By Jas Obrecht
Jeff Baxter—solo specialist. The vocals fade, an instant later a screaming vibrato note sweeps in, and the high drama of soloing begins. This is Baxter's home territory, and he covers it with a unique liveliness, precision, and sense of humor. Using elements of bebop, R&B, country, blues, jazz, and rock, he builds his statements with rhythmic, percussive combinations of chordal and single-line leads, sometimes creating miniature compositions within a song's melodic structure. In the often hectic. do-or-die environs of LA's studio scene, Jeff is known as a pedal-steel and 6-string sharpshooter given to using old and unusual instruments to lay down state-of-the-art work. (His blistering lead break in Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff," for example, was done with a $20 used Burns Bison electric.) Late- '60s rock fans remember him as "Skunk" Baxter, the young pedal steeler for Ultimate Spinach and the Holy Modal Rounders; since then, he's risen to far greater prominence through his work with Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers.
Jeffrey Allen Baxter was born in Washington, D.C., on December 13, 1948. At age five he began ten years of classical piano studies. His father, Loy Baxter, was promoted to head of Latin American public relations for the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency when his only child was in fourth grade, and the family was transferred to Mexico for six years. Jeff bought himself a $16 electric guitar there, listened to the Howard Roberts Is a Dirty Guitar Player [Capitol, SM 1961] album for inspiration, and began teaching himself to play.
When the family moved to New York City in 1964, Jeff went to Jimmy's Music Shop on 48th Street to score his first good guitar—a Fender Jazzmaster—and wound up with a job: "For a buck and a quarter an hour, I was unloading Fender Twin Reverbs in the middle of the night, taking them up two flights of stairs, and loving every minute of it! Then I started to work on guitars. Dan Armstrong, who had a store on 48th and used to do Jimmy's repairs, noticed that there was no work coming from the shop anymore, so he came down to investigate and stole me. Boy, that's when my guitar education started happening. I learned a lot about electronics and how to build and customize—even made few guitars." Called to deliver an amp to a record company, Jeff was asked to fill-in for a guitarist who was late for a demo session. "Afterwards the guy didn't pay me, but he bought me a beer," he says, "and I thought hat was nice. It was cool—l was into studios for the price of a beer and an arm around my shoulder."
After graduating from Taft preparatory school in Waterton, Connecticut, Baxter enrolled in Boston College. One day while working downtown at Frank's Drum Shop, he remembers, "A guy in a long robe came in and asked me if I knew any guitarists. I said sure, hopped over the counter, and became a member of Ultimate Spinach, joining in time to play on their third album, The Ultimate Spinach. Man, were we psychedelic!" Then 19, he bought an old Fender 400 and began learning pedal steel. While in Boston, he earned the nickname Skunk. "The origin is pretty tasteless and fairly anti-social," he laughs. Jeff played pedal steel with the Holy Modal Rounders from 1969 until '71, although he appeared on none of their albums.
He returned to New York City to freelance in the studios, and performed on Carly Simon's first hit recording, "That's The Way I've Always Heard It Should Be" [Carly Simon]. He then moved to California and took a job playing in a C&W band: "It was a straight gig with a band called Sammy Masterson & The Country Gentlemen; they were the guys that did the [used-car salesman] Cal Worthington commercials that drive everybody in LA nuts. My favorite gig with them was every two weeks when they'd play at the chicken fry at the VFW Hall in Orange County. Then I started doing guitar and steel sessions and working in all these weird country bars." While customizing guitars at Valley Sound in LA, Jeff met Buzzy Linhart, a singer from New York who was in town to record an album, and joined his group. "That was one of the best rock and roll bands I ever played with," he says. "I did a lot on that album Buzzy." Between flights from coast to coast to perform with Linhart, he kept up a busy session schedule.
In 1972, Baxter was summoned by two songwriter friends from Boston, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, to join Steely Dan. In the course of their first three albums, he did much to establish his position among the foremost LA studio guitarists. To their accomplished Can't Buy A thrill debut he added brilliant solos on "Change Of The Guard," "Only A Fool Would Say That," and "Midnight Cruiser," as well as steel parts on other tunes. Countdown To Ecstasy, released in 1973, contained notable Baxter solos on "My Old School," "Bodhisattva," and "The Boston Rag." When Fagen and Becker expressed a reluctance to perform live, Jeff went on the road as a member of Linda Ronstadt's band in 1974, and then recorded steel parts for the Doobie Brothers' The Captain And Me as a hired hand and guested on their 1974 tour. The last Steely Dan album he played on, Pretzel Logic, was hailed by critics as an artistic tour-de-force.
Baxter left Steely Dan in the summer of '74, and by Christmas had become a Doobie Brother. During the next four years, his guitarmanship on the 6-string and pedal steel added a new dimension to the band. His first album as a full-fledged member, Stampede, hinted at the group's move towards a jazzier, more R&B feel. Fueled by Jeff’s climactic solo, "Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me)" became a hit. In 1975 Baxter also performed with Elton John. A year later keyboardist Michael McDonald—like Baxter, formerly with Steely Dan—was added to the Doobies and sang on Takin' It To The Streets.
In May 1976, Jeff began writing his popular "Eclectic Electric" column for Guitar Player. Over the course of the next two years he covered such diverse topics as choosing a steel guitar, finding good used 6-strings, stolen guitars, artist endorsements, instrument upkeep, cheap customizing, and self-instruction. In June '76 he was profiled in GP along with the other Doobie Brothers guitarists, and a year later was added to the magazine's advisory board.
