Kenny Wayne shep­herd

A pro­tégé of BB King, jam­ming part­ner with Alexan­der Dum­ble and band­mate of Stephen Stills, the Louisiana-born blues­man has just re­leased a gutsy new al­bum, Lay It On Down. We joined Kenny to talk about Dum­ble-mod­ded Fuzz Faces, the essence of a great Str

Guitarist - - Contents - Words Jamie Dick­son Pho­tog­ra­phy Jesse Wild

“One of the hard­est things to do, I think, in to­day’s world is to write an au­then­tic-sound­ing blues song lyri­cally,” Kenny Wayne Shep­herd ob­serves as we sit down to a cof­fee at John Henry’s re­hearsal rooms in Lon­don, where Fender keeps an of­fice. Once a blond wun­derkind of the blues scene, Kenny has ma­tured into a thought­ful player with prodi­gious chops and a sure­footed melodic in­stinct that has seen him praised by no less au­thor­i­ties than the late BB King and Stephen Stills.

“If the lyrics and the story that you’re telling are au­then­tic and you’re not sac­ri­fic­ing the qual­ity of the mes­sage that you’re try­ing to con­vey to the lis­tener, then I think that keeps the whole thing au­then­tic,” Kenny adds. “My band is about the guitar. It’s guitar-based mu­sic, but be­cause I grew up in a ra­dio en­vi­ron­ment with my dad, I grew up lis­ten­ing to hit songs on the ra­dio. Hav­ing a great vo­cal melody and a great lyric has al­ways been, to me, equally as im­por­tant as the guitar play­ing on the record – even if I wasn’t do­ing the singing – be­cause that’s just what I grew up around. And I also think those are the songs that peo­ple will end up re­mem­ber­ing for the rest of time.”

Seated among racks of Strats and Te­les, nat­u­rally the con­ver­sa­tion turns to gear – as well as be­ing a very fine player, Kenny has great ears, too, so be­fore we em­bark on an il­lu­mi­nat­ing one-to-one solo­ing les­son with him, it’s time to do what gui­tarists nat­u­rally do in such sur­round­ings – and talk gui­tars. What gear did you bring into the stu­dio for the al­bum? “Well, I brought a lot of stuff into the stu­dio. Over the years, my sound has evolved. We’ve tried a num­ber of dif­fer­ent things on this record. I used a com­bi­na­tion of var­i­ous gui­tars. Some songs I was play­ing a Les Paul for the solo and a Strat for the rhythm. On one song, I would dou­ble the guitar track but do one on a Les Paul and one on a Strat to get a re­ally full sound. One dirty, one clean, things like that.

“Also, over the past, I guess, five to seven years, Alexan­der Dum­ble has been build­ing amps for me. They’ve just ex­ceeded any­thing that I have ever had prior to that. I’ve es­sen­tially found my core sound, as far as am­pli­fiers go, are these amps that he’s built for me. I lined up about seven of them in the stu­dio. We would do dif­fer­ent com­bi­na­tions of those var­i­ous am­pli­fiers, but usu­ally no more than three am­pli­fiers at a time. I think if you start run­ning seven or eight amps at once, it’s not nec­es­sary. Es­pe­cially if you’ve got great-sound­ing equip­ment. So yes, Strats: vin­tage, newer stuff… Gib­son: I used the Fire­bird; I used my Les Pauls. My grand­fa­ther gave me a Les Paul that I think is a late 70s model. Then I have a Cus­tom Shop one, from around 2000 I think, that I used heav­ily. I re­ally love that guitar.

“They sent me one of the new Les Paul Ax­cess gui­tars, which is pretty in­ter­est­ing. It felt a lit­tle more fa­mil­iar be­cause it’s lighter and it has the abil­ity to split the pick­ups and things like that. Then my Strats. I have my ’61 Strat, ’59 Hard­tail, ’58 Hard­tail and var­i­ous Sig­na­ture se­ries mod­els that I have with Fender and Cus­tom Shop gui­tars and stuff. Re­ally just try­ing to pick the right in­stru­ment to get the right sound for the right track.” What’s the spe­cific ap­peal of a Hard­tail Strat to you? “Peo­ple should try the Hard­tail – the Hard­tail is ac­tu­ally a more ap­peal­ing guitar to me [than a vi­brato-equipped Strat]. I like hav­ing the tre­molo for the var­i­ous mo­ments in the show where it’s nec­es­sary to cre­ate an ef­fect or a sound. I’m not like Jeff Beck, for ex­am­ple, who utilises the tre­molo on a very con­sis­tent ba­sis through­out his per­for­mance. I use it here and there – maybe six times through­out an en­tire two-hour-long show. It’s an ef­fect.

“But the Hard­tails… those gui­tars ring so true. Even when they’re not plugged in, they are still more res­o­nant. They’re louder in an acous­tic set­ting be­cause the strings are run­ning straight through the body. That bridge piece is just con­nected straight to the body; there’s no air or space in be­tween it. I just think you’ve got a more bell-like true Stra­to­caster sound with that in­stru­ment. They work great for me.

