Interview: Joe Walsh Discusses His Career, Gear and New Album, 'Analog Man'
Joe Walsh discusses his gear, his career and his new album, Analog Man, which is out today.
“The James Gang started out doing cover songs,” Walsh says. “And then the next thing for us was to do the beginning of a cover song and then do a five-minute jam in the middle that was different every night. And ‘Funk #49’ was actually a groove that we’d come up with — one of our tools that we would throw into the middle of cover songs. And finally we just wrote some words for it.”
Right from the James Gang’s emergence in 1968, Walsh seemed ahead of the game as a guitarist. He was hot-rodding amps and pickups in an era when that kind of in-depth manipulation of guitar tone was far from commonplace. How did he glom onto all that stuff in the era before the internet or even guitar magazines?
“I discovered amateur radio — ham radio — when I was about 12,” he says. “My parents moved from Ohio to New York City when I was about 11, and I went from vacant lots, BB gun wars, snowball fights and kick-the-can to being in a third-story, two-bedroom apartment in New York City. We moved in the summer.
“I had no friends, school wasn’t in yet, and there was a guy in the apartment building that had an antenna on the roof. I followed the wires to his window and knocked on that apartment’s front door. He let me in, and he was a ham radio operator. So that’s what I did the rest of the summer until school started. And I’ve been a ham-radio operator since 1961.
“Anyway, part of that was learning about electronics. So by the time I really got into guitars and stuff, I already had a basic knowledge of what was going on in terms of the signal — amps and how to fix them and how to tweak them. I’ve kind of always been like that. And I strongly feel that if you’re gonna be a guitar player, you should open yourself up and know about it. I firmly believe that makes you a better musician and a better guitar player.”
Walsh also got in early on what we now call the vintage guitar market. Touring around with the James Gang in the late Sixties and early Seventies, he had access to all kinds of bargains in out-of-the way places. It was a time when guitars from the Fifties and early Sixties commanded very modest prices, often less than the cost of a comparable new guitar.
“The fun for me,” Walsh says, “was being on the road and going to a little pawn shop or music store — not a big chain like Guitar Center but an actual little music store — and seeing what they had, and collecting guitars that way. And then opening them up to see why they sounded the way they did.”
But for all that, Walsh has never been much of a vintage snob. He has a much more utilitarian view of the instrument. “It doesn’t make sense to me to have an old Martin that’s valuable because it’s an old Martin, but the neck is so warped you can’t really play it,” he says. “Or you have a Fifties or early Sixties Stratocaster that you can’t take on the road anymore because it’s too valuable. I’ve never really gotten into collecting that way.”
This lack of preciousness about the instrument is one factor in Walsh’s easygoing ability to give valuable guitars away. Out on the road, friends like Jimmy Page and Pete Townshend came to him as readily as guitars. So why not lay a few axes on his pals?
“The James Gang opened for Led Zeppelin a couple times right at the end of the Yardbirds when Led Zeppelin was together,” Walsh recounts. “Before their first album really hit, they came over and played shows. It was Jimmy Page’s new band. So I started a friendship with him at that time.
“A little bit after that, when the first album really took off, Jimmy was still playing the Telecasters that he played in the Yardbirds. He was looking for a Les Paul and asked if I knew of any, ’cause he couldn’t find one that he liked. And I had two. So I kept the one I liked the most, and I flew to New York with the other one. I laid it on him and said, ‘Try this out.’ He really liked it. So I gave him a really good deal, about 1,200 bucks. I had to hand-carry it; I flew there and everything.
“So whatever my expenses were, that’s what I charged him. That guitar ended up being a significant part of Led Zeppelin’s body of work. But again, I just thought he should have a Les Paul, for godsakes!”
That 1959 Les Paul Standard, Page’s beloved Number One guitar, would go on to forge a considerable chunk of rock history. One thing about the instrument that especially attracted Page was its relatively slim neck contour. Walsh had had the neck shaved by Virgil Lay of Lay’s Guitars in Akron, Ohio.
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