Greg Koch talks like he plays: mile-a-minute, impossibly clever, funny as hell, with a seemingly inexhaustible collection of phrases that he strings together effortlessly without ever repeating himself. Interviewing him is madcap comedy from start to finish, and that’s part of what contributes to the Koch Conundrum: It’s sometimes a little too easy to not take the guy seriously. He can be so damn humorous, both in his talking and his guitar playing, that it can overshadow how studied, fluent, knowledgeable, and deep he really is. To compound matters, many people know Koch’s guitar work only from his gigs as a product specialist/clinician for Fender, Wildwood Guitars, or Hal Leonard, further marginalizing him as a “gear demo guy.”
Of course, tons of fans know and love his playing and his ability to absolutely slay in a variety of styles and tones. Over the course of a single tune, Koch will burn through Albert Lee-style Tele shred, Chet Atkins-approved hybrid picking, Danny Gatton-esque jazzabilly, and Three Kings blues, only to somehow wrap it all up with “a little something I got from one Slim Jim Page.” And it’s not just the chops, which are astounding, but the feel, the groove, the swing, and the soul that draw you in and keep you there. Many people who have taken the time to truly listen to Koch’s playing say something along the lines of what one of his biggest supporters, “Young Joey Bonamassa,” had to say: “I believe Greg Koch is pound for pound the best guitar player in the world today.”
So for anyone who still doesn’t get it, Koch’s latest, Plays Well with Others, will definitely convince them. A collaborative compositional affair that has Koch writing tunes with Semi-Twang’s John Sieger, Plays Well is a more song-based effort than his previous offerings. Make no mistake, though, there is a metric sh**ton of amazing guitar playing, from Koch himself as well as the “others” alluded to in the album title, including Bonamassa, Robben Ford, Jon Cleary, and Paul Barrere, all of whom turn in kick-ass performances and keep Koch on his size-15 toes.
You’ve got a lot of guest guitarists on this record but it’s not like you’re in danger of running out of licks. Why not just play all the guitars yourself?
Because I’m a whore [laughs]. Actually, the record initially was going to have a bunch of guest singers on it. When I first reached out to Bonamassa, Robben, Jon Cleary, and Paul Barrere, I wanted them to play of course, but I really wanted them to sing. It was going to be Roscoe Beck, Tom Brechtlein, and me as the rhythm section and all these special guest singers. Then there was the question of material. What the hell would we play? There are some really good songwriters that happen to live in the beautiful Milwaukee, Wisconsin area, one of whom is John Sieger. He’s been around for a long time and he’s a prolific songwriter. I ran into him one day and asked him if he wanted to write some songs together. Over the course of four months we wrote 66 tunes—pretty crazy. I got so used to hearing John sing on all the demos that it just made sense to have him sing on the record. But I had already reached out to these celebrity cats and I still wanted them involved. It ended up working out great because it’s not a gherkin jerkin’ fest. It’s cool, conversational guitar interplay, which is what I wanted, as opposed to some kind of 6-string sword fight.
What was your rig for the Steve Cropper- style, double-stops in “Spanish Wine”?
There’s a buddy of mine in town here named Rick Land and his company is called Landric. He made me a guitar that’s like a double-cutaway Telecaster, but it’s a little bigger. I wanted a slightly larger-bodied guitar because I’m a big son of a bitch. He made me a Telecaster-style guitar that’s 1/8" larger on all sides, which was just large enough to look proportional to my Sasquatchian being. It’s like a thinline double- cutaway Telecaster with a maple top on a pine body. It has two underwound Lollar Imperial pickups, which I really like, and a Bigsby. I plugged into a tweed Bassman, a Fender Princeton, and a Paul Reed Smith HXDA through a 4x12 bottom.
The rhythm tone is really clean. How hard were you driving the amps?
I find the volume knob on a guitar is a veritable cornucopia of different sounds to be had. So a lot of my recordings feature sweet spots that I find in the cracks of the volume control. Depending on what tune we were doing, we would accentuate one of those amps to draw out whatever tone we wanted to hear more. So that one’s really more of the Bassman and the Princeton with the guitar’s volume down. I run the Bassman pretty hot so that when I turn down, it gets this nice bell-like clean thing, but if I turn up it’s pretty crunchy. So again, that’s where the whole fertile crescent of the spectrum of the volume control unleashes a buffet of tones of sweet delight.
How did your unholy alliance with Robben Ford initially come to fruition?
I knew his drummer Tommy Brechtlein and I had been playing with his bassist Roscoe for years before I actually met Robben, but the first time we really hung out was when we got hired to do this guitar camp in Sicily in 2007. It was Robben, myself, and Guthrie Govan and it was the funnest time ever. We would each do an hour-long master class, and then at the end of four days we did a concert together. Robben and I really hit it off and we said, “Let’s keep in touch. Maybe we’ll do something at some point in time.” Strangely enough, I was touring with my band in Italy again about a year later, and Robben was there and came out to our gig and ended up sitting in with us. At the end of the night he said, “We should do something together.” So I always kind of kept that in the back of my mind and when it came time for this recording I sent him the tunes, he really dug them, and then it was just figuring out a time where I could get him to fly in. I got him in for one day. I wanted to get three tunes done, and he was a champion— totally engaged in the process. It was one of the highlights of my musical activities thus far, for sure.
Plays well with others—This Mark Giaimo painting depicts (from left) Greg Koch, Roscoe Beck, Dylan Koch, John Sieger, and Theo Merriweather.
Talk about how you divide up the guitar chores for the songs he’s on, like “What You Got to Lose” and “Sho Nuff.”
For the tunes that I wanted Robben to play on, I picked ones that had some cool changes because I knew he’d just play the sh*t out of them. So when he was massaging all these changes in a really eloquent way, I didn’t want to go, “Oh yeah? I can do some of that too.” I wanted to make sure that whatever I did would be different enough, yet complementary to what he did. So I tried to just let Robben really shine in what he did and then make a statement of my own.
For “Sho Nuff,” I’m doing the head, which I doubled in the beginning. He’s comping through most of the tune. He played his early ’60s white Telecaster through a Blackface Twin and the overdrive he used was actually designed by my buddy, Tim Jauernig— the guy that made the Gristle King pedal. We plugged Robben into the prototype for what we will call the Viscosolator. He does the first solo, which is masterful. The way he plays over changes and his way of really laying back on those triplets that he does, it’s just sublime. All of his solos on this record are frickin’ great. I had to figure them all out of course [laughs].
You trade off with Joe Bonamassa on “Simone.” Did you guys track together?
He recorded by himself out in California. Joe’s busy. The guy works nonstop. He played a Tele on that track into a Line 6 amp. He was doing a session for somebody else and he was using a Line 6 head. He got this cool tone, and just ripped it. The kind of going back and forth in the solo sounds remarkably like we did it live together but we didn’t. I was very pleased that Joe participated. That was good, clean fun.
You’re one of the top product specialist and gear demo guys in the whole world. It’s a great gig that a lot of guys would kill for, but does your day job hinder you being taken seriously as an artist and as a guitarist?
Yeah, I think so, but here’s the deal: I know that if I would tour nonstop and take any gig anywhere to promote myself, that would definitely help me as an artist. But I’ve got four kids and I’d like to stay married. So, as a result, I’ve had to carve out a niche of doing a variety of things so I can be an artist with a level of integrity that I find satisfying, but by the same token be able to actually make an amount of money to support a suburban existence. So there have been sacrifices made, but I love everything I get to do. I have fun doing a Fender clinic, a video for Wildwood Guitars, or a Hal Leonard clinic. They let me do my thing and I have complete autonomy, which to me is insane, because I don’t even know what I’m going to play, much less say [laughs].
It certainly seems like your day gig has given you this foothold in the industry where you can put out a record that sounds exactly the way you want, and you can have all these amazing musicians play alongside you.
When I sit back and think that Robben Ford is on my record, or that I just sat in with Joe Bonamassa at the Chicago Theater, or that Paul Barrere of Little Feat, one of my favorite bands of all time, is all over my new record, it is kind of surreal. I definitely cannot complain.