Tom Johnston, a founding member of the Doobies, left the band in 1977. Their next album, Living Along The Fault Line, bulleted into the Top 10 and stayed there for two months. Television offers followed, and the group appeared on a 90-minute special visit with Dinah Shore, CBS' Peoples Command Performance, a two-part episode of ABC's What's Happening, and PBS' Soundstage. As a member of the Doobies, he also co-hosted three annual Christmas parties to raise funds for the Stanford Children's Hospital in Palo Alto, California. His last appearance on vinyl with the band was on the 1978 release Minute By Minute, which yielded the hits "Dependin' On You" and "What A Fool Believes."
While recording Minute By Minute, Baxter produced the Paul Bliss Band's Dinner With Raoul LP. Since then he has produced Livingston Taylor's Man's Best Friend and Nazareth's Malice In Wonderland, and worked as a session guitarist for Donna Summer, Barbra Streisand, Dolly Parton, Glen Campbell, Dusty Springfield, Burton Cummings, Roy Orbison, and Harry Nilsson. He's also done McDonalds' commercials and tracks for The Gong Show Movie and Sesame Street. The day after the following interview was completed, he flew to Montserrat in the West Indies to begin production of the next Nazareth release.
If guitarists want to hear the essential Jeff Baxter, which cuts would you advise them to listen to?
I have a hard time with that. I'm always afraid of making a judgment on something I've done in terms of "Do I like it, or do I not like it?" because it seems like I'm stopping. It's a period in time that's already passed, and I have to go and keep up the work somewhere else, to keep my knowledge of the instrument happening. I just never think about looking back and the ego factor involved in saying, "Well, I was great on this! I was great on that!"
Have there been times when you've surprised yourself?
Yeah. There was a Brooklyn Dreams album called Joy Ride. I was using this Burns Bison guitar that I had fallen in love with. It was very inexpensive, bought it for 20 bucks—great guitar! My solo was in a style that was like I was mumbling in tongues or speaking in dreams using languages that have been dead for thousands of years. I was really surprised. It was a style of guitar playing that I'd always enjoyed listening to—kind of a real hip country style. It was an R&B tune, so it had to have some of that element in it. After I finished playing, Juergen Koppers, the engineer, looked at me and said, "Vas is dat?" I said, "I don't know. You better play it back." I learned it off the record because I really liked it! Let's see—the solo on "How Do The Fools Survive" on the Doobie Brothers' Minute By Minute surprised me because that was a one-take job, where I just smoked a joint and was alone by myself with an engineer working in another room. It was one of those lean-back-and-play things.
Often your solos seem like miniature compositions inserted into songs, changing the whole mood and concept of the music until the vocals start again. Is this consciously planned?
Yeah, it is, and a lot of time it gets me in trouble. I think that's ultimately why I had to leave the Doobie Brothers. If you're trying to develop a singular, one-vocal sort of sound, then the music doesn't move—wherever you're going, you're already there. Sometimes solos like the ones you described can get you in trouble, but other times, oh boy! The secret to music is when you're cruising along in this groove and all of a sudden you see an open door and shoot through it. If you've got your chops up—which is, of course, your own responsibility—then it's treat time!
Can you play everything you imagine?
Oh, no. I hear some funny things, sometimes things that are in terms of quarter-tones. In the past year I've gotten interested in some of the extra notes in the steel guitar—the tension created by playing something intentionally sharp or flat, mostly sharp. It's not necessarily ending a line on something terrifying like that, but using it as a point. And when you play the blues, if you use the raised 5th, there's a real tension. For example, if you're in the key of D minor, throw in a Bb.
Have you ever come up with a solo before you’ve had a song to use it in?
Yeah. It was in the song "Vampira" on a Commander Cody record called Flying Dreams. I was called to do a surf solo, so I had my Fender Jazzmaster, a Fender Showman amp, and my Fender Reverb. I even put flat-wound strings on the guitar—I was ready. And I knew the solo I was going to play. I can remember saying to the producer, "Boy, I’ve been dying to do that for years!" I just got it off, and it was great.
What do you think a solo should accomplish?
First, it must complement the vocal. You've got to take in consideration the singer and the part of the tune where his melody makes the strongest statement, and complement that. You don't necessarily have to play the melody—there are alternate melodies—but as you go through the solo, keep in mind the fact that you're connecting a guy’s vocal performance. A guy is stopping to make room for a musical interjection, so that must be as painless and fluid as possible. It's much like running a relay: As the vocalist comes up behind you, you get a running start and take it from him. The next prerogative is taking the song a step further. It might not necessarily mean making it more exciting; it might be putting the brakes on an intense melodic situation. It could be opening up the song for the first time. It could be your job to create the feeling of a 64-piece orchestra when your guitar comes in with this note out of nowhere, goes down to the tonic, to the dominant note, and then begins a long vibrato—you know, God has spoken. And then the idea is to get out of it in such a way as to leave the listener with an up note and comfortable with the vocal again. That sometimes takes a little bit of a twist, depending on who the vocalist is. Now if it's an instrumental, sometimes they'll say, "Here, have a good time—play." A three-day weekend at Rancho Bebop—that's what we call it when you get to play whatever you want.
In musical terms, could you describe your approach to soloing?
