Bingo Steve Miller Teams Up with Andy Johns to Make His Best Guitar Album Ever

September 1, 2010

Steve_Miller3_nrSteve 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 damn often.

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 took off.

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 on it.
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 ways.

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 use them?
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 your mind?
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 your chops.

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 records.

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 there.

KENNY LEE LEWIS

MILLER’S RIGHTHAND MAN

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.
—Matt Blackett

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.

THE LEGENDARY ANDY JOHNS ON PRODUCING THE SPACE COWBOY

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!
—MATT BLACKETT

You go back quite a ways with Steve Miller.
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 go?
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 those?
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 Pauls.

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 and understanding, 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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