The Walter Trout Interview
By Ralph Greco, Jr. Photos by Brittany Fay
You’ve never heard the electric blues played the way Walter Trout plays it. A New Jersey native (like yours truly), he’s played with Canned Heat, John Lee Hooker and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, where his skills came to worldwide attention.
When Trout struck out on his own two years shy of 40, he did so knowing he had lots to say with his own compositions and his own band. Twenty-two solo albums, accolades galore and a strong international cult following, Trout’s gamble of leaving Bluesbreakers 25 years ago has paid off in spades.
In the following interview, we had a chance to talk to Trout about his career and his 2013 release Luther's Blues, a tribute to blues guitarist Luther Allison. “Luther was one of the all-time greats,” Trout says of his hero and close friend who died in 1997 at age 57. The love and respect on this album most definitely shine through.
I have to say, not only was I expecting (and got) plenty of your great playing on Luther’s Blues. I also was quite impressed with the tightness of the band, how the CD actually sounds like a "band record," if that makes sense.
Yeah, that’s my road band. Those guys have been with me for years. We have a certain way of playing together; we play 200 shows a year so we’re pretty tight. The newest guy, Mike, our drummer, is coming up on six years with us and he’s got 1,200 shows in…and he’s the new guy! Studio guys can come in, make a chart and play a song but the chemistry will not necessarily be there. When guys have played that many shows together it comes through on the record.
So it was basically the band setting up in the studio and letting it rip?
Yes, we basically set up in a big room, looked at each other and just played the songs. What you’re hearing are basically live performances with the occasional overdubbed rhythm guitar here or there, maybe a redone solo or something and probably some redone vocal every now and again.
You mention on your website and in the liner notes, that this was the right time to make this record, this tribute to Luther. Can you expand on that?
My last record, Blues For The Modern Daze, did really good for me but I thought: Do I need to do another record of: ‘Walter writes 12 songs and here they are’? No. I thought it was time to do something different and this idea to pay tribute to my friend had been on my mind for like14, 15 years. I’ve wanted to do this ever since Luther passed. He had worked so hard to finally get a little bit of recognition here in the States and he was really breaking through, getting some long overdue accolades in this country and boom, he got diagnosed with cancer and he was dead three weeks later; it was over so quick. He was a dear friend, and from that moment on, I thought I had to do something for this guy. I asked my label to see if they were good with it and they jumped on it, said it was a great idea and told me to go for it.
And the songs, as well as lots of stuff you write in the booklet, are all part of the full package of a tribute, right?
I did make a certain promise to Luther, you can read about, yes. The guy that wrote all those songs with him and was in his and for 20 years, James Solberg, he wrote a long piece for the CD booklet as well. Luther’s widow wrote a long piece too. There’s photos, here too. There’s lots here from people who knew the man, it’s not just the songs. My specific piece is about the first time I met Luther. Then I get into the last time I saw him and what our last conversation was about. When you read that, you’ll really understand why I wanted to do this record for so long.
And you’ll be touring the record you said, going out with the Walter Trout Band as usual. Any East Coast dates for a fellow New Jerseyan to see you?
Yes, we’re actually playing a big festival back in Jersey that we happened to pack when we played it before, the Somers Point Beach Concert Series. And of course we’ll be playing our usual bunch of dates. Check my website (http://www.waltertrout.com/) for details. We’ll definitely be out there.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about your time in the Bluesbreakers…and then leaving them. Can you fill us in on that journey?
I had a four-piece band back in Jersey, I wrote all the songs, I fronted the band and though we were damn good we couldn’t scare up a gig! We were starving, so I came out here to California in ‘74 with a dream to basically do what I’m doing right now! I immediately got hired by people, I’m playing with Jon Lee Hooker and we do a gig with the guys from Canned Heat and before I know it they say, come join Canned Heat. I do and we open we up for John Mayall, and at the time he has Mick Taylor and John McVie in the band and he says, "I want to hear you play with Mick Taylor." So there I am, out touring next the original Bluesbreakers. Then Mayall says, "I’m gonna put together a new version, why don’t you stick around?" I just went from one to another to another situation.
And Mayall was the dream gig, as you’ve said.
Definitely, an incredible gig. But during it all, I was always writing songs. We’d come off tour and I was fronting a band, we’d play down at the corner bar doing my tunes, Beatles, Stones, all of our influences. And one day, it was actually my 38th birthday, I was playing with John and I’m on stage thinking: "I’m 38, if I ever want to have solo career and not just be somebody’s lead guitar player, which was an incredible gig as I’ve said, I got to explore what’s inside me." So I went to John’s room and told him I had to quit. It was scary, he was paying me great, I was traveling first-class, living the dream, but John’s one of the finest, funniest, greatest guys to work for. He understood I had to take the gamble.
