Elliot Easton's New Moves

The year 1978 was a damn good one for rock guitar.
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The year 1978 was a damn good one for rock guitar. Forget for a second all the amazing releases by AC/DC, the Stones, the Who, Rush, UFO, Santana, and Thin Lizzy, and just think about the debut albums from that year: the Police, Dire Straits, Van Halen, and a band out of Boston called the Cars. Wow.

The Cars’ first record was bursting with vocal hooks, catchy lyrics, state-of-the-art production, and absolutely killer, spoton guitar playing by Elliot Easton. The young lefty did it all on those nine cuts and introduced himself to the guitar community as a player adept at Beatley pop, James Burton Tele twang, bluesy Bloomfield bends, huge Les Paul crunch, sparkling clean tones, and more. And then there were the solos. Easton dished out classic, memorable lead breaks that sounded both composed and reckless, with clever, unexpected note choices and a bold, stinging attack.

As the ’70s turned into the ’80s the Cars star continued to rise, even if Easton’s guitar presence was somewhat diminished. After the Cars were put on blocks in 1988, Easton would lend his 6-string talents to Creedence Clearwater Revisited, Lee Rocker, Elliot Easton’s Tiki Gods, and the New Cars—a band he formed with Cars alum Greg Hawkes, Todd Rundgren, Kasim Sulton, and Prairie Prince. His playing in each of these outfits was consistently great, but what Easton fans really wanted was for him to do another Cars record, where he could play hooky parts, get killer tones, and take wild solos. But with the passing of bassist Ben Orr and the reluctance of leader Ric Ocasek to restart the band, it seemed like the fans were out of luck. Twenty-four years after the Cars’ breakup, however, those fans got just what they needed. Almost.

Move Like This was released in 2011 and, not unlike the Cars’ first album, it somehow manages to come off current and retro at the same time. The tunes are jam-packed with all the cool guitar textures and riffs that you would expect but there are practically no guitar solos, which is odd because many of the chord progressions are right in line with those that Easton so effortlessly blazed over in the past. And the fans certainly get what he brings to the table, as evidenced at a recent Cars gig where his breaks in “My Best Friend’s Girl,” “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight,” and “Touch and Go” generated thunderous applause. A consummate team player, however, Easton isn’t tripping: “It took some adjusting,” he admits. “It’s not a typical Cars record for me in that way, because usually there would be six or seven solos. But I think it’s a good record. I just tried to be open-minded about the direction that Ric was trying to go in and not get uptight about it.”

You famously cut all your parts on the first Cars record in one day. How long did you spend on this one?

Even longer [laughs]. This was a pretty fast record. I guess we recorded for about a week and a half in upstate New York and then about the same in Santa Monica with [producer] Jacknife Lee.

Were the tunes fairly complete when you entered the studio?

Yeah. Ric’s demos have gotten more fleshed out over the years, and when he presented the songs to us, he already had a pretty good idea of what they were. They weren’t necessarily slated to be a Cars album. He was just writing songs for a solo record or something.

How did you decide that it would turn into a Cars record?

I called Ric up to say hi after not speaking to him for quite a while. I asked him what he was up to and he said he was writing songs and that he was really happy with how they were coming out. I asked him what his plans were for them and he wasn’t really sure. I said, “What do you think about making a new Cars album?” He was a little silent and then said, “You know, that’s an interesting idea.” We ended up convening in upstate New York where Ric has a house, and there’s a studio up there. We rehearsed for a few days and it was fun and everybody got along and fell into their natural roles as a band. The chemistry was still there. The dynamics had certainly changed because of the absence of Benjamin, but it still felt like the Cars in the room.

The song “Blue Tip” has some of your signature guitar moves: the stabs on the B and E strings, the driving power chords, and the harmonized doublestops. Can you talk about where some of those influences come from?

The inspiration of playing double-stops comes from both country guitar and R&B guitar: Curtis Mayfield-type stuff, Steve Cropper licks, Cornell Dupree, then, of course, country players. Mostly it’s just a sense of melody or space and groove. At this point the influences are pretty well digested and so the stuff just comes out. It’s all embedded in the DNA.

You almost never go with the same guitar tone for an entire song. This record has a lot of really nice layers and different tones that come in and out in a cool, orchestrated way. Can you talk about your use of layers—clean versus dirty, chords versus single notes?

