Guitar Aficionado

John Fogerty Enlists Brad Paisley, Keith Urban and Dave Grohl to Reinvent His Best-Loved Tunes

Onstage at New York City’s Hammerstein Ballroom, a man in a red, white, and blue plaid flannel shirt is holding court amid an assemblage of musicians who boast punk and hard-rock pedigrees. Slung over his shoulders is a Translucent Blue Ernie Ball Music Man Axis guitar.
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Born to Move: On Wrote a Song for Everyone, John Fogerty enlists friends like Brad Paisley, Keith Urban and Dave Grohl to reinvent some of his best-loved songs.

Story By Richard Bienstock | Photo by Pamela Littky

Onstage at New York City’s Hammerstein Ballroom, a man in a red, white, and blue plaid flannel shirt is holding court amid an assemblage of musicians who boast punk and hard-rock pedigrees. Slung over his shoulders is a Translucent Blue Ernie Ball Music Man Axis guitar.

Spontaneously, he begins to conjure up a glorious racket on the instrument, peeling off fluid, neoclassical-style tapping licks and grabbing his instrument’s whammy bar to perform several deep, Van Halen–esque dive bombs. Finally, he breaks into the hopped-up blues-boogie riff of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Keep on Chooglin’.” The drummer counts off, the band joins in, and the crowd roars approvingly.

It’s a short but impressive display of six-string prowess, and all the more so given the fact that the guitarist at the center of this musical maelstrom is none other than the chooglin’ man himself, John Fogerty. Judging by the startled looks on the faces in the crowd, most of those in attendance are shocked to discover that Fogerty can shred with the best of them.

“I was about 48 years old when I decided I wanted to be really good,” the 67-year-old guitarist tells me a few weeks after the February 13 show. “And the realization that I wasn’t was a fascinating moment for me, a moment where I think most people go, [sighs] ‘Oh well,’ and move on. But I didn’t do that. I went, ‘Oh shit!’ and decided I needed to get busy.”

Fogerty, of course, has long been regarded as a first-class musician, beginning with his days in Creedence Clearwater Revival in the late Sixties. But back then, as a guitarist at least, his stock in trade was crafting beautifully succinct rhythm and lead parts, musical accompaniments so pure and perfect in composition, feel, and note selection that it would be almost impossible to imagine anything else in their place. Think of “Green River,” “Proud Mary,” “Bad Moon Rising,” or most any cut from the band’s deep well of hits, and it is Fogerty’s uncluttered, precise guitar work (and, of course, his inimitable voice) that defines the sound.

That sound and those songs are an indelible part of rock and roll history, but they are hardly where the John Fogerty story ends. Over the past two decades, in particular, he has renewed his music career, which had been inconsistent and, aside from the smash 1985 solo effort, Centerfield, mostly low-key following Creedence’s dissolution in 1972. This rebirth is evident on well-received and critically lauded albums like 1997’s Blue Moon Swamp and 2007’s Revival. Judging by his captivating solo spot at the Hammerstein Ballroom, where he joined the Foo Fighters and guests onstage as part of Dave Grohl’s Sound City Players production, Fogerty has also recommitted himself to the guitar, tackling new styles and techniques with the vigor of someone who has recently come to the instrument. As he puts it, “I started to play with a vengeance.” Indeed, for a guy who has plenty of laurels to rest on, Fogerty continues to be fueled by a restless creative spirit.

Which seems an odd setup to begin discussing his newest album, for which Fogerty remade a selection of his well-known Creedence- and solo-era tunes. He even titled it Wrote a Song for Everyone, after a famous cut from his former band’s classic 1969 effort Green River. But where another artist might have seized the opportunity to cash in on his catalog, Fogerty veers from the tried and true and reinterprets the music of his past to forge something unique and undeniably modern.

On the album, Fogerty is joined by a host of A-list artists who assist him in reconstituting these songs. The roster veers from the stylistically sensible (Bob Seger on “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” Dawes on “Someday Never Comes,” and Brad Paisley on the Blue Moon Swamp cut “Hot Rod Heart”) to the more unexpected (Kid Rock on “Born on the Bayou,” “Proud Mary” with Jennifer Hudson, Allen Toussaint and the Rebirth Brass Band, and “Fortunate Son” with the Foo Fighters). There are also two new cuts, “Mystic Highway” and “Train of Fools,” as well as a reading of CCR’s “Lodi” that features Fogerty proudly playing alongside his musician sons Shane and Tyler.

