Steve Miller knows when he’s right.
It doesn’t matter if some people
don’t agree with him. If the
supremely confident Miller
thinks he has a good idea, he’s
going through with it and he’ll make
it succeed. When a young Steve Miller
wanted to take what he had learned from
family friends and mentors like Les Paul,
T-Bone Walker, and Tal Farlow and try to
break into the Chicago blues scene, his own
dad thought he was nuts. But Miller had the crazy idea that he could go to Chicago, sit
in with the heaviest blues cats on the planet,
and not only hold his own but actually steal
gigs from them. Miller was equally sure he
could go out west to the burgeoning San Francisco
scene and his talent, tenacity, and
professionalism would allow him to kick everyone’s
ass out there, which he proceeded to do.
And when he found himself working with none
other than Paul McCartney at the height of
that Beatle’s powers, Miller believed so strongly
in the tune they were doing that he put his
best riff ever into it. When the song, “My Dark
Hour,” stiffed, Miller was still convinced that
he was right and everyone else was wrong. He
refused to let his riff die and he kept playing
it, confident that it would have its day. When
the world finally did hear it, it was in the intro
hook to “Fly Like an Eagle.” Advantage Miller.
This combination of chops, savvy, moxie,
and hard work led to a massive string of hits
for the Space Cowboy. “The Joker,” “Fly Like
an Eagle,” “Take the Money and Run,” “Rock
’N Me,” “Jet Airliner,” and others allowed
Miller to take over pop radio in the ’70s and
guaranteed him a huge share of what would
come to be known as classic rock radio. And
while the hits didn’t exactly keep coming in
the next decade, Miller essentially had an
insurance policy to keep working the tour
circuit as often as he liked, which was pretty
Because of the huge rock radio hits, most
casual listeners and even many of his fans
have no idea that Miller was a bluesman at
heart. His latest offering—and first album
of new material in 17 years—might just
change that. Bingo! [Roadrunner] is a fullon
blues record that is jam-packed with
guitar. Miller’s classic jangly clean tones are
there, as are fat-toned solos and sweet harmony
guitars, all captured with stunning
fidelity and vibe with the help of hall of fame
producer/engineer Andy Johns. It adds up
to a vital, rockin’ set that pays tribute to
some heroes of Stevie “Guitar” Miller (as
Johns calls him) and casts the 6-string work
of the Gangster of Love in a whole new light.
How did this record come together?
I wanted to work with Andy Johns
because I consider him to be the best engineer/
producer for guitar, bass, and drums.
I’ve known him since I was 17. I started
recording with his older brother Glyn. Andy
mixed a DVD of a live show that we recorded
in Chicago a few years ago and we started
talking. Andy said, “Steve, before I die, I
really want to do a blues record with you.”
I said, “Guess what? I’ve been thinking the
same thing.” So it started like that. We
booked the Fillmore for three days just to
have fun and invited Satch, Robben Ford,
Bonnie Raitt, and some other really fine
musicians. After that, the band and I went
out to Skywalker Ranch to cut some tracks.
They have a great big room, a big old analog
console, and a couple of two-inch tape
machines. We went out there and cut 42
tracks in 11 days.
How important was it to record old-school analog?
For the basics it was crucial. At this point
in my life I didn’t want to do any digital
recording. I wanted everything to be analog.
I wanted it to be big and fat—a warm, real
sound. I wanted really great drum, bass, and
guitar sounds. And that’s exactly what we
got with Andy. As soon as we started working
with him, it was just like being in England
at Olympic studios in 1967 when everything
was analog—it felt the same way and we just
In your 1978 Guitar Player cover story, you
talked about the frustration of hearing a great
tone in the room but a skinny, bad tone on playback.
The tones on this record really sound like
you’re in the room with them.
They do, and that was really inspiring.
We’re still in that world where you get a great
sound in a room and you come in and listen
to it and say to the engineer, “Would you put
that on your record? What the hell is wrong
with you?” But recording’s a trick. It’s very
difficult to get the right sound and you have
to work a lot. Andy loved doing that work.
When you have an engineer like that, it makes
you want to work so much harder and not
accept the cheap tricks that everybody uses.
I wanted my own tone. I didn’t want to just
go in there and plug into some software piece
and turn on some phony digital echo and
some crunch and some this and some that.
