A 1972 Alice Cooper Session Taught Steve Hunter That the Blues Was His Life

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Top: The Alice Cooper Group circa 1972/1973, at the time of recordingBillion Dollar Babies (released in February 1973); (from left) bassist Dennis Dunaway, guitarists Glen Buxton and Michael Bruce, Alice Cooper (front) and drummer Neal Smith. Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner filled in for Buxton, who was dealing with substance abuse problems.

Sometime in 1972, I think it was, I found myself in the control room of the New York Record Plant’s Studio A with producer Bob Ezrin, Alice Cooper, and guitarists Michael Bruce and Glen Buxton, listening to the playback of a song called “Sick Things” from the group’s Billion Dollar Babies sessions. I was a bit nervous, because I really wasn’t sure what or where I was going to play. If you’ve heard the piece, you know it’s a pretty scary-sounding song, but imagine hearing it for the first time in the early 1970s, and you can certainly imagine how I felt. After the playback, Bob said that he wanted me to play only during the outro, and he wanted something in a “Clapton/Cream-style blues.” That made me relax, because I was a huge Cream fan, and I had already “borrowed” several of Clapton’s licks and phrases for my session work.

In those days, recording guitars was a pretty simple job. I took out my ’60s SG with real PAF pickups (of course, in those days, nobody really cared about that), and plugged straight into a Marshall half-stack. (I can’t remember if it was a 100-watt or a 50-watt, though I preferred 50s.) This was the old four-input head, which I still prefer today. Sometimes, I did jumper the two channels together, but on this occasion, I remember plugging straight into the second channel—which I preferred, because it was a bit warmer, and it seemed to sing more.

Miking was a little more elaborate than it often is today. Usually three mics were used. A Shure SM57 was positioned close to one speaker in the 4x12 cabinet, a Sennheiser MD 421 was placed out from the cab at a distance of about five to eight feet, and a Neumann U87 was put on a tall boom stand and raised up quite high—as well as placed quite a distance from the cab—to pick up the overall room sound. Those three mics were then blended together in various ways to get the final guitar sound.

Bob ran the track a few times, and I did some passes, and then came into the control room to have a listen. I wasn’t really sure if what I had played would work, but when I listened back, I was amazed at how well Cream-style blues fit into that particular track—especially because of how very heavy the song was.

Everyone seemed very happy, and I learned a valuable lesson that has stayed with me throughout my career. What I realized was that if I could play blues over a solo section, I could come up with all sorts of different lines and variations. I think that’s when I first became very aware that I was a blues-based rock guitar player. It was quite a liberating revelation, and it always worked for me no matter the situation. As I was madly in love with the blues anyway, it was awesome to realize that the blues had become such a big part of my playing.

Sometimes called “The Deacon,” Steve Hunter is an American guitarist best known for his collaborations with Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed, and Alice Cooper. Hunter has played some of the greatest riffs in rock history, including the opening solos on Aerosmith’s version of “Train Kept A-Rollin’” and Alice Cooper’s “Cold Ethyl,” and the acoustic intro to Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill.” He also wrote the legendary “Intro” for Lou Reed’s 1973 live version of “Sweet Jane.”