IF JOHN MAYALL HAD RETIRED IN 1970, HIS legend would have still been cast for the ages. Not only was Mayall one of the guiding lights of British blues in the early ’60s, but his exceptional ear for gifted players stocked his bands with the mutt’s nuts of talent: Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, not to mention bassists Jack Bruce, John McVie, and Andy Fraser, among many, many others. But Mayall didn’t retire—far from it, in fact, as he continued to tour and release his uncompromising vision of the blues, deftly mixing different elements of jazz and hard-driving rock, over a nearly 50- year career. His new album, Tough [Eagle], showcases new guitarist Rocky Athas, a veteran Texas gunslinger with a wicked tone and a thriving solo career of his own.
John, who were some of your guitar influences?
Mayall: I was initially inspired by guys like Josh White, Leadbelly, and Lonnie Johnson. I’m such a limited technician on the guitar, but as time has gone on, I think I use it pretty effectively as a tool to express myself. I mostly write on piano and organ, however, and I’m only playing guitar on two songs onstage.
Do you typically rehearse a new lineup a lot before you begin recording?
Mayall: No. We had three rehearsals for Tough, and nearly everything you hear on the new album is a first take. That’s the way I’ve always tried to work. If a track isn’t right the first or second time around, it’s probably not going to work at all. Stiffness starts to set in and the music eventually loses its edge.
Is the most important aspect of being a bandleader choosing the players?
Mayall: Yes. And being able to recognize early on who can work together before you put everyone in the room to play. My method hasn’t changed at all. As long as I have a rapport with a person and we’re on the same musical page as far as influences, the music will take care of itself. I feel you have to be born a bandleader, really. I can’t imagine being a sideman. Leading seems natural to me. Some people prefer to be a sideman and fitting into something.
You played behind John Lee Hooker on his first British tour in ’64. What did you learn from him that you didn’t learn from his records?
Mayall: Back then we played very loud. We were a bit over-eager. But when you play with a master like Hooker, you not only learn that you don’t need volume to get across, but you get across better with more air and dynamics in your performance. Hooker didn’t even have to say anything. He just turned around and looked at us, and we knew we had to come down to his volume level. I was very impressed!
What are you playing live?
Mayall: A Rickenbacker 12-string into a Roland JC-120, the same rig I used for Tough. I like the chorus and the reverb on that amp. I use the Vibrato setting and adjust the tempo according to the tune.
Athas: I’m using my Fender ’62 reissue Strat and a Fender Roadworn Strat. They’re both outfitted with Amalfitano pickups which are a bit hotter than vintage Strat pickups. Lately, I’ve been playing a Les Paul ’59 VOS Historic model because that’s what I used on about 40 percent of Tough. I use Dunlop .048 picks but I use the round part—the butt end— for a fatter sound. I string all of my guitars with Ernie Ball .009s, even my Les Paul. They make bending a little easier and they’re easier on my hands on the road— and we’re doing 15 straight nights starting tonight!
So you don’t subscribe to the bigger strings make a better tone theory?
Athas: No. I think a lot of guys only use big strings because Stevie Ray Vaughan did. Often times guys who use really heavy strings, their bends are flat because they can���t get the string up where it needs to be. You may think you’re getting a better tone, but your playing is underneath.
Do you play differently on a Strat than you do a Les Paul?
Athas: I do, that’s one of the reasons why I switch them up. With a Strat, I seem to play in a bluesier vein. But I’m learning to only use the Les Paul on more rocking-type tunes, because that guitar just inspires me to turn it on. It has so much power under the hood, I can’t resist playing in a more aggressive rock vein.
What are you using for amps on the road?
Athas: Whatever they bring me, and it’s usually a Fender Hot Rod Deville or a red knob “The Twin,” or “evil Twin” as some people call them.
Is it hard using rental amps?
Athas: Not so much. I try to set them as loud and clean as possible, and use my pedals—an Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer and a Fulltone OCD—for different combinations of grind. I can get a good sound out of the “Evil Twin,” but I have to work at it. In fact, our tour manager and soundman, Claude Taylor, saw me struggling to get a good sound once and he came over and turned some knobs and pushed some buttons and it sounded great. Claude learned how to dial it in by watching Mick Taylor use one. I had to have Claude write down what he did because I can never remember what to do when that amp shows up.
What amps did you track the new album with?
Athas: I tracked with a solid-state Gibson Lab Series L-5 combo. I love those things. I used a Lab L-5 as a head, bypassed the stock 2x12 and ran into a vintage ’69 Marshall cab 4x12 loaded with 25 watt Celestion greenbacks. I can’t count on those amps on the road, however. In my Lab combos I’ll put two Celestion Vintage 30s in and then replace the reverb tank with one from a Fender Twin Reverb. On the record I sometimes run it with an overdrive in front of it, sometimes not. B.B. King has been using Lab Series L-5s for years, and I always wondered if his were stock. So when we opened for him at Wembley Stadium, I went behind the stage to get a look at his amps and found out he outfits them with Peavey Black Widow 12s.
Rocky, have you always been a Bluesbreaker fan?
Athas: Of course! I grew up with Stevie Ray Vaughan in the Oak Cliff area of Dallas, Texas, and he turned me on to the “Beano” album with Eric Clapton, and that obviously knocked me out. But I also wore out Blues from Laurel Canyon with Mick Taylor on guitar. I also dig The Turning Point, which came out right after Laurel Canyon, but is a more stripped-down acoustic albums without any real “lead” guitar or drums—a real departure.
Mayall: By Turning Point I was getting tired of the electric sound. Plus, I was inspired by the Jimmie Giuffre’s performance with Jim Hall and saxophonist Bob Brookmeyer in the movie Jazz on a Summers Day. I always thought that was beautiful. The blues is basically all I know to express myself, and even when I add and subtract different elements, my music always comes out the blues.