Originally published in Guitar World, Holiday 2009
Blues-rocker George Thorogood talks about his influences, hits and
slide style, and delivers the lowdown on his bandʼs latest album, The Dirty Dozen.
"Like any other band, we’re just trying to get new and exciting material in the show so we can keep going as long as we can,” says guitarist, singer and Blues Hall of Fame inductee George Thorogood. He’s referring to the songs on his band’s latest offering, The Dirty Dozen (Capitol/EMI). The album features the blues-rocker’s trademark poignantly gruff, muscular vocals and guitar playing on six new studio recordings and rereleases of six fan favorites, including three rare tracks that were previously out of print in the U.S. The record also marks his return to Capitol/EMI, where he found his greatest success in 1982 with the album Bad to the Bone.
In addition to being offered on CD and as a digital download, The Dirty Dozen is available on vinyl exclusively from georgethorogood.com and at the band’s live shows. Thorogood says, “I’m a big fan of vinyl, and it was important to me personally to make this album available in that format to those who want it. When we were sequencing the track list, I thought it would be fun to group the songs like you would for an LP, with the new recordings on side one and the rereleased tracks on side two.”
Renowned as “the world’s greatest bar band,” George Thorogood and the Destroyers have enjoyed great commercial success for more than 30 years. Since releasing its self-titled debut album in 1977, the band has become a powerful force on the blues-rock scene, having toured and performed with many of the blues world’s most legendary artists, including Hound Dog Taylor, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley, Albert Collins and Buddy Guy. Thorogood and his group have earned legions of fans across the globe and continue to be a big draw on the blues-rock touring circuit thanks in great part to their many enduring FM rock radio hits from the late Seventies and early Eighties. Those include souped-up covers of Hooker’s “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer,” Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” and Hank Williams Sr.’s “Move It on Over,” as well as Thorogood’s own composition “I Drink Alone” and his signature song, “Bad to the Bone.”
Most of the tunes Thorogood covers on The Dirty Dozen were originally penned by a who’s-who of American blues legends, including Diddley, Muddy Waters, “Sleepy” John Estes, Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon. Thorogood says, “The tune that everybody seems to be making a big fuss over is ‘Tail Dragger,’ which was written by Willie Dixon and covered previously by Howlin’ Wolf.” Also featured on the album are Wolf’s “Howlin’ for My Baby” and “Highway 49,” which feature Thorogood’s signature scorching slide playing in open G tuning (low to high, D G D G B D). The guitarist adds, “There’s also a kind of rock and roll version of ‘Six Days on the Road’ [an early Sixties radio hit that has since become a popular trucker theme song], which has been covered by everybody. I just figured I’d throw my hat into the ring, as it were, and add some slide guitar to it.”
GUITAR WORLD You seem pretty pumped about the new record.
GEORGE THOROGOOD It feels like a homecoming for me to be back with Capitol/EMI. This album is a real rocker, full of songs we’ve always loved playing live, including some that our fans have told us they like a lot but haven’t been available for a while. We’re definitely going to be playing some of these songs on tour. I’m ready to mix it up and crank it up.
GW Who were some of your formative musical influences?
THOROGOOD I started out as an acoustic blues player and was initially influenced by guitarists like Brownie McGhee, Mississippi Fred McDowell and John Hammond. They were all solo performers with acoustic guitars, and they all played in this fingerpicking style with a thumbpick and fingerpicks, usually in open tunings. I believe Bonnie Raitt started out that way, as an acoustic bottleneck slide player, before she went electric. That kind of style was very much in vogue in the late Sixties and early Seventies. And then I got into Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and all the great Mississippi Delta bluesmen that played that way.
When I later switched to electric guitar and formed a band, I retained that same kind of acoustic approach, using a thumbpick and one fingerpick. For guidance, I instinctively set out to do what all the masters had done before me and began to check out my favorite electric players’ influences, and their influences, and their influences. I thought, If Keith Richards listened to Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, then so should I, so I did that. I then investigated who they were influenced by, and people would say Muddy Waters and Elmore James, so I checked them out. Then I asked, “Well, who did they listen to,” and people would say Robert Johnson, and that’s where I had to stop, because now we were getting back to the dawn of the recording industry and, unfortunately, Johnson’s influences predated that. So I kind of went backward to go forward.
