John Oates on His Folk Roots and Arranging for Two Guitars

The dark-haired guy in Hall & Oates was playing guitar long before he wrote all those soulful hits.
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The dark-haired guy in Hall & Oates was playing guitar long before he wrote all those soulful hits.

“I took my first guitar lesson at six, and I started by playing three-chord country music,” says John Oates.

Like many guitarists coming of age during the ’60s folk revival, Oates learned the styles of Doc Watson, Mississippi John Hurt, and Reverend Gary Davis. On his latest solo project, the DVD/CD combo, Another Good Road [Elektra Nashville], Oates’ performance of “Stagger Lee” recalls Hurt’s version without being a slavish imitation.

“John Hurt did it in the key of D with a dropped D,” explains Oates. “I do it in a D shape in the key of E, and with a 5-string capo that leaves my E string open. It’s like dropped D, but other chord shapes—the A and the G—are normal. It allows me to have that low bottom string on the E chord.”

In Hall & Oates, his electric playing reflects a Curtis Mayfield-inspired rhythm style that often overshadows his folk leanings. His solo work, however, reverses the equation, with roots guitar dominating, bit still tinged with occasional touches of Philly soul.

“To find my solo voice, I went back to my folk and blues roots,” he says.

Oates plays few solos in Hall & Oates, as lead-guitar chores are farmed out to specialists, and this remains largely the case on his solo releases. Still, some tunes on the live DVD demonstrate his knack for a hooky single-note riff, and even feature the occasional Oates lead workout.

“When it comes to the flashy stuff, I throw it to the guitarists in my band, Guthrie Trapp or Shane Theriot,” says Oates. “Sometimes, though, I tell them, ‘I’m going to take this one!’”

Having worked with another guitarist for the bulk of his career, Oates has firm ideas about how to maximize the dualaxe combo.

“First, I listen very closely, and I am always aware of what the other guitarist is playing,” he says. “I will watch his hands, and where he voices his chords. I might suggest, ‘I’m going to stay in the first five frets, and play a lot of open strings. Why don’t you play the inversion on the fifth fret?’ I want to make sure the tonalities and the harmonies are not clashing.”

Oates differentiates his sound with his gear choices, as well.

“I use a James Trussart Steelcaster through a Swart amp, because I don’t want to step on Shane or Guthrie’s guitar sound,” he says. “My hollow, metal-bodied Trussart gives me a bright, ringing, almost Dobrolike tone, compared to Shane and Guthrie’s warmer and more traditional wooden solidbody sounds.”

The guitarist had Xact Tone Solutions in Nashville build a pedalboard with a Vox wah, a Fulltone Full-Drive 2, a Durham Electronics Sex Drive (on at all times for boost), an MXR Carbon Copy (for long delays), a vintage MXR Phase 90, and an old Boss Chorus.

“It’s even more important to be careful when you play with a keyboard—which covers so much harmonic territory,” he says. “I’ll ask keyboard players to play a two-finger chord, otherwise it’s too dense against the guitars. Or, I may go to simple two-note fifths or fourths, so I’m not in the way of the keyboard. It’s all about listening and knowing how to orchestrate the melodies and harmonies within the rhythm section.”

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