It's sort of obtuse. Some people look at music horizontally, in terms of the flow of just a single line. Others look at it vertically, in terms of chords and how much music you can make in one specific spot. I look at it as sort of entering at a 45-degree angle. I really see percussion as a strong part of expression: the guitar is a real percussive instrument, especially when you're moving volumes of air with thousands of watts. My style of playing rhythm and lead at the same time comes from playing a lot of clubs in the New York and Boston scenes. I think that got me a lot of work when I started doing sessions because when I would playa solo, it would be real different, and most of the time people would like that. When they didn't. I learned how to say, "Okay, here's my fuzztone." I'd just click it on, go whirr, and take care of business.
What do you think about while you're taking a solo?
If I'm familiar with the terrain, it's pedal to the metal. I've made it a point of not playing the same solo twice live because this forces me to think. I'm not saying every one is good, but I think people deserve my best shot, as opposed to Muzak. Sometimes I go into it saying, "Tonight is going to be diminished scales night, and every time I get a chance to blow, I'm going to use these scales as my structure," and then go for it. Sometimes it's melodies night, or Glenn Miller night—everything I play is going to be from Glenn Miller tunes. Or it might be Ventures night, and I'm going to surf my way, hopefully keeping the level of musicality high enough so people enjoy it. It would give them what they expected, plus an extra—some fun! Number one. I believe in humor in my playing. I think it's pretty obvious that when I play I tend to be on the up side. Sometimes I might use some of the stock musical reminders from television shows to get people to think of specific things. If you play a certain line, they're- going to think of a bullring in Spain. But keeping it on an up level, I like to use the great theme songs of our time—"I Married Joan" and "The Gale Storm Show" theme—all those fine tunes that are part of our culture.
Do you have to he in a certain state of consciousness to play your best?
No. Unlike writing, music is an emotional commitment in a unique way because once it's done, it's done. You can't withdraw it; you can't rewrite. Once you've released a note to the universe, it's done. I think there are times when different states of consciousness bring on different moods that affect my playing a whole lot. Case in point: I used to always playa real nice steel guitar solo in this Tom Rush tune, "No Regrets." The night I broke up with my old lady. Tom said, "'Listen, do you want to pass on this tune tonight?" I said it was okay, and the solo was just all kinds of different than I had ever done it, because I played from the heart. When you're happy and doing an up-tempo country and western tune, it's really important that you be bouncy, in the old hayride mode. I see guys sit there stony-faced and play, but when you close your eyes, you can tell.
What kind of mood were you in when you did your Steely Dan solos? Were you psyched up?
That was different. Walter [Becker] and Donald [Fagen] had a certain concept of guitar playing, and they would attempt to get as close to that as possible vis-a-vis my abilities as a player. So the solos were sort of a combination of exorcism, displays of technique, and all kinds of things. My frame of mind during most of those solos was an extremely emotional emotionlessness. I was very into the music, but to get too personally involved would have been dangerous, because the idea was that nobody got that personally involved. It was the dynamics of the personal relationships within the band.
Would they tell you exactly what they wanted in the solos?
Sometimes. And I was into that because as a player. I liked the idea of somebody coming up with a musical idea and asking me to execute it. How they expressed it to me would vary. When we did "East St. Louis Toodle-oo," everybody picked a piece of it, and I said, "I’ll take the trombone solo and learn it on steel guitar." Usually Donald would say, "Bend a lot of strings" and "Go fast!" They both liked guitar playing, and they would get me excited about it. Sometimes Walter would push me to the point where I was wondering if one solo was different from the next, but I think that's all constructive. I never really had any complaints. And I liked what came out—that's the bottom line.
Did you play the solos on "Bodhisattva," "Reeling In The Years." and "My Old School"?
I played the second solo in "Bodhisattva"; Denny Dias played the first. On "Reeling In The Years" I did the surf parts—the little spots before each solo. "My Old School" was one time when I said to Don and Walter, "Hey, I got a line on this. I don't care what you say, I'm going to play this. And I think you're going to like it." It worked out good. That was with my homemade Stratocaster-style guitar.
What was the difference between being in Steely Dan and being in the Doobie Brothers?
To tell you the truth, they ended up being the same. I kind of look at guitar playing on two levels. There's the professional studio sausage method where you go in and grind it out, and that's not necessarily bad. It's good music and you're having a good time. To get a chance to do it and be of that caliber is one of the most wonderful things that could ever happen to a guitarist. A lot of guys say it kills them; well, it's what you make of it. In praise of studio guitarists [lifts glass in toast]! The other level is when you really want to play and you're with people who accept and like what you do. My specialty, if you could call it that, is guitar solos, obviously, even though I sit back and do the I-have-a-swimming-pool rhythm guitar sound that LA, laid-back, it's-all-paid-for studio musicians have. I do like to play solos, and the reason Walter and Donald called me was they needed somebody to play solos.
What made you decide to join the Doobie Brothers?
I was kind of knocked out by everybody's ability to play in their own mode. In a world of guitar players, millions of Les Pauls, and hundreds of Marshall amplifiers, here was this Patrick Simmons fellow who could pick up an acoustic and make it sound nice. I thought that was great. Patrick was fun to work with because his tunes moved from place to place. They didn't repeat phrases. For a guy like me who likes to blow his brains out, the more changes the better. I always knew his tunes were going to go left at any minute. He would play in these open tunings, and I would stare at the chords and go, "My God, if I could just get a handle on one of the two or three scales that this thing is made of, I know I can figure it out from there." And Tiran Porter had a style of bass playing that was real interesting—the musicality was there. Then the idea of three guitarists really got me off.
