Hitman: Steve Miller Reflects on 50 Years of Crafting Killer Hooks & Crazy-Cool Guitar Riffs - GuitarPlayer.com

Hitman: Steve Miller Reflects on 50 Years of Crafting Killer Hooks & Crazy-Cool Guitar Riffs

Steve Miller's back catalog extends far deeper than the playlist heard ’round the clock on every classic-rock outlet.
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As one of the hardest working guitarists/vocalists in rock ’n’ roll history, Steve Miller has created a vast amount of music that is represented by his numerous commercial hits—particularly the songs recorded during a fertile decade that began in 1973 with the release The Joker, and followed by Fly Like an Eagle, Book of Dreams, Circle of Love, and Abracadabra—as well as by the lesser-known (or even unknown) tunes he has written over the last five decades. By his own measure, we’re talking around 150 songs—which is a far deeper trove than one would realize if the only reference is the solid-gold Steve Miller Band playlist heard ’round the clock on every classic-rock outlet.

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The recent release of the Steve Miller Band Ultimate Hits Deluxe Edition is a great way to appreciate the actual scope of Miller’s songwriting, as it presents 40 tracks ranging from his bluesy/psychedelic ventures of the ’60s, to his cracking into pop stardom in the ’70s, to a bevy of assorted gems from the ’80s, ’90s, and beyond—including previously unreleased tracks, live cuts, and even a home recording of Steve at age five talking to his godfather, Les Paul.

Asked about the progression of his songwriting as his fame began to rise in the late ’60s, Miller responded, “I’m putting together a book that’s kind of a 50-year retrospective of going into my library and looking at everything I wrote. What I see is that I was really out on a limb on Children of the Future [1968], but I was trying really hard to write something original. Then, we went to Sailor [1968] and Brave New World and Your Saving Grace [both released in 1969], and, by the time, ‘Space Cowboy’ and ‘Living in the USA’ and a few others things were being recorded, and I was beginning to be a writer. In fact, my first commercially successful tune was ‘Living in the USA’ in 1968, and it took a year and a half to break out.”

In the beginning, you released lot of records in a very short period of time. What was your objective?

My first four albums were done in 18 months, and that was to get out there and constantly keep the buzz going until something really hit. Then, The Joker hit, but that was my last shot. If that one didn’t make it, I really thought I wasn’t going to hear from Capitol Records again. I had been recording from 1965 to 1973, and I turned in that last album, and then I went on a 60-city tour. As I left, I told the record company, “Don’t worry about singles—just make sure albums are in the stores in each city we play.” It seemed like it was pretty much over for me, but The Joker took off. It was everywhere and everybody liked it. By the time I got back from touring, it was being played on AM radio two times an hour, 24 hours a day. In those days, there might be four or five stations playing hit AM radio music, and The Joker was on all five of them. It changed everything. It gave us resources to build a stage, get a better P.A., and hire technicians. All these great things came from it.

Was it challenging to follow up on the success of The Joker?

Well, instead of going out and touring The Joker, I told my agent “Hey, I’m going to take a year off.” And, of course, he had a seizure. I had been touring nonstop for about six years, and, back then, there weren’t tour buses or any of that stuff. I ended up taking 18 months off, and that’s when it was like I was in training, and I hit my Olympic peak. I spent 18 months living by myself with an 8-track tape recorder in the living room, and I had it cued up so that whenever I felt like singing something, I’d just go over and hit a button. I kept working on songs, and there was no time constraint. I didn’t feel any pressure, because I wasn’t in the studio with a bunch of musicians standing around going, “What are we going to do next?”

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Can you describe how you worked on the tunes?

I had all these great rhythm tracks, so I just started writing lyrics and building choruses. I’d try lyrics on two or three different tracks—like “Take the Money and Run” over “The Joker” tracks—until I found what sounded good. That kind of stuff. After 18 months, I had something like 26 songs on the 8-track, and I just kept writing, changing the sequence of the tunes, and looking at that whole group as a musical experience. So a big part of what I did was beyond simply writing songs—it was the way I put them together. Like Fly Like an Eagle, and the way one song flowed into the next. They were all segued so there was no dead space—there was like 20 minutes of non-stop music.

So you were actually writing and producing simultaneously?

People call that producing, but I call it writing, because the way you put songs together makes a lot of difference. If you took all of the most commercially successful tunes on Fly Like an Eagle and Book of Dreams, and put them all on one album, I don’t think that would be a better record than having the songs spread out on two albums. My point is that there’s the writing, and then there’s the presentation of what you’ve written.

Does songwriting come easy for you?

