Michael Lee Firkins Brings in the Heavy Hitters on 'Yep'

As a young Guitar Player subscriber, I attended the 1990 Winter NAMM show.
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As a young Guitar Player subscriber, I attended the 1990 Winter NAMM show. At the Yamaha performance stage, I watched as Dokken’s Jeff Pilson introduced a guy he described as a “kick-ass guitar player—Michael Lee Firkins!” Firkins launched into his tune “Laughing Stacks” and stunned the crowd with his funky, bluesy, slippery rock licks. Looking beside me, I noticed GP legend Tom Wheeler checking out Firkins’ performance. “You should do something on this guy!” I gushed. Wheeler said he was thinking the same thing.

Shortly thereafter, guitarists everywhere would get to know Firkins thanks to his Shrapnel debut that sold over 100,000 copies. His tunes combined hard rock with Chet Atkins-style country, deft whammy bar work that could do a great slide imitation, and a rock-solid sense of time.

In the ensuing years, Firkins would release more of his own records, serve as the hands of Jason Becker, and get seriously into singing and slide playing. The latter two skills are fully on display on his latest, Yep [Magna Carta]. Firkins is joined on Yep by Gov’t Mule’s Matt Abts and Andy Hess on drums and bass and rock royalty Chuck Leavell on keys. The album’s 11 songs are a great showcase of his swampy tones and muscular slide work.

How did you go from being a guy who played faux slide with a whammy bar to being almost totally devoted to slide playing today?

It’s been a weird little journey. It all started with the whammy bar stuff—I kind of emulated the slide with the whammy bar. I never played slide until about 15 years ago. I was in a band with a singer and he was playing some slide and I figured it was time to get my slide playing happening. My dad was a lap-steel player and we had a lap-steel at the house. He gave it to me about 12 years ago, and I really started getting into the slide about that point.

Talk a little bit about the contributions of the other players on this record. It’s a really heavy rhythm section.

They’re just amazing players. Chuck Leavell from the Stones, man, I don’t think it gets much better than that. And Matt and Andy from Gov’t Mule had been touring all year. They played Bonnaroo and then came to my session the next day, so they were just smokin’. Their parts are all live to tape—no overdubs by them whatsoever, and three takes max. Chuck Leavell just kicked ass. He’d be directing with his hands in the air and cueing people. Their stuff sounded so good, you could take all my guitars and my vocals out and you’d still have a really great, musical thing to listen to.

What was the songwriting and recording process like?

When I write, I’ll usually come up with a riff and I’ll instantly be singing over it. It might be just mumbling but there will usually be something lyrically there, and usually it’s the main part. Then I have to fill in verses. I didn’t record the demos very extensively at all. The band would hear those and they would learn the song right there on the spot and we’d record it.

And then you cut your tracks after the fact?

Yeah. I didn’t even sing at the sessions. I did all of my guitars and vocals at home afterward.

You do a really sweet breakdown at the end of “No More Angry Man.” Explain what’s going on there.

First, it’s all improv. I was supposed to end the song and I just kept going. It’s me thumping a bass with a melody on top, but it’s not like a Chet Atkins thing—there is no real alternating 1-5-1-5 on the bottom. I’m using a vintage early-’70s SG or a Burny SG. The Burny is a lawsuit guitar from the ’70s—a Japanese copy of a Gibson. They’re killer. I bought a whole bunch of them a few years ago.

That one is in open G. What were some of the other tunings you used for this record?

Mostly open G, open E, and standard, then I’ll capo them. “Golden Oldie” is in open G with a capo on the 3rd fret. “Standing Ovation” and “Long Day” are both standard tuning, 2nd fret capo.

Is it tricky to get a capo on a guitar that has a higher action for slide? Or, conversely, is it tough to play slide with the capo lowering the action?

I don’t mind it. If you don’t have a guitar set up for slide it can be pretty rough for a while to get used to that. I’ll use .012s and .013s and have high action for slide when I can, and my normal action is high but workable. I think if you can play slide well enough, you should be able to play with low action. Besides, it kind of sounds good when it bumps around and hits frets and sounds crappy [laughs]. There are a couple of tunes on this record where I’m playing slide on Strats and Teles that aren’t specifically set up for slide or anything.

What amps did you use?

I went through everything, man. This record took a long time to make and every year or two there was a new rig. But in the end, the Vox AC30 Hand-Wired gave me the most variety. I used that a lot and I also used a ’57 Fender Tweed Deluxe, a Vibrolux, and my ’77 Marshall. That Marshall is an amazing-sounding amp, it just had a few issues, and I couldn’t always rely on it. Another setup I used was the AC30—going through vintage ’70s Celestions—along with the ’57 Deluxe with a room mic close to it. That made the overall tone sound a little livelier.

How did you track your resonator parts?

I tried all kinds of stuff. I’d record it acoustically, like the resonator at the beginning of “No More Angry Man.” I would sometimes plug it into an amp but mic the instrument at the same time.

What’s the resonator on “Take Me Back”?

That’s a Johnson. It’s the one with the cutaway and a mini-humbucker in the neck—it’s a great guitar and only like 300 bucks. I take that everywhere—to the beach, you name it. I wrote a lot of the songs on that guitar.

When you weren’t playing your own music, you’ve played the role of Jason Becker’s hands over the years, playing the parts that he hears in his head, and being his guitar voice when he can’t be. What is that like?

It’s been an evolution, because “End of the Beginning” was a very long time ago—more than 20 years now. Back then people thought Jason was going to die. So that was a pretty hard thing to deal with obviously, thinking you’re working with someone who’s dying, but at the same time you’re very honored that he wants you to play on these songs. So it was very emotional, but whenever I got to his place, it was all about getting the work done right, because that’s all he wanted. When I first worked with him, he could still speak, so he was able to tell me, “That note’s flat, pinch that harmonic there.” [Laughs.] And we did a lot of great work because he wasn’t afraid to tell me those things. Some people would just be happy you came over and they wouldn’t complain. But if they’re really your friend they’re going to say if it’s not good enough, and he would. He’s never been afraid to ask for what he wants in a very specific way. I’ve done some other things for him where he couldn’t speak, but he could still communicate through his eyes. Over the years the communication has been great because he has people that can translate for him and it’s very quick. You never feel like you’re impaired by the process. So it’s changed over the past 20 years, but it’s always been amazing. And he’s obviously the nicest guy ever, and he’s the most positive force ever. It’s a crazy experience. You scratch your head when you leave because you just don’t know how he can be so positive and so great. You’re kind of in this other world for a couple hours.

What’s next for you?

I’ve just written so many songs in the past few years—hundreds of songs, and they keep coming. So I’m definitely trying to find a way to always have something new coming out. Everybody wants an album, but no one’s really listening to whole albums anymore. So, I think one great track can do just as good as a whole album could. I wake up every day writing new ones. I’m exploring lowered tunings, like open C—open E but tuned down two steps. I didn’t do any of that on this record, but I do that live a lot and on my next record I’m sure I’ll do more of that because I love it. There’s also some stuff I can’t even tell you about [laughs]. So there’s a lot to be excited about.

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