Steve Hunter's Guitar Tales

One half of the ’70s guitar dream team of Hunter/Wagner cuts a bluesy solo album.

If you dug Alice Cooper in the '70s, or had your mind blown by the soaring and inspired guitar duel that opens “Intro/Sweet Jane” on Lou Reed’s live album, Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, then you knew all about guitarists Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, and you loved, feared, and hated them. As session cats, they were all over the airwaves. They were also rumored to be the mysterious “fixers” on many albums where a band’s guitarists, for whatever reasons, simply couldn’t cut the tracks. So if you were a professional guitarist back then, these guys were always hovering around and threatening to take your gig. Beyond that, both men were over-blessed with talent. They had chops, they had feel, and they could drop beautiful or raging melodies on a song that often became signature parts. For many of us, Hunter-Wagner was everything we aspired to, and a bar we would never actually reach. Ah, the power of love and hate …

Today, both players are still vital and still working (sometimes, the fates actually do nice things for us musicians). Hunter—who rocks a jovial and slick “guitar star” fashion sense at 65 years old—recently recorded, produced, and released The Manhattan Blues Project [deaconrecords], which showcases his stunning sense of melody, vocal-esque phrasing, and cinematic command of tonal textures. And, yes, you can still admire and hate him for his artistry in 2013, as you’re simultaneously being inspired by his playing. Some things never change, right?

For The Manhattan Blues Project, Hunter also invited a few guests to add their licks to his vision. “The Brooklyn Shuffle” features Johnny Depp (“He’s the real deal,” says Hunter) and Joe Perry, “Twilight in Harlem” serves up Joe Satriani and Marty Friedman, “Daydream By the Hudson” was written and programmed by Jason Becker, and Michael Lee Firkins appears on “222 W. 23rd.” All of this makes The Manhattan Blues Project an essential album for guitar players and those who love guitar—the quality and concept all the more impressive, given that the record is a near-total DIY project guided by Hunter and his wife Karen (who also sings background vocals on several tracks).

How did the concept for The Manhattan Blues Project come about?
Well, I think I wanted to do this record for many years, but I just wasn’t always aware of it. It came to a head in 2011, just before I toured with Alice Cooper. I had written the first version of “Sunset in Central Park,” and I was working on “What’s Going On” by playing along with Marvin Gaye to try to figure out his phrasing. And, man, that was so much fun. I thought, “I think I should do a record like this!” I wanted to come in as if I were going to sing “What’s Going On,” but the song is coming out of my fingers instead of my mouth. That intrigued and excited me. I already knew that I didn’t want to jam. I wanted to do guitar songs that had distinct melodies.

What made you choose blues as the vehicle for your instrumental compositions?

I’ve always loved blues, and the style pretty much sits inside everything I play.

You manage to produce a distinct blues feel on the album without surrendering to measure upon measure of rote bar-blues clichés. How did you achieve that?
You know, I also like to play those clichés, because you’re playing history. It’s more than just paying homage to the blues or keeping certain licks alive, it’s like you’re playing the notes the old guys found for you so many years ago. There’s a certain feeling of home in those licks and riffs. I understand it. But, for me, I have to do what B.B. King says, and he says, “Make the blues your own.” This guy is the king of blues—a guy whose entire life is blues—and if he wants me to make my own blues, that’s what I’m going to do. I have the greatest respect for those old, standard blues things. There’s nothing wrong with them, but I don’t want to play them all the time. I’ll listen to B.B.

He’s probably a reasonably good teacher, right?

Yeah. I think so [laughs].

Any other tricks for bringing something new to the party?

The only thing I can say is that I try to layer guitars into an orchestral thing—which I learned directly from producer Bob Ezrin back in the day. For Alice Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare in 1975, for example, we were treating electric guitars as if they were the brass section of an orchestra. We were aware of [composer] Wagner’s use of fifths with his horns, as well as how Beethoven used harmonics to bring out ghost notes in his string sections. So when I layer guitars now, I’ll do things like double a standard-tuned guitar with one tuned to DADGAD. Something happens to the overtones when the strings change their tension, and you play them in slightly different places. It brings out this wonderful richness that I really love. I also try to keep my mind open and just let things happen.

Did any particular players or influences inform the direction of the compositions, your performances, or the sonic concept?
I’ll tell you what—I tried very hard to not have too many of my influences hanging out with me in the studio, because I wanted the album to be as much me as it could possibly be. Of course, you can’t escape influences. So the one person who hovered in the background was David Gilmour, because he’s such a melodic, soulful, and bluesy player.

