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Brian Baker: “This whole journey is based on right place, right time and luck – I didn’t realize I was a professional musician until I’d been one for 20 years”

Brian Baker
(Image credit: Skyler Barberio)

“This whole journey is based on right place, right time, and luck, for the most part,” says Bad Religion guitarist Brian Baker about playing music for a living. “I didn’t realize I was a professional musician until I’d been one for 20 years.”

That may come as a shock to fans who have followed Baker through his time with punk legends Minor Threat and Dag Nasty, as well as the underrated late-'80s L.A. sleaze-rock band Junkyard. But it wasn’t until he landed his current gig with the O.G. SoCal punk crew that he was able to give up his day job.

“In Junkyard [who were signed to Geffen Records], I think we got a thousand bucks a month for a while there,” he says, “and that was just from stupidly selling our publishing and merchandise rights. Just being drunk and dumb and in your early 20s. I didn’t realize I was a professional, doing-it-for-a-living-guy until I was in Bad Religion for a little while.”

Baker could argue that his career began as early as age 12, when he was thrust onstage at a Santana concert in Detroit. He and some friends had scored backstage passes, and when Baker, then a budding guitar player, walked past a room full of guitars, he picked up one and started playing. Some members of Santana’s crew saw him, and during the band’s encore a roadie handed him a guitar and ushered him out of the wings.

“I’m standing in the middle of the stage in the spotlight, and Carlos Santana comes to me and goes, ‘What’s your name?’ Like, ‘Oh, Brian.’ And he walks me to the front. I got this guitar on. It’s live. And he says in the mic, ‘This is my friend Brian!’ They start playing Black Magic Woman, and I just remember kind of noodling along. I know I found the key, whatever it was, and was playing my child solos.”

Perhaps more remarkable, though, has been Baker’s ability to adapt his guitar playing to the dozen or so bands he’s performed and recorded with during his career, although he’s prone to deflect. “I basically have played the same way in every band, because I’m not that complicated,” he deadpans, brushing off the suggestion. “I don’t really know much more than what I do, which is minor pentatonic scales that sound like Gary Rossington. I mean, not even Allen Collins.”

Baker’s right hand earns his keep in Bad Religion, crunching speedy riffs with precision and dexterity, while his left guides the eight-bar eruptions of “ridiculous metal solos” he often plays between verses. It’s easy to overlook that he had the job backing Peter Buck in R.E.M. for their amped-up Monster tour in 1995. 

Before rehearsals started, though, Bad Religion called with an offer he couldn’t turn down: instead of being a hired-gun utility guy, he would be a full member of the band. The choice was easy, even if the call he had to make wasn’t.

“[It was] horrible because I love R.E.M.,” he says. “They were totally cool about it, and I found the guy that they wound up taking. It was cool. It worked out well for everybody.”

Baker grew up worshipping primal players like Angus and Malcolm Young of AC/DC after being weaned on the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. As a teenager in 1980, hard rock coexisted with punk, at least in the insular Washington, D.C., scene. It wasn’t uncommon to listen to Van Halen and punk rockers like Discharge back to back. 

The range of styles he grew up on informed the melodic tendencies he brought to hardcore punk in Dag Nasty, while his shit-kicking roots came to the fore in Junkyard. In the latter, Geffen paired Baker and the boys with A-list producers Tom Werman and Ed Stasium for albums in ’88 and ’90, respectively, and landed them the opening slot on a run of arenas and amphitheaters for a resurgent, reunion-era Lynyrd Skynyrd. Still, the stardom enjoyed by other L.A. bands eluded them.

“We were ugly [and] dirty. [Our music] was like Motörhead meets Skynyrd,” he says. “If you’re listening to the XM hair-metal stations and one of our songs drops in between Winger and Dokken, it sounds like a whole ’nother life form.”

One of Junkyard’s lasting contributions to hard rock was passing the baton to the Black Crowes by giving them their first national tour, a six-week run across the U.S. 

