Smithereens 11: Guitarist Jim Babjak Breaks Down 11 Essential Smithereens Tracks
Guitar World's Damian Fanelli asked longtime Smithereens guitarist Jim Babjak to dissect 11 key songs from the band's impressive catalog.
Below, Babjak discusses the guitars and amps he and singer/guitarist Pat DiNizio used on "Blood and Roses," "Behind the Wall of Sleep" and "A Girl Like You" -- straight through to their recent single, 2011's "Sorry."
Babjak's descriptions also put the songs in context, providing an insider's view into what many still feel is New Jersey's greatest rock band.
From 2011 (2011, eOne Entertainment)
In October 2010, The Smithereens reunited with producer Don Dixon to record our latest album, 2011. It had been 16 years since we last worked with him on our 1994 RCA album, A Date With the Smithereens. We traveled down to North Carolina and recorded the basic tracks for 2011 at Mitch Easter's Fidelitorium studio.
I was told he had some vintage equipment I could use, so all I brought with me was my '52 reissue Telecaster. I played through something called a Carr Mercury amplifier. I'd never heard of it before, but I liked the sound, so I went with it for most of the basic tracks.
All the overdubs were done in [singer/guitarist] Pat [DiNizio]'s living room in January at his New Jersey home. I would come in at night and play through an amp simulator that Don Dixon had made himself. Pat's mom was sleeping in the next room, so I only heard myself through headphones. Pat used a Robert Johnson Gibson acoustic on the rhythm track, and I used the Telecaster throughout.
I'm proud to say that "Sorry" was included in Little Steven's Underground Garage's Top 10 as the coolest song of the year for 2011!
From The Smithereens Play Tommy (2009, eOne Entertainment)
[Drummer] Dennis [Diken] and I used to play songs from The Who's Tommy and Live at Leeds during the 1973-'75 period, when we would practice in my parents' garage in Carteret, New Jersey. Songs by The Who were always fun to play, and I even started doing those Pete Townshend windmills. I used to proudly show everyone the blood stains on the ceiling!
What I learned from Pete is how to play guitar in an aggressive style and also in a gentle manor. Passion is something that comes from within you, but I think that after you play Who songs on the guitar, it has to have passion to work. It's as if you're channeling Pete's passion naturally because of the way the songs are structured.
I think it is impossible to play the strumming on "Pinball Wizard" without playing full out because it's so fast and it's on an acoustic guitar, so you can't fake it! Try playing along with the album and you'll see. When I was a 14-year-old kid, I forced myself to keep up, and it made me a better rhythm player. "Amazing Journey"/"Sparks" is a perfect example of this soft/loud playing.
For this recording, I start out playing the song just using my fingers while in the middle pickup position and then I switch to treble and use a pick throughout the rest of the song. It's pretty much one guitar throughout the track except when I added the backward stuff and some strengthening parts during the "Sparks" section. I decided to cop the Live at Leeds version of "Sparks" rather then the Tommy studio version only because I find it more fun to play. It's a dynamic song and one of my favorites.
I borrowed a 1970s Goldtop Les Paul with P90 pickups from Kristin Pinell of The Gripweeds for 90 percent of the album, using a 100-watt Marshall 800. It is used exclusively on this track.
From Green Thoughts (1988, Enigma/Capitol Records)
The first two days of the Green Thoughts sessions were dedicated to recording the basic tracks for the entire album and concentrating on keeper takes for the bass and drums. The guitars and vocals were re-recorded later with the proper amps and microphones.
I arrived in the studio early one day and our producer, Don Dixon, suggested we start without the other guys. I wasn't really clear on how the song "Something New" should sound. I think the band had a dirtier guitar sound in mind, but when I picked up Pat's late-'50s Lime Green Gretsch, I had to use that sound for the rhythm part. The tone was just so clean and pretty, it fit the track like an old shoe.