Wrote a Song for Everyone has been several years in the making for Fogerty, but it’s also been a labor of love. “Julie was actually the one who first suggested the idea to me,” he explains, crediting his wife for the album’s existence. It’s an unusually cold and overcast March afternoon in Los Angeles, and Fogerty is dressed in dark blue jeans, black boots, and the same red, white, and blue flannel he sported onstage at the Hammerstein. (The shirts, as it turns out, are from his own clothing line, Fortunate Son.) He sips from a mug of coffee. “When Julie suggested the concept,” Fogerty says, “what she said was, ‘Why don’t you make a record and have other artists that you like do the songs with you?’

But what I thought was, Wow, you mean I get to play guitar with Brad Paisley? Or, Wow, I get to go jam with the Foo Fighters? It was like Christmas to me. Because all these people on the record—I buy their records. Everyone was selected by us. This is very personal.”

So personal that, when possible, Fogerty sat down with the individual artists to capture them playing the song together. “I tried to spend at least one day with everybody who participated, just to get the basic elements down,” he says. “To take more time than that would have been pushing it, because they all have careers. They’re all busy right now.” Often, that meant traveling to whatever studio was convenient for the parties involved: “Fortunate Son,” for example, was tracked at the Foo Fighters’ Studio 606 in Northridge, California. For “Hot Rod Heart,” meanwhile, Fogerty met Paisley at Blackbird Studios in Nashville.

As it turned out, Paisley was already well familiar with the song—according to Fogerty, he had covered it previously. But the picking phenom had a few twists in mind. “Brad said to me, ‘I’d like to have a guitar duel,’ ” Fogerty recalls. “And I think I looked at him and said, ‘A what?’ And he went, ‘You know, like down on Main Street.’ I may have actually responded, ‘Well, then, I’m already dead!’ Because Brad is, like, the best in the world!”

And yet, if the finished product is any indication, Fogerty is quicker on the draw these days than he gives himself credit for. He and Paisley spend a good portion of the song’s back half ensnarled in a game of dueling Telecasters, and Fogerty’s assured playing holds its own against Paisley’s sharp and speedy runs. “We did it live, side by side in little booths,” Fogerty recalls of the session. “And there were times I’d actually forget to play, because I’d just be awestruck watching him. Afterwards, I begged him for a guitar lesson, which he gave me. And I taped it. He showed me some cool stuff, but I had to work on it for a while, slow it down.”

Fogerty laughs. “But really, Brad’s a great guy, and it was an honor to be there with him. And that’s how I felt about everyone on the record. Keith Urban [who guests on “Almost Saturday Night”] is incredibly talented and a buddy, and he was the first one I asked to do this. And Alan Jackson [“Have You Ever Seen the Rain”], he’s as cool as his music, and a real legend.”

Amazingly, Fogerty has now been doing his thing for more than half a century. He began playing with pianist Stu Cook and drummer Doug Clifford, two schoolmates in El Cerrito, California, under the moniker the Blue Velvets in the late Fifties. Eventually, Fogerty’s older brother, Tom, joined on vocals and guitar. They signed with local San Francisco–based jazz label Fantasy Records in the mid Sixties, underwent a name change to the Golliwogs, and released a few singles. Cook moved to the bass, and, more significantly, John took over vocals and songwriting duties. After a short break during which John served in the Army Reserves, the band reconvened as Creedence Clearwater Revival, and, in 1968, they issued their self-titled debut.

By this time, Fogerty was firmly in the driver’s seat and had his musical course laid out clear in his head. “I was basically a rock-and-roll kid,” he says. “And when Creedence finally got a chance to have a career, I didn’t do anything off the bull’s eye, as I perceived it. I basically tried to aim for that rock and roll heart.”

His guitar path proved a bit more meandering. On Creedence Clearwater Revival, John’s instrument of choice was a short-scale Rickenbacker 325 with a Jetglo finish, though by that time he had already cycled through a few different brands. “I had to take summer school a couple times in high school,” Fogerty recalls. “And there was a girl in my music class—her name was Plookie—who had a Supro guitar and amp. And one day she brought it in and she sang and played. It was a revelation! So I had to have me a Supro guitar. My first one was a pawnshop deal—single pickup, very skinny, an Ozark—and I stayed on that for a while. Then I got a Res-O-Glass, too.”

