Strat-wrangler Henry Garza of Los Lonely Boys

“My guitar is my canvas,” says Henry Garza of Los Lonely Boys. “When I play, it’s like a big painting, and I have all these different colors to choose from. Like, I’ve got a little B.B. King color, a little Stevie Ray color, a little Jimi Hendrix, and a little Ritchie Valens, and when I mix them together, that’s what makes me. I’m not afraid to say those guys are my influences and my teachers. I’m not trying to be those guys, but I definitely learn from them every time I hear their music.”

“MY GUITAR IS MY CANVAS," says Henry Garza of Los Lonely Boys. “When I play, it’s like a big painting, and I have all these different colors to choose from. Like, I’ve got a little B.B. King color, a little Stevie Ray color, a little Jimi Hendrix, and a little Ritchie Valens, and when I mix them together, that’s what makes me. I’m not afraid to say those guys are my influences and my teachers. I’m not trying to be those guys, but I definitely learn from them every time I hear their music.”

At 28, Garza is the most compelling Strat-wrangler to emerge from the Lone Star state since Stevie Ray Vaughan. Backed by his younger brothers Ringo and JoJo (on drums and bass, respectively), Garza has forged a unique style of bluesy, Tex-Mex rock that blends tough, yet supremely toneful guitar with catchy songs and sweet vocal harmonies. Released in 2004, Los Lonely Boys’ eponymous debut album sold more than two million copies, and, last year, the band nabbed a Grammy Award for its smash hit, “Heaven.”

On the brothers’ new album, Sacred [Epic], Garza pushes his Strat even harder, laying down churning rhythm riffs and ferocious solos with the skill and power of a certified guitar god. But success hasn’t gone to his head. Despite pressures from those trying to shape the band’s sound and direction, Garza remains determined to keep the music real, stay true to his beliefs, and channel positive energy.

Where did you record Sacred?

At Pedernales, which is Willie Nelson’s studio in Texas, where we recorded our first album. We didn’t have a lot of time to work on it, and there was a tremendous amount of pressure to get it done. We write music not expecting anything out of it, except to let our feelings come out. But the label and the other people who are in control of what’s going to get played on the radio—I don’t even know who the hell they are—need to be happy with the music, and it was a struggle to make that happen. In the end, we resurrected a pretty old song, “Diamonds,” as a possible single. We polished it up a little bit, and put some more guitar lines on it, and they loved it. But we wrote most of the other songs on this album in the studio. Many of them were conceived on a piano, which was something we’d never done before. It was a bit of a challenge to rework the songs from piano to guitar, but it was a cool opportunity to try something new.

The soaring harmony guitar parts on “Diamonds” and “Roses” are very memorable. Did you take a rough mix of the songs home to work out the lines?

No. I just do it right then and there in the studio. I listen for a few minutes and figure it out. I’ve never been able to read notes or tablature, so everything I play is strictly by ear and heart. My brother JoJo worked on those parts, too. He has a sixth sense for hearing melodic structure, and knowing what the harmony note is for a certain note I’m hitting. And the producer, John Porter, helped us decide which part sounded best. Live, it’s going to be a different story. I’ve already tried to play the harmonies with a pedal, but, onstage, it sounds better with the keyboard playing them.

You obviously used a Strat for the main parts on the album, but did you switch guitars for the smooth and singing harmony lines?

I try stay on the same axe for all the parts in a song, and it’s always a Strat. I like to keep my hands on my baby, you know? I have lots of Strats now, so when we start a song, I just choose one and go for it.

Are they old or new?

I haven’t come across any vintage Strats. They cost more than a nice car, man [laughs]. If I had a vintage Strat, I’d have to put it in a glass case, and tell people, “Look, there’s an old one.” Mine are all custom Strats my guitar tech, Ish Flores, puts together for me. Basically, we find a body I like, and then we slap on a ’62 reissue neck. We’ll wire the guitar with Fender Texas Specials and that’s it. Ish does a great job with all the fretwork, the neck work, and electronics. He’s like an angel sitting on my shoulder, man.

What is it that draws you to a Strat?

I love the Strat because it’s so versatile. I can make that sucker sound like a Les Paul, but you can’t make a Les Paul sound like a Strat. Once you feel it, you can make a Strat do whatever you want. Hendrix is a perfect example of that, if you don’t believe me [laughs].

Tell us about your picks and strings.

I use heavy, triangular picks—not the big triangles with sharp points, but the kind with the rounded edges. Dunlop makes them, I think. I get a lot more chunk out of a heavy pick. If I use a little bitty puny pick, I’m going to get a puny sound. But, really, that depends on the player. I have uncles who play the bajo sexto [a low-tuned 12-string guitar used in conjunto music] with really light picks, yet they get a big sound.

For strings, I put a .013 set of D’Addarios on all my Strats. That’s pretty heavy. I started playing .008s when I was six or seven years old, and then moved up through .009s and .010s. I stayed on .010s for a while, and it seemed like I couldn’t progress beyond it. Then I got .011s, and the next thing you know, I was at .012s. Finally, I said to Ish, “Let’s put a .013 on there.” You get so much more tone from a heavier string, and they sustain longer when you hold a note.

Do you tune down a half-step?

For this album, we mainly tuned to A 440, but the first album was a half-step down. When we play live, we tune a half-step down, unless it’s one of the new songs. For those, I switch guitars to get 440 tuning.

A .013 set at standard pitch? That‘s a lot of tension.

It’s pretty tough, man. When you’re playing three or four weeks at a time, doing show after show, it gets on you. But like anything, you keep working at it and working at it, and your muscles get stronger and your calluses get harder.

“Outlaws” has a growling, low-tuned guitar riff. Did you play baritone on that song?