I always liked the way Buddy Holly used the bottom two strings in harmony like on his song "Heartbeat," so I took that approach for the solo. After I played the part on the bottom two strings, we decided something was missing. Don suggested I play a counter melody on the top string on another track to give it more depth. It worked really well, and the song is a real standout, adding a nice variety to the album.
"Time and Time Again"
From Especially for You (1986, Enigma/Capitol Records)
"Time and Time Again" is the first song we ever recorded. The 1980 version appears on our rarities album, Attack of the Smithereens. I used a 1971 Stratocaster through a Music Man amp for that one.
The early take is very charming, and I like it a lot. It was my first time in a recording studio and I was playing it very safe. That would soon change as my playing became more aggressive.
A few years later I made a trade with my younger brother: his 1972 Rickenbacker for my 1971 Stratocaster. The Rick became my main guitar till 1988, and I still use it to this day at select shows. In 1985 I used that same Burgundy Red Rickenbacker on most of our first album and it's very noticeable on this track. It's got a slightly dirty tone achieved through the Marshall, but it still jangles in certain spots of the song.
I'm especially proud of the ending guitar bit. We recorded the bass, drums and guitar live. I was standing right next to Dennis Diken and was feeding off the energy of his drumming. I didn't even hear the bass because I wasn't wearing headphones. I was on auto pilot. I didn't know what I was going to play at the end because I was told it was going to be a fade, so I didn't plan anything. It was really spontaneous.
I don't know why I threw in that Dick Dale "Pipeline" lick going down and then back up the neck, but it worked. Don Dixon was producing, and when we finished tracking, he said, "That's a keeper!"
"Blood and Roses"
From Especially for You (1986, Enigma/Capitol Records)
"Blood and Roses" was one of six new songs we recorded at the NYC Record Plant in 1985. Our plan was to shop the finished tapes to all the major/minor labels and hope to beat the odds. After five years of going nowhere playing bars and clubs, we felt we were ready to move ahead.
I was really excited to be in a real big studio where gold records hung on the wall. People like John Lennon, Aerosmith, Kiss, Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie all recorded there. The list was amazing!
After we completed the recordings, we submitted these songs to practically every label out there and were rejected by all except for a small label in California called Enigma. Don Dixon, who had engineered the first two R.E.M. records, was selected to produce our first album. We touched up the songs that were in the can and recorded another batch to fill out the album at the Record Plant. It took one week and about $6,000 to finish the record.
I used my 1972 Burgundy-Glo 6-string Rickenbacker through a 100-watt Marshall 800 series amplifier. I took that guitar on the road for the next three years all throughout the US and Europe.
One night in Kalamazoo, Michigan, during the first tour, I broke the neck right off where it's attached to the body. Our road crew scrambled to find a guy that night to have it glued back on for the following show. Amazingly, it plays better than ever to this day!
By the way, my brother pointed out to me that if I'd had any music theory training, I never would have come up with that guitar solo. Apparently, I'm playing notes from a major scale in a song with minor chords. I put a lot of emotion into that solo, and the fact that I had four beers right before I recorded the part might have had something to do with it.
"A Girl Like You"
From Smithereens 11 (1989, Capitol Records)
Our lead singer/songwriter, Pat DiNizio, originally wrote the song for Cameron Crowe's film Say Anything. Madonna was going to sing the harmony vocals, but she backed out of it on the day of tracking. But these are all stories for another day. In the end, it didn't matter.
Our first two albums were more successful than I'd ever imagined, and the band's playing was really tight from being on the road for the better part of three years. Confidence was high. We all had a hopeful feeling that this was going to be a hit song.
Our live sound got heavier and louder by 1989, and we wanted to capture that vibe on our next LP, Smithereens 11. The title of the album was inspired by the Rat Pack film Ocean's 11, with a little push from Spinal Tap's famous line, "This one goes to 11," which was a tour bus favorite.