I liked that band Moby Grape. I thought they managed to use the three-guitar concept in a successful and tasty way. It was well thought out, and there were three distinct sounds. When they blended, they blended. When they didn't, you could hear everything. It wasn't like World War III happening. After I joined the Doobie Brothers, things changed. Tom Johnston quit. Then I tried to get the band into doing some studio work, into becoming like a rhythm section. That's when they cut some Carly Simon stuff—“You Belong To Me" [Boys In The Trees]. And then I thought if they were going to stay together, what they needed was a keyboard player. Michael McDonald had played with Steely Dan. I called him, and he joined. After a while the music began to close up, and the first thing to go was the guitar. There was really no place for my kind of playing.
You could hear it coming.
Oh, sure. It was time. And then while the Minute By Minute album was happening, I was producing an LP for Paul Bliss. It wasn't a success, but everybody at Columbia liked it. So this producer thing happened. Then I went in with Livingston Taylor, and also with Nazareth to do their Malice In Wonderland album, which did real well. All of a sudden it's like I'm a reducer now. So I thought I should keep my musical chops up and keep my brain working. Here's a new opportunity to learn. I'm in the college of musical knowledge again, producer's workshop 101, with a little extra handle because I've got my PhD in studio rat.
Did you enjoy being on the road with the Doobie Brothers?
Not as much as I used to. I like playing to people, but I'm not a real fan of being on the road, because I've found that after a certain length of time it becomes an excuse to avoid certain responsibilities. This is very hard for people to see. It's sort of like anorexia nervosa, like a combination of a physical and psychological addiction. Your bottom line becomes the road. You may have a house in Clarence White on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo [Columbia, CS-9670]—whew! The world is a worse place for his loss. I used to love the guitar on Brenda Lee's records. I liked Jimi Hendrix's playing all the time. We even had a chance to work together a few times. That was wonderful. Eric Clapton's solo on "Cat's Squirrel" [Fresh Cream, RSO 3009] was pretty well put together. Of course, Jeff Beck was always playing great guitar. I was interested in guys in New York, too. Ricky Phelps—he died a long time ago—was a real innovative musician. Sam Brown, who's also dead, played with Gary Burton for a while, and he was a bopper beyond belief! He was also a gentleman who taught me a lot. I also liked "In My Own Dream" by Paul Butterfield; I thought that was a beautiful record. So those are the guys I really went nuts behind.
Are you a self-taught guitarist?
Yeah. When I was a kid I wanted to be a disc jockey so I could listen to enough records to teach myself everything. I had taken classical piano for ten years, starting when I was five. My concept of a steel guitar is more of as a keyboard than as a stringed instrument, so it's probably a little sillier than most. And a lot of my musical ideas are based on piano.
How would this influence your guitar playing?
For instance, it comes out when I play a D chord in the first position—on strings three, two, and one, using the 2nd and 3rd frets. If I'm racing along, that chord translates immediately to that same geometric shape that is a D major chord on piano, with a D, F#, and A, which I could virtually play the same way on the keyboard if my fingers stretched that way. I always relate close chords on the pedal steel to the keyboard.
Did other guitarists teach you things that you found helpful?
Dan Armstrong was really my guy. When he comes up with something, he usually hips me to it. Back when I was working for him in New York, every guitar player on the planet would come into his place, and I got to sit there and play with just everybody. Eliott Randall and I sometimes play uncannily alike because we've known each other so long.
Are there other places you learn?
Believe it or not, I’ve been learning by going back and listening to what I've played before. I never used to do that. but I thought maybe it's time to really give it a good listen and find out the things that I like and dislike. There are some things that I don't even play anymore. I listen to recordings I made 13, 14 years ago, and I certainly didn't have my technique down, but there was something that I kind of liked—a lot of energy and looney noodles. There were a couple of guitar lines that had escaped my memory for years, which is good.
Can you figure out everything you've done on record?
Oh, yeah. Sometimes I surprise myself and have to go back and learn it.
Are you very self-critical?
Yeah, I'm one of those high self-monitoring people. I go through my whole status about every 30 seconds—complete check on all levels. That's where the drive comes from. You never meet your expectations.
Have you achieved your childhood ambitions?
Yeah. As goals were attained, newer ones sprung up and took priority. I guess one goal that every musician has is to have some respect from his peers, because that gives him a sense of worth. It means he's contributing to the forefront of music. With his ability, he is taking all of his commitment to music, which is almost like a priesthood in a sense. You really say you're going to starve and do whatever it takes to play. That commitment and feeling of being out there in front is probably my greatest goal and I think I’ve attained it in a sense. When I do guitar solos on records now. I'm always thinking. “I wonder what Eliott's going to think," or, "What's [Hugh] McCracken going to think when he hears this thing?” Plus, I've been able to be as professional as possible, playing with the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, Elton John, and Linda Ronstadt. Being a guitar player in those bands, you have everybody telling you how wonderful you are. Well, when you're working a date for The Gong Show Movie, playing ukulele with a 36-piece orchestra waiting for you, the guy could care less what band you're in. He just wants you to play the part right. So I've found the perfect combination of discipline and self-respect. I get my self-respect from my peers as well as the inner-satisfaction of accomplishing what I want to do. Meanwhile, staying in the work scene keeps the old ego down and keeps you in the right perspective—you may be a good guitar player, but you're just a guitar player.
