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Earl Slick's Street Rock Odyssey

January 30, 2014
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The hardest-working man in show biz” is a time-honored cliché, but damned if it doesn’t nail the restless, Type-A productivity of Earl Slick. As with any long-term career, Slick has certainly ridden ups and downs and periods of inactivity, but you can’t ignore the miracle of a sideman/solo artist remaining relevant and vital after four decades in the f***ed-up and fickle music business. And if you have as many simultaneous projects going as Slick is juggling, then you should also apply for superhuman status, because both of you are likely alien life forms with three times the drive—if not the wealth—of Donald Trump and Richard Branson combined.

Let’s take a brief inventory…

[1] He recently got off the road with the New York Dolls. [2] He joined the October 27 American Music Masters Series celebrity concert for Chuck Berry at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. [3] He’s set to launch an “Earl Slick and Friends” tour where audiences are invited to intimate venues to see Slick perform and share rock and roll stories with various guest stars. [4] He started the company Slick Straps with guitarfetish.com’s Jay Abend. [5] He worked with the folks at Framus to design the German manufacturer’s Artist Series Earl Slick Signature Models. [6] He manages endorsement relationships with Framus, D’Addario, GHS, Orange, Source Audio, TonePros, DiMarzio, and Bigsby. [7] He’s wrapping up a “Delta blues on steroids” project called Outliars at Clubhouse Studios (Rhinebeck, New York) with Reeves Gabrels (guitar), Sterling Campell (drums), Michael Houghton (vocals), and his son, Lee Madeloni (drums). [8] He’s producing drummer/ singer/songwriter Jen Schwartz’s Me of a Kind band. [9] His 2000 solo album, Zig Zag, is being readied for re-release and will be available on iTunes next year.

That’s just the major stuff, of course— only Slick knows about future projects being envisioned, as well as all the songwriting, producing, and practicing he does on a near-daily basis to keep himself ready for action at any time. Because, after all, it’s the Slick Factor that has kept him employable throughout the cultural trends of classic rock, punk, shred, grunge, pop punk, dance, electronica, industrial, pop, and “Gangnam Style.” But it’s obviously more than that, because part of the equation is that Slick has never wavered from his blues-rock roots, while a lot of players who also stayed true to themselves have not enjoyed his success or longevity. In addition, this is a player who doesn’t totally embrace saturation—instead preferring organic grit—and who typically works the controls of his guitar and uses dynamics to conjure tonal variations before he’ll consider stomping on a pedal. In an industry where the latest new technology, stolen lick, and lo-fi tones are lionized as the Grail of Cool, Slick’s steadfast adherence to old-school methods seems like it would trip up any attempt at walking tall in the modern world.

But to hijack the wisdom of The Big Lebowski, “the dude abides.” To get some insight as to how Slick abides—and actually flourishes— let’s study a few echoes from the guitarist’s past and present, and also review some of his approaches to technique, tone, and style. Not all of us can be one of rock’s ultimate sidemen, or design signature guitars, but there are multiple lessons we can learn from Slick’s career that can fire up and inspire our own music making.

IN THE BEGINNING

So how did you go from just another guitarist on the scene to being a player people took serious note of?

When I was about 17 years old, I had a band called Mack Truck. We originally played gigs around Staten Island, but I started making a name for myself as soon as we began getting gigs in New York City. Eventually, I got hired on as a backing musician for a show called Peace Parade, which included some of the original members of the cast of Hair, as well as a lot of wellknown New York players. I was like the youngest guy in there. As a result, the first professional recording session I did was with Heather McRae and Oatis Stephens from the Hair cast. They recorded “Easy to Be Hard” before Three Dog Night did.

Now, a lot of guys do a cool session or two and then disappear back into club land. What kept your star on the rise, so to speak?

Well, I didn’t do another session for a few years after that. In the meantime, though, my band kept playing five nights a week, 52 weeks a year, all over New York City and the surrounding area. This was back when there were enough gigs available to keep you working that much. I was constantly keeping myself out there. Then, one of my friends, Frank DeVito—a pedal-steel player from Staten Island of all places—introduced me to Michael Kamen, who was in a band called the New York Rock & Roll Ensemble. Michael took me under his wing, put me in his band, produced my demos, and when he got the gig as musical director for David Bowie, he made the introduction. I was barely 22 years old when I made the cut for David’s Diamond Dogs tour in 1974, but I was ready. It was a big deal to be in David Bowie’s band, but I already had like six years of constant stage playing under my belt. Being in the New York scene at that time was the springboard to everything.

