Near the end of soundcheck at the Fillmore in New Orleans, where he’s opening for southern rockers Blackberry Smoke, Chris Shiflett leads his three-piece backing band through the boogie shuffle “The Hardest Lessons,” from his new solo album, Hard Lessons (East Beach Records & Tapes/Thirty Tigers). The band locks into a heady groove while Shiflett and co-guitarist Brian Whelan trade solos in a smoky extended jam, veering into psychedelia as Shiflett coaxes interstellar tones from his Les Paul with a glass slide.
This isn’t the tight, twangy power pop of West Coast Town, his previous solo outing, nor is it the shredding chug of No Use for a Name, Shiflett’s ’90s SoCal punk band. And it sounds way too ZZ Top to come from a Foo Fighter. But as Shiflett discovers later in the show, it was exactly what the night required.
“Opening for Blackberry Smoke, we quickly figured out their crowd was gonna be receptive to some guys getting up there and playing guitar,” Shiflett says. “I didn’t grow up jamming. I don’t come from the jam world at all, but I love dipping my toe into it. The first night we did that, it was like the biggest response we got from any song. We just went, ‘Okay, let’s do that every night. That totally works!’”
When Shiflett isn’t cranking up for the Foo Fighters’ marathon arena shows, where he’s held down lead guitar duties for two decades, he packs up the van and hits the road with his own crew to play the kind of Stonesy country-rock tunes that populate Hard Lessons. Throughout his second solo album, Shiflett’s overdriven Marshall tones play nice with snaky slide licks and pedal steel from Paul Franklin, with nary a ballad in sight. Even his duet with country singer Elizabeth Cook, “The One You Go Home To,” has a saloon-brawl swagger. Guitar Player picked Shiflett’s brain and learned that you can put a punk rocker in Nashville, but you can’t make him turn down the gain.
There’s a lot more guitar crunch on Hard Lessons compared to West Coast Town.
This record has intentionally crunchier guitar tones than the last one. That was [producer] Dave Cobb’s idea, 100 percent. On the stuff that I do outside of Foo Fighters, I usually like to explore guitar sounds that I don’t normally get to. A single-coil Telecaster through a Fender Deluxe, and that sorta thing. I do that on West Coast Town for sure, but this time Cobb was like, “You should make this record with a Marshall JCM800. Do your thing, but with crunchy guitar tones.” That was the guiding light of the record, and we kinda did that on everything.
You wrote a lot of these songs on the road, without working them out too much. How did that differ from your normal process?
Having made West Coast Town with [Cobb], I intentionally prepared these songs less. I just did basic acoustic demos, so I knew I had a song, I knew I had all my words, I knew I had the melody, and I knew I had the chords. But I didn’t wanna overthink it, because the joy of making records with Dave is that you get in there and he just kicks the shit outta your songs and turns ’em upside down and tears ’em up and puts ’em back together again. I didn’t wanna be hindered by overthinking it before I got in there, ’cause I can get stuck on a demo.
How did that process help bring the songs to life in the studio?
When we’re all in a room together and there’s no click track and you’re just playing the songs, that pulls things outta you that you don’t get when you labor over something over and over. We’d go back and overdub, but there is some stuff, like that outro on “The Hardest Lessons,” that’s actually the rough, in-the-room version. I pulled out every Ace Frehley lick I could remember and kept going as long as I possibly could. The idea that we were gonna to try make a more guitar-heavy record, I had that in the back of my mind as we went along.
Were you always inclined to be a lead player?
Yes, no doubt about it. That’s always been my biggest strength as a guitar player. It’s a funny thing, coming of age when that went out of style. Being in Foo Fighters, there isn’t a ton of lead stuff, but it’s made me a way better rhythm player.
Did you play all the solos?
Pretty much, except on “This Ol’ World,” the second guitar solo is Little Joe — Laur Joamets — who used to play with Sturgill [Simpson] and now plays with Drivin’ N Cryin’. He came by and laid that down and I think I did all the rest of it. Dave Cobb does all the acoustic stuff on the record.
The overdrive and saturation on “The Hardest Lessons” is particularly thick. What are you using?
When I got to Nashville, we looked around and there was a real specific [Marshall] JCM800 that Cobb was thinking of, like an ’81 or ’82. It was the first generation of those things. We found one, and it sounded killer, so we used that on most of the record. I’m sure we used a few of his other amps here and there. Cobb gets distortion off the console too. I think we did that on some of that really crazy overdrive stuff.
What guitars did you use this time?
I have a Fender signature model Telecaster. There’s a Master Built version of it that’s red that we call the Cleaver, and I use that a lot. It’s got P-90s — I think they’re the Lindy Fralin noiseless P-90s that are, like, five percent overwound. It’s been my primary guitar since I got it last year. I also used a ’57 goldtop reissue, and then Dave has an actual ’56 or ’57 goldtop that I use on quite a bit of the record, as well.
How does your solo rig differ from what you play with Foo Fighters?
My current Foo Fighters rig is a Friedman Brown Eye. I A/B between that and a Vox AC30. For my solo stuff, I have one of those hand-wired AC15s, and I’ve been using that pretty much exclusively. It grits up real good. It’s an amp that can be honkytonk when you want it to be, it can be the Stones when you want it to be, and it can be Social D when you want it to be.
You’ve explored a lot of genres and styles over the years. How do you keep discovering new ways to evolve?
I was recently watching some YouTube clips of this young bluegrass player. I found his website and reached out to him and took a couple of Skype lessons. I took a Skype lesson from Brent Mason last year that was amazing. That guy is obviously one of the great country guitar players of all time. He showed me a bunch of killer lead stuff — several things that I’ve tried to incorporate into my day-to-day stuff. When I was a kid, I just wanted to learn a couple Chuck Berry licks and go make some noise with some power chords. But I love getting deeper into it now.