or very perverted takes on the blues idiom and the blues sound. Both were obsessed with using technology or limited technology to get a sound that was either faithful to the original or a hyper-realistic redefinition. Jimmy Page was a master at recording and production and always stressed the importance of distance miking and microphone placement as two very overlooked ways to achieve an interesting sound of the blues or whatever the vibe of the song required. “Distance equals depth”, he has said many times in interviews. Led Zeppelin did many versions of blues influenced material and always created an interesting sonic approach that built upon what one could hear on the original song — When the Levee Breaks is a very good example. Someday I’d like to write about stuff I learned from listening to and reading about Jimmy Page, but in the meantime this is fascinating reading for anyone who is interested. A guy by the name of Bill O’Neil explores Led Zep’s studio wizardry with articles on Ten Years Gone and In My Time of Dying.

The Rolling Stones Beggars BanquetThe Rolling Stones, when recording Parachute Woman, a no-frills chugger on the Beggars Banquet album, all gathered around an early Phillips cassette recorder and “overloaded” the levels so it came out greasy and slightly distorted. This was fed into the main board later. The (acoustic) guitar on Street Fighting Man, was recorded the same way, and while I don’t know that Keith has ever said one way or another, the studio release of Jumping Jack Flash sounds very similar to me. The Exile on Main Street sessions are legendary for the very DIY locations and methods of recording of what turned out to be probably one of the most lo-fi blues-authentic major releases ever. As I mentioned already, Mick Jagger copped his whole vocal style from the blues and it’s very apparent on the Beggars Banquet through Exile recordings. Both Keith Richards and Jimmy Page adopted the “open tunings” of many blues players — Booker White, Skip James, Robert Johnson, Son House, and later Muddy Waters — to achieve the same kind of guitar sound that their heroes were getting on these early records. Tuning to an “open” basically means tuning the strings so that the guitar is playing a chord without any fingers fretting the strings. This allows the player to play a chord, bass line or shuffle rhythm on the lower register, while simultaneously playing licks or melody lines on the higher strings. It also allows for interesting drone effects and when combined with a capo, allows a player to play the same patterns all over the neck in different keys, allowing the player to adjust for sound effect or to complement the vocal key he or she wants to play in. Keith Richards began using these tunings on the studio version of Jumping Jack Flash and the Beggars Banquet album and it signaled a new era for the Stones sound. I also think that Jumping Jack Flash might be the first open-tuned top 10 hit ever, but I’m not sure about that. Jimmy Page not only used the traditional open tunings, but also made up his own and I’ll explore all of this in more detail in a future post. There are literally endless possibilities and it’s something anyone should fool around with just to see how it might change the sound of the musical style or even song one is trying to play.

The Jam Messengers at Booker White's grave

A groovy great band that has come on the Cave Radar lately is The Jam Messengers, a righteous duo who understand the essence of the blues, dangerous living, analog dreams and bourbon washed down with Furry Lewis. I’ve known singer Rob K. for a long time. He and his partner for many years, Scott Jarvis, were NYC’s premier downtown bluesy rhythm section, the furious and notorious Workdogs. They had a lengthy, glamorous career on the once rough streets of the Lower East Side and had many a fine side-man and woman sit in with them. I was lucky enough to catch quite a few of their shows including one with Blues Explosion founder Jon Spencer, another on the same bill with modern-day blues twister, Poppy Chubby, and quite a few with the late, great Jerry “Dublee” Williams. They made quite a few recordings and I believe some of them are still available if you check out their website.

The Workdogs "Roberta" album

Rob K is still a blues entertainer-philosopher supremo front-man extraordinaire, now with a new partner, “Uncle” Marco Butcher, a guy who wakes up and drinks the blues for breakfast. Marco lays out successive fiery riffs and swinging grooves on the guitar…while playing traps and shouting along on the choruses simultaneously! Holy cow is that super impressive! His open-tuned, slide-induced riffing and chooglin’ through a dirty Fender Champ would please Booker White, of that I am sure. So would his great sense of time and keeping the beat right up the big old butt of the audience. Rob K. is a master of the church-brought-low — a modern-day Testifier with a capital “T” — and he preaches his life gospel to all of the faithful and the faithful leave redeemed and relieved of all burdens. Politics, sexual roles, the profane and the mundane have all changed quite a bit since the days of Booker White and Rob K is a man with his finger on the pulse and his foot on the gas. Real blues singers throughout the years have always prided themselves on pushing boundaries, musically and lyrically, and the trouble with the majority of mainstream blues is that many an artist has retreated to the safe confines of the cliché. Not so with the Rob and Marco and this is an important common thread to the blues legacy and it resonates with people all over the world. Taking it to the people like you are supposed to and hitting them with music and a message that the people need.

Because of artists like the Jam Messengers, Workdogs and many others that I will profile in the future, somewhere men like Booker White and Howlin’ Wolf, and women like Sister Rosetta and Memphis Minnie are pleased and maybe a little surprised that their artistic efforts and life stories have not only left a deep impression on the skin of this world, but continue to inspire lost souls who struggle through the muck and the fog of the jagged night in search of that sound, that feel and deliverance from all that is common and predictable. Through their recordings, films, stories, and performances these greats of yesteryear have left behind a legacy that can inspire and lead any musician with interest and an ear to the Promise Land.