“I ALWAYS USE A LOT OF CHROMATICISM,” says Mother Truckers guitarist Josh Zee. “My theory is if you start on a good note and you end on a good note, you can hit anything in between.”
That only describes part of Zee’s maniacal approach to guitar, because he’ll not only throw in a bunch of slick outside notes in the middle of a phrase, he’ll also mix in a bunch of different styles. It’s this ability to combine rock, blues, country, and Americana in a single tune that makes his band’s latest, Let’s All Go to Bed [Funzalo], such a 6-string hoot.
So, are you a rock dude playing country tunes, or a country guy doing rock solos?
I’d say the former. My dad was an acoustic picker, and he got me into that rootsy country and folk stuff. As a teenager learning how to play guitar, I was definitely all about metal and hard rock like AC/DC and Led Zeppelin. That’s what made me want to play, but it was also a lot of blues stuff, like Live at the Cook County Jail by B.B. King. That totally opened my eyes. He put more of a major sound on top of the blues, so his playing was really melodic and pretty. He would also use country-style bends in a blues setting. That got me excited as a kid—it showed me how to break out of the straight, pentatonic blues scales. It’s kind of ironic that I first got into country through B.B. King’s blues.
Did you analyze his playing?
Yeah. He would leave out the b7 and the minor 3rd. He would start a lot of solos by playing 5, 6, 1, 2, and then bend up to the 3—like a major scale, but with blues bends. That was a signature intro lick of his, and it made a big impression on me.
Your playing has a nice sense of space. Did you get that from B.B. King?
I would say so, but I don’t think that I put enough space in my playing. For example, I’ll go into a club and see someone with really good phrasing—where they make a statement, and then they’ll stop and let you digest it. Then, they’ll step up and make another statement. Whenever I see something like that I think, “Man, I need to come up for air more often.” Some guitarists just never come up for air.
On that subject, where does your ability to shred come from?
I was a product of my environment. In the ’80s, you were surrounded by blistering guitar solos, and you can’t help but pick up on that by osmosis. Even a Kenny Loggins pop song would have some L.A. shredder on the solo. It sounds a little out of place now, but it happened all the time back then. I was into all that stuff—even Yngwie. I thought Nuno Bettencourt had a great style, because he could shred with the best of them, but his solos were well composed and tasteful.
I don’t hear it in your note choices, but your attack and your attitude make it seem like you listened to some Van Halen, too.
I was a huge fan. I just read Slash’s autobiography, and he said that Eddie Van Halen’s playing was way too personal a statement for anyone else to try and cop it, and I’ve always felt that way, too. So I never tried to cop Eddie’s licks note for note, but I was totally influenced by his attack, his way of expressing himself, and his bizarre approach. Slash was also a huge influence on me. I thought he found a great middle ground between the classic rock of Joe Perry, Angus Young, and Jimmy Page, and the ’80s shredder stuff. He has a really melodic approach.
The second solo in “Dynamite” has some intricate picking on the fast triplets.
That obviously comes from doing exercises with a metronome. I don’t find myself doing that so much anymore, but there were years spent in my bedroom plugging away at that kind of playing. That sort of practicing allows you more dexterity and fluidity when you’re improvising.
Did you use your live rig for this record?
I did—although I added to it. My main guitar was my mid-’80s Strat with a Duncan JB Jr. in the bridge for that humbucker/ classic rock sound. My amp setup is an old blackface Super Reverb and a ’70s JMP Marshall head through a 1x12 cab. I don’t use the amps for different tones—I run them simultaneously to cover as many frequencies as possible. The Fender has a lot of sweet highs, and the Marshall has the punch down below where you need it. I still haven’t found one amp to do it all, but I think you can do a lot by combining different amps that excel in different areas. In the studio, I used splitters to double up—or triple up—on amps. I used this cool Orange combo, a Vox, and a couple of other Fenders. I would layer different combinations of those amps to get different textures.
For my rhythm tone, I play clean with the tubes driven a bit. Then, for solos, I’ll kick in anything from an MXR Micro Amp to an Ibanez Tube Screamer or a Boss Overdrive to give it a little edge. The reason I like those pedals in particular is because you can ramp up your gain without it sounding like you’re changing tones. Sometimes, you’ll hear a guy who is playing clean, and then all of a sudden you hear this clunk, and it’s all fuzzy—out of nowhere. I’ve always liked a more gradual ramping up of the gain, and I find those pedals drive the tone as opposed to distorting it. That’s what I prefer.
You play slide on “I’m Comin’ Over.” Do you use a different guitar for slide work?
I always play Gibsons for slide stuff— either my Les Paul or an SG. Our singer and guitarist, Teal Collins, has a Gibson The Paul that was given to her by Les Paul himself. Her father, Jazzbeau Collins, was a disc jockey and he knew Les. The action is a little high, and, because Teal plays rhythm, she sets it up with heavier strings. So that guitar doubles in the studio as a great slide guitar. I don’t play that much slide because I’m not that good at it, frankly. But put me on a Pro Tools rig, and I’ll cut and paste something together for you.
Your fills always sync up with the drums really well. How much of that is planned, and how much happens naturally?
It’s really important to me that everything locks in together, and, fortunately, I have a great rhythm section. I’ve been playing with Dan [Thompson, drummer] off and on since we were teenagers, and he has a really musical approach to the drums. He doesn’t just look for spots to get in his fills. He tries to think of a way to bring out what’s happening with the guitar or the vocal by accenting a vocal hit or a guitar inflection. I also feel fortunate to play with [bassist] Danny G, who brings a kind of Geezer Butler thing to the band. He’ll play the standard two-beat root-5th bass thing, but then he’ll do these lines that are almost guitar runs. Danny’s runs and Dan’s musicality really shape our sound.
What was it like when you moved the band from the Bay Area to Austin?
We started the Mother Truckers out in San Francisco, and we had a great following. But the opportunities to take it to the next level were just not there. A lot of money came into the town, and all the artists, weirdos, musicians, and freaks couldn’t afford to live there. When that happens, art, writing, and music die out. It all becomes DJs and discos and cover bands. I still love the town and the people, but it’s not a big music town anymore. When we saw that happening, Austin was the only city we considered moving to. We visited to make sure, and we went to see Redd Volkaert play at the Continental Club. He was so amazing, and seeing him play was the final thing that convinced me to move there. I thought, “If you can see talent like this on a Saturday afternoon for a couple of bucks, then this is the place for me.”
Touring in a van is hard work. Is all of this still fun for you?
Absolutely. There are so many extenuating circumstances that go into making a live show really happen. It’s the sound on stage, the mood of the band members, and the vibe of the audience. Even when all those factors don’t come together, I would rather do this than anything else. And when all those things do come together, those are the moments that bring you right back to hearing your first AC/DC album. They take you back to the moment that made you want to play guitar.