George Thorogood’s signature growling slide tone, bare-knuckled voice, and rowdy stage antics have helped keep him the perennial “go to” guy for bad-ass boogie for the last 30 years. Since breaking out in 1976 with George Thorogood & the Destroyers, Thorogood and his band have bucked trends, and probably risked being tossed into the oldies bin for refusing to stray from the format of their classic hits such as “Bad to the Bone,” “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer,” and “Move it on Over.” We caught up with Thorogood as he was preparing for a European tour in support of his latest album, The Hard Stuff [Eagle], which dishes up more of the tough, blues-infused rock that has earned this hard-working group the title, “The World’s Greatest Bar Band.”
Is it ever difficult to find new songs that keep you inspired, yet don’t stray too far from what the Destroyers are known for?
A lot of the material I select for this band is not unlike an actor selecting the right material for a movie. When you hear a song with the title “Rock Party,” what do you think of? Well, it’s either going to be me or J. Geils. It’s not a big mystery. The mystery is trying to get 13 or 14 good songs. I rarely write songs, but when I do, I always remember one of the guys in the band saying to me, “You’re thinking too much. Be bad or be funny or be both.”
How do come up with guitar solos?
To tell you the truth, I prefer not to solo at all. I’m not much of a soloist, and when it gets past slide guitar or Chuck Berry licks, I’m kind of lost. And even on slide, I’m just repeating everything I’ve done. My style is kind of locked into a certain area, so I try to find tunes that’ll fit with what I already know. These days, I really prefer to turn the guitar solos over to Jimmy Suhler [who joined the Destroyers in 2000]. He comes up with some outstanding stuff.
Do you use the same amps in the studio that you use live?
Sometimes I use a Fender Dual Showman, sometimes I use a Mesa/Boogie, and, occasionally, I’ll use a Fender Princeton. Sometimes, I don’t even know how they’ve got me rigged up because the cord is just trailing off into another room. I might not find out what I played through until a couple of years after the record comes out.
How did the Gibson ES-125 become such a signature instrument for you?
Well, I started on acoustic guitar, so I needed a semi-electric—something with an arched top and the strings raised off the body. I play more like an acoustic player, because I use a thumbpick and a fingerpick. That’s why I can’t jam. If you give me a Stratocaster or a Les Paul, I just can’t play them. Unless I’m playing an acoustic part, I always use the 125. It’s not a high-quality instrument like an ES-355 or a Jimmy Page Signature Les Paul. It’s a cheap guitar with P-90 pickups, but it works for me. I think it looks cool, too—kind of like what Chuck Berry played in the ’50s.
You’ve always had a very thick distortion sound. How do you get your tone?
I just plug straight into the amp. For me, distortion and buzz is just part of the sound. It’s part of the true essence of rock and roll. Listen to the old Chuck Berry stuff when he was using Gibsons with P-90s and Fender Showmans. He had this great presence, and the sound was right on the edge. No gadget can do that. You’ve got to put the volume on a certain number, and then it’s all up to your hands. That’s how John Lee Hooker and Freddie King played. Jeff Beck comes out with his Stratocaster, he plugs it into a Marshall with the volume on 4, and everything is just with his hands. He rarely touches his amp. Hendrix would put everything on one volume and let it rip, but then he could play soft as a whisper, too.
What is your slide made from?
I use a piece of copper pipe—which is what I originally saw Muddy Waters using. We make them ourselves from the same stuff you use to plumb your sink. We cut the pipe into sections, and rough them up with sandpaper to get more drag on the strings. It’s a cheap way to make a slide, and I can toss them into the audience at the end of the night.
What tunings do you use for slide?
I use open G and open D. They make the strings feel more slack—and the guitar doesn’t hold the tuning as well—but I can compensate somewhat by using heavier strings. You also get more sustain in G or D—the guitar doesn’t drone as well in A or E. When you’re playing with a trio, that drone is very important.
What gauge strings do you use?
I asked Bo Diddley that question once, and he said, “I use low to heavy duty.” [Laughs.] I use medium-gauge GHS strings. My strings are a little heavier than the average electric-guitar player’s. For instance, I couldn’t even play Carlos Santana’s guitar—his strings are way too light. Same with Billy Gibbons’ guitar. I played his guitar once, and the strings were like rubber bands. I couldn’t even make a note on them. It’s because those guys are electric guitar players, and I’m more like an acoustic player. There’s a big difference.
What does it take to be a successful bandleader?
A lot of Jack Daniels! This is not a position I would wish on anybody. It’s a real struggle keeping the band happy, keeping all the wives happy, and keeping all the promoters and record companies happy. I’m the last one to be made happy. It’s easy if you’re very poor, and it’s easy if you’re very rich. When you’re in the middle like me—that’s when things can get a little funky. Like they say, “It’s tough to get in the big leagues, and it’s even tougher to stay in the big leagues.”
How have you managed to keep your career on a steady track for so long?
I’ve had a lot of lucky breaks. I came along at the tail end of FM radio, and just as that format was ready to close its doors, we got in there with “Bourbon, Scotch, Beer.” Our first two albums were played on AOR [Album Oriented Radio] stations around the clock, and that’s what broke us. Then we got in on the ground floor of MTV, so we got a break there, too. Our third break was getting in on the embryo of what they call classic rock radio. “Bad to the Bone” was one of the forerunners of the classic-rock format, and, believe me, that song was not the hit in ’82 that it was in ’92. Now we’ve gotten in on the ground floor of that new House of Blues craze. There’s a chain of them now, and it’s a very happening thing. There are also these new Indian casinos popping up like acne all over the world, and they don’t want to restrict themselves to a Tony Bennett/Wayne Newton format. They want rock. They want affordable rock, and that means us. So add all those things together, and that’s what has really kept us going.