Your melodic lines are very soulful and expressive, as well …

Well, I’ve been using my fingers a lot more over the last 15 years. I’ve found I have much more control of the tonal quality of the string when I use my fingers, as opposed to when I use a pick. A pick is always going to have this attack that’s going to grab a compressor—and I typically have a compressor in the signal path when I play—whereas if you use your thumb or the fleshy part of your fingers, the attack is smoother and the compressor doesn’t grab your notes so aggressively. The only time I use a pick is when I’m playing rhythm guitar.

How did you develop your vibrato?
When I first heard Cream, I thought Clapton had a really beautiful vibrato. I said, “I must try to get that!” Then, I heard Leslie West, and I thought, “He has the best vibrato of anyone.” I just loved it. It sounded like a voice, and that’s what I aim for. I loved Jimi Hendrix, as well. I’d say my vibrato is a combination of those three. Damon Johnson, the other guitar player on the 2011 Alice Cooper tour I was on, once said to me, “Your vibrato sounds like a great big black woman singing.” That’s the highest compliment anybody could give me.

In the ’70s, you and Dick Wagner pretty much defined the ebb-and-flow of two soloists jousting with interlocking parts and then going off in different directions—which was very exciting and kind of dangerous. Did you guys script that stuff, or was it off the cuff?
I wish I could come up with this really clever thing we did, but it was pretty basic. In the Lou Reed days, we went through each song and said, “Okay, you have the first eight bars of the solo, and I’ll play the second eight bars.” From that moment on it was all improvisation. Well, there were harmony and melody lines on Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal that were worked out, of course, but nothing else was scripted at all. The thing is, when you do that night after night in front of an audience, that little dance gets fine tuned without you even knowing it. Suddenly, we were developing instincts between us that neither of us were aware of. It’s the most fascinating thing. It got to the point where we just knew when the other guy was going to play, and when he was going to stop.

All those complementary riffs you two played on those classic Alice Cooper and Lou Reed albums are so perfectly arranged that it’s spooky.
I was always kind of freaked out by it, too! But you have to realize that Bob Ezrin was often the secret third collaborator in the mix. He would do these beautiful parts on the piano, and he could always hear in his head how the parts would work together when played on guitar. As a producer, he was always thinking in an orchestral sense. It would go sort of like this: Dick is really fast at coming up with ideas and little melodies. But Bob was brilliant at coordinating everything. He’d say, “Dick, if you’re going to play that, then Steve should try this.” Then, Bob would play something with his left hand on the piano, and say, “Don’t play this note for note. Do a bend or a slide or something. Make it a guitar part.” And that’s what we would do. And perhaps that’s why a lot of those parts were so unique and strange—they were derived from keyboard things that we would never have thought of on guitar. It was really exciting. Eventually, we got to the point where Dick and I could come up with those kinds of parts ourselves. We started thinking like Bob.

As someone who was a part of the guitar’s “glory years” in the ’60s and ’70s, what do you feel is missing in some of the guitar music performed today?
A guitar is a very expressive instrument, but I’m not hearing that expression these days. I’m just hearing gymnastics. I hear some amazing stuff, but I’m not hearing soul and feeling. The first problem, I think, is so many guitarists can’t play less than 40,000 notes. The second problem is that nobody knows what the word phrasing means anymore. It’s terrible. I miss solos that breathe—that have air in them. Whatever happened to playing four notes, and then waiting six beats before you play again?

Harry Connick, Jr. once did a great thing on American Idol. He slammed the singers for not even understanding the lyrics of the song they were performing. He’s going, “How can you do that? How can you put any feeling into the song if you don’t know what the words mean?” And they looked at him like deer caught in headlights. To me, that’s what has been missing in pop music for a long time—there’s no emotion. All those guys who wrote the songs that comprise “The Great American Songbook” paid as close attention to the emotional content of the lyrics as they did to melody and harmony. Guitarists also need to deal with emotions and feelings. Exciting music isn’t about dead notes on a page, or regurgitating classic licks, or running through scales.

I don’t understand how some musicians today can miss that.

Now, I’ve had people in their 20s say to me, “Wow, you play with so much feeling.” And all I can say to them is, “Yeah, we all did in the ’60s and ’70s, because that’s what music is. Music is feelings. It’s not just a beat and a melody.”

For example, when I first heard “Strawberry Fields Forever” it was a pull-off-the-road moment. “What the hell is that? That’s the most amazing piece of music I’ve ever heard in my life!” That song made me feel something very special when I heard it, and I think that’s what most memorable music does—it reminds you of a moment when you felt something deep and special. That’s what all music should do.