FOR ALL THE RECORDING, PERFORMING, AND ALL-AROUND elbow rubbing Joe Louis Walker has done with blues and rock greats throughout the last six decades, his mid-arm joints must be worn down to nubs. From sharing his rehearsal space with Hendrix and bunking with the late great Mike Bloomfield to opening for B.B. King, learning slide from Mississippi Fred McDowell, and having such legends as Scotty Moore, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Steve Cropper, Ike Turner, Bonnie Raitt, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Taj Mahal, and Robert “Junior” Lockwood all make guest appearances on the same album (1997’s Great Guitars), Walker is the quintessential social butterfly when it comes to roots music. And it’s all because of his stinging leads, soulful songwriting, and infectious singing.
As you’d expect, Walker is a walking vault of captivating stories—including the tale of his fateful decision to take a tenyear hiatus from his first love, the blues, in order to concentrate on gospel music and earn degrees in English and music from San Francisco State University. Walker’s latest album, Witness to the Blues [Stony Plain], produced by badass guitarist Duke Robillard, drips with throaty vocal swagger, funky, stuttering solos, and an undeniable authenticity.
What was it like having Duke Robillard at the helm for this album?
I’ve been fortunate to have some great producers—including Steve Cropper, Scotty Moore, Ike Turner, and Tony Visconti—but Duke is like me. He plays a lot of different styles of so-called “roots” music, so if I come in with a song like “Highview,” which has feedback and stuff, he’s not afraid of it. He knows that’s my tribute to Peter Green’s “Supernatural.” I like what the English brought to the blues—and Peter was supernatural when he did that song. Duke got it right away. He played on the song, too. I’m not sure if you can hear it on the album, but at the end of the track Duke said, “Boy, that was fun—let’s do it again!” The whole album was fun like that.
“I Got What You Need” is another high point, with the resonator guitar licks.
I basically wrote that one in the studio. I had the idea already, and I was going to do it myself, but then Duke started playing with me and we just kept the tape rolling. Always keep the tape rolling. Next thing you know, it just came out. That’s the best way to do it. Just play—don’t think about it.
The CD jacket shows you playing everything from a resonator guitar to a Les Paul to a Strat plugged into a Line 6 POD. What’s your take on guitars and technology right now?
Actually, it was Duke who used the POD. But I’ll tell you like B.B. King told me. Number one: if you play like you, you’re going to sound like yourself through anything. And number two: A guitar is nothing but a piece of wood and some strings—it’s what you make come out of the guitar that means something. I was one of the biggest vintage guitar owners in the world, but I happen to have three kids that I’m trying to send to college, so those vintage guitars had to go away. I’m using Yamahas now, and they’re great. I got the AES620 SH, because its got a fat sound, and I liked the tones that Sammy Hagar got when I saw him playing it. I’ve also got a nice Strat-style guitar with a humbucker in the back position that they made for me, and an AES1500 semi-hollow that I use for jump blues. Yamaha is making some great products, and I’m looking for tone more than the name. I endorsed Gibson for 12 years, but now I’m more of a sound person. It’s like I’m painting with colors. If you look back at my 20 albums, I’ve got a different guitar on every album—from a Novax to a ’56 Strat to you name it.
Is there one guitar you relied on more than others for this album?
Yeah, I’ve got an old Gibson Les Paul like the red one George Harrison used on the road with the Beatles. It has Duncan Pearly Gates uncovered pickups—I don’t like the covers on them—and boy, it just screams. I use Dunlop strings on all of my guitars— .009s for electric, .013s for acoustic, and .011s for slide playing.
So what did you plug into most of the time?
Well, I have an old Marshall Bluesbreaker, a blond Fender Twin with two of the tubes removed, another Twin with all four of its tubes, a Fender Princeton, and a Fender Blues Deluxe that I used for a lot of the clean sounds on Witness. I line them up, and when I get a good sound, I just want to keep on playing instead of getting anal about amps.
How about pedals?
I have just enough pedals to add some color. I’ve got all the Dunlop stuff. Jimmy [Dunlop] just sent me a custom shop overdrive pedal that’s like a Tube Screamer. I’ve also got a nice wah-wah, and a beautiful analog delay—the MXR Carbon Copy. I also use a Line 6 Echo Park for a backwards delay on a solo, and I’ve even got a Heil Talk Box. But all those pedals are only for live shows. On the albums, I just use my fingers.
For some players, music is all about woodshedding to get great chops. For others, it’s all about songwriting. And for others, it’s all about inspiring people with a great live performance. What’s it all about for you right now—and has it changed over the years?
I’m the latter, though I’ve been all three. At this point in my career, I’m just glad to have lived through things when a lot of my friends— like my old roommate Mike Bloomfield and lots of other guys—didn’t make it. I’ll be 60 soon, and I thank God I made it, and that I’m able to do what I love to do. I was grousing once after I came back from doing 28 dates in 33 days, opening up for B.B. King in England and Europe, and a friend turned to me and said, “Joe, you could have a real job at 7-Eleven.” Everything’s gravy when you consider that. I’ve been fortunate to be around some great guitar players and songwriters who’ve taught me to trust myself.
In the mid 1970s you took a break from the blues for spiritual and personal reasons. What did you learn from that experience?
I’d played blues since I was 12 years old, and it just got to a point where it seemed like, creatively, everybody was chasing their tail. Everybody was stuck. Bloomfield was stuck. Keith Richards was stuck, at least until he switched to five strings. All kinds of guitar players were stuck, and they also started dying from overdoses. So, I did nothing but gospel for ten years. I played with the Soul Stirrers and the Blind Boys of Alabama and people like that. Originally, I started doing gospel because the Spiritual Corinthians needed a bass player, but then they heard me play guitar and asked me to play that. I went for the weekend but stayed for ten years. That gave me a whole different viewpoint in terms of how less is more when playing guitar, and also taught me how to really sing. I knew how to sing before, but I didn’t know how to do it the way they do it in gospel music. You’ve got to let yourself go. If you want a big sound, open your mouth— you’ve got to have your mouth wide open. If you don’t, you get a small sound.
You’ve had a pretty amazing career, meeting and playing alongside everyone from U.S. presidents to Hendrix and Bloomfield. If you had to choose one or two of the most special moments from your musical career, what would they be?
Number one would be opening for Muddy Waters for two weeks in Toronto during the ’70s, and being with him and having dinner every day. Second, was learning slide from Mississippi Fred McDowell and Earl Hooker. Of course, getting to know Bloomfield, and playing with B.B. for the last three decades, and knowing Jimi and letting him use my rehearsal space were also really special.
Was it more the overall experience of knowing those people and spending time together, or did they show you things that opened up your playing?
I’m the type of guy that you usually don’t have to show me things—I just sit down and play with you and I learn something. If you keep your ears open, you learn.
How do you feel about the state of the blues right now?
A lot of people copy their heroes instead of using their own God-given talents and accepting themselves for who they are. A lot of those old blues masters like B.B. learned to play all by themselves on a plantation, and that’s why they don’t sound like anybody else. I agree with Willie Dixon, who told me that doing a bad version of yourself is better than doing a good version of somebody else.