BUSTING OUT WITH BOWIE

Performance-wise, what was it like going from your own club band to a huge international tour for a superstar? Did you suddenly have to follow a ton of rules and play to the charts?

Oh, no. Things were a lot looser back then. I see what you mean, because for the past 20 years or so, a lot of pop bands have mimicked their records, played to backing tracks, and learned choreography matched to video and/or lighting cues. But in 1974, Bowie and Kamen wanted a stage attitude, as opposed to a recording-studio attitude. There were certain parameters you had to stay within, of course, but solos and bits like that were up for grabs. One thing Bowie didn’t want me to do was to try to copy [former Bowie collaborator/guitarist in the Spiders from Mars] Mick Ronson. We had a conversation before the rehearsals even started for the Diamond Dogs tour, and he said, “Look, interpret the songs the way you want to interpret them.” I let out a big sigh of relief after hearing that.

 
Pre-show soundchecking—Slick dials in his sound with the New York Dolls while David Johansen checks his lyrics.
So, as you were the young kid on his first big tour, no one said, “Hey, don’t step away from your amp while Bowie is singing” or anything like that?

There was no direction—it was unspoken. You were just expected to know your stuff, know how to perform, and know what was appropriate. It helped that the other guys on the tour—Kamen, Mike Garson, Herbie Flowers, and Tony Newman—were older than me, and had been around the block. I just watched what they were doing. And I tried to keep up [laughs].

David Live—the live album of that tour— was the first time I experienced your playing, and, to this day, I remain amazed at your soaring, sustained solos and bends. One note seemed to hang in the air forever.

At that point in my life, my approach was very bluesy, but based in British blues. I loved how Clapton and Beck twisted the blues. I loved the sustain—you didn’t hear that from Hubert Sumlin! So much of the long, sustain-y things on the live album were from that place. I had to bring in a bit more melody to fit David’s songs, but I don’t think my solos were terribly melodic. The roots are the blues.

Moving on to Station to Station in 1976, I never thought that you and co-guitarist Carlos Alomar got enough credit for forging that wonderful rock/funk hybrid with your guitars. So great—overdriven crazy rock guy on one speaker, clean-toned and smooth funky guy on the other speaker. Did you and Carlos consciously talk about that concept, did Bowie devise it, or did it just happen by osmosis?

David got Carlos involved because he wanted to incorporate soul and R&B styling’s into his music—which is what happened on Young Americans. But when we got to Station to Station, we’re suddenly doing what is kind of Bowie’s first really experimental record—a hybrid as you called it. David is great at putting musicians together who bring a certain thing to the table, and here he had two very different guitar players. But we didn’t discuss who was going to do what, it was simply Carlos doing Carlos, and Slick doing Slick.

Still, it’s interesting—and very lucky—that someone didn’t freak out and say, “We can’t have two totally different guitar styles on a rock album! Someone has to go!”

A lot of other guys would have done exactly that. They would have had each of us bring our playing more towards the middle. But that’s not the way Bowie operates— he wants people to do what they do. In this case, he had polar opposites, and he allowed those differences to shape the guitar sound on the album.

THE LENNON SESSIONS

Besides the obvious joy of recording with a Beatle, what surprised you the most when you stepped into the studio to track Double Fantasy with John and Yoko?

The funny thing about the Lennon sessions was that I was the only guy who wasn’t an active New York City session player. I was a band guy. Jack Douglas [Double Fantasy album producer] referred to me as the “wild card” because everybody else could read charts. My stuff was coming a lot more from a street level.

That’s interesting. Lennon is doing what is obviously an important record for him, Jack Douglas puts a top session team together—as was the norm for big records back then—and then someone says, “Wait a minute—we need a crazy guy in here to mess stuff up.” Where do you think that strategy came from?

I’m thinking it was a conversation that was probably started by John, and then he and Jack put their heads together and figured it out. I knew Jack, and Lennon was on the Young Americans record, but how I actually got in the studio with John in the first place is still a bit of a mystery. Why I was there was very obvious. They wanted a rock and roll guitar player in there because John was a rock and roller.

Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick once told me that John’s guitar amp was always way louder than George’s in the studio. So much so, that balancing the two guitars was a real challenge. Was John still playing so aggressively at that time?

He was a very aggressive rhythm guitar player. He just beat the crap out of his guitar— which was very compatible with me, because that’s the way I play. I have to say that I was astounded at how good of a guitarist John was. Hearing him play on a Beatles album, or on an earlier John Lennon record is one thing. Being in a room with him when it was actually happening was a different ballgame. It was like, “Oh, my God!”

Did you guys track old school—all together bashing it out?

We tracked as a band. The rhythm section was in the same room, and John was in a vocal booth with his guitar. He played and sang simultaneously on every single song, and those guitar takes were kept. We didn’t go back on the rhythm guitars and nitpick everything. Hugh [McCracken, co-lead guitarist] and John and I played rhythm at the same time on all of those songs, and that’s what you hear on the record. Although most of the solos were done as overdubs, a couple of mine were done live with the main track. John would just scream over the mic for me to take a solo, and some of those ended up on the record.

GLAMMING WITH THE NEW YORK DOLLS

We’ve seen you most recently onstage with the New York Dolls. Did fitting into their repertoire necessitate any adjustments to your style?

I didn’t change anything specifically for them—we’re a pretty good fit. But as I’ve continued to mature as a musician, I’ve really been concentrating on deepening my rock and roll and blues playing. So what has happened is that I’ve gone back to square one—the blues era before the British guys— and with the Dolls, I’m playing with a more traditional blues style. Of course, no matter how you cut the cake, it still has my twist on it.

What gear did you use on the 2011-2012 New York Dolls tour?

The main guitars were my Framus signature model and a Framus Mayfield. I strung the guitars with D’Addario XL ProSteels, gauged .010-.046. I actually use D’Addario strings on everything—even my acoustics. My picks were Planet Waves Celluloid Mediums, 70mm. For amps, I was using four Orange AD30 heads all at once. They were all on all the time, and each one went through its own cabinet. Two heads were plugged into 4x12 Orange cabs loaded with Celestion Vintage 30 speakers, and two were routed to Orange 2x12 cabinets with Celestion Golds in them. The 2x12 cabs sat on top of the 4x12s.

That’s a lot of heads and speakers. What did that rig give you that a single Orange and one cabinet couldn’t deliver?

First, it’s louder, and let’s be honest— I like to play real loud. The other thing is you push a hell of a lot of air. That’s a lot of speaker coverage!

What is it that you like about the AD30s?

I like that they do not get over-saturated. You crank them up, and it just adds a little growl. I’d set the Master Volume on the AD30s pretty high, and then bring in the Gain for a bit of volume and drive. That way, I could really manipulate the amps with my guitar, and get a whole bunch of different sounds. If I opened up the guitar Volume, I got this giant sound. If I backed off the Volume control, I got more of a crunchy sound, and if I backed it off some more, the sound was really clean. So I could do a whole lot without using any pedals.

Did you set the amp EQ differently on each head to layer tonal textures?

The settings were identical on all four amps. The only way any tonal textures were being blended was that two of the heads were going through 4x12s that had speakers with ceramic magnets, and two of the heads were going through speakers with alnico magnets. Those speakers do have a distinctively different sound from each other. The 4x12s with the Vintage 30s have more midrange punch, whereas the Celestion Golds in the 2x12s have more bell-like highs and really push out the lows.

What about pedals?

I had a GFS Brownie Classic, a GFS Pro Delay Classic, and a Visual Sound H20 Liquid Chorus & Echo. I also used a Source Audio Soundblox Multiwave Distortion, but mostly as a fuzz tone—not for its overdrive and distortion effects. I brought that in during certain solos where I wanted to drastically change the tone of the guitar. The way I look at distortion and overdrive pedals is that you basically end up with a little bit of a volume boost and a lot of saturated mids. On the other hand, a fuzz pedal is pretty ratty and nasty sounding— a complete departure from what I’d get just turning up my guitar.

THE SLICK STYLE

What do you think it is about your style and approach that keeps getting you hired?