I also listened to country pickers, people who played in a fingerpicking style in country bands. I listened to a lot of [Lester] Flatt and [Earl] Scruggs, who were real country players. I’m not talking about “country and western” and that whole marketable style—I’m talking about players who couldn’t afford electric instruments for the longest time and would just sit on their porches with these big acoustic boxes, picking out these rhythms and styles and trying to project without any amplification. So I just assumed that this is how it’s done, long before flatpicking and the electric guitar become the dominant, popular approach and style.
GW What prompted you to switch to the electric guitar?
THOROGOOD One day I decided I just couldn’t play solo acoustic guitar like that, not on that level, like a John Hammond or a Taj Mahal, which is very demanding. I remember seeing Hound Dog Taylor play with his band, the HouseRockers, and he used a thumbpick and fingerpicks and played slide on an electric guitar, and I decided right then and there that that’s what I wanted to do. So after trying out some Fender and Gibson solidbody electrics, which felt alien to me and my way of playing. I bought a used Gibson ES-125TC, which is a hollowbody archtop electric with f holes and an acoustic-like vibe, but with a thinner body and a cutaway, which felt perfect for my playing style. If I hadn’t tried playing that type of guitar I probably wouldn’t have ever made the jump to playing electric with a band.
GW You have a very earthy, organic guitar tone. Can you describe your setup and approach to amplification?
THOROGOOD Watching players like B.B. King and Elvin Bishop play, I noticed that those cats rarely fool with the knobs on their guitars. They control the tone and the volume entirely with their hands, and that’s how I think the really great players play. I’ve also learned that in order to get that kind of dynamic range when playing electric, you really need to just plug straight into a small tube amp, such as a Fender combo, and crank it up.
I also prefer to keep my guitar volume on 10 most of the time. It’s kind of like driving a Chevy Nova: if you drive it at 70 miles per hour, it performs, but if you drop it down to 55, it just stalls out.
GW Unlike the majority of electric slide players, you prefer a copper slide instead of a bottleneck [glass] one.
THOROGOOD I like that raspy, metallic sound that you get with a piece of copper pipe. On occasion, I’ve even roughened it up with sand paper to make it scratchier so it really digs into the strings.
GW “Bad to the Bone,” which you wrote, is certainly your biggest hit and features your slide playing in open G tuning.
THOROGOOD The “Bad to the Bone” riff is nothing more than a variation on Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man,” Muddy Waters’ version of Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man” and several other tunes in the Mississippi Delta and Chicago blues styles. I just kind of honed it and refined it a little. The tuning gives you tons of sustain, and to play the main riff you pluck the two G strings [the fifth and third] with the thumb and index finger at the same time, so that you’re doubling the melody in octaves. The other notes are fretted with the slide. So you begin by picking the open Gs twice, then it goes fifth fret, open, third fret, open, and then you mute the strings with both hands to silence them.
I think what also makes “Bad to the Bone” so appealing is that it’s a fantasy song about being the ultimate tough-guy outlaw and ladies man, and the lyrics just kind of combine all these little tongue-in-cheek macho lines.
GW “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” was also a huge radio hit for you and is another fun story song. You play that one in standard tuning, right?
THOROGOOD That’s correct. For the majority of the tune, I’m just holding down a first-position E chord and thumping away on the open low E note with the thumb, which alternates on the upbeats with the E octave at the second fret on the D string and the open high E, which are picked with the first and second fingers. You have to kind of pull and snap the strings with the two fingers at the same time, and in the process you end up brushing some of the other notes of the chord on the B and G strings with the middle finger, like this. If you’re a flatpicker, you’re gonna be in trouble here! I add some simple fills between the vocal phrases, which I pick mostly with the fingerpick on the first finger.