Actually, I tried to put a baritone on there, but it wasn’t giving me the tone I wanted, so I just dropped my Strat down to a low B.

Do you experiment with different amps in the studio?

No. I try to keep my rig the same in the studio as onstage. I have my reissue ’65 Fender Twin Reverb, and a Marshall JCM2000 [DSL 100-watt] head running through a 4x12 cabinet loaded with Tone Tubby speakers. They have hemp cones, which is really cool. I used to pop all my speakers when I turned up, but I haven’t popped one Tone Tubby, so I’m really happy with them. In the studio, I use one Twin and one Marshall half-stack, but when I play live, and it’s a big stage, I use two 4x12 cabinets with two Marshall heads, and two Twin Reverbs. That setup has some balls. For me, the Fender Twin Reverb is the best amp in the world—you can do anything with it. I can get loud, and it stays clean and smooth, and, then, when I hit the Tube Screamer, it gives me the crunch I need.

What model Tube Screamer?

The green Ibanez TS9. All I use are two pedals—my Tube Screamer and my Vox [V847] wah. That’s it. My dad always taught us to work with what we have, and be thankful for it and have fun with it. I didn’t have the money to get fancy overdrives or anything back then, and, even now, I like to keep it simple.

Do you get pressure in the studio to try more elaborate rigs and explore different sounds?

It seems producers always want to get you to do something different. I was constantly butting heads with the producer on this album, because I wanted to get the sounds I was hearing, not what he was hearing. It kind of cheapens it when somebody else comes up with your tone. Then it’s not you—it’s them playing through you, and I’m not down with that, man. Because music, she’s a person in herself, and if you don’t respect her, she’ll beat the crap out of you.

And how do you avoid this?

You need to know what you like, and how you sound, and then you have to be true to it. I think I accomplished that on Sacred, because I worked on the sounds myself. Also, I tried to keep it real. Don’t get down on Pro Tools and fix the damn guitar notes—let me get down to the nitty gritty and play.

Who arranged the horn parts on “Outlaws,” “My Way,” and “One More Day”?

It’s a band thing. My brothers and I have worked with horns since a long time ago, so we know how to explain to the horn players what we hear for a part. I wanted more baritone sax on “My Way,” but the producer didn’t go for it.

You’ve named B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan as two of your inspirations. Can you explain what aspects of their playing resonate with you?

With B.B., it’s the way he phrases and his vibrato. When he hits a note, and gives it that fast vibrato [sings a sustaining note]—man, I love that. And those high notes he hits and slides down? Like bing. That’s a color I put in my painting. With Stevie—well, it was really weird. Every time I looked at him, it reminded me so much of my dad, because my dad and him come from the same era. They never knew each other, but they’re the same breed of people with the same hands and the same look in their eyes. And they don’t make them like that any more. When I saw Stevie, I felt really connected to him. The fact he came from Texas was a big part of it. Stevie opened up my heart and eyes to the blues. Through his playing, I discovered Albert King, as well as Albert Collins and T-Bone Walker—all those Texas cats.

The other thing Stevie taught me is how to be yourself. Use what you learn from all your teachers, but make it your own. When you hear Stevie, you hear Albert King, too, but it’s not a copy. People are always trying to duplicate Stevie’s guitar, or figure out his amp rig, so they can sound just like him. But you can’t do it—you’re not that person. Your sound is something you’re born with—like fingerprints. You know that’s true, because someone can play through your rig and it won’t sound anything like you. A lot of kids get confused by their idols. They look up to them, but they don’t know how to step away and find themselves.

On songs like “Orale,” “My Way,” and “Home,” you have a very present, lively tone. What‘s the secret?

I use a lot of room mics. I love the tone when a mic picks up the guitar from a distance. It gives you a sound like you’re standing at one end of a big old VFW hall, and the guitar is getting sound-checked onstage. That’s a big part of my sound—a room mic versus putting a mic right on the speaker.

Producers try to get that hall sound digitally, but it’s not the same. I hear that fake sound on lots of records. Like compare Stevie’s earlier stuff to his later stuff, where someone just totally messed up his tone. On the Austin City Limits show in ’83, he was ripping it up. The tone was so happening, it even had a little feedback here and there. Those were the days when people didn’t change your sound. But on his last Austin City Limits performance [in 1989], his tone was nothing like that. These days, man, you get sound guys and front-of-house mixers saying, “Hey man, you’re playing too loud.” It’s crazy. It’s not your job to make your sound the way they like it. They’re there to work for you.

Do you run into this?

Sure. It happens when you start getting some success in this business. All of a sudden, everyone is your buddy. “Hey man, let’s try this.” But if you start changing too much stuff, then you’re searching again, and that spoils everything. It’s no secret to us. We know how this business works. When we took the first record around, every label turned us down. Every one. So we started selling it ourselves on an independent label. Once the big companies saw it was selling, they said, “Hey, we like that.” You have people running the show who don’t know crap about music, bro. That’s the reason so much of the music industry is all jacked up, and so many radio stations play music that doesn’t really help the life of a child, or a weak soul, or even a strong soul. To me, that’s what music is for—helping other humans. If you look at music as a way to better the whole world, that’s the ticket.

You must encounter many guitarists who don’t have that viewpoint—who believe it’s all about them.

With almost every guitar player I meet, if I start talking about spirituality, they go, “Aw, what are you talking about?” They get scared, or feel it’s just too much to deal with. But I lost a son when I was 18—my baby boy—and, after that, I was either going to go up or go down. My family kept me strong, and my guitar became an outlet for all that hurt and suffering. Music became much more intense and real after that happened. That pain never goes away, so every time I’m onstage and I’ve got my eyes closed, I’m thinking about the good Lord Jesus and my son, and good things for my family back home and the people in the crowd. I want to be a tool—that’s what Santana calls us—that God can shine his light through.