Do you still speak to him?
Yes, were still great friends. He’s recorded four of my songs along the way and as a matter of fact about a month and a half ago he and I went into the studio with my band and recorded two songs .
Quite the tale to tell…and such a long career since.
Well, thank you, yes. I just had to follow my joy of creating, paying and being an artist.
Podcast: Walter Trout talks about some tracks from his album, 'Blues For The Modern Daze'
March 01, 2013 Click HERE to go to ListenIn.org
Interview: Guitarist Walter Trout Discusses His New Album, 'Blues For The Modern Daze'
Dec 11, 2012 Dave Reffett - Guitar World
Guitarist Walter Trout has a resume that reads like a who's who of rock and blues legends.
As a former member of Canned Heat and John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers, Walter has paid his dues and then some. He's even played lead guitar for the legendary John Lee Hooker, Big Mama Thornton and Bo Diddley.
I recently spoke with Walter to find out about his new CD, Blues For The Modern Daze, which was released April 24 via Mascot Music Productions. We also discussed how much he's looking forward to playing the new songs on the road.
To see if he's coming to your neck of the woods, check out his schedule here.
GUITAR WORLD: In your opinion, what's the most important track on Blues For The Modern Daze?
Wow, I haven't been asked that. There are a couple of them. The opening track, "Saw My Mama Cryin," is a true story about my mom. She raised me by herself, and I thought it was time to write a tribute to her and all of the crap she went through trying to raise me.
I also think "Money Rules The World" is a really good statement here in this election year, and "All I Want Is You" is a love song to my wife. Those are probably the three I like the most.
In the album cover photo, you have a really nice Fender Strat and a Mesa Boogie amp. Is that what you used to get your tone on this record?
I've been endorsed by Mesa Boogie since I was in John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers, so we're coming up on almost 30 years now. When I play live, my stage rig is a Mark 5 through an open-back old Boogie cabinet they don't make anymore. It's a 4-by-12, and I've got EV speakers on the bottom and Boogie Black Shadows on the top. I set that up in the studio, and I also had a wall of amplifiers. I've got an old Fender, a Marshall, a couple of handmade custom things in there, and for all these tunes I kept going through to see what was sound best on any given particular song.
I ended up doing the whole album on the Mark 5. The clean stuff like on "Recovery," that's just the Mark 5 on the first channel. The opening track is the Mark 5 on the third channel set the way I have it on stage, so the whole record is a Stratocaster through a Mark 5. I have really put that amp through its paces, and I think it's the most versatile amp on the face of the earth.
What do you use for pickups?
The old guitar on the album cover, that's all stock. I've owned that guitar for 39 years, and when I bought it, it was blazing Olympic White. I use that on a couple of tunes and I don't take it on the road at all anymore because it's just too stressful to have it on the road. I don't want anything to happen to it.
When I retired that guitar a couple of years ago, my buddy Seymour Duncan told me he would build me some pickups that would sound exactly like them. There's a guitar builder in San Diego named Scott Lentz, and he makes beautiful guitars. He built the body for me; it's very light because I was having problems with my left shoulder after 42 years of guitar. So he built the body, and then I had an old Fender neck lying around and I put it on there and that's the guitar I use onstage. The majority of the stuff on that record is my stage guitar and that amp throughout pretty much the whole CD.
What can people expect to see and hear at a Walter Trout performance?
We'll be doing a lot of this record. I kind of wrote this record so we could re-create it live, and I'm really excited to come out and do these new songs. I've got the same band from the CD and we're going to do a really high-energy blues-rock performance. We'll take people on a bit of a roller coaster ride too. We'll hit them with some hard, loud, up-tempo stuff, and then we'll do very whisper-quiet blues like cut number four on the CD, "Blues for my Baby." The fans will get a good live show. The band is kicking butt.
What made you pick up the guitar in the first place? Who were your big influences?
It's funny. When I was a kid, I was going to be a jazz trumpet player. I studied trumpet and I was getting to hang out with people like Duke Ellington when I was 10. If I had to use an analogy to explain, I would say instead of wanting to be Jimi Hendrix, when I was 10 I wanted to be Miles Davis. Then in 1961 out came the first album by Bob Dylan. My brother brought it home and just the simplicity of it and the power of what the guy was doing really got to me. So I asked my parents for an acoustic guitar and I started off with just a chord book.
I taught myself some chords and started playing folk music. Then in '64, out came The Beatles. I saw them on Ed Sullivan and it was a pivotal moment in my musical life. The next day I told my folks I must have an electric guitar. The whole thing with playing leads and solos happened when I heard Michael Bloomfield. He played on an album by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and that's another one that my older brother brought home. When Bloomfield started soloing my jaw hit the floor. I was about 14 at the time and I remember it vividly. From that moment, I swear I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. After that I was pretty unidirectional. I knew I was going to play blues lead guitar. Everything else in my life took a backseat after that, and I just went after it with everything I had.
