IF JOHN MAYALL HAD RETIRED IN 1970, HIS
legend would have still been cast for the
ages. Not only was Mayall one of the guiding
lights of British blues in the early ’60s,
but his exceptional ear for gifted players
stocked his bands with the mutt’s nuts
of talent: Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick
Taylor, not to mention bassists Jack Bruce,
John McVie, and Andy Fraser, among
many, many others. But Mayall didn’t
retire—far from it, in fact, as he continued
to tour and release his
uncompromising vision of the blues,
deftly mixing different elements of jazz
and hard-driving rock, over a nearly 50-
year career. His new album, Tough [Eagle],
showcases new guitarist Rocky Athas, a
veteran Texas gunslinger with a wicked
tone and a thriving solo career of his own.
John, who were some of your guitar influences?
Mayall: I was initially inspired by guys
like Josh White, Leadbelly, and Lonnie
Johnson. I’m such a limited technician
on the guitar, but as time has gone on, I
think I use it pretty effectively as a tool
to express myself. I mostly write on piano
and organ, however, and I’m only playing
guitar on two songs onstage.
Do you typically rehearse a new lineup a
lot before you begin recording?
Mayall: No. We had three rehearsals
for Tough, and nearly everything you hear
on the new album is a first take. That’s
the way I’ve always tried to work. If a
track isn’t right the first or second time
around, it’s probably not going to work
at all. Stiffness starts to set in and the
music eventually loses its edge.
Is the most important aspect of being a
bandleader choosing the players?
Mayall: Yes. And being able to recognize
early on who can work together before
you put everyone in the room to play. My
method hasn’t changed at all. As long as
I have a rapport with a person and we’re
on the same musical page as far as influences,
the music will take care of itself.
I feel you have to be born a bandleader,
really. I can’t imagine being a sideman.
Leading seems natural to me. Some people
prefer to be a sideman and fitting into
You played behind John Lee Hooker on his
first British tour in ’64. What did you learn from
him that you didn’t learn from his records?
Mayall: Back then we played very loud.
We were a bit over-eager. But when you
play with a master like Hooker, you not
only learn that you don’t need volume to
get across, but you get across better with
more air and dynamics in your performance.
Hooker didn’t even have to say
anything. He just turned around and
looked at us, and we knew we had to
come down to his volume level. I was
What are you playing live?
Mayall: A Rickenbacker 12-string into
a Roland JC-120, the same rig I used for
Tough. I like the chorus and the reverb on
that amp. I use the Vibrato setting and
adjust the tempo according to the tune.
Athas: I’m using my Fender ’62 reissue
Strat and a Fender Roadworn Strat.
They’re both outfitted with Amalfitano
pickups which are a bit hotter than vintage
Strat pickups. Lately, I’ve been
playing a Les Paul ’59 VOS Historic model
because that’s what I used on about 40
percent of Tough. I use Dunlop .048 picks
but I use the round part—the butt end—
for a fatter sound. I string all of my guitars
with Ernie Ball .009s, even my Les Paul.
They make bending a little easier and
they’re easier on my hands on the road—
and we’re doing 15 straight nights starting
So you don’t subscribe to the bigger strings
make a better tone theory?
Athas: No. I think a lot of guys only
use big strings because Stevie Ray
Vaughan did. Often times guys who use
really heavy strings, their bends are flat
because they can’t get the string up where
it needs to be. You may think you’re getting
a better tone, but your playing is
Do you play differently on a Strat than you
do a Les Paul?
Athas: I do, that’s one of the reasons
why I switch them up. With a Strat, I
seem to play in a bluesier vein. But I’m
learning to only use the Les Paul on more
rocking-type tunes, because that guitar
just inspires me to turn it on. It has so
much power under the hood, I can’t resist
playing in a more aggressive rock vein.
What are you using for amps on the road?
Athas: Whatever they bring me, and it’s
usually a Fender Hot Rod Deville or a red
knob “The Twin,” or “evil Twin” as some
people call them.
Is it hard using rental amps?
Athas: Not so much. I try to set them
as loud and clean as possible, and use my
pedals—an Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer
and a Fulltone OCD—for different combinations
of grind. I can get a good sound
out of the “Evil Twin,” but I have to work
at it. In fact, our tour manager and soundman,
Claude Taylor, saw me struggling
to get a good sound once and he came
over and turned some knobs and pushed
some buttons and it sounded great.
Claude learned how to dial it in by watching
Mick Taylor use one. I had to have
Claude write down what he did because
I can never remember what to do when
that amp shows up.
What amps did you track the new album with?
Athas: I tracked with a solid-state Gibson
Lab Series L-5 combo. I love those
things. I used a Lab L-5 as a head,
bypassed the stock 2x12 and ran into a
vintage ’69 Marshall cab 4x12 loaded
with 25 watt Celestion greenbacks. I can’t
count on those amps on the road, however.
In my Lab combos I’ll put two
Celestion Vintage 30s in and then replace
the reverb tank with one from a Fender
Twin Reverb. On the record I sometimes
run it with an overdrive in front of it,
sometimes not. B.B. King has been using
Lab Series L-5s for years, and I always
wondered if his were stock. So when we
opened for him at Wembley Stadium, I
went behind the stage to get a look at
his amps and found out he outfits them
with Peavey Black Widow 12s.
Rocky, have you always been a Bluesbreaker
Athas: Of course! I grew up with Stevie
Ray Vaughan in the Oak Cliff area of
Dallas, Texas, and he turned me on to the
“Beano” album with Eric Clapton, and
that obviously knocked me out. But I also
wore out Blues from Laurel Canyon with
Mick Taylor on guitar. I also dig The Turning
Point, which came out right after Laurel
Canyon, but is a more stripped-down
acoustic albums without any real “lead”
guitar or drums—a real departure.
Mayall: By Turning Point I was getting
tired of the electric sound. Plus, I was
inspired by the Jimmie Giuffre’s performance
with Jim Hall and saxophonist Bob
Brookmeyer in the movie Jazz on a Summers
Day. I always thought that was
beautiful. The blues is basically all I know
to express myself, and even when I add
and subtract different elements, my music
always comes out the blues.