Although Music Man CEO Sterling Ball has spent most of his adult life building a brand, the guitar has always played a important role in his own personal development.
There’s also a deep, mutual love and respect that exists between Ball and the artists his company serves. That’s probably why, after word got out that Ball was working on an album of his own, guitarists like Steve Morse, Steve Lukather, Steve Vai and John Petrucci were eager to join in.
The resulting compilation, The Mutual Admiration Society, is an eclectic mixture of songs and tasty guitar work done in a way only the best of friends can do. In addition to showcasing Ball’s own impressive guitar virtuosity, the album also allowed the guest guitarists to step outside the box of what they're known for, and explore other areas of their musicality.
Whether it’s Morse’s fretwork on the Dobie Gray classic, “The In Crowd,” Steve Lukather’s Delta Blues version of “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” John Petrucci’s Disney medley or Steve Vai’s rendition of the Jimmy Gilmer and The Fireballs’ hit, “Sugar Shack” (one of Vai’s favorite songs as a youth), Mutual Admiration Society is a record of appreciation and admiration for both the instrument as well as each other.
Guitar World recently spoke with Ball about The Mutual Admiration Society and more in this new interview.
How did the The Mutual Admiration Society come about?
Over the years, I’ve toured Australia with Steve Morse and Albert [Lee]. We’ve also played in England and Germany and done club gigs as a combo in places like L.A. and Atlanta with Luke [Steve Lukather]. It was fun and low key, but I always kept the idea of doing an album on the back burner because I didn’t want to present myself in any way as a peer.
A few years ago, I did an album called Better Late Than Never. Everyone was very supportive of it and gave me confidence. So, I asked John Ferraro (drummer) about doing another album—just him and me. We got some of the basics together and I played them for Steve Morse. Steve really liked it and gave me advice for some things to try. I later sent him back the updates and the song, “The In Crowd.” He said, "You know? I really love that groove. It’s something I’ve never been able to play on since we were in our band." I said, “Steve, what are you asking?” and he said, “Can I put the guitars on that track?” [laughs]. There went the idea of doing a record with the drummer. You don’t say no when Steve Morse asks to put guitars on your track!
I talk to Luke just about every morning and one day he called me and said, “Hey, Morse told me about the record you’re working on. I want to play on it too.” Then came [John] Petrucci, who said, “Hey, I don’t want to be the one left out.”
How would you describe The Mutual Admiration Society?
It’s an album of fun songs with good grooves and solos. The kind of music you play when you're jamming in a garage when you aren’t worried about pleasing a demographic. Songs that happen when you're just making music with friends. I still remember when Vai picked his song. He said, “There’s something I’ve always wanted to play on that I can't do on my own. If I give it to you, will you cut it?” That was “Sugar Shack." In Petrucci’s case, we already knew what Disney songs to do, but had no idea going in how he was going to interpret them or what the arrangements would be like.
I’d like to ask you about a few of the guests on the album and get your thoughts on them. What comes to mind when I say, “Steve Lukather”?
Passionate. Fiery. Expressive. Smooth. Steve can back a singer and play the most inspired, off-the-cuff solo you can imagine. He's the most un-sterile guitarist I know and an incredible force of nature.
I remember when I first played with Steve years ago. I walked off the stage and said to him, “You play from a different corner of the school yard” [laughs]. His phrasing isn’t where you'd expect it to be and its perfect. It’s like he’s possessed, and it really shows in his articulation.
Dream Theater is a perfectly beautiful, genre-defining band, but you really get to see just how deep of a musician John is on this record. Technically, I don't know if there's anyone who can match him. He has such a musical mind as well as the command to play it.
Steve has the love of so many genres, and along with that love comes an authentic and natural feel. Whether it’s his chicken pickin’, harmonics, solos or vibrato, you're talking about a guy who’s backed [Luciano] Pavarotti with a classical guitar, played at Carnegie Hall and has been in Deep Purple for years. Each one of these guys was born with a gift they discovered at a very early age.
What satisfies you the most about the Mutual Admiration Society?
Two things. First, that it wasn’t planned. This was an album from the heart and is not at all what you’d expect. It’s a different side to these artists, both in terms of musical performance and soloing. The other thing that satisfies me is that I was able to hold my own. I remember something Steve Vai told me. He said, “There’s no more self-depreciation. You’re one of the most intriguing guitarists that I listen to. You should never hide the fact that you’re a musician.”
James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.