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.
“Virgil’s a legend among people who knew him,” Walsh says. “Lay’s Guitars would become known for Stay In Tune strings — S.I.T. And he was best friends with Mike Battle, who invented the Echoplex. Virgil was the guy that, if you had a crack in your neck, you’d go there and he’d repair it. Or he would fix violins and stuff.
"He’s kind of a master luthier, with a wood shop and all. So I had Virgil shave the neck of that Les Paul a little. It was a big, fat neck originally, and I didn’t like that. And I think the shaved neck is what Jimmy liked about the guitar. It was kind of a custom neck on a Les Paul.”
It was during the same period that Walsh gave Pete Townshend the 1959 Gretsch 6120 and Fender Bandmaster amp that became the cornerstones of the powerhouse sound he forged on the Who’s landmark album, Who’s Next. To the best of Walsh’s recollection, the Gretsch came from an acoustic guitar shop in Columbus, Ohio, across the street from the World Theater, where the James Gang would often perform. But it was during his time in Europe that Walsh first got friendly with Townshend.
“The James Gang opened for the Who when they performed Tommy in England and in Europe for the first time,” he remembers. “So Pete and I started hanging out. After Tommy, he was playing a Gibson SG and Hiwatt amps. That was his vehicle to present and perform Tommy.
“But he was kind of stuck in that, and I think he wanted to move on. So I figured, Well, a Bigsby should fuck him up pretty good! And that Gretsch was a great guitar. I always found that with an old Gretsch with a Bigsby, when you sit down with it, there are songs in there that will come out that you wouldn’t write without that guitar. And I’m kind of superstitious that way. So I gave him my 6120 and a 3x10 Bandmaster, an old Fender amp that I had. And said, ‘Here.’ And Who’s Next is that.”
Despite the moderate level of success that the James Gang achieved with tracks like “Funk #49,” and “Walk Away,” Walsh decided to leave the band in 1971 and strike off in more of a solo direction. Moving to Colorado, he formed the group Barnstorm, although the band’s recording would be credited to Walsh as a solo artist.
“When I left the James Gang, I wanted a fresh start,” he says. “I didn’t want to stay in Cleveland, where I’d been. Bill Szymczyk, who produced the James Gang and a bunch of other stuff, was in Colorado. So I went there and started the Barnstorm days. Nobody really understood why I quit the James Gang, because we were doing really well, but I didn’t want to be in a three-piece rock and roll band anymore. I thought I was painting myself in a corner, in terms of being a musician. And I wasn’t really crazy about being a grandparent of heavy metal!”
The first release under this new arrangement, 1972’s Barnstorm, didn’t exactly set the world on fire. But the follow-up, 1973’s The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get, became ubiquitous on Seventies FM “Album Rock” radio, buoyed by the signature track “Rocky Mountain Way.”
“That song was just about, ‘Okay, it’s gonna work that I left the James Gang to pursue a solo career,’” Walsh says. “That line, ‘The Rocky Mountain way is better than the way we had’ — it was like, ‘This will be all right after all. It’s not the end of Joe Walsh.’ I didn’t know if it would be or not, but I had to take a shot.”
The track was also a showcase for Walsh’s distinctive slide guitar style, something that would become a key element of his work from that point forward. “Duane Allman had showed me open E tuning and given me a Corcidin bottle, the glass bottle slide that he used,” Walsh says. “So I had been practicing slide guitar for a long time. And ‘Rocky Mountain Way’ was really my coming out song on slide, having learned all that Duane taught me and practiced for a year. That was my ‘Hey, I play slide too!’ song.”
While Walsh started his slide journey with a Corcidin bottle — a receptacle for Corcidin cough syrup, infamous for its potential misuse as a narcotic — he had moved on to a chrome slide to record “Rocky Mountain Way,” applying it to an open-tuned Les Paul through a tweed Fender Champ amp. A consummate slide stylist, his choice of slide materials varies according to the tone he’s after.
“The glass slides are my favorite for George Harrison-y stuff,” he says. “You get the best tone with a glass slide. It’s very sweet. But for harder edged stuff, when you gotta cut above another Les Paul, a big metal slide is the way to go.”
“Rocky Mountain Way” also popularized another key piece of guitar gear: the talk box. Later mass-produced by Bob Heil as the Heil Talk Box, this device would become prevalent in Seventies guitar rock, adopted by everyone from Jeff Beck to Peter Frampton. But on “Rocky Mountain Way,” Walsh played what is arguably the first talk box ever.
“I was friends with Dottie West, the country singer, and her family,” he explains. “And any time the James Gang played Nashville, we’d go over to Dottie’s. A bunch of songwriters and people like Chet Atkins would come over and we’d pass the guitar around and everybody would have a play. It was a traditional Nashville kind of a thing. And Dottie’s husband was Bill West, a great pedal-steel player but also an inventor.
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