I’m guessing I have some kind of distinctive style at this point. It’s a hodgepodge of stuff that comes from when I first learned how to play guitar, but it’s all relatively rock and roll and blues based, and you can fit that style into almost anything. I also never stray too far from what comes naturally to me— which is what artists like Bowie and Lennon wanted in the first place. I end up sounding like me no matter what happens. But perhaps guys in my era got lucky that way. Sometimes, I think that it’s getting harder and harder for today’s players to develop a unique sound and style. There are probably a lot of reasons for that. The guitar is certainly being approached a lot differently than it was in the past, and how people use their equipment is a factor, as well.

Can you be a little more specific about that?

Well, if you listen to David Live, I had a 100-watt Marshall half-stack, a Gibson SG, and an MXR Phase 90 pedal. That was my rig. My fingers had to interact with my guitar and my amp to play rhythm and lead and get the job done. As technology has moved forward, you now have six million different pedals and multi-channel amps with three or four stages of gain and tons of EQ options. To my ear, what happens is that the amp and signal processsors are making the sound happen, as opposed to the guitar. When you plug into all these super-processed, over-saturated tonal options, suddenly a Les Paul almost doesn’t sound any different than a Strat.

Think about it—we didn’t have a lot of different gear available to us in the ’60s and early ’70s. We had maybe four brands of amps that everyone used, and they were simple amplifiers. Fender, Marshall, and Vox had specific sounds, but at the end of the day, there wasn’t much else. The great thing, though, was that those were very reactive amps that gave you different sounds depending on what guitar you used, how hard or soft you played, and where you set your guitar’s Volume and Tone controls.

Do you play with both a pick and your fingers?

Yes, but not necessarily to get more notes. It’s primarily a tone thing. I go to the fingers to get more of a plucky sound.

There’s a theme developing here around your constant manipulation of tone.

It’s all about that. I never play the exact same tone from the beginning to the end of a song. My fingers are continuously interacting with my guitar and amp—that’s always the first way I approach changing sounds.

Isn’t it easier to negotiate different tones in a rock-band setting by stepping on a pedal? I’d think it would be extremely difficult to have to put on a show for the audience while simultaneously adjusting the controls on your guitar over and over.

I don’t even think about that, because that’s how I learned how to play. I’ve always used dynamics and adjusted the guitar’s controls. It’s like walking. Also, I’ve never used pedals the way a lot of guitar players use them. You know—every time they do a solo, they hit a pedal. For me, a pedal is just for color. It’s a way to bring a different feel and vibe into a performance.

I’m assuming your hands-on approach is evident in the studio, as well. No fixing things with digital editing?

No way. That’s what I call “reverse engineering”— creating performances with Pro Tools or other digital-audio tools, rather than documenting a great performance, warts and all. Nitpicking is almost an obsession these days. For example, I’ll track a performance that feels good, and the engineer will go, “Well, let’s clean up this one note here.” I always say, “No you don’t! If you replace that note with a new or different note, the whole vibe of the solo will be compromised.” I hate it when people take my guitar solos and cut them up into nine pieces in order to construct something that’s probably going to eradicate all evidence of me reacting to the song. What’s the point? I’m playing rock and roll, not dance music, so the funk is essential. Groove-wise, I’ll purposely play a bit off the drummer to get some push and pull in a track. In rock and roll, there has to be the rock, and there has to be the roll. Listen to an old Chuck Berry or Rolling Stones record, and you’re going to hear two tempos almost going on at the same time. They’re rubbing against each other, and that’s what makes it exciting. Otherwise, you have a marching band [laughs].

GIG TEST!

FRAMUS ARTIST SERIES EARL SLICK SIGNATURE MODELS

It’s obvious from his image that Earl Slick loves the clothes, tattoos, and design schemes that evoke the dangerous cool of classic rock and roll. So it’s no surprise his Framus signature guitar fits seamlessly into his streetthug style mix. With its old-school vibe, funky control knobs and 3-way rotary pickup selector, satin finish (black or red), vintage machine heads, and a choice of DiMarzio PAF humbuckers or P90s, his Framus Earl Slick model seems primed to set off the sonic equivalent of a back-alley rumble. The only irony is the guitar’s thoroughly uptown pricing of $3,299 retail for the TonePros stop-tailpiece model, and $3,499 retail for the Bigbsy B500- equipped version. However, Framus is well-known for exquisite craftsmanship, and the German-made Slicks are absolutely fine instruments. I found zero imperfections in the finish, hardware, fret dressing (for all 22 jumbo frets), and overall build quality.