I wanted to really capture it and that’s why
working with Andy was so great.
What sort of advice did he give you on tone?
It’s really funny. I play Dr. Z amps. I love
the Stangray model, and I don’t need anything
else. I’d have it all set up, I’d have my
Strat all dialed in, and I’d have this great
tone. Andy would come in and go, “Ugh!
That’s bloody awful.” Then he would pull
out the Marshall and turn it up to 11. In the
end we were playing through these big Marshall
stacks and I was in the control room.
What’s the watery tone that comes in about
30 seconds into the opener, “Hey Yeah”? It sounds
like it has some kind of modulation effect or Leslie
That was a real fast, nervous wah-wah.
It’s an interesting way to play it. You’ve got
to get over the pedal just right to be able to
do it. Depending on where the wah is when
you catch it, it’s a big fat sound or a real thin
sound and it morphs, it changes, and it can
sound like it’s under water. I was playing a reissue ’59 Les Paul and it was going through
a Vox wah into a Marshall.
There are two lead lines happening at the same
time in that song. Were those planned out or was
that an accident?
I had planned out both solos and I wanted
to put them together to where they were
intertwined, but I was open to whatever happened.
Every time I would go to play
something, I never knew exactly what I was
going to play. Once I heard the two of them
together I realized, “Ok, when I’m up at the
12th fret playing this, I need to be down here
playing this on the wah-wah,” and we started
working it out.
Let’s move on to “Who’s That Talkin’.” It took
me forever to figure out that it’s in 4/4 because
it doesn’t sound like it. It can’t be easy to make it
swing and groove with that backbeat, and yet both
the vocal line and the guitar lines really have a
nice swing to them. How do you do that?
I was really lucky. I saw Howlin’ Wolf and
Hubert Sumlin play a lot. The rhythmic elements
in Wolf’s tunes are amazing—you can
swing them and play them so many different
ways. This particular song developed
basically from that opening lick—it’s a real
snappy lick on a Strat. Then we started putting
the vibrato on the other lick. So you
have these two elements that sort of answer
each other and set each other up. Then you
put the straight beat in the middle of it and
you get that feel you’re talking about. That’s
not the way Howlin’ Wolf played the tune,
but that’s they way I approached it. I love
that track. That’s just a hot track. It’s great
fun to play and it has all these classic
Chicago, Little Walter Band kind of elements
in it. It’s got that spirit and that sense of playfulness that Wolf had in his music. I
could take you through ten Howlin’ Wolf
tunes and I could show you how Hubert
would play it, and then how we would play
it, and how it could go in a bunch of different
directions. That’s the greatness of Wolf,
really. His band had the funkiest rhythm of
all the Chicago blues bands. You’d hear that
stuff and your body would be jiggling 12 different
What was your rig on that song?
I used a Strat-style guitar that John Bolin
built for me—a super lightweight guitar with
pickups that Seymour Duncan custom
wound. I think I plugged into a Dr. Z
Stangray and maybe a Fender Champ. It was
a big amp and a little amp.
“Sweet Soul Vibe” has the two-pickup, inbetween
Strat sound. That tone played a big role
back in your Fly Like an Eagle/Book of Dreams
era, but it doesn’t seem to factor into this record
as prominently. Can you talk about the various
sounds on a Strat and how and when you like to
Stratocasters are just miracles. I really
like the neck pickup on a Stratocaster. I’m
looking for a more woman-y kind of tone, a
big fat warm sound with a little bite on it.
Then you have the two sort of out-of-phase
positions on the Strat. The one with the
bridge and middle pickups I’ve used a lot.
“Fly Like an Eagle,” “Take the Money and
Run,” “Rock ’N Me”—those songs were all
recorded in that position. When you put a
whole band together, that’s the kind of sound
that and sits well with the bass, keyboards,
drums, and a lot of vocals. Sometimes I end
up in the middle position where I just need
a bright, clear tone, but for years the out-ofphase
positions and the neck position were
the places I really loved on the Strat. When
I go into the studio and play that for Andy
Johns, he comes in and goes, “Bloody hell,
that’s awful! Let’s get the Les Paul” [laughs].
I think it takes a specialist to get a great Strat
tone, just like it takes a specialist to get a
great Les Paul tone. Both guitars work totally
differently and I love to play both of them,
but I’ve always felt like more of a Strat player.
