Los Lonely Boys: Wild String

Originally printed in Guitar World, November 2008

Los Lonely Boys guitarist Henry Garza tells how he and his brothers corralled their onstage sound for Forgiven, their latest disc of Texican rock and roll.

Blasting out Texas blues fireworks with the coolest full-throttle Strat tone since Stevie Ray split for the big stage in the sky is Henry Garza’s specialty. And the Los Lonely Boys string-slinger says it takes horse sense.

“Our music is like a wild stallion,” he explains. “It has to be untamed, free. Otherwise it’s like a pony in a corral that heels whenever you call. Where’s the excitement? And when we play live, that’s when that freedom, that unpredictability, is at its wildest.”

The trick, Garza explains, is harnessing that wildness in the studio. So when his literal band of brothers—Jojo plays bass and Ringo, of course, plays drums—got together to record their new Forgiven (Epic), they called in famed musician whisperer Steve Jordan to produce.

The results were anything but tame. Jordan, who’s played drums for Eric Clapton and produced albums for John Mayer and Herbie Hancock, booked Los Lonely Boys into Austin’s Action Figure rehearsal studios and set them up as if they were playing a concert.

“The irony is that when we play live, every time is special because the energy and spirit are there,” Garza explains. “But in the studio, where that live energy is missing, you’re trying to capture a special performance, because the versions of the songs you record are going to define those songs for people. Without that live element, though, it’s trying to do the impossible. Steve figured that out, and then it was up to us to step things up spiritually and put all our feelings into the music until we reached the point when there were tears in our eyes or goose bumps on our skin from the sounds we were creating.”

Like one of his idols, Carlos Santana, Garza is serious when he mentions the spiritual. He and his brothers have kept their eyes on the sky since they broke out of San Angelo, Texas, with a blend of blues, soul, Tejano, country, and rock that they call “Texican rock and roll.” Their breakthrough hit, from their 2003 debut Los Lonely Boys, was the Top 20 smash “Heaven,” and their studio follow-up was 2006’s Sacred. Forgiven follows that path with the title number and more tunes exploring redemption, devotion and other sacred themes.

“We think about deliverance a lot,” Garza says. “It might be redemption from personal problems, like addiction to cigarettes, or forgiveness from your mom or dad or from Jesus, or from feelings of anger or sadness. If we can bring happiness with our music, that’s a kind of redemption, too.”

Garza is also doing his part for one of the Seven Deadly Sins: envy. Most roots guitarists can only dream about the warm, singing, throaty, impeccably overdriven tone Garza pulls from his guitars. “Man, it’s the way I’ve sounded since I was growing up, whether I was plugged into a Peavey, a Fender Twin or a Marshall,” Garza says. “It’s in my fingers.”

He built his tone arsenal around a few key weapons: a stack of amps, a TS-9 Tube Screamer and a reissue Vox wah-wah pedal. Now he’s added a Leslie rotary speaker cabinet for Forgiven songs that include the title track and a rabid version of the Sixt i e s Spencer Davis Group classic “I’m a Man.” “I’ve wanted one of those for a while,” Garza says. “When I kick it in, it sounds like there’s a B-3 onstage. It’s so awesome.”

As Garza rolled into Dallas with his brothers for a show, we talked about guitars, strings, Stevie Ray and the rest of his big tone bag.

GUITAR WORLD Who were the players that inspired you as you sculpted your sound?

HENRY GARZA My dad [Enrique Garza Sr. of Tex-Mex legends the Falcones] is my biggest influence. After him it’s all the other dudes—from Stevie Ray to Carlos Santana to Jimi Hendrix to Ritchie Valens. I never tried to be those other people, just to grab what they brought and to use it to build my own thing.

GW Did you use your live gear to record Forgiven?

GARZA Pretty much. I had my custom First Act guitar, “El Musico,” and my number-one Fender Strat, a beautiful tobacco sunburst reissue I bought years ago at a guitar shop in Austin. I also had an old Tele. For most of the album it’s my Strat through my regular amp setup: two 4x12 Marshall cabs with 100-watt heads and two old Fender Twins. My Leslie is vintage, and that’s part of my live rig now.

GW For strings, you’re a Stevie Ray guy, right?

GARZA For sure. I read an interview with Stevie Ray where he said anybody who played light-gauge strings was a pussy. I was 13 or 14, and it stuck in my head. When I started playing, I had really light sets, like .09s, and I worked my way up to .10s, then .11s, .12s and then .13s. My low string is a .56.

It was a lot of hard work to build up my hands, but it helps overall. Any guitar you pick up, your fingers are ready. Some nights my fingers are stronger than others. And then some nights it really feels like I’m playing .13s. Another thing my brothers and me learned from Stevie and Hendrix is to tune down a half step. We don’t do that for all our songs, but we’ve found it’s easier for some of the vocal melodies we sing.

GW The close harmonies you and your brothers sing are one of the band’s strongest cards.But you’re a loud player. Does your volume ever interfere with the vocals?

GARZA Naw. If it doesn’t sound good onstage, I’ll turn my guitar down or turn it up. But I’ll decide that myself.

Every soundman in every venue I go tries to get me to turn down. Shit! You can’t make me turn down because you’re some kind of master controller out there; you’ve got to work with me. I’ve got to feel it, man! If you’re not feeling it, you’ve got to turn up. Playing music is the best thing in the world, but only if you let it run free.

GW “Make It Better” is a real departure. The song has a Beatles vibe, and your playing sounds like George Harrison. But you’re not playing a Strat or El Musico, are you?

GARZA Well, the Beatles vibe comes from Jojo, who’s a huge Beatles fan, and I did have George Harrison in mind when I was doing the guitar tracks. But I can’t remember if it was El Musico or a Strat… [pauses] All right, I said I wasn’t going to tell anybody, but I used a vintage Gold Top Les Paul that the engineer, Niko [Bolas], brought along.

GW There’s another departure, too: the Spanish-music-themed ballad “Loving You Always,” where you play acoustic guitar.

GARZA That was an old nylon string classical that Niko also brought. I played with a pick, and that part came mostly out of a spontaneous feeling of love for my wife, who inspired the song.

The thing is, I’m not really one for technicalities. I’m not a computer-friendly guy. I’m still figuring out how to work a pencil and an eraser. But if you give me a guitar—any guitar, whether it’s got a cord or not—I’ll play it and make it sound the best I can.

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