TEXAS HAS A KNACK FOR CRANKING OUT bodacious guitarists. From T-Bone Walker to Dimebag Darrell, Freddie King and Billy Gibbons to the venerable Vaughan brothers, the Who’s Who is as long and winding as the Rio Grande. One Lone Star 6-stringer you can add to the list is Jim Heath, a.k.a. Reverend Horton Heat. With a career spanning 25 years and 11 albums, Heath has forged a style that is a shotgun marriage of feral psychobilly guitar madness and perilous country, blues, swing, and surf licks. Clearly, when the good lord of guitar speaks, the Reverend is listening. His latest full-length, Laughin’ and Cryin’ with the Reverend Horton Heat [Yep Roc], sports all of the aforementioned sonic sacraments, but with a twist, as Heath and his cohorts— longtime bassist Jimbo Wallace and new drummer Paul Simmons—sprinkle a few country-tinged tracks into the otherwise hellfire rockabilly preachings. Always the eager student, Heath is constantly working on some aspect of his game. Whether he’s practicing alternate picking jazzy arpeggios instead of sweeping them (“Alternate picking makes the notes swing harder,” he says), or devoting his time off from touring to his guitar/organ duo that specializes in Bill Doggett-style instrumentals, TV themes, and jazz standards, the Rev is always testifying.
Did the new album’s country flavoring call for a different guitar approach?
Definitely. The biggest difference is a lot of classic country song forms use call and response with the lead vocal being answered by a guitar, fiddle, or pedal-steel lick. So not only was it challenging to jump back and forth between singing and playing, but you also want the lick to echo, or even enhance, the lyric. For example, if I sing about pine trees, I need to figure out what a piney forest sounds like on the guitar— maybe a banjo-type lick with open strings a la Chet Atkins! Or when I sing about sunny California, maybe I’ll do some cascading, chimey harmonics.
A track like “Ain’t No Saguaro in Texas” employs a very quick, two-step beat without much time to switch between singing, rhythm guitar, a floral-sounding lead line, and back again.
Well, I rarely fiddle with the guitar’s controls— only the toggle switch—so I can just use my right hand’s attack to control volume and tone. Doing that allows me to concentrate on the music and make quick changes between those three things and change the dynamics. It’s actually amazing how lightly you can play and still retain a full and rocking sound, but with a little less intensity. Then, when I need a lead line to jump out, I lay into the strings and the volume and air move. Even on a fast rockabilly tune, like “Death Metal Guys” from the new album, my right-hand attack is real light on the verses. That approach is somewhat born out of laziness and not wanting to haul a lot of gear around, but it’s also simple and very effective and true to the music. Believe me, I didn’t always know that. I was like a lot of guys who thought you had to saw through your strings to get a killer sound.
Have you tailored your guitar sound for a trio?
Yeah. But more with my playing rather than my gear setup. For example, when I’m soloing I’ll hit the low E or A string and let it ring while I play over the top of it—and that fills in a lot of sound. I also play a lot of double-stop solos, which sound bigger and can also give you some more harmonic movement.
Did you switch up guitar and amp rigs for Laughin’ and Cryin’ with the Reverend Horton Heat?
No. I didn’t think about trying to change my tones from song to song. In fact, I wanted the guitar to sound like it does every night onstage and bring that in the studio. I’ve done albums where I switched between guitars and amps and a year later I’d hear it and think, “You know, I wish I had my regular live tone as opposed to trying to change it.” It was like I was searching to be something that I’m not. So for the new album I used my same old ’78 Fender Super Reverb that I have been touring with forever. I swear that amp is more vital to my sound than my guitar. I own a lot of other Supers, but that ’78 is mind-bogglingly good. It’s totally stock and breaks up beautifully with the Volume control set to 5, whereas so many other Supers need to be on 10 to get that intense breakup. I set the Treble control on 10, and everything else on 5. I also track with a healthy dose of amp reverb, because, again, I want the amp to sound like it does on the stage. For slapback delay, I use an old rackmount Chandler Digital Stereo Echo. I tried Echoplexes for a while, but they’re a hassle. Besides, I don’t use a ton of slapback like the old-school rockabilly guys. For guitars I pretty much only used my Reverend Horton Heat signature model Gretsch 6120 strung with Dunlop .010s, and a heavy Dunlop 1.14mm pick.
Do you enjoy recording?
The studio just kind of pisses me off. Being in this weird little building 12 hours a day for three weeks isn’t a lot of fun. I usually just do what the engineers and producer tell me to do. Ideally, I’d like us to be set up exactly like we are live and track with a couple of mics, but engineers always want separation between the instruments.
You’ve become identified with the Gretsch 6120. What initially attracted you to that guitar?
Well, my first real guitars were Telecasters and Jazzmasters, though I mostly relied on a ’54 Gibson ES-175 in the early Reverend Horton Heat days. But that guitar got so beat up it that it eventually stopped working, and we were on the road at the time that it went down, so I needed a guitar fast. That’s when I saw an early-’80s reissue Gretsch 6120 at a guitar shop. What I realized after playing it for a while was that it gave me some of that Fendery twang, yet it had the hollowbody construction and a fat jazzy sound on the front pickup like the Gibson. So, the Gretsch got me into a neat middle area between the two guitars. The Gibson could growl in an old-school rockabilly way, and even twang a bit on the bottom, but in the middle and high registers it didn’t have any of that Don Rich bite like the Gretsch does. The Gibson was more Wes Montgomery- sounding—which would be great if I could only play like that!