For solos on this record, though, Andy was
all about the Les Paul. I was given the Les
Paul TEC award at the AES show a few years
ago and they gave me one of their new Les
Pauls. I brought it home and I was really surprised
by how great it sounded. I used it on
this record a lot and it got me back into playing
a Les Paul.
“Sweet Soul Vibe” is one of several Jimmie
Vaughan songs you cover on this record.
Jimmie Vaughn is my favorite blues guitarist,
and from the first time I heard Strange
Pleasure, I’ve been hooked by his writing, his
tone, and the way he expresses his feelings
on the guitar. We play “Boom Bapa Boom,”
“Sweet Soul Vibe,” “Don’t Cha Know,” and
“Hey Yeah” almost every show. Jimmie is a
great fan of T-Bone Walker, as am I of course.
Jimmie and I both listened to Freddie King
as teenagers and we both played with Freddie.
So we played the same gigs and had a
lot of the same influences. Jimmie is the
deepest blues player out there for my money
and it’s all Texas style. Each note is so important
to him and he has pushed it further with
his depth and feeling than anyone playing
today as far as I’m concerned. When I want
to relax and just listen to some great guitar
playing, I put on Jimmie’s recordings. The
next thing I know I want to play them too.
He’s my main man.
Talk about the call and response section
between you and Joe Satriani on “Rock Me Baby.”
We’ve been friends for a long time. I
always invite Satch to come up and play with
me and I always want him to play blues. I
played some soloing for him to show him
what my thought patterns were, and then
he sort of fed it back to me through his mind,
and it was unbelievable—just great playing.
I was able to put harmony parts together
with some of the things he had played.
It’s not super-obvious who’s playing what.
That’s a good sign. I think Joe kind of
took it easy on me and he matched my tone.
I started out that lick—it’s like a horn part—
and Joe picked up on that and started playing
it, and then I played that harmony with him.
That big, fat, low tone is him and I’m playing
the harmony tone.
You tip your hat to Wayne Bennett on “Further
On Up the Road.” He was a great player that not a
lot of people talk about.
Wayne was just a wonderful guitar player.
He was very bluesy, very T-Bone Walker-y—
kind of jazzy and pop/jazz at the same time.
He had all these chops and I had never seen
anybody like him ever. I’ve always been a fan
of his. That stuff he plays on “Further On
Up the Road,” that’s one of the great
recorded solos. I live for that kind of playing.
The Wayne Bennetts and the T-Bone
Walkers of the world were the guys who were
the bridge between jazz and blues. That’s
what makes them so interesting and so tasty.
Go back in time and talk a little bit about your
childhood. What went through your head as a little
kid when you got to hang around Les Paul?
Were you aware of the fact that he was this big
superstar, or was he just a friend of the family in
Les Paul was maybe the first or second
entertainer I’d ever seen in my life. We were
living in a row house in downtown Milwaukee
and my dad took me to see him. I was
five at the time and my dad was recording
Les and Mary’s show that night. They were
on their way to New York, and the club was
sold out every night. Everybody was having
a great time and Les was in the prime of his
life, playing guitar like nobody I had ever
heard. He was really exciting and extremely
funny. So I got this super-hip insider’s view
of how cool it was to be a guitar player, to
have a great band, to really cook on stage,
to have a whole audience full of people just
hanging on your every word, and to have
somebody like Tal Farlow come in and ask
to jam. That’s what I saw as a child and I
thought, “Hey, I want to be just like Les: I
want to be the center of attention, I want
my dad to love me, I want to play guitar, I
want to sing songs, I want everybody to think
I’m great, and I want to have Tal Farlow come
up and play guitar with me.” I saw it all, I
got it, I understood it. Then Les started coming
over to the house. We had a Magnecord
tape recorder and all of a sudden I went, “If
you speed the tape up and record at 7 1/2
and then play it back at 3 3/4, it sounds like
a bass. If you record it at 3 3/4 and bring it up to 7 1/2, it’ll be really high pitched.” I
figured it all out. I saw that Mary Ford was
able to sing harmony with herself, that this
was all tape recorder trickery and stuff. This
was around 1949 or 1950 and I absorbed all
of it. Then I would turn on the TV and there
were Les and Mary who had been at my
house, and now they have their own show.
