Interview: Guitarist Walter Trout Discusses His New Album, 'Blues For The Modern Daze'
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.
Dave Reffett is a Berklee College of Music graduate and has worked with some of the best players in rock and metal. He is an instructor at (and the head of) the Hard Rock and Heavy Metal department at The Real School of Music in the metro Boston area. He also is a master clinician and a highly-in-demand private guitar teacher. He teaches lessons in person and worldwide via Skype. As an artist and performer, he is working on some soon-to-be revealed high-profile projects with A-list players in rock and metal. In 2009, he formed the musical project Shredding The Envelope and released the critically acclaimed album The Call Of The Flames. Dave also is an official artist endorsee for companies like Seymour Duncan, Gibson, Eminence and Esoterik Guitars, which in 2011 released a Dave Reffett signature model guitar, the DR-1. Dave has worked in the past at Sanctuary Records and Virgin Records, where he promoting acts like The Rolling Stones, Janet Jackson, Korn and Meat Loaf.
Dave Reffett headshot photo by Yolanda Sutherland