Though he didn’t remain a Supro user for long, the shorter scale length of these instruments would impact his guitar selections for years to come. In the Golliwogs, he recalls, “I had a Fender Mustang that was short scale, because that’s what I was used to. I liked that. I thought, Wow, I can make all these noises, bend strings all over the place. So I was using these three-quarter-size Fenders, and then Tom [Fogerty] took those to some music store and traded them in and got me the black Rickenbacker, which was short scale too. Because I thought I had small hands or something and needed the shorter scale.” He laughs. “But what it really turned out to be was, I just needed to practice more.”

In the early days of Creedence, Fogerty recorded and performed with two three-quarter-size Rickenbackers (the other sported a Fireglo finish). Both underwent significant modifications. “I became very frustrated with the whammy bars on those guitars,” he says. “And Bigsby in those days was cutting edge. So I had the tremolos switched out. Then I also put a humbucker in the sunburst one. Now that guitar with a Bigsby and a humbucker, that’s a guy on his way to a Les Paul.”
Fogerty would eventually get there, but not quite yet. “We had made our first album, which was all Rickenbacker, and I found I wanted a guitar that I could tune down to D,” he explains. “I had noticed that a lot of the old blues guys, like Lead Belly, did that, and I thought, Well, that’s a pretty cool sound. So my thinking was to buy a big box. So I went to a [Gibson ES-] 175.”

The ES-175 is, in essence, the sound of Creedence’s second album, Bayou Country. It can be heard on cuts like “Bootleg,” “Graveyard Train,” and, most significantly, “Proud Mary.” But just as the band was experiencing its breakthrough with the release of “Proud Mary” as a single, the guitar was stolen. Enter what would become the most iconic of Fogerty’s instruments, his 1968 Les Paul Custom Black Beauty. “I needed a ‘D guitar’ again,” he explains. “So I went to a little music shop on Solano Avenue in Albany, right next to El Cerrito. And on the wall there I saw a black Les Paul Custom. And I knew about Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. I knew these guys had a nice fat sound. So I took it down. It seemed to play all right. Then I tuned it down to D, put it on the bridge pickup—exactly how I’d played “Proud Mary.” I plugged it into a [Fender] Twin that was there, hit an E chord and it went bbrrrrnnng. And that was it. That’s still it.”

That guitar made its debut on Creedence’s third album, Green River. According to Fogerty, the first song he used it on was the iconic track that opens the second side, “Bad Moon Rising.” But like other instruments in Fogerty’s past, the Custom didn’t remain in its original state for long. “It was in an airplane wreck, a luggage-handling thing,” he recalls. “So I took it to a luthier in Oakland named Hideo Kamimoto to have it repaired. And at the same time he was fixing it I had him put on a Bigsby and turn it into another three-quarter-size guitar. Once it was short-scale, I tuned it up and it went from being my D guitar to my main guitar, and I used it on things like ‘Up Around the Bend.’ Then I went out and bought another ’68 Black Beauty [it is this guitar that Fogerty brought to the GA shoot; the three-quarter-size Les Paul currently resides in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame], and that’s the one that’s on ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine,’ ‘Fortunate Son’…everything in D after about the middle of 1969.”

Fogerty has always been most closely associated with the Les Pauls and Rickenbackers that shaped his early sound with Creedence, but throughout his career he has demonstrated a willingness to play a wide variety of instruments—from Strats and Teles, to models from Washburn, PRS, Taylor, Collings, and Ernie Ball. He has also employed custom creations from luthiers like Bill Crook and the late Phil Kubicki. The latter, best known for his work with Fender and, later, his own Factor line of basses, designed and built one of Fogerty’s most recognizable instruments, the one-of-a-kind baseball-bat guitar he still pulls out for live performances of his ode to America’s greatest pastime, “Centerfield.”

“I had Phil make that for me in ’86, when I was going out on tour for the Centerfield album,” Fogerty recalls. “And he researched it a lot. There’s a real Louisville Slugger stamp on there. Phil actually had one on his kitchen wall, because he had to heat it up and test it out. The guitar is kind of wired like a Strat, and it’s made out of ash, just like a real bat. You could probably get a two-base hit out of the thing!”

Over the years, Fogerty also managed to build up a substantial guitar collection, which at one point numbered in the hundreds. But when asked how many instruments he currently owns, Fogerty laughs. “I’d say two and Julie would say three.” He unloaded a hefty portion of his collection early in the 2000s, when numerous instruments were damaged during a move with his family to Nashville. “All my guitars were in the same truck that was hauling the furniture across the country,” he says. “It was July, and the truck wasn’t climate controlled. When I finally looked at them in Nashville, it broke my heart. So I sold a lot off, and there were some great ones, like a 1960 Burst.”