Do many musicians lose that perspective?
I've seen it happen to quite a few people. I think that's probably what happened to Jimi Hendrix. People lost perspective of him. Like any human being, you rely on your fellow humans to gauge you as what you are and where you are—what the reality is. If people begin to feed you incorrect data—i.e., you are a god-after a while you have no choice but to believe it because there's nowhere to turn. And the reality is for you what people tell you. Working certainly helps you to avoid it. By and large I feel like I'm a fine guitarist—I really do. I've got a lot to learn. There's the field of classical music; I really want to be a better classical player. This is my weak point. I want to be a better reader, too, so I do a Jot of exercises. Keeping a good perspective on yourself is another reason for doing dates.
What is the difference between what you play for yourself and what you do for the public or on vinyl?
Sometimes it's the same. Playing by yourself is the Zen of music. When you are well into what you are doing, you leave the conscious level—the middle man leaves and you're left with the direct line from your mind to your fingers. When you play for yourself, the reason for it is the ultimate goal—finding the truth. My way to find it happens to be music. You attain the state of flow, the flux. It's hard to say what I play when I'm by myself, because I can't remember most of it.
Can you play yourself in and out of moods?
Yes. I teamed a long time ago that drugs and music have much the same effect because music has definite physical effects on the body, such as with heartbeat and respiration. I think that certain frequencies can facilitate the release of hormones and different enzymes in the body. Music is physics. Biology is also physics, so there's actually a common denominator there. If I'm in a depressed mood, I find that music is better, for instance, than smoking a joint. If I feel bad, I can verbalize it in this other vocabulary, this other language.
Will you play a sad song, like a blues?
Yeah, I might. Usually I sit down at the Hammond organ and play Bach. Then I realize how insignificant any sorrow or despair that I have is! It's really therapeutic for me. Not to say that I don't like to get high, but I always have a fear of getting high because of being in a depressed state. I've had too much experience with drugs to know that you do not take them to pull yourself out of something. You take it to open your mind to something, and music is kind of helpful in that way. We're talking about life in the fast lane. I know I'm trying to sound very erudite and lucid, but there's that life where you do four sessions a day and everybody has a little toot. You work for two months straight, and you've probably done 20 grams of cocaine. You don't even think about it because you're not really conscious of it.
Is it still very common?
That's changed. I haven't seen much of it anymore in the studio scene, and that's a good thing. But everything has its rules. For rock-and-roll-star guitar players, it's having a lot of guitars, couple of fast cars, and all that kind of stuff. For a studio player, it's having a check that's bigger than the entire budget of the United States, being able to do 20,000 dates a year, and being able to be late to all of them and still get triple scale. Even if you are having a leg amputated, you are going to be at that date and you're going to cut it and do it right the first time. It's the ultimate machismo studio musician concept, and it gives these guys every chance to be as self-destructive as a good rock and roll star—crash and burn! After all, a studio guy doesn't get to go on the road and drive himself nuts. He has to do it at home. He can channel all of these self-destructive tendencies into lunacy at work. But the bottom line is that you're always on. You can't play the game unless you always win. That's the pressure, and that's exciting.
What do you do when you're stuck for ideas while on a session?
Sit back and wait because it'll come. Sometimes it's a good thing. I did a session for [Steely Dan producer] Gary Katz a long time ago, and he told me to bring all my stuff. I charged him triple scale because it was on a Saturday at a place way the hell out. He said, "Okay, I want you to listen to all these tunes and then tell me what you think we ought to do." So I listened to ten tunes, and each time one would finish I said I didn't hear anything. When we finally finished, I said, "Gary, there's really nothing you need. It sounds fine." He said that was all he wanted to hear and paid me my money. Fair enough. You just don't play sometimes. I found that one of the harder things to learn to say is: "There's no need for it. You know, as much as I'd like to play on this track as a businessman, as a musician I know you don't need it."
What are some of the more unusual parts you’ve been asked to do on record dates?
Well, sometimes you get requests like, "Can you make it more green?" or, "I need it to ooomph more." So you say okay and think about all the times you've ever done sessions and people have said to you. "Boy, that really ooomphed." or "That sounds really green." and you start from there, plus you do what you think you can do for the track. For the Alessi Brothers I had to do a 427 Cobra going through all four gears, downshifting. We were smoking a little reef on the date, and I was told. "Okay, come on, let me hear you blow a gear!" So finally how it ended lip was going from first to second to third to fourth, blowing the fourth shift, and going back down to second and having the car fade out. It was kind of fun.
How did you do it?
On a steel guitar with a fuzztone. I used two notes right next to each other. And being a fan of high-performance. four-speed transmissions, I sort of had it. Then Dolly Parton asked me to make fireworks one time, for the cut "Baby, I'm Burnin'" [Heartbreaker]. I was working with my Roland guitar synthesizer, and she said, "Can you just make it like reds and greens and sparkles and..." So I thought about it for a second, and then with one hand I played as many notes as I could while the other hand was working the Roland's transposer, slapping it back up and down. She was going. "Yeah, yeah, that's it. Whee!" There have been a couple of dates like that. I enjoy it. I get a lot of calls for steel guitar where they say, "Can you make it not sound like a steel guitar?" That's always a request. They want something different. They want a sound that has the fluidity of the steel guitar, but doesn't sound like "Six Days On The Road."
What can you do?