“Some­times you can get a lit­tle more ten­sion on the neck. I use heavy strings, so you can feel the ten­sion a lit­tle more on a guitar like that, but I think it’s ac­tu­ally a re­ally great sound. I don’t know why peo­ple don’t try those more. Be­cause I think if they would – if they did – es­pe­cially

if they had an­other Strat that does have a tre­molo, then they’d prob­a­bly end up buy­ing the Hard­tail.”

A cer­tain myth­i­cal aura sur­rounds Dum­ble amps. You’ve played quite a few – is the rep­u­ta­tion jus­ti­fied? “The key word is in­spi­ra­tion. I’m not speak­ing to you as a per­son who has bought into some hype. I’m speak­ing to you as a per­son who has le­git­i­mate ex­pe­ri­ence be­fore and af­ter. Quite lit­er­ally, those amps, the point be­hind the amps that he has built for me and what they do is in­spir­ing. It’s in­spir­ing me to play new things. In­spir­ing me to take dif­fer­ent av­enues and cre­ate new sounds. The way that he goes about do­ing that is what you’ve prob­a­bly heard. I mean, he lit­er­ally tai­lor-makes the amp around the mu­si­cian’s style of play­ing and ap­proach.

“I would go over. I see him on a re­ally reg­u­lar ba­sis. I’ll sit around and we’ll hang out. I’ll sit around just like this, me and you, and be play­ing guitar for hours and hours. The whole time he’s lis­ten­ing. He’s got great ears. I mean, ob­vi­ously. He hears how a per­son plays. He knows what it is that I’m try­ing to get out of the am­pli­fier. He hears how hard I play, the at­tack that I use, the touch. All of it. You can tell his mind is work­ing the whole time. He’s just lis­ten­ing.

“Then he goes and he works on the amp. Then you come back, you play it again and we see how it’s re­spond­ing. Then he fur­ther re­fines it if nec­es­sary. Usu­ally, in my ex­pe­ri­ence, it’s not been nec­es­sary. I go back. I plug in the first time and it’s right, which I think is one of the rea­sons why he’s al­ways been adamant that those amps that he builds are for that per­son. He’s built it around my style of play­ing. In the­ory, if any­one else was to be play­ing through my amp, it nat­u­rally would not nec­es­sar­ily re­spond the way that it was in­tended to be­cause it’s a dif­fer­ent per­son play­ing.”

What de­gree of head­room and power do you tend to pre­fer in your amps? “You know, I used to play three Twins all turned all the way up. It was mon­strous. Those amps are so clean. I’ve had Elec­troVoice speak­ers in there. They weighed a ton, but [were] su­per-clean and punchy. As I’ve got­ten older, man, it’s just not that nec­es­sary to be so loud. All the amps that I’ve worked on with [Dum­ble] have been 50 watts and be­low. I mean, there are times when I’ve been on stage and I’ve used a lit­tle 15-watt Deluxe that he’s built for me, not as my pri­mary amp but in con­junc­tion with an­other amp, you know.

“I just think that it’s not nec­es­sary. When you go back and you hear a lot of the largest guitar sounds in the stu­dio where you hear a guy and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s amaz­ing’ – you imag­ine it’s all these Mar­shall stacks and this big, mas­sive thing. It was re­ally, like, a Fender Champ or a lit­tle Deluxe. That’s what got the huge sound. When you ac­tu­ally re­alise that that is the truth, then it’s, like, the only rea­son to have a louder amp is so that peo­ple can hear you if you’re in a big­ger place. Then that was be­fore PA sys­tems ex­isted. They wanted louder am­pli­fiers be­cause they weren’t mic’ing all this stuff and putting it through a PA sys­tem. Only the vo­cal was go­ing through the PA sys­tem. It’s not nec­es­sary. It’s a visual thing.

“Guitar guys love to see a bunch of amps, re­ally big amps, but it ac­tu­ally isn’t the point be­hind larger amps. That orig­i­nal point was be­cause they weren’t putting that in­stru­ment through the PA sys­tem.”

You’re prob­a­bly best known as a Strat guy – so what, for you, is the essence of a great Strat? “Well, to me, I’ve found over the years that my favourite con­sis­tent wood for the body is alder. I think across the board most peo­ple pre­fer alder. I have some ash-bod­ied gui­tars that sound great, too, but dif­fer­ent. But I’ve just al­ways gone back to an alder body.

“[Dum­ble amps] in­spire me to take dif­fer­ent av­enues and cre­ate new sounds. He lit­er­ally tai­lor-makes the amp around the mu­si­cian’s style…”

In terms of fret­boards, I have a cou­ple of vin­tage maple Strats that I re­ally en­joy, but I al­ways tend to go back to rose­wood.