That said, he still has a few beauties in his possession. They include two Gibson Southern Jumbos (a 1952 and a 1954) that he calls “the best guitars I’ve ever heard” and that are today his primary studio acoustics; a 1962 sunburst Telecaster Custom that shouldered much of the work on Blue Moon Swamp; a 1937 square-neck Dobro known as Workhorse; a 1967 Rickenbacker 360 in Fireglo; and a stunning 1945 D’Angelico New Yorker that was a gift from his wife and, in a roundabout way, that Nashville moving truck. “I had an expensive painting that got fried in that truck along with my guitars,” Fogerty says. “So Julie took the insurance money from that and surprised me with the D’Angelico, which is from my birth year.”

Similar to his guitars, Fogerty has also employed various amplifiers over the years, from a Fender Deluxe Reverb in his later Creedence days to, more recently, Cornford, Diezel, and Dr. Z brands. But like his Rickenbackers and Les Pauls, there is an amp that stands head and shoulders above the rest: the 100-watt Kustom K200 that he used on Creedence’s debut and still owns today. While the Kustom proved to be an essential component in his sound with Creedence Clearwater Revival, according to Fogerty, it wasn’t so much the amp’s tone as its construction that first hooked him. “I knew about Marshalls; I knew about Jimi Hendrix. But at the time I kept hearing about all these amps blowing up. I needed something stable that I could count on, so I went with a solid-state amp instead. But what was also cool about the Kustom was it had built in fuzz tone. So it has this great clean sound, but then you could kick it on and you got a great overdrive. And it also had that tremolo vibrato. It was a wicked thing. Eventually, I started writing for what it sounded like.”

For years following the dissolution of Creedence, Fogerty ceased playing the Kustom, much as he did his former band’s songs. Beginning in the Seventies, a deep rift developed between Fogerty and his former bandmates, and, even more so, between Fogerty and Fantasy Records. Both of these battles were well documented in the media and often played out in public. In perhaps the most bizarre moment in his history, Fogerty was sued by Fantasy for, in essence, plagiarizing himself: the label claimed his 1985 solo hit, “The Old Man Down the Road,” too closely resembled his earlier work on Creedence’s “Run Through the Jungle,” for which Fantasy owned the publishing rights.

One result of this bad blood was that Fogerty for decades turned away from playing much of the music of his past. But this began to change in the late Eighties, when, in the name of a few good causes, he broke out some select Creedence tunes onstage—once during an appearance in Washington, D.C. in support of Vietnam veterans, and again at the Concert Against AIDS in Oakland in 1989. The following year, he visited Robert Johnson’s purported gravesite in Mississippi and had a revelation. “I realized here was a guy who hadn’t really controlled his music either,” Fogerty says. “Somebody had done him wrong. And I was talking to him like he was alive: ‘It doesn’t matter, Robert. Those are your songs!’ I saw how it applied to me. I needed to sing my songs.”

It would still be several years, however, before Fogerty truly would. First, he decided to get serious about the guitar. After his revelation at the age of 48 that he needed to improve, Fogerty got busy woodshedding. “I started with Dobro,” he says, “and eventually it got to the point where I would just walk around my house with an electric guitar playing scales, inversions, just learning.”

He put some of these new skills into practice on 1997’s rootsy Blue Moon Swamp, a Grammy-winning effort that was his first record of new material in more than a decade. It was on the tour for that album that he also embraced his Creedence history once again. During performances, he would grab one of his old short-scale Rickenbackers and wheel the Kustom onstage for runs through “Susie Q” and “I Put a Spell on You,” playing the songs with the same gear he used to record them for Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Since then, Fogerty has seamlessly integrated his past with his present, playing his old material onstage, issuing compilations that encompass his entire career, and performing full-album concerts of Green River and Cosmo’s Factory. The new Wrote a Song for Everyone is the first time he has revisited the Creedence years on a studio album, and, he says, “a lot of the reason it happened is because I feel good these days. And I got that from Julie. Things are a lot clearer if you’re feeling okay. When you’re spooked or you’re angry, you don’t necessarily make your best choices.”

Besides, Fogerty has too much road still ahead of him to be overly concerned with the past. “In the years since the major career with Creedence, I’ve allowed myself to grow and expand both as an artist and as a guitar player,” he says. “I feel like that’s what you’re supposed to do. I need to keep exploring.”