You've played with John Lee Hooker, correct?
Yes I did, and Big Mama Thornton, Percy Mayfield, Bo Diddley, Lowell Fulsom, Pee Wee Crayton, Bobby Hatfield from The Righteous Brothers, and then I got into Canned Heat. I did that for four years. I played with Mick Taylor also and then I got in with John Mayall and played with them for five years. I had quite a wrong a long run as a sideman. I was always working that was a great time. I was getting to play with these people who were my idols and were these legendary musicians.
I'd have to say the five years with Mr. Mayall was the most fun I've ever had in my musical career ever. It was a blast and he's got this incredible sense of humor. It was no stress or pressure because I was not the front man. It wasn't my band, I just had to show up and play solos. The other thing was though that I knew I had a lot more to give. I wanted to write songs, I wanted to sing, I wanted to have a band and give my own direction. So after five years, I quit and started my own band. It was a tough decision, but I knew I had to give it a shot.
Do you have any good John Lee Hooker stories for us? What did you learn from him?
I don't know how much of it can be said in public [laughs]. I did learn playing spontaneously from him because one thing he would do, and you can hear him on his records, he would go in and make an entire album and he wouldn't even have songs written. He would just start making up words about whatever was happening to him that day. We would be at the studio playing some boogie lick and he'd be like, "I got stuck in traffic on my way here today" [laughs]. He made up songs spontaneously right there in the moment as it was happening. You had to watch him because you never knew what would happen. So that whole experience was a crash course on how to play spontaneously with other musicians.
From your perspective, how has the music business changed?
It's had a massive change in the last 10 years with the Internet and all that. In some ways it's a good thing and in some ways it's a bad thing. The cool thing is, now someone can make their own record with a computer and a good program. You can make a record in your living room that will sound pretty decent. Then you can use Facebook and those kinds of things to market it and create an own audience. Now music that would have normally never gotten a chance can be heard. Unlike when everything was just dominated by labels.
On the other hand, you get swamped with stuff and you really have to look through to find the good stuff. Record sales are dwindling too. It used to be we would go out on tour as a means of selling CDs. Now the CDs provide us a means to go out and play shows. So I really make my living playing live. Unless you're Madonna or somebody and can move that amount of CDs. So the CDs enable you to go out and play and have good crowds, so for somebody like me the touring is essential.
I keep touring. I do 200 cities a year. I'm one of the lucky ones because I love touring. But the business is in an incredible state of change and where it's going we just don't know. The illegal downloading just pisses me off. People say, "Oh, man, music should be free," and I'm like, "What you do for a living?" OK, you go upholster my car for free then. I have teenage sons and they'll be downloading stuff, pirating stuff and I look at them and go, "Hey, man, that's what I do for a living, that's how I feed you. Do not be stealing music from people."
For aspiring guitar players out there, if you could list a handful of the greatest bluesmen to learn from, who would they be?
I think you've got a go back to the three Kings -- B.B., Albert and Freddie. Start there, those three guys, that's the bible of blues guitar licks. Then there's Buddy Guy. The thing I love about him is he just throws caution to the wind and he just plays with this insane energy, passion and feeling. He has no worry at all about going over the top into what some people would call overplaying. To me that just means he's getting off. When people go, "He's overplaying," I go, "What do you mean overplaying? What do you mean too many notes?" Go tell John Coltrane he's playing too many notes. That's bullshit. As long as you mean every note, who cares?
Then there's a fellow named Roy Buchanan who I love. I got to sit around with him, and he showed me stuff on the guitar. An amazing guitar player, one of the greats. Then go back and hear early Michael Bloomfield, like the very first album by Paul Butterfield. If you listen to that and put it in the context of that coming out in 1965 and you listen to the way Bloomfield plays, it is groundbreaking. Way ahead of its time. Nobody played like that back then and it was before amps had overdrive. He just plugged into a Fender amp and turned it all the way up.
Then you've got to go to the really obvious ones like Jimi Hendrix and early Clapton. If you sit down and listen to those guys and work on trying to figure out some of the stuff, you'll find that everything they play has an emotional foundation to it. Those guys played from their heart.
And one little footnote here about Jimi Hendrix is that when I hear young guys come out and try to play Hendrix, they go over the top. They do fast things like sweep picking and all of this stuff and I think to myself, they need to go back and listen to Hendrix. He never even played fast. He's considered the greatest of all time and he never ever shredded and he never even played fast. If you listen to him in that context, it's all about phrasing, tone, innovation and incredibly deep commitment to every note that he plays. That's what comes through to me with Jimi. He played beautiful things.
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