“I use jumbo frets, like, 6100 – al­most like bass frets. I play heav­ier strings. I find that in or­der to re­ally be able to have a sure grip on the string to do a huge bend, then you need to be able to have chunkier fretwire. If you’re us­ing vin­tage-style fretwire, it’s a los­ing bat­tle.

“We did my own cus­tom wound pick­ups for my Sig­na­ture Strat. We de­vel­oped the sound of those pick­ups for a year and a half and I think they sound pretty fan­tas­tic. I go for a rel­a­tively hot pickup: they mea­sure around 8/8.5 [kohm] out­put, but not so hot that it mud­dies up the sound. I want it to be re­ally clear and punchy.

“I mean, those are the fun­da­men­tals – but I also use Graph Tech sad­dles. I have since I was very young. It’s an­other ex­am­ple of ‘it’s not me just en­dors­ing some prod­uct so that I can have my pic­ture on an ad­ver­tise­ment’. It’s, like, I gen­uinely was hav­ing a string break­age prob­lem. I was look­ing for a so­lu­tion and some­body said, ‘Hey, have you heard of these graphite sad­dles?’ To me, it sounded a lit­tle sus­pect be­cause it was, ‘I’m putting this on a 1961 Strat.’ At the time it was cut­ting-edge tech­nol­ogy. I’m like, ‘I don’t know about this…’ but I put those sad­dles on that ’61 Strat and stopped break­ing strings im­me­di­ately. From that point for­ward, I’ve put them on all my gui­tars in­clud­ing my Sig­na­ture Strat.”

Did it make much of a dif­fer­ence ton­ally? “Slightly, but it’s very min­i­mal. Most peo­ple say that it bright­ens it up a lit­tle bit. I mean, at a cer­tain point, you’re split­ting hairs. There are far larger con­trib­u­tors to the tone than swap­ping out sad­dles. You’re re­ally try­ing to hear a dif­fer­ence at that point.” Strats and Fuzz Faces are a clas­sic pair­ing, but it’s no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to get a con­sis­tently good fuzz tone. How do you ap­proach the prob­lem? “I’ll use it in the stu­dio, but I have found it very dif­fi­cult to use it live. One thing that I will tell you is I have an orig­i­nal late 1969 grey-sil­ver Fuzz Face. It needed a re­pair done to it. Ac­tu­ally, [Alexan­der Dum­ble] asked me one day, ‘Do you have any Fuzz Faces, orig­i­nal ones?’ I said, ‘Yes. As a mat­ter of fact, I do.’ He’s like, ‘Bring it to me. I know what to do with it.’ He’s had it for a few months. He’s go­ing to be do­ing some su­per­secret spe­cial thing to it and I’m as­sum­ing it’s go­ing to sound in­cred­i­ble. I’ve never heard of a Dum­ble-ised Fuzz Face be­fore. We’ll see how that sounds.

“Anyway, the Fuzz Face is a pe­cu­liar, sim­ple an­i­mal. It’s com­pli­cated be­cause in the stu­dio it’s a more con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment; you can re­ally fine-tune it for the stu­dio. But in a live set­ting, I’ve found that, for my ear, it’s too dif­fi­cult to go from a sound that I have with a Tube Screamer or the King Of Tone pedal and then switch to the Fuzz Face be­cause it dark­ens the sound so much. To me, it’s such a dras­tic sonic change that it throws me off.

“If fuzz was my pri­mary over­drive ef­fect that I used 98 per cent of the time, then that would be one thing, but if I’m just try­ing to throw it in there for a mo­ment or on one song, it’s such a dras­tic change in a live set­ting that it re­ally is dif­fi­cult for me.”

What pop­u­lar myths re­lat­ing to tone have you come to doubt over the years? “It’s not a com­plete myth, but I don’t nec­es­sar­ily sub­scribe to the view that vin­tage is al­ways bet­ter. I think you should look at all in­stru­ments, whether they’re am­pli­fiers or gui­tars, on an in­di­vid­ual ba­sis. Don’t pay any at­ten­tion to the num­ber, the year that it was made or the price tag on the guitar. I’ve played plenty of vin­tage Strats and plenty of vin­tage amps that sound like shit. I mean, like, hor­ri­ble amps. They’re just worn out, not prop­erly main­tained. Prob­a­bly never sounded right the year they were built. Fac­tory is­sues, you know, what­ever it is. In­con­sis­ten­cies in the parts.

“Same with the gui­tars. If you didn’t know the price of the guitar and no­body ever told you the year that it was man­u­fac­tured and you could just base it all purely on your eyes be­ing closed and the way it feels, the sense of touch and the sense of sound… that’s all you re­ally need to know.”

We caught up with Kenny as he was pass­ing through Lon­don – the Cus­tom Shop de­lights of the Fender Artist Cen­tre clearly proved too hard to pass by!

Kenny makes ex­ten­sive use of both vi­brato-equipped and hard­tail Strats

Kenny Wayne Shep­herd’s new al­bum, Lay It On Down, is out now on Provogue/Mas­cot www.ken­ny­way­neshep­herd.net

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