There are a lot of things, many different ways to play the instrument. I use it with a vocoder sometimes. I do more string stuff on the guitar synthesizer now, but I used to use a combination of a fairly clean fuzztone, the right kind of equalizer for chopping highs off, and a limiter to pretty much recreate the sound of a cello. Using an octave divider through the Roland Ross Chorus is a really beautiful effect, especially with a stereo pickup. I usually use these effects independently, I always have a limiter—an Orange Squeezer—coming right off the steel guitar, which keeps the signal to the volume pedal pretty constant. Then I put the other effects after that.
Do you have any effects pedals for your guitar?
No. I'm not much into pedals. I'm looking for a more esoteric way to change my channel.
Do you keep up-to-date on the latest sonic innovations?
Yeah. I do a great deal of research and development for Roland, having an interest in the product itself. So I get to stay up-to-date on the latest as the guys from Japan come over with the calculators and blow my mind one more time. They're always on top of it, and they inform me. And I consult for quite a few companies on the side, helping them. I don't endorse anything because I don't think anybody really cares if I’m standing there holding a guitar, saying, "Hi! My name is Jeff Baxter, and I play this guitar." What I usually do when they send something to me is type up a two- or three-page report, send it back, and charge 50 bucks an hour for consulting. I think they can sell more guitars by making better instruments than by me selling them.
What is the difference between your studio and live playing?
Obviously the studio has certain confines. The playing is a little more studious, although when I was out with the Doobie Brothers, sitting down and playing in a comfortable style, I got the two together pretty well, which made me feel good. I always wanted to be able to make the transition. I liked coming home afterward because I had zillions of chops, and I would start booking sessions a month before I got off the road. I'd be burnt, but boy, could I play and immediately make the transition into doing dates. "Hot Stuff" on Donna Summer's Bad Girls album was one of those. When I did that I was burning, just came off the road. I did four guitar solos, eight rhythm parts, and two synthesizer parts in four hours. I had never heard the stuff before we did it. I loved every minute of it.
How often do you listen to a song in the studio before you lay down your parts?
Once. I try to learn it and do the solos as quickly as possible. If you're going for emotion, you can get a lot of guys to play a good solo. But what you want is to draw something from inside you, where there's a little bit of excitement left because you're not quite sure of what you're going to do with it. It becomes quite like live play. I try to capture that. Again, that's why I ended up sitting down onstage with the Doobies and sort of doing the whole studio scene live.
Is this why you appeared on the Doobie Brothers' television special wearing headphones?
Yeah, so I could get a good mix and hear exactly what was going on and stay out of somebody's way, It's also a statement. I wanted to show guitar players that as bombs are going off and people are leaping around and the whole place is going nuts, you can sit there and really play—that's the best! People are going to like what you do because you're trying your damndest. Performing live has a responsibility in the sense of entertaining. For a lot of people that is movement, but I thought I would take the philosopher Spinoza's approach and understate, make the statement more powerful by not moving and by creating all my tension with the notes. People begin to rivet their attention on you, and you feel that energy. You're in the same position Segovia's in because you are trying to get the most out of your instrument. To me that was a killer. The energy would just well up.
Do you usually do first rakes when you're recording?
Most of the time. Sometimes you put down eight solos. Then instead of splicing the best from each, I like to combine the best parts and execute it as a whole while I've got something hot happening.
Are you always psyched when you're going to record?
Yes. Gary Katz would never buy a solo unless I was turning purple from steaming it out. I really do try to get that across.
How many dates will you now do in an average week?
It all depends. Sometimes I'll go two or three weeks without doing any. And then I'll work two or three a day for four weeks and just stop. It's not something that I like to do consistently because there's the production thing and my weekly gigs with Billy & The Beaters. This is a band that plays at the Troubador in LA every Monday night at midnight led by [composer/bandleader] Billy Vera. Peter Bunetta, a drummer, said, "You ought to come down and play steel guitar with these guys. The deal is great. You don't know the tunes; he just calls out the key. They're all good musicians and everybody's got brains, so just listen." It's my kind of situation. I like the kind of thing where you listen for a second, get a line on it, and go for it. You're faced there with a bunch of middle-aged guitarists, saxophone players, crazy beer drinkers—guys who sell their souls every day in the studio—and it's magic! It's a no-pressure situation.
Have your recording techniques changed over the years?
I've standardized them in a lot of ways. Like if somebody calls me for a steel guitar date, then I use either the Sierra or a Sho-Bud. The Sierra is their double-neck deluxe model-top neck is an E9 tuning, bottom neck is an E diatonic. The Sho-Bud is beautiful. It's a Super Pro, and they put my name in it in mother-of-pearl, just like Speedy West's. What a thrill when that showed up in the mail! Usually I use an Ampeg VT-22 or Vox Super Beatle head. The Vox is excellent for steel guitar because it has very little inter-modular distortion at low volumes. It's an old one and has a nice reverb and echo for the steel. Right now I'm working on a voice-synthesizer interface for the steel. I don't like floor pedals; they're a pain in the ass. The next thing has to be a computer that has all your effects plugged in it. The computer would understand a vocabulary of about 250 words, so with this tiny microphone you have clipped around your face, you say, "Flange 2." and it does it. That way you don't have to work.
Do you like to travel light to sessions?