They’d be on for five minutes and Les is
doing his Les Paulverizer trick and I thought,
“I know how he does that—that’s really a
tape recorder that’s being slowed down with
a VSO.” So that was an unbelievable education.
I saw how they’d send out signed
postcards to the radio stations in Wisconsin
requesting “How High the Moon” and I
thought, “Yeah, you make singles—you’ve
got to promote them.” I figured out that this
is show business. This is recording studio
stuff. This is an electric guitar. This is singing
multitrack harmony with yourself. And I
thought it was so cool. Then I started playing,
and I was working by the time I was 12
years old. My bandmates and I were watching
the Ozzie and Harriet Show and there
would always be this little section where
Ricky Nelson and James Burton would show
up and they would do one of Ricky’s hits in
the middle—the big orchestra would take a
break, and Ricky would do three rock and
roll numbers. That’s what we started doing.
We sent letters to every sorority, fraternity,
church, synagogue, country club, and school
in the Dallas, Texas area, and we told them
they had three weeks to book us for that
semester. We had something like 42 engagements
at 75 bucks apiece booked in three
weeks. This was 1956 and there weren’t any
rock and roll bands. They were all dance
bands. I taught my older brother how to play
bass so he could drive us to the gigs, and we
worked every Friday and Saturday night from
the 7th grade until we graduated from high
school. And that all sort of came from watching
Les and how he managed his career.
You eventually went to Chicago. What was the
scene like when you got there?
The situation was: Howlin’ Wolf’s career
had peaked, Muddy Waters’ career had
peaked, Little Walter’s career had peaked,
James Cotton was still a kid, and Junior Wells
and Buddy Guy were definitely the young
generation—they weren’t considered the real
deal at all. Those were the bands that were
competing for jobs, along with Paul Butterfield
and Otis Rush. There were six
nightclubs in Chicago. Barry Goldberg and
I put together the Goldberg Blues Band à la
Paul Butterfield’s band. Butterfield would
leave his gig at Big John’s to go to the East
Coast, then boom—I’d go right into Big
Johns. If Howlin’ Wolf came into Big Johns,
I’d go over to the Blue Flame. If Muddy
Waters left the Blue Flame, we were at the
Blue Flame. So we were literally competing
with Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters and
Paul Butterfield for the same gigs. It was
really exciting and a great place to develop
Who were your favorite guitarists there?
My first favorite band was the original
Paul Butterfield Blues Band with Elvin
Bishop. They were phenomenal, and there
wasn’t any screaming lead guitar kind of
stuff. It was more about the rhythm work
and Elvin was just fantastic. Then it was
Otis Rush. Otis was the nicest guy to me in
Chicago. If I walked into a club and Otis was
playing, he’d wave me up to the stage and
hand me his guitar, which he played upside
down and left handed, and then he would
sing and I would play. I also loved Hubert
Sumlin with Howlin’ Wolf. Hubert just had
so many loose joints and angles, and was
so full of rhythm as a guitar player. He and
Otis Rush were my two favorite guys. I
learned so much from watching them. Then
at the end of my stay in Chicago, Junior
Wells got a record deal and immediately
dropped the blues and started doing a bad
James Brown imitation. That left Buddy Guy
in town with no band. So I got the job playing
rhythm guitar with Buddy for about six
weeks. I had to leave because the rule in
Buddy’s band was that before each set you
had to have one shot of bourbon. And we’re
playing from 9 at night to 4 in the morning.
I couldn’t do it. But I learned a lot playing
with Buddy, especially about overdriving an
amp, because Buddy played really loud.
Your travels took you out to California and
that’s when things really took off for you.
It got really exciting. I wasn’t working
at nightclubs anymore. I was playing at the
Fillmore where there were 1,100 people,
which seemed huge. I started to turn my
amp up. Then Clapton came to town with
Cream, and that was the first time anybody
had ever seen someone with two Marshall
stacks and a Les Paul play guitar like that.
It was the coolest thing, and I was so jealous
and so pissed off. For three days I was
green with envy listening to them. Then finally about the fourth day I got over that,
and I realized what a great musician Clapton
was and what a great trio they were.
