FOR ALL THE RECORDING, PERFORMING, AND ALL-AROUND elbow rubbing Joe
Louis Walker has done with blues and rock greats throughout the last
six decades, his mid-arm joints must be worn down to nubs. From sharing
his rehearsal space with Hendrix and bunking with the late great Mike
Bloomfield to opening for B.B. King, learning slide from Mississippi
Fred McDowell, and having such legends as Scotty Moore, Clarence
“Gatemouth” Brown, Steve Cropper, Ike Turner, Bonnie Raitt, Buddy Guy,
Otis Rush, Taj Mahal, and Robert “Junior” Lockwood all make guest
appearances on the same album (1997’s Great Guitars), Walker is the
quintessential social butterfly when it comes to roots music. And it’s
all because of his stinging leads, soulful songwriting, and infectious
What was it like having Duke Robillard at the helm for this album?
As you’d expect, Walker is a walking vault of captivating
stories—including the tale of his fateful decision to take a tenyear
hiatus from his first love, the blues, in order to concentrate
on gospel music and earn degrees in English and music from San
Francisco State University. Walker’s latest album, Witness to the
Blues [Stony Plain], produced by badass guitarist Duke Robillard,
drips with throaty vocal swagger, funky, stuttering solos, and an
I’ve been fortunate to have some great producers—including
Steve Cropper, Scotty Moore, Ike Turner, and Tony Visconti—but
Duke is like me. He plays a lot of different
styles of so-called “roots” music, so if I come
in with a song like “Highview,” which has
feedback and stuff, he’s not afraid of it. He
knows that’s my tribute to Peter Green’s
“Supernatural.” I like what the English
brought to the blues—and Peter was supernatural
when he did that song. Duke got it
right away. He played on the song, too. I’m
not sure if you can hear it on the album, but
at the end of the track Duke said, “Boy, that
was fun—let’s do it again!” The whole album
was fun like that.
“I Got What You Need” is another high point,
with the resonator guitar licks.
I basically wrote that one in the studio.
I had the idea already, and I was going to do
it myself, but then Duke started playing with
me and we just kept the tape rolling. Always
keep the tape rolling. Next thing you know,
it just came out. That’s the best way to do
it. Just play—don’t think about it.
The CD jacket shows you playing everything
from a resonator guitar to a Les Paul to a Strat
plugged into a Line 6 POD. What’s your take on
guitars and technology right now?
Actually, it was Duke who used the POD.
But I’ll tell you like B.B. King told me. Number
one: if you play like you, you’re going to
sound like yourself through anything. And
number two: A guitar is nothing but a piece
of wood and some strings—it’s what you
make come out of the guitar that means
something. I was one of the biggest vintage
guitar owners in the world, but I happen to
have three kids that I’m trying to send to
college, so those vintage guitars had to go
away. I’m using Yamahas now, and they’re
great. I got the AES620 SH, because its got
a fat sound, and I liked the tones that Sammy
Hagar got when I saw him playing it. I’ve
also got a nice Strat-style guitar with a humbucker
in the back position that they made
for me, and an AES1500 semi-hollow that I
use for jump blues. Yamaha is making some
great products, and I’m looking for tone more
than the name. I endorsed Gibson for 12
years, but now I’m more of a sound person.
It’s like I’m painting with colors. If you look
back at my 20 albums, I’ve got a different
guitar on every album—from a Novax to a
’56 Strat to you name it.
Is there one guitar you relied on more than
others for this album?
Yeah, I’ve got an old Gibson Les Paul like
the red one George Harrison used on the
road with the Beatles. It has Duncan Pearly
Gates uncovered pickups—I don’t like the
covers on them—and boy, it just screams. I
use Dunlop strings on all of my guitars—
.009s for electric, .013s for acoustic, and
.011s for slide playing.
So what did you plug into most of the time?
Well, I have an old Marshall Bluesbreaker,
a blond Fender Twin with two of the tubes
removed, another Twin with all four of its
tubes, a Fender Princeton, and a Fender Blues
Deluxe that I used for a lot of the clean
sounds on Witness. I line them up, and when
I get a good sound, I just want to keep on
playing instead of getting anal about amps.
How about pedals?
I have just enough pedals to add some
color. I’ve got all the Dunlop stuff. Jimmy
[Dunlop] just sent me a custom shop overdrive
pedal that’s like a Tube Screamer. I’ve
also got a nice wah-wah, and a beautiful analog
delay—the MXR Carbon Copy. I also use
a Line 6 Echo Park for a backwards delay on
a solo, and I’ve even got a Heil Talk Box. But
all those pedals are only for live shows. On
the albums, I just use my fingers.
For some players, music is all about woodshedding
to get great chops. For others, it’s all about
songwriting. And for others, it’s all about inspiring
people with a great live performance. What’s
it all about for you right now—and has it changed
over the years?
I’m the latter, though I’ve been all three.
At this point in my career, I’m just glad to have
lived through things when a lot of my friends—
like my old roommate Mike Bloomfield and
lots of other guys—didn’t make it. I’ll be 60
soon, and I thank God I made it, and that I’m
able to do what I love to do. I was grousing
once after I came back from doing 28 dates
in 33 days, opening up for B.B. King in England
and Europe, and a friend turned to me
and said, “Joe, you could have a real job at
7-Eleven.” Everything’s gravy when you consider
that. I’ve been fortunate to be around
some great guitar players and songwriters
who’ve taught me to trust myself.
In the mid 1970s you took a break from the
blues for spiritual and personal reasons. What did
you learn from that experience?
I’d played blues since I was 12 years old,
and it just got to a point where it seemed
like, creatively, everybody was chasing their
tail. Everybody was stuck. Bloomfield was
stuck. Keith Richards was stuck, at least until
he switched to five strings. All kinds of guitar
players were stuck, and they also started
dying from overdoses. So, I did nothing but
gospel for ten years. I played with the Soul
Stirrers and the Blind Boys of Alabama and
people like that. Originally, I started doing
gospel because the Spiritual Corinthians
needed a bass player, but then they heard
me play guitar and asked me to play that. I
went for the weekend but stayed for ten
years. That gave me a whole different viewpoint
in terms of how less is more when
playing guitar, and also taught me how to
really sing. I knew how to sing before, but I
didn’t know how to do it the way they do it
in gospel music. You’ve got to let yourself
go. If you want a big sound, open your mouth—
you’ve got to have your mouth wide open.
If you don’t, you get a small sound.
You’ve had a pretty amazing career, meeting
and playing alongside everyone from U.S. presidents
to Hendrix and Bloomfield. If you had to
choose one or two of the most special moments
from your musical career, what would they be?
Number one would be opening for Muddy
Waters for two weeks in Toronto during the
’70s, and being with him and having dinner
every day. Second, was learning slide from
Mississippi Fred McDowell and Earl Hooker.
Of course, getting to know Bloomfield, and
playing with B.B. for the last three decades,
and knowing Jimi and letting him use my
rehearsal space were also really special.
Was it more the overall experience of knowing
those people and spending time together, or did
they show you things that opened up your playing?
I’m the type of guy that you usually don’t
have to show me things—I just sit down and
play with you and I learn something. If you
keep your ears open, you learn.
How do you feel about the state of the blues
A lot of people copy their heroes instead
of using their own God-given talents and
accepting themselves for who they are. A lot
of those old blues masters like B.B. learned
to play all by themselves on a plantation, and
that’s why they don’t sound like anybody else.
I agree with Willie Dixon, who told me that
doing a bad version of yourself is better than
doing a good version of somebody else.