“It was fortunate that our audience didn’t realize how much better the Black Crowes were than we were until after the tour was over,” he laughs. “It wasn’t that classic ‘Guns N’ Roses blowing Aerosmith off the stage’ thing – we still held our own. Just time proved that the Robinson brothers were actually incredible songwriters, and that their band was real and they knew what they were doing.”

Stepping into an established band for the first time in Bad Religion, Baker staked out a spot somewhere between playing the songs note-for-note and improvising his own parts. “I refined my rhythm playing a little bit because they were stylistically a little different than I was,” he says. 

When it came to replicating guitar solos originally performed by Brett Gurewitz, whom Baker replaced but has since rejoined, he took a different approach. “If one had a melody line you could hum, I would attach myself to the melody line, but then I would go other places because Brett is really more of a stylist. He does a lot of noisy, artistic stuff that I was just not able to reproduce. So I would throw in my own, like, Billy Squier riff instead of whatever he was doing.”

While he’s reliably coy about his own guitar playing, Baker is enthusiastic about gear, and vintage gear in particular. On the road, he takes two of his three ’55 Gibson Les Paul Juniors, both of which were refretted and loaded with ceramic Seymour Duncan pickups, while he keeps a “clean” ’55 Junior and a ’57 Special at home for safekeeping. He’s not strictly a Gibson guy, though; he has Telecasters and Tele-type Nash T Series guitars in his collection, as well as Strats and Jazzmasters. 

“When you want a guitar to sound like a Jazzmaster, why not have a Jazzmaster? It’s a tool,” he says. “I’m not known for playing Rickenbackers, but I sure as shit have a 330 [and] a 360 12 [-string], because you have to, because that’s the sound.”

Baker says he was late to the collecting game and only started acquiring instruments a decade ago, after prices shot up when Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day traded his Fernandes S-style “Blue” for an LP Junior. 

“My friend Jonny [‘Two Bags’ Wickersham] in Social Distortion, I hate him,” he jokes. “He got a ’58 TV model for like $1,100, and he has a bunch of Juniors that were thousand-dollar guitars. He’s got a ’54 Goldtop that I think was like $1,200. You just want to kill people like that, because he’s hanging out in Social Distortion playing a $30,000 guitar. I love him.”

With amplifiers, though, Baker is monogamous. His ’89 horizontal-input Marshall JCM 800, which he bought new while in Junkyard, is still his go-to amp. Even after Chris DeMakes of Less Than Jake convinced him to get a pair of Kemper profiling amps to take on tour, he stuck by the sound of his JCM. “It’s just the perfect amp – it’s that good Marshall,” he says. “And that one profile is still the one thing that’s in each Kemper I have, and the only thing. I use just that profile of my own head.”

When he’s not banging out riffs in Bad Religion, Baker keeps his gear in working order playing with bands that aren’t so much side projects as they are punk-rock supergroups. Fake Names, which put out an eponymous album in 2020, pairs Baker with members of S.O.A., Embrace, Girls Against Boys and Soulside, fronted by Dennis Lyxzén of Refused; he also recently formed Beach Rats with members of Jersey punks Lifetime and the Bouncing Souls.

“[Fake Names] sounds a little like late-'70s U.K., but it’s not new wave, and it’s got some classic rock elements,” he says, before getting in one more jab of self-deprecation: “No one’s trying. There’s no focus. It’s just a bunch of guys who’ve known each other forever getting in a room and seeing what sticks. That’s how everything starts when you first start playing music. And it’s such a pleasure to be able to do it now at my advanced age.”

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Jim Beaugez has written about music for Rolling Stone, Smithsonian, Guitar World, Guitar Player and many other publications. He created My Life in Five Riffs, a multimedia documentary series for Guitar Player that traces contemporary artists back to their sources of inspiration, and previously spent a decade in the musical instruments industry.