Kenny Wayne Shepherd Brings It On Home

“When you’re young, all you can think about is trying to prove yourself by showing everything you can do,” says Kenny Wayne Shepherd, “but I’ve grown up as a musician.

“When you’re young, all you can think about is trying to prove yourself by showing everything you can do,” says Kenny Wayne Shepherd, “but I’ve grown up as a musician. Now my approach is similar to my blues heroes such as Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, and especially the three Kings—B.B., Albert, and Freddie. It’s all about feel, passion, and emotion— moving people with the guitar.”

It may seem like yesterday when KWS was a teenage blues-rock prodigy, but it’s already been almost two decades since his landmark debut, Ledbetter Heights. Shepherd’s latest release, Goin’ Home [Concord], finds him coming full circle to his blues roots, covering songs by several of his aforementioned heroes. Several standout tracks feature modern guitar legends. Warren Haynes’ gut-wrenching guitar on “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home” is frighteningly good, while Joe Walsh’s wildly raunchy tone and exuberant phrasing exemplify “I Love the Life I Live.”

The Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band features longtime singer Noah Hunt, former Double Trouble skin-pounder Chris Layton, keyboard ace Riley Osbourn, and Jimmy Page’s former Firm foil Tony Franklin on bass. GP checked in with Shepherd after the band brought a barrel full of blues to Wine Country at the Uptown Theatre in Napa, California.

GP included “Blue on Black” in its February 2014 cover feature—50 Badass Blue Solos You Must Hear—noting that the solo on 2010’s Live! In Chicago stays true to the original version from 1997’s Trouble Is…. Can you share some insights?

I generally like to keep the live show open to spontaneous moments of improvisation, but the original “Blue on Black” recording is about as good as it gets. I’ve changed a couple of little things to improve that solo, but 98 percent of that song is exactly as it should be. It was a huge hit because the recipe was right. I used an Octavia on the solo, and paced it kind of like a jazz singer scatting random staccato phrases that are very beat-emphasized. It’s not a big, melodic solo. It’s sparse with alternating sections of space, and notes. I still approach it that way.

Which solo on Goin’ Home do you feel rivals “Blue on Black?”

B.B. King’s “You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now” is the first straight-up slow blues song I’ve recorded with the band since we did an original called “Shame, Shame, Shame” on the first record. I love the way this solo builds and builds dynamically until the song comes to a head. We recorded this album the old fashioned way, live to tape all playing together in the same room to capture that energy. We cut “You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now” in one take. The fans show their appreciation for it. When a solo moves people from sitting to standing, you’re really taking them somewhere.

The story of this album is literally going home to Shreveport, Louisiana, where you recorded at noted drummer Brady Blade’s studio. Did Warren Haynes and Joe Walsh actually travel there as well?

Some of the other guests did, but those guys put their parts on after the fact. It’s the only aspect of this recording that took advantage of modern technology. We transferred the tape to Pro Tools, sent them files, and then they sent them back. We bounced the songs back to tape afterwards.

You take the lead vocal on the Stevie Ray Vaughan homage, “House Is Rockin’.” Can you clear up the story about which guitar SRV signed the last time you saw him face to face?

Not long before he passed he signed my very first Strat. It’s an American-made, candy apple red, maple-neck Strat. Unfortunately for me, it had a Floyd Rose tremolo, which was overkill for what I was trying to do. I retired that guitar not long after he passed away when I got a couple more Stratocasters.

All of the Strats you played in Napa had whammy bars, but that you hardly used them. What gives?

I’m generally not a big tremolo user, but I want in there in case I feel like using it. I love how Jeff Beck has really incorporated that into his sound, and his technique is fascinating. But I use it more like an effect in specific instances. I bring a decent-sized pedalboard to the gig, but most are for one song or one effect here or there. I generally use the bar when I’m tagging the end of a song. But I definitely use it on “Voodoo Child” because there’s lots of feedback, especially at the end.

Can you explain how you fine-tuned the pickups in your signature Strat?