Then Hendrix showed up pretty quickly after
that. I didn’t care as much about the local
bands. I wanted to see Albert King, Freddie
King, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and Jeff
Beck. Those were the people that I wanted
to play with, and I wanted my band to operate
at that level. I wanted to write at that
level, I wanted to play like that.
What do you hear when you spin your old tunes?
I can always hear the Stratocaster sound.
I can always hear the Echoplex. Those are
the things that really stick out about my playing.
I’ve always tried to make records that
sound really good, that are recorded really
well, and that have really good tone. I was
aware at the very beginning that I wanted
my records to sound good forever. If we put
on “How High the Moon,” it would sound
like it was recorded in the studio this morning.
That’s what I was striving for on all my
If you had to pick one riff to sum up Steve
Miller, what would it be?
I think I’d pick the opening riff to “Fly
Like an Eagle,” because I can play that anywhere
and everybody knows what it is.
At what point did that become the “Fly Like
an Eagle” hook? You originally used that part in
“My Dark Hour.”
I recorded “My Dark Hour” with Paul
McCartney. You can imagine, it was 1969
and the Beatles were still the Beatles. I met
Paul when I was in London, and he and I
started playing. He spent all day with me,
and we cut this tune. I thought, “Wow, man,
I’ve got a hit single now!” We released it
in the United States and it was like someone
took it to the mail chute at the top of
the Empire State Building and dropped it
straight to hell. It went nowhere. And it
was such a great riff! I couldn’t just let it go.
So, I kept using it and “Fly Like an Eagle”
developed over about a two-and-a-half-year
period. That lick became the signature lick
to that tune.
Speaking of signature licks, what was the signal
chain for the wolf whistle part in “The Joker”?
I played that with a slide on my Strat,
strung with flatwound strings into an overdrive
pedal going through a Leslie.
Steve Miller the pop star has overshadowed
Steve Miller the blues guitarist for a long time. It
seems like the tones and playing on this record
could change that.
It’s just been this wonderful guitar player
project. I’ve had so much fun in the last two
years. I’ve been practicing and playing and
overdubbing and working. I do that all the
time anyway, but getting Andy into the mix
was a great thing. Here was a guy who was
going to work as hard as I was going to work,
and when the two of us got together and
focused on this, we really dialed it in. I’ve
been in the studio in the past and played
some miraculous stuff, but had it poorly
recorded and not gotten what I wanted. With
Andy, I knew that he was going to capture
anything I did and he was going to help me
make it sound as good as it could sound.
That was the challenge, and I’m glad we got
For almost three decades, Kenny Lee Lewis has been Steve Miller’s rhythm guitarist. In addition
to being all over Miller’s latest, Bingo!, Lewis has a solo record out, the jazzy New Vintage.
What gear did you use on Bingo!?
I used Don Grosh Retro Classic AE guitars and Rivera Fandango amps. The versatility of the
multiple-output rosewood and bone piezo bridge system, coupled with the two Lindy Fralin
single-coil pickups and a splittable humbucker in the bridge position, allows the Grosh to cover
almost every conceivable guitar tone, acoustic or electric. When I need the bark of a neck position
humbucker, I use a Gibson VOS ’58 Les Paul. The clean sound on the Rivera is absolutely
the best in the business for clarity and headroom. The two-channel overdrive section is augmented
with a Red Snapper clean boost pedal and an Electro-Harmonix 10-band graphic EQ.
Celestion G12T-75 speakers in an open-back cab complete the system. For acoustics, I use a
Martin D-41 with a Fishman Natural piezo and an older 500 series Takamine standard 12-string.
What input on tones and parts did you get from Steve?
When Steve is playing a Strat he wants me to do the same so when he breaks for solos, the
sound in the rhythm part remains the same. He usually asks for a front pickup Texas crunch
sound so the guitar has some hair on it. Likewise, when he is doing like Jimmy Reed songs on a
Les Paul, he wants me to mirror the tone with a Paul.
What do you hear when Steve takes a solo?
When I listen to Steve, I definitely hear what I got from his playing—he was on my top ten
list as a kid. I hear great, smooth stretches and vibrato, and sweet tone with not too much buzz
on top. He is obviously an Otis Rush and Albert King fan, but he also lives inside the T-Bone and
Jimmy Reed camp. When he goes for the wah, he is right up there with Hendrix and Clapton as
far as finding the mid-hump and working the second and third harmonics. He truly is an unrecognized
lead guitarist. This record shows him playing better than ever, and I think a lot of young
guitarists will go woodshed on the Joker as a result.
