The guy who put the swagger and crunch in Joan Jett & the Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll” is back.
Ricky Byrd, the guitarist who provided the classic sound on Jett’s best early solo work, recently released Lifer, a rollicking, old-school album that rolls as much as rocks and features the kind of back-to-basics playing Guitar World readers will love because — in the tradition of players like Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Steve Marriott — Byrd is the real deal, a player who approaches the guitar with heart and soul and always serves the song above all else.
As lead guitarist for the Blackhearts for more than a decade, Byrd’s riffs propelled Jett’s best work, including “I Hate Myself For Loving You,” “Talkin’ Bout My Baby” and, of course, “I Love Rock 'n' Roll.” Byrd left the Blackhearts in 1993, a guitar slinger for hire, touring and recording with Roger Daltrey, Southside Johnny and Ian Hunter, among others.
“Playing with those guys — all amazing performers — really got me thinking about what I love about rock and roll,” Byrd said. “So I worked really hard on my songwriting and hooked up with some great people, and Lifer is the result.”
Byrd took his time making Lifer, beginning sessions with co-producer Ray Kennedy in Nashville before bringing it all back home to New York City, where Byrd and co-producer Bob Stander knuckled down.
“There were a couple of false starts trying to make a solo record after I left the Blackhearts, but the timing just wasn’t right,” Byrd said. “I did some pretty generic demos, and then I did some solo acoustic shows and learned how to be a frontman, which is really an art. Then I had a three-piece with Simon Kirke on drums and Kasim Sultan from the Blackhearts on bass and I played acoustic. We played little places and we recorded a cool, live, low-fi record that we really did just so we had something for bookings, but we sold it too.
"So some time goes by, and it was 2000, and I heard a Steve Earl record Ray Kennedy produced and I got inspired. But then life got busy and time went by, but I’m glad because in that time I wrote some songs with Ray and Southside Johnny and my old pal Richie Supa. So what’s the moral of the story? My meter wasn’t running. Who cares how long it took? I wouldn’t have had those extra songs if I didn’t take my time. Besides, I have nothing to do with anything that’s on the radio. So I did the record I wanted to do.”
The result is an album that harkens back to the heyday of rock and roll, evoking the Faces, the Stones and Humble Pie. Byrd summons monster riffs on “Dream Big” and “Let’s Get Gone," the ghosts of VJ Records and Stax on “Married Man” and “Ways of a Woman” and crunchy R&B on “Harlem Rose." And the overall mood is boisterous and party-like.
“I knew exactly what I wanted to do with this record," he said. "That was a real luxury. I knew what guitars I wanted to use. I knew what amps I wanted to use. I wanted one guitar on one side and the other on the other side — like Keith [Richards] and Ronnie [Wood] — and I wanted it to sound ragtag. The record is called Lifer, but really this is a love letter to the music I grew up with, period. Taking my time really made this a better record, and one that I’m really proud of.”
“I’ve been waiting to do this for years,” Byrd says as Lifer’s opener, “Rock 'n' Roll Boys,” kicks into gear. It’s the kind of casual aside you might have heard in the '70s but is missing in the singles-driven, iTunes era we live in now. It also underscores how long it’s taken Byrd, a veteran on the axe for more than 30 years, to reach this point.
“All those little asides, the party noises and the banter between tracks were intentional. Like the bar sounds and me ordering a drink at the end of “Let’s Get Gone” — ordering water — that was a joke that I can still have fun even though I’m sober,” Byrd said. “When I was a kid, that was the magic part of the records I loved, and when we played them in bars back then, we did all those little jokes and asides. They were part of the record, as far as we were concerned. So I didn’t do them on purpose, but I left them because it’s a rock and roll record and that’s what makes a record live and breathe.”
As for the vibrant, punchy sound of Byrd’s guitar playing on the record, he kept his choices classic and simple there, too. “It’s all Gibson guitars — because we recorded in my house I was able to have all my guitars there, lined up — straight or with a wah-wah pedal through a ‘65 Blackface and an early ‘70s Champ miked up in the bathroom,” Byrd said.
“Then we added some little things after, like echo that comes on before the guitar like on old Zeppelin records or slowing the track down to cut the vocals and then speeding it back up to mix it like on Mott the Hoople records. That was all intentional because I’ve always loved all those tricks in the '70s and I wanted to get them all in there. After all, in this music climate, I don’t know who’s going to buy this record, so ultimately I was doing it for myself. I figured I’m paying for this buffet so I’m eating everything on it!”
Another thing that Lifer exudes are the cues Byrd took from other guitar players, which inspired him and brought out his competitive nature.
“As far as my solos go, we were about done with the record and I went to see Jeff Beck in New York City at Iridium, and he was just so good I broke down crying and went back and did all my solos again, because he raised the bar,” Byrd said.
Challenging himself while keeping it simple was a theme that came up repeatedly during my conversation with Byrd, especially when it came to using technology and making the record outside the old label system. “We used Pro Tools,” Byrd said. “But in order to make it a rock and roll record, it was important not to use all the options. And it was really a blessing not to have a record company looking over my shoulder or worried about a deadline. I’m confident that only aiming to please myself made this a much better record in the end.”
With acclaim for the record pouring in from the press and fans alike, Byrd has taken the show on the road.
“Going out there as a three piece, playing a record that is so chock full of guitar riffs that I love, was a challenge at first,” Byrd said of the early days of touring the record. “But the band has jelled really well and the reaction has been great. As things develop, maybe we’ll add a second guitar player and a keyboardist to be a little more true to the record, but it’s been amazingly fun and satisfying to play as a three-piece and work hard and really deliver the goods.”
Byrd will be appear October 16 at the Cutting Room in New York City. The music video for “Rock ’n’ Roll Boys” will be premiered 9:30 p.m. at the event. Lifer is available now. For more about Byrd, visit rickybyrd.com.
Photo: Bob Gruen
Jeff Slate is a NYC-based solo singer-songwriter and music journalist. He founded and fronted the band the Badge for 15 years beginning in 1997 and has worked with Pete Townshend, Earl Slick, Carlos Alomar, Steve Holley, Laurence Juber and countless others. He has interviewed and written about everyone from the Beatles and Kiss to Monty Python and rock musicals on Broadway. He is an avid collector of rock and roll books and bootlegs and has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Dylan and the Beatles. For more information, visit jeffslate.net.