I wanted a very organic, round, and woody sound that wasn’t overbearing in any frequency range. We wired the second tone control to dial back some high end off the bridge pickup. My feeling was that players might use the bridge pickup more if they had the ability to roll off some harshness.

I also wanted to focus on the combination sounds with the pickup selector in positions 2 and 4, because I’d never felt truly comfortable in those positions. We worked specifically on combining the bridge and neck pickups with the middle pickup to sound crisp and clear with a tone that cuts through a little bit more than any guitar I’ve ever owned. I’m particularly fond of the neck pickup’s sound, and I’ve been using position 4 a lot.

You played through what appeared to be a Fender Bandmaster head sitting on a Twin, a little tweed Fender, and a Vibroverb. Can you provide details?

The ’65 Bandmaster was running through a pair of Electro-Voice EVM12L speakers in that Twin cabinet. Alexander Dumble built or modified all three amps, actually. He calls the Bandmaster an “Ultra Phonix.” The little tweed amp is a ’57 Deluxe that he gutted and wired with his own circuit. He calls it the “Tweedle-Dee Deluxe.” The Vibroverb was an original ’64 blackface that Dumble modified. I can’t remember his name for it right now.

So their looks are somewhat deceiving, and it’s no wonder why they sound particularly great.

That’s the point. I’m a hot-rod car guy. One of the coolest things to have is what they call a “sleeper,” which is like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. When you pull up next to somebody at a red light, they think they’re going to spank you because you appear to be in a plain Jane automobile. But you smoke them when you stomp on the throttle, and they’re left wondering what was under the hood. I like to have the same approach with my amps. It also keeps people from being a little too nosey with my stuff.

How do each of the amps contribute to your overall tone?

Simply varying the speaker configuration provides a wide range of frequencies. The Vibroverb is a 1x15 loaded with a vintage JBL. The Tweedle-Dee Deluxe is a 1x12 loaded with a Celestion Greenback. The Bandmaster powers two EV 12s.

All three are designed to sound fantastic clean, and deliver amazing natural overdrive as well. The Tweedle-Dee is only about 15 watts, so I can crank it up for all kinds of rich harmonics, overtones, and sustain. The Bandmaster and the Vibroverb provide the majority of my stage volume. I put Plexiglas in front of them for the sake of the folks in the front row. The hot-rodded Vibroverb has more balls and sounds extremely three-dimensional compared to a regular Vibroverb, but it’s still pretty true to the original circuit. The Bandmaster is one of my favorite Dumble jobs. It’s dialed to deliver unbelievably rich overdrive and awesome feedback without any pedals whatsoever, and it cleans right up when I roll back the guitar’s volume. It always sounds fat and full. It has more frequency response available via the treble and bass controls than any amp I’ve ever heard.

What are your main gain pedals?

The Analog Man King of Tone is my go-to pedal. It has two circuits, one with a slightly higher gain structure than the other. It’s great for blues jams, or any backline situation. I like to set it up so I can leave one side on all the time for nice rhythm sounds, and then kick on the other side to send solos over the top. My other main gain pedal is the Ibanez Tube Screamer that I’ve been using forever. I like the TS808 circuit. I’m currently using the hand-wired, dark green version.

What’s your current wah?

I’m using a Dunlop MC 404 CAE wah. It has dual inductors. I use the one indicated by a yellow light. It sounds very natural and vocal with great range. That wah also has a built-in overdrive, but I don’t use it.

Last year you released a record and toured with Stephen Stills and Electric Flag’s Barry Goldberg as the Rides. Are you planning to do that again?

Yes. We’ve already written a bunch of songs. I spoke to Stephen last night, actually. We’re planning to enter the studio in December and January, release record, and hit the road.

What’s the coolest thing about playing guitar with Stills?

We share a certain Southern vibe. He’s raw and spontaneous. He doesn’t really think about what he’s doing, he just plays from his heart. I feel like we inspire and motivate each other, which is what you want in any great band.