ANDY JOHNS HAS MADE A COUPLE
of fairly successful, good-sounding
records in his career (the uninitiated
should go to allmusic.com to be sufficiently
blown away). Johns jumped
at the chance to make an album with
Steve Miller, and here he reveals some
of what went into the sonics of Bingo!
You go back quite a ways with Steve
I first met young Steven in 1967
when my brother Glyn was engineering
Children of the Future, which was
a dreadful record. Then Glyn produced
the next two records, Sailor
and Brave New World. Brave New
World had some stunning, stunning
songs on it, “Space Cowboy” and
“Seasons” especially. I’ve always
been a major admirer of Steven
because he has that pure voice. He
still sings just like he used to. His
guitar playing keeps getting better
and better. He sort of knows that.
He’s got an ego and he can be very
difficult to work for. But I was happy
to be there with him because he
understands Chicago blues—that’s
for sure. I think I got performances
and parts out of him that he hadn’t
had for quite some time.
Did you have an overall vision
of how you wanted the recording to
I have been anxious to record a
band all at the same time for years.
In the ’80s, we would start with the
drums, then we’d do the bass, and
then we’d do the guitars, because
people didn’t play particularly well.
For this record, we ended up at Skywalker
Ranch, George Lucas’ joint,
and what a nice place. We had two
guitars, bass, drums, keys, and
Sonny was singing, so that’s six cats
all playing together, and I was just
like a child again. It had been 25
years at least since I’d done that.
My idea has always been, even if I’m
using six to 12 tracks of guitar, to
make it sound like a really nice fourpiece
and you’re standing 15 feet
from the stage watching the best
rehearsal they’ve ever done. It
should be seamless and not sound
like a recording.
The guitar tones on this record
are so great. How did you craft
The first thing I remember suggesting
to Steve was that we should
use 75-watt speakers in the 4x12
because that speaker doesn’t modulate
the bottom end. We had three
100-watt Marshall heads and there
was one that was just gorgeous.
They weren’t plexis—they were from
’71 or ’72. I think we might have used
two of them, but there was one that
was a major favorite. It just barked
rather well. It did have gain and a
master volume, and I would use a
front box—I have a variety of boost
pedals—to jump it up. Any of those
old Marshalls to me, as lovely as
they are, and I rely on them—I truly
do—don’t quite have the balls that
they used to. So I tend to hit them
on the front side with one of those
boosters. I have many little toys to
get the sustain back without it
square-waving itself to death. I’ve
been known to sort of pull that off.
I was using my mic setup, which
is—after crunching around all these
years—two SM57s, one straight on,
one at 45 degrees, and then an AKG
414 for the bottom end. If I’m using
two 57s, I’ll put those on the top
right speaker and then the 414
would go on the bottom left
because the floor does something
nice with the bottom end. There are
no rules—absolutely no rules—but
that worked for me. It all just
sounded rather religious and righteous
and Steve was not unhappy.
How did you choose guitars?
Steve said that you didn’t like his
dual-pickup Strat tones.
Of course we used Strats on
some things, but the in-between
sound on a Strat is a little skinny—
it really is. We ended up replacing
some of the Strat rhythms with Les
Lots of people plug Les Pauls
into Marshalls and mic them with
57s and they don’t get tones nearly
as good as what you can get. How
do you explain that?
Well, I don’t want to be mean to
anybody, but some people have it
and most people don’t. I’m not the
best—there’s no best at anything—
but I don’t know anyone that’s
better. I know a lot of people that
are worse, and they see it as some
sort of contest between them and
the music and I don’t understand
that. Either you are the music or
you’re not. There are a lot of people
that want to do what I do, but
what I do is about humility and righteousness
because the music is precious. I
know it’s just rock and roll, but there
are moments in there. There really
are and you can’t miss them. It’s got
to be soulful, it’s got to speak to
you, it’s got to twist your little heart,
and you have to be turned on. That’s
what we went for on this record and
working with Mr. Miller was a profound
experience because the man,
in his heart and his soul and his chest
and his backbone, has so much
spirit. I’m just proud to have been
able to work with him. That’s a fact
and it won’t change.
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