Yeah. I usually use either a small Roland amp, a small Princeton with a little modification, or an old VT-22, which is a very nice amplifier. It's a question of the date: What does the guy want? If he wants chain-saw rhythm guitar, I'll take my Ibanez Artist with a new battery and run everything on it pedal to the metal into the VT-22 full blast. Sets up a definite program of chain saw. If someone wants a chain-saw solo. I'll go in with my Roland GR 300 or a couple of real ratty Gibson Les Pauls that sound pretty ugly when they're flat-out. And if they want the signature, like in "My Old School." I'll take my homemade Stratocaster.
Do you have guitars that are good for one certain sound?
Yeah, my Saturn '63. I think it was made in Bavaria. I bought it because it was the only guitar I ever saw with chrome f-holes, a vibrato arm, 17-piece laminated neck, and chrome binding. I pulled it off the shelf as a joke, plugged it in, and it sounded wonderful! It was like a real nice Gibson L-5 with a muted pickup. So I gave the guy $30 and took it home. I'm a fan of cheap guitars because I remember being real bugged seeing a kid who makes a buck and a quarter a week saving up to buy $1,400 worth of guitar. That just killed me. There are guys like Jackson Browne and David Lindley who know the value of a good Silvertone guitar or Fender Jazzmaster. I gave Jackson a Silvertone, and he sent me a Sears guitar with the amp built into the case. He knows just what I like. Sometimes I like to take my silly guitar into sessions and blow people away.
How many guitars do you own?
I don't know, because I have a lot of prototypes from different guitar companies. All kinds of stuff.
What are your favorite instruments?
I love my Burns Bison, and my Jazzmaster that I bought when I was 11. It's got an aluminum pickup. I've got my homemade Strat that I made of rock maple when I was working at Valley Sound in LA It's made to be a direct-into-the-console guitar, which is actually my favorite sound—that and an Orange Squeezer. I get a lot of calls for that guitar; the bridge is all rusty, and I must have fretted it three times, the last time with Gibson frets. I used it for the solos in "My Old School" and "Take Me In Your Arms" [Stampede]. That guitar sustains forever. I've got two D'Angelico acoustics, a New Yorker and a Mel Bay. The New Yorker was Dan Armstrong's, and I made him swear to me years ago that if he ever sold it, he would have sell it to me or I'd do something nasty—order a McDonald's fish sandwich and put it in his glove compartment and break the key off or something! I love that guitar and respect it. When I open the case I have to stare at it because it can play so much more than I can. I do my practicing on it, using medium-gauge strings. I don't practice much on electric because I use it with Hilly & The Beaters, and then in the studio it's mostly electric guitar and guitar synthesizer. Using the acoustic is a good regimen for me.
Do you save your guitars?
Some of them. I've given a lot of them away. Sometimes a company will send me some guitars to endorse, and I’ll say no. They tell me to keep them anyway and play them. Then I'll find situations where kids need guitars, so I say, "Okay, here's an electric guitar. Good luck!" I probably wouldn't be playing it much anyway. And you know, what the hell, it's good karma. Guitars are like books—you'd like to see them back, but if they have a new home, it's a good thing.
What do you look for in a guitar?
Ruggedness. Since I don't play with any particular gauge of string, I like guitars with long scales—25 1/4". I like it to be really rugged. If you begin to rely on a certain sound, and the instrument is fragile, it's going to change on you. It's going to be a pain in the ass to make it right. That's why all of the guitars I ever made were amplified canoe paddles. You could canoe your way down the Colorado River and they'd stay in tune. I always look at the neck. I can tell in a second if it's right, just run my hand along the fingerboard and down the back. Then I play an Fmaj chord with my thumb on the 6th string, and then a Bmaj6. If it feels right, that's it. I pick a chord halfway up the neck, where there's a real trouble spot in a lot of guitars. Even if the neck appears to be straight, it may give itself away.
Do you have any preferences in types of fingerboards?
No. I like rosewood only because I've been playing on it for so long. I like its porousness. I also like maple necks, too, that are made of unfinished wood. Lacquer just makes problems.
How much do you think certain guitars or equipment matter musically?
Not much. Sorry guys! It's a poor workman who blames his tools. An instrument is usually good when it is well-made and functions properly. A Rolls Royce that doesn't run looks good, but it ain't working. Even a cheap guitar like my Harmony is right on the money when it's clean, harmonically adjusted, the pickups are in the right place, and the electronics are in good shape. If there's a harmonic problem with the instrument, there may be nothing you can do with it. I like to play with a lot of different guitars because they suggest things. When you were a kid, if you had a couple of Zimgar guitars or an Alamo or two, and you went down to the store and wrapped your fingers over a Jazzmaster, you played stuff sitting there you never played before. As you go from guitar to guitar, it's all got something to tell you.
Do you use certain instruments for rhythm and others for lead?
I prefer using guitars with single-coil pickups for rhythm because there's a real fine line between a muffled sound and a background sound.
Do ideas come to you when you don't have a guitar in hand?
Yeah. I’ll get home and put them down in my studio as soon as I can.
Do you follow any conscious picking formula?
I try to adhere as much as possible to the regular sweep-pick method, the up-and-down method. If I were playing a scale, for instance, the pick would fall the way you're normally taught. I've bastardized that style by using all of my other fingers as well, so I hold my thumb and index finger around the pick and use my other three fingers, especially for forming chords. Sometimes I pluck and play with the pick as well, working the melody inside the chord. But for real dramatic stuff, I find that plucking a chord can be more effective than blasting it with a pick because when you hit with a pick, for an instant you stretch the string beyond the prescribed tension for pitch. That makes the guitar a little out of tune on its attack. But if you pluck the strings and have a little power behind it, you come in right on pitch. Sometimes that is as dramatic as the energy that comes from doing a windmill into the guitar.