We hired Ed Stasium to produce the album, partly because he engineered the early Ramones albums and it didn't hurt that he was from New Jersey, like us. We used Rumbo Recorders in San Fernando Valley, California, for the overdubs. Guns N' Roses were originally booked to record in the studio but decided to postpone their session, so we jumped right into the open time slot.
I didn't own many guitars and I knew I needed a Gibson for this track. Luckily, there was a music shop near the studio where I picked up a used 1973 Les Paul with DiMarzio pickups. It had a thick and heavy sound, exactly what I needed.
Ed had me play the rhythm part exactly the same way on four separate tracks to get that sound. I'm pretty sure I used a 100-watt 800 series Marshall, which is my standard go-to amp. Pat played the harmony guitar along with me on the last part of the solo, probably using his Fender Stratocaster.
For the 11 tour and the TV performances on Saturday Night Live and the The Arsenio Hall Show featuring "A Girl Like You," I decided to use my 1987 Gibson SG out of convenience. I didn't want to bring the Les Paul on the road.
To confuse people even more, I used a 1988 Tuxedo Rickenbacker for the MTV-aired video of the song! People used to ask me, "How did you get that sound out of a Rickenbacker?" I would just say, "Plug it into a Marshall and turn it up to 11!" Now you know the truth: It was a Les Paul through a Marshall 800 with the master volume on 3 and the Pre-Amp on 8, quadruple tracked.
"Only a Memory"
From Green Thoughts (1988, Capitol Records)
"Only a Memory" was the lead-off single from our second album, Green Thoughts. I remember Pat coming up with the riff during a sound check in Madrid at the end of our first tour. We played it over and over again till we had a good groove going. When we got home, Pat started writing the demos for the new album and then we all worked together on the arrangements in a rehearsal studio. This whole process took only two weeks!
Don Dixon was called in again to produce and Jim Ball to engineer. It was the same team that worked on our first album in NYC, but this time we used the studio in the iconic Capitol Tower in Hollywood; it's that landmark round building that looks like a stack of records. It was a great experience to work there. Dennis and I even snuck up on the roof one night to take some pictures until a security guard found out and asked us to come down. The whole album, including B-sides, took us about two weeks to record in December 1987.
We had a bigger budget this time, so we were able to buy some new guitars. I used my new 1987 Gibson SG for the rhythm and solo. It had standard humbuckers and I played it through a 100-watt Marshall 800 series amplifier.
Pat played the riff on his new 1987 Fender Stratocaster, which was a reissue of the Sunburst 1957 Buddy Holly guitar. He installed DiMarzio Super Distortion humbucking pickups in the treble position, which also enabled him to record that cool feedback at the tail end of the song. He went through his 60-watt 1975 Boogie amp. It was one of the very first Boogie amps produced (serial No. 74) when they were still building them by hand out of a garage in California.
In the video for MTV, I used a new 1988 White Tuxedo Rickenbacker. I thought it was the coolest-looking guitar at the time and I used it for most of the Green Thoughts tour.
I gave that guitar to the Hard Rock Cafe in Hollywood in 1991, but I don't think it's there anymore -- and I have no idea where it is. If you see the movie L.A. Story with Steve Martin and Sarah Jessica Parker, you can see the guitar above their heads in a scene that was shot at the Hard Rock.
"Behind the Wall of Sleep"
From Especially for You (1986, Enigma/Capitol Records)
"Behind the Wall of Sleep" was the second radio single off our first album in 1986. I still get emails from people telling me they purchased a Rickenbacker because I played one in the video.
I used my '72 Rickenbacker on most of the early recording sessions, but on this track I had borrowed a black Les Paul that was lying around in the studio. I can't remember who it belonged to, but it was just right for the rhythm track. I did play the Rickenbacker for the guitar solo, because the combination of both guitars worked well together.