I’m conscious of the fact that guitars and vocals share a similar frequency spectrum, so it’s important to get some different tones on there so they don’t mask each other. If you do, say, a crunchy rhythm part that has a lot of upper midrange and a lot of “nose” to it, then you want to come back with something that’s more twangy with more highs and lows to surround that frequency so they’re not stepping on each other’s toes. It really helps to change guitars, change amps, and change tones so that they don’t cover each other up. I try to visualize what I’m going for before I reach for a guitar, a pedal, or an amp. Does it have modulation? Is it a swimmy sound? Is it a bright sound? A twangy sound? A singlecoil? A humbucking sound? Should I use a Fender amp or would a Marshall be better? Is it a Vox pokey midrange thing? Just from experience and from knowing how all these different instruments respond, you tend to know what’s going to get the sound that’s in your head. Nine times out of ten it’s right.

What was your rig for the big intro tone on “Keep On Knocking”?

The guitar was a Gibson Custom Shop ’63 ES-335 I think, and I might have doubled it with my signature SG. For the amp, the studio had a really cool setup. They had all these amp heads in the wall of the control room with a switcher box. Then out in the studio they had two different types of 4x12s and you could play any of the amps through either of the cabinets. He had a nice Marshall 50-watt there, Ampegs, a Hughes & Kettner—I think we used the Hughes & Kettner head for “Keep On Knocking.”

That tune has one of the few guitar solos on this record, with a nice, creamy, fuzz tone. What’s going on there?

I guess I was inspired by Clapton’s woman tone. I wanted to go a little psychedelic with that solo so I went for that classic Gibson tone with both pickups on and the tone rolled off on the neck pickup, to get that vocal kind of “ooh” sound. Then I just played something off the top of my head. Within a pretty short time we had the solo.

How common is it for you to do a solo off the top of your head? I always saw you as a guy who would compose his solos before going into the studio.

That was often the case with previous Cars records. In this instance there wasn’t a lot of time to go back to my room and think about it over the course of days or weeks like I would do in the old days. I just went in there and winged it, which I have done in the past. The “Don’t Cha Stop” solo was off the top of my head, as well as certain other ones.

How did you get that solo tone?

It was either the Hughes & Kettner or the Marshall. I don’t think there were any pedals involved.

It’s got a lot of distortion on it.

I might have used my MI Audio Crunch Box. I used that a lot. That’s like my little Marshall in a box. I love that pedal. In fact, I worked with Alfonso Hermida, who makes the Zendrive, on a pedal that’s sort of based on how much I like the Crunch Box. Robben Ford calls the Zendrive a Dumble in a box. I approached Alf with the idea of doing something less Dumble-y, less compressed, and more open and Marshall-y. He came up with something that was even better that we’re calling the Hermida Audio Tiki Drive pedal. It has two levels of gain that you can balance and cascade so you can get everything from a Stones-y, small Fender amp kind of sound to a real Marshall tone.

So where the hell are the guitar solos on this record?

It just didn’t seem to be what Ric wanted, maybe because the songs were not necessarily written with the Cars in mind. He was listening to Snow Patrol and Phoenix and bands with a lot of architectural guitars and not a lot of soloing, and he wanted us to go for something kind of like that—a little more modern, a little more streamlined. I’m sorry for fans that wish there were more solos but at the time it just seemed like that was the direction. I didn’t want to lean on it too much. We hadn’t been together in 24 years making a record and it didn’t seem like the right time to go, “Hey, I want more solos,” even though I like to hear them and I enjoy composing them. But I sort of look at it like this: There are two solos on Sgt. Pepper and they’re both by McCartney. It doesn’t mean it’s not a great album.

When you guys first came out, it was a very exciting time for guitar in pop-rock music. In addition to you, we had Neil Giraldo, Neal Schon, and others playing these wild guitar solos in hit songs on AM radio. Who were some of the guys that caught your ear around that time?

There were a lot of people playing tasty things. I enjoyed James Honeyman-Scott of the Pretenders very much. He was a terrific player. I always loved Brian Setzer, although he came a couple of years later. Mike Campbell with Tom Petty played some nice stuff.

What’s next for you?

I’m trying to get the Tiki Gods going and pursue that instrumental thing. I’ve just done a track for Andrew Loog Oldham, the original manager and producer of the Rolling Stones. He’s doing one of his orchestra records where he does different versions of Stones songs. I did a Tiki Gods version of “Under My Thumb.” It came out great. He overdubbed some strings and now I’ve got it back and I’m going to mix it. I just try to keep busy.

What’s next for the Cars?

There’s been some talk of doing some more recording. We had a good time making the record. Not everybody in the band loves touring but everybody in the band loves the creative process and recording. I do enjoy playing live and I hope that there’s more of that on the horizon too.