How do you hold your pick to get harmonics?
I tend to hold it close to the attack point. I hit the string with the pick and immediately use the flesh of my thumb above the pick to make the harmonic. There's really no trick to harmonics. It's just understanding where they are. You have to be able to visualize the string length independent of the fingerboard. Harmonics can be seen as points on the string, and they change distance proportionately. You have to imagine the fingerboard extending all the way to the bridge. The pickup location has a lot to do with getting a good sound, and if the rhythm pickup is placed where the 24th fret would be, then that can provide you with a guide for finding certain harmonics. You might experiment and find the place where you play best. Playing harmonics in one key may be easier than in another.
Do you use vibrato from the wrist or from the fingers?
Either. Vibrato from the wrist describes a slight are of a circle on the fingerboard. It's usually a function of the wrist turning, like if you were turning a faucet or the controls on a hi-fi. It's circular in motion, whereas the forearm vibrato is a very steady, up-and-down, parallel-with-the-fret movement. I can control the string more with my forearm than with just my finger, because I don't usually play with super-light strings. If you want to bend up to a note, that's when you use the wrist vibrato. When you reach a note and want it to speak in its boldest terms, you usually use the forearm vibrato. The wrist vibrato is really used to get the tension to move the string to a pitch where the finger can take over.
Do you have to change your techniques to play guitar synthesizer?
Everybody seems to have a different opinion about that. Some of the first devices triggered a little slow, but I've seen guys play them with impeccable technique. It's like anything else: If your keyboard technique on a Steinway is fairly heavy-handed, your synthesizer technique is going to go through some changes because you're going to get a lot of unwanted notes. There are some good guitar synthesizers on the market.
Have you ever considered doing a solo album?
I don't see any reason for it. Maybe I don't have that kind of image of myself; I see myself as kind of the ultimate sideman, not as a rock-and-roll-star guitar player. If I didn't play much anymore I suppose that you could make a real good case for saying, "You should be playing because there are people who care about what you do, and to stop is stupid. It's also not right; it's a bad thing." But if I keep doing all these #1 records, I'll be playing out. If I was going to make a solo album, it would have to be something more, like a video disc. It should take advantage of the technology. It shouldn't be just, "Hi! I want to show you all of my diminished scales, and the tune is called 'From Here To The Sun'." Not to put down solo albums, because some of the best guitar playing on the planet is done on solo albums.
Is there anything happening now that you find musically exciting?
Yeah, a guitar player named Eric Johnson from Austin, Texas. This kid is just amazing! He's 23. When I heard a tape of him, I went ape. This might sound silly, but if Jimi Hendrix had gone on to study with Howard Roberts for about eight years, you'd have what this kid strikes me as. I'm going to produce a record for him. I've been looking for a longtime for a guy to whom I could give whatever reputation and creative energy I have. You know, [mimics Saturday Night Live comedian Garrett Morris] baseball's been very, very good to me. This guy really struck me-knocked me out.
Are there any styles of music you're especially attracted to?
Any excuse to play bebop. It's always been the ultimate. Going to bebop is the natural progression. As one wants to learn more and more on the instrument, bebop is sort of the epitome of technique. It requires the most control on the instrument; that alone is enough to make a person like me want to be a better bebopper. It's like the spillover from the space program: All the knowledge you get from bebop filters down to other aspects of your playing. I mean, when you listen to some of those cats—whoa! My father first turned me on to [saxophonist] Charlie Parker when I was nine. I couldn't believe it.
What do you feel is the musician's responsibility to his art?
Music is accepted as a way to the truth because of its integration with being and the substance of the universe. There's two sides to it. There's the pleasure side, the Dionysian part of playing-get up there and hump your guitar, rock and roll. And then there's the other side, the didacticism, the actual education. Because you're learning, you must pass that knowledge out, partially to give yourself room to learn more. You might invent another kind of rhythm that may help someone see his emotions a little bit better. You've just got to keep throwing it into the pot. You've got to be creating and continuing your self-education. That's your responsibility in the priesthood of music. Once you stop learning-you give up your vows-you relinquish your right to follow that path to the truth. It may sound slightly overblown, but I think when we get near to our deaths, as the mind frantically searches for a purpose—something to hold on to—this will come out to the musician. What we're talking about is constantly being at one with the universe in its most basic way, and there are the rules that you follow the dogma—to practice to be good, to work hard.
What is Jeff Baxter going to know in ten years that he doesn’t know now?
I think that through my knowledge, involvement in high technology, and commitment to playing the guitar and all of its manifestations I will achieve two goals. First, I want to interface the human body with the instrument more, through use of biofeedback in terms of all things—body heat, salinity, blood pressure. There are all kinds of ways of controlling your body that you can use to control music. I’ll also be getting more and more into working on a vocabulary for mental images. Because we're going through such a video revolution, visual music will become a lot more in demand and better understood. Plus I want to be a great guitar player!
What would you like to be remembered as?
A stepping stone. I'd like to be remembered as having bettered the instrument and advanced it one nano-micron. I hope I can touch one person with a solo or change somebody's life—make him happy, keep him from jumping off a bridge, or something like that, all those things. I'd like to be remembered for having done something beneficial.
Originally appeared in Guitar Player magazine, December 1980
See more articles from this GP Flashback series...