I never meant to deceive anyone by using the Rickenbacker in the video. We were still on the road when we filmed it, and I had to use the guitar because I only owned two at the time. The other one was a black Rickenbacker 12-string. As we started to film more videos for MTV, I kept using Rickenbackers because by that time, we had built a relationship with the company and were endorsing them.
Part of it was also perception. I always loved the way a Rickenbacker looked. Of course, anyone who saw us in concert back then witnessed all the songs played on my Burgundy Rickenbacker through a I00-watt Marshall. It was just as powerful live.
"House We Used To Live In"
From The Smithereens Live In Concert! (2008, eOne Entertainment)
A proper Smithereens live album was long overdue. After considering other possible venues, we chose to record three nights at the Court Tavern in New Brunswick, New Jersey. We charged only $5 for admission, the same price as when we used to play there in the early '80s. There's no doubt the Court Tavern was our Cavern Club, so it was a natural choice.
Kurt Reil from the House of Vibes brought in his portable studio equipment to record all three nights and later mixed the best performances in his studio.
"House We Used to Live In" always had an extended ending for live shows, but this particular night it clocked in much longer at 11 minutes. When I thought I was about to wrap up the jam at what is now the halfway point, Pat pulled out a harmonica. This surprise added a whole new dimension and I was thrilled when I heard the results. The chemistry between the four of us was really strong that night. Luckily, this spontaneous jam was captured on tape.
I used my 1952 reissue Telecaster through a I00-watt Marshall 800. I love this combination when I'm on the road because the Telecaster travels well and is versatile. I can get a nice crunch at top volume, and by using the different pickup positions and volume knob I can get exactly what I need. It's not a fussy guitar and I do beat the crap out of it.
"Now and Then"
From Blow Up (1991, Capitol Records)
I always wanted to write a song specifically for a 12-string Rickenbacker, and this was the song. We recorded the basic tracks at A&M Studios and overdubs at Brooklyn Studios, both in Hollywood. The A&M location was originally Charlie Chaplin's film complex; now it's Jim Henson's studio. It was conveniently located across the street form Pink's hot dog stand, where I used to enjoy a midnight snack.
Brooklyn studio was on Beverly Boulevard and owned by our then-manager, Freddy DeMann, who also managed Madonna at that time.
Ironically, I didn't own a 12-string then. I gave my original 1980 12-string to my brother, so I borrowed Pat's George Harrison model 360/12 Rickenbacker. I ended up getting one for myself after the sessions.
I used my Gibson SG for the solo and on the backwards stuff at the end because there was a lot of string bending going on. There's a pretty cool live version of the song on YouTube from The Dennis Miller Show in 1991. For the TV show, I used a blonde maple neck 660/12.
A fond memory I have from the recording session is of Saul Bass and his lovely wife visiting me in the studio while I was working on this song. Saul did the artwork for our Blow Up album cover. You should Google him and see why he was a leader in the graphics world, designing movie posters and corporate logos, among other things. I loved hearing his stories, and he was a genuinely great guy to be around.
"Love Is Gone" (Demo)
From The Music from Jim Babjak's Buzzed Meg Part 1 (2001, Tex Remy Music)
By 1993, I was becoming prolific with my songwriting, and, as fate would have it, we were dropped by Capitol Records just as I was gaining stride with a lot of new material. Most of these songs ended up on my first solo album years later.
This recording of "Love Is Gone" was the original demo I presented to the band for possible inclusion on our next album, which ended up being RCA Records' A Date With the Smithereens.
We recorded the new version at the Magic Shop in New York City in 1994. This demo version was recorded at Tracks East in South River, New Jersey, in 1993. I used my 1973 Les Paul through a 100-watt Marshall 800 and later used the same setup for the version on the RCA album. I also played bass on the demo using my Rickenbacker Black Star. I think there were only 200 made, and if I'm not mistaken, I have the last one (No. 200).
The difference between the two versions was leaving out the fourth verse and adding a solo. I rarely add solos to my demos, almost never. That's because I like to keep it fresh for the final version.