I tested both the black-satin/P90/Bigsby and red-satin/PAF/stop tailpiece models at various live performances and studio sessions during a sixmonth evaluation period. The guitars performed the same on day one as they did on day 184. Being banged around throughout tons of load-ups, load-ins, and breakdowns had no ill effect on the cosmetics, electronics, or playability. The 7.9 lb swamp ash body is a comfy load on your shoulder—even for threeset gigs—and the 24.75”-scale bolt-on neck and action is fast and inviting. This is one of those guitars that feels almost connected to your body. Everything you do seems natural and almost freakishly effortless.

For no reason other than personal preference, I found myself using the P90 model for most live shows, and the humbucker model for studio sessions. Both guitars deliver very articulate sounds—you can hear all the notes in complex chords unless you go overboard on high-gain saturation—and are extremely dynamic. Volume-knob manipulations on the guitar and backing off on your pick attack result in instant and varied tonal shifts—a hallmark of the Slick technique. The P90s possess all the airiness and midrange snap that you’d expect, but there’s also a very nice aggressiveness to the low-midrange frequencies that adds some gronk and punch. The humbuckers uncork some delightful roar when you rev up the amp gain—think Paul Kossoff tone, or any one of your fave ’70s blues rockers—and yet they clean up to shimmering, open mids and highs when you go for something more subtle. Framus and Earl Slick have definitely served up a guitar that not only works for Slick, but that gives rockers everywhere a cool, powerful, and vibey tone machine.

KUDOS Excellent craftsmanship. Varied tones. Easy playability. Looks retro cool.

CONCERNS A tad expensive.

CONTACT framus.de

SLICK ON HIS SLICK SIGNATURE GUITARS

Earl Slick is very particular about his guitars, and he has loved and left quite a few in the time I have known him. So it was hardly a surprise the guitarist presented Framus with a list of specs when the company gave him the opportunity to design a signature model.

“I actually sent them a comprehensive spec sheet right down to the pots, the neck measurements, the thickness of the body—everything,” explains Slick. “I based my guitar on a ’60s Framus Hollywood model that I saw in an old catalog. The original Hollywoods were hollow inside and a bit too big for my taste, so I adapted the design to be a solidbody that was a little smaller and thinner. DiMarzio P90 pickups were important to me, as was a Bigsby and a TonePros Roller Series bridge. For the body, I wanted a lightweight wood that would really ring, so I asked for swamp ash. Framus has a huge supply of aged woods, so a big benefit was that I was able to tap into a supply of older, drier, and more seasoned swamp ash for my guitar. Why do you think people gravitate to these really old guitars? The older the wood, the better the sound. I had a neck on another guitar—I won’t name it—that I just loved, so I had Framus replicate that neck for this model.

“On the cosmetic side, I didn’t want a lot of clear coat on the guitar. I wanted a flat finish. I also like binding, and those vintage-style, plastic- looking tuners. I was really going for a classic, old-school vintage look, rather than zebra-striped flame-maple tops and all that stuff.

“Amazingly, the first prototypes were about 90-percent there. I think I changed the pickguard cover from black to cream on the red model—I thought the cream looked better—and had some intonation adjustments made. It made my life a lot easier, because I didn’t have to make a lot of major changes.”

WHAT KIND OF NUT STARTS A STRAP COMPANY?

Establishing an artist-driven guitar-strap company in a crowded market wasn’t exactly a move bolstered by a comprehensive business plan. But when Earl Slick unpacked from the last Bowie tour in 2004, he found a dozen plain, black leather straps of unknown origin still in their wrappers.

“I thought, ‘What the hell am I going to do with these things?’ I don’t know what impelled me to do it, but I started to distress the leather. Then, I put artwork on them—using stencils of skulls, Kanji, and other images I liked—and started using them myself. My buddies thought the straps looked cool, and when I told them that I made them, I’d always get talked into making them for friends. Eventually, I put a few up on eBay for the heck of it, and they sold in about three seconds. I figured, ‘Hmm, maybe there’s something to this.’ So I showed the straps to Jay Abend of guitarfetish.com—he and I go back many years—and he liked them enough to offer to manufacture and distribute them. So Slick Straps was born. The cool thing is that while they’re now made overseas, they’re still handmade—just like the way I did them. The whole thing was a happy accident, but it worked out well for me and for Jay.”

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