Well, there’s the stuff where you’re just running along and something comes to you. And you go, “That’s great—I’m going to put that down.” Songs that fall into that category are “Seasons” and “Quicksilver Girl.” I came up with a guitar part and started singing, and suddenly I had a tune. It’s sort of like a dream rather than work, because a lot of songwriting really is like going to the gym and working out.

How did Les Paul enter into your life and what impact did it have on your musical direction?

We lived in Milwaukee in 1948, and I was about five at the time. My parents went to see live music a lot. Les Paul and Mary Ford came to town, and they were there for six weeks doing a show at a place called Jimmy Faggio’s Supper Club. Les and Mary were dialing in their act at this nightclub before they went to New York to start their TV show, so my dad brought his tape recorder there and recorded their act. This became a regular thing, and he’s taking me with him, so I’m at the nightclub watching Les Paul and seeing stuff happen in just the hippest scene imaginable. I remember Tal Farlow came in to jam one night, and when Les spotted him, he put a handkerchief over his left hand and just kept wailing. Les was such a monster, and he always made it look so easy. I remember thinking, “This is what I want to do. This is more fun than anything!” Les became my godfather, and he taught me my first three chords. I wore the skin off my thumb in a week just playing those chords.

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As with many of many great blues players, your guitar playing always sounds like an extension of your voice. Where did that ability come from?

When I was nine years old and living in Texas, T-Bone Walker became a family friend. He played at the house a lot. My concept of electric lead guitar really came from watching him playing through his amp in our home. That was the way I grew up. My mother was very musical, and people whose mothers play instruments are much more likely to become musicians. My dad loved jazz, and he liked to record music as a hobby, so we had musicians hanging out at our house all the time. I knew about Bob Crosby and the Bobcats and Meade Lux Louis when I was two years old, and I was really lucky to be in the presence of T-Bone, as well as Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, James Cotton, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Charles Lloyd, and, of course, all the jazz players that came to our house. Just to be in the presence of those people, you learn so much that you’ll never learn by just listening to a record. That’s the way music is really passed around—especially blues, country, rock and roll, and soul. It’s all audio, and it’s not written down. It’s a soul-to-soul thing.

What were some of the things you learned from Les Paul about recording?

All the things that Les invented, I saw immediately as a five-year-old kid. I saw that you flipped a switch to make the tape recorder go twice as fast, and when you recorded a guitar part, and then played it back at normal speed, the guitar would sound like a bass. I knew that you could slow it down, and play a lead solo, and when you brought it back up to speed, it would be an octave higher and twice as fast. And I knew that Mary sang multiple harmonies with herself.

Les was a genius, and he started recording in his house back in the late ’40s—just like everyone is doing today—except that he built his own 8-track machine, and now we have 192 tracks in something the size of a pack of cigarettes. Les wanted to sing in the shower, play acoustic guitar in the kitchen, and do his lead guitar parts in the living room. He was one of the very first guys to do all that, and now everyone can. It was around 1965, when I was just figuring out that I wanted to make records. I wanted to record on a multitrack, and I guess that came from just being there and understanding how it was done. That knowledge served me well, too. When I first went to Capitol Records, the recording engineers walked out on me because I was a hippie. They didn’t like me at all.

Which guitars have been your main songwriting tools?

The Guild 12-string I have was made in 1965, and I did all kinds of stuff on it: “Seasons,” “Quicksilver Girl,” and probably ten or 12 more tunes. It was sort of like my piano, and I carried it around for years. I lived with it. It has the most beautiful rosewood I’ve ever seen, and I can tune it all the way down to B.

Then, I have a ’57 Les Paul TV model I really love that Leslie West gave to me back in ’67 or ’68, when Mountain was happening. I also spent a lot of time at Martin with [historian and builder] Dick Boak, who taught me a lot about guitars. I ended up with a couple of D-42s, a D-45, and a D-28, and I’ve made a lot of records with them.

For the last 30 years, I’ve been working with John Bolin [bolinguitars.com], and we’ve built 25 guitars and a bunch of other things. I still have the very first guitar my uncle Paul gave me when I was about five—a 1928 “The Gibson.” He had used it in his bands, and I was blessed when I got it. I couldn’t wait to start playing it, so I started making up songs and pretending I was doing shows. My dad snuck in and recorded one of my shows for the kids in the alley. I go back and listen to that, and I don’t understand why they didn’t put me right into music school. I was just making stuff up and singing like I was in the opera. I wasn’t afraid of anything—just doing it loud and proud. It’s amazing to be able to actually hear that. To go